Permanent Damage

Wed, September 2nd, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

Back in April I ran my most loved and most hated column of the year, an April Fool's lie about Fox buying DC. Readers loved it – as late as two months after I'd acknowledged the hoax, I was hearing that some pros and fans alike still "knew" it was true and I'd been "forced" to recant for security reasons, though in fact it was a complete hoax in all details (if you ever want to perpetrate a hoax, some tips: make it just ludicrous enough to be credible and stay away from traceable proper names) – and connected parties hated it, especially Fox, then (unknown to me) in a panic over the online bootlegging of an early cut of WOLVERINE. Hopefully they're calmer now, given the bootlegging had no discernable effect on the film's profits, apparently strong enough to have them talking sequel and spinoff.

Anyway, greeted at the office this morning by a small flood of emails praising me for my prescience, since the news popped up over the weekend that Disney bought Marvel.

Makes me sort of wish I'd gone with my original scenario for the hoax: Disney buys Marvel. Would have, but it was too on the nose for a good hoax. Marvel as freestanding entity was always ripe for purchase, and Disney as voracious "intellectual property" giant periodically goes on buying binges, so you always knew it would happen eventually if you were paying any attention at all. It just made too much sense, unlike Fox buys DC, which really makes no sense, given that DC's already owned by Warners and if Fox and Warners weren't at each other's throats before, the WATCHMEN lawsuit sure put them there. (Not that Fox wouldn't almost certainly make better use of DC as developmental ground than Warners ever has, but we're unlikely to ever know for sure.)

Turns out it seems have to have had some shock value after all. Who knew?

So Disney bought Marvel. Whoo-hoo. Anybody remember when Ronald Perelman and his cronies, fresh off their purchase of the company from (or was it with) New World Pictures, "reconfiguring" Marvel from a comics publisher to a media corporation, with dreams of "mining" Marvel's vast store of characters (now commonly referred to as "intellectual properties," in keeping with today's jargon, and the Disney-Marvel press release likewise made reference to Marvel's store of over 5000 characters without reference to the vast majority of them being as trivial and laughable as, oh, Crossfire) (go look him up, that's what the Marvel Handbooks are for), openly spoke of challenging Disney for icon supremacy in the 21st century and less openly semi-joked of getting so big they'd buy Disney. But that was an owner or two ago. If the current owners had any dreams of media dominion, the reported four bil purchase price likely makes up for a lot of shattered dreams. Hollywood frequently inflates how much it pays for things, promoting, say, the option some company just bought for half a million dollars when that kind of money only changes hands once a film goes to production and the real amount paid upfront could be as little as a few grand and the odds of any film project dying on the vine are pretty high, but given the SEC will be looking this deal over – not that the SEC is any great shakes as watchdogs go (hi, Bernie!) – we can probably take the figure more or less at face value.

Four billion is still a lot to shell out, though stock market website Motley Fool says Disney's getting off cheap and give fairly good reasons to think so. The only reason to be concerned is that the same sort of price inflation is Marvel's past history with this sort of thing. When New World bought the company from Cadence and Perelman bought the company from New World, both put pressure on editorial to generate enough material quickly to make up the purchase price, in both cases maybe reasonable assumptions of long term value but far more than Marvel's worth in the moment. New World happened to buy Marvel when the comics market itself was in expansion and capable of supporting an increase in titles. Perelman bought, at far more money, just as the comics market was heading into its biggest slump in 20 years, and the corporate demand for new product strained Marvel editorial into panic (Clone Saga, anyone?) combined with public disengagement from that same product and, much worse if you're trying to reposition as an icon marketer, Marvel's characters, combined with other factors to force Marvel into bankruptcy, leading to its acquisition by the current owners, or some subset thereof. Disney has a lot of tributaries to spread the weight of the expense over, and theoretically enough business savvy to do that, but if someone in the structure who makes these decisions has an aneurysm and expects Marvel to earn the cost back in short order, Marvel's pretty much screwed. (Not that it ever works this way, but the two figures touted are 5000 characters and $4B in cash and stocks, suggesting each character, whether Spider-Man or Crossfire must generate on average more than $800,000 for Disney to pull any profit on the deal.) Given Marvel's product expansion over the last couple years, it's possible any corporate demand for a lot more material will end badly, since Marvel's already straining our finite little market to capacity and many of their recent titles like CAPTAIN BRITAIN, regardless of quality, have been unable to get a foothold.

