Marvel’s Bottom Line

In 1991, Marvel Comics was enjoying unprecedented success. The company went public in July; the stock went from $16 1/2 to $18 on the first day, trading at a volume of 2.3 million shares. In August, a rebooted X-Men #1, available in five variant-cover versions, sold nearly 8 million copies—doubling the record that had been set by X-Force #1, only four months earlier. Given a mandate to top the sales of each previous quarter, Marvel ramped up production of its foil stamp covers, embossed covers, and glow-in-the-dark-ink covers on other titles. The company hired as a consultant Richard T. Rogers, a marketing superstar who'd masterminded the introductions of red- and green-colored holiday season M&Ms and king-size bags of candies—in other words, getting people excited to buy the same old thing in a new package, and getting them to buy in bulk.

But in the final weeks of the year, a group of popular artists—including Jim Lee (X-Men), Rob Liefeld (X-Force), and Todd McFarlane (Spider-Man)—informed Marvel that they would be leaving the company to start their own line of comics, in which they would retain ownership of characters.

The following is excerpted from Sean Howe's book, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (Harper), out now. 

Barron’s was the first to run with the story that several major Marvel artists were planning to defect, in a two-page article that warned investors that a bursting bubble was imminent. After reporter Douglas Kass noted that most of the publisher’s IPO proceeds had been redirected into other Perelman properties (rather than paying back company debt), he pointed out that Marvel “pushed through another price hike in January and increasingly resorts to gimmickry to break down consumer resistance,” and then twisted the knife: “The brash kid willing to take artistic and literary risks has grown too big, fat and timid. Marvel’s continued focus on violent themes and stereotyped heroes is wearing thin with consumers, who increasingly are turning to upstart competitors.” Perhaps most alarming was the intimation that collectible comics were some kind of Ponzi scheme. “Visiting a dozen specialty comic-book stores,” Kass wrote, “I saw boxes upon boxes filled with unsold copies of the highly promoted premiere issues of X-Men and X-Force—titles that were introduced nearly six months ago.”

On February 17, 1992, the day the article ran, Marvel’s stock dropped more than eleven dollars a share. The Los Angeles Times, CNN, and USA Today all chimed in about Liefeld, Lee, McFarlane, and the other renegade artists who were standing up to big business. In response, Marvel president Terry Stewart made a statement that “the importance of the creative people is still secondary to the (comic book) characters,” a stance that hardly discouraged Marvel’s new image as a corporate overlord.

Two days later, Malibu Graphics and the eight Marvel émigrés announced that the artists were forming their own imprint, to be called Image Comics. Although Malibu would be the publisher of record, each artist would own his intellectual property and have editorial control of his work. The press release emphasized that Lee, Liefeld, and McFarlane had been the men most responsible for Marvel’s recent record-breaking sellers, and played up the idea of Image as a refuge for creators who wanted to retain creative and economic rights. By the time Image’s maiden title, Youngblood, was published, its advance orders had nearly reached the one million mark. Todd McFarlane designed T-shirts to promote Image’s second release, Spawn, which would showcase the character he’d already slyly previewed in his Comic Book Greats interview with Stan Lee. Somehow they were managing to be the hot new thing and the underdog all at once. For the first time in its history, the media was painting Marvel as a Goliath and not a David.

When writer Chris Claremont—cut loose from his beloved X-Men, on the outs with Marvel—had heard that Jim Lee and Whilce Portacio had departed the company, he noted with wistful irony that he might have out-lasted them if he’d just played along for a few more months. Editor Bob Harras had given the artists the keys to the kingdom, only to see the artists fling them into the sea. “That was the ‘be careful what you wish for’ side effect,” Claremont said. “Bob should have thought a step or two ahead, or I should have thought a step or two ahead, or . . . somebody should have thought.” But now Claremont saw an opportunity—he fired off a proposal for a series called The Huntsman, and got Whilce Portacio to agree to draw it. It would be an Image title. Claremont’s name started turning up in the company’s press releases.

At the Marvel offices, the talent exodus left scars. Writers Fabian Nicieza and Scott Lobdell scrambled with Bob Harras to come up with the annual summer crossover for the X-titles, now that the Image guys had left them holding the bag. “In my opinion,” said Nicieza, “they were waiting as long as they possibly could in order to sabotage the production of those books. The longer they waited under the assumption that they’d still be drawing those issues, the harder it was going to be to get quality artists to draw it, the harder it was going to be to write it. They were hurting, for no reason, the people they’d worked with for the last several years, who’d helped them get to that level. To this day, I think that was a little bit of hypocrisy and mean-spiritedness.”

Still, any office debate about the long-term damage to Marvel was strongly discouraged. “No independent comic artist has ever sold numbers that could do anything to us,” Editor-in-Chief Tom DeFalco insisted to staffers in meetings. “It’s not gonna happen!” he’d shout back at them if they protested.

With pressure to beat 1991’s astronomical sales figures, DeFalco and the editorial staff focused on its big launches: “Big Guns” was a campaign to publicize new titles like Silver Sable, Nomad, and Punisher: War Zone, each of them starring characters who were, literally, armed with “big guns.” Since Ghost Rider had been a breakout hit, it was used to jump- start a series of new horror-themed titles under the banner “Midnight Sons”. A discarded Stan Lee/John Byrne project about Marvel characters in the year 2099 was retooled into an entire new line of comics: futuristic versions of Spider-Man, the Punisher, and Doctor Doom provided plenty of collectible product.

And then there were the special covers, developed and instituted by Director of Marketing Sven Larsen and consultant Richard Rogers. “When I was told Sven [Larsen] would be starting a marketing division, I didn’t even know what the hell that meant,” said Director of Sales Lou Bank. “What the hell is he gonna do? We’re the guys who place the ads, we’re the guys who put together the catalog. It turned out what he was gonna do was do those covers with Rogers.”

