This is a piece I wrote for SAVANT a few years ago, right around the time the first Spider-Man movie came out. At the time Marvel had a man named Bill Jemas as its president, who they wisely promoted to somewhere other than spokesperson. I have to admit that under Joe Quesada, Marvel Comics has prospered. Right now, they are enjoying the current upswell in comic book movie popularity. I doubt their business practices have changed much since this was written, and I still have a sneaking suspicion that time will tell wether or not they've banked enough movie capital to keep them in business once superhero movies are no longer Hollywood vogue.
KILLING MARVEL COMICS
By Dan Traeger
I'm afraid the patient is terminal. Marvel Comics is dying. It's hemorrhaging money and like any drowning animal, it can't help lashing out at those of us who want to save it. Part of me wants to just let it go, but man, I'll miss my X-MEN.
A quick look at the last quarterly financial report from Marvel Comics Inc. to their stockholders breaks down like this:
12 million dollars profit from the Spider-Man movie.
3 million dollars profit from a change in their accounting procedures.
7 million dollars loss from day to day operations expenditures.
All in all, an 8 million dollar profit for the last quarter-- not bad! Not bad, that is, unless your company happens to be 170 million dollars in debt. So, assuming Marvel can keep drawing in a 12 million dollar profit each quarter from their various movie properties while keeping their daily operations expenditures in the miraculous seven million dollar range they should be operating in the black again in about a decade.
Recently, Marvel alleviated a big chunk of its debt going forward into the new fiscal year by converting a lot of its preferred stock into common shares. So, it's a step in the right direction, but they're still in debt, and until Marvel starts showing a profit independent of motion picture money, they are likely to remain so. Many companies operate at red line expenditure rates and do just fine. However, these companies succeed by putting out a limited amount of quality product and backing it up with great customer service. If you take away the money from the movie deals, and that's valid because it won't always be there, Marvel Comics is bleeding money like a chainsaw victim. They are aggravating the injury by making it standard practice to alienate their primary distribution system, while continually belittling and berating their consumer base.
The main wedge Marvel is driving between themselves and the comic book retail outlets is their policy of not overprinting their comics. Marvel's President and COO Bill Jemas claims that not only does this cut down on Marvel's printing costs, but it also helps reinstate a collectible factor to its books, thereby allowing retailers the opportunity to charge more for "scarce" recent issues. He has also stated on several occasions that this will have the added "bonus" of drawing speculators back into the comics fold. This is a statement of intent that is insulting to both retail stores and the comics buying public.
Jemas' comment about speculators is mind-boggling. Comic book fans and retailers alike have demonized the terrible gathering of faceless teeming masses that buy comics with the hope of reselling later at a drastically inflated price since the "collectible" rug yanked itself out from under the comics market, dropping it on its ass in the mid 90's. Speculators caused a lot of damage, sinking many comics specialty stores when they collectively realized one simple truth and then went away. The truth is that a worthless piece of shit comic with a lenticular, die-cut, holographic, glow in the dark, singing, dancing, gives you a blow job, and feeds your cat cover, is still a worthless piece of shit comic. They left behind a ravaged publishing industry that suddenly had a catastrophic reduction in its consumer base, and a lot of confused company executives that couldn't understand why any magazine with a print run of 100,000 to a million issues would never be collectible. Anyone ever see any "hot", "collectible" issues of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC or TV GUIDE less than 30 years old? But here's a clue Marvel, they're not coming back. Those of us who survived the mid 90's implosion know that, why don't you?
If you ever find yourself waking up in the middle of the night, dripping with cold sweat, and dreading the return of the speculation crowd, look at it this way. Several things conspired to draw speculators into the comics market. The sports card market imploded leaving lots of people looking for the next big thing. Marvel got a lucky break when it ended up with Mark Silvestri, Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee and Rob Lifeld who were all masters of self-promotion. These artists were working on Marvel's A List titles all at the same time, which caused even more hype. This snowballed when they left in unison to form Image Comics. Rival company D.C. then jumped on the collectible bandwagon to maximum effect with its Death of Superman media blitz. The odds of a promotional zeitgeist like this ever happening again are so astronomical that even Carl Sagan would have a hard time conceiving of a number that big.
