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

September 13, 2009

On Those Really Big Publishing Deals


By Tom Spurgeon

There is only one certainty regarding the twin comic book publishing news stories of Disney purchasing Marvel and its library of characters and DC setting in motion a restructuring that includes the departure of Paul Levitz from his current posts: the news cycle is shorter than ever. Some readers e-mailed to me they were bored with the Marvel/Disney story, announced on a Monday, by that Thursday. A few folks began to move off the DC restructuring story by the Friday after the Wednesday it first appeared. This is an amazing thing. Just 15 years ago the comics professional and fan communities took months to process a story as simple as what happened at a big convention or as peculiar as what Dave Sim wrote about people eating other people's brains or as significant as Marvel's ongoing bankruptcy battles, and were happy to do so.

The Internet has not only provided an avenue to get these stories out quickly, it allows the readership to burn through them with an intensity that leads to exhaustion. And it's hard not to blame people for beginning to move on. A number of folks in comics and interested in comics judge any and all news by the bottom line of how it affects their supply of superhero comics. Assurances these recent moves will not change publishing in the short-term ended a lot of people's interest right there. I also think there's a relative helplessness that people feel when big corporations do things of major import, a reaction that renders many of us unable to bring anything to the table beyond a sports-like rooting interest in what happens next.

I would suggest that for those of us who are wholly invested, our being tired of ideas and comments more than 48 hours old is specifically unfortunate here, in that both of these stories are incomplete. The Marvel/Disney story has a bunch of future activity built into its structure. There are lawsuits and shareholder votes and what seems likely to be additional details of the deal revealed. The DC restructuring story goes one step further than Disney/Marvel in that it was purposefully released earlier than originally intended. It was rolled into public view in a half-formed state, so of course there's more to come. Nearly everything of importance with these stories -- everything past the fun of running around and proclaiming how huge these stories are or to note everyone's talking about them like they're an important pair of dinner guests doing the social rounds -- is going to be influenced if not primarily shaped by decisions made further down the line. As is frequently the case with the best comic books made by these companies, how these deals and new arrangements are executed is what going to count, no matter how much the people involved would like to have you think in terms of ideas and polity and intent and nothing will ever be the same.

There's definitely a rough shape to each story. In Marvel's case, the deal itself has yet to go through, but the complications so far seem like obstacles one steps through from bed to bathroom rather than a minefield one might cross. That could change with little notice, but it doesn't seem likely. The thing to look for with Marvel is how rhetoric matches reality. While the hands-off declaration from Disney executives to Marvel managers sounds convincing, and plays really well in face to face meetings and in the press, and even seems like the smart and decent thing to do given Marvel's successes in publishing and in movies, enacting a hands-off policy over the long term is quite a different beast altogether. For one thing, such beneficence depends on the continued success of the person afforded that leeway. For another, a total hands-off policy may run counter to also-stated goals that as many processes as possible be streamlined under Disney practices and companies. Further, Disney will define that success on its terms and not always those preferred by Marvel. I suspect that Marvel's lack of serious, sustained attention to a systemically competitive book program will longer be a sign of Marvel's incorrigibly raffish way of looking at the comics world, but more as an actual shortcoming that demands a lot of work and attention. Disney's resources and existing business relationships should help, but for Marvel's units including publishing to be afforded the independence they desire, they're going to have to come through.

In DC's case there is still a publisher to be named, which will be a big deal symbolically and a bigger deal practically. The symbolism is important because new DC Entertainment President Diane Nelson is very much not a comics person, which by itself I think is a very good thing because her job demands she be something other than a comics person. A comics person being hired to the publisher position -- everyone I know expects it will be a comics person, or at least a publishing person for whom some comics familiarity may be argued, although you're also going to see people pushing for a New Media conscious person -- will placate a lot of worried retailers and creators but will also afford DC the chance to operate effectively within the peculiar publishing industry that is comics. Don't think that soothing worries is unimportant, though. Although few say so publicly, there are people out there with very real fears, ranging from DC becoming more Marvel-style casual in their institutional support of Direct Market stores to DC using their newly-formed, numbers-crunching muscles and Warner Brothers heft to bring in a flood of outside creators to compete with a comic book rank and file that hasn't been able to generate a hit from the umpteenth launching of Doom Patrol or whatever. That's the thing about these huge stories: a twitch in any one policy can change the way the world works for a large number of people. People don't fear change for change's sake. They fear being put on the side against which change is made to gain traction, with little to do on their own behalf to benefit by the new status quo. I think many folks have reason to be at least a bit fearful, at least until things begin to settle a few months into 2010.