For every enhanced cover, a meeting was called to determine special pricing. It wasn’t just the cost being added, of course, but extra profit mar-gin as well. Add in markups between distributors and retailers, and the ten-cent addition of foil on the cover translated to an extra dollar on the cover price. This, however, wasn’t a problem for Marvel—price increases had been a part of the plan all along, a promise to the stockholders.

With a constant increase in the amount of product, as well as price hikes, Marvel managed to top itself, quarter after quarter. Sales in 1992 would nearly double 1991’s $115 million. But the company would never beat the single-issue numbers on X-Men #1, or X-Force #1, or even Spider-Man #1. “When we got the orders in on Silver Sable,” said Lou Bank, “and they came in at only half a million units, Tom DeFalco said to me, ‘That’s it, that’s the beginning of the end!’ I thought, ‘Goddamn, half a million units!’ At that point we were canceling titles that came in below 125,000, but it wasn’t so long before that we’d never seen a comic sell half a million. How could Tom say this? It didn’t sell the million you wanted, but . . . half a million units! But he was sure right. That was the beginning of the end.”

“It was like cocaine culture without the drug use,” said editor Tom Brevoort. “Everyone was getting more and more hopped up on this explosion of sales. You’d launch a book, and editors would be lamenting the fact that, ‘Oh it only sold half a million copies.’ Five years later, they’d be thanking their lucky stars.”

To some, the monetary incentives offered to editors clouded judgment. “You had editors who tried to gerrymander hits in order to get themselves a great deal of money,” said editor Jo Duffy, who’d left her staff job to work as a freelance writer. “Suddenly the editors seized control. It used to be if the writer and editor weren’t getting along, change editors. Now it became: change writers.” The empowerment of the editorial staff, begun as a morale-building necessity in the wake of Jim Shooter’s stormy departure, now resulted—in extreme examples—in instructions to writers and artists on how to appeal to the lowest common denominator. “If the Punisher appears in a panel with another character,” Jim Starlin was told, “that character should be killed within the next few pages by either the Punisher or someone else. If the Punisher appears with any object, it should be destroyed in an explosion as soon as possible.”

“Everyone decided, ‘Hey, we get royalties on this, so let’s put Wolverine and Spider-Man and the Punisher in every one of the books, and dilute the product,’ ” said editor Mike Rockwitz. “I was working on that piece of shit Secret Defenders. Tom DeFalco came to me one day and said, ‘Let’s do a super-book that has Doctor Strange and Wolverine in it.’ I’m like, ‘Okay . . .’ None of those things made any sense, but on the first book, I made seven grand in royalties. It was just absurd.”

Still, many had reservations about the ways in which commercial concerns were starting to overwhelm the contents of the comics. Some editors complained that the sales, marketing, and publicity teams only worked to sell the books that were already selling, that the response about underperforming titles was, Sure we can help you push this book. Just put Wolverine or Ghost Rider in it.

To many in the editorial department, the face of the enemy was Richard Rogers, the marketing executive who was calling more and more of the shots and itching to crank up production at every turn, as though comic books were as infinitely reproducible and conveyer-belt-ready as the candy bars he’d worked with before he came to Marvel.

“It’s hard for people who haven’t come up through the comic book industry to understand just how hard it is to get a comic book out,” said Sven Larsen, who struggled to mediate between Rogers and Harras. “It’s very easy to turn around and say, ‘Why don’t we take this 32-page book and make it 96 pages?’ All these right-brain thinkers on the editorial side were like, ‘Let’s let this happen organically. Why do we need to make all this money? We were doing just fine before you came along.’ ”

Peter David, writing X-Factor, threw up his hands after a number of his story ideas were put on hold to accommodate crossover events. “The editors are as trapped in this ‘Crossover Uber Alles’ mentality as anyone else,” David wrote. “The stockholders expect massive profits from the X-books, and crossovers remain the only way to give them what they want . . . right now, there are quite a few people in very difficult situations. Some of those situations are of their own making. Others are imposed from other directions. There’s a great deal of stress going on there with a lot of folks caught in a lot of vises. It may be that, sooner or later, it all blows apart.”

When Terry Stewart and Richard Rogers decided that Spider-Man’s thirtieth anniversary was the perfect opportunity for 3-D hologram covers and more crossovers and double-sized issues, editor Danny Fingeroth voiced resistance, worrying about workload and compromises in quality. Larsen stepped in. “I think one of the things that helped convince Danny was explaining that it would make a lot of money for the people who’d been loyal freelancers. That brought Danny a lot more on board with the program.”

Not everyone was convinced. “Right after the Spider-Man 30th anniversary went on the schedule,” said Lou Bank, “a memo came out of Sven’s office, detailing the anniversaries of all the other characters, one after the other. That, I believe, is when editorial let out a collective growl. It was year after year of anniversary after anniversary.”

Bank’s concerns weren’t rooted in some naïve idealism about artistic purity; he worried about Marvel’s long-term business interests. Field representatives had gone out to nearly forty different stores, collecting sell- through numbers—the number of copies that retailers actually sold to readers, as opposed to the larger number of copies that distributors sold to retailers—for a dozen different comics over a three-issue period. The findings were stunning.

“Every time we did one of these stupid-ass covers that caused us to increase the price by 33 percent—say issue #475—we would have a 20-percent drop-off from 474 to 476. The numbers would spike for #475, but we’d actually lose readers from #474 to #476. It was consistent with every single example.”

Of course, none of this would have an impact on Marvel’s quarterly goals. Marvel’s bottom-line reports, which only reflected distributor-level numbers, would continue to show sales and profits going up, even as the readership began to cool and the retailers, who couldn’t return unsold copies, absorbed the costs. “In the meantime,” said Bank, “we were killing the stores that were feeding us.”

Bank sent a memo to Terry Stewart, citing the research, and warning of the possible dangers in continuing the enhanced-cover strategy. Presumably the sentiment was passed up the chain of command, to Bill Bevins uptown at the Townhouse, and maybe even to Ron Perelman. Whatever the reaction from above, said Bank, “Terry continued to behave in a way that was detrimental to the long-term future of the company.”

