How the 'Star Wars' Marvel Move Could Affect Fans, Publishers (Analysis)

Star Wars Comic Cover - P 2013
<p>Star Wars Comic Cover - P 2013</p>   |   Howard Chaykin/Marvel Entertainment
Shifting the license to Marvel may result in fewer comic books and a reduced market share for Dark Horse.

The announcement today that Lucasfilm will move the Star Wars comic license from independent publisher Dark Horse Comics to Disney sibling Marvel Entertainment may not have come as the greatest surprise, but that doesn't mean that it won't have an impact -- if, admittedly, an impact felt by Dark Horse and Star Wars fans more than by Marvel.

After all, this is a purely additive move for Marvel, which is already the single largest publisher in the American comic book industry, at least insofar as the direct market -- which is to say, the comic book specialty retail market -- is concerned; there's no discernible downside in gaining this license for the publisher. Adding Star Wars to its lineup just means a wider range of material in its predominantly superhero portfolio.

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Unfortunately for Star Wars fans, Marvel has a somewhat varied track record when it comes to licensed material in recent years. For every Dark Tower or Ender's Game -- both properties that lasted for years at Marvel, via a number of miniseries and relaunches -- there has been a less successful property. Philip K. Dick's Electric Ant and Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake had much shorter runs, for example.

More appositely, the Disney relationship has produced tie-in graphic novels for ABC's Castle and Once Upon a Time, as well as sporadic attempts at exploiting Pixar, Henson and Disney animated properties, the latter three a group license that Marvel inherited from indie publisher Boom! Studios. In 2010, ahead of Tron: Legacy, the publisher pushed out miniseries Tron: Betrayal, and in 2011-12, a number of John Carter miniseries trailed the Andrew Stanton bomb. As you can see, corporate synergy has been alive and well at Marvel since its buyout.

Well, that's only half true -- it's been alive, but hardly "well." Not only have the various licensed Disney titles failed to set the sales charts alight, but the publisher has been criticized for a seeming lack of focus (or interest) on the material, despite customer demand for it.

As Chris Butcher of the respected Toronto comic store The Beguiling wrote in 2012, "At the height of production, Boom! Studios had been publishing as many as 10 comics a month featuring the Pixar and Disney characters. During their tenure with the license from January 2009 through December 2010 (2 years), they produced roughly 200 comics, and more than 30 trade paperbacks of that material. … In the two years since Marvel acquired the license (January 2011-December 2012), they will have produced approximately 8 comic books, 8 magazines, and near as we can tell, 4 graphic novels (only 2 in 2012)."

Of those releases, Butcher noted, some were reprints of the Boom! material or earlier material from other publishers. "What you're seeing there is a 90% drop in production on highly salable product," he wrote. "Books with international name recognition that we were selling a ton of, and those sales basically evaporated."

Last month, Dark Horse Comics published five separate Star Wars series (Star Wars, Star Wars: Legacy, Star Wars: Dawn of the Jedi, Star Wars: Darth Vader and the Cry of Shadow and the adaptation of the original screenplay, The Star Wars), almost the equivalent of Marvel's X-Men franchise, which boasts six core titles bearing the X-Men name. Even without the history of reducing the amount of licensed material published under independent publishers, what would be the likelihood of Marvel maintaining Dark Horse's level of output on a regular basis?

(Worth noting: Marvel's cancellation level has traditionally been around 20,000 orders in the U.S. direct market, which means -- looking at the November order estimates, the most recent estimates available today -- that only two of those five Star Wars series would survive.)

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For readers outside of the comic book specialty market, moving Star Wars to Marvel may mean reduced availability. Not only has Marvel recently pulled its single-issue comic books from the bookstore market, but the publisher's bookstore presence in terms of collected editions and graphic novels remains surprisingly small despite a switch to distribution by Hachette in 2010 to grow its market share; according to Bookscan figures for 2012, Marvel was only the eighth-most-successful comic book publisher in bookstores, with its entire collective sales for the year less than the sales of The Walking Dead Omnibus Volume 1 during the 12-month period. By comparison, Dark Horse was the sixth-most-successful comic book publisher during that year.

Whether in the comic book direct market or mainstream bookstore market, for Dark Horse the loss of the license means a definite loss of sales -- in November, the publisher's three best-selling titles inside the direct market were Star Wars titles (although historically, its Buffy the Vampire Slayer titles, on hiatus until later this month, sell better) -- and of profile. 

In his statement regarding the loss of the license, Dark Horse founder Mike Richardson wrote that the publisher had found "new and exciting projects" to replace the franchise in the schedule for 2015 and beyond, but admitted that it was "a tall order" to say that they would take the place of Star Wars in anything other than publishing slots. The name recognition of other high-profile Dark Horse licenses like Buffy or Aliens pales in comparison to that of Star Wars, after all.

Going on current evidence, the transfer of Star Wars from Dark Horse to Marvel suggests that the outcome will be less Star Wars comic product released in 2015 and beyond than we're currently seeing -- barring a significant change in operating procedure at Marvel, which isn't impossible -- and that Dark Horse is very likely to suffer to some extent without the license. It's possible that we'll see some great Star Wars comics from Marvel as a result of today's announcement, but it's difficult to shake the feeling that this move is more akin to the Empire Striking Back than any kind of New Hope, at least for now.