How Marvel Comics Can Move Forward

Marvel Legacy Detail - Publicity - H 2017
Joe Quesada/Marvel Entertainment
As the company welcomes new leadership, it's time for the publisher to stop thinking of itself as the underdog.

With this week's news that John Nee is taking over as publisher, Marvel Entertainment's comic book arm finds itself in a position it's not been in for almost two decades: with fresh blood at the head of the table. Alongside Nee, C.B. Cebulski was named editor-in-chief less than two months ago, having spent years outside of Marvel editorial. Could this be the chance to start over that the company has been looking for?

Marvel has, as I've previously pointed out, been struggling for some time when it comes to its comic book fortunes. It's not that Marvel's comic book sales are so bad that they're losing money for the company — Marvel was still the most successful publisher in the North American market in 2017, in terms of dollar share. But the combination of precipitously falling sales over the past couple of years and a number of PR disasters have given Marvel Comics the appearance of a company in need of saving — or, at least, in need of a significant overhaul and change of direction. Now, with new management, the opportunity to start over would appear to be presenting itself.

It's worth noting that the old guard has hardly been swept away: Dan Buckley, who had been handling publishing duties from 2003 to this point, remains as president of Marvel Entertainment overall and says he'll provide editorial and creative input alongside Marvel mainstay Joe Quesada and Cebulski. Similarly, Marvel's comic book editorial team remains essentially unchanged from the days of former editor-in-chief Axel Alonso, so it's unrealistic to expect a significant shift in direction as soon as Nee and Cebulski have warmed their seats.

Nevertheless, new leadership makes a new corporate culture possible and allows for some changes that are necessary if the company wants to turn its fortunes around. I took to Twitter earlier this week to ask fans and creators what changes they'd want to see from Marvel; the answers ranged from paper stock to hiring practices, but one takeaway was clear in 90 percent of responses — the company needs to be less conservative, or at least appear to be.

The self-image of Marvel's comic book line in 2018 is a curious one. Despite being the source material for arguably one of the most dominant forces in Western pop culture, owned by one of the largest entertainment corporations on the planet and publishing some of the most famous superhero characters ever, Marvel remains trapped in the idea that it's an underdog. It's not merely that the company's executives talk publicly about Marvel's publishing plans as purely reactive to market trends, but privately, creators will argue that the company doesn't have the financial security of competitor DC, because DC is owned by Warner Bros. — as if Disney were something to sneeze at.

This corporate mindset drives decisions that hurt Marvel's chances to expand its audience; its backlist isn't kept in print for fear of financially overextending itself. The same argument explains why the company rarely promotes titles outside of the comic stores market and comic press — failing to court the very audience that series like America, Black Panther: World of Wakanda and Iceman were created to appeal to — as well as the high pricing (Marvel titles regularly sell for a dollar more per issue than DC titles) and high volume of comic book output: Sure, four simultaneous X-Men series might cannibalize each series' sales, but it's a more reliable brand than one X-Men book and three other series with lesser brand awareness.

The company's obsessive focus on the short-term bottom line over everything else, which was ever-present throughout its history but metastasized during its bankruptcy period of the late '90s, is slowly strangling its publishing line. For Marvel's comic arm to successfully make lasting changes, it needs to appreciate just how successful it is — and what power (and, yes, responsibility) it has as a result. Something of Marvel's size and success can set market trends instead of simply respond to them, and afford to grow new audiences by investing in them properly — in terms of both content and promotion — and giving them time to grow.

Telling Marvel, "You're the biggest comic publisher out there, start acting like it," is a dangerously simple suggestion, of course; doing so would require the company to not bully retail partners by setting unrealistic order expectations required to sell particular product, or antagonizing fans who aren't enjoying its comics, in addition to the potentially positive outcomes from flexing its muscles. But if Marvel is to pull its comic book division out of its current problems, something has to change. Why not start with the corporate attitude?