Will Disney Stop Publishing Marvel Comic Books?

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Would the Walt Disney Company ever pull the plug on Marvel’s comic publishing business?

It sounds far-fetched, but it could be a possibility if you read the tea leaves.

A Little Background on the American Comic Book Market…

Ever since Disney purchased Marvel in 2009, the internet has been abuzz with rampant speculation of how the Marvel movies might ultimately kill off the comic book industry for good. While I don’t think comics will ever truly die, I do see them being relegated to ancillary merchandise by the mighty corporate powers who basically control the comic book industry — Disney and Time Warner.

Known as “The Big Two” to comics fans, Marvel and DC Comics account for the vast majority of comic book sales in the United States. DC Comics is owned by Time Warner and Marvel Comics, of course is owned by Disney.

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Long gone are the days when most people bought comics at the drug store or spinner rack at the neighborhood 7-11. Most monthly comic book sales in the United States are sold through the “Direct Market.” That is, they’re sold through independently owned comic book specialty shops who order their books from one distributor — Diamond.

And those shops haven’t been doing so hot these says. Besides, it’s hard for many potential buyers to even locate a comic book shop. Many people do not have access to them or the desire to seek out a specialty store to buy 24-32 page magazines  at $4.00 a pop in 2017. So the comic shop crowd is often made up of diehards — a social group which can be intimidating for newer, casual readers to crack.

The lack of convenience, high prices and insular culture has led to (in my opinion) the decline of the comic shop, and by extension the decline of the American comic book industry. It didn’t happen overnight, but it’s been a slow death that’s been hastened by the digital age.

You have to seek out a comic book shop if you want to buy comic books. Good luck with that. (Photo: MaxPixel)

The Comic Book Industry is being propped up by Corporate America.

What does this have to do with Marvel? Everything. 

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Marvel is currently the #1 comics publisher, but they haven’t been doing too hot this year. Marvel execs have been trying to explain away why sales have been down, even with explanations that included blaming diversity for Marvel’s shortcomings.

And sure, if you’ve been peddling comics to a predominantly straight white middle-aged male audience, they might not be interested in a book about a gay ethnic teenage girl. Props to Marvel for trying to expand its audience.

But despite an alleged increase in total dollars, I do not believe the comics industry is really finding the new audience it desires. Or at least, not in the number of new readers to make the industry truly viable on its own. Sales continue to slip. Too little, too late?

As it stands now, it would appear that Time Warner and, yes, Disney continues to publish comics not because they’re actually profitable, but because they can mine the IP for movies, TV and video games.

Without Disney and Time Warner propping up “The Big Two,” we’d probably have seen the implosion of the direct market by now.

Disney has a different definition of “success” than the rest of us.

The comic book industry reportedly made a little over $1 billion in 2016, with a little over half of that being sales to comic book shops.

Sounds pretty good, right? Well, keep in mind that’s total revenue — not profit — and those numbers reflect sales across the board for every publisher… not just Marvel. While Marvel undoubtedly makes up a good chunk of that number, we might be looking at a few hundred million dollars for Disney vs. $1 billion.

And again — that’s not profit. And I’m unsure of total units being sold. The cover price for most monthly comics now is $3.99, so an increase in revenue might not necessarily correlate to an increase in units.

So, great, Disney made a few hundred million off of hundreds of published comic books?

They’d make more money off one single Marvel Studios movie.

Seriously. These films tend to rake in $500 million to $1 billion a pop, and that doesn’t include merchandising or home video sales. Comic book sales look absolutely pathetic compared to an MCU release.

Disney has no qualms pruning profitable companies if they aren’t profitable enough.

And 2017 is off to a bad start already.

‘Spider-Man Homecoming’ alone has made over $640 million worldwide, and it has been considered a bit of a letdown by Marvel Studios standards.

Disney really doesn’t need to publish comic books at all. And they know this.

