Monday, October 13, 2003

Comics Commentary

The More Things Change.....

I wouldn't normally write anything about Marvel Comics, let alone make them the subject of my first blog entry, but these are interesting times for the comics industry.

News started hitting The Pulse and Newsarama late last week about the rumored ouster of Bill Jemas, the head honcho of Marvel's comics division. At this writing, the bulk of the details have yet to be confirmed, but fan reactions are popping up all over the place.

I don't care for 99.9% of Marvel's output these days. X-Statix is the only Marvel comic I regularly read. And I don't much care for Bill Jemas either. I tired pretty quickly of reading about his schoolboy antics all over the place. I found him to be rude and childish and annoying as hell. Nevertheless, there's a dimension to all of this that fascinates me: the fan comments.

The fan commentary on this turn of events manages to somehow completely overlook the most critical element of the story, while at the same time unintentionally spelling out some of the reasons why the comics market is in such sad shape.

Many of the comments I'm reading about this story are focusing on the things that Jemas did that upset the fans and the retailers: no overprints, price hikes, rude behavior, changes to titles and characters. There's an underlying sentiment that somehow our dissatisfaction led to his downfall, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth.

Jemas was done in by corporate politics because he threatened the bottom line. He was endangering not the publishing profits, but the movie profits, which are far more important to Marvel. Ike Perlmutter may have gotten a letter from an upset retailer, but it was the complaints from Avi Arad that carried the weight. If anything, the incident really should underscore just how little the fans, the retailers, and even the comics matter to Marvel.

In the last few financial reports, the publishing division has been responsible for 25% or less of Marvel's profits. The bulk of their money these days comes from licensing, particularly for movies. And Jemas, through his personality and (more importantly) some of the things he was doing with the comics, was hindering Arad's ability to close deals.

While the publishing revenue is a significant part of Marvel's income, it's still a minority. And comics fans are notorious for continuing to buy comics, even when they hate what's in them. And Marvel has retained its dominant position in the tiny pool that is the comics industry, despite fan grumbling and retailer complaints about Jemas. In other words, what any of us may have had to say really didn't count for much.

But when it looked like he was going to be threatening the major sources of income, then the corporate machine swung into action to minimize the risk, and him. It's pretty clear where the priorities are and what's important. And it ain't the comics. (To underscore the point, the rumored replacement for Jemas is a total comics outsider.)

And what was Jemas doing that made troubles for the movie deals? Primarily, trying to innovate. He was spearheading things in comics that major studios were leery of being associated with. Publicity is one thing; controversy is another. And many of the headlines Jemas was grabbing in the mainstream press were controversial: gay-themed westerns and resurrected royalty, among others.

(I'm laying aside Jemas' brash personality and reported difficulties with Arad as reasons for his ouster. His conflicts with Arad may have motivated Arad to get rid of him, but it was the negative publicity whirling around Jemas that gave Arad the ammo he needed.)

To boil it down: Jemas tried to push the envelope a bit in the comics, which made the movie moguls nervous and threatened the high dollar deals. In response, he's been pushed aside because what really matters in comics these days is the money they generate in licensing, which, in turn, depends on the comics staying well within the bounds of the status quo.

And that's the point that the comments on the message boards are missing. This isn't about the fans. We don't matter. It isn't even about our money because it pales in comparison to the really big money. And it sure as heck isn't about the comics, because they're just licensing fodder. All they need to do is stay "safe" and not make anybody nervous.

Yet, what comics most need right now is innovation! Jemas' WWF Smackdown hypester personality didn't help his cause. And we can pick apart the flaws in things like Tsunami, Epic, Rawhide Kid, and the Ultimate line until the cows come home. But that's not the point.

He did have way more misses than hits. And most of the misses could not have been further off target, but at least he tried to do something new and different within the bounds of mainstream comics. When he did hit the target, the results were among the best comics Marvel has put out in ages. X-Statix is one example. The Truth is another. It's just a shame there weren't more.

In these days of an ever-shrinking market and an increasingly stagnant pool of mainstream talent, we need all the innovators we can get. Bill Jemas may not have had the skill or the people skills to pull everything off, but he did have some sense of a vision. I don't believe for one second that he was motivated by a desire to do anything other than make Marvel money. He didn't see comics as anything other than a commodity. But at least he realized that there can be a broader market for that commodity and tried to begin creating it. In the corporate comics world, though, vision can be a liability.

And not just in the mind of the executives. One recurrent theme that has popped up on the message boards is the possibility of a return to the "old" Marvel. Apparently mainstream comics fans aren't wild about innovation either. Which is sad, because the safe status quo that produces blockbuster movies doesn't do diddly for the comics market. But that's what the fans seem to want as much as the suits do. They just want it for different reasons. Which doesn't help the mess the comic market is in, but it sure goes a long way towards explaining it.

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