Whether the deal is good or bad for comics largely depends on Disney's approach to Marvel. If Marvel continues to operate more or less autonomously, so far so good, or bad, depending on your current view of their output. Creatively, I wouldn't expect much change, though possibly the borderline X-rated Max line, not one of Marvel's huge cash cows in any case, might quietly be taken out back and shot to spare Disney twitchy moments. But it's a mistake to think of Disney as beholden to the G-level Mickey Mouse cartoons of yore. Since becoming a Hollywood megalith in the '80s where formerly it had been basically the niche home of The Love Bug and other kiddie fare, the company's outlook has skewed ever more PG-14, the sweet spot of the film industry, income-wise. (Check out the pregnant teenagers and sex advice regularly doled out on the Disney-owned ABC Family Channel's original programming, and SOUTH PARK last season did a very funny episode about the company marketing sex as anti-sex.) Contrary to voiced expectations today that Disney will "clean up" Marvel content, Marvel content fits seamlessly into the current Disney approach. There's little chance Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck will abandon their G-ratedness anytime soon, but when was the last time Disney did anything with them outside licensing and theme parks?

I also wouldn't expect Mickey Mouse to be published by Marvel anytime soon, though certainly that option now exists. (Or will when any other prior Disney publishing deals with the character expire.) Someone I spoke with earlier today wondered why Disney made the Pixar/Muppets deal with Boom! Studios when a Marvel deal was in the works, since multi-billion dollar deals don't get put together on a whim overnight. But if you think in terms of brand identification, there's logic to it. (Not that I can verify this is actually the Disneythink on the matter.) If Marvel targets one audience/age group/market with a specific type of material and CARS targets another, mixing & matching means market confusion. Throw in Chip'n'Dale and the waters really start to muddy. A "full service" line is typical comics think and fits traditional publishing philosophy, but Disney isn't a traditional publisher. They're not a publisher at all. Two things to remember here:

A) Marvel's track record, sales and otherwise, with non-superhero, non-action material in recent memory (like since several years before the advent of the Direct Market) has been dismal, so there's little logic in forcing their resources away from material they do well enough to have become publicly synonymous with that material to do material they've shown precious little empathy or aptitude for (cf. Star Comics).

B) Disney's own experience in publishing and marketing comics has been equally dismal. While published by other entities like Dell, Gold Key & Egmont (with Gladstone and others handling the reprint market) Disney comics ranged from fabulously to moderately successful. (On the strength of publishing Disney characters, Dell was able to tell the Comics Code to take a hike and still got eager newsstand distribution.) But Disney's in-house Disney Comics of the early '90s was sabotaged by equal doses of corporate obsession, ignorance and hostility, from different areas of corporate; obsession from those determined the material would be sanctified and in no way blow back on Disney, ignorance of the nature of the comics market at that period of time, and hostility from marketing, which saw the comics line as a low rent distraction from their real focus, the digest-sized DISNEY ADVENTURES MAGAZINE, whose comix section was allowed to be much hipper anyway, referencing product that had even been produced by Disney sometime in living memory, and later giving BONE its big boost from cult status to international superstardom. (Bear in mind I refer not to Disney Comics editorial, quite full of people quite knowledgeable about comics and determined to do their best, but to the corporate stratum above them.)

The Boom! connection could be explained another way: as Warners has amply demonstrated on numerous occasions, in corporate environments the left hand often doesn't know what the right hand is doing. Another complication on the comics end is Disney's Kingdom Comics, Ahmet Zappa's yet unborn line of graphic novels intended to generate new exploitable properties as Disney films. In fact, the whole deal is a rat's nest of contractual entanglements. Marvel's biggest cash cows, Spider-Man and The X-Men, are tied up at Sony Pictures and Fox – are they 21st Century Fox yet? – along with, theoretically, Daredevil, Elektra, the FF, the Silver Surfer, and Ghost Rider, with The Punisher ensconced at Lionsgate, while the Hulk is at Universal and Marvel Studios' deal for Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Dr. Strange and The Avengers is through Paramount, with the Nick Fury rights presumably tagging along. And I forget where Sub-Mariner and other Marvel films in development are. So it's unlikely Disney will begin pumping out Marvel movies, because in terms of mainstream Marvel there's virtually nothing left. Ka-Zar, maybe. Disney won't interfere with any existing deals, at least until extant contract terms run out, they can't, without inviting negative press and expensive, exhaustive lawsuits they almost certainly couldn't win that would prevent making said Marvel movies anyway. Marvel's current amusement park deals would fall into the same general territory.