The brand awareness that the comics brought to the films certainly helped almost a decade ago. But Disney has grown the Marvel brand considerably since then, with shows and movies that sometimes share very little with the source material that inspired them.

In short, the MCU has completely eclipsed the comic books in the mind of the public, and can exist independently from them. 

Kids today love the Avengers, but that doesn’t mean they’re picking up the comic books. Sure, you might get some movie fans who were introduced to the characters wander into a comic book shop and start reading, but those fans might just buy a T-shirt instead.

And from what I’ve heard, the comic books have about as much value to Disney right now as a T-shirt.

Maybe even less, because T-shirts have a higher profit margin.

And you’re not having to do constant damage control on social media with T-shirt artists. Just saying.

Comics are ancillary merchandise.

“But doesn’t Disney still need the comics to strip mine for ideas?!” you cry.

Not really. The MCU has taken characters and concepts in a totally different direction than the comic books, and Disney could easily hire away the best “idea guys” to work directly for Marvel Studios.

Video killed the comic book star.

More people are going to watch ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ than will have ever read the Infinity Gauntlet comics. Times 100.

Marvel is just a brand to Disney. They can job out comics publishing to smaller companies.

It has been argued that Marvel is just a brand to Disney, and they could easily job out publishing comics with Marvel characters to other comic book publishers, while divesting themselves of the hassle of running a troubled publishing operation.

In fact, it may have already begun, as it was announced that IDW Publishing will start producing Star Wars Comics, and Archie will publish digest comics based on Marvel superheroes.

This arrangement is very similar to how Disney handles its other brands in comics. Disney stopped publishing comics themselves, and currently licenses out their characters to a variety of licensees all over the world.

So I expect us to have Marvel comics for years to come… but they might not be coming from Marvel Comics itself.

Meanwhile, Disney stays busy running what really matters to them– movies and theme parks.

The Guardians of the Galaxy are coming to Epcot… whether Disney purists like it or not.

Here’s what I expect to happen…

“Marvel Comics” will simply become licensed comics featuring Marvel superheroes.

This is just a theory, but I expect Disney to move more and more of its comics properties to outside publishers, while pruning its in-house staff. I think “Marvel Comics” will always remain in some form, but it might just be an office full of brand managers overseeing licensed deals and not “The House of Ideas” that it is today.

Expect Marvel to transition to more digital and more graphic novels, eventually phasing out the “floppy” monthly comics completely as they just don’t make sense financially.

Marvel won’t quit Spider-Man, they may just quit publishing his comics.

And what will happen to the Direct Market?

Oh, it’ll die without Marvel. But I really don’t know if there’s any stopping that now.

Even DC Comics’ Publishers are practically begging people to buy comic books.

Comics, as a medium, won’t ever truly die. And neither will the Marvel Comics brand. Both will just transform into something else.

‘Nuff said.

 


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I've loved Disney as long as I can remember. As a former newspaper editor, web developer, and Disney comics freelancer, I'm able to combine that experience into writing about Disney online. I'm also the co-host of a Disney fan podcast called 'Pirates & Princesses.' Opinions mine.

26 COMMENTS

  1. As an employee of a successful comic book store, I feel your article a little less than researched fully.
    If you’d like the true status of comics from the retailer end feel free to contact me and I can enlighten you.

    • I appreciate the insight and discussion comics people have had re: this article. I worked as a comics freelancer myself for over a decade, mostly on Disney titles, so I definitely empathize with the situation.

      The thing is, comic books are not a sacred cow to Disney. They could care less about the direct market. The entirety of Marvel’s annual comic book revenue is pocket change to them.

      I mean, they’ve chopped divisions that were #1 in their niche but yet still didn’t perform to Disney’s expectations and/or were a PR nightmare. Recent examples include Maker Studios (the #1 MCN on YouTube) and Disney Infinity (which was making mad money.)
      Maker was a PR nightmare and Disney restructured to better control creators. With Infinity, they decided they’d rather outsource video games than make them in-house. And games make WAY more money for them than comic books.

      http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2016-05-13-disney-infinitys-demise-due-to-mismanagement-and-inflated-sales-expectations-report

      All I was trying to say was that the direct market is highly dependent on a company that could change direction on a whim. And there will be no warning. Heck, Marvel’s own staff probably wouldn’t even know until they get the memo that morning.

