Marvel's Harsh Lessons in the 1990s (Or How Marvel Screwed the Entire Industry and all I got were these lousy five copies of X-Men #1)

Remember the late 80s? Marvel Comics was easily on top of the industry, dominating market share and boasting such hot characters as Wolverine, Punisher and Ghost Rider. McFarlane was doing Amazing Spider-Man, Jim Lee and Chris Claremont were on Uncanny X-Men, Peter David was writing Incredible Hulk with Dale Keown on art, and just about everything Marvel put out just turned to gold.

Where's Marvel today? Recovering from bankruptcy, half their flagship characters sinking in sales, struggling to remain a force in the market. It doesn't help that the market is so rough for everyone, but hey, they can take a good share of the blame for that too. How did it all go wrong?

Oh, sure, you can blame the corporate mucking about of Ron Perelman, and I do blame him for a lot of what went wrong, just as I blame his type of businessman for a lot of what's wrong with the world in general. It's my hope that Perelman finds a special place in Hell where they ask him Marvel trivia and for every one he gets wrong, he gets to eat a few more hot coals. Teach him the value of knowing and caring about the businesses you get into, rather than raping them and running away with the money. Of course, it'll be too late to apply that knowledge, what with him being in Hell, but hey, Hell's about punishment, not learning.

However, the bulk of the problems that Marvel got into, while maybe driven by the focus to make more money or else, was due to bone-headed, short-sighted decisions high up in editorial. A focus on characters over creators, a focus on strip-mining everything that was hot now rather than trying to build for the future and a focus on taking the fan's money over building their loyalty.

The phrase "editorial interference" entered the fans' lexicon in the 1990s. Today it's blamed for everything bad that happened ("my eggs were runny this morning! It's Bob Harras's fault!"), but back then, the majority of fans weren't quick to blame creative changes on evil editors. But when their top creators fled en masse to form Image Comics and Marvel didn't care because they still had Spider-Man and X-Men and the creators didn't matter, it became clear that many editors felt they had carte blanche to muck with creative teams. Now you can say that the reason this feeling became prevalent was because the Internet allowed a few bad eggs (wow, what's with the bad eggs theme in this paragraph?) in fandom to spread their poison to everyone else, but I think more than that it was the fact that some of the editors got far too active in the day-to-day business of their writers and artists. And they did it badly, causing talented creators to leave and giving over the characters that fans loved to creators they felt nothing but apathy for.

Their excess in the 90s was stunning. Rather than play it cool by putting all their effort into one great Punisher series (and yes, such a thing is possible...Ennis and Dillon are going to prove that come February 2000), they put out four series and several mini-series and one-shots. It didn't matter what the quality was, as long as the character was getting exposure. After all, the fans loved Punisher; they'd buy anything you shoved down their throats. Maybe that bad guy they all loved so much in Punisher #68 should get his own mini-series too while we're at it.

Problem being, of course, that they were tying their own noose with these tactics. When fans started to realize that the Punisher War Zone by Dixon and Romita Jr. was fantastic, and the rest of it was crap, the light bulb went off, and they realized it was Dixon and Romita Jr., not the Punisher, that they wanted to read. So suddenly Dixon's writing the Batman titles, and guess where Marvel's readers are going?

Especially when it comes through loud and clear that Marvel does not care about its fans, just their money. That was the message I got for most of the 1990s. When they told me that if I wanted to get the double-sized anniversary issue, I'd have to pony up an extra buck or two for a shiny cover because "it increased sales," I realized they didn't care how many of us said we hated it, because we were buying it anyway. When they "upgraded" the paper and upped the price, giving us the option to buy it at a lower price on substandard paper two weeks late, it really drove the point home. For years, fans had seen that writing letters to comics was important, that if you kept buying and did right by the company, they'd do right by you. That someone up there read the letters, someone important enough to do something about complaints, and that said someone cared enough to bother. But in the 1990s, the phrase "voting with your wallet" also entered the fan's lexicon.

We did. We voted with our wallets. And the industry lost, because a lot of the fans voted for "none of the above." And now the voter turnout is awfully low.

Randy W. Lander

Previous ColumnNext ColumnBack to Home