Flame On

Out of financial and creative bankruptcy, Marvel Comics is mighty once more

When Joe Quesada, writer and illustrator of comic books, went to work as a freelance contractor for Marvel Comics three years ago, he found the so-called House of Ideas in ruin. The comic-book industry was, as Quesada recalls, "going down the toilet": Every month, 10 to 15 percent of readers were moving out and moving on, and there was no telling how far the bottom was, or whether the entire industry was just years from complete extinction. Books were being canceled, and every few months a dozen or more employees were being laid off, all the result of Marvel's having filed for bankruptcy reorganization in 1998 as billionaire bullyboys Ronald Perelman and Carl Ichan wrangled for control of a company carrying some $700 million in debt. The only titles that were selling were T&A comics--crap for the "boobie crowd," as one Marvel executive calls it. The whole place smelled like the bottom of a very dank barrel.

"It was bleak," Quesada recalls of the late 1990s. "We got tangled up in our own superhero underwear."

As recently as fall 2000, industry experts, from accountants to artists, predicted (if not prayed for) the end of the comic book. Adults who had coveted and collected the trash-can literature as children had long ago moved on, and their children had no interest in silly spandex heroes in a world plugged into the Internet and video-game consoles. Sales of comics had dwindled steadily since 1993, the most profitable year in comicdom's history: According to the January 18 issue of Comics Buyer Guide, the industry's key trade publication, sales fell off 14 percent in 1998 and 5 percent in 1999 and 2000. A billion-dollar biz in 1993 was, by 2000, pulling down less than half that. Who said superheroes were invincible?

But no one stays dead for long in the comics world, not Superman (killed in 1991, as if) and not Marvel Comics, which at long last has shed the stink of bankruptcy and humiliation--the subject of Dan Raviv's detail-drenched book Comic Wars, due out in April from Random House imprint Broadway Books--to again emerge as the industry's dominant publisher. For the first time since '93, the comic-book industry has posted a gain. Though the advances are small in the sales of comics and trade paperback collections (CBG estimates that revenue went from $219.4 million in 2000 to $219.5 million last year, a bump of less than 1 percent) and the numbers are easily manipulated, it's still a sign of newfound health.

Sitting atop the heap is Marvel, as the result of new leadership on the business and creative sides of the company. According to varying sales figures, the caretaker of Spider-Man, Captain America, the X-Men and the Hulk owns between 36.5 and 41 percent of the marketplace, while rival DC Comics (the AOL Time Warner-owned home to Batman and Superman) has slightly less. The extraordinary thing is that Marvel publishes far fewer titles--40 books and about 10 hard- and softback collections each month, which is half of DC's output--meaning Marvel is pulling in more with far less. The company has, on average, 20 titles on the list of top-sellers each month; DC comes in with but a handful.

The reasons for the company's resurrection are copious: Marvel Enterprise, Inc. CEO Peter Cuneo, hired in 1999, exorcised all the demons that plagued the company throughout the 1990s. He installed as president Bill Jemas, who had been in charge of Marvel's Fleer trading-card line from 1992 to '96 before managing Madison Square Garden's sporting events. In August 2000, Jemas wisely hired a new editor in chief: Joe Quesada, who had run his own company (Event Comics) and worked with filmmaker Kevin Smith on a successful run of Daredevil.

Quesada and Jemas concocted a three-year plan to get the staggering colossus back on its feet: They would hire well-known writers and artists and editors to resurrect their sagging titles, drop the Comic Magazine Association of America code left over from the 1950s, make amends with creators who'd left Marvel with harsh words and bad vibes, expand the company's tiny trade paperback division, create a division of explicit-content titles for grown-ups and launch a line of comics aimed at kids and teens for whom the medium held little interest.

"You sort of play fantasy football when you take on this job," Quesada says. "As a comic creator or a writer or publisher, all of us know whether we work at Marvel or not that as goes Marvel so goes the comic-book industry, because we're the number-one publisher. When I was an independent publisher, I would have my worst months when Marvel had bad months, because Marvel draws traffic into the stores. Without Marvel there's no DC Comics. It's over."

Much of Marvel's recent success can be attributed to the creative side: One of Quesada's first hires was editor Axel Alonso, a longtime editor at DC's much-vaunted adult imprint Vertigo. Alonso was initially hesitant to leave DC but did so because he felt the "sleeping giant" was about to awaken and stir up necessary trouble. He wanted "a front-row seat to the revolution," he says now, and once in place Alonso opened his Rolodex and brought in the writers and artists he had worked with at DC, among them writers Brian Azzarello and Garth Ennis and artist Eduardo Risso. He also hired Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski to take over the moribund Amazing Spider-Man, which quickly became a top-seller; and Madman creator Mike Allred to illustrate the forgotten X-Men title X-Force, now a hot property thanks to Allred's luminous pop-art illustrations and Peter Milligan's mordant storytelling.