Beyond the publishing concerns, Marvel was expanding in other ways. Toy Biz, the company that had partnered with DC on a line of massively successful toys in the wake of the Batman movie and then introduced a popular series of X-Men action figures, followed with X-Force figures. With former Marvel Productions head Margaret Loesch now running the Fox Kids network, an X-Men animated series finally had a television- industry advocate—and plenty of input from Toy Biz’s Avi Arad—and was scheduled for the fall. And, in what would be the first in a series of costly acquisitions, Bevins pulled the trigger on a $265 million purchase for Fleer, one of the largest manufacturers of sports cards. It was through this maneuver that Marvel doubled its 1991 sales—and racked up nearly $240 million in debt. “Marvel has a growing involvement in the entertainment trading card business since 1990 with the introduction of Marvel Universe trading cards,” Bevins said in a statement. “The acquisition of Fleer enables us to rapidly increase our presence in the $1.2 billion market for sports and entertainment cards.” The Marvel Comics staff, however, was nervous. The card market was already showing signs of collapse, thanks to fervent speculation and a flood of special collector-edition cards. Could this happen to comic books, too?

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64 Responses to Marvel’s Bottom Line

  1. Pingback: Quote of the day: Terry Stewart via Sean Howe

  2. Eric Hoffman says:

    Fascinating. Am looking forward to reading Howe’s book. This was essentially the era of crass commercialism that killed my interest in superhero comics (or reading anything published by the Big Two besides the occasional Vertigo book). I would’ve been about fifteen, the age when most kids generally stopped reading superhero comics anyway.

    Having cut my teeth on Adams, Perez, Romita, Jr., Mazzuchelli, Sienkiewicz, Rude and Stevens, I can’t say that McFarlane, et. al. really did much of anything for me anyway.

  3. Grant says:

    Yes! I always thought McFarlane was vastly overrated as both an artist and especially as a writer. But I do agree that McFarlane, along with Jim Lee and Liefeld felt that all their talent was fattening Marvel’s bank account and very little of it was coming their way. One can hardly blame them for wanting to go off and do creator owned titles where they would be paid decently for their own efforts.

  4. teporocho says:

    Kind of scary, isn´t it? It´s as if Marvel was a big damned monster out for your bucks.

  5. Pingback: The Secret History Of How Marvel Comics Went Bankrupt | Technoccult

  6. Jayhawh says:

    Putting this one on my wish list.

  7. Robert Stanley Martin says:

    Marvel paid them decently. All three enjoyed seven-figure annual incomes there. I can hardly blame them for wanting to set up their own shingles, though.

  8. Scott Grammel says:

    Robert, thanks for pointing that out. Though I doubt few here have any real concrete idea of just how much McFarlane and the other Image founders were making at Marvel before the exodus, I thought the knee-jerk, anti-Marvel assertion that they must’ve been working for peanuts was silly and stupid — particularly as the excerpt above pays some attention to the idea that royalties at Marvel then were considerable.

  9. Robert Stanley Martin says:

    I was going by Marvel’s royalty plan and the sales of their books, all of which are public knowledge. According to the math, McFarlane would have earned over a million in royalties his last year at Marvel, and his sales were the least of the three.

  10. Jeet Heer says:

    Um, could it possibly be that money is only one factor of concern to artists. That all other things being equal they also want creative freedom and an ownership stake in the characters they create? Also, while the money McFarlane & Co. received from Marvel was no doubt nice, it was easily dwarfed by the tens of millions of dollars their ideas, characters and concepts generated for Marvel. I take the point that McFarlane & Co. are far from being oppressed artists of the Siegel, Shuster, & Kirby caliber but still they had good reason to strike out on their own. But it’s always good to have RSM here to give management’s side of things.

  11. Kim Thompson says:

    It may also be worth pointing out that, in the grand scheme of things, the major Image players gained their fan base by drawing popular Marvel comics to begin with. It’s hard to imagine McFarlane, Lee, or Liefeld rising to those astronomical heights if they’d started off with their own characters, or with characters owned by some second-tier (i.e. not Marvel or DC) company. They benefited hugely from the Marvel mojo, they weren’t underpaid by Marvel by any reasonable industry standards (whether industry standards were or are reasonable is a different argument), and while leaving to strike out on their own was a perfectly reasonable career decision, I think the implied narrative of their triumphantly escaping Marvel’s greedy capitalist exploitation is a bit silly. Especially since the pigs and the humans ended up back at the same table in the final chapter anyway, didn’t they?

  12. R. Fiore says:

    Me I would just think of the financial differene between owning Spawn and Marvel owning Spawn.

  13. Steve Kinnard says:

    Darkhawk’s statement in that last panel applies directly to me. Ugh, my stomach hurts.

  14. Robert Stanley Martin says:


    To the best of my knowledge, McFarlane, Liefeld, and Lee have never complained about editorial conflicts with Marvel during their time there in the ’80s and early ’90s. (Admittedly, though, I wouldn’t be sympathetic to them if they did. That’s life when it comes to creating work-for-hire.) If memory serves, the most McFarlane could come up with in his interview with Gary Groth was that Marvel might not have kissed his ass as much as he would have liked. I don’t have the interview handy, but I seem to remember he griped that Marvel didn’t give him the option of wasting the office staff’s time talking about baseball or some such.

    The money that Marvel made relative to what they paid creators is why draws like McFarlane, Lee, and Liefeld should set up their own shingles. They’d have been foolish not to, particularly given that self-publishing was a viable option the way the comic-book market was structured. I’m honestly surprised that people such as Frank Miller and John Byrne didn’t do it before them.

    Siegel & Shuster and Kirby weren’t “oppressed,” at least not financially. Adjusted for inflation, Siegel & Shuster had at least one year–pre-lawsuit–where they made the equivalent of a million dollars off their Superman work. Kirby made from Marvel the contemporary equivalent of about $185,000 in 1963, $207,000 in 1969, and $248,000 in 1975.