And it's hard to see exactly what Marvel gets from the deal, aside from four billion and probably a seat for someone at the Big Kids' Table. (That's what lured Ted Turner into selling his companies to Time-Warner, briefly Time-Warner-Turner, and look how well that worked out, despite initial teases he was heir to the Time-Warner throne when the current CEO stepped down.) Heightened visibility? Maybe. A long term safe berth for Marvel's production company? Possibly, but on the heels of TRANSFORMERS 2, not to mention IRON MAN, Paramount wouldn't appear to be going anywhere anytime soon. There's some concern Disney could somehow become Marvel's exit strategy from the direct market. How? With the demise of DISNEY ADVENTURES, Marvel's connections in standard magazine distribution, dying on the vine now anyway, are stronger than Disney's, and why would they abandon a direct market they virtually command anyway? Even in the Heroes World debacle of the '90s, Marvel didn't abandon the direct market, they only tried to commandeer it and strangle other comics publisher on the more or less correct premise that exclusive Marvel-only distribution would pull their coattails out from under other companies' sales. But it still ended in a debacle of mismanagement that killed the Heroes World experiment, landed all American comics distribution solidly in Diamond's hands, and contributed to Marvel's late '90s near-demise. Likewise, there are always rumors that Marvel will launch its own chainstore, becoming effectively the comics WalMart squeezing out mom'n'pop comic shops in major markets, and, yes, Disney's resources could certainly make that more possible, but Disney's experience with its own chain store mitigates against it. Marvel merchandise like t-shirts in Disney stores? Maybe, if they don't mind brand bleed. Marvel comics? I've never even seen a Disney comic or DISNEY ADVENTURES in a Disney Store, so Magic 8-Ball says "Very doubtful." Whatever alternative distribution arrangements Marvel may make, and given the available options "none" seems the most likely possibility, Disney's unlikely to play much part in them.

So where's the interface? If you take Motley Fool's word for it, money. At the moment, Marvel screams cash flow. Any money Marvel makes, anywhere, through any of its deals, now shows up somewhere on the Disney balance sheets. That may be the extent of their relationship, since history shows Marvel understands publishing a hell of a lot better than Disney does. (Neither understand new media especially well, but there Marvel seems to have an edge too.) A blending of the Disney & Marvel brands is unlikely, as the shifting of Disney-owned properties to other comics companies suggests. If Disney throws its weight around anywhere, Boom! is likely to come out the big winner of this deal, should Disney want Boom!'s comics listed in the Marvel section of the Diamond solicitations for higher CARS etc. profile, the Marvel section being what most retailers order from first.

On the other hand, the purchase price could easily trigger Disney orders to streamline Marvel; Marvel's reps have said the deal means no more changes to the way Marvel operates than were imposed on Pixar when Disney bought them, but after purchase Disney stepped in and stripped down Pixar's ambitious project roster. It wouldn't be a huge surprise to see marginal Marvel titles consolidate or bite the dust in the next few months, with more emphasis on their core properties, along with other measures to maximize profits and minimize expense. It wouldn't be a surprise, given their expense and output to date, to see Kingdom Comics merged with Marvel or dissolved and their mission handed over. A Marvel office move from Manhattan to Burbank in 2010 or 2011? Far from out of the question, depending how much Marvel now feels its future linked to Hollywood's and how many inveterate New Yorkers remain on the board post-purchase. (The desires of the editorial staffs are rarely considered in these circumstances, editorial staffs being notoriously easy to replace.)

