The Myth of Comic Book Startups as the "Next Marvel"

AmerRonin-Publicity-H 2019
James Murdoch is the latest to invest in comics, backing the new publisher Artists, Writers & Artisans.

As the world prepares for the release of Avengers: Endgame next week, the cultural dominance of comic book culture — and, specifically, Marvel comic book culture — is something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by people hoping to be part of whatever becomes the focus of fan obsession after Steve Rogers, Tony Stark and Natasha Romanoff have moved on to greener pastures.

This would explain the appearance of a number of new comic book publishers over the past decade or so, as well as the rise of a particular claim that has become increasingly common: publishers whose ambition is to be the “next Marvel.”

It’s a claim that is rarely stated outright by anyone at the publisher, but rather conveyed in code, with mention of the size of a publisher’s character library, or the potential for shared universe storytelling in its new line (See here, for example.) It’s an appeal not directed at readers, who respond more to story concepts or, as in the case of recent startup TKO Comics, innovative release formats; instead, it’s a subtle overture to potential investors: Get in on the ground floor while you can.

Beyond using the above coded invitational terms, one of the most persuasive arguments for a publisher being the next Marvel is to include Marvel veterans in its team; when Valiant Entertainment relaunched in 2011, co-founders Jason Kothari and Dinesh Shamdasani made their ambitions clear with the hiring of former Marvel CEO and vice chairman Peter Cuneo as the company’s chairman. (That Cuneo was also the managing principal of Cuneo & Company, LLC, a private investment firm that invested in Valiant at the time of Cuneo’s hiring was, no doubt, merely a happy coincidence.)

Similarly, the 2015 foundation of AfterShock Comics was announced only after Mike Marts — who had headed up Marvel’s X-Men comic book line as an executive editor at the company — was brought on board as editor-in-chief. His arrival was the focus of the early promotional push, more so than founder Joe Pruett or CEO Jon Kramer. Pruett, whose career includes writing, editing and publishing comic books, including the multiple award-nominated Negative Burn series, saw his short-lived career as Marvel scriptwriter receive more attention in the company’s press releases than anything else. Any connection to the Marvel brand helps, apparently.

In this respect, Artists, Writers & Artisans has two aces up its sleeve; former Marvel publisher and COO Bill Jemas serves as the company’s publisher, and former Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso has signed on as chief creative officer. If any new publisher can claim Marvel pedigree, it’s surely this one, and it’s undoubtedly the presence of both Jemas and Alonso more than the creative talent or individual projects in the works that have excited investors such as James Murdoch, who is putting $5 million into the company, with the potential for a larger investment at a later date.

A quick glance over Marvel’s timeline would support this idea; Jemas was at the head of Marvel as the company brought itself out of bankruptcy 20 years ago, and one of the two figures — the other being Joe Quesada, now Marvel Entertainment CCO — most credited with turning the company around and making it once again the most dominant comic book publisher in the North American market. Alonso, meanwhile, was the senior editorial figure at the company from 2011 through 2017, a period when the company’s sales increased to levels not seen for decades with a number of decisions, including temporarily canceling the entire line for the Secret Wars storyline, or picking up Star Wars comic book rights, paying off beyond expectations on a retail level.

In reality, though, neither figure had much impact on what actually makes Marvel the pop culture brand that it is — which is to say, the movies. The only direct influence to translate from Alonso’s reign to the the big screen is Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel, with the majority of what fans are responding to in the Marvel Cinematic Universe based on stories and characters created before the start of this century. Although Jemas helped lift Marvel out of bankruptcy, he was also pushed out of the company after a series of controversial moves that included trying to outsource content creation to fans with the ill-fated (and quickly killed) 2003 Epic Comics imprint.

The idea that any comic publisher could be “the next Marvel” is one that seemingly misses the fact that Marvel caught lightning in a bottle and no one has been able to replicate the formula — or even understand it, necessarily — ever since. Look at Warner Bros’ difficulty in finding success with the DC characters, who are if anything more iconic than Marvel’s, which undoubtedly benefit from decades of audience awareness through comic books and Saturday morning cartoons and action figure sales in terms of pre-building an audience for the latest product. What newcomer could manage to do any of that quickly, no matter what executive is on board?

Comics, as Avengers and X-Men co-creator Jack Kirby is apocryphally credited as saying, will break your heart. It’s a phrase that’s used more often than not in connection to those who write and draw comics for poor wages and little job security, but perhaps it’s something that should be remembered just as much by any outside investors looking to the comic book industry with an eye to getting in on the ground floor of the next pop culture phenomenon. Hearts, and wallets, could end up in bad condition after one wrong move.