Until someone leaks something to Rich Johnston that says otherwise, I think the conventional wisdom is that the publisher job will be offered to Jim Lee. Beyond that, I suspect everybody's guessing by throwing out a bunch of people's names that sound like they might be ready for this kind of publisher gig -- comics guys with administrative experience and some sort of conceivable link to DC that are between 35-55 years old. My hunch is that two or three names from all those lists out there right now will end up being considered, along with a list of about the same size made up of people whose names aren't familiar to comics people. I don't care if I'm right or wrong, though, and am happy to wait on the announcement itself. (If I got to vote, I'd go for super-longshot Chip Kidd just for the quality and potential biting hilarity of his interviews and press statements.) Who guesses right (or who gets the leak) isn't 1/1000th as important as how certain institutions within comics react to the fact of that person's hiring. How those people react to the new publisher isn't 1/1000th as important as that person's performance in the job.

So, let's face it: barring either endeavor going Vinko Bogataj on us, both of these stories are going to develop for years to come. These aren't stories as much as they are new operating realities. That doesn't mean we can't wonder after future elements of what's recently happened. I'd simply suggest it means we take such speculation -- including my own -- with a grain of salt and maybe view these matters as potential directions for the North American comic book industry rather than as a chance to make Strong Statements Of Absolute Certainty. (It's also interesting how many people still conflate the North American comic book industry with comics in its entirety, but that's an essay for a different time. Taking the broader view, and declining to put too much emphasis on might-happens until they actually happen, there are certainly more important comics news stories this decade.)

So while I have no idea what's going to happen next, here's a few places my curiosity is telling me to look for clues. I have no idea what's going to happen next, but I think I may have an idea or two of the general areas those things will happen.


First, I'm thinking a lot about Diamond and the Direct Market. I'm worried about Diamond, the center of a Direct Market of comics shops and hobby accounts I value as comics' unique -- not sole -- way of bringing its product to consumers and as an untapped resource with a lot of potential for a continued role in comics' future.

Due to a few unfortunate developments of the 1990s comics market, and various decisions made by people in charge back then, Diamond is at the center of the Direct Market. That's where our troubles begin. Diamond seems to have suffered in the current recession at a pace far ahead of traditionally wobblier comics concerns. It should be an industry rock. That they aren't suggests problems elsewhere in the ownership's financial holdings, some of which has been roughly documented. Further, there are soft signs of a potential funnybook Ragnarok. For instance, the company's owner is at retirement age with no clear successor, and the company's management is made up of people old enough to suggest these might be their last jobs. Diamond invested a significant amount of capital into a warehouse facility around which whispers of unsatisfactory performance persist. All of this comes after years of policy dictated to them by their largest suppliers, policy that has favored short-term competitive goals over long-term growth and customer satisfaction. The comics movers-and-shakers of 15 years ago -- many of which have unsurprisingly cashed out or retired in the years since -- put all of the eggs from this important comics marketplace into this one basket and then spent the next decade and a half snatching at it and fouling its reeds. A crisis point was inevitable. It may now loom.

