Marvel to Cease Publishing Comics?

By | Tuesday, December 14, 2021 2 comments
Yesterday's news included the announcement that next year, we'll see the release of a new Fantastic Four story written and drawn by Alex Ross. Given that Ross is quoted as saying this is a story he's wanted to do for years, the logo presented on this new art is one of the ones shown in Ross's 2017 "reboot" pitch, and that he's very clearly using Fantastic Four #51 as a jumping off point (another piece of art showcases the retroactively-named Ricardo Jones from that issue) it's a fair bet this is basically a re-working of the idea that was written up in Marvelocity. Ross looks like he might be keeping the undershirt idea he noted then, but the costume design seems much more in line with what Jack Kirby was drawing back then than any of the new designs Ross had worked up, so it seems unlikely we'll see any more art from that earlier project here.

But that's not what I want to talk about!

The most interesting aspect of all this, I think, is: Marvel isn't the one publishing this. It will actually be a new imprint of Abrams ComicArts called MarvelArts. Taimur Dar in their reporting on this noted it's the first time Marvel has licensed graphic novel publishing to another company in forty years. That specific point is debatable, based on how you define a lot of this, but the notion that Marvel is subbing this out to another company and it's a project that would normally be very much in their wheelhouse is still unusual and noteworthy. Further, Charles Kochman -- who has edited Ross' work many a time before -- will be co-editing the book alongside Tom Brevoort, the editor of the current ongoing Fantastic Four title.

I've noted before -- and I don't think many people fully understand this -- Marvel stopped being a comic book publisher around 1999-2000. They had historically always viewed themselves as a comic book publisher. But right around 2000, shortly after they came out of bankruptcy, they formally stopped being a comic book publisher and became a character licensing company. People argue about whether Marvel's movie success began with Blade or X-Men or Spider-Man or whatever, but that fundamentally misses the point. Marvel had licensed their characters out for movies before; what made the difference is they finally began viewing their characters in terms of the long-term revenue they could generate. These were characters that had power in the way Mickey Mouse or Luke Skywalker or Kermit the Frog or Captain Kirk had. It was that realization, and the subsequent act of formally pushing their publishing arm very much to the side in favor becoming a licensing company (with the accompanying lawyers and sales and marketing teams that knew the characters' actual financial value), when Marvel started becoming really successful. Within a year or two of the change, their income from comics had dropped to about one-third of their overall revenue with another third coming from toys and another third from licensing. By 2005, licensing represented 70% of their income!

That's why Disney bought them. I mean, yes, they were bringing in lots of money by then, but what Disney saw was a company that had proved it understood the marketplace and what their real value really was. Disney said, "Yeah, these guys finally grew up and are starting to run their business like an actual business instead of a hobby."

In the past decade or so since Disney purchased Marvel, we've actually seen them farm out a number of projects to other publishers. Dark Horse has re-published the Star Wars comics Marvel began in the 1970s, IDW has re-published a variety of Marvel's comics under their Artist's Edition line, not to mention the various publishers who've done more kid-friendly versions of the characters. All of which is in addition to Marvel farming out the entire production of their Heroes Reborn line back in the 1990s. I expect we haven't hit a tipping point yet, but a fair amount of Marvel comics being put out into the market any more are NOT actually published by Marvel. And the number of non-published-by-Marvel Marvel comics seems to be growing. It was in fact Abrams themselves that published reprints of Marvel's mini-comics from the 1960s and the recent Fantastic Four #1 Panel by Panel.

So at what point does Marvel stop publishing entirely? We don't have insight into their revenue breakdown since they were purchased by Disney, but given that comics accounted for probably only 15% of their income in 2005 and the Marvel movies have only gotten more successful since then, how long will it be before someone looks at the numbers and thinks, "You know, if we just moved all the comics production under the licensing folks and famred out everything, we could make more money with fewer people doing less work"? I can easily forsee a setup in the not-too-distant future where several different publishers are putting out new comics featuring Marvel characters, potentially each having distinct and unrelated continuities.

Given how much money Marvel is making in venues OTHER than making comics, I can't imagine it's a direction they'll pursue much longer. This Alex Ross book, for them, is a test to see how well the idea goes over with the usual fanbase. I suspect we'll start seeing similar types of announcements beginning next year around the time the book comes out. Those will continue for a few years until Marvel secures a deal to let others publish either some monthly titles or an ongoing string of graphic novels. It won't happen overnight, but that goes back to why Disney purchased Marvel -- they're now a business playing the long game with 5, 10, and 20 year plans.
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Pj Perez said...

Interesting theory. Time will tell whether this is just Marvel expanding licensing opportunities or making the shift you predict.

Yeah, I'll definitely be curious on any new developments here. They've done any number of licensed books already, as I said, but it's the use of key players that have very much worked with Marvel and these characters on Marvel-published books that stands out to me as something a little more than a simple licensing deal. Time will tell, as you said! :)