    I don’t have any particular interest in giving “management’s side of things,” although I do think you check your creative autonomy at the door when you undertake a work-made-for-hire commission from a publisher. I also don’t think people should fudge what undertaking these commissions pays. Guys like John Byrne and Doug Moench, with all their pissing and moaning about revisions and rejected material and recommended changes in story direction due to low sales, are just childish.

  15. Sarcastro says:

    In the 1950s and 1960s, filmmakers offered a comparable narrative about their own escape from the corporate clutches of the Old Hollywood studios for the Elysian fields of entrepreneurial filmmaking with financiers and smaller studios like United Artists.

  16. Pingback: Casa das ideias fracas | Vitralizado

  17. Kirk G says:

    Could this happen to the comic book market? Could it? COULD IT?

    Good God, I’m hooked, I can’t wait for the next installment to see if the 90s go down the tubes or not….

  18. BVS says:

    I don’t know that it’s entirely a mater of the image guys already working on Marvel’s most popular books. by the time they were fan favorites naturally marvel moved them to the popular books, but they did create some original lasting characters. to get into specifics: venom, gambit, cable,mr.sinister, bishop & deadpool are all copyrighted characters these guys co-created (with writers like David Michelinie, Louise Simonson and Chris Claremont)which Marvel still makes regular use of in a variety of comics & products.

  19. Pingback: The Carnival of Souls Returns « Attentiondeficitdisorderly by Sean T. Collins

  20. “To the best of my knowledge, McFarlane, Liefeld, and Lee have never complained about editorial conflicts with Marvel during their time there in the ’80s and early ’90s.”

    They have. For an example check out McFarlane’s interview in Bissette’s and Wiater’s COMIC BOOK REBELS.

  21. Kim Thompson says:

    Well, yeah, and of course not “entirely.” But it’s never cut and dried. These characters then became valuable in large part because they were an element of the Marvel universe and have ties to Spider-Man, X-Men, etc. If those exact same characters has been created in the context of a creator-owned book no one would be talking about them. I’m just saying that the success of these cartoonists and of their characters is at least partly due to their evolving within the context of Marvel (or DC). That is the attraction of big companies, and this gravitational pull once you’re in there is pretty powerful: You have to be really hot and really confident to break free of it, and believe you can create something successful without the crutch of the Marvel (or DC) infrastructure.

    Look at what happened to John Byrne’s sales and popularity once he stopped doing X-Men and Superman comics.

    McFarlane, Lee, Larsen, and Liefeld managed to surf their mainstream company success and a certain madness in the market of the time to independent success. But Image seems to be a singular exception, and that seems to have receded.

  22. Robert Stanley Martin says:


    Would you please elaborate? That book is long out of print. Google Books doesn’t have any excerpts to read, and I’m not finding reference to anything he said there online.

    I grant that I’m predisposed to think, So what? Revisions and being told no are part of the territory of working on corporate properties. You’re not an autonomous author or artist in those situations; you’re an employee. But I am curious.

  23. Kit says:

    I don’t have the interview handy

    poor RSM can’t even remember what website he’s posting on :(

  24. Robert Stanley Martin says:


    The issue archive is now completely behind a subscription wall.

  25. Robert, I don’t have the book at hand to provide an exact quote, but in that interview McFarlane told some of the problems editors had with his drawing style and how he was ordered to rein in some of his stylistic quirks. In that same interview McFarlane also provides an entertaining account of how the final negotiations with Terry Stewart broke down.

    Parts of that interview were quoted in the 1996 edition of Gerard Jones’s THE COMIC BOOK HEROES (I suggested to Jones that he use that material), in case you have that book available. (Anyhow, COMIC BOOK REBELS is well worth tracking down.)

    Also, a McFarlane interview was posted today over at Comicbookresources.com, in which he talks a bit about storytelling discussions with Bob Harras and Jim Shooter.

    And I remember that Newsarama ran a series of articles about Image’s 20th anniversary a few months ago, interviewing several of the Image founders (and Tom DeFalco). Might be worth checking out if you are interested in more examples of editorial conflicts between the Image founders and Marvel.

  26. Kit says:

    The audio’s still free on the site (well, it appears to be – I admit I didn’t try downloading it).

  27. Robert Stanley Martin says:


    Thanks for the heads-up on the CBR interview. I especially enjoyed the Shooter anecdote. I have a theory that a lot of Shooter’s bad rep among creators was more due to junior editors invoking him as a bogeyman than anything he did himself. McFarlane’s comments are further confirmation.

    Shooter doesn’t think much of Bob Harras’ editorial abilities, by the way. Click here for what he’s had to say about it.

    Harras may have been a less than ideal editor from both Shooter and McFarlane’s perspectives, but telling an artist to take a less flamboyant approach to page layout is hardly out of line.

  28. Rob Clough says:

    Gene Colan has been quoted in several places that his hatred was directed right at Shooter, not a junior assistant. Shooter had no use for Colan’s shadowy, smudgy style and either butchered it with the assigned inker or demanded tons of changes. As you point out, that’s the editor’s right, but if you wanted bland conformity in your art style, why even bother to hire an artist as singular as Gene Colan? Colan was also far from washed up in the early 80s–he did some amazing work with DC (the second Nathaniel Dusk miniseries) and some things with Eclipse, where the comics were shot directly from his pencils (no inks) and then colored. At the time, that was an innovation.

  29. James says:

    Yes, despite the protestations of his bootlicks here (who ALWAYS take the side of management in these discussions), Jim Shooter was abusive to several of the elder artists at Marvel; I heard all about it from Gene Colan and his wife (RIP) and from several of his other victims as well, and experienced his rudeness firsthand myself.