This matters to the news of the last couple of weeks because a shaky cornerstone to a fragile marketplace demands the kind of attention that may be beyond new owners or a newly recognized pride of place in the corporate infrastructure. Branding certain characters more effectively up and down the DC/Warner Brothers empire or potentially bringing Disney licenses in-house at a bigger and badder Marvel comics are conceivably good things in and of themselves. Neither of them is automatically a good thing for publishing, let alone sales through that existing market. Nothing that happened in the last two weeks seems likely by itself to make it easier for people in county after county where no comics are sold whatsoever to see this work and develop a relationship to it in comics form as we've come to understand these relationships. This may not be everyone's concern but it's certainly one of mine. New Media solutions may not be the panacea they are in idealized, conceptual formulations; they may not be as profitable, for one thing. A mass market for traditional comic books may be out of the question, but a modest, high-functioning secondary market of the kind that serves so many art forms can be lost to neglect, or overshooting, or pushing solely for the easier growth point because someone roars at us that it's inevitable. We grow closer and closer to a rarified traditional comics market every day, and I'm not sure the kind of slow growth and investment and planning necessary to reinvigorate a core business will be a priority at either reshaped company.

In fact, there could be more damage to the basket. DC could buy Diamond according to tenets put in place in those shameful mid-'90s deals. They'd have to by 2011, I believe. That in turn could trigger a tumultuous period that many comics entities would be ill suited to negotiate right now -- or, really, ever. It's also entirely possible that DC could be at the point at which it could buy Diamond and simply decide not to, allowing the major actor of the Direct Market to heave and collapse like a giant Miyazaki creature, confident that they'll at least will find new life in what's left. Both options are kind of distressing. Also, as Disney sources have asserted they expect to eventually streamline certain Marvel Comics functions within their own existing operations, I worry about Diamond's book arm losing Marvel's business in that arena. Any pain felt at Diamond Books would spread quickly to a number of companies not particularly suited to traditional book distributors as an option.

Second, I'm interested in the potential general effects of a grander Marvel commitment to book distribution, seeing at it may come from outside sources and may initially outstrip demand. Marvel has failed for years to commit itself to bookstore distribution to the same extent DC has. The increased competition from both companies for shrinking bookshelf space could see subtle but important shifts in what is emphasized. It's safe to say that Disney's interest in Marvel isn't in Walt Simonson but in Thor; that they wish to improve Captain America's profile more than they do Steve Epting's. Both sides will still want to win. If with a new Spider-Man movie on the horizon Warner Brothers feels compelled to compete with an army of excellent Spider-Man books Disney/Marvel has put out and onto the shelves, are they likely to push back with Greg Rucka or with Batman? Simonson, Epting and Rucka are names that are important to you and me, and I think the recognition that comics has learned to give its creators over the last 40 years is a wonderful thing on a lot of levels. Bigger isn't always better when it comes to artistic variety and value. Just as it's an overall good we have wonderful stage actors in this country in addition to actors that can open a blockbuster, it's to our cultural benefit that an comics author or artist with an audience that may top out at 65,000 people can find a place to make a living an impression for themselves. I fear for a general orientation towards mainstream creators that changes away from what works about the one we have now.

Third, I'm worried we could see the last vestiges of a proper comics industry disappear into the ether. I'm not sure how to make this argument, how to express the ways that industry can be important to an art form, except maybe in terms of the public face put forward by such entities at conventions. But think about it: would it be more likely for a George Clooney-starring Dr. Strange movie to be announced at Comic-Con International 42 or the D23 Expo planned for 2011? I'm not sure it matters, but it would be different. Would a push for a prime-time Kid Eternity TV show starring Jaden Smith mean the creative team for the comic book on which it's based be given a signing tour -- or would the priority be putting Smith in front of the television affiliates? How these things affect comics has long been part of the commentary at and about the San Diego Con, but the separate world argument where comics remains an island unto itself is more convincing when major players like DC and Marvel have an agenda for such big shows that is different than their larger corporate masters. That may still be the case; that may not. But comics' slow move towards becoming a division of Hollywood is accelerated now. Comics companies that dream of mainstream success will launch in southern California now instead of wherever. There will no longer be West Coast offices, just offices. Even the kind of interns the big companies are likely to see may be different in a few years' time than they are right now.

