Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Buying Marvelman – potentially the biggest deal of Quesada’s tenure as Marvel Editor-in-Chief

From what I can piece together from interviews over the past weekend Joe Quesada seems to have been the first person to realise the inherent potential to Marvel of acquiring the Marvelman rights. Quesada credits publisher Dan Buckley with doing the (by no means insignificant) legwork but seems to claim the idea and the initial enthusiasm for it as his own. As such I think he deserves enormous credit for seeing what no one else did – that this is potentially a huge deal for the company.

It's only in considering the deal in the few days since its was announced that I've realised that the property has enormous potential, especially for Marvel. Just publishing the back catalogue (specifically the Quality/ Eclipse 1980s material) would be a windfall. There is already a huge pent-up demand out there for this material and even without the scarcity issue similar titles such as the Watchmen, V for Vendetta and Sandman trades have been perennial sales juggernauts for Marvel’s rival DC Comics – a phenomenon Marvel has no doubt envied for some time and are anxious to replicate.

There is even the possibility that because Marvel/Miracleman is much more of a mainstream comic superhero story it could even surpass the popularity of those other titles. I know that many would question this – could a more mainstream super-hero story actually mean higher sales in the largely bookstore dominated trade business? However consider of the three other examples I cite - the best selling of them is Watchmen. I think that one of the key factors in that book’s success is that it is a mature, intelligent story wrapped in the traditional trappings of the super-hero genre, the genre that most people have been trained to expect from comics. Marvel/Miracleman has the same strength, perhaps even moreso.

Then when you consider the potential for new interpretations – new comics, videogames, animation, movies – which if handled right (with due deference, respect and compensation given to the original creators) the company could be onto a major new property here.

Of course, all Marvel has done so far is acquire Mick Anglo’s rights to the character – and unquestionably the real value of the character at this point lies in the 1980s material. But the genius of this move is that Marvel now owns the character – which essentially stops anybody else from trying to publish stories featuring him. This means that all the other rights holders essentially have to deal with Marvel. And Marvel is one of the only organisations with both the resources and now, crucially, a real interest in sorting out the tangled mess of legal issues that remain unresolved.

Anglo and parties representing him have apparently been trying to exploit the character independently over the last few years, but were unsuccessful. I imagine the legal morass surrounding the character was a huge contributory factor to this. What independent party would be willing to invest significant amounts of cash in a largely unknown property with huge legal uncertainties surrounding it, and without access to the stories which make the character most attractive?. I think Marvel was uniquely positioned here.

Marvel have always lacked a credible “Superman” type figure in their catalogue of characters – a single hero with enormous power and all the iconic imagery and themes that go with that simple idea. Their recent attempts to build such a character from the ground-up – characters like the Sentry and the Blue Marvel - have been interesting but ultimately unsuccessful. Marvelman has the potential to credibly plug that gap – the name itself seems to suggest such a role (one note: Im not necessarily suggesting here that Marvelman should be placed into the Marvel Universe – that’s an issue I hope to deal with in a subsequent post).

And while some may point out the graphic nature of the 1980s work as a barrier to the characters future broad potential I would strongly disagree - just look at the wide variety of depictions of Batman, from The Dark Knight Returns to the current Brave and the Bold cartoon. Marvelman’s origins lie in children’s literature after all and that is what he was originally designed for.

DC, perhaps the only other credible company which could have also made this move appear to have been uninterested. They already own Superman and they have the rights to most of Moore and Gaiman’s most popular comics, so it seems they were complacent about it all and didn't see what Marvel sees. It seems ironic though that at a time in which they are spending a lot of resources acquiring the rights to old properties – such as the Milestone characters, the old Archie MLJ heroes and most recently the THUNDER agents - they have missed out on potentially the most valuable property out there.

Of course the legal issues are nowhere near settled yet – there are many interested parties whose rights have to be reconciled before Marvel can fully exploit the character and his back catalogue. Such parties include (but are by no means limited to) – Alan Moore, Garry Leach, Alan Davis, Chuck Austen, Neil Gaiman, Mark Buckingham, Todd McFarlane, Dez Skinn and DC comics. I hope to deal with some of those issues surrounding these parties in future posts.


  1. Marvel is taking a gamble that it can clear up the legal messes surrounding the character. It wouldn't surprise me if DC did look into this at some point only to pass due to the hassle of getting the good stuff.

  2. Turns out that you are right, De. Apparently in the mid-80s, before Eclipse got the rights DC looked at publishing Marvel Man, but because of the all the unresolved issues they chose to pick up V for Vendetta instead.

  3. okay i got a question.

    how does the genesis of marvelman figure into all the legality of this stuff?

    By which I mean the fact that Marvelman was literally a Captain Marvel (Shazam!) knockoff necessitated by the cessation of publication of that character in the wake of the successful suit by DC (whatever they were called back then) relating to their claim that CM was essentially a Superman ripoff?

    What that seems to leave us with is Marvelman as either a) a Captain Marvel (Shazam!) ripoff or b) a Superman ripoff by proxy, and since DC now owns the rights to both of those characters, could they not therefore sue Marvel or Anglo on the same basis as the original suit that saw Fawcett discontinue Captain Marvel's comic?

    Or does that whole "sue for infringement of concept" thing not fly anymore?

    These days there are dozens of Marvel analogues in the DC universe, and vice versa, so maybe it's not a done thing anymore.

  4. You're right - the Shazam thing may be an issue. Its why I mentioned DC as one of the potential interested parties in the article.