Marvel faces mighty foe: publishing world uncertainty

Dave Itzkoff / New York Times News Service /

Published Mar 27, 2011 at 05:00AM

Axel Alonso, the new editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, was recalling how, about 10 years ago, when he was less experienced and recently hired by the company, he persuaded the British writer Peter Milligan to take over a struggling superhero comic called “X-Force.”

“We drank all night, to the degree I realized I can’t go home because I’ll be sick,” said Alonso, a lean man of 45 with a bald head and a close-cropped beard. “We walked around all night, got breakfast the next day. I said, ‘So, you’re writing this.’ He said, ‘Yeah, I’m writing this.’ ”

With some wistfulness, Alonso added, “Those were the days.”

In the year 2011 this is how the day-to-day destiny of Marvel Entertainment, the home of universally recognized characters like Spider-Man, Iron Man and the mighty Thor, and whose publishing division releases 60 to 90 comic books a month, is now determined.

One day last month in the company’s office in Midtown Manhattan, its top creative talent — 30 or so people, mostly male, many bald or bearded, or both — were gathered in a conference room known as the Hulk room, for what felt like the simultaneous meetings of a corporation, a television writing staff and the traders of the New York Stock Exchange.

One by one the Marvel editors who surrounded the long conference table stepped to the front of the room and delivered rigorous but colorful PowerPoint presentations on their coming comics, with story lines plotted out for months or years in advance: Who would join the Fantastic Four to replace the Human Torch, who fell in battle to the evil Annihilus? Who might be the new adversary for the blind vigilante Daredevil? What would Galactus, the planet-eating cosmic entity, consume next, and did anyone have a young hero ready to graduate to the X-Men?

Though the meeting could at times be rigidly precise, it had moments of spontaneity (like when Brian Michael Bendis, the author of “Marvel’s Avengers,” “New Avengers” and “Ultimate Spider-Man” series, observed that an enigmatic writer named ‘TBD’ “has got a lot of books” assigned).

Similarly Marvel, which has produced comics in various forms since 1939, is a company that teems with talent while it is confined by its traditions and is enjoying a hard-fought moment in the spotlight while it grapples with larger difficulties afflicting the publishing world.

Marvel, acquired in 2009 by the Walt Disney Co., can make a claim to being the No. 1 publisher in its field, often beating its rival DC Comics, the home of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, owned by Time Warner, in the total number and dollar value of comics it sells each month.

There will also be an avalanche of mass entertainment featuring Marvel characters this year, including new movies based on the X-Men, Thor and Captain America, and someday, surely, the opening of the Broadway musical “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”

But these opportunities arrive as the comics industry is still struggling to adapt to the 21st century, and Marvel’s core business faces some of the toughest challenges in its history. While its movie business thrives, its print business is contracting, and those responsible for creating its comics — a seemingly seat-of-the-pants enterprise — are more cognizant than ever of their place within a larger corporate structure.

Near ‘the precipice’

“If comics is sick, it’s not a broken arm, it’s diabetes,” said Tom Spurgeon, a journalist who covers the industry for the website The Comics Reporter. “There’s no easy solution.”

Marvel has certainly rebounded from the period in the 1990s when it sought bankruptcy protection amid a fight between the financiers Ronald Perelman — who had bought Marvel and combined it with other collectibles companies — and Carl Icahn, who sought control of it. (A third entrepreneur, Isaac Perlmutter, acquired the company and is now Marvel’s chief executive.)

The months and years Marvel’s creative staff members spent fearing for their own fates left them shell-shocked and uncertain of what to do in their comics. “It was incredibly frightening,” said Joe Quesada, who was named Marvel’s editor in chief in 2000. “It’s that looking over the precipice and seeing nothing but sky, and hoping that when you jump off, you can fly.”