      While I’m not a comic book retailer, I can’t imagine the direct market could take a sudden loss of 30-40% of its titles. From retailers I’ve talked to, many are barely hanging on as it is. There are many fine indie publishers publishing some great titles, but the numbers are not there to sustain most shops should either of the Big Two pull out, are they?

      And shuttered comics shops would cause a ripple effect that effectively kill off the direct market.

      But it’s not Disney’s problem. A company that size thinks on a whole different level than a comic book publisher.

      If comics publishers and creators want to survive such a scenario, then they’d better start working on a business model that doesn’t rely so heavily on one or two major publishers that could exit at any time. That’s all I’m saying.

  2. I wouldn’t be surprised if the scenario you paint comes true in the next few years. Comics are not omnipresent (in every grocery store & convenience store), are expensive and have lost the casual reader. When it costs $3.99 to read one-sixth to one-eighth of a story, only die-hards (sadly, like me) will continue to read. Very few of the big two’s titles have done-in-one or even done-in-two stories. You cannot pick up and enjoy just one comic book, and the trades can be pricey. They need to regain the youth market and casual readership that they left in the dust.

    • I don’t expect this to come to pass immediately. 5-10 years? But as someone who basically tracks Disney for a living, I can tell you that how Marvel and the direct market functions does not align with how Disney usually does business. They’ve pruned or restructured companies with higher profits in the past, and it would not shock me at all if they tried to run Marvel’s comics publishing arm “the Disney way.” That is, focus on what makes money and outsource the rest.

  3. I’m not going to say that the comic book market will never shrink to the point that this could happen, but the logic presented in this article are incredibly flawed. Just one instance…

    “They’d make more money off one single Marvel Studios movie.” – A) Disney has the bankroll to make as many Marvel movies and roll them out as quickly as they want, but they aren’t because the market is already becoming flooded. B) the production and marketing costs of making a Marvel movie compared to a Marvel comic… Difference between apples and raisins… C) Unit sales does not consider the cost of advertising within the publications. That is a HUGE revenue stream for the big publishers. Monthly comics have nearly as many pages as ads as they do content. And the rates are not cheap…

    • I’d argue that Disney certainly does make more money off movies as its not just the box office, but home video, merch, theme parks etc. Marvel is a powerful brand but one that can exist completely independent of comics.

      Disney has no issue pulling the plug on divisions that no longer make sense for their long term goals. As I said before, Maker Studios was profitable — but a PR disaster — and Disney Infinity was doing well, but the margins weren’t there. They saw the success of Battlefront and decided that outsourcing game development made more sense than doing it in-house.

      And let’s not forget that Bob Iger will be out the door soon. The new Disney CEO might want to clean house and refocus the company.

      I’m saying this is a scenario comics people need to think about. It’s possible, and the direct market basically owes its existence to two corporate entities that can change direction on a dime with little or no warning.

      It’s nothing personal. It’s just business.

    • Ads have pretty much died out in comics. You might find a few paid ads per issue, but not like years ago. Most ads in comics are house ads for their own products.

  4. I’d also like to clarify that I’m talking strictly about the direct market and not graphic novels sold through bookstores or digital downloads. I expect “comics” to survive in a broader sense, and I suspect many of the new readers that the direct market would love to have are simply waiting for the trades or buying on comiXology.

    I also expect the Marvel Comics brand to continue on in some form, just that Disney may wash its hands of publishing comics itself.

