A Look at the MARVEL/DISNEY Future (Ambidextrous 311)



#311- Best Case Scenario

So, I wanted to allow the dust to settle a little from the recently announced Marvel/Disney deal before commenting any further…

With a bit of separation from the initial tidal wave of reactions and speculation, this is me throwing my hat into the crowded ring of people wondering aloud about what comes next. Keeping that notion fully in mind, this week Ambidextrous is dropping off an installment five years early that discusses some of the most important developments of the Disney/Marvel alliance that will soon begin developing in the very near future. Optimists only from here on in, and if that perspective terribly offends you, I’m sure there is plenty of “sky is falling” rhetoric to be found elsewhere.

For everyone else, we now take you five years in the fuuuuutuuuuure (already in progress) where Disney’s acquisition of Marvel Comics has borne serious fruit for the comic book industry, and continues to do so in a variety of interesting ways. Here comes tomorrow, ladies and gentlemen…

Marvel Adventures is now the most important imprint in the publishing line

Marvel Adventures and the dozens of comics and digests they’ve released over the years quickly became Disney’s weapon of choice in the fight against a shrinking marketplace and maturing readership. Since the imprint’s inception, the direct market had virtually ignored it, shrugging its shoulders at their all-ages approach, mainly because most comic shops didn’t have a big use for it. Kids didn’t read comics for a variety of reasons (some of which are being intelligently addressed) and no one had the resources to do much to effectively stop the bleeding. Enter the now legendary “Disney pockets”, which quickly made certain aspects of the business seem a little less impossible.

Marvel’s mainline books had certainly matured along with its readership, and while it does feature a number of books that are appropriate for a general audience, Marvel Adventures really gave Disney everything they needed in the perfect package. These books were designed to be age appropriate, and prominently featured the bigger characters kids would most likely gravitate towards---Spider-Man, Iron Man, Hulk, FF, etc. With an eye toward increasing diversity, the line has slowly expanded over the years with additional superhero titles, as well as the hugely successful Disney Channel Comics initiative. The digest backlist was also fully exploited and the already thriving subscription program was supported with additional ad dollars that saw special promotions appear on many popular social networking sites.

Marvel Adventures effectively became the reliable entry point for kids into the Marvel Universe, and its diversity of product and lower cover prices began a new age for the line once known as Marvel Age. What helped Disney/Marvel actually get this material into the right hands would be the next big move.     

Distribution lines for Marvel Comics have increased significantly

It’s no secret that many of the comics’ industry troubles from the recent past owe much to the horribly constricted channels of distribution that actually get comics to potential consumers. Many of us remember the days when comic books were everywhere traditional magazines were sold, which supplied an initial taste of the medium before later “graduating” to the direct market comic retailers we now frequent. For years though, everyone has been hesitant to launch an aggressive response to this condition, citing an incredible expense and the still growing popularity of graphic novels. Which obviously is fantastic for people that already have a passing interest and/or familiarity with comics, but the best way to ensure a longtime profitable relationship with any consumer product is to hook ‘em as young as possible. Make that form of entertainment something that becomes a normal part of their existence and they’ll follow it religiously until the wheels come off.

With Marvel now armed with some additional capital, the generation gap that separates the current comic book audience from its possible inheritors has been slowly closed in recent years. Marvel Comics are now prominent staples at Disney Store locations nationwide, Disney amusement parks, and big-box retailers like Target and Wal-Mart. The aforementioned Marvel Adventures line supplies the bulk of the material, drawing on their extensive publishing catalog (and their very important all-ages approach) to deliver both single issue comics at new, slightly reduced cover prices, magazine sized bundles that combine two to three issues, or digest editions that provide even more of a cross-section of the Marvel U. Multiple options at multiple price points fit any budget or experience level. Even better, all of the comics contained prominent ads directing interested fans to seek out their local direct market merchants, and iTunes, a game changer that we’ll talk about shortly.

When the acquisition was first announced, Disney stated upfront that they wanted to increase their visibility and success with entertainment aimed at young boys, and this became another important step towards achieving a saturation level in the marketplace it hadn’t enjoyed for decades.

Digital Comics are here, and on Apple’s long-rumored tablet, changing the landscape forever

The long rumored, heavily discussed Apple Tablet finally arrived and completely changed the game. Marketed as an emotional compromise between consumers unwilling to part with the tactile experience of reading, and the declining revenues from most print dependent mediums, the Tablet arrived in full color and packed with great features. One of these obviously was the ability to purchase and download magazines, newspapers, and comics in much the same way we’ve gotten our music from the popular iTunes service.

