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Witness at the Marvelution
posted January 1, 1996
 

The first thing I noticed about the Seattle stop on the Marvelution retailer's tour was the choice of weekend. On April 1-3, Seattle hosted the NCAA Men's Basketball Finals. Every single hotel room within a radius of 100 miles was booked solid with crazed hoops fans. Not exactly brilliant planning on Marvel's part to encourage the attendance of retailers from outside the city, let alone those from out-of-state. I remember chuckling at their unfortunate choice of dates, and laughing out loud when I figured out the other seminar for that weekend was in Minneapolis, the site of the NCAA Women's Basketball Finals.

After attending the meeting, however, I'm not sure that Marvel didn't plan it that way. I'm not implying that the suits in attendance were big basketball fans; rather, after suffering through the Marvelution experience it seems entirely possible that Marvel scheduled the meetings at an inconvenient time and place simply because they could.

The overwhelming feeling I got from my day at Marvelution is that the higher-ups at Marvel don't agree with, support, or care to understand the way the comics market currently operates, and they're not going to let anything stop them from making things work the way they want them to. Marvel can have as many meetings and seminars, and give as much lip service to "covenants" and "partnerships" as they want. It's bullshit. The Marvelution meetings were set up so Marvel could gauge how much crap retailers are willing to be fed so Marvel knows how to set the menu until they decide to go after that slice of pie, too.

And the most amazing thing to me? They didn't even hide it very well.

The Seattle meeting was held at the Bellevue Hilton Hotel starting at 8:30 AM on a Sunday morning. I was angry about getting up that early, but excited about my new job as "Temporary Manager in Charge of Attending the Marvelution Meeting" for Seattle's Fallout Records and Comics. I was kind of concerned that Eric Reynolds (Comics Journal News Editor and Fallout's "Assistant Temporary Manager in Charge of Attending the Marvelution Meeting") and I were going to get tossed as soon as we showed our faces. This feeling was reinforced by the first Marvel representatives I met that day: gigantic men in "Spider-Man" jackets sporting long, greasy hair and wearing sunglasses. They looked like the guys from New Jersey with whom I attended college; guys with names like Pietro and Vincenzo, whose fathers were in "shipping." Their immediate supervisor, a slightly smaller man with the same long, slick hair but in a three-piece suit -- he looked vaguely like Frank Zappa -- was the next person I saw. At this point, I expected Terry Stewart to look like Marlon Brando and wondered if I was going to be expected to kiss someone's Punisher ring.

Regardless, Eric and I easily slipped through the "tight" security net, which involved nothing more than giving the sign-in folks a business card and scribbling our names on a piece of paper. We were "in." In our case, "in" was a long hallway crammed with comic shop owners and employees, munching on the free donuts and talking shop. Like most comics industry gatherings, the crowd was 95% male and 35% body fat. A number wore comics-related clothing (including one brave man in a Spawn shirt), some had made reasonable attempts to dress up (tucked-in button-down shirt, a sporty tie or two), but most were in some sort of jeans/t-shirt combination.

The meeting started when the assembled throngs were herded (an unfortunate word choice with that group, but there you go) into a meeting room filled with tables and surrounded by gigantic, God-awful painted Marvel art of the Alex Ross variety. It gave a cheap ambience to the room, kind of like entering a church and being surrounded by black velvet pictures of Jesus. Some of them were worse than others; I saw the image directly across from me, a butt-ugly Bill Sienkiewicz Ghost Rider head, in my nightmares for three weeks. After about two or three minutes of sitting there terrified that someone would engage me in conversation ("So, what was your sell-through on X-Men Alpha?"), the seminar formally began.

The seminar was set up in five parts: sales/business meeting, Q&A, lunch, editorial presentation, and another round of Q&A. If you're really interested in the content of what was said (may God help you), a summary was provided in last issue's lead news story: "Marvelution: The Art of the Deal." You're not going to get anything like that from me, because I didn't take thorough notes and thinking about it in such detail would probably drive me to suicide.