    I haven’t read the book yet but I hope it holds the full accounting of the “theft” of some of the most valuable of Jack Kirby’s original art from the Marvel offices, which happened at a time when their safekeeping was Shooter’s responsibility, according to several sources as a direct result of a decision made by Shooter to move the art from where it was stored in a warehouse, to a place in the Marvel office conveniently near an elevator, from where it “disappeared.” When the work was subsequently being sold at a NY Con, though he was apprised of the situation Shooter did not take appropriate action.

    I believe that is the Kirby family should be concentrating their legal efforts on the original art—the value of ALL of the original artwork that was rightfully Kirbys that was not returned to him, for whatever reason, should be compensated for —including work given away in the office, that arbitrarily taken by Marvel employees including Stan Lee and other editors, and the work that managerial incompetence enabled to be stolen.

  30. James says:

    Before the storm hits, I’d like to retract my use of the word “bootlicks” to describe Shooter’s few defenders—-it was perhaps too strong and insulting of a term and there was no licking involved.

  31. Eric Hoffman says:

    I seem to recall McFarlane being paid over a million dollars for the first issue of Spider-Man alone. I’m not sure if that includes, or was limited to, royalties, nevertheless, that was a then-unheard of sum for a single comic book, particularly featuring a character for which Marvel clearly owned the rights (however unethically these rights were obtained).

    Certainly, McFarlane’s (and Lee and Liefeld’s for that matter) successes can be partially explained by their working with known characters (as Thompson points out below), but one could make the argument that sales (and collectability) of a comic book, regardless of the character (be it Batman, Spider-Man or even Hawk & Dove for chrissakes), increased due to these artist’s involvement.

    And doesn’t that say something about the commercial appeal of the artist independent of the property and the likelihood (I haven’t done the research on this) that this contributed to McFarlane’s (and Lee and Liefeld’s) decision to break out and start their own company with characters they developed? The initial success of these efforts, however bloated by early 90s market speculation, would have likely confirmed these assumptions.

  32. Robert Stanley Martin says:


    I’m at work on an article about Shooter’s tenure, and his conflicts with Colan and others will be addressed at length. I’m sorry if it came across that I was saying that all creator disputes with Shooter were just editors under him invoking his name for camouflage. But McFarlane’s account of this is hardly the only one out there–Peter David and John Byrne were also confronted with this behavior–and blaming an edict on someone further up the chain of command is a pretty common managerial tactic. A lot of times it’s justified, but sometimes it isn’t.

    Apart from that, Shooter assigned Colan work because Marvel was contractually obligated to assign him work. He left when his contract ended. Shooter didn’t have any problem with him until the only work available for Colan was on the standard superhero titles. As Marv Wolfman noted in a 1978 TCJ interview, a couple of years before the break, Colan’s style had evolved to the point where it was no longer appropriate for those assignments. It was trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. I’ll discuss this at greater length in the article.


    I’m nobody’s “bootlick,” least of all Shooter’s. (And so nice of you to retract that epithet after I privately told you I was going to confront you about it.) I’ve challenged Shooter in the past over things he’s said, and I have no problem with doing it again. Click here, here and here.

    Do you care to name these “several of Marvel’s elder artists” Shooter was abusive to? Steve Ditko, John Buscema, John Romita, Joe Sinnott, Sal Buscema, and Barry Windsor-Smith all got along with him just fine. Jack Kirby had no reported editorial conflicts with Shooter during his final period there in the 1970s. (The art return situation is a separate matter, and Marvel’s executives and lawyers were demonstrably running the show in that instance.) Don Heck left to work exclusively for DC well before Shooter took over. Neal Adams didn’t work at Marvel during Shooter’s tenure because he didn’t like the contracts, but he and Shooter have collaborated on projects outside of Marvel with no apparent problem.

    The theft you’re referring to occurred during Marvel’s move from offices on Madison Avenue to ones on Park Avenue South in the summer of 1982. Shortly before, the warehouse where Marvel had rented space to store the Silver Age art inventory had been broken into, and the art was all moved to a secure space in the Madison Avenue office. The weekend of the move to Park Avenue, the art was sent to a new warehouse in either Queens or Brooklyn (accounts differ). A few boxes were sent to Park Avenue by mistake and put in the lunchroom, where they were stolen.

    The reason the theft wasn’t reported to the police was because Marvel couldn’t itemize the art that was taken. An inventory that had been prepared a couple of years earlier by Irene Vartanoff had been lost, and they didn’t know that she’d kept a copy after leaving the company. It wasn’t to Marvel’s benefit not to report the theft, either. Without a police report, they couldn’t file an insurance claim.

    I’ve addressed a lot of the nonsense surrounding claims about the ownership of that art elsewhere, but let me quote from the draft of the article I’m working on. It builds on what I’ve said before:

    The original artwork was unambiguously Marvel’s property. This is the definition of a sale under New York law:

    any transfer of title or possession or both, exchange or barter, rental, lease or license to use or
consume or otherwise, in any manner or by any means whatsoever for a consideration, or any agreement therefore

    If a transaction fits these criteria, which the transfer of physical art for payment from the artist to publisher does, it’s a sale. The transaction cannot be mitigated, qualified, or declared otherwise by any agreement between the two parties. Other things can be agreed to in addition to this initial transaction, such as the transfer of intellectual property rights or the return of the original art to the artist, but the initial transaction will always be a sale of the physical art. As far as the laws of the state of New York are concerned, and they are what determine this matter, Kirby sold Marvel original art every time he delivered it to Marvel and accepted a check for it. It was Marvel’s legal property from that point on. In the absence of a separate agreement, Marvel was free to do with the original art as they chose, such as have it redrawn, inked, lettered, stored, destroyed, given away, or sold.

    The Kirbys are not going to concentrate their efforts on the original art because there is no legal claim to make. There never was.

    As far as taking “management’s side,” it’s all case by case. I do my best to respect the legal and business realities in these situations. If a company deals with a creator in bad faith or violates a contract, my rule is to side with the creator. But creators who decide after the fact not to respect agreements they’ve made don’t get much sympathy from me. And a creator who works on company properties has a professional and ethical obligation to accept the company’s supervision of their efforts. For him or her to think otherwise reflects a childish sense of entitlement.