There are danger signs, most from prior Disney behavior with other assets. Harvey & Bob Weinstein colonized independent film and turned it into a cash cow with their Miramax subsidiary. But when costs rose and profits dropped, Disney stepped in, kicked them out and put their own people in charge of the company, and where Miramax was once perceived as a major and influential entity, it's now basically a non-entity and has been pretty much since the flap over Harvey & Bob's departure died down. In Hollywood, good faith and confidence doesn't extend much beyond this year's balance sheet, and well possible that a couple of slide years could see Disney imposing major changes on Marvel to, from their POV, protect their investment. This would kick in the other potential problem: Disney has never understood comics. They've traditionally understood farming out their comics. To Dell, to Gold Key, to Whitman, Egmont, Gladstone, Gemstone, Boom! It's not outside the realm of possibility that, given a couple years of Marvel reversal of fortune, someone at Disney might get the bright idea of bringing the company in-house, dissolving the publishing end while holding onto all rights to characters, licenses, merchandising, etc. and signing up other publishers to continue to produce Marvel superhero adventures. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but that sword of Damocles will always hang over Marvel's head unless they've insisted on specific terms of purchase to prevent that, and it's hard to believe Disney would buy a company, certainly not for that much money, they not only have no current control over but could never have any control over aside from the ability to sell it off.

But right now Marvel's in about the best of all possible worlds, so so far so good. Hopefully, Marvel and Disney can just stay out of each other's way, for as long as the gravy train stays on the track.

Another '50s story – this time a war story – drawn by John Severin. Maybe. Severin's reportedly the artist of record, and much of it's definitely Severin, though he's stretching his style some. But some of it looks more like Russ Heath, and possibly other hands. Opinions?


Notes from under the floorboards:

By the way, I will be at APE, the Alternative Press Expo, in San Francisco in October, pushing our ODYSSEUS THE REBEL collection at the Big Head Press booth. Just one more reason to attend yourself.

Not much else beside the Marvel-Disney brouhaha to discuss in comics this week, since everyone is pretty much on vacation through Labor Day. May all my American readers enjoy Labor Day, by the way. I plan to grill up a hamburger and stick a little IWW banner in it...

Seems notorious conservative columnist George Will thinks it's time we got the hell out of Afghanistan. His general argument is that the Taliban aren't really our problem, and fighting al-Qaeda in the region could be more easily done more efficiently with offshore-based tech weapons and small special forces strike teams than with a standing army. Wait, didn't I argue something vaguely along those lines – mainly that only idiots with no grasp of history would try to secure Afghanistan with a military force, and the Afghan warlords will swing to whatever side looks like it's winning at any given moment – back in 2001. Of course, pulling out, no matter who recommended it, will lead to accusations in the 2010 elections that Obama "lost" Afghanistan for us. I thought it was supposed to be Russia's Vietnam...

By the way, the O-Ring has opted to maintain the Ghost's border/customs search and seizure policies and even doll them up a little, so if you're crossing an American border or flying in from overseas, don't be surprised to part company with your laptop or netbook for a week or so while customs officers impound it so their techs can pore over its contents for terrorist attack data and whatever other little goodies they're of a mind to find – bank account numbers, boudoir snapshots of your girlfriend, whatever – and no probable cause required. Probably a good idea to leave the porn and angel dust recipes on your home computer hard drive if you're going abroad...

Private investors have reportedly bought Skype, the free Internet phone software, from eBay. Might not be the smartest buy in the world since it turns out Skype doesn't own its own Voice-Over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) tech, and the company that truly owns it, Joltid, is trying to pull Skype's license. Meanwhile, there's now a Skype based virus that taps your calls, recording them on your hard drive, then uploading them to a waiting snoop. Sounds like something FBI labs might cook up...

Speaking of viruses, etc., went online to my bank statement yesterday to find unauthorized charges; seems someone had grabbed my debit card number and was trying to buy plane tickets through an Italian travel agency, Blu-Express. Fortunately, I have a pretty good bank and have a very low daily outflow limit on that account, so not too much immediate damage done and I won't take any long term hit. Also almost never use the card, so it's not too difficult to figure out what happened: the only places I used it in recent memory are a couple of little restaurants during the San Diego Con. The standard restaurant scam is where they quietly either make two imprints of your card instead of one, or have a tap on the card slider, so they not only get a record of your card number but your PIN. The travel agency scam is pretty good too: buy airline tickets at the refundable full price on a stolen credit card, then immediately refund them for the cash. So lemme get this straight: with all the absolutely insane, stupid laws countries pass around the world, requiring that any refunds made on credit/debit card payments must be made back to the account the payment came from isn't a worldwide standard. Of course, the airline ticket cashout scam is made easier by having an inside man handling it at the agency for a cut of the take, but making multiple transactions at one place instead of spreading out is a great way to raise red flags and an even better way to get any inside man caught, since his fingerprints will be all over the transactions. In fact, my bank was just calling me about the charges when I reached them. Anyway, two lessons: keep a low daily purchase/withdrawal on all your card accounts (if you need to spend more, it's easy enough to call your bank and jack your limit for a day, then change it back) and when you're traveling, pay in cash wherever possible. And get the receipts.

