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?