Master Of The Obvious: Issue #42

Wed, May 17th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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It seems Marvel has everyone in a tizzy once again.

[Marvel.com]The "news" about Marvel's decision to "abandon the comics market" came in after I'd written last week's column, but from the looks of my e-mail Marvel CEO Peter Cuneo's comments to the Wall Street Journal on May 9 put the fear of god into a good many people and set others into a neo-Woodstockian anticipation of the coming New Age. In a way it's nice to know the old thunder lizard can still stomp hard enough to make people look for earthquakes.

Cuneo's comments (quoted courtesy of Rick Veitch and Steve Conley's COMICON) include the conclusion that Marvel's "only chance for survival is to leap - right off the printed page." The article is unclear whether Cuneo stated "the simple paper medium of comic books just isn't cutting it in the age of video's flashy special effects, explosive audio and interactive action" or whether that's the WSJ's take, but "comic book sales are down and Marvel executives acknowledge that kids just don't read them as much anymore" seems to suggest that these trends are finally so staggeringly apparent that even major comics companies can't fool themselves anymore.

The summation wraps up with the suggestion that Marvel's future is in film and that they will make their superheroes "more relevant."

My take: where there's smoke, there's smoke.

All this would be more interesting if it weren't simply a continuation of a road Marvel has claimed to be walking for most of their modern existence, and if it didn't smack of the Stan Lee brand of "reality molding" they've always indulged in. Stan, as some may remember, tried, during the initial burst of Marvel into hip consciousness in the mid-'60s, when Marvel Comics were said to be the rave on college campuses, tried to position Marvels as above the rest of the comics industry, first with his catch phrase "Brand Ecch" to describe other companies' comics, and later, when he started taking it all just a bit too seriously, temporarily changing their description from "Marvel Comics" to "Marvel Pop Art Productions." As if his competition weren't DC but Andy Warhol. Stan's genius was in turning Marvel into a brand name that became synonymous with comics. It was well known enough that even people who never read a comic book in their lives thought comics when they heard the name Marvel. It must have bugged both him and DC no end that people assumed Marvel (being the only name in comics) published Superman and Batman. He turned the company into a household name, but, until recently, aside from Spider-Man nobody knew Marvel characters from a hole in the ground.

"All this would be more interesting if it weren't simply a continuation of a road Marvel has claimed to be walking for most of their modern existence..."

Read those old Bullpen Bulletins Pages, and it's pretty easy to see that even at the early stages, Stan had his eyes on the Hollywood brass ring. Follow his character arc, and it's easy (certainly in hindsight) to see it curving like Pynchon's V2 rocket toward a collision with Los Angeles. Though he eventually managed to get Marvel its own cartoon production house, Stan never showed a lot of media savvy. Marvel's first cartoons, a weekday array licensed out during the company's initial heyday, were among the worst cartoons ever done, with a style that could only be called zero animation: panels from the comic books turned into animation cels and run through like a TV flipbook. The most memorable thing about them were their corny theme songs ("When Captain America throws his mighty shield, all those who chose to oppose his shield must yield…") though more senile viewers may recall the sheer cheesiness of them fondly. Pretty much every media deal Marvel arranged, from more cartoons to the INCREDIBLE HULK TV show to the Captain America TV movie (Marvel had to threaten to sue ABC to get one shot of the star in the familiar costume in the whole movie) to the more recent Roger Corman FANTASTIC FOUR special effects vaganza (there was nothing extra about it) resulted in them giving away the store for next to nothing, attaining few guarantees about the use of their characters, and generally driving their media marketability into the ground via mediocre (if they were lucky) production values and risible content. It's true that when you deal with Hollywood, they expect a lot of concessions, but somehow DC managed to get Superman and Batman movies that at least resembled their characters in all the important ways. Whatever the reality of the situation, Stan gave the impression of a kid gape-mouthed on his first trip to a carnival.

