The Wheels on the Bus is an occasional column from the retail trenches by Kendall Swafford of Up Up & Away! in Cincinnati, Ohio. This week, Swafford looks at Marvel’s comic publishing from the point of view of Disney, its corporate parent.
First, it helps to realize our place in the world, as it were. The entirety of the U.S. comic book publishing industry (comic books & graphic novels) is all of about one billion dollars ($1.085b to be exact, according to recently-released data from Comichron/ICv2), and Marvel’s share of that is of course substantially less. Sounds like a lot o’ coin, right!? Maybe to you and me, but it’s couch-cushion change to Disney.
To compare and contrast, let’s look at two (relatively) recent announcements by The Walt Disney Company. In May, Disney announced that sales of licensed Star Wars merchandise (not film revenue, just stuff) recently hit 50 billion dollars. And yeah, Star Wars is a big brand. So let’s consider another Disney brand, one with far less brand power than Star Wars. How about Disney/Pixar’s Cars? Most of us probably see Cars as a minor brand (at best) for Disney; the first two films grossed about one billion dollars worldwide, and the third film has been met with a lukewarm response. But add in Cars-related merchandise sales, and you have a 10 billion dollar brand! For all of our successes in comic book publishing in recent years, I think it’s important to have a sense of our place in the grand scheme of things.
Disney has historically had a short fuse when it comes to print publishing, especially of comic books, dating back to the 1940s. Dell/Gold Key/Whitman, Gladstone, BOOM! Studios, IDW Publishing, and Joe Books all publish or have published comic books featuring Disney characters. Even though Disney now owns a comic book publisher, I believe they have little interest in the publishing of them. They were after the intellectual property when they bought Marvel, not the comic book printing business. Hundreds and hundreds of characters to be leveraged as only Disney knows how.
Gossip being what it is, I’ve heard (via a Marvel freelancer) that Disney was embarrassed by the shipping debacle that was Civil War II, and told Marvel Comics that Secret Empire would ship on time no matter what. Which would explain the carrousel of artists on the book, something Marvel has been loathe to do in the past. Again, that much is here-say.
One would assume that any comic book publishing would (and probably should) be done by the comic book publisher that you already 100% own. IDW has published a line of comics featuring “classic” Disney characters, but those have been reprints of European material, to my knowledge they've featured no new content. So that seems like more of a packaging arrangement between Disney and IDW. Odd, but not noteworthy. Star Wars Adventures has the potential to be a sales blockbuster for IDW, so why isn’t Marvel the one to bring it to market?
Disney has also shown that it’s more than willing to pull the plug on any business it no longer has an interest in. LucasArts? Disney Interactive? Gone. The two together generated revenue of... wait for it... just over one billion dollars in their last year of operation. Not a big enough business for The Walt Disney Company to bother with, apparently. Bottom line? Comic book publishing, while profitable for Marvel Comics, is simply small potatoes to a giant like Disney. Comic book publishing makes money, just not enough money.
And I’m sure Ike Perlmutter’s decidedly right-leaning politics has to grate on the nerves of a liberal, California-based company like Walt Disney, amiright? Maybe his golden parachute is large enough to keep him in his job, because his current track record in comic book publishing is enough to get anyone fired. Marvel’s continued failure to leverage Hollywood success in their publishing business should have seen heads roll long before now.
Marvel Comics’ recent publishing struggles have been well-documented elsewhere, but let me just say this; their Generations/Legacy publishing initiative seems like so much lipstick on a pig, that maybe they’re not even trying to right the ship. Maybe they’ve already been told their days are numbered, and they're saying goodbye with one long look back. All the corner boxes, legacy numbers and Marvel stamps aren’t gonna fix what’s broken editorially, and maybe they’ve stopped trying. They are busy banning retailers from their "secret" retailer Facebook page if any dare speak ill of them, on that forum or any other.
None of this is to disparage the hard work that we all know goes into comic book production. I’m 100% certain that the dozens of writers, artists, editors and production staff all care enough to do their very best work. But for the most part, the stories Marvel is telling right now are simply not connecting with enough readers to keep Marvel at the top of the food chain, despite what the monthly "sales" charts claim. The endless hoops retailers are forced to jump through every month to be coerced into ordering too much is maddening. In the grand scheme of things, maybe Marvel Comics has already checked out, and just hasn’t published the obituary yet.
So... maybe Disney gets fed up, calls New York one day and tells Mssrs. Perlmutter, Buckley, Alonzo and company to "go home boys, we’re shuttin’ it down. We’ve got all the content we need to make movies for the next 100 years or more, thanks." Wait, what!? No more Marvel Comics!? Don’t be silly! Disney is at heart, the world’s biggest, and arguably best, brand manager. Whether that brand is Mickey Mouse or Miles Morales, nobody knows how to leverage a brand better than The Walt Disney Company. As they’ve done in the past (and the present), they’ll simply license Marvel characters to be published by someone else. But whom, you ask? IDW? No chance. IDW is tiny, with 2016 revenue at only $3.7 million dollars. They simply couldn't handle the sudden influx of the entirety of the Marvel Universe. Here’s a crazy thought for ya, my friends... DC Comics could. They have the infrastructure in place from a production standpoint, adding another 50 (100?) books to their production schedule is entirely possible, and they have the backing of Time Warner just in case. Deep pockets. And they already have relationships with virtually all the talent on the Marvel side of the fence. It’s not enough money that Disney cares if they line the pockets of their cross-country rivals; business makes for strange bedfellows after all. Disney keeps the revenue stream without the overhead, and gets back to publishing readable stories, as DC has proven with Rebirth that good story conquers all.
Yeah, it’s so crazy an idea that it just might work. Crazier things have happened! Marvel has made more than a few (seemingly) rash decisions in the past; Heroes World Distribution, anyone? (Look it up, kids.) And they farmed out their characters once before. Back in 1996, while mired in bankruptcy, they relied upon Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee’s respective Image Comics studios to produce a year’s worth of Iron Man, Avengers, Captain America and Fantastic Four stories.
Now, I might be way off base. The powers-that-be at Marvel (and Disney), if they ever see this, might get quite a chuckle from my maniacal ramblings. Marvel has long taken an adversarial approach to their retailers, and this latest publishing initiative (Marvel Legacy) shows me that nothing of substance is changing. And from this retailer’s perch, Marvel seems Hell-bent on self-destruction. And if it happens, when it happens, remember ya heard it here first.
Till next time, fearless readers.
The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.