Whether it offends your ethical sensibilities or not, retailers certainly make more money selling a hot comic for $25.00 than they do by selling it for the $2.50 cover price. Or do they? Anybody who tells me that it's better to sell 10 books at $25.00 each than it is 100 books at $2.50 is just not thinking. Yes, the dollar figures are the same, but comics are intrinsically soap operatic and therefore addictive. Human beings for the most part love a soap opera, and like good little crack whores, they will always come back wanting more. Even Marvel's marketing staff should be able to see that the potential for repeat business is much higher with 100 readers than with 10.
"But wait," you cry! "They certainly save money by not having a lot of unsold product sitting around." The major cost of printing a magazine is getting the pre press straight. Once a book goes to press, I'm told you even get a significant price break for a larger print run. Storage space for the overprinted books is negligible when looking at the big financial picture, especially when most publishing houses just destroy the unsold product after a certain length of time anyway.
Bill Jemas' statement of the intent on Marvel's no overprint policy is just one in a string of knee-jerk, short-sighted, quick fixes that will do more long term harm than short term good for both Marvel and the comics industry. Jemas has a big fucking mouth, but he's not a stupid man. He's merely a man saddled with the nearly insurmountable burden of running a publishing house in deep financial trouble. Either that or he's receiving kickbacks from E-Bay. Given the fact that he seems to be trying everything in his power to alienate fans and distributors alike, I'd say he's just desperate. His company is hurting and even negative attention is still attention.
It's terribly ironic that content wise, many of Marvel's books have never been better. They have successfully relaunched most of their top superhero books with A-list creative talent. They've single handedly made superhero comics cool again. What they haven't done is shown us what's next. Many of these books are bordering on three years old now, and fans are fickle even without a company mouthpiece to browbeat them. Marvel is swiftly coming into the time frame in the life cycle of any mass media publisher when the collective reader base commands something new. It starts with readers dropping second tier books. It's up to Marvel to show us where it ends. If their current state of their customer service continues, even Joe Quesada won't be able to save them.
So, what can you do about all this? Well, for starters, use your wallet. Half of what Marvel puts out is utter dog shit that you just buy out of habit anyway. So stop doing that, and when Marvel starts wondering why its numbers are dropping through the floor, you can tell them you're sorry, but your comic store was always sold out so you just stopped buying. Remember this. We are comic book fans. We are strong and powerful, and we have ultimate say over the type and price of the books these companies produce. Together we can kill Marvel Comics Inc. if we have to. If the speculators could melt down the entire comics publishing industry, we should be more than capable of taking down a company that thinks we're stupid enough to pay $50 for back issues of ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN. We should at least be strong enough to get Marvel to sell us their fucking product at a reasonable price.
Here's a ray of hope for you. There are two comic book stores in my town. One store has the dubious practice of significantly marking up back issues that WIZARD Magazine says are "hot" and racking them in a prominent display, right next to the register. You know what happens to these books? They sit there for months until they finally get pulled into the half price dump box. Comic book fans aren't stupid; they just need a methadone program (or in this case a slap in the face.) This is one of the most insulting marketing tricks a store can use. As consumers, we have too many other options open to us to even think about paying $25 for a comic book that's been out less than a year. Screw the stores that mark up two month old comics with artificially inflated prices. They don't deserve your money. Go across town to the store that doesn't do that. If you don't find it there, wait for the Graphic Novel. If you're really desperate, order it off the Internet where you have all sorts of different pricing structures to choose from. Barring all that go read a book without pictures.
Much like a drug, you can live without Marvel Comics once you break the habit.