That Marvel would ultimately be bought by a film company, New World Pictures, was virtually inevitable: it's where the company wanted to be. Marvel has for years tried to envision itself as a media company, not a comics company. When Ron Perelman bought it from New World (there may have been an owner or two in between; I forget, and it hardly matters now) he did so not with the intent of publishing comics but of using Marvel (besides, by all reports, as a piggy bank) as the basis for a media empire that, one presumes, was meant to rival Disney. I'm suddenly reminded of the epitaph on a tombstone Dan O'Neill drew in his comic strip ODD BODKINS: "Here lies Werner Von Braun. He aimed for the moon and hit London." The current regime, one should recall, came out of the collapse of the Perelman model. Marvel is no longer looking at empire, though certainly that must remain in the back of their minds the way the notion must still rattle around the House Of Lords; this is a company trying to figure out how to survive in a world that pretty much doesn't care.

Clearly, they're pinning a lot of hopes on this summer's X-MEN movie. Marvel's situation has been complicated by the appearance of StanLee.Net. Having cut Stan loose from his lifetime sweetheart contract, Marvel's management has been forced to watch Stan work his old razzle-dazzle and get enough investment to become a stock market darling, gaining enough attention to make himself look good while Marvel, still in the throes of a stock price crash and recovery from a lengthy and contentious bankruptcy, remains suspect. Word is upper management goes nuts when Stan gets quoted as saying he wants to buy Marvel out from under the current owners. It must make them even nuttier to see Stan's company, with no appreciable assets, worth far more on paper than Marvel, which supposedly has a wealth of licensable characters and a longstanding, ongoing operation.

"[Marvel] is a company trying to figure out how to survive in a world that pretty much doesn't care."

Bear in mind that the Wall Street Journal isn't aimed at comics readin' or writin' rubes like you and me. It's aimed at the rubes who play the stock market. They don't call it "playing" for nothing; the current stock market is a massive get rich quick scheme that subsists on rumor and innuendo. One bit of well-placed misinformation can sink entire companies, and many companies use careful disinformation to manipulate their market value. I've lived in the Pacific Northwest for 8 years, and every fiscal quarter since I moved him, Microsoft has announced their anticipating earnings for that quarter would be lower than expected. The press goes nuts. Their stock price drops. At the end of every fiscal quarter, Microsoft reveals that sales were wildly beyond expectation, and the stock price skyrockets. It never seems to occur to anyone that Microsoft regularly sinks expectations to enable bigger end-of-quarter jackpots and the image of a company growing by leaps and bounds. I'd be curious to know how much stock Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer sell at the end of one quarter, and how much they buy back at lower prices at the beginning of the next.

Upshot: you can't trust any comments CEOs make to the Wall St. Journal about their companies. Marvel's quitting comics and jumping to film? Sounds like a happening company, doesn't it? Mmm-mmm, got to buy me some of that stock while the price is still low. As my father used to quip: save your confederate money, boys, the South shall rise again!

Old joke: How do you make a small fortune in Hollywood?

A: Start with a large fortune.

Taking this proposition seriously for the moment, unless Sony intends to buy the company it's hard to see how Marvel plans to become a player in Hollywood. Many of their properties are already licensed out, most in deals made by previous regimes. DC, at least, is connected to a major studio (for all the good it generally does them). Marvel, unaffiliated (though Spider-Man currently has Sony on their side, but Sony's affections can be capricious; just ask Dark Horse), will be just one more would-be player in a town crawling with them. It's possible that X-MEN and rumors of SPIDER-MAN and FANTASTIC FOUR will make Marvel a hot licensing prospect again, but without a massive influx of cash - something they already have a hard time getting - they're not going to become any sort of production company.

Which brings them, in a best case scenario, back to the comics. Marvel recently announced a revival of Epic as an online service: their own StanLee.Net, if you will. Those expecting a revival of Epic as an outlet for creator-owned comics will likely be disappointed; Marvel's current management has shown no interest in creator-owned work so far, leading to the suspicion they recognize their future rests on continuing to produce licensable properties, and to do that they need to publish comics, or do something like it. Online production of comics - flash animation if you want to go after those flashy special effects, explosive audio and interactive action - isn't cheap, and, as many have learned, expecting people to pay money for online content is foolhardy unless you're selling pornography.

