The death of either major comics publisher, and the death of the comics industry in general, has been predicted at every minor market wobble and readjustment for longer than any of us have been alive. But with Brian Michael Bendis leaving the company for DC Comics, the death of Marvel publishing just became more realistic than ever. More so even than during the company’s bankruptcy.
That’s because back then, Marvel was a small business fighting for survival. Everyone involved had a personal stake in making sure the company pulled through. It was a financial necessity, but also a labor of love for the creators who saw themselves as caretakers of longstanding characters, the emblems of the modern mythology.
Marvel burst through that difficult time and made it big, achieving the modern dream of all small business owners when the publisher was bought by the Walt Disney Company in 2009, as a means to engage with and draw revenue from the young boys market, an area the typically girl-leaning entertainment conglomerate had trouble with. Needless to say, the gambit has worked spectacularly well for Disney, with Marvel movies dominating the box office and that sweet action figure scratch rolling in.
So what use then is Marvel publishing? Well, it’s an idea factory, for one. Many of the biggest Marvel blockbusters (Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy and now even Ragnarok) pull from material only around 10 years old. And we all know how loathe Hollywood is to come up with anything original. Why bother creating when you could adapt something already proven to work?
And with the trend-bucking resurgence in the popularity of print comics, Marvel publishing has made money! A profitable R & D department — you can’t beat that!
But what happens if Marvel ceases to be profitable? Don’t think it can’t happen. Despite retailer and reader grumblings, the old standby still wins the marketshare and dollarshare every month, but the wind is obviously not blowing in Marvel’s direction. Marvel Legacy, whenever it really kicks into high gear, is seen by many to be a reactive patch, not a proactive vision, and so far the variant covers and corner boxes have been pushed more than the actual product.
The name talent simply isn’t there. Rick Remender, Jonathan Hickman and Ed Brubaker (whose work, yes, is all over the Marvel Cinematic Universe) found greener pastures in creator-owned publishing, being able to make ends meet while still being in control of their own work. It seems doubtful they could be tempted back, even with the Bendis salary cap now lifted. Fan favorites like Al Ewing struggle to keep their books above cancellation levels. Jason Aaron might be Marvel’s new architect, but as good as he is, his name still doesn’t drive sales like Bendis’ does.
And if, somehow, Marvel publishing does fall into the red? It’s not a mom-and-pop beating against the current to keep its head above water anymore. It’s a disposable commodity; a cog in a megacorp that needs to explain to shareholders why they persist in a 20th century industry while dividend checks dwindle. Axing Marvel Comics would be nth degree bad PR for Disney, but the public has a short memory, especially when Robert Downey is cracking wise next to a CGI rodent.
Of course maybe Marvel has something ups its sleeve; they know something we don’t know; Bendis is too good a guy to leave them in the lurch without suitable replacements set up. That all may be true, and here’s hoping it is. But what if it isn’t? Whatever actually happens in the next few years, at this current point in time, using only the information we have available to us, Marvel Comics is now in the biggest danger of disappearing that it has been in its existence. It’s a perfect storm of low reader morale and corporate penny-pinching.
Don’t think this is a victory for DC. A minor coup, perhaps, but it might be one that dooms themselves. The two major publishers need each other to thrive. Lack of competition breeds complacency, and more importantly, the other company drives more readers into stores, where they also see your books. A dead Marvel puts DC itself on life support. The big win suddenly becomes the beginning of the end.