Sometimes I’m left dumbfounded that many people covering the comic book industry couldn’t understand how Marvel Comics, the publishing arm of the organization, fits perfectly into the overall business strategy for Marvel Entertainment and its parent company Disney — that it is the central hub that connects the dots between all the various departments utilizing Marvel-branded content or licensed products. (It’s also not that important, unless you start writing speculative pieces with a limited understanding of, well, business.)
That was the intention behind a SXSW panel featuring Marvel Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada and Editor in Chief C.B. Cebulski earlier this week. Sure enough, the pair spent nearly an hour outlining the various ways original work in the comic book publishing arm translated over to other mediums with great financial success. Some of the best examples included major comic event storylines being adapted to blockbuster big budget films (Civil War, Infinity War) and mobile game Contest of Champions using exact costume designs from current comic series runs.
To be honest, it wasn’t an extremely interesting discussion for someone like myself who has followed both comics and the business of comics media for his entire professional career. It was, however, seemingly very interesting to the gaggle of other SXSW attendees hoping to learn how Marvel has managed to do it, and how they might take those lessons and apply them to their careers. (And I mean that quite literally. The guy sitting next to me shared a story about how he’d helped develop and execute a marketing campaign for Netflix’s Umbrella Academy for viewers in the Philippines just before the session began, only to have Marvel open up about a new Filipino superhero “Wave” that’ll debut in April in the pages of New Agents of Atlas #1. Pure coincidence.)
A brief explanation for why it makes sense for Marvel to continue publishing comics indefinitely, without getting into business-y marketing jargon, is fairly simple. It’s cheaper and easier to gauge feedback from Marvel’s most loyal fans on whether an original storyline or character resonates. What those fans consume could inform how it thinks about merchandising, cartoon series, films, video games, and more. (And this is made easier, presumably, with the rise of digital comic book consumption — more on that in a bit.)
But looking at comic book publishing on its own isn’t very useful, as it’s not been a lucrative business since the mid 1990s (and not at all in comparison to movies based on those stories and characters). Although if you think about it from the perspective of how costly it would be to produce a film vs. a comic that doesn’t compromise creativity to ensure financial success, we’re talking a matter of million(s)-dollar budgets vs. thousands.
I used my sole audience question to ask about what Marvel is learning based on digital comic book consumption and how it differs from any incites gained from print consumption sales through retail distributors like Diamond Distributors. For starters, digital book sales sold through Comixology, as well as sales made via the Marvel-branded digital comics store app, are available in real-time and provide a more accurate idea of interest.
“There is a much easier equivalent because you know every digital sale is a one-to-one sale, whereas when we sell our [print] books to Diamond and others, retailers are buying for prospective customers,” Quesada told me, adding that those distributors are estimating demand that has potential to be over- or under-ordered. “For digital sales, each one is a living, standing customer — because there’s just no reason to buy the book twice.”
Digital books also offer better regional data, too.
“Some fascinating information we get from digital sales is where people are buying the book,” Cebulski said. The print books that are sold to a retail distributor only disclose broad global figures, which makes it more difficult to determine a good idea of interest based on geography. “With the digital comics we can pinpoint where our books are selling much better: Japan, Korea, the Philippines. Places where there’s American military bases we do very well. But then there’s places like the Middle East, that when you look at the [data], Ms. Marvel is selling huge there.”
“So we’re able to track, globally, characters that are selling better and in which areas, which is something we’ve never had the ability to do before,” he added.
But what about Marvel Unlimited, the all-you-can-eat Netflix of digital comics? It’s a huge value for people who want to read a lot of books, and also leads to fans discovering new titles, characters, and storylines. For comparison, news publications regularly feed their writing staffs data about web traffic to uncover topics or types of articles that drive the highest click throughs (which is also why there’s so much clickbait getting published). Marvel, it would appear, is aware of the value of digital comic consumption data. But according to Cebulski, the Unlimited service isn’t managed under the editorial umbrella.
“I don’t really have that much insight into [Marvel Unlimited]. That’s really not considered one of our publishing initiatives,” Cebulski said, adding that it’s managed under Marvel’s New Media Group.
Presumably the reason for that is because no one wants to go back to the 1990s, when there were like 11 Punisher books (all approved by the Comic Code Authority for all ages!) and a disproportionate number of Ghost Rider team-ups and crossovers.
I joke, but knowing what “works” based on historical sales data means creativity could be affected. Or, perhaps there are other valid reasons the Marvel Unlimited service doesn’t make sense to lump in with the editorial operations. What does seem very clear is Marvel Comics has a good handle on ensuring the creative process doesn’t get hijacked because of sales results. And being owned by Disney means having the resources to think beyond short-term sales figures.
The Ridiculousness Of A “˜Disney Shutting Down Marvel Comics’ Rumor
Somehow the mere announcement of the SXSW panel sparked a baseless rumor insinuating the opposite to be true: that Disney could no longer justify the cost of making comics. Again, if you’re only looking at comic book publishing as a standalone business entity, you’ll probably swallow the line of logic fed to you by those who are ignorant of the bigger picture. Quesada was quick to dispel the misinformed narrative way before flying to Austin, TX for the event, and didn’t mention it once while on stage.
That said, I did inquire about it once the panel ended. I asked Cebulski if the presentation they just went through obliterates any doubt that the Marvel Comics arm didn’t make financial sense to the rest of Marvel or its parent company.
“I hope so,” he replied, adding a handful of other applicable explanations for why such a rumor came about to begin with. Slow news day? Click-baiting to generate lots of page-view traffic? Financial or personal gain? All of those are plausible, sure. But I honestly believe this is more a matter of ego and ignorance. No one really gets rich doing comic book journalism. And unless you’re the owner or founder of a geeky news publication (or let’s be honest, even if you are), you probably aren’t getting enough financial benefit by publishing outrageous clickbait for the sake of clickbait. And yet, rumors like “Disney shutting down Marvel Comics” still persist.
But here is something to think about: Marvel doesn’t actually need “comics journalism” to accomplish its goals. The company was one of the first to start producing branded news before that was even a thing. They also have Spider-Man, X-Men, the Avengers, and countless other characters, which are sort of a big draw — long after our beloved classic local comic shops disappear. Thus, if we want to keep the role of “comics journalist” alive, we’ll just have to put in the hard work.