Context!

I love me a timeline. This one’s built mostly from Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, mainly because I couldn’t help but scribble it out as I went along. In the year since I did that, so many of my posts presume knowledge of the content that it’s simply good sense to get the thing on-line for reference.

Thanks are due to Sean for giving me permission to make it public. Readers, whatever errors you find in there are definitely mine. Feel free to read my earlier post At corporate, they just sell paper as a prequel.

Here’s the document, which you can open and follow along. Or not, as I’m breaking out bits too as visuals in the post. Looking it over, and considering I’m a very structural thinker, here are, as I see it, the lessons to be learned.

One. There is no “Marvel” or “Marvel Comics” as an entity, especially not in the sense that “Marvel did this” or “Marvel did that.” Even when you or I use it as shorthand, it’s bad shorthand.

Everyone always responds, “yes, yes, I know that,” whether it’s a company name or state or any other such claim, but it’s amazing how common this usage is and what deceptive shenanigans are solved when you prohibit it. For one thing, doing so removes presumed chronological identity that doesn’t actually exist, such that a given political party at time Y cannot draw on cultural capital, like an electoral victory or association with a popular war, from time X, or a given comics company cannot draw on decades-old credit due to the introduction of a popular character or the personality of a popular creator.

This especially matters regarding values, standards, quality, and customer relations. Fan identity and purchasing loyalty represents an astonishing deception to mask these points, of marketing to customers and of customers upon themselves.

There’s a specific application in this case: that Marvel was never a “comics company” in the intuitive sense of a business entity supporting itself by producing comics, owned by no other interest. It was an imprint buried in Goodman Publications, itself buried in vaguely-named paper-pushers like Newsstand Publications and Magazine Management Company whose main income came from girlie mags. This is a tale of conglomerates, especially in the late 1960s. Contrast these two:

  • Kinney National bought National Periodical Publications (including among others, Detective Comics, Playboy, and Family Circle) and Warner Bros, to become Warner Communications.
  • Perfect Film & Chemical Corporation bought the Magazine Management Corporation (including Marvel Comics), Popular Library, and Curtis Circulation, to become Cadence Industries – but failed to acquire Desilu Studios.

marvelhistory4

Consider the difference carefully. In each case the comics are a minor commodity in the larger wad of book, magazine, TV, and cinema packaging. But the Warner result, as the name shows, includes visual media, and the Cadence result doesn’t. Comics fandom can blither indefinitely about why DC characters sat comfortably in big-budget TV and cinema throughout living memory while the Marvel ones thrashed spastically therein until very recently, with much mention of getting the right actor and all manner of nonsense. The simple fact is that the DC characters existed within an industrial TV/movie-making mechanism and Marvel ones didn’t.

As a pre-teen and early teen in the 1970s, I always thought the company name was the prominent all-caps “Marvel Comics Group” in the comics’ indicia. I guess that was at most a trademark. Marvel didn’t get a real corporate name, Marvel Entertainment Group, until 1986, when it was sold to New World Pictures. In other words, until the comics were indubitably defined as an IP subroutine for making movies, i.e., “entertainment.” Again: there never existed any company called Marvel Comics whose business was making comics. The presumed identity of such an entity with this name is a grand illusion.

Not a happy couple

Not a happy couple

Two. The acting persons regarding just about any comics content or industry events you care to name are to be found in the Suits and Ownership columns far more so than the editorship. Jim Shooter has been forthcoming about this exact issue during his time at Marvel; his whole blog is worth diving into, e.g., the More questions and answers post which offers insight about Jim Galton’s role. I imagine similar accounts could be written about Al Landau, Joe Calamari, Terry Stewart, et al. The short version seems to be that until Avi Arad came along, and for some time in parallel with him, any such person was terrifyingly incompetent – at best.

When owners do take a hand in the comics and related stuff, they’re notably vile, as well as effectively invisible. The whole comics-culture meltdown over Kirby’s art was nothing more nor less than Sheldon Feinberg spitefully withholding it, as well as selling it off while the debate raged. Then there’s the elusive and mildly disturbing Isaac Perlmutter, as this Vanity Fair article hesitantly mentions. (heh – I thought I’d include a photo of the guy, and discovered what “rabbit hole” means)

Quick point: my diagram doesn’t include important structural info like how the editorship and job titles are organized, formally or informally, because exactly what titles existed and how they related to one another, or to the editorship, changed all the time. That said, any suggestions for clarifying this column are very welcome.

Three. Although Howe certainly doesn’t say so in his book, this reader has drawn certain conclusions regarding the Perfect Film & Chemical purchase and throughout the Cadence era: that Marvel Comics was obviously a laundering operation for shady sources of money. The extent to which the PFCC and Cadence days were a New Jersey mob story remains to be examined, and no less, the extent to which the late 80s and early 90s were a shell-game hedge-fund story. Perhaps one day, we’ll even learn a little bit about Marvel money shifting back and forth across the porous, shall-we-say paralegal U.S.-Israeli corporate borders during the 1990s.

