Run your business (into the ground) the Marvel Comics way

The collapse of Marvel comics in the 1990s is legend – one everyone can learn from.

Sean Howe's new book, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, sounds like it will be an interesting read for more than just comics aficionados. The fall of Marvel in the 1990s is a lesson in failure which is applicable far and wide.

In July 1991, the company went public, with a market cap of $41.4m. The month after, it relaunched X-Men, with superstar creators Chris Claremont and Jim Lee, and, with the help of five different covers, the first issue shipped almost 8 million copies, still a record for the modern age.

But by the end of the year, Lee – along with other key figures, including Eric Larsen, Rob Liefeld and Todd McFarlane – had left Marvel over poor treatment, and just five years later, following a disastrous string of acquisitions, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

A large chunk of this sorry period is covered in an excerpt of Howe's book over at the Comics Journal. Their failures may seem specific to their industry, but they represent flaws in thinking which are alarmingly common.

The single biggest cause of Marvel's collapse was its desire for a quick buck. Inspired by the genuine success of X-Men #1 and its variant-cover driven sales, the company wholeheartedly embraced gimmickry. For instance, Amazing Spider-Man #365, the 30th anniversary of the character, came with a holographic cover, and an increased page count – but also a cover price of $3.95, over twice a normal issue. The results were a slow-motion car crash:

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 margin 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. . .

[Director of Sales, Lou 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.”

It wasn't just that the gimmickry led to customers being gouged. It also piggybacked on a vision of the industry which was little more than a Ponzi scheme. Customers, both comics fans and people with little to do with the industry, were hearing stories of record-breaking sales of titles like 1939's Action Comics #1 – which introduced Superman to the world – and bulk-buying "important" issues in the hope that they could one day pay their children's college fees with the proceeds.

Needless to say, that never happened. Even 20 years later, all five covers of X-Men #1 can be found for less than £5 on eBay, and many of the lesser "events" aren't even worth the cost of postage. The speculator boom pumped huge amounts of cash into Marvel's pockets, but when the crash came, it nearly took out the industry.

Even worse, Marvel should have known it was coming. In 1991, it spent $265m on Fleer, one of the largest makers of sports cards. In the short term, that acquisition doubled its sales – but as the card market collapsed, due to exactly the the same focus on speculation and "collectibles" which would get comics years later, a large chunk of Marvel went with it.

This lack of focus, ignoring its core business for potential profit elsewhere, also led to Marvel's failed attempt to vertically integrate its business. In 1994, it acquired Heroes World Distribution to use as its exclusive distributor (these are the companies responsible for getting comics from the publisher on to the shelves of retailers). This land grab led to every other publisher to attempt the same thing, but by the end of the next year, it was clear that the diseconomies of scale that that fragmentation had introduced were unsustainable. Distributors started to fold, until just one, Diamond, was left. When an editorial initiative in early 1997 failed for Marvel, they signed up with Diamond as well, guaranteeing one company a stranglehold on the industry.

And then, of course, there's the act which is often seen as instigating Marvel's demise.

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.

The lessons for business are simple, really. Know your product. Treat your staff well. Respect your customers. And don't put Captain America in body armour, because really, that's just silly.

Rob Liefeld's Captain America, an infamous example of 90s excess.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.