Let’s get a couple things out of the way about this post before you start tearing into it.
One: this is not a “Marvel sucks” post. Marvel has a wonderful pantheon of characters who have been around since the 1940s for a good reason. They’re archetypal, they’re relatable, and odds are, if you’re reading this article, you have a close connection to the characters because you grew up with them. This is not in dispute.
Two: this is not a post about comic shops. I recognize that Marvel Comics makes a significant contribution to the direct market and that there’d probably be a deleterious impact on shops if Marvel went away. That said, Marvel is now a Disney property, and Disney is in a financial position where it doesn’t need to be concerned if a bunch of independent small businesses went under. So while there’s an argument that “Marvel needs to exist so shops can exist,” it’s a one-sided appeal.
Three: this is not a post about you or me. We may both love Marvel Comics and want to see it continue to exist forever, but we don’t own the company or control its fate; the best we can do is vote with our meager dollars. If the company is profitable, Disney will keep it around. If it’s not, Disney will kill it. Our individual preferences on the company are irrelevant.
With that out of the way, my question is this: has Marvel as a comic book company outlived its purpose?
There’s two things going on with Marvel right now: its popularity is way up, but its comic sales are way down. The mass-market appeal is easily explainable: the Marvel movies have been a no-pun juggernaut for the last decade, and longer if you look back to the history of the X-Men and Spider-Man films. The MCU was just Marvel ratcheting things up to the next level, and suddenly characters who never, in a million years, would have gotten movie deals suddenly are. The idea that Iron Man, Doctor Strange, or Ant-Man could have successful mainstream films would have been laughable 20 years ago. Today, it’s insanely plausible.
The film success, however, has never really translated into comics sales. It’s an ongoing joke that the Marvel films perform phenomenally, but never bring a significant boost into comic shops. As I’ve said in an earlier article, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 came out this year, and the physical comic series tanked. People presumably haven’t been beating down the door for more Thor or Spider-Man comics this year either.
What doesn’t help is that Marvel isn’t producing a lot that’s new lately. The company used to be at the forefront of creativity, introducing massive numbers of characters between 1961 and the 1990s, many of whom have been successful adapted into the major films and television shows of today. It’s just that Marvel hasn’t created a lot of “new” content since the 1990s, I’d wager. Can you name an original Marvel character since Deadpool who’s been a runaway success? Before you say “Kamala Khan” or “Miles Morales,” I’ll point out, respectfully, that they’re both derivative characters who are grounded in other characters’ backgrounds and stories. Kamala wouldn’t exist without Carol Danvers, and Miles wouldn’t exist without Peter Parker.
Meanwhile, Marvel is frequently spinning its wheels with events, to the point where there’s few surprises left these days. Secret Wars, Civil War II, and Secret Empire were all thematic recycling of previous major storylines. Controversy these days often isn’t—if a character dies, there may be a brief period of outrage, but they come back. Captain America, Spider-Man, the Human Torch, the Hulk, and Wolverine—all died, all came back. They just brought back Jean Grey, who’s Marvel’s queen of needless resurrections. At this point, Marvel is capable of manufacturing about as much controversy as a dog biting a man, only Marvel dresses it up with a lenticular cover and a value stamp of the dog in the back of the issue.
I’m going to make a radical proposal here: Marvel, as a company, has outgrown comic books. Now that Marvel has gone mainstream, its characters have hit enough of a cultural watershed that they can now stand toe-to-toe with something like Star Wars, both in terms of recognition and profitability. Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Avengers—they’re all household names now, as much a part of the American landscape as Luke Skywalker and the Dallas Cowboys.
To that end—why bother with a comics division? The money is in the movies, television shows, and merchandising now. The comics are probably a rounding error to the overall profit that the franchise brings in now.
Marvel Comics, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to know how to ‘Marvel’ anymore. Once a fountain of creativity, the comics division is now desperately trying to ride the currents of the movies which star the very characters that came from print. If you haven’t noticed, Marvel is now constantly tweaking its books to match the films. Civil War II, unsurprisingly, launched the weekend that Captain America: Civil War was released. The Guardians of the Galaxy book was streamlined to reflect the movie cast (and even introduced film Yondu over the summer). And yet none of this is working: the film audiences just aren’t leaping over to the comic shops to get more. It almost feels like Marvel Comics has become its own licensed property of late.
Here’s another radical proposal: Marvel seems to be at a creative end. It’s not producing much that’s new, and what it is producing isn’t making many people happy. What if Marvel Comics simply shuttered its doors? What if Disney just decided to license the characters out to other publishers and allowed a fresh, classic spin on its characters for the dwindling number of comics readers out there?
It’s not like Disney needs Marvel Comics now that it has Marvel the franchise. Remember, people wondered if Marvel would start publishing Mickey Mouse comics once Disney acquired the company. And yet, the Disney cartoon licenses aren’t with Marvel—Mickey and Donald Duck and several other Disney properties are held by IDW and Joe Books. Additionally, Marvel doesn’t even have a lock on the Star Wars license—IDW is now publishing two Star Wars series aimed at the younger set.
So what if Disney just folded up the Marvel Comics division and treated the franchise like any other intellectual property it holds, and just licensed it out for profit? Would that be bad for the industry, or would it just be bringing the characters in line with pretty much every other major property out there? And would it allow some streamlining? Instead of Marvel Comics publishing fifty titles, of which forty will get cancelled, couldn’t a licensee just run some basic meat-and-potatoes titles like Spider-Man, X-Men, and the Avengers?
I’m not conclusively saying that Marvel Comics needs to go away. I am, however, recognizing that the company is a creative sinking ship. It was once the tip of the spear for creative magic in a specific medium; now, it’s no longer sure what to do with itself or who its core audience is anymore.
I invite discussion in the comments below and elsewhere across the internet. Do we still need Marvel Comics?