Monday, January 14, 2008

Matt's Blind

I normally don't try to take issue with other bloggers' posts, but Matt Blind put this up over at ComicSnob.com and I take issue with some of his bigger points.

The upshot of his post, if you don't check out the link above, is that marvel and DC should be focusing on comic books and character licensing. They were both started as comic book publishers and that's what they should be.

What amazed me first is that he just now noticed that marvel identifies itself as a "character-based entertainment company." While I can't seem to pinpoint when exactly they switched to referring to themselves like that, I easily found press releases dating back to 2001 that include, "Marvel Enterprises, Inc. is one of the world's most prominent character-based entertainment companies."

Here is a quote from marvel's 2000 annual report... "The Company's strategy is to increase the media exposure of the Marvel characters through its media and promotional licensing activities, which it believes will create revenue opportunities for the Company through sales of toys and other licensed merchandise. The Company intends to use comic book publishing to support consumer awareness of the Marvel characters and to develop new characters and storylines." That they're taking this approach is decidedly NOT news and something they've been doing for virtually all of the 21st century.

I also seem to recall around that time period noting to other people online that it was about time that marvel recognized that. It had been several years since comic book publishing had been a significant source of revenue for them already, notably with the commercial success of X-Men: The Movie's licensing (as marvel itself didn't receive comparitively too much in the way of the movie's actual profits). They took full advantage of this by the time Spider-Man made it's way into theaters and they've clearly been pushing the licensing end of their business more than anything. Indeed, checking their quarterly and annual reports, it's easy to see that most of their revenue, in increasing percentages, comes from licensing.

Which brings me to another of Matt's points: "The problem with licensing is that while it makes business sense this year, it represents a finite resource. You can split it into a lot of chunks — steaks, roasts, stew meat, soup bones, dog food, hot dogs, leather, glue — but you can only sell the cow once." This is patently not true, as clearly evidenced by the Hello Kitty franchise. Hello Kitty is one of the most widely recognized characters in the world and there is little, if any, new content. It is entirely a licensing market. Backpacks, t-shirts, lunch boxes, notebooks... all of it is an image with no content. Betty Boop is in a similar situation these days. The Disney Princess line is largely about image -- while there are some occasional stories they get tangentally noted in, it's certainly miniscule compared to the amount of revenue they get from costumes, dolls, games and puzzles. My point here is that marvel could easily sustain revenues for years as a licensing company alone, AND that consumer will continue to shell out cash for licensed product even if there isn't any content behind it.

Towards the end, Matt notes: "You want to sell me something, sell me a story. You can’t sell me Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, or the Hulk because I (we) already own them: These characters live in my mind." This is, to my mind, one of the biggest collective flaws in fandom: the inherent belief that we, the audience, own the characters. We don't. We own Anubis and Anansi and Robin Hood because the characters have been around long enough to be considered public domain. But we don't own Superman, Spider-Man or Luke Skywalker. We hold absolutely no rights to them whatsoever. We have no say over the fate of these characters. Yes, we can imagine our own stories with them, and we can even put them down to paper, but they're not ours.

When we go into the comic shop and buy a comic book, we're only purchasing the paper it's printed on. The rest of the cost above and beyond those materials is just a rental fee. We're just renting the privilege of seeing a new story about Hulk or Batman or whomever. Fans generally aren't able to mentally separate the material object they've purchased (the comic) from the intellectual property they're borrowing (the story) and this has led to things like Matt's erroneous belief that he owns Batman.

Don't misunderstand: I know Matt doesn't believe he owns Batman in a legal sense and can publish/sell comics about Batman himself. But he doesn't own the character in a broader, collective sense either. No one has any say over what is or is not Batman except DC.

"One More Day" is a great example in this regard. Joe Quesada (who, for our purposes here IS marvel) decided that Peter Parker is not -- and never has been -- married to Mary Jane. Whatever his reasoning, and however much fans might complain, that is absolutely his right to do that. Spider-Man is whatever Quesada (and the respective editors and writers) want him to be. Period. As a fan, you can agree with it or not, but that's ultimately irrelevant. It's not your decision as to who Spider-Man is. Because you/we don't own Spider-Man. They do.

All that being said, that's why I walked away from marvel. They were doing things with the characters that I don't agree with. They are no longer producing comics I want to read, so I've elected not to buy them and I don't winge on about it, because they have every right to produce comics however they want. They have every right to not produce comics at all, and there's more than enough precedent to think they're going to make a good amount of money doing that. There's a lot of people who are willing/able to invest a lot of time and money into being fans of certain characters. But me? I'm a fan of comic books. And since marvel and DC aren't really in the business of publishing comic books any more, I don't have any qualms walking away from their businesses.

