The MadGoblin's Reading Log

It's easy to understand that with the sheer multitude of profound observations that the MadGoblin has made lo these last seven years, that my erudite discourses could be mistaken for sheer unbridled natural brilliance, but the real, and ultimately sadder answer is that -

I cheat.

Unlike Newton, whose observations came to him after being plunked by an apple, or Nostradamus, who supposedly saw the future by gazing into a brass bowl filled with water and various oils and spices (and no, I don't believe in his or any other "psychic's" "prophecies" - yes, I put both words in quotes), the Madgoblin unfortunately has to actually read and research some of the things he writes about. And at first I didn't even do that. I just ranted and raved because it was fun. I knew what I liked and what I didn't like, and Marvel Comics in particular during the late 1990's made it almost too easy to not like what they were doing.

But as I delved further into column writing, it became apparent that the objects of my frequent attacks did not simply exist in a vacuum. Sure, there could be a lot of incompetence, arrogance, and stupidity, but even those particular vices sometimes were the results of circumstances forced upon the perpetrators. After all, just as I don't walk into work every day "today I am going to f**k up in every way possible and not earn my paycheck," (although my employer and co-workers may think that I accomplish just that - although unintentionally) comic creators and editors don't wake up in the morning and devise all kinds of bullshit ways to piss off the fans. Judging from some of the message boards, though, I wonder if some folks think just that.

And with the advent of the internet and it's unprecedented explosion in information availability, it seemed that the answer to just about every question in the universe could be had within a few keystrokes.

Although I don't intend to actually do book reviews or anything of that nature, I thought that it might be fun to periodically discuss my own reference sources and treasure troves of information that have helped to shape the subjects that Spidey Kicks Butt deals with from time to time - hence the first of what I call the Madgoblin's Reading Logs, which could become an irregular feature every now and then (unless you all just absolutely hate this one), particularly when I need a break from long and exhaustive essays.

So - let's start by looking at the darkest period of Marvel's history - its bankruptcy and near liquidation during the 1990's.

Comic Wars - Marvel's Battle for Survival
If you don't have a financial education or professional background, Comic Wars, by Dan Raviv, could be one of the driest reads possible. Even with such a background, which I have, this book is pretty darn tough to slug through. You wind up learning more about junk bonds, stockholders rights, voting stock, board of directors composition, and bankruptcy laws than you could ever want. On the other hand, from another perspective, all of this detail makes you realize what a living hell it must have been to have worked for Marvel Comics during this time period. How anyone even remotely focused on their jobs when rich, overpaid stuffshirts and corporate raiders who cared NOTHING about the comics, or the people whose livelihood depended on them, who underneath their pretense of sophistication and wealth, often behaved like spoiled, selfish children whose dialogue with each other actually sank to the point of repeated "F**k You!" "F**k you too!"(as humorously detailed in one exchange in the book) is amazing. This version of Comic Wars that I read is an updated printing of a book published years earlier, which actually brings us up to near the time of the release of the second Spider-Man film, essentially, "the rest of the story" as Marvel, now clear of debt, seems to have put most talk of its survivability to rest.

The decline of Marvel Comics, and its ultimate re-birth (at least as one without the burden of debt), is nothing short of a miraculous story considering how far it had sunk. Marvel was a pawn in a much larger game that was being played by big boys with big toys and big egos. Neither the product nor the customer were even as remotely important as the game itself. Financier and corporate raider Ron Perelman, who purchased Marvel from New World Pictures in 1989, used the company to generate short term cash in order to inflate its value so he could take it public, which explained some of the increases in both prices and the number of titles. But his other use of the company, leveraging (i.e. borrowing money) to the hilt, nearly destroyed it. For one, none of the borrowings actually went to improve the quality of the product. Rather, the money went into two places (1) buying more companies and (2) his own pocket, to an estimated tune of up to $400 million. And then when the comic market slumped, as well as the sports card market (as Perelman had also purchased Fleer and made it part of the company), Marvel simply couldn't generate enough money to pay its debts, and thus went bankrupt. The massive layoffs of writers, artists, and managerial staff, as well as the proliferation of gimmicks and marketing driven events (such as variant covers and prolonging that damned Clone Saga) were direct results of this strategy. Enter another corporate raider, Carl Icahn, playing a game of personal brinkmanship with Perelman trying to take over the company, and it's easy to see how Marvel came just a judicial order away from nonexistence.