Managing and directing such a thing is largely a matter of making sure the rank-and-file – especially the editorship – doesn’t start thinking of itself or the product as an asset. Now for the funny thing: that this management priority, call it Laundry & Extraction, contrasts sharply with the priority I mentioned earlier, the production of valuable IP to zap into toys and movies. Call that one Licensing & Screen Scene.

You can see these priorities in conflict during the first half of the Cadence years, when Al Landau is literally milking Marvel for every penny through his Ponzi bullshit, even as Lee is over in Hollywood desperately attempting to get Marvel material into pop entertainment. Easy enough why he was so unsuccessful, being clearly unsupported by the home office. It’s testament to the Man’s combo of blarney and tenacity that the live-action TV shows got as far as they did; you can extend that blue line back into the 60s for the animated shows too. (I dunno if he did the Mego deal or not, so left that blank.) Similarly, the Star Wars license, which Shooter says outright is the only thing which kept Marvel afloat at the time, was perceived, negotiated, and pushed solely by Roy Thomas, in the teeth of management resistance.

Blue = Lee, Green = Thomas, Purple = Galton

Blue = Lee, Green = Thomas, Purple = Galton. Correction: Mattel, not Kenner

In the second half of the Cadence years, Galton ramps up part of the Licensing & Screen Scene side via the Mattel toys line, which is what dictated Secret Wars. But as far as I can tell, nothing about Cadence management aimed for the movie “graduation,” basically leaving Lee’s efforts to land options twisting in the wind. That also offers some insight into why the 1986 Howard the Duck film stank so badly: with no legal muscle to back them, the licensing studio had to truckle to Disney and re-design Howard in every possible way, and were basically on their own with a property they found baffling. Too, in the end, Cadence was selling off Marvel anyway, to a different movie studio, so it wound up as a legacy project with nothing to do with the new ownership and basically was made just to get rid of it.

Arad

Arad

Perelman

Perelman

The Laundry & Extraction vs. Licensing & Screen Scene conflict is practically embodied during the late 1980s through late 1990s. The former is exemplified by Ron Perelman, who owned Marvel from 1987 to 1996 within a dizzying array of shells and other entities within the package. Perelman, in the parlance of the times, would rather have fellated Bill Clinton than glance at a comic book or exert an iota of effort toward developing it as any sort of IP. He waltzed in, bought it up, chopped it up, declared bankruptcy, and waltzed out with a zillion dollars in pocket. The latter is exemplified by Avi Arad, who ran Toy Biz in parallel with Perelman’s ownership, built the successful kids’ animated series, and ultimately created Marvel Studios. My perception is that Arad was the first owner actually to care about getting the properties into movies, based on his acumen at getting Blade made in 1998 (arguably the first “real” Marvel movie), beating Perelman at his own game to take over ownership in 1999, and turning Marvel Studios into a top-tier endeavor, ultimately doing Iron Man (2009). I’ve tried to show that in orange here:

marvelhistory1

No wonder Marvel material got farmed all over the place for thirty years; I shudder at the fact that Spider-Man was held by Golan-Globus for so long. Even today, Marvel Studios or no Marvel Studios, two other companies hold the Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, and X-Men licenses, and maybe not even the mouse can make them let go.

It was fun while it lasted.

Four. Creative achievement in the comics typically occurred well under the radar of the management and ownership dynamics – obviously, neither of the two management priorities give even half-a-fuck about readable or relevant or in any way good comics. The ways good comics managed to come about fell along a spectrum both chronologically and in kind. The earlier phases, in the context of the Laundering & Extraction management priority, did it in a covert underground comix way.

  • Stan Lee in the 1960s, for which I think it’s undeniable that he, Kirby, and Ditko were much closer to witzend in theory-and-practice than to anything that DC, for instance, was doing.
  • Steve Englehart, Jim Starlin, Steve Gerber, and others in the 1970s, mainly by not telling management anything; the jury’s out on whether Thomas was in on it while putting on a “nothing to see here” mask to management at the same time.

How can one be committed to good comics and to one or both of these management priorities? I don’t think it can be done. Both Thomas and Shooter were not only held held responsible for both, but forced actually to live both, and I can see why and how they couldn’t.

By the very late 1970s, when the IPs turned out to be a little valuable after all, Galton and whoever he represented (I dare not speculate) then prioritized staying on-model and unchanging so the comics would be reliable gear-and-advertising for the toys. This created a weird dynamic given that most of the creatives were, at this point, jumped-up fanboys. It looks as though the inmates are running the asylum, but actually, “fan authority” and its beloved “universe continuity” are valuable only insofar as they reinforce what management wants. The creative commitment is yoked and harnessed.

  • That’s totally Mark Gruenwald in the 80s, as I criticized in ‘Verse this.
  • Chris Claremont and John Byrne seem to have carved out editor-in-practice status as creators, for limited times and with intermittent success. Denny O’Neil seems as well to have managed his Moon Knight & Daredevil zone relatively free from interference.
  • Someone else is going to have to put on the ventilator and gloves to see how it applies to the 1990s, MAX and whatnot, but I suspect it’s because the Image boys wanted to be in management in the worst way, and that’s exactly how they went about it.