    There are matters in which the creators don’t have a legal leg to stand on where I’m willing to offer moral support. In Kirby’s case, this would be proper credit, a continuing royalty to his estate, and the return of his share of the Silver Age art Marvel had when they decided to divest themselves of it. But I’m not going to be a knowing party to misrepresentations of those situations, either. That sort of thing ultimately hurts the cause rather than helps it.

  33. steven samuels says:

    “To the best of my knowledge, McFarlane, Liefeld, and Lee have never complained about editorial conflicts with Marvel during their time there in the ’80s and early ’90s.”

    This is just not true. For one, I distinctly remember one of those 60 Minutes / CNN Sunday-night style TV interviews where McFarlane was detailing his beefs with Marvel editorial. I couldn’t find that particular interview on the web, but you can bet there are other interviews floating around somewhere with the same.

    Considering the various artists who apparently despised Shooter, and there were definetly quite a number of them, I don’t see how anyone could take his side with anything.

  34. steven samuels says:

    “Look at what happened to John Byrne’s sales and popularity once he stopped doing X-Men and Superman comics.”

    Not exactly. Byrne left Superman around 1988. He did retain consistent cross-company sales figures for a good number of years after that. I haven’t kept up with all that, but he certainly was among the most popular mainstream artists at least into the mid-nineties. Maybe not million-selling, but highly consistent.

    “It may also be worth pointing out that, in the grand scheme of things, the major Image players gained their fan base by drawing popular Marvel comics to begin with.”

    This is true. But what people always neglect to mention is that the Liefeld/McFarlane/Lee rendering style had a specific quality that was especially suited to ring the fanboy’s bell. This particular “skill” gave the fanboys exactly what they wanted more directly than most mainstream artists that came before then. So would they’ve sold as much if they had started out indie? Maybe not, but I think they would’ve still done quite well.

  35. James says:

    I have to ask you, what is the source of your statements that the companies rightfully own original artwork? Because in this, you are in error.
    I believe the fact that the companies return ALL original art now proves otherwise. For many years, artists and companies alike lived in ignorance of the true status of the art, which is that companies pay only for the reproduction rights to the art, the actual source objects of which by rights belong to the hands that made them—- instead, the companies gave it away, used it to soak up spilled coffee, trashed it etc, and the artists knew no better except for a few brave souls who demanded its return. Marvel did in fact eventually return the art of Kirby’s that still remained in their possession to him, and the same to every other artist—-as did DC and other companies, not because they all had fits of generosity, because they most certainly did not, but because their lawyers told them that they must do so—-they found that they were legally obligated to. In my dealings with both Epic and DC over the years, I got virtually all of my original art back and the contracts for those works state most clearly that if for for any reason the art is lost or damaged, the companies must pay the artists compensation for the value of the art. Fact.

  36. “Steve Ditko, John Buscema, John Romita, Joe Sinnott, Sal Buscema, and Barry Windsor-Smith all got along with him just fine. ”

    Not sure about the others, but Sal Buscema certainly didn’t. Check out BACK ISSUE #23 for a particularly harsh exchange between Buscema and Shooter (where Buscema ends up calling Shooter “delusional”).

  37. Tony says:

    Are you James Sherman?

  38. Rob Clough says:

    “Apart from that, Shooter assigned Colan work because Marvel was contractually obligated to assign him work. He left when his contract ended. Shooter didn’t have any problem with him until the only work available for Colan was on the standard superhero titles. As Marv Wolfman noted in a 1978 TCJ interview, a couple of years before the break, Colan’s style had evolved to the point where it was no longer appropriate for those assignments. It was trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. I’ll discuss this at greater length in the article.”

    Considering that Shooter allowed Bill Sienkiewicz to go nuts on The New Mutants, this “style disagreement” seems hypocritical on Shooter’s part. Indeed, I thought many Marvel books had art style widely divergent from the Kirby standard during Shooter’s era, something that Tom DeFalco noticeably altered when he became EIC and had everyone ape Kirby again.

    Colan was drawing The Avengers, a book he had drawn quite nicely in the 60s despite having a style totally unlike Kirby, Heck or Buscema (the three previous artists on the book). His style was not noticeably different in the 80s, other than the fact that most Marvel inkers at that time didn’t know how to approach his art without butchering it. So why did Shooter assign him to the book, given the evidence that he knew what Colan was likely to do? Why did he set Colan up to “fail”, in his eyes, and then clumsily try to “edit” him in the most demeaning and insulting ways possible?

  39. Knut Robert Knutsen says:

    For the longest time, Original art was not perceived to have a separate value as a work of art as opposed to a “picture manuscript”. However, there were legitimate reasons why original art was not returned. In the early decades of comics it was widely considered a possibility that if any art “got away” from the office, it could be used by rival publishers in their books. This especially applied to short genre works without trademarked characters (mystery, crime and romacne especially).

    There was also some confusion as to whether copyrights might be transferrable along with the physical artwork.

    This is why it was industry practice that pages were not returned, and in fact usually disposed of by cutting, pulping or burning the pages after negatives were shot.

    During this period it was unambiguous that the company owned the physical artwork.

    The problem Marvel enocuntered was that they had warehoused thousands of pages rather than destroy them. When the pages that were “released into the wild” revealed that there was a significant market for Original Art, and the pages were worth a lot of money (at least some of them), the situation changed.

    Marvel couldn’t at that point continue to warehouse the pages, because they became not just a warehouse full of used paper, but a substantial taxable asset. Literally perhaps as much as millions in taxable assets. By disposing of them in a manner whereby they never “owned” the physical artwork, they avoided that.

    DC Comics did not have this problem, as they had destroyed everything. But this is also significant. Because if it was widely believed that artists had owned the artwork that was destroyed, DC Comics would have owed the artists thousands of dollars each in compensation for the willful destruction of their property.

    Yet that subject never came up.