    I thought I was pretty clear about both in the article, but judging by the knee jerk reactions on social media…

  5. Thom, you’re line of thought pretty much reflects my own over the past ten years or so. And let’s face it, how bad would it be if the current Marvel comics offices were shut down? Their current comics are so poor in story and art I’m baffled that they still have anyone reading them. The best thing that could happen is that Disney shuts it down and contracts out the universe to some other indepen
    dent, smaller outfit who will then retrofit the Marvel universe to say, 1985 or so and restart the universe from there…with at least 1980s panel to panel continuity sensibilities. They might actually generate some excitement…from this old timer anyway.

      • I have read Marvel comics weekly since the mid 1970s. Overall, their stories have been stronger over the past 20 years. The only problem is that they are writing larger epics for books in serialized form. When you buy comics now you end up paying $24 to $32 per story. I believe that is the primary reason Johnny doesn’t read comics any more. Still, these strong stories have been a big part of the MCU, from parts of the Ultimates being in Avengers, to the Winter Soldier, Civil War, and the current Guardians incarnation. They also borrowed from the Miles Morales Spider-Man comics and are working Planet Hulk into Thor: Ragnarok. With the Captain Marvel movie set in the past and introducing the Skrulls, they also might be setting things up for a future Secret Invasion movie, which I would look forward to! I can see the “floppies” eventually going away, but I hope that Disney will always find value in continuing to run a House of Ideas publishing arm.

  6. Two points here-both relate to dominance of superheroes. When the direct comic market started booming on the late 1980s there were a lot of great independent comic book publishers publishing stff that was not superheroes. Going back to the 1970s DC published a whole range of comics including war, horror and humour. Comic book sales will only improve when there is a variety of genres. Look at European graphic novels -literate and diverse.
    Second point is about relationship between creators and publishers. Creators dont want to create new characters for DC or Marvel because they wont own them. However, many revampings are so diffrerent from the original that they might as well be nes characters anyway. The result is endless rehashings of familiar characters.

    • They do occasionally try to push non-superhero stuff, but they keep falling to side, like DCYou having various comedy books and New 52 initially carrying a bunch of horror and war related stuff.

  7. At this point I’ve been put off to marvel since Howard Mackie started on amazing spider-man, Civil War pushed me further away from marvel, and then there’s Joe Quesada’s One More Day which in my honest opinion was the moment marvel really began to deteriorate and effectively f***ed the marvel comics universe. Many of the characters have not been handled and written correctly since then, there have been rare occasions since then that good stories have been written that portray characters in the manner they should be done the most recent one I can think of was Gerry Conway’s Renew Your Vows run. Also they have the “professionals” chase away their audience whether through dumb decisions in editorial, writing, art, attacking (potential) customers on social media for differences of opinion even in the most minor of disagreements, claiming to be inclusive while excluding the customer base that has kept them in business for decades, poorly done diversity characters and stories that are nothing more than about a characters surface traits combined with abysmal dialogue and narration, “pros” outright telling people not to buy their books, then you have the bad business practices that happened in the 90’s 87 different variant covers for a single issue, overshipping to boost number of units moved, blatant racism towards white people, unaware racism towards anyone not white but obvious to readers because of the negative stereotypes they alway use for different ethnicities or sexual orientations, and the list of stupid crap the people at marvel publishing does just goes on and on and they really don’t know why people aren’t buying they’re garbage comics (or they just intend to destroy it and play dumb).

    It’s really depressing being a marvel comics fan since I was 5 24years ago, growing up reading spider-man, x-men, and sometimes daredevil stories from the 60’s – sometime in the early 2000’s when I decided to drop marvel almost entirely when Peter Parker revealed his identity to the marvel universe in Civil War and then Joe Quesada effectively killed any interest I had in buying floppies with One More Day along with Tom Breevort and him going at generating sales by pissing readers off now look at the state marvel comis is in because of that, marvel comics is basically on life-support gasping it’s final breathes of air unless they start welcoming us longtime fans back with good stories with skilled artists instead of the trash they hired from sites like tumblr because they basically work for chicken feed.

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