Today of all days, I shouldn’t be throwing the phrase “Kreminlology” around, but this weekend Marvel observers got a rare quote from the top man, Dan Buckley, who spoke to the LA Times about the state of their publishing.
The piece, by Geoff Boucher (making a long-awaited return to writing!), looks at how and why Marvel’s film and tv dominance hasn’t extended to the comics. A few industry luminaries are quoted, including Batman producer Michael Uslan and, um, me. But the real coup is getting Buckley to go on the record. Marvel execs have never been very chatty and the disastrous “holding your nose at diversity” comments last year proved why.
Buckley flies under the radar of casual fans, but insiders know he’s one of the smartest and most capable publishing executives in the game. And in this case, he scoffs at notions of decline and says it’s all business as usual:
Uslan and most longtime observers agree that on paper, at least, the future of Marvel appears far smaller than its past but that’s not a world view shared by Dan Buckley, the president of publishing for Marvel Entertainment and an industry veteran who responds to the chorus of doomsayers with a survivor’s chuckle.
“I’ve been managing over the demise of the print comic book business since 1991,” Buckley said. “That’s all anyone has talked about — how this is going to end. I find it fascinating that there’s a certain cynicism built into the beast. I’ve been fighting against it for a really long time.”
The truth, he says, is that, “it’s a pretty fabulous business to be in.”
Buckley cites history and experience to back up that opinion. Marvel is a company that has endured bankruptcy, a disastrous debut effort in Hollywood (remember “Howard the Duck” in the 1980s?) and certain death back in the Reagan era when “funny books” lost their best chance to reach youngsters across America. When glossy magazines and retailer priorities pushed comics out of mainstream stores in the 1980s, the industry was saved by devoting itself to the “hobby market,” as Buckley calls it, adding that “the hobby business is a wonderful business to be in too, one we’re thankful for.”
Buckley IS the only executive to call the direct market the “hobby market” which probably stems back to his days in the trading card business. It’s a bit of an odd phrase, and does suggest that at the highest levels, Marvel is just pumping out widgets for widget collectors. (Over at DC, execs usually call publishing their “product,” a slightly different implication.)
Overall, Buckley is right. People HAVE been saying comics are dying for more than 50 years, and will keep saying it, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
And yet, his quoted comments do suggest a certain “stand pat” attitude as well. Maybe it IS enough for Marvel to be the #1 publisher month in and month out, a few DC relaunches aside. But the truth is, Marvel’s lack of publishing growth even as their brand has become #1 worldwide is due to a lot of spending caps and budget restrictions laid on the company by the notorious penny pincher Isaac Perlmutter. And it’s definitely penny wise and pound foolish in this day and age.
To cite one glaring example, at last month American Library Association show, EVERY publisher was represented except one: Marvel. A few kiddie books at the Disney booth and that was it. Librarians I spoke with didn’t even hide their disdain. “F&*# Marvel!” one declared. “They’re almost hostile to the library market!”
As I wrote, the library market is not a daunting one to penetrate, and can yield huge payoffs. One book on a recommendation list or an award, and you’ve sold 20,000 copies just like that. But Marvel never goes to ALA and most librarians don’t even know who to talk to at Marvel.
Now, I don’t think this is a PERMANENT thing. I hope Marvel will up its game in the next few years. All of the gossip from the House of Ideas these days is generally peaceful since all the management changes – bringing in CB Cebulski, John Nee, Sven Larson and Joe Quesada’s increased presence seems to have stabilized things for now.
But complacency is never a good look in the business world. Marvel may be fine and lounging on their $14 billion movie franchise, but in this world standing pat is sometimes falling behind.