I can't do the subject matter justice - and besides that's what reading the book is for. Unfortunately, the book's scholarship is marred by a lack of objectivity. Right away the author places businessman Ike Perlmutter and toy designer Avi Arad, the owners of Toy Biz (of course, Avi is far more well known now as the major domo of the Marvel Movie Franchise), who eventually gain control of Marvel as heroes, giant killers, inspirational figures, when it most cases they were simply acting in their own enlightened self-interest. Although Arad seems to clearly and genuinely love the characters, Perlmutter can barely name any of them, never read a comic book, and knows next to nothing about cultivating the creative spirit necessary for an entertainment based company to succeed. Compounding this, for some reason, Rajiv chooses to make a point of Perelman's and Icahn's multiple marriages and divorces, contrasting that with the fact that Perlmutter lives more modestly and has been married to the same woman - as if that had a damn thing to do with anything. Curiously, nothing much is said about Arad's marital situation - which leads me to believe (perhaps falsely) that it's not as idyllic as Perlmutter's. Not that it matters or that I care - it's just that Rajiv chooses to make a point of it. And while Perlmutter's cheapness and miscues, in fairness, are also detailed, it seems to be without the same venom and delight heaped upon the other corporate raiders. After all, it was Perlmutter who risked further alienation of the Marvel faithful by cutting Stan Lee's salary (blatantly reneging on a deal made earlier by one of his own cronies), who seemed to care nothing about the morale of Marvel employees, doing petty things like taking away free coffee from the Bullpen (I can't tell you how many times I have seen this inexplicable penny wise and pound foolish behavior, even from people far more intelligent and financially savvy than me - not that that's saying much), who refused to sanction funds for a Christmas party (thinking $1,200 was too much - in New York City, in a company with dozens, if not hundreds of employees, that seems pretty modest), and who was just as guilty as buying companies, shuttering them, and liquidating them as the other corporate magnates, although not on the same scale. And that's not making a moral judgment against anyone - rich people get rich because they are made of different stuff than the rest of us - but I never felt I was getting a true picture of the battle because it appeared clearly slanted in favor of one side.

Also, while Marvel's financial bankruptcy is discussed in an almost strangling minutae, it's creative bankruptcy, which went hand in glove with the former, is almost totally ignored. Oh, there are references to the declining quality of the books, but not much beyond that. For example, replacing Peter Parker with Ben Reilly is actually mentioned - but nothing much other than the statement that "the fans hated it and conveyed their displeasure" is given. And it doesn't even get that right - it says that Peter was replaced by his clone - it says nothing of the fact that the REAL reason people were pissed off was that the "clone" was the REAL Peter Parker, at least for a time being, and 20 years of loyal comic readership had been flushed down the toilet. Other comic companies' contributions to the problem of declining readership, such as the explosion in the number of new companies and new titles produced, far more than the market could hope to absorb, are ignored completely, including one particularly aggregious act of bad judgment by DC Comics. Yet, the disastrous Heroes World acquisition, in which Marvel tried to create a monopoly on the distribution on its titles, and thus almost nearly destroyed the direct market entirely, is discussed, since Marvel was at fault for that one. Rajiv uses a lot of ink to describe how people like Perlmutter, Perelman, and Icahn never read Marvel Comics or had any interest in them, but to be honest, his own knowledge of them seems only marginally better, if at all. After all, although Ron Perelman had constructed the house of cards that nearly crushed Marvel, poor decisions made by its own staff, admittedly in some means due to pressure to generate earnings, literally poured gasoline on the fire. Thus, it seems like only half of the story of the fall and re-birth of Marvel is really being told.

