by Dan Lybarger
Last week when the Walt Disney Company announced it was spending $4 billion to buy Marvel Comics, the home of Spider-Man and Wolverine, geeks around the world became as nervous as if they were about to face Dr. Octopus in the flesh.
The trepidation is understandable. Marvel became a formidable company because its superheroes were unique. While they could tear up buildings and do all the cool things that DC’s heroes like Superman and Batman could do, Marvel heroes were endlessly fascinating because they had real world neuroses.
A friend of mine once lamented that most of Stan Lee’s Marvel creations and co-creations obtained their superhuman gifts from radiation, but they battled everything from family squabbles (the Fantastic Four quarreled with each other as much as they beat up bad guys) to substance abuse, in addition to super-villains.
This is the sort of edgy content that isn’t associated with the House of the Mouse. Nonetheless, Disney will have to preserve the dark edge of Marvel’s creations if they want their new asset to remain credible and to retain the fanboys and fangirls who comprise the following for Marvel’s 5,000 characters.
If Disney bungles their stewardship of Marvel, they won’t be the first to do so.
When Cadence Industries took over Marvel in 1973, the new owners had some successes, but they made some decisions that disillusioned young fans like me.
During my seventh grade year, Spider-Man came to my school, encouraging us to sell magazines in order to keep the institution going. Being middle schoolers, several of my peers and I asked rude questions of the poor man who had to don the suit for a living.
One of my classmates quipped, “Ever been on a date with Wonder Woman?” To his credit, the man in the Spidey outfit did issue a polite denial. She is a DC character, after all.
A few years later in 1982, the Kansas City Star featured a full-color comic book where both Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk decided to come to the Kansas City Zoo where a new panda would be housed. And both were needed to stop the evil Kraven the Hunter.
As excited as I was to get a new comic book for free, I was crushed when I discovered the contents of the book. During the middle of the story, Peter Parker (Spider-Man’s true identity) casually mentioned, “I’ve heard the Jones Store (which later became part of Macy’s) is a great place to shop.” Oh no! Spidey sold out!
I thought, “Et tu, Spidey?”
Being a terribly insecure teenager, I would have been even more dejected if I had known more about Kansas City at the time. As Charles Ferruzza, notes in this short essay that originally appeared in Pitch, it takes a certain kind of man to feel he has to buy a new shirt after visiting the Liberty Memorial.
Apparently, the folks who wrote the comic book didn’t know much about KC either.
Somehow, I came to forgive the Webslinger. Maybe it’s because I actually met my girlfriend while I was wearing my Spider-Man shirt. But other fans started abandoning their favorite heroes, and it wasn’t because they had grown up.
In 1986, New World Entertainment bought Marvel, and they later sold the company’s assets to MacAndrews and Forbes, the company owned by Ronald Perelman. Perelman had become a billionaire off of Revlon cosmetics, but his stewardship at Marvel was disastrous.
Marvel’s assets were wheeled and dealed until the company went into bankruptcy. During this era, Marvel’s properties were placed in such unproductive areas as variant covers on the comic books, which buyers saw as a craven way to hike sales.
Movies and television projects that could have generated new revenue and kept the characters alive didn’t work out. An unreleased 1994 adaptation of The Fantastic Four was produced by low budget movie king Roger Corman, and it’s still only available as a bootleg. So Marvel had to take a write-off. Different people claimed the rights to Spider-Man, so the movie stayed in turnaround for years.
Furthermore, according to Dan Raviv’s Comics War, demand for Marvel’s characters had diminished so badly that Wal-Mart wouldn’t stock Spider-Man toys.
The company that made those playthings, Toy Biz, gained control in 1997. In the hands of Toy Biz officials Isaac Perlmutter and Avi Arad, Marvel has regained its commercial footing and has been behind an astonishing number of hit films: X-Men, the Spider-Man trilogy. Even minor characters like Iron Man and Blade are now popular.
It’s easy to see why Disney has purchased the company. They’ve cornered a lucrative market for tween girls with properties like Hannah Montana, but boys of the same age aren’t interested in these offerings.
When I showed my nephews Disney’s Bolt, they enjoyed the film, but they couldn’t resist the opportunity to make fun of Hannah Montana star Miley Cyrus, who provided the voice of the female lead.
Disney may have to wait for the rights to popular characters like the X-Men and the Fantastic Four to return to Marvel, but Ghost Rider, which stank like a feedlot, was based on an obscure character and still made money.
The House of Mouse has a chance to do something really special with their new property. Here’s hoping that it isn’t getting Spider-Man to sell more clothing. After all, my girlfriend would like me to wear a different shirt occasionally.