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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How worried are Labour MPs about losing their seats?

Despite their party's abysmal poll ratings, MPs find cause for optimism on the campaign trail. 

Labour enters the general election with subterranean expectations. A "good result", MPs say, would be to retain 180-200 of their 229 MPs. Some fear a worse result than 1935, when the party won just 154 seats. Rather than falling, the Conservatives' poll lead has risen as the prospect of electing a government concentrates minds (last night's YouGov survey, showing the Tories a mere 16 points ahead, was an exception).

Though Conservative strategists insist they could lose the election, in an attempt to incentivise turnout, their decision to target Labour MPs with majorities as high as 8,000 shows the scale of their ambitions (a Commons majority of circa 150 seats). But as well as despair, there is hope to be found in the opposition's ranks.

Though MPs lament that Jeremy Corbyn is an unavoidable drag on their support, they cite four reasons for optimism. The first is their local reputation, which allows them to differentiate themselves from the national party (some quip that the only leaflets on which Corbyn will feature are Tory ones). The second is that since few voters believe the Labour leader can become Prime Minister, there is less risk attached to voting for the party (a point some MPs make explicit) "The problem with Ed Miliband and the SNP in 2015 was that it was a plausible scenario," a shadow minister told me. "It was quite legitimate for voters to ask us the question we didn't want to answer: 'what would you do in a hung parliament?' If voters have a complaint it's usually about Jeremy but it's not the case that he looks like he can become prime minister."

The third reason is the spectre of an omnipotent Tory government. MPs appeal to voters not to give Theresa May a "free hand" and to ensure there is some semblance of an opposition remains. Finally, MPs believe there is an enduring tribal loyalty to Labour, which will assert itself as polling day approaches. Some liken such voters to sports fans, who support their team through thick and thin, regardless of whether they like the manager. Outgoing MP Michael Dugher (who I interviewed this week) was told by an elderly woman: "Don't worry, love, I will still vote Labour. I vote for you even when you're rubbish."

Ben Bradshaw, the long-serving MP for Exter, who has a majority of 7,183, told me: "We're not anything for granted of course. On the current national polling, the Tories would take Exeter. But having covered five polling districts, although the leadership is undoubtedly a big issue on the doorstep, most people say they'll still vote for me as their local MP and we're not detecting any significant shift away from 2015. Which is slightly puzzling given the chasm in the opinion polls." Bradshaw also promotes himself as "the only non-Tory MP in the south-west outside Bristol": a leaflet shows a blue-splattered map with a lone red dot. The Labour MP warns voters not to be left in a "one-party state". 

As in 2010, Labour may yet retain more seats than its vote share suggests (aided by unchanged boundaries). But the fate of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 - when the party was reduced from 56 MPs to eight - shows that local reputations are worth less than many suppose. Theresa May has succeeded in framing herself as a figure above party interests, who needs a "strong hand" in the Brexit negotiations. At the very moment when a vigorous opposition is needed most, Labour has rarely been weaker. And when the public turn resolutely against a party, even the best men and women are not spared.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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