imageFourth, I am curious about the blending of corporate personalities at the companies, now that Marvel is a part of Disney and that Warner Brothers has woken up to the fact that it owns and is responsible for DC Comics. I don't mean that in the glib sense of everyone at Marvel working in Mickey Mouse ears -- although that would be awesome -- or the folks at Warners putting new characters through "profile enhancement" meetings like some bad movie set piece. I think there's a fundamental bleed, however, when companies work together, and I think that as much as comics companies have been shaped by past changes in ownership it's probably going to happen here, too. As Ben Schwartz pointed out in an essay on this site a couple of weeks ago, in the Disney/Marvel case Disney's purchase and subsequent scuffles with Miramax is as troubling an example as its partnership with Pixar is a positive example. Disney has long been susceptible to protests and/or negative publicity regarding the rudimentary regurgitation to the press of storylines generated by its companies. I personally believe that anyone who thinks Marvel is this sort of rogue, rock and roll company that somehow hasn't in many ways been operating like a huge corporation since at least the middle 1980s is being willfully insane, but I also think they're the sort of company the last ten years that can countenance forays into Bad Taste Land like Norman Osborn's O-Face. I'm not sure Disney makes that trip with them, and I'm pretty sure this would never come up at Pixar.

Renewed Warner Brothers interest in the DC properties could also mean a more watchful eye on things like the original Boy Wonder being humped on a rooftop while he's injured; there might even be a more complex reaction to potentially troublesome expressions than merely pulping the potentially offensive comic around it. These don't sound like bad things on the surface of it, but it could be a potential sea change in how creative expression works through these two companies. Perception matters in comics, in that people adopt stances and pursue business strategies in part according to how they feel welcome and supported and likely to succeed. Many even see the medium's history through superhero goggles in a way that distorts the role of other genres, and seem entirely happy to do so. Comics seems due for at least two new sets of conventional wisdom.

Fifth, I wonder if there aren't areas in which we see an immediate application of the other corporation's values. For one thing, it's entirely conceivable both companies could in a major way go after sketch commissions and similarly unlicensed uses of characters by artists at conventions. This would not only change the culture of comics conventions, but it could do great harm to many artist who depend on such work to help stay financially solvent. Even if the larger corporate interest remains out of the Artists' Alleys and remains in the cinerama, you could easily see the mainstream companies much more protective and litigious when it comes to ideas that in some ways mirror one of the 85,000 they own, and going after small creators that are putting characters and concepts out there that are sometimes one chromosome different from Marvel or DC character X, Y, or Z. I don't think this takes us back to the Marvel Vs. Dave Stevens over The Rocketeer days, but there are a lot of companies working a somewhat limited creative landscape with an eye towards hitting the top slot at Box Office Mojo on some future Spring or Summer weekend. Some of those companies have more lawyers than others. Guess which ones.

Sixth, I do have some not-comics questions, too, just as a general pop culture fan. In the Marvel/Disney case, I wonder how easy it will be to copy the success of the Iron Man and Spider-Man film franchises. Spider-Man is one of the great 20th Century pop culture creations, period. The success of the Iron Man movie arguably flowed from an incredible number of unlikely confluences: catching a Comic-Con bounce when that was still a rising thing, being the first movie of its summer, being the first movie of its summer following a summer after later movies in several series whipped audiences into a new-thing frenzy, easy-to-understand concept, an even easier wish-fulfillment hook, a director that got the vast majority of his actors pulling in the same direction, a killer star turn. None of these things sounds easy to repeat to me. Rebooting series around 10 years old without a sizable audience in the first place is still theory, not practice, and it's a theory where you can just say the end result will be better when the reality is that's not guaranteed. There may be a Blade or three deep on the Marvel bench -- Cloak and Dagger tweaked as a Twilight-like love story of darkness and light, the potentially Iron Man-like Dr. Strange -- but you're talking about Disney, on whose behalf some people complained about the box office performance of Pixar's $600 million-grosser Ratatouille.