Quesada, who last year was named Marvel’s chief creative officer, said his strategy as editor had been to “focus on writers first, and then bring in the artists.” The company regained its footing as it brought in authors like Bendis, Mark Millar and Ed Brubaker, recruited from rival publishers, as well as screenwriters like Joss Whedon (the creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”). And it found best-sellers with miniseries, like “House of M” (written by Bendis) and “Civil War” (by Millar), that featured almost every major superhero in the Marvel pantheon.

Marvel also benefited as movie franchises like “Spider-Man” and “X-Men” became blockbusters and brought new attention to its characters. (They also helped overshadow other movies based on Marvel characters, like “The Punisher” and “Elektra,” that struggled at the box office.)

The company reached a turning point during the making of the 2008 film “Iron Man,” which was produced by its own Marvel Studios in California and starred Robert Downey Jr. as the armor-clad hero. During the movie’s development Marvel invited some of its editors and writers, including Quesada and Alonso, to consult with its director, Jon Favreau.

When “Iron Man” (released by Paramount) went on to sell $585 million in tickets worldwide, its success seemed to validate the suggestions from its publishing talent. That led to the formal creation of what Marvel calls its creative committee: Quesada, Bendis and Dan Buckley, the Marvel comics publisher, meet several times a year with Marvel studio executives to discuss film and multimedia projects.

Though Marvel’s publishing side does not directly control the content of Marvel films, Kevin Feige, the president of production at Marvel Studios, said the storytelling in the comics had a strong influence on the movies “because it’s a hell of a lot less expensive to take a chance in a comic than it is take a chance in a movie.” Repeating a phrase he said he had heard from Quesada, he added, “It’s the cheapest & there is, but the best & there is.”

Worrisome problems

What is less clear is if superhero movies influence readers to buy more comics. Rich Johnston, who writes about comics at the website Bleeding Cool, said Marvel was just as likely alienating fans by preparing for the releases of Marvel Studios-produced movies like “Thor” (which opens May 6), “Captain America: The First Avenger” (July 22) and “The Avengers” (planned for May 2012) with the publication of lots of comic books and graphic novels featuring these characters.

“In order to read ‘Thor,’ ” Johnston said, exaggerating a bit, “you have to buy 10 miniseries for $4 an issue at 22 pages each.” Anticipating a reader’s reaction, he added: “You know what? Let’s not.”

A more worrisome problem, Johnston said, was a sense of “ennui amongst Marvel readers,” who have become tired of the publisher’s reliance on annual companywide miniseries, like “House of M” and “Civil War,” to shake up the status quo in its narratives while its monthly comics advance these soap operas infinitesimally.

Spurgeon of The Comics Reporter agreed that comics fans “feel the strategy of it,” and that “it’s really easy for an exhaustion to set in.”

Sales figures seem to bear this out: In 2006 and 2007 “Civil War,” in which Iron Man and Captain America battled over whether superheroes should register their powers and identities with the government, sold nearly 300,000 copies an issue. But last year the miniseries “Siege,” in which Captain America, Iron Man and Thor were reunited, sold just over 100,000 copies an issue.

From the outside Marvel is buffeted by big-picture publishing crises: the closing of comics shops and bookstores, a downturn in sales lingering through the recession and the increasing threat of digital piracy.

From within, the company wrestles with narrative strategies and promotional events that will lure new or lapsed readers while trying to satisfy the hard-core fans who have followed its heroes’ adventures for years, if not decades.

Yet Marvel and the industry journalists said the company’s publishing business is still profitable. Johnston estimated that a comic book that sold as few as 20,000 or 30,000 copies could still make money. And while the full effects of the company’s purchase by Disney are an open question, the opportunities created by the deal were potentially exciting.

“I can’t even speculate,” said Tom Brevoort, Marvel’s senior vice president for publishing. “There is ‘Disney on Ice.’ It’s not a great stretch to go, ‘There will someday be ‘Marvel on Ice,’ ” whether that’s ‘Iron Man on Ice’ or ‘The Avengers on Ice.’ ”