3 comments:

Matt K said...

Raymond Chandler is said to have responded to someone's remark about Hollywood ruining his books by pointing to a shelf and saying "Look, they're there. They're fine. They're okay."

I find that a very helpful attitude. With regards to Spidey, for example, Amazing Spider-Man issue 400 was and (as far as I'm concerned) remains to this day a story about Aunt May passing away. I find the suggestion that the "real" events depicted therein involved a "genetically-altered actress" or somesuch to be humorously bizarre.

Marvel Comics chose, eventually (and until recently; who knows what their official line is now, heh!), to publish further stories based on the latter premise, instead of the former, however. So it goes.

I'm afraid that, even under a very broad and imaginitive interpretation of intellectual property rights such as my own, I can't find any "right" to an endless ongoing series of new Spider-Man stories, let alone ones based on our personally-preferred character history. :D

Rob H. said...

"You want to sell me something, sell me a story. You can’t sell me Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, or the Hulk because I (we) already own them: These characters live in my mind."

Isn't this exactly why licenses with no content continue to sell? Why continue to create a story for Hello Kitty or Betty Boop, they exists as icons in peoples minds? I think I read a Warren Ellis essay that pointed out that more Superman and Batman shirts are sold than the entirety of each character's comics any given year. These characters already exist in most people's minds without them knowing or caring about how they are currently fairing in the DC universe (at least until one dies and the news picks up on it). They are Icons and Mythology, but in this modern age, once the primary story has been implanted in the public conscience, Icons and Mythology need t-shirts and toys to thrive not more stories.

plok said...

Hmm, interesting points here, and I think that Brian Hibbs thing ties in here too, a little. Of course what I think is funny lies in the very fact that the massive sales associated with licensing aren't connected to the comics stories at all, anymore -- as we all know, those sales don't translate to the comics unless the comics can somehow match what's been encountered in other media. And, I mean, even that translation is a hypothetical: we haven't yet seen a comic that snared new readers because of how well it utilized (a word I have chosen, note) the elements they enjoyed about the property in other media. Although the relationship does work the other way: B: TAS is popular among people who don't read comics largely because of the way it incorporates cool stuff from the comics world into the Batman brand that people already recognize from T-shirts, movies, etc...more importantly, it makes those "new" elements congruent with the "old" elements that enable every person on the street to recognize basic things about Batman. In other words, the Batman brand manages to be catered to and invigorated at the same time, in the same gesture, and this is where the money/success comes from. Batman Begins was a real good example of this -- I know many many people (as do you, I'm sure) who loved it even though they will never ever pick up a Batman comic again in their lives.

But I do believe there's every chance they might pick up a yellow-oval T-shirt because of it...!

Where otherwise, Hello Kitty notwithstanding, they probably wouldn't. So I guess I think there is an argument to be made for "public ownership" from all this, albeit a little bit of a sideways argument: because what does it say that there is a mass enthusiasm for all things Batman out there, but that DC can't seem to tap it for the Batman comics themselves? They can own the trademarks and the copyright all they want, and they can do whatever they please to the character, except the one thing they can't do as a corporation sole is maintain the value of the brand they've inherited. Only I can do that -- but if I didn't feel like I was getting "my" Spider-Man or Batman, why would I bother? And there's the "ownership", such as it is: let me submit that Hello Kitty is a cultural phenomenon, and that her backpack sales rely on more than basic "recognition" -- Hello Kitty stands for a marketable quality called "cute", but the character-properties of the Big Two stand for something a lot less easily leveraged than that, so they need a lot more active maintenance. The Big Two can do whatever they want with their properties, and still sell T-shirts, but their footing isn't nearly as solid as it could be. They can do what they want, but since I saw Spider-Man 3 the odds of anyone getting a spider-signal T-shirt from me next Christmas just dropped significantly, and if The Dark Knight is as good as Batman Begins was then they'll drop further still...and I'm not even speaking as a comics fan in this example. Moreover, if anyone ever manages to make a really good Tarzan or Phantom movie/cartoon/TV show things could change pretty fast -- Archie and Hello Kitty will be fine, but Spider-Man and the Hulk could be over their heads before they know what hit them.

Sorry, I wasn't really able to stay on point there. Will try again later. But, doesn't he control a thing, who can destroy it? It seems to me that the Batman brand, for example, is a pretty good license to print money...but then again, the brand also lives in the public consciousness to a degree, and not sheerly in the trademarks and copyrights.

Sorry, rambling.