Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

October 21, 2011

Layoffs At Marvel Rattle Freshly Re-Oriented Industry

imageDistressing news broke across multiple comics sites yesterday as news of layoffs at Marvel Comics seeped out through various, well-connected news gatherers. You can probably get about 98 percent of what was written yesterday by spending time with multiple articles on three sites: this one and this one at Heidi MacDonald's The Beat; this one and this one at Rich Johnston's Bleeding Cool; this one at Comic Book Resources. (If you're only able or willing to read one, do the CBR; I read the CBR, double-checked it against what Heidi dug up, and then read the Bleeding Cool pieces for their stabs at contextual analysis; everyone's mileage will vary and adherents of just about every site will indict the other ones if prodded, so tread carefully.)

Their best information indicates that Editors Jody LeHeup and Alejandro Arbona were among those laid off, as well as Assistant Editor Rachel Pinnelas. From production Damien Lucchese, Taylor Esposito, Jerry Kalinowski and Scott Elmer were workplace casualties. Two digital compositors, Eric Bloom and Maritsa Patrinos, were also let go, as well as two as yet to be named folks in the trades department. The initial figure reported as to a final tally of jobs cut started at 15, moved to 13 and is now settled at 11. Updates and additional names are likely today.

An initial batch of notes:

* the initial wave of reaction was to wish all of these people luck with negotiating any present situation related to job loss and all fortune in the future finding gainful employment. That seem sensible, and certainly this site extends those same wishes. There's never a good time to be unemployed; this might qualify as a slightly worse time.

* the "why" of these moves should prove fascinating. The initial reports from all the sites linked-to above have settled in on cost-cutting measures rather than performance issues with those let go. This may put Marvel in the position of having to explain to some super-involved fans and the professional community -- okay, Marvel won't likely do a lot of explaining, which means those people will turn to each other for such explanations -- why cost-cutting had to come for what by most rational measures is a very successful publishing enterprise that serves as a powerful R&D arm for movies and licensing. Marvel saw three movies with its characters out this summer, two from Marvel proper, and has at least two major movies (one from Marvel itself) coming out in Summer 2012. All of those films anchor significant licensing campaigns, and the company in general has moved far past the more confused days of the 1980s and early 1990s with that era's hat-in-hand licensing deals and is partnered up seemingly across the board with major players in dozens of fields. Ironically, another piece of Marvel news Thursday was that they sold a Punisher TV show, which underlines the continuing potency of Marvel's characters in terms of securing such deals and selling related material.

This move at this time will therefore almost certainly place either new owner Disney or the former Marvel head that runs the company for Disney, Ike Perlmutter, or both, under a classic "they chose to maximize corporate profits over long-term company health" spotlight, which in the absence of a compelling narrative regarding structural reasons for why they had to trim staff, and especially in these corporate-critical times (I know without looking someone out there has made an "Occupy Yancy Street" joke), could lead to a decent amount of blow-back and criticism for the company. Or, as one angry person put it to me in rough terms yesterday, a widespread view could develop that these people were fired "so that Ike Perlmutter could wipe his ass with triple-ply $100 bill toilet paper." It's easy to overestimate the effect that this kind of bad press can have on a company with Marvel's market potency, but I don't think it's automatically negligible.

The firings will also put older and history-respectful comics industry folks in the mind of 1990s employment purges (the Marvelcution events), and with that line of thinking forge an additional connection between what happened yesterday to the idea that this is caused by choosing an abstract financial motivation (goosing profits for a quarter or two) over long-term publishing investment (making sure you have the staff and positions in place to negotiate a critical transition period in publishing).

* a few hires pop out to me as specifically intriguing side stories. Between them, Alejandro Arbona and Jody LeHeup were responsible for a big chunk of the smarter Marvel Comics books of the last several years, from Invincible Iron Man to Strange Tales. Either one ending up at another comics company could mean positive things for the company that chooses to hire them; individual editorial talent remains an industry commodity. Their departure might also be felt in a negative fashion. Every editor has creators they favor and creators they don't; change the mix of editors and you almost always change the overall creator breakdown. More generally, the kind of talent that works on slightly more cutting-edge books can be key for comics companies, perhaps not always in a raw sales sense but in shaping the marketplace over time and keeping certain kinds of creators invested and on board with a publisher more completely and for an extended period of their careers. Corrections artist Scott Elmer, aka "Pondscum" or "Scummy," was a long-time, beloved employee and a fixture of that publisher's culture, and will put a face on this round of firings for the creative community past and present.

* there's also the general issue of how the overall fabric of Marvel might change due to these moves, how these moves could alter how Marvel functions as a publishing house in the months moving forward. With the duties of those let go yesterday -- and the duties of recently-fired other employees -- shifting to people still working there, both the work itself and the career paths of some of the workers could see drastic alteration. As to the latter, I know that a very minor version of this where I worked in the mid-'90s contributed greatly to my personal burn-out and likely hastened my exit from that job by two or three years. That doesn't seem out of the question with some of the remaining positions and workers at Marvel. There's also a chance the work itself suffers, and that Marvel is in effect voting for a certain kind of comics production standard and general sales strategy -- steps back from certain kinds of titles, certain levels of attention to production issues or even specific sales avenues -- in the months moving forward. For example, I suspect Rich Johnston may be right when he suggests that a major print distribution initiative in the works earlier this year is likely off the table now.

* another thing worth noting although hard to grasp in concrete terms is how terrifying investment away from certain employees and positions can be for the wider comics community. Does this signal the start of cost-cutting measures at Marvel generally, or even the first roll call in a lengthy series of votes of no-confidence in the high-investment but high-reward business of comics publishing? Will Marvel make even more dramatic moves in a post-Avengers movie world? How distressing is it if you're one of the folks qualified for and desiring of work in the comics industry to see so many positions eliminated and so many capable people enter the field to apply for other positions at the same time you're doing so? When a publisher with roughly a third of its primary market and enormously successful programs in other media decides to fire people, everyone shudders. Another way to look at this is as one of the first major negative events of an era in which both of the major mainstream publishers are partnered more closely with major media enterprises. This could trigger fears for the future of comics publishing generally and should spur a few think-pieces on the positives and negatives of these corporate marriages.

* one nice footnote is that creators Matt Fraction and Jim McCann announced freelance work for Arbona and Lucchese respectively.
posted 6:00 am PST | Permalink

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