One year ago, on 31st August 2009, the news broke that Marvel, the biggest comic publisher in the US and home to favourites such as Spider-Man, The Hulk and the X-Men, was being purchased by Disney.
The move itself made perfect sense. Marvel had (and still has) a huge amount of intellectual property to be exploited, along with a wealth of creative talent, both of which came with a built-in fan base. In particular, Marvel’s success selling to boys compensated for Disney’s own weakness in that area, their properties having a predominantly female following. It was a match made, if not in heaven, then at least in the Magic Kingdom.
Of course, on the flip side, Marvel was itself in the perfect position to be bought. To outsiders, it might have seemed like a strange time to sell up. The first film to come out of the fledgling Marvel Studios transformed Iron Man into a household name, and the sequel was in the pipeline,as were films based on Thor, Captain America and the Avengers, all of which were virtually guaranteed to bring in some major cash returns. Why would Marvel consent to being bought by Disney when they seemed poised to become the next Disney?
Well, simply speaking, they knew the wheels could quite easily come off the gravy train. Having virtually given away the movie rights to Spider-Man and the X-Men, and with the Fantastic Four, Hulk, The Punisher, Ghost Rider and Daredevil properties poisoned by poorly received movies, Marvel was running out of big names to push. The present was bright, but the future, deeply uncertain.
The punters won’t come running for Iron Fist or Dr. Strange the same way they’d come for Spider-Man or Wolverine. In that light, it’s no wonder Marvel sold up shop while they still looked like an attractive buy. Had they left it any longer, the interest would have disappeared.
Of course, the jokes started flying immediately. Mickey with Wolverine claws. Hulked-out versions of Donald Duck. Rumours of a Punisher-Goofy crossover. Unsurprisingly, the results of the Marvel-Disney deal have actually been far less overt.
The initial fear, immediately allayed by Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief, Joe Quesada, was that Marvel’s output would become more kid-friendly. Prejudices about the comic medium aside, a sizeable portion of Marvel’s fanbase are well beyond the age where they want to read family-friendly fluff. Many questioned how long it would be before a Disney executive picked up an issue of Kick-Ass and saw quite what Marvel was publishing, if not in Disney’s name, then with its signature on the cheques.
A year on, the content of Marvel’s books has seen no significant shift. It’s true that the year-long “Dark Reign” meta-arc has recently given way to a more upbeat, optimistic “Heroic Age” meta-arc, where heroes are heroes and villains are villains, but mature readers comics such as Punishermax, Deadpoolmax and, yes, the sequel to Kick-Ass are all still coming out. If Miramax could aim its product at adults from within Disney’s backyard, so, it seems, can Marvel.
A more tangible consequence of Marvel’s closer ties with Disney was Joe Quesada’s promotion to Chief Creative Officer of Marvel Entertainment. As well as overseeing the creative direction of Marvel’s publishing output, Quesada’s new role gives him greater say in the use of the characters in other mediums, be they animated or live-action, on TV or in the movies. A natural and, arguably, necessary step, since a multimedia content factory such as Disney needs someone who can function as a liaison with Marvel’s ethos and spirit, someone who understands how its characters work.
For fans, it means greater care should be taken with Marvel’s properties in the future, or, at the very least, that the comics nerds will have at least one person representing their interests at the table. Quesada has retained his duties as EiC but greater responsibilities have been heaped up executive editors, Tom Brevoort and Axel Alonso, either of whom could one day function as Quesada’s successor.
Of course, with Quesada now spending less and less time at Marvel’s head office due to his new role, the rumours have begun to creep out of the woodwork that Marvel itself could decamp to Florida wholesale, integrating with Disney on a physical, as well as financial level. A similar (and even more likely looking) rumour sees Marvel’s biggest competitor, the Time-Warner-owned DC Comics, similarly abandoning New York for the West Coast.
It might not immediately be obvious why fans should care, but to Marvel’s readers, it’s a no-brainer. Ask anyone, and they’ll tell you how integral New York is to many of Marvel’s characters, as well as the general vibe of the Marvel Universe, and the creators that control it. Can that same spirit be captured, day-in, day-out, from Orlando? In my opinion, of all the possible changes Disney could wreak upon Marvel, a shift in geographical location has the most potential to fundamentally alter the company.
As with DC’s rumoured move to Warner, any drive for greater integration between Marvel and Disney is likely to be related to the movie business. While the rights to top tier characters are tied up at various studios, Marvel’s stable of B-list characters represents a potential goldmine that Disney can afford to take risks with where Marvel couldn’t, if only due to the size of their advertising budget.
And meanwhile, now that any Marvel licenses that expire immediately revert back to Disney and Marvel Studios, neither of whom are going to be in a hurry to lose them again, everyone with a Marvel license has rushed a film into production. Productions based on Marvel characters with some level of development includes (deep breath):
A Spider-Man reboot based on Ultimate Spider-Man, X-Men: First Class, A Wolverine sequel, a Ghost Rider sequel, reboots of Daredevil and the Fantastic Four, Thor and Captain America already shooting, Runaways, Ant-Man, Avengers, Doctor Strange, Ka-Zar, Luke Cage, Power-Pack and Dazzler.
Some popular, some not so popular, but the fact that most are being made at all is a consequence, directly or indirectly, of Marvel joining Disney. (Though I’ll believe that there’s a Dazzler movie only when I see it, and not before!)
The number of Marvel movies on the go also reflects a strange shift in Marvel’s publishing strategy. The feeling amongst comic book fans was that Marvel’s acquisition by Disney would take the pressure off the publishing arm of the company. For years, the understanding has been that DC Comics functioned as an unofficial research and development wing for Warner’s superhero characters, generating material to parlay into more profitable ventures, be they movies or lunchboxes, without too much emphasis on making money in its own right (although this has recently changed).
Marvel, however, has always had to pay its way by selling comics, and rather than the pressure being relieved by Disney, it seems to have gotten worse. Marvel has taken individual characters such as Wolverine and the Hulk and heaped spin-offs and derivations upon them. Wolverine has two series of his own (Wolverine, Wolverine: The Best There Is) a book about his son (Daken: Dark Wolverine), and a book about his teenage female clone (X-23).
The Hulk has his own book co-starring his son, Skaar (Incredible Hulks) a book starring She-Hulk and his daughter Lyra (She-Hulks) and a title starring the Red Hulk (Hulk). The X-Men currently have four ongoing series bearing the name with various adjectives attached, as do the Avengers. In addition to this, most of Marvel’s books have gone up a dollar in price, to $3.99, even as DC keep most of theirs at $2.99 each.
It’s hard to know whether this direction is a result of Disney’s involvement, or a progression Marvel would have made anyway. With the comic book sales looking weaker than they have for years, one wonders whether Marvel is trying to test its maximum value by seeing quite how much money can be squeezed out of comics fans, or simply kicking as hard as they can just to stay afloat as the market sinks around them.
Whatever the truth, one thing is certain. A year on from Marvel’s acquisition by Disney, the one thing we all expected to see was that the comics industry, or at least, Marvel itself, would become stronger thanks to Disney’s retail and advertising backing. Today, that’s the one thing which definitely isn’t the case. Only time will tell what the effects of the Marvel-Disney deal will be at the end of year two.