By Josh Hadley
Comic books used to be about stories, sure sales were always a concern, but the way to achieve those sales was to tell good stories that kept people coming back for more. This is no longer the case. In fact, the parent companies of both Marvel and DC (the two largest comic publishers in the industry) have made it clear to their comics divisions that the comics themselves don’t matter any longer. Marvel Comics is owned by Disney and DC Comics is owned by Warner Bothers (Time-Warner) and obviously both of these parent companies have interests outside of comics and in many varying areas such as video games, movies, TV shows and other media outside of comics and those outside interests lead them to cannibalize themselves quite often and what happens when you cannibalize something? You are left with nothing but a skeleton. That said does it seem a tad ODD that the parent companies of both Marvel and DC both view their comics divisions as nothing more than a development house for future media properties? Future TV programs or cartoons? Various types of consumables for the marketing departments?
A recently leaked Time Warner memo shows this to be just the case. In this memo it is stated that the actual comics published by DC comics are of little consequence to Time Warner and that they only really care if the “properties” (they can’t even call them characters or stories, simply “properties”) can be expanded into future TV shows, movies, video games, shirts, action figures, posters and other assorted junk. In other words, the comics published by DC Comics are simply the farm team for the big budget movies and ensuing merchandise down the line … after all, you can’t make shirts out of a character (sorry, “property”) if they don’t have an already established fan base, now can you? Editorial at DC Comics has been given both free reign and been handcuffed at the same time when it comes to the stories they can tell which leads to the stories that do escape being ones of compromise and pointlessness. Time Warner has handed down the dictate that writers need to “sexy” things up but don’t be controversial about it … be provocative but tell the stories the fans want, not the ones they deserve … things like that … almost if the two hemispheres of the brain are dueling for control and all of this in an effort to simply placate the (ever dwindling) readership of the comics in an effort to get them to go out and purchase the merchecrap that comes later. They want “properties” that do not engage but instead lend themselves to easy transitions to another form of media or that tend to be written in a soft way to ensure future merchencrap sales to Wal-Mart and Target. When a “property” is safe and quiet, that “property” is easily exploited to other media to whit this exploitation not only weakens the original “property” but also the children (illegitimate or not) of that “property.” For instance when Disney makes an animated film they make the movie with toys (among other things) in mind … not as a side business but as the purpose of the film. This is a term known as Toyetic, and yes, that is a real term. Toyetic means that this movie can easily be translated to toys and that the movie itself is nothing more than a gateway to the future spin-off sales, kind of like how the video game industry is software based and not hardware based (in terms of sales). In fact most Disney movies are already in profits before a single ticket to the film is sold, solely in the merchecrap deals they have already secured.
This seeming bastardization of comics in an effort to sell other baubles might come off as all modern cutthroat business tactics with the ruthless uncaring angle of taking any heart from the source “property” but alas, this is nothing new. A friend of mine in the comic industry, Stephen Bissette, told me that back in the 1970s he was told again and again (and he worked for DC at the time) that the sole reason Wonder Woman was still in print was that they were selling more Wonder Woman merchandise than they ever did in comic issues so she was kept around for the express purpose of being a flagship to make spin-offs from and not as a viable character in her own right. In the 1990s Ron Perelman (no, not Ron Pearlman, Perelman) bought Marvel Comics and promptly turned it into a place where quality took a trunk seat to quantity. Perelman laid down the law that sales were the ONLY thing that mattered, and if pandering was the way to do it, well then pander we will, which quickly led to Marvel Comics going from a place of quality to a place of barbaric amateurism … which also put Marvel at the top of the industry sadly enough. When you pander to the middle it tends to work, at least in the area of sales when you don’t care if it’s any good. This quantity over quality approach worked amazingly well from a business perspective, sales were through the roof, merchandising deals were EVERYWHERE (seriously, try to find an industry in the 1990s where Marvel was not tied in at some point) and readers were the ones that lost. Okay, not readers per se … more like retailers, they lost it all. Marvel deluged the market with so much product in such a short period of time that they (literally) pushed their competitors off the shelves. You have to remember this was a different time, the internet as we know it was simply science fiction and there were only a few comic distribution companies to speak of and Marvel used them in ways that are now illegal, to shut out the competition. Marvel Comics threw so much product onto the market that retailers had no choice but to buy it all in an effort to appease their customers (undiscerning as they were) and in the end when the bubble burst it was the retailers who were left with mass amounts of pure trash they couldn’t even give away. Marvel Comics (more specifically Ron Perelman) manipulated an entire industry for years and now Disney and Time Warner are attempting similar actions. I would like to note that Perelman’s gambles eventually resulted in Marvel going bankrupt which is how they ended up under Disney so in reality nothing changed sans the logo of ownership.
Even today those 1990s Marvel comics are not simply worthless in a collectible sense but also worthless in reading sense. They are garbage through and through which should have served as a warning to the comics industry of today as they pull the same shenanigans, but it’s only serving as checklist of what specific things not to do as they move in the same direction. Marvel and DC (Disney and Time Warner) don’t care about quality, just about sales and marketability as they know even bad comics can still be utilized in dozens of other ways so why put all that effort into the comic itself right? n