Five. Most of the dynamics that comics readers and fan-writers think of as creative decisions are actually an ongoing fuck-and-murder soap opera between these two management priorities. Trapped in this noise, creative people got horribly screwed chronically, and wholly, in ways that the showcases like Jack Kirby and Steve Gerber only barely indicate. Or at least, it’s important to realize that they are not unique exceptions to some otherwise fair-and-just default, to the contrary.

I feel especially bad for Martin Goodman and his attempted launch of Atlas Comics (aka “Seaboard”) following his buy-out. Maybe I’m an idealist, but against all logic and expectations, I see or wonder that this hard-driving paper-pushing businessman, whom no one ever seems to have called “good” or “nice,” liked comics and wanted to continue publishing them in some way similar to the 1960s breakout. I’d pay some good money to read a well-curated collection of the material he had on board prior to being crushed and so thoroughly expunged from comics culture.

Let’s take another look at Lee, too, facing nearly certain doom at about 1970 or so: if he’s “chief writer” then he’s out on his ear, if he’s “president” he’s liable for the profits or lack thereof. But if he’s this undefined “publisher,” he can write the Spidey strip and serve as the Face indefinitely, as the one person who’s forced the suits to admit he’s indispensable, and got it into contract. I don’t see him as the clown-prince of corporate schmooze, but as a man who nabbed the one way he could ensure a future for himself and his family in an otherwise world-of-shit, and wouldn’t let it be taken away.

His ashes were mixed into the ink of the first printing.

His ashes were mixed into the ink of the first printing.

Back to Mark Gruenwald, who embodied the fan-love, fan-as-editor spirit of 1980s Marvel as no one else ever, entirely sincerely. He died in 1996, at the age of forty-three, which if you’ll look at the diagram, corresponds to the bankruptcy hearings, to sequestering major titles in the Lee/Liefeld annex, and to a spate of layoffs that he had to oversee. Howe recounts Gruenwald’s death in a careful but – as I read it – quite precisely-framed way. [I added the links to facilitate reader comprehension.]

Before Gruenwald left for his weekend home on August 9, he grabbed a preview copy of Rob Liefeld’s Captain America #1. It was Gruenwald’s favorite Marvel character; until a few months earlier, he’d either written or edited every issue since 1982. On Monday morning, rumors started flying around the offices, confirmed by an 11 a.m. email from Terry Stewart: “It’s with my deepest and most profound regret that I inform you that Mark Gruenwald passed away unexpectedly early today at home,” the message began. The cause of death was a heart attack.

According to Wikipedia at the time of this writing, he had evinced no health problems, to the contrary, doing acrobatics down the halls at work. It also states with no citation that he was found to have had a hitherto-unknown, unspecified congenital heart defect.

This is my level stare and lifted eyebrow, the latter to just-short-of-actionable height. “Heart defect” is a thoroughly vague term, but it usually refers to some degree of inefficiency in separating oxygenated and deoxygenated blood, affecting a person’s athletic capacity throughout life. That has zero, zip to do with “heart attack,” which concerns defibrillation due to already-dead areas of cardiac muscle, strongly associated with sedentary lifestyle, cholesterol buildup, and smoking. I’m sure you can infer what Howe did not say and what I, hand raised to conceal the eyebrow, am not saying either.

amazingheroes

Six of one

Half-dozen of the other

Six. That comics has included zero journalism, or is as too often the case for so many things, negative journalism. By which I mean, worse than no reportage, mostly outright misrepresentation and invented narratives. Fans want to be insiders with “the industry.” Pros want to promulgate self-serving narratives to the fans. Corporate interests want specific products placed front-and-forward and specific associations to be in place. Toss in a shake of consumerism here and one of snarky intellectualized hate there, and you have all sorts of horseshit identity politics for comics buyers to put on like beanies, and fake-conflicts like “who invented Spider-Man” to wank about. I think we can read such things as the Comics Journal for various journalistic and historical reasons – but not actually call it journalism of its own.

There have been some authors who’ve opened the door to good work. But even Howe’s book isn’t the last word on the history of Marvel and the larger picture of U.S. comics; it should be understood, better, as the latest and ambitious beginning of such an effort. I’m looking forward to the day when DC and other U.S. comics companies receive the same attention.

Links: Marvel timeline

Next comics: Sword of God, Friends, cover (October 11); One Plus One, Two, p. 3 (October 13)

Next column: Marvelous, meet miraculous (October 16)

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on October 9, 2016, in Commerce, Vulgar speculation and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. So wait, Rob Liefeld’s art is so bad it literally killed a man?

    …. I can’t say it’s implausible.

    Like

  1. Pingback: Spider-Schlep | Comics Madness

  2. Pingback: Context Too! | Comics Madness

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