Marvel Wins!

By Al Tudor
As originally published in Word On The Street, West Street Stories #1

I’ve got good news and bad news. First the bad news: Marvel wins.

I’ve been hearing a lot of talk on the Street about Marvel Comics*, mostly bad-mouthing the company for some of their recent activities. "Marvel bought Malibu only for their innovative techniques. Once they absorb that capability, they’ll just shut ’em down." "Marvel’s trying to shut down the smaller distributors and corner the market." "Marvel’s getting into direct marketing just to steal business from the independent shop owners." "Marvel’s product is all crap! They’re creatively empty and can’t stand the competition, so they’re trying to drive the independents out of business!" I’ve heard it called the Marvelution. It’s been the topic of sessions at recent comic conventions.

Being the public opinion-minded folks that they are, Marvel denies any wrong-doing or malicious intent. They say they’re just taking steps to better serve their clientele, the reading public. I say it’s ALL bunk: both the sour grapes on the street and Marvel’s protestations.

Marvel is a business-- a big business. They have a responsibility to their stock holders and employees to do everything legally within their power to leverage their position in the market place to its best advantage.

Did they buy Mailbu only for the cool coloring and production technologies that Malibu was using and which began appearing in mainstream Marvel books shortly after the buy-out? Well, duh? Of course they did! It’s a time-honored American tradition to buy up smaller competitors, especially if you gain something in the deal that will make you more competitive-- like new technologies.

Does Marvel want to have more control over, and therefore more easily profit from, its distribution? Who wouldn’t? Comic companies have been at the mercy of the distribution channel for years. It makes perfect sense to buy a distributor and then insure their (and your) success by making them your exclusive channel. It’s such a good idea, that as soon as Marvel moved in that direction, its major competitors began the scramble to do the same. They only wish they had thought of it first. So what if this put a lot of smaller distributors out of business? Dem’s da breaks in a free enterprise system.

Will Marvel make use of the growing trend toward direct marketing to sell its products? If I was a shareholder I’d be saying that they’d better or we’ll put new management in place who will. Fueled by home shopping networks, the rebound of catalog sales and, of course, the internet, direct marketing is a potential gold mine for a company that makes a large percentage of their profits from licensed goods and mailable products (like comics). The question is what, what took them so long? Other advertisers saw the benefit of direct marketing years ago. Remember all those old mail order items advertised in the back of comics? Independent comic shop owners? Dem’s da breaks. But stand by, it’s gonna get worse.

Is Marvel’s product all crap (that’s a quote)? Are they devoid of creativity? Do they wish that all independent comics would go away so that they can gobble up more shelf space in the stores? No, no and, but, of course! Comics are a popular medium. (Anybody out there remember when Stan called ’em Pop Art Productions?) Almost by definition, popular art, in the minds of some, is crap. There were lots of playwrights around churning out schlock for the masses back in the sixteenth century. Most of it is best forgotten. But William Shakespeare still managed to do a few things that were popular and had lasting significance as art. Marvel does churn out a lot of schlock. So does television, movies and many major publishing houses. Nonetheless, some of the best creative talents in the business produce work for Marvel Comics. Some of it is pretty good stuff. Much it is better than the majority of independent stuff I’ve seen (the present book excluded, of course). Is any of it Shakespeare? Only time will tell. Remember, the goal is to make money by being entertaining and giving the public what it wants. If Marvel didn’t do that at least most of the time, they’d be out of business.

Where does this leave us? We have a company that has around 75% of the market and a vested interest in maintaining or enlarging that share. When the independent comic shops appeared, they were happy to sell their wares in this new outlet. Even, apparently, to share shelf space with the crop of independents that this new outlet opportunity seemed to breed. But that market began to fragment almost as soon as it appeared. The shops themselves were often run by comic fans who thought they could run a business. Distributors proliferated, but were often not much more solid in their business practices. The independent market went through wild swings: first it was big, then imploded, then exploded, then imploded again. And so on. If you were Marvel, would you want to stake your future on that distribution chain?

If I were Marvel I would, first, look to my product and make it as good as possible. If there were competitors who had capabilities I didn’t, I use my economic clout to buy them out and enhance my line. (I’d also keep in mind that, I make huge sums of money on licensing. My characters are institutions to be managed, not players in any one artiste’s world, subject to the whim of his or her ego.) Second I’d look for way to maximize distribution of my product and then seek a way to make sure that it is stable, secure and predictable. Next I’d look for a way to reach a larger audience. And this is where Marvel finally clinches it.

Is their next step is to open a series of Marvel shops in the major malls across America (The Merry Marvel Mall Stores)? Like the Disney shops, these would cater to the upscale shopper and sell all kinds of Marvel paraphernalia, including the comics themselves. To insure their mall stores’ success, Marvel (via Heroes’ World) would stop distributing to any independent comic shop owner who might be in direct competition with the mall store.

Of course, DC would have to follow. If the reader can get their Marvel books on a trip to the mall with mom, and then has to make a special trip to a relatively out of the way comic shop to find Superman or Batman, what will that do to DC’s market share?

This will put many, if not all, independent shop owners out of business. With them will go the direct market only publishers.

As Marvel and DC become firmly entrenched in the malls, the larger independent publishers (those that survive) will have make deals with the current mall bookstores to be featured in their enlarged comics sections. These will be necessary to compete with the Marvel and DC shops next door.

The final result is that Marvel wins. No, not the battle to put independent publishers and shop owners out of business. That’s not what the Marvelution is about. It’s about market share, and distribution costs and demographics. Because Marvel has been willing to take some aggressive steps to insure their business health, they are better able to leverage their position in the market place to its best advantage. The independent comic shops and publishers, sadly, are just victims in the way of Marvel’s evolution. (I’m reminded of the comment comparing humans to ants, when Reed Richards complained that we would all die as a result of Galactus’ meal.) In a way, the shop owners showed the way by demonstrating to the big guys that the reading public would support a store dedicated to comics. Now, they are poised to move into that ready-made market and independents down. (Remember Blockbuster and the mom and pop video stores?)

Like Galactus, Marvel takes no joy in the plight of innocent victims. But like all big business, they take a positive delight in increased market share. Like Galactus, for Marvel to survive and meet its destiny, others must perish. The way of big business in America is the way of Galactus.

And Galactus always wins in the end.

Next: The good news.

*I know that they’re officially the Marvel Entertainment Group, but to me they’ll always be just plain Marvel Comics.

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