Beyond the hastily-drawn sketches of my tablemates and a short letter of resignation to Gary for talking me into attending the seminar, what I'm left with in my notebook is a number of really brief comments concerning what I saw between the lines.

Note #1: "Terry Stewart doesn't want to be here."

The first time I laughed was when Stewart, who's moved from job to job in the last few years and whose removal from the position of president of Marvel was still hot news at the time of the Seattle meeting, discharged some venom in Marvel's direction. In talking about the changes at Marvel brought about by Marvelution, he spat out something along the lines of "and then you're moved from position to position, and you're really not sure what your job is and what your responsibilities are." He also drifted in and out of the room more than any of the others. At one point shortly before lunch, I found him in the hallway eating off the buffet table. I smiled and said, "Hello." He ignored me.

Note #2: "Marvelution comes from the top."

I counted at least three times that, when backed into a corner over a specific issue, Marvel reps used the phrasing, "When someone [at the top/on the board/making decisions] decides that something needs to be done, we have to find the best way to do it." Beyond the Pilate-like handwashing this implies, such statements make sense in the context of some oft-repeated industry conventional wisdom: the folks who own Marvel have never understood why such a large portion of the pie goes to the distributor. I can't blame them; I'm not sure I understand it. Still, in light of potential future moves it says a lot that the #1 publisher may operate against the better judgment of its employees at work within the business itself.

Note #3: "Marvel fully intends to at least explore going retail."

It's a fact: Marvel asked for information from the stores setting up accounts with their distributor that no one could reasonably need to know except to explore going retail. They can say they wanted to help with the business. They can now claim that it was "optional." Whatever.

More interesting from my point of view were four things Stewart said (or didn't say) while defending against this accusation. The first was a refusal to say, flat-out, that Marvel wouldn't ever go into retail. The second concerned Stewart's newest project, Marvel-oriented Hard Rock Café-style restaraunts, where he really dissembled when the subject of those stores competing with comics stores was broached. He admitted that these restaraunts made most of their money from retail, confessed that apparel wasn't a very successful retail venture for Marvel, and then said the only book these establishments would carry would be a re-launched "Marvel Masterworks." One plus one equals three? The third, and most telling, was an angry response where Stewart basically said that if Marvel wanted to go into retail, there's nothing anyone could do to stop them. This was quickly followed by the fourth important point, which was a polished mini-speech about how Marvel's commitment to retailers was seen in the Marvelution meetings themselves, and the X million dollars laid out for improvements to Heroes World. If it was that important that they have a polished answer, it must be something they're worried about.

It seems clear to me. If Marvel doesn't end up doing something with retail, it's because they've decided they can't. Not because they decided they shouldn't, and not because they decided they could but it's better not to.

Note #4: "I would like to make a few bucks off of Marvel."

Terry Stewart mentioned that they're still missing a name for the upcoming Marvel Restaurants. Furthermore, he asked anyone who could come up with a good name to let him know. Therefore, I would like to lay claim to the following:

Café Marvel
Club Marvel
The Marvel Club
Heroes Club
Café Hero
The Marvel Café
Marvel Club Marvel
Hero Hangout
Hall of Heroes
Club Hero
Café Super
Hero Café
World of Heroes
Spider-Club
Café of Ideas
Stan's Place
Café Excelsior
The X-Club and
The House that Jack Built.

Journal readers, I hope you'll back me up. These are mine, and I want ten cents a t-shirt if any of them are used. Half my proceeds to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. I promise.

Note #5: "This isn't anywhere near as slick as I thought it would be."

I expected slick: an answer for every question, polished speeches, and deft avoidances of the rough spots. What I got was a lot of poorly given talks and more than a few "We'll have to get back to you"s. These guys are getting paid that much for this? Stewart did a fine job acting the no-nonsense authoritarian, although as related above he sometimes spoke more harshly than I thought he would. My favorite moment of this kind came after a woman made a case for her tiny store out in the boondocks. After describing how her customers sometimes need to do layaway for a $1.95 book, and begging Stewart not to raise the minimum store purchase, Stewart shot back, "Hey, we can't come up with a plan that will please everyone." Screw you and your poor-ass customers, lady.

