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.

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After the “Tatler Tory” bullying scandal, we must ask: what is the point of party youth wings?

A zealous desire for ideological purity, the influence of TV shows like House of Cards and a gossip mill ever-hungry for content means that the youth wings of political parties can be extremely toxic places.

If you wander around Westminster these days, it feels like you’re stepping into a particularly well-informed crèche. Everyone looks about 13; no one has ever had a job outside the party they are working for. Most of them are working for an absolute pittance, affordable only because Mummy and Daddy are happy to indulge junior’s political ambitions.

It’s this weird world of parliament being dominated by under 25s that means the Tory youth wing bullying scandal is more than just a tragic tale. If you haven’t followed it, it’s one of the most depressing stories I’ve ever read; a tale of thirty-something, emotionally-stunted nonentities throwing their weight around at kids – and a promising, bright young man has died as a result of it.

One of the most depressing things was that the stakes were so incredibly low. People inside RoadTrip 2015 (the campaigning organisation at the centre of the scandal) cultivated the idea that they were powerbrokers, that jumping on a RoadTrip bus was a vital precondition to getting a job at central office and eventually a safe seat, yet the truth was nothing of the sort.

While it’s an extreme example, I’m sure it happens in every political party all around the world – I’ve certainly seen similar spectacles in both the campus wings of the Democrats and Republicans in the US, and if Twitter is anything to go by, young Labour supporters are currently locked in a brutal battle over who is loyal to the party, and who is a crypto-Blairite who can “fuck off and join the Tories”. 

If you spend much time around these young politicians, you’ll often hear truly outrageous views, expressed with all the absolute certainty of someone who knows nothing and wants to show off how ideologically pure they are. This vein of idiocy is exactly where nightmarish incidents like the notorious “Hang Mandela” T-shirts of the 1980s come from.

When these views have the backing of an official party organisation, it becomes easy for them to become an embarrassment. Even though the shameful Mandela episode was 30 years ago and perpetrated by a tiny splinter group, it’s still waved as a bloody shirt at Tory candidates even now.

There’s also a level of weirdness and unreality around people who get obsessed with politics at about 16, where they start to view everything through an ideological lens. I remember going to a young LGBT Republican film screening of Billy Elliot, which began with an introduction about how the film was a tribute to Reagan and Thatcher’s economics, because without the mines closing, young gay men would never found themselves through dance. Well, I suppose it’s one interpretation, but it’s not what I took away from the film.

The inexperience of youth also leads to people in politics making decisions based on things they’ve watched on TV, rather than any life experience. Ask any young politician their favourite TV show, and I guarantee they’ll come back with House of Cards or The Thick of It. Like young traders who are obsessed with Wolf of Wall Street, they don’t see that all the characters in these shows are horrific grotesques, and the tactics of these shows get deployed in real life – especially when you stir in a healthy dose of immature high school social climbing.

In this democratised world of everyone having the ear of the political gossip sites that can make or break reputations, some get their taste for mudslinging early. I was shocked when a young Tory staffer told me “it’s always so upsetting when you find out it’s one of your friends who has briefed against you”. 

Anecdotes aside, the fact that the youth wings of our political parties are overrun with oddballs genuinely worries me. The RoadTrip scandal shows us where this brutal, bitchy cannibalistic atmosphere ends up.

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.