    So it’s really very simple: Comics pages were bought (along with the art on it) by the comics companies and mostly destroyed after being photographed for reproduction. When the pages were recognized as having resale value, comics companies returned them to avoid 1) a significant tax liability in stored pages and 2) a substantial hike in page rates to incorporate perceived resale value (a value that might exceed actual resale value).

    At no point before the late 1970s did any company (including the company run by Kirby himself) consider pages to have significant resale value or to be presumptively the property of anyone but the company they were commissioned for.

    Marvel was not, prior to the large art return, roughly 1980, legally obligated to return any artwork. That was the reason everyone had to sign a legal waiver to get the art returned, to make it clear that no rights were implied in the art return. Marvel was creating a legal precedent that removed that ambiguity and allowed for art return to become standard practice.

    However, had they asserted their right to ownership, they would have had to pay some sort of taxes on every single page stored in their warehouse. That is the only “legal issue” they were trying to avoid.

    Yes, it would be nice to think that the artists at the time had some unshakable right to their original art and that they had simply been cheated out of the pages by an evil corporation. But for practical reasons comics companies required full ownership of the physical pages and the right to dispose of them afterwards and no-one objected to this arrangement (some might ask for a few pages back on a favorite job, but no-one as far as I can tell made a habit of it). This makes it part of the deal, industry practice and a precedent in law.

  40. Eric says:

    Shooter’s got a blog. Why don’t you up and ask him? He has nothing but good things to say about both (and he generally doesn’t mince words about folks with whom there is no love lost, so . . . )

    Here’s what he had to say about Gene Colan on Colan’s passing:

    ‘Gene was a great artist and a fine man. He will ever remain an honored and revered giant of our industry. I had the privilege once of visiting his home and seeing some of the non-comics art and illustrations he created hanging here and there. Beautiful. Masterful. Breathtaking. Our little business is far poorer for his absence and the wide world has lost far more than it will ever know.’

    Here’s a very recent post he made about Sienkiewicz:

    ‘Bill Sienkiewicz. I love Bill. Great guy. Brilliant, amazing, world-class artist. . . Bill Sienkiewicz and I worked together for a long time on many things. Aside from that New Mutants poster, Bill almost always delivered what we expected, better than we deserved. The exceptions, of course, are the projects where we encouraged Bill to do his own thing, explore, invent, experiment and revolutionize comics—the New Mutants comic book series comes to mind. We never knew what to expect, but we enjoyed the surprises.’

  41. Robert Stanley Martin says:


    I’ll deal with this more in the article. With regard to Sienkiewicz, it was a different set of circumstances on virtually every front. As for Colan’s art, in the late ’60s it was conspicuously different from that in the late ’70s and early ’80s. I could see the difference in the sixth grade, and I can see it now. He’d become far more impressionistic.

  42. Dominick Grace says:

    Shooter’s blog has been dormant for months. His last post was last March. There’s been no explanation (at least there) for this, so presumably Shooter’s decided not to blog any more and the blog is defunct, just sitting there as an archive of the older posts.

  43. James says:

    No, I’m James Romberger—–and I did only did a few things for Epic, and I did those in the early 1980s before I was truly aware of the reality of how Marvel treats artists. I have not worked for them since.
    It is interesting to hear these varying accounts of what different people believe is the legality of original art was and is. I may be wrong in my assertions, I’m only going on my personal experience and what I have been told by [people who were there. I’d like to hear a lawyer explain the truth of the matter rather than the speculations of people who have no experience in the comics business and who certainly have no real idea of what they are talking about. One thing I am sure of: the companies do NOTHING from the goodness of their hearts. They would not return art unless either they HAD TO or because it was a liability to them in some way. It’s also interesting to hear accounts such as those in the recent TwoMorrows Marie Severin book of how much original that Stan Lee decided was his to keep, or of Lee’s overflowing storage units full of original art mentioned by his assistant in a “Hollywood Treasure” TV show. Comic art auctions on Heritage to name just one house are often rife with provenance-less Kirby art that should have been returned to him but never passed through his hands.

  44. Robert Stanley Martin says:

    My sources are conversations with lawyers about the general legal definitions of a sale, and researching New York law. There are no legislative carve-outs for original art, and I can’t find any court rulings that address the topic.

    New York law is really all-encompassing when it comes to sales definitions. A DVD rental is considered a sale in New York.

    Reproduction rights are a matter of federal jurisdiction. That’s outside the state of New York’s concern.

    If you disagree, go talk to a lawyer yourself. The rest of your comment is just throwing crap against the wall in hopes that something will stick. Your hypothesis about Marvel’s lawyers is speculative and refuted by a host of actions and non-actions by the publishers, such as their not demanding signatures on liability releases and their policies of random distribution of pages between pencilers, inkers, and–before Shooter at Marvel–scriptwriters.

    The reason the return of your art is specified contractually is because for tax reasons the company doesn’t want the state interpreting the return as a sale of the art back to you. It’s the same reason why signers of the blanket w4h agreement at Marvel had to sign releases declaring it a gift.

    They are agreeing to compensate for lost and damaged art because they’re trying to be nice.

  45. James says:

    “Trying to be nice”? Now I am sure that you don’t have a clue.

  46. Robert Stanley Martin says:

    Actually, James, they do have incentive for you to think they’re good people. Happy creators tend to do better work and feel more motivated to meet their deadlines. Dick Giordano and Jim Shooter, who I believe were responsible for those clauses in, respectively, DC and Epic’s contracts, tried to create the fairest business environment they could. Giordano couldn’t get around the corporate work-for-hire mandate, and Shooter had some autocratic editorial tendencies on Marvel’s company-owned titles, but apart from that they treated creators very well business-wise. Even Shooter’s detractors tend to give him that much.

    I note that you don’t have much experience with these companies yourself. With Marvel, it’s just two short pieces totaling all of seven pages in Epic Illustrated during the early ’80s. You did some sporadic work at DC’s Vertigo and Paradox’s imprints between the mid- and late 90s, and a graphic novel at Vertigo in 2010. I’ll accept you as something of an authority on Vertigo’s business practices during the late ’90s, but that’s it.

