[8 September 2009]
Disney’s purchase of Marvel comics last week sent spider senses tingling throughout comics fandom. A lot of the discussion of the acquisition seems to center on whether it represents good news or bad news for Marvel, ignoring the impact on the industry as a whole. For independent imprints like Image and Dark Horse, the merger could actually constitute good news, at least from a marketing perspective. These publishers now have the opportunity to establish themselves as the last bastion of independence in a medium taken over by corporate greed. It would be a smart way to portray the matter, but probably a less than accurate one. Marvel has always been in the moneymaking business, even if, as the 1990s demonstrated, they haven’t always been great at it. And Disney has been responsible for crafting some of the most impressive and lasting mythology of the modern era, whether you like them or not. If commercialization negates artistic and cultural value of a work by virtue of it’s mere presence, then the arts in our society are in pretty big trouble.
For Marvel, meanwhile, the jury is out on what kind of news this represents, but it’s a safe bet that, apart from seeing all ages Marvel cartoons on channels like Disney and ABC Family, things will remain mostly static. Marvel was hardly a scrappy underdog figure. Their Distinguished Competition and main publishing rival has been owned by a larger media conglomerate for years. And at least for the companies involved, it seems on the surface that everyone’s a winner. Marvel was a company that aspired towards growing into a larger media power on it’s own but was having trouble taking the next step. So rather than carve out a place for themselves, they found a suitor who had everything they wanted – prestige, name recognition, and a turnkey operation in Hollywood, on TV and online that would allow them to continue branching out and reaching new audiences. For Disney, an investment in superhero cinema in the coming years is as good as a license to print money, and the acquisition gives the House of Mouse a big boost in closing the gender gap that’s been developing in it’s demographic.
Ultimately, the effect on the everyday, brick and mortar product that most Marvel readers care most about – the comics themselves – will probably be negligible. Some noise has been made to the effect that quality books that don’t attract huge audiences – NextWave, I’m looking at you – will be given more room to fail now that the House of Ideas has more corporate muscle backing it up, or that Marvel will take chances on more adult themed comics. But Marvel setting up an imprint that answers DC’s Vertigo line is probably wishful thinking
Marvel’s bread and butter has always been in tights and capes, and it’s unlikely that this merger is going to change that much. One of Disney’s major motivators for acquiring the company is its vast stable of recognizable characters with built in followings among young males, a demographic that it’s recently ignored in favor of pouring cash into properties like Hannah Montana and the Disney Princesses. The strategy has given Disney a strong hold on young female audiences, but has damaged their relationship with male media consumers. A friend of mine noted in response to the news that it was good get for Disney, pointing out that her young nephews had loved House of Mouse until they were two, but were now more into Spider-Man and Iron-Man. With the Marvel catalog offering Disney easy access to a demographic they cannot afford to ignore forever, it is reasonable to assume the publishers emphasis on spandex clad muscle men punching each other will continue unabated. Of course, what that means for female superheroes is another matter entirely, as Jennifer Stuller recently pointed out in Bitch.
The sort of worries being espoused over Marvel products right now run parallel to the ones voiced when Disney purchased the groundbreaking animation company Pixar years ago. By and large, that marriage has been a happy one. Disney has refrained from tinkering with the product, and Pixar films remain a) excellent and b) refreshingly and uniquely Pixar products. It’s not as if the Marvel imprint is going to be replaced by a magic kingdom silhouette. In putting themselves in a position where they are in bed with their direct box office competitors at Sony and Paramount for a few years at least, they’ve demonstrated good faith that they want Marvel for Marvel. They’re not out to make a quick buck, but to invest in a brand with major growth potential, and for a price that is, speaking frankly, practically robbery. The $4 billion in stock and cash the company paid for Marvel is what they’ll make licensing Wolverine wrapping paper and Spiderman boxer shorts in the next ten years. To automatically assume they’re going to send editors in to kill the goose that laid the golden egg is reactionary, to put it mildly.
As to concerns about what movies will get made one should recall that Disney has distributed, through Miramax and Touchstone, such films as Pulp Fiction, Con Air, Clerks and Summer of Sam. This is hardly a company that’s interested in making entertainment solely for the not ready to shave set, and they are well aware that they are not obliged to affix a Mickey Mouse stamp to everything that comes out of their stable. That said, it is a fair assumption that they are trying to build these brands for kids, making more controversial story arcs less likely to see big screen development. But is that a bad thing? For my part, there are some things I’ll be glad to see the studios keep their mitts off, because I don’t have faith in their ability to faithfully or respectfully translate them in the first place.
So what is behind all the flack directed towards Disney over the buy out? The executives who put this deal together are just businessmen, not bogeymen. After years of treating comics like a guilty pleasure, of being ourselves only at cons and isolated stores, of in jokes and obscure references and arguments over canon and the treasure trove of inside baseball that developed around being a comics fan, longtime readers have a sense of ownership of these characters that’s not found in many other media. The fears of a Disney planet are, by and large, fears that these characters we cherish will be tinkered with. But perhaps the more accurate way of putting that is they are fears that they’ll be taken away from us. With exposure to larger audiences, these characters won’t be ours any longer. And as with any subculture, comic readers are plenty possessive of our exclusivity.
Exclusivity is the beating heart of the anatomy of cool – it’s the same principle that underlies every sighed “I liked them before they got big” you’ve ever heard at an independent record store. And for the first time in memory, fans of superhero comics feel like they might not get to be the coolest guys in the room anymore. There is a great deal of fear that the characters that we’ve supported for years will be dumbed down, made to appeal to casual readers, a class of people that plenty of comic readers have nothing but contempt for. Our subculture is being co-opted by the mainstream, and we are pissed off. Of course we are pissed off! We spent years getting to know these characters and supporting the medium, and being by and large being ridiculed and derided for our troubles. And now Mickey Mouse, the ultimate icon of mainstream corporate media, wants to waltz in and declare them cool and family friendly. But as easy a scapegoat as Disney makes for this trend, they’re arriving late to the party, and any vitriol the community directs at them is understandable, but ultimately misplaced.
Overall, the situation looks like a pretty common business relationship - as long as the money stays right, everyone involved is going to get along just fine. The problem, of course, is what happens when those checks are no longer as fat as they used to be. There’s concern that Marvels standard bearing characters may have worn out their welcome at the box office by the time Disney actually gets to start producing them. If income streams generated by Marvel properties don’t keep up with expectations, will Disney execs feel obliged to step in creatively to protect their investment? Almost certainly.
But rather than try to see the future or cry out that the sky is falling, the most relaxing and reasonable course for fans to take right now is to remember that comic books are a business just like any other. And for the time being, there’s little reason to speculate that the new boss at Marvel will be noticeably different than the old boss.