I suspect they'll do just fine in that respect. I honestly do. Marvel was purchased at a reasonable price and there are several avenues for revenue outside of the biggest blockbuster movies. Given what we know -- not a ton, but still -- about the future of streaming content and the importance of cable TV networks as brand beachheads internationally, you could argue significant secondary effectiveness of this deal without a steady series of blockbusters. Also, as has been hashed out endlessly, there's the synergy factor: this deal gives Disney access to characters little boys might conceivably want to dress up as for Halloween. I just wonder if the big movie part of it is the slam-dunk assumed for it. In the case of Warner Brothers and DC Comics, I have fewer questions, but I wonder if they'll be able to develop a fresh strategy for developing their characters, and how quickly they can repair their core characters past Batman to serve as a solid base for rolling out the blockbuster superhero stuff. The Green Lantern character has a similarly easy-to-remember hook (space cop with magic ring) as Iron Man (billionaire in robot armor); its lead is probably more generally popular at the moment of his casting but less potentially popular and lacking the affection that a wide swath of moviegoers have for Robert Downey Jr. If it tanks, they'll have a lot of work to do. It should be interesting to see what happens.

Seventh, I have a bunch of random questions and observations that keep swirling to the surface before flowing away, like some sort of wicked comics news tide slapping the shore all the while tossing up superhero corpses and then pulling them back to sea. For one, I have to imagine that the both deals are a vote against pending lawsuits -- the Stan Lee Media case, the Siegels case regarding Superman -- as unresolved, serious matters, although whether that's expectations or denial I couldn't tell you. But if they were considered a serious threat, I can't imagine either deal would have moved forward quickly. I imagine it's possible that both companies, particularly DC, change New York City addresses. I wonder if Marvel will have to break any current charity commitments in order to get on-line with established Disney initiatives. I wonder if this is the moment we call time on Wizard's existence as a magazine with a news involvement with the comics industry -- you can say what you want about the quality of their news coverage over the years, but to just skip these stories on your web site finally confirms that Wizard is more a place for Gareb Shamus commercials rather than it is anything engaged with the industry it's supposed to cover. I wonder a lot of things, never the same three in a day.

Eighth, I remain hopeful that these moves could bring about some beneficial changes in the way publishing works. I know how ridiculous that sounds, and I'm not sure it's the most likely outcome, but there are significant differences between these moves and past moves that have taken place at the ownership/publishing/senior management level. The first is that each deal has come at a time of relative strength for the companies; I see less opportunity for a defensive crouch at any one level, or at least any series of stalls and delays that would be taken seriously. The second is that each comics company is now working or finding greater urgency with a larger agency that has an active history with similar, creative-oriented companies. This isn't a bank buying or investing in the leadership of these companies, or an electronics company buying an entertainment division or naming their best salesperson to the presidency. A third is that each move was done at roughly the same time, with approximately the same goals in mind, and therefore any success enjoyed by one will reflect on the other company. A fourth is that the one concrete move thus far, the one that involves a book being closed, is the departure of Paul Levitz from his current positions. Levitz is a great champion of the Direct Market and a comic book traditionalism I believe is an untapped resource rather than a mass-market hindrance, but he and I think the market as a whole was locked into his conception of what that meant, and where the values of that market should be.

What would I hope for at my most optimistic? An approach to comics publishing that gives up the constant careening between digging out incremental market share victories based on grinding several titles at low sales level and the bizarre idea that the alternative is mass-market acceptance. Traditional comics publishing is profitable and it's not all that impressive in the larger scheme of things. Growing that market by 25 percent, pushing a group of titles over 200,000 units sold without stunts, committing to greater geographical coverage and solving the shipping difficulties that limit existing retail partners month to month sound to me like achievable, valuable goals more about smart orientation than anything that risks over-investment. If everything ends up in new media in ten years anyway, if that path is inevitable and those two markets are indeed exclusive rather than feed different audiences, at least the old way comics will have gone out reaching as many people as it can, and taking those readers into the next step rather than forcing them to reconnect years after they've been driven from the stores. I don't expect Marvel and everyone that follows their lead to back away from the $3.99 price point just because there's less of a pressing need at the corporate level to point towards certain profits; I don't expect DC to suddenly not have a schedule that leaves you scratching your head in terms bizarre titles and mini-series that at best seem intended grind a place onto comic book shelves by attrition and habit and hopes that they'll connect to readers of the previous project. What I can hope for is a reduction in the impulses that make such tomfoolery standard operating procedure. I can hope, anyway. That's enough for now.
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