Speaking of banks, we know the depress – I mean the recession's over 'cause the banks say so. Never mind trivialities like jobs and home foreclosures...

Here's a tech tidbit that has the familiar and alternative energy factions donning war paint: solar roads. According to the Worchester Polytechnic Institute, it's now possible to rig roads – long known to be thermal traps several degrees higher than surrounding ground – to become solar energy collectors, at reportedly the same cost as regular roads. As roads cover a hell of a lot of territory, that's potentially a hell of a lot of power, theoretically more in a year than the USA at even greater consumption than today could use in the same amount of time. Among the advantages: in snowy weather, the roads could – again, theoretically, don't think it has been tried anywhere – melt themselves clear, no plows required, and by converting roads for solar power, the grid could extend to places currently out of power grid range. Predictably, energy interests are calling the "scheme" pie in the sky and unworkable, and theorizing it couldn't bear up under the stress common to most roads. Only one way to be sure, I suppose: test markets. I'll volunteer Nevada for it, where it's killer sunshine day and night seven months out of the year.

Another argument against enlistment in the armed forces: turns out helmets likely cause brain damage, due to bad design. So helmets are to head protection as military law is to law?

Uh-oh. Seems Cell phones might kill bee populations. Also suspect in the "blight" that's been wiping out honeybees the past few years: agribusiness giant Monsanto, trying to "convince" farmers everywhere to plant crops with seeds that yield plants that don't yield seeds. So every year they have to buy a new batch from Monsanto. Profits up! Advantage: hardier plants and more profitable crops, theoretically. Hypothesis: seedless plants don't pollinate. Bees starve. News at 11...

Ooh, big TV news: reality TV ego-run-wild, the talent-free, aptly named desperate-for-attention Spencer Pratt of THE HILLS reportedly intends to change his legal name to King Spencer Pratt. Somehow "King Pratt" does sound even more apt...

This is wonderful. (Seems the FCC is looking into imposing a single ratings system for all media - films, TV, videogames, recorded music. (Comics weren't specifically mentioned, but presumably, as media, comics, radio, books, newspapers & magazines would be covered as well. What about websites? Are websites media? Would all American-based websites have to file for content ratings as well? All websites seen in America? Would those refusing to adhere to FCC ratings be filtered out and made inaccessible? Or does the FCC plan to pick and choose what media get rated?) See, this is where ratings eventually get you. On the one hand, movies would be freed from the insipid tyranny of the MPAA and their capricious rating system, but while private organizations are bad enough, when the government gets into ratings – and ratings always distort what they cover because economic decisions are made on the basis of those ratings and content is regularly "massaged" to ensure economic benefit – ratings officially become censorship... Of course, the FCC is using the old "protect the children" saw as justification for this nonsense...

Congratulations to Joseph Hohman, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "first." Joseph wishes to point your attention to "the excellent webcomic" Sin Titulo by Cameron Stewart. Check it out.

For those who came in late, almost every week I run a Comics Cover Challenge: the covers of seven seemingly unrelated comics (thanks to The Grand Comic Book Database for the covers) from throughout comics history are spread, usually not in any particular order, down the column. But a secret theme – it could be a word, a design element, an artist... anything, really - binds them together, and the first one to e-mail me with the correct solution can promote the website of their choice, subject to my approval. IMPORTANT NEW RULE: PLEASE INCLUDE WITH YOUR GUESS THE WEBSITE YOU'D LIKE TO PROMOTE IF YOU WIN. As in most weeks, there's a secret clue cleverly hidden somewhere in the column, but it won't be the first thing you think of. Good luck.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, click here.

I'm reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

TAGS:  permanent damage, disney, marvel comics

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