Still, that doesn't mean with all its faults - it isn't a compelling read at times - because it certainly is. There are numerous interesting tidbits sprinkled throughout - including Marvel's plans to open a string of Marvel Mania restaurants, which (probably thankfully) never got off the ground. It's hard not to marvel (no pun - oh hell why not - pun intended) at Arad's chutzpah and flamboyant promotion for the characters, such as walking into a country club business meeting and its tie and jacket requirements, in a leather jacket with Spider-Man emblazoned on the back, and then becoming the center of attention by otherwise sophisticated lawyers and businessmen who love the jacket and want one of their own. And weaving throughout the book, almost like a minor subplot that suddenly becomes the fulcrum upon which the conclusion turns, the story of the legal black hole that the Spider-Man film rights had became entrenched in, and the enterprising lawyer who found one very tiny loophole which allowed Marvel to regain control of the character's movie rights. Needless to say, the cash generated by Spider-Man licensing and the film itself, was a major factor in Marvel's turning the corner. This time, Spider-Man really did come to the rescue.

Tales from the Database
A much more readable, and yet actually more comprehensive, prose on virtually the same topic is Chuck Rozanski's Tales from the Database, which is a collection of various articles he has written over the years on numerous subjects, and includes an invaluable and unduplicated look at the origins of the modern comic book industry and the problems and challenges it faces today. Rozanski is the founder and owner of Mile High Comics, literally one of the earliest comics specialty shops in the country and probably the largest online comics retailer. Even if you quibble with his opinions or perspective, there's no doubt that he's earned the right to make every single one of them. There's a certain Forrest Gumpish tone to the articles, since Rozanski seems to put himself in the middle or the periphery of virtually every significant event in the industry in the last 30 years, but hell - it looks like he may very well have been.

While his take on the collapse of the comics market in the 1990's, which I'll get to in a minute, is interesting, it's really his essays on the very beginnings of the direct market in the 1970's that are the real treasure trove. Not only that, but the irony of the situation is classic. In order to stem the bleeding in the market in the late 70's, as America's youngsters were beginning to discover other forms of entertainment, such as the infant electronic games industry, comics publishers looked at the excessively high return rate (up to 70%) of titles by newsstands and drug stores across the country, and decided that perhaps more limited sales, but coupled with a non-return policy, to a series of specialty retailers, would boost profits. And it did - but the long term effect was virtually eliminate the casual comics buyer, substantially reduce the exposure of the American comic book to the general public, and doom the industry to a narrow niche market, perceived as populated by unwashed and unshaven nerds and social misfits. And just what was one of Marvel's highly trumpted announcements of the last several months? Getting comics back into the convenience stories, specifically, 7-11.

Rozanski's take on the decline of the comics industry is also interesting reading. He details the Perelman group's greed and stupidity, but also throws some of the blame to DC and it's "Death of Superman" campaign in 1992, as well as Diamond Comics' and other distributors' (who no longer exist) greedy manipulation of largely undercapitalized retailers by setting them up in the business of selling comics even though many of them had no business being in business.

Obviously and justifiably, Rozanksi's opinions are biased and not objective. How could they be otherwise? The man has made his living for the last 30+ years by selling comic books and related paraphenalia. This website is essential reading for understanding the comics market as it works today. If you want to pontificate on the current state of the industry, read some of this stuff first - you'll be a much more informed debater.

And no, I have neither bought nor received one thing from Mile High Comics, so this is not an advertisement and is an unbiased opinion.

The photo of Rozanski sitting on a stack of long boxes was borrowed from Tony's Tips at World Famous Comics, the often daily report from former comic writer Tony Isabella, who should be a familiar name to most of you out there. I'm a frequent reader of Isabella's column, and although his political observations are a bit too extreme left for someone like me who thinks politicians and media demogagues from both sides of the spectrum are flirting with eternal damnation for pursuing blatantly self-servicing agendas at the expense of the country and its people, his comics pedigree is unchallengable and his observations, particularly when he delves into how creators have historically been short-changed by comics publishers throughout the decades, are usually worth reading. And besides, us Cleveland area boys (coincidentally, we live in the same town) gotta stick together.

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Copyright 1998-2007 by J.R. Fettinger. All rights reserved. All original content is the exclusive property of J.R. Fettinger. Spider-Man, the Green Goblin, and everyone else who appears in the Spider-Man comics is the property of Marvel Entertainment, and are used in these articles for the purpose of analysis and commentary.