Slate wrote a piece adapted from one of their podcasts on the history of Marvel’s recovery from bankruptcy, but despite making use of some quotes from Sean Howe, who was certainly better a historian than the awful Abraham Riesman (though I seem to remember Howe once sadly fluff-coated Brian Bendis), this article has some pretty sugary details of its own too, and political biases lurking beneath the folds. It begins with:
In 1996, Marvel filed for bankruptcy. Its business was in shambles. Lots of people failed to imagine how Marvel could ever hope to make any real money off its collection of silly characters in capes. That wasn’t the first time in the company’s history that it stumbled hard—but each time it’s reemerged, stronger than before, like that supervillain you think you’ve defeated who suddenly reappears in the final battle. How is Marvel so resilient? Seems like its real superpower is making comebacks.
I think calling them “silly” is cause for suspicion they’re putting down the genre. Besides, if they looked harder under a magnifying glass, they’d see that not every superhero since the Golden Age ever wore a cape. Some, like Sub-Mariner, Captain America, Flash and Hawkman, didn’t wear capes at all. But then, there were times in decades past when comics weren’t always viewed favorably by the press, and it’s changed very little today. Then it says:
Marvel drifted into non-superhero genres—horror, Westerns—and it barely scraped by. Its first big comeback happened in the early 1960s, when the anti–comic book fervor died down and superheroes resurged. There’s a lot of debate about who was most responsible for Marvel’s 1960s renaissance. Increasingly people credit Marvel comic book artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko for shaping the characters in the stories. But it was clear who the face of Marvel was: Stan Lee.
Since when didn’t anybody credit Kirby and Ditko? Is this some kind of stealthy attempt to mimic Abraham Riesman? Kirby and Ditko’s contributions have been known for years. And it wasn’t just Marvel’s precursor imprint, Timely/Atlas, that got into the western genre by the 50s. Even DC was doing the same, and some of their anthology and superhero titles like All-American and All-Star Comics became All-Star Western and All-American Western at the time, until the late 50s saw the renaissance of the superhero genre. However, the article does mention something recent articles about Riesman didn’t mention:
Marvel’s heyday began to fade over time. In the 1970s and ’80s, Stan Lee tried to expand the Marvel Universe into television and films, but he mostly failed. There was a terrible Spider-Man TV thing. There was also a terrible Captain America TV thing. And then came the first major attempt at a Marvel movie. It was executive produced by George Lucas in 1986, fresh off the success of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films. Sounds promising, but this cinematic disaster featuring an oddball Marvel character called Howard the Duck was a total flop.
And that’s why it took until the late 90s for Marvel adaptations to be considered a worthy investment for the mainstream, when Blade came about. I think it’s a shame Steve Gerber’s satirical bird had to be subject to such an atrocity. They don’t mention though, that the live action TV show based on the Incredible Hulk starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno from 1977-82 (with 3 reunion TV films later produced in 1988-90), was more or less a success, even if it was far from as elaborate as the comics, or the later Saturday morning cartoons of the early-80s and mid-90s. But then, what’s this part, where Howe chimes in:
Marvel was a hot property that got bought and sold a couple of times in the 1980s. It went public in 1991 as the collector boom was at its peak—and then, as with tulips and Beanie Babies, the comics bubble burst. Sean Howe says that with the speculator market gone, many comic book shops closed their doors, and many readers left the hobby as the excitement fell away. “When in the mid-’90s the market crashed, comics became more miserable than they had been in the ’70s, as miserable as they had been in the ’50s, after the churches were burning comic books and the Senate was investigating comic books. It really seemed like this time the writing was on the wall for good. It seemed like this is truly the end of comic books as an industry.”