"The brutal truth is that it's not as if I saw a ton of evidence that Marvel would be able to achieve what it has under Joe and Bill," Alonso says. "It came down to the fact that I really felt that there were resources the company had that weren't being used, like these wonderful characters."

For the first time in a decade, Marvel's books feel fresh and relevant--smart and sardonic enough for adults who swore off the novelties of youth, capricious and cool enough for kids who think them literature for dorks. Quesada and Jemas have done the impossible, rendering hip a torpid medium that all but destroyed itself pandering to the hard-core hero-worshippers without considering there might be new readers out there disinterested in things like continuity and costumes. That's one reason Marvel's bosses rounded up underground comics creators to reinvent their musty mainstream heroes, chief among them Brian Michael Bendis, known in indie circles for his wry crime stories. Bendis writes a handful of titles, including Ultimate Spider-Man, a smart and profitable retelling of Peter Parker's early days as the web-slinging, wall-climbing hero.

But no less important are writers such as Azzarello, Ennis, Milligan, Grant Morrison and John Ney Rieber, men responsible for giving Marvel makeovers to the likes of the Hulk, Captain America, the Avengers (now The Ultimates in a book that shipped last week to gigantic numbers), Nick Fury, Luke Cage and Wolverine, whose never-before-revealed Origin is currently a best-selling title. In a few months, no less an underground icon than Peter Bagge (Hate) will write and illustrate his own Spider-Man story--which is the comic-book equivalent of letting a mental patient baby-sit your kid.

"I always said, 'Why don't DC and Marvel try harder?'" says Bendis, who's also writing Daredevil, Ultimate Team-Up and Alias, a female private-dick tale for the new adult-aimed MAX line. "No one was paying attention. All my friends in independent comics--all of whom are working at Marvel today--we all ripped up pages and went nuts because no one's paying attention. I wondered why the mainstream comics didn't go bananas, and now they are, and we're going, 'That's right!' When Howard Stern was talking about Daredevil this morning for an hour, you know you're onto something."

In recent years, DC Comics--or "AOL Comics," as Jemas refers to the competition--has lived for the Big Event: the return of Frank Miller on The Dark Knight Strikes Again, say, or the hiring of ex-Marvel honcho Stan Lee to "imagine" DC's icons in his own (stale) image. But DC need not make a splash in the kiddie pool to stay afloat; it has a multinational corporation footing the bill, and its iconic characters sell well no matter who's writing and drawing the stories. Not that DC hasn't tried to counter Marvel's push back into the marketplace: Last month, it released a 10-cent Batman comic, which has sold nearly 700,000 copies. The book was the ultimate marketing tool, an incomplete story concluded in almost a dozen other lesser DC titles, all of which sell for more than two bucks. In the spring, Marvel will counter with a self-contained nine-cent Fantastic Four story.

And where DC remains unable to get another Superman or Batman movie off the ground, Marvel is, quite literally, swinging from the Hollywood sign. On May 3, Sony Pictures will release Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, which will be followed in coming months by a second Blade film; a Hulk adaptation from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's Ang Lee; Daredevil, starring Ben Affleck as the blind superhero; and a second X-Men, due next summer. In the fall, MTV will premiere an animated Spider-Man series, which continues the movie's storyline. After failing to capitalize on the success of the 2000 X-Men film, which grossed $158 million at the box office alone but didn't lead to an expected boost in comic-book sales, Marvel execs insist they're now prepared to offer curious moviegoers "a boatload" of accessible Spider-Man product.

Marvel's ascension has not come without its controversy: Last year, the company announced it would no longer allow retailers to reorder titles once they ran out, a move that infuriated some retailers, who complained they would be left with unhappy customers unable to find in-demand books. Jemas dismisses the complaints from "very loud and very incompetent retailers" and insists the policy was adopted to create a buzz: Because key titles are disappearing on Wednesdays, the day comics arrive in stores, Marvel is now creating collectible product. A copy of Origin No. 1 sold last week on eBay for $62--18 times its cover price. So much for comic books being worthless, yet thus far, DC has yet to follow suit.

"DC is all about yesterday," says Bill Rosemann, Marvel's head of promotions. "It's getting Frank Miller to do Batman again... They're looking at these things that have done well in the past and re-creating that. We're doing new things--new people, new formats. It's more of a conservatism on their part, where we're saying, 'We have nothing to lose. Comics will die if we don't try anything we can.'"

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