The Spider and the Mouse

My own feelings about Disney buying Marvel Comics is that it’s generating a lot of hoopla, but without much reason to believe it’s going to be a big change in comics publishing.

My indifference is based on the fact that I don’t really care about anything Marvel-related other than their comic book publishing arm, and publishing is clearly not why Disney bought them. Most of the value in comic books these days is in the merchandising of the intellectual property, that is, turning the characters into movies, toys, collectibles, and theme park fodder. And while those can be fun, my days of hoping for the perfect X-Men movie adaptation have faded into distant memory. I didn’t bother seeing the second or third Spider-Man films, or the second Fantastic Four film, and I’m still kicking myself for wasting two hours watching the third X-Men film. I might buy a particularly novel toy of collectible once every few years (I gave my dad a Doctor Fate action figure a few years ago). And at theme parks I’m more interested in the rides than in the characters.

I care about the comic books. Which is, I realize, a niche industry and not where the money is. But it’s what I care about.

So what does Disney’s purchase mean for the comic book arm? Well, we don’t really know, and won’t until the deal is concluded and we know where in the Disney empire Marvel lands. And even then we don’t know until we find out whether Disney leaves it more or less alone, or takes a hands-on approach to publishing.

It’s not like Marvel hasn’t been corporate-owned before. And heck, DC has been corporate-owned for decades (they’re owned by Time-Warner). So I don’t think that means anything one way or the other. The difference is that it’s unlikely that Marvel will ever be owned by anyone other than Disney – unless Disney so mismanages the properties that it spins Marvel out again – and that Disney is its own unique corporation. But mere corporate ownership doesn’t really mean anything.

One could argue that there’s reason for optimism that Disney could pump money into Marvel publishing and encourage them to develop new properties, character and stories. On the other hand, I understand Disney has a reputation of being rather parsimonious, so it doesn’t seem like that’s a good bet. Rumor has it that DC is already starting to suggest that Disney’s ownership could change Marvel for the worse, as far as comics creators are concerned. But if Marvel, for example, started lowering salaries, that would be bad news for the industry as a whole, since that would lower pressure on other companies to offer good wages, and make it harder for talent to make a living (or even a part-time living) in the business. And that’s bad for us fans.

Then again, some people point to the Pixar acquisition as Disney having respect for top talent, as several Pixar folks are in charge of major arms of the Disney empire. But will Disney see Marvel’s comics arm as containing “top talent”? How has Disney ownership affected the rank-and-file at Pixar?

So really we just don’t know yet how things will shake out. Disney could be a huge boon to Marvel publishing, or it could be a curse of varying proportions, or it could just leave well enough alone. But even then, Marvel hasn’t been “The House of Ideas” for a couple of decades now; with a few individual exceptions (largely during the “Heroes Return” period of the late 90s), it’s been cranking out increasingly tired reduxes of old stories, with ever-more-ridiculous event crossovers; a far cry from the days of Stan and Jack, or even the days of Jim Shooter.

Until the deal is concluded, Marvel will continue on its current trajectory, for better or for worse. Then we’ll see how Disney really wants to run the publishing arm. My best guess is that they’ll let it continue on as it has, while exploring how it can grow its markets, or move into new markets such as supermarket check-out stands. But overall it’s going to be a small cog in the Disney empire, as comic books are only a small piece of publishing in the United States.

Incidentally, there have been several amusing mash-ups of Disney and Marvel characters over the last week. You can see some here, here, and here.