The other speakers were different levels of disaster. Heroes World representative Ken Pope gave a speech so long and boring that for the rest of the day people would physically squirm when he stepped up to the mike to answer questions. Malibu rep Tom Mason read his speech like an 8th grade book report, 100 miles an hour, giving a surreal deadpan feeling to such juvenile pot-shot winners as "This comic marks the re-appearance of Chelsea Clinton, the world's ugliest teenager."

Note #6: "Lunch sucked."

Burgers and sandwiches. Side salads and a cake-thing for dessert. If it wasn't free, I wouldn't have touched it. If it wasn't Marvel, I wouldn't have had seconds.

Note #7: "Thor? Thor's a girl!"

I was looking forward to the afternoon's editorial presentation. I still have a right brain interest in superhero comics. I can't read them, but the way they do things fascinates me. I find the Hulk carrying a gun as noteworthy as, say, the Russians no longer being the villains of choice in pro wrestling. So what's not to like about a sneak preview?

Well, if the whole thing was a comedy routine, it couldn't have been funnier. There were unintentional jokes. ("The 2099 line is sort of our New Universe.'") There were funny moments. ("Is Spider-Man a big seller for you guys? Let's hear some applause." [stony silence from room] "Hey! That's what I like to hear.") And there was brilliant market analysis. ("Zongo Comics are going to be avant garde because, well, they're comics from Matt Groening's friends, and that's the sort of comics that Matt's friends do.") This was worth the price of admission alone!

But the best part was how apologetic Marvel seemed to be. The Marvel rep basically admitted that the current "clone" storyline in various Spider-Man titles was a dog. "I know some people hate it, but it's got people talking!" Yeah, the way they're still talking about the movie adaptation of Howard the Duck. He also never really quite figured out how to communicate the Marvel concept of cutting titles to the core, successful ones in light of some of the broader-based titles Marvel was still offering. For example, on Grant Morrison's Skrull Kill Krew: "This is sort of alternative, sort of a Vertigo taste, and that's not like most Marvel, but, uh, it's good, too." My favorite moment of all came when he stopped the presentation cold to apologize for an artist's re-design of their Thor character. He said that the picture got a lot of bad reaction at the other Marvelution stops, and that Marvel was considering pulling the re-design (now there's a company dedicated to the creative process). The Thor design by Mike Deodato was, well, awfully pretty. Looked fine to me, though. Now they'll probably cut his hair and give him a gun, too.

Note #8: "What's this Grit Bath crap? Where's the X-Men?"

At one point, Marvel blamed the recent title glut on the titles at the lower end of the sales spectrum, saying that the existence of these titles kept retailers from having enough copies of the books people really wanted, like X-Men.

I hate it when I go to the comics store and I can't find a copy of X-Men.

Note #9: "Can we leave now, please?"

Eric and I hurried home after the editorial presentation, stopping by the freebie table to pick up our t-shirts and action figures. I really wanted to get my picture taken with Terry Stewart, but decided that I couldn't sit through another two hours of questions. It hurt too much. I had to remind myself that although I was just an observer, this was these people's livelihood on the line. Marvel represents somewhere between the profit margin and the entire profit center for a great majority of comics stores. They have to tighten their belts and try to make the new system work; to try and make any system work that Marvel puts forward. That's why some of them drove several hours without hope for a hotel room. That's why despite their shaking heads and plaintive questions, every single one of them will probably sign up with Heroes World and put the best face on what Marvel told them. They have no choice.

At the end of one of the editorial speeches, a Marvel representative tried to encourage the assembled retailers. "You're not in this for money," he said. "You're in this for love. And Marvelution is about taking the love and making it larger."

I'll agree with that. I just think that Marvel spells love with a capital "F."

Originally Published in The Comics Journal #177