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.

disneyworld.disney.go.com

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.

  • Lamar Bodom

    Nice piece, but I think Marvel can survive without Bendis. They did fine when Liefeld, McFarlane, Jim Lee et al. left back in the 90s, and they were arguably more integral.

    • JJ

      Agreed. It will force people to step up and grab the opportunity his absence has created. One writer leaving will not cause the collapse of the biggest company in comics.

      • Russ Dobler

        Realistically, the biggest company in comics … is Image. The publishing divisions of DC and Marvel are two slivers of allocated resources to multinational, multimedia conglomerates. None of their bosses would miss them, or even notice they’re gone.

    • Russ Dobler

      Right, but my main point is that things are different now. Disney’s beancounters have no stake, sentimental or otherwise, in the continued existence of publishing. No profit, no reason for existence. I’m stretching the idea, admittedly, but this is not the same ballgame it was, at any other low point in history.

      • Phat Albus

        Marvel has been barely making a profit off of publishing for decades now. They honestly could have saved much more money by just axing the publishing division.

        Honestly I just do not think Disney care or pay attention to what the comics are doing one way or the other, or else they’d never have allowed Secret Empire to be a thing due to how obviously it was going to hurt their brand

  • Russ Dobler

    As a scientist, allow me to try to sink my own ship. A Reddit commenter had this great point:

    Cole-Spudmoney 1 point 17 minutes ago
    He’s only writing four series anyway. Defenders, Invincible Iron Man, Jessica Jones and Spider-Man.

    Of those, only Spider-Man does any real business. So yes, maybe not a huge loss for Marvel. A big, maybe only temporary gain for DC. Excitement will likely wear off, just like it did for Rebirth (which, if you look at the numbers, actually GREW the market for a moment, rather than taking away from Marvel). Okay, Crisis on Marvel Earth averted. 🙂

    • JJ

      I suppose this saves me the trouble of replying to your other point!

    • Gary Mitchell

      Wasn’t he on their “Creative Committee” as well though?
      Don’t get me wrong, not a fan, personally think he’s part of the problem rather than any solution – but I got the impression that he was more concerned with trying to get into being a big shot Hollywood writer, but with the “seperation” between Feige and Perlmutter resulting in him having zero power in MCU anymore, combined with the failure of “Powers” as a tv show, Marvel can’t offer his ambition in that direction any forward path. Now with DC attempting in their movies to push in a lighter tone, perhaps he sees them as his next natural move.
      No evidence for any of this, of course – just spitballing my impressions here….

      • Russ Dobler

        It’s true that all the “comic guys” were pushed out of the MCU creative committee, Bendis included, but is there anything analogous between DC and Warner Brothers? I guess … Johns has had his hand in some movie stuff. Is that right? Somehow I feel that gulf is even wider, but maybe I’m not looking in the right places.

        • Gary Mitchell

          Oh, I’m not saying that it’s likely – just that it might MIGHT SEEM likelier to BMB. And with Johns as both Chief Creative Officer in DC’s comics division as well as Co-Runner and Co Chair of the DCEU & DC Movies respectively, the idea of making a segue between those two branches might SEEM more possible at DC now, than at Marvel…

          • Russ Dobler

            Ah, I didn’t realize Johns was that involved. Thank you. Bendis is a shrewd businessman; I’d expect he got more than hopes when making the transition. Good for him.

  • Phat Albus

    Hey author?

    Marvel is and has always been more than Bendis.

    Bendis has actually institutied a lot of the shit that’s LED to low reader morale.

    You know how we complain about event fatigue and heroes fighting heroes all the time and that reached it’s peak with Civil War II and Secret Invasion?

    Yeah BENDIS set the precedents for that.

    You know decompresion and writing for the trade, those things that inherently fuck up month-to-month sales?

    BENDIS did that.

    Marvel doesn’t need Bendis and in fact if they put their efforts into rediscovering their roots and GOOD superhero comic book writing (i.e. finding a balance between action packed high concept action and down to earth normal life soap opera substance, which Bendis was never able to properly balance) whilst delivering value for money stories (as in done in ones with subplots, not part 1 of 4 year in and year out) and ZERO events then they won’t need the revenue Bendis’ fanbase automatically grants Marvel.

  • Mark Boyer

    The main problem has always been Quesada, not Bendis. Bendis is a symptom. Quesada has consistently tried to turn Marvel into his own personal Vertigo. Look at the storytelling from the beginning. Marvel Knights, etc. Every character and outlook is in one format. Artists, writers, and editors alike came from Vertigo. The characters should drive the story, not the other way around.

    • Mark Boyer

      Bendis has always had a formula: “Disassemble” it, then build it up the way I want to see it.

  • Morse

    oh great. the one person responsible for the down fall of marvel is going to infect DC. expect catwoman dating Clark, a gay black disabled Batman, Alfred becoming Oliver queens butler, black canary sleeping with the flash and many other shitty fantasy this egg head has in the near future.

    • Scott Forste

      I agree it might be 1 of the better moves marvel made by not keping him now on dc side keep him in check eith all the stupid pc shit he brings to the the table and it might work oth e wise show him the door i think he better off not infecting the comic book industry any longer

      • Morse

        i don’t care about the pc stuff if it’s not too peachy and in your face. the biggest problem with him is the damage he does to characters by changing them. look at what he has done to peter parker! Mary Jane is Tony Stark’s lackey (and now the shitshow that is riri williams), Gwen Stacy is going out with freaking Miles Morales (really bendis? are you that jealous of peter?), black cat is either in HIS spider-man book or the defenders which again, he writes (basically turned her into a shared villain), the sinister six are currently in HIS Spider-man book any many more…
        he has permanently damaged the Spider-Man mythos; i don’t want this hack doing the same thing to ANY DC character

  • Jeff_Allard

    Oh God, this article is pure silliness. Bendis only writes a handful of books for Marvel at the moment and none of them are top sellers (not to say they’re not good books, because they are, just that they don’t rack up big numbers). If Aaron or Slott went to DC right now, that would hurt far more and even then, Marvel would certainly manage. Greater talents have defected at more perilous times. Also, fans need to stop imaging that Disney gives a flying sh*t about the publishing division. They don’t. And as long as Marvel remains the #1 publisher more months out of the year than not, they REALLY don’t care. If anything, this is a boon to both of the Big Two, giving them a real creative shake-up that can only spark interest on both sides. And really, it’s time for Bendis to move on. He’s done it all at Marvel at this point. Time to try something new and bring a fresh perspective to DC – and time for some new voices to rise to prominence at Marvel. I can’t wait to see what happens in both cases. These are exciting times, not dire ones.