Marvel's Transition Away from Being a Comic Book Publisher

By | Tuesday, January 23, 2024 Leave a Comment
Let me quote for you the official description of Marvel Entertinment Group from their 1994 annual report...
The Company is a leading creator, publisher and distributor of youth entertainment products for domestic and international markets based on action adventure characters owned by the Company and on professional athletes, sports teams and leagues and popular entertainment characters and properties owned by others. The Company also licenses its characters and properties for consumer products, television and film and advertising promotions.
The athletes and sports teams bit is referring to Marvel owning Fleer and SkyBox trading card companies at that time, but that's irrelevant to my point today. Marvel here is calling itself a "creator, publisher and distributor of youth entertainment products." Mind you, this is the umbrella Marvel Entertainment Group, not Marvel Comics specifically. The report goes on to note that their revenue was increasingly NOT focused on comics, dropping from 87% in 1990 to 25% in 1994. Despite diversifying their line that substantially, though, they still refer to themselves as a "creator, publisher and distributor of youth entertainment products."

Now compare that against how they described themselves in 2007 about two years from when they were bought by Disney (taken from the About page of their website from
With a library of over 5,000 characters, Marvel Entertainment, Inc. is one of the world's most prominent character-based entertainment companies. Marvel's operations are focused on utilizing its character franchises in licensing, entertainment, publishing and toys.
What's the difference?

The focus in 1994 is on producing stuff. They say "youth entertainment products" but it's basically a combination of comics and trading cards and toys. Licensing is there, but it's literally included as an "also." What Marvel does, first and foremost, is make things for people to buy. By contrast, in 2007, the focus is on intellectual property ownership. They are no longer producing comics, they're producing ideas.

Marvel had actually been doing that for quite some time. Marvel really became a licensed property company under the helm of Jim Shooter. Secret Wars was, after all, an idea that came from Mattel for a toy line. Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends brought many Marvel characters to people's attention in a much more successful way than had ever occurred in prior cartoons. Shooter saw, I think, the direction where things needed to head for the company and steered in that direction. One can argue his and subsequent EIC's relative success, but that's clearly where the company had been headed for some time. But it wasn't until around 2000 that they functionally began to recognize that and, more importantly, operate the business with that perspective in mind. Despite Shooter and whomever else having aspirations of Marvel being a media company with name recognition to rival Disney, they still ran the company as a comic book publisher first.

If you make "stuff," you are inherently limited in how much you can make. The physical resources of (in the case of comic books) wood pulp and ink, not to mention warehousing and delivery vehicles, means that you can only produce and sell so much. Even if you do have an unlimited supply of paper, you're constrained by how fast printers can produce the books. Even if you've got an infinite number of printers, you're limited by how many trucks can carry palettes of comics to a distribution center. And so on. But if your trade is in ideas... ah, then your restrictions are lifted! If you get someone to buy into your idea, you no longer need a specific venue for them to come back to. Yeah, maybe you capture someone's attention with a specific piece of media like Into the Spider-Verse but then you've got a bunch of killer ideas rolling around in their head -- even when you're not directly speaking to them. They're thinking about a Black/Latino Spider-Man and multiverses and Nicholas Cage and whatever else long afer the movie is over, and they'll give you money not only for a sequel but many of the things related to those ideas. Maybe that's action figures, maybe that's t-shirts, maybe that's just a zipper pull charm.

And while the two approaches might seem quite similar -- you're making money from selling stuff featuring your characters -- the focus is indeed different. Because Marvel of 1994, if they ran into a problem where they couldn't produce "youth entertainment products" like comics and trading cards and toys, that's it. They didn't have an easy way to pivot to other products because the infrastructure wasn't there to switch to something other than comics and trading cards and toys. But Marvel of 2007, they could drop comics and trading cards and toys if they ran into production problems, and move their focus to novels. Or video games. Or TV. Or movies. Because their infrastructure changed such that they're always looking out for other venues for their ideas. Sure, Marvel of 1994 can and did license novels and video games and movies but that was a secondary considertation for them and they weren't organized in a way to streamline that. The licesning question in 1994 was, "Can we tell this Spider-Man story in a movie?" but in 2007 it was, "In what other venues can tell this Spider-Man story?" The latter is much broader in scope and much less restrictive in how it seeks out opportunity.

Just how deliberate this transition was can be seen in their annual reports from the early 2000s. The message from some of the Board members in the 2004 report concludes with the following...
We are still only in the early stages of our corporate evolution and have great optimism for the future of our company and the ability to deliver long term value for our shareholders.
[Emphasis mine.]

I'm rehashing this because I think there's a contingent of people who claim Disney has ruined Marvel, and that the company was more focused on storytelling before the buyout. I'm here to say "no." They were heading down this path well before they caught Disney's attention, and it was really only their success in getting away from comic book publishing as their main line of business that Disney even started noticing them in the first place.
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