  47. Rob Clough says:

    Colan’s art was different, but it was a difference of degree, not kind. He had always been an impressionistic artist. Perhaps his drawing had become a little more eccentric and stylized, but not so much that it wasn’t recognizably Colan and certainly not so much that it wasn’t good enough for the Avengers. Nothing against Al Milgrom, for example, but his stint a few issues later on the book wasn’t exactly a distinguished one. Also, if it was simply a matter of style, Shooter should have simply taken him off the book rather than try to humiliate him with the changes he suggested.

    Reading Shooter’s warm words about Colan above is laughable considering the way he treated him in person. Those years of being nurtured in Mort Weisinger’s tender bosom clearly had an effect on him as an editor.

  48. James says:

    Well, I did ink another 4 pager in Epic back then and also I did TWO GNs for Vertigo recently, but yes, my corporate comics experience is relatively limited, and it will most likely stay that way since I have little tolerance for the mindset and values of the mainstream. Still, do you have ANY experience in comics? You defend ,it seems, because you are a fan of the writers and editors you defend. And just to anticipate your standard response, until recently, book publishing and comics didn’t have much in common.

  49. Kim Thompson says:

    Of course. It would be equally crazy for Marvel to think that a McFarlane SPIDER-MAN sold great only because of Marvel as for McFarlane to think that a McFarlane SPIDER-MAN sold great only because of McFarlane. And McFarlane actually did have the skills to become such a fan favorite that he could trampoline his Marvel success into the Image success. I just don’t think he’d have become nearly as much of a fan favorite without his prior SPIDER-MAN work.

  50. R. Fiore says:

    I don’t see what’s so complicated about this. These three guys built a following while working for Marvel and then perceived they could do better by taking their following to a business of their own. It’s called a “following” because it follows you, and the following proved itself to be genuine by following them. To characterize it as “Marvel screwed them and they rebelled” is a little far-fetched. They behaved as rational actors in a free market. Assuming Howe’s account is accurate there were creative strictures from working for corporate masters as well.

  51. TimR says:

    Oh those peevish slaves of ancient days… When confronted with their grievances, I told them their master had purchased them legally, and he could use them as he pleased; therefor, they ought not be so peevish! Conform, I told them, to the letter of the law. This, indeed, is man’s highest calling. Be what you are! Be a slave, be a master, be an ox or a mule. And then I would give them my approbation. And if it was true then, how much more so now, in these enlightened times?

  52. Allen Smith says:

    The Image comics weren’t any better than, and in a few cases worse, than what the creators had been working on for Marvel. But it meant that they could create what they wanted on their terms, and reap the rewards, so that was a good thing. Marvel would have shown them no greater loyalty than they showed Marvel if it came to that. Let an artist decline or lose favor with the fans, Marvel would have ditched him or her in an instant.

  53. Kingsley says:

    Is that you, Starlin?

  54. nick maynard says:

    It’s my understanding that Macfarlane would receive multiple royalty checks for each issue sold because he was not only the penciler but also the inker and co-writer most of the time.

  55. Rick says:

    Not interested in creators from Image. They wanted to leave and they left. What is concerning is that there is an American comic book system at all. For a detailed description of the corporate greed that almost destroyed it, read the book, “Comic Wars” by Dan Raviv, published by Broadway Books. The subtitle to the book is “How Two Tycoons Battled over the Marvel Comics Empire – And Both Lost.” You will see how short term greed and leveraging almost wiped out Marvel. There were other consequences to this gold foil money grab. Hundreds of comic book shops went under and a large amount of freelance artists and writers were limping along at a fraction of their income or were out of work altogether. DC Comics was also affected negatively as they too were in the speculation game. It is sad and a little gut wrenching to think how little respect has been paid to this American artform.

  56. Don Druid says:

    Sean Howe presents a narrative where the net result was Marvel’s properties placed in the hands of the merchandisers, who could finally capitalize on the financial aspirations of Hollywood success as their savvy control over the product coincided with the rise of CGI special effects.

  57. Pingback: Marvel, Zombies.

  58. Ilpalazzo says:

    Now they’ve been absorbed by the King Monster of Greed – Disney.

  59. Reader says:

    Did you really just liken slaves wanting freedom from slavery to artists wanting drawings?

  60. Joe says:

    It sounds as if the commenters claiming that artists do not have a right to retain their original art are not artists but fan wannabe writers would be happy to exploit an artist if they could find one stupid enough.

  61. Tubs says:


  62. Marcus mims says:

    McFarlane was an amazing artist. I loved his work with Peter David, both on the Hulk and Peter Parker.

    Then he decided he was bigger than the characters and that art trumped story. Much was wrong with Marvel at that time; what Todd failed to recognize was he was a big part of it. Always short term flash over long term substance. Image Comics benefited from the short term fad of comics emulating soft porn but the lack of identifiable characters and sophomoric writing caused me to give up on Image less than six months after it started.

    And after 2 years of horrendous crossovers I left Marvel behind, feeling betrayed after a decade of personal loyalty to the characters, artist, writers and the company. When Gaiman finished his run on Sandman, I called it quits on comics altogether. DC was still doing quality work, and some of the independent stuff was exceptional (Matt Wagner’s Grendel comes to mind) but my love affair with comics had always had its roots with Marvel.

  63. Allen Smith says:

    Legally, don’t think that the Kirby heirs could make any claims re: original art. Too hard to show what art was stolen, which was not, plus the ownership isn’t clear enough as to who owned the art, Marvel or Kirby. A shame, I’d root for anything that would serve to screw Marvel. Realistically, though, a claim based on the value of the original art wouldn’t succeed.

    Allen Smith

  64. Chip Donahue says:

    Any idea which comic held the advertisement for trading cards? Would love to find a copy. Thank you.

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