Hindsight’s Mock History
of Marvel Comics. In the last moments
of the last century, Marvel Comics filed for bankruptcy protection under
Chapter Eleven. This was the final phase in a series of disastrous maneuvers
made by the industry’s second-oldest company. It began when Marvel acquired
Heroes’ World, a distribution operation, and ended as Marvel laid off
staffers and cut back on titles. There's something hauntingly Greek about
all this--Greek drama, I mean. Hubris, to be specific.
It amuses me to speculate that the cause
of all this woe was the acquisition of Marvel by a man who didn't know
squat about comic books. And he doubtless installed his like-minded minions
in decision-making positions. Then all these brilliant corporate power
mongers read the Marvel hype and thought it was the truth!
Being outsiders, they didn't understand
the lingo. They didn't realize that all that hyperbole about Marvel's
being the greatest comic book company in the known galaxy was sheer fabrication,
breast-beating self-promotional hogwash that was as much a part of the
Marvel universe as Spider-man's secret identity. All of it--fiction!
No actual, concrete truth or fact in any of it.
Actually, of course, there was a shred of
truth there. But nothing approaching the dimensions suggested by the
house hype. Still, the Perel-men believed it to be the truth, the whole
truth. So they took what was to them a logical step. They set up their
own distribution arm, establishing the exclusive arrangement whereby the
only source for Marvel comics was Heroes World.
This maneuver, I have opined in various
places, was the opening gambit in an attempt to set up Marvel merchandise
stores along the lines of the Warner and Disney stores. To Ron Perelman's
henchmen, it seemed quite sensible to follow in the footsteps of Warner
and Disney: if Marvel comics were as popular as "everyone"
(i.e., everyone who wrote Marvel promotional copy) said they were, then
all those millions of readers were doubtless standing impatiently by,
waiting eagerly to stampede into Marvel merchandise marts to buy plastic
statuettes of Captain America and coffee mugs in the shape of the Hulk.
They lined up for Daffy Duck and Mickey Mouse; why not for Spider-man
Again, this vision of the future was predicated
upon a belief in the supreme popularity of the Marvel characters--a belief
in the Marvel-manufactured hype about itself.
Marvel's way of setting up merchandise marts
was, however, wildly different than any plan devised before. Marvel first
instituted a draconian system of ordering discounts that rewarded direct
sale shops that ordered large quantities of Marvel titles. Knowing (1)
that most shops couldn't afford to stock Marvel books without such discounts
and (2) that most shops couldn't afford to stock Marvel titles in the
quantities necessary to obtain the discounts without abandoning orders
for books from any other publisher, Marvel fully expected that most shops
would stop ordering titles from all other publishers.
According to the house hoopla, the shops
couldn't stay in business without Marvel zombies and they couldn't attract
Marvel zombies without having Marvel comics. So, perforce, the Marvel
exclusive distribution system would have two highly desirable effects:
first, as shops ordered only Marvel titles, all other publishers would
be driven out of business, leaving the entire field to Marvel; second,
with no comic books on their shelves but Marvel comics, all those shops
would be virtually ready-made Marvel merchandise marts.
All that would remain would be to crank
out Marvel toys and ship them off to the erstwhile comic book shops.
Before you know it, they'd all be little Warner-like Marvel marts. And
Perelman would have spent nary a nickle building any of them. (That would
come later. Phase Two, I suppose--along with the restaurants and fastfood
joints, specializing in X-burgers and mutant malts.)
But it didn't work out that way. There
were undoubtedly other factors at play in shaping the fate of Marvel and
comic book publishing over the last two years, but none of the Perel-men
apparently expected what actually happened. First, many of the small-bore
comics shops just stopped stocking Marvel. They couldn't afford to give
up the books produced by other publishers: putting all their eggs in
one basket was just too risky a proposition for most of them.
In the final analysis, the Marvel discount
scheme was, quite simply, too expensive. The smaller shops couldn't afford
to stock Marvel under their fiendish discount plan; so they just gave
up Marvel. In my town, two of the four comics shops stopped stocking
Marvel. And they survived just fine.
The second unexpected thing follows hard
on the heels of the first: with a shrinking retail network, Marvel books
weren't selling as well as they had been. The Perel-men reacted as any
corporation these days does: they promptly down-sized, firing legions
of Marvel workers.
While this may have seemed a sensible thing
to do in any other industry, in a creative publishing enterprise like
comics, it can have only one long-term result: the quality of the product--not
to mention the quantity of the titles--declines. And that soon cut even
deeper into the celebrated bottom line.
Desperate, the Perel-men next looked to
the hot artists at Image, former Marvelites all, and begged them to come
back and rescue the alma mater. A couple did. But it was too late.
The die was cast: Marvel was already slipping down that slippery slope
The first step down that slope, as I've
said, was taken when the Perel-men believed the Marvel hype. Once
committed to that, everything else fell into place. Oddly enough in this
day-and-age, none of the Perel-men apparently had any familiarity with
the marketing strategy of the shopping mall. Only people blissfully unaware
of what is going on under those spreading rooftops in the middle of vast
expanses of asphalt could have opted to set up any sort of exclusive distribution
The effect of the exclusivity was to cut
Marvel off from its retail network. It isolated the company and its product
line. Isolation is in direct contradiction of the psychology of shopping
malls--a psychology revealed in the plethora of shoe stores in every shopping
None of these shoe stores go out of business
because they're under the same roof with their competitors. In fact,
they all prosper. Shoppers want to find what they want conveniently.
And they go to shopping malls precisely for that reason. And when they're
looking for shoes, they visit all the shoe stores. Every single one of
them. And because tastes vary, every shoe store makes sales. All prosper.
The old distribution system with Diamond
and Capital Cities and the rest all carrying every publishers' products
constituted a shopping mall for comics fans. And Marvel pulled itself
out of the shopping mall. Disaster.
But it couldn't have happened without the
ignorance of the Perel-men, who, in their naivety, believed the company
hype. All that stuff manufactured by the fiction-writers on staff. They
believed in the invincibility of Marvel. Marvel was supreme.
But it wasn't. And we all knew it--all
of us, all us comics fans. We knew. We knew bullshit when we saw it--particularly
in Marvel promotional materials because we’ve been seeing it there for
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