But it's smoke. The same article announces the "back to basics" line apparently aimed at younger readers to draw them into comics. Who Marvel acknowledges don't read comics. If Marvel's really on an anti-comics kick, it doesn't make a lot of sense, does it? (Speaking of not making sense, I see the old shell game is now being played with Brian Bendis, announced to be writing core titles for the line: despite Brian's remarkable output with his own titles, various comics news outlets are now citing his upcoming Marvel work as Brian "making good," reinforcing the notion that work-for-hire is the mark of true worth in the industry. Uh-huh.) The core of Marvel's problems was Stan's push of Marvel over the individual titles. It created Marvel fans. When Marvel's line got too big for Marvel fans to keep up with, a lot of them dropped all of them. If you create completists, the best way to kill their interest is to make completion impossible. Given the way the entire industry, in the rush for quick bucks, pushed to the expensive adult and sub-adult high end at the expense of virtually everything else in the early '90s, it's no wonder kids don't read many comics. There was nothing aimed at kids. As has been shown with POKEMON and DRAGONBALL Z comics from Viz, give kids something that will interest them and they'll read it. Blaming the loss of readership on videogames is missing the point.

"As has been shown with POKEMON and DRAGONBALL Z comics from Viz, give kids something that will interest them and they'll read it. Blaming the loss of readership on videogames is missing the point."

And what's the worst case scenario? Marvel stops publishing comics. Unless, as with the exclusive distribution fiasco that imploded the industry a few years ago, other companies decide the only defense against Marvel's move is to copy it, it won't destroy the business. The idea that if Marvel can't survive as a comics publisher no one can is ludicrous. When dinosaurs collapse, it creates a niche for small furry mammals. Sure, there'd be a lot of pain and upheaval, but, ultimately, if comics have any innate value or interest at all, the business will survive without Marvel. If the company did actually pull out of comics publishing, they'd be stupid not to license out their characters to other companies.

But it won't happen, unless Marvel's financial problems get too great for the company to continue at all. It doesn't look like that'll happen either. So if you've been lying awake worrying about Marvel's proposed fate, go to sleep. It's smoke. Forget about it.

X-MAN #65 should be out this week or next. Keep an eye out. Thanks.

Hit parade report: a month or so ago, I suggested that if everyone reading this column simply coerced every living being they knew by any means necessary to read this column weekly, and get them to coerce everyone they knew, etc. (sort of one massive chain letter) to read this column (and Warren Ellis' COME IN ALONE), Warren and I, being paid by the hit, would eventually have enough money to be able to publish those comics we currently only dream about. Most of you have been kind enough to not point out how self-serving this is, and now the numbers have come in. Final result: you have made a difference. The numbers are up, and staying up. While Comic Book Resources has asked me not to share actual figures, I can say that readership has risen about 15% - well above negligible. Thank you. The bad news is that to make the scheme work we need about a 5000% increase, but personally I view the rise as spectacular (let's face it, it was a pie in the sky notion in the first place); all we need now is a little perseverance. Keep up the good work. Again, thank you.

Brian Wood (GENERATION X) and I will be holding a Counter-X chat on Warren Ellis' forum on Delphi on Thursday May 18, 8 PM Eastern. We've never held a Delphi chat before, so anything can happen. Stop in and ask us a question.

The last couple weeks have been very hairy for me personally, but coming later this week to @VENTURE: More Hodag. More Anna Passenger. More TEQUILA. More Scot Snow, Michel Lacombe and other writers. More, more, more. Look for it all by Friday.

This week's question, just for fun, at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: fantasy publishing. You're starting your own comics company with four titles. Put together four teams, either writer/artists or writers and artists who have never worked with each other before. Name your teams and tell what type of material they do, and why. Caveat: no superheroes. Go for it.

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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