Comics fans were now able to download their weekly titles off the service at an incredibly affordable 1.29 price point, with the more popular and "event" titles weighing in at 1.49. The service offered yearly subscriptions, and packages that offered additional discounts when you subscribed to a higher number of titles. Several classic Marvel stories have already been converted into this new digital format and more are being added every month, as fans continue to assemble fully digital collections of comic books. Even those wary of the entire concept of digital comics have since reversed course after witnessing how intuitively the Tablet works, and how beautifully it displayed the artwork in a manner that print never could.     

Because of the device’s additional base cost, the Tablet began in the hands of the more tech-savvy early adopters, but is due for an imminent price drop that should give it a more mass-market appeal. For now, and presumably for some time to come, digital comics and their print editions peacefully co-exist, with both versions hitting shelves on the exact same publication date. This has further broadened Marvel’s revenue stream, as posting digital versions of their comics is reasonably cost effective and can now be fully considered when calculating the worth of a particular title. Comics that were canceled due to low sales a few years back are thriving because of this additional format, and again, everything was cross-promoted effectively to make known the idea that comics are available literally everywhere these days. When the public sees movies and television shows based on Marvel characters, they’re now only a click away from getting the source material in their hands and on their screens.

Commercials for comics (and how to get them) are airing consistently on Disney Channel kids’ programming

People have been talking about this forever, and the aforementioned “Disney pockets” really made it possible…advertisements on television for comic books. They appeared almost exclusively on the Disney Channel, and were obviously aimed at a slightly younger audience, but as mentioned before, that is the segment of fandom that continues to need the most attention. The really cool thing is that the ads told people how to find comics in Disney Store locations, direct market retailers, and after that, online through iTunes. Made real sense to be fully inclusive, and turn the current multi-level distribution model into another clear strength of this very modern incarnation of the comic book industry. Everyone was a part and everyone was able to profit from the advances.     

Comics based off Disney Channel properties are here, and no one died after it happened

One of the many hysterical responses to the Marvel/Disney announcement concerned the possibility that Disney would quickly move to have comics published based on many of their successful TV series like Hannah Montana, Jonas Brothers, etc. Well it didn’t happen that quickly, but it did ultimately happen, and nothing else the hardcore fans actually cared about was affected by the decision.

Working as a complement to the push now given the Marvel superhero themed product, the new Disney Channel Comics became another well-functioning revenue stream, and allowed the company to continue series that completed their television run years before, and to bridge the gaps between seasons of currently running programs. Disney used one of the critical aspects of modern superhero comics to great advantage here---that comic characters never age, and illustrated performers never tire of the roles that made them famous before moving on to something else. So we now have irrefutable evidence that Spider-Man and Hannah Montana can in fact co-exist under the same publishing company, while bringing in money from two completely different segments of a slowly expanding fan base. Which was likely the entire point of the acquisition anyway.   

Live action television shows based on Marvel Comics are airing on Disney-owned networks

With most of the movie franchises locked up for another few years, Disney immediately started searching through the publishing catalog for material that could easily and successfully translate to the small screen. With the number of television studios Disney owns and/or controls, they had the resources and the incentive to ensure that Marvel’s TV offerings soon became as creatively and financially profitable as their movie ones. And the laundry list of extremely talented movie directors that had signed on to adapt comic-based movies (Chris Nolan, Bryan Singer, Sam Raimi, etc.) obviously set the tone and standard for some of the show runners and executive producers Disney would ultimately approach to shepherd some of these series.

People have been joking for years that only television (especially cable television) remains appropriately focused on telling compelling and nuanced stories, so Marvel’s characters have proven to be highly adaptable to this format. Look for much more of this in the near future, and for Disney to continue keeping a watchful eye on the publishing slate, in the aims of finding that next huge phenomenon. For now, enjoy Runaways on ABC Family, X-Factor Investigations in primetime on ABC after FlashForward, and the animated adventures of the Pet Avengers on the Disney Channel.

Just Speculation

…At least all this is what I think will happen. We only have five years to find out, and knowing my luck, this column will be archived somewhere so people can point out how completely off base I was with all of this. However…what if I’m not? Don’t some of these sound like really exciting developments, that oh yeah, just might help ensure that comics still exist in something close to their current form? Because it’s pretty obvious Disney wouldn’t have spent four billion dollars on a publishing/sales model and methodology that they wouldn’t be willing (and anxious) to tweak here and there. And obviously, what we’re doing now isn’t quite getting the job done. Maybe putting some new eyes on these old problems is just what everyone needs right now.

What do you see happening in the next five years for comics as a result of Disney’s presence? Lines are open and ready to receive your thoughts below.

Thanks, and back next week with a This is Why installment about Bendis and Gaydos’ Alias series…  

The Fiction House

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