If he thinks the 90s was bad, the mid-2000s took it to worse. You had Joe Quesada forcing his horrific biases foremost onto Spider-Man; clearly, such a huge favorite made the most ideal target to him, based on his bizarre obsession with ridding the title of Mary Jane Watson-Parker as Spidey’s wife. Till this day, what happened in 2007 is an embarrassment it’s never recovered from, even as MJ was finally brought back to the title in some capacity under C.B. Cebulski; they obviously realized by this point they were in a dire situation, and needed something to salvage their still collapsing output and reputation, soiled further as it was under Axel Alonso. And let’s not forget all the forced leftist politics brutally injected into their vision in the past decade, effectively turning Marvel into more a propaganda factory than entertainment fare. But then, look what comes next:
But another Marvel comeback was just around the corner. Marvel went bankrupt in 1996. The struggle over corporate control at this point gets confusing, with various entities squabbling over various chunks of the business. In the end, one of the men who emerged on top was a guy named Isaac Perlmutter. He’d been the owner of a toy company that made Marvel action figures.
Isaac Perlmutter is a mysterious man, almost like a comic book villain. He never gives interviews despite helping to lead one of the biggest entertainment companies on earth. Only a handful of photographs of him even exist. One of them was taken through a window at Mar-a-Lago, where he’s been known to hang out with his pal Donald Trump. During Trump’s administration, Perlmutter even became the controversial quasi–shadow director of the Department of Veterans Affairs. You could make a whole podcast just about Isaac Perlmutter. What’s important here is that Perlmutter seized control of Marvel at a time when the company was desperate.
Well if you must know, no matter what Perlmutter’s politics, I do think he proved a negative influence for the company in the long run, and what was really troubling was a report I’d once noticed that he held little affection for Stan Lee. But if they’re damning Perlmutter based on his support for the wrongly maligned Trump, that’s wrong, and besides, if Perlmutter’s a problem, what about Bill Jemas, another businessman who also allegedly pulled Marvel out of bankruptcy, and then began to exert artistic influence over the publishing arm in ways that did more harm than good? He pretty much shared the same mindset as Quesada, and the way Jemas went about attacking rival publishers like DC and the late Crossgen was despicable. For now, what I can say is that Perlmutter really embarrassed right-wingers by making it look like he cared far more about Marvel as a means for moviemaking than entertainment value in the original comics. Whose ruin he enabled along the way, via failure to take action against phonies like Quesada and Alonso for the disaster they led to, which just shows how weak he really was as a business manager. Yet if he were a boilerplate leftist like Haim Saban, whose company co-produced a few Marvel cartoons like the X-Men, chances are Slate would be far less cold to him. And after coasting a bit through the history of Marvel’s moviemaking successes of the past decade, they say at the end:
There are still potential pitfalls for Marvel. If movie theaters never fully come back post-pandemic, it’s not clear whether the economics of streaming on Disney+ will cover the gargantuan budgets required to make superhero films. Or the unthinkable could happen: Superheroes could go out of style. With Disney+ needing hours and hours of new content to fill the streaming maw, it does seem possible there could eventually be Marvel fatigue. But should Marvel hit any rough spots, it’s hard to bet against them making a comeback using the same playbook they always have before. Vary says, “So long as Marvel Studios is able to maintain that connection with their audience, I think that they’re going to be OK, all other sort of factors aside. Because that, at the end of the day, is why people go back to properties again and again: They want to keep following these characters.”
Unfortunately, if they’re now turning to social justice politics in their upcoming film releases, it’s uncertain they’ll retain a connection with audiences in for long. Why, who knows if the sequel they may be planning for Captain Marvel will be as successful as the first? Wonder Woman 1984 certainly wasn’t in theatrical terms, and not just because of the pandemic. If we’re being force-fed political lecturing, then less people will want to keep following classic characters whose adventures they’d do better to read about in the earlier stories of the past century. I think it’s a shame Marvel was rescued from bankruptcy just so they could end up serving more as a means for moviemaking than comics-making. There’s something very insulting to the intellect when you think about how the film adaptations made it big while the comics sank into artistic fiascos, and nobody in Hollywood could give a damn. Which only hints what they must really think of the properties.
Originally published here.