Comic Book Legal Defense Fund

Pulp Culture
Marvel Comics is the
House of (bad) Ideas


February 11, 1999
By Franklin Harris

First of two parts

This is the story of two comic-book publishers. It's sort of a tale of David and Goliath, except, unlike in the Biblical story, for one to win, the other didn't have to lose.

Next week, I'll get to the David of our story: a promising, upstart publisher called Oni Press.

This week, however, I'll pay my respects to the walking dead: Marvel Comics.

Not dead ... yet

Now, to be fair, Marvel isn't dead yet, and its obituary has been written and discarded several times already over the past few years. It's just that whenever things seem to be looking up for the publisher of "The Amazing Spider-Man," "The Incredible Hulk," and 57 varieties of "The X-Men," The Powers That Be at Marvel decide to down a liberal dose of cyanide.

Marvel had just extricated itself from Chapter 11 bankruptcy when the stupidity began.

As 1999 opened, many of Marvel's free-lance writers and artists found themselves served with letters demanding they repay money Marvel had paid them during the company's bankruptcy.

It is standard procedure for a company to freeze payments owed during bankruptcy proceedings, but Marvel had obtained permission to continue payments to its free-lancers.

Upon emerging from Chapter 11, however, Marvel's new executives decided they wanted the money back.

Marvel's story now is that the letters were a mistake and that the free-lancers will not have to repay what, in some cases, amounts to several thousand dollars each.

But the damage is done.

As the story circulated on the Internet and in industry publications like The Comics Journal and The Comics Buyers Guide, goodwill toward Marvel became a scarce commodity. Peter David's CBG column on the subject was particularly scathing, depicting Marvel's owners as buffoons deliberately out to ruin the company.

And David knows just how stupid the suits at Marvel can be.

Big Green blues

For years, no one cared what happened to "The Incredible Hulk." The former Marvel mainstay had become a basement dweller. Sales were down, and the book teetered always on the edge of cancellation.

The up side to working on a book The Powers That Be no longer regard as important is that, artistically speaking, you can get away with murder.

So, for over a decade, Peter David slayed 'em. He took one of Marvel's sillier superheroes and made him complex.

By the late '90s, "The Incredible Hulk" had become one of Marvel's top books, outselling all but the company's "X-Men" and "Spider-Man" titles.

Obviously, something had to be done to put of a stop to such rampant success.

The Suits pushed. The Suits wrote memos. The Suits issued directives.

And, fed up with it all, Peter David left.

"The Incredible Hulk" was canceled and replaced with a new book called, simply, "The Hulk."

"The Hulk," under the guiding hand of writer John Byrne may turn out OK. But Byrne, a fan favorite in the '80s, hasn't turned out a decent story in years. (And if you can make sense of Byrne's recent run on "Wonder Woman," you're a smarter man that I.)

The horror, the horror

Sometimes at Marvel, success is stillborn.

Warren Ellis, whose books "Transmetropolitan" and "Hellblazer" have proven solid hits for DC Comics' Helix and Vertigo imprints, was to write the first of a new line of mature-readers horror comics for Marvel.

The problem with horror comics, however, is that, by definition, they are intended for mature audiences. Horror, to be serious after all, must be horrible.

Unfortunately, the dreaded Powers That Be would have none of it.

"Comics are for children!" they decreed, and Marvel's horror line died in the womb.

So, Marvel limps along.

In 1998, for the first time in years, DC Comics outsold Marvel. And, as 1999 began, Stan Lee, the man who helped found Marvel in the first place, was off to pursue his own, non-Marvel projects.

The publisher once known as the House of Ideas is vacant.

And, with Stan the Man gone, all that is left is to dim the lights.

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