- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Mickey Mouse joins the Avengers. Spider-Man saves Cinderella from the wicked queen. Iron Man gets a Goofy new sidekick.

Marvel Comics, welcome to Disney World.

Thirteen years after Marvel filed for bankruptcy protection and teetered on the brink of shutting down for good, the venerated comic company was purchased by Disney for $4.1 billion in a deal announced Monday. Marvel’s success in the filmmaking world - including the “X-Men,” “Spider-Man” and “Iron Man” franchises - and its 5,000-character library made it an irresistible target for the Mouse House.

As a revenue source, dead-tree comic books are now little more than an afterthought in the Marvel empire, which includes a live-action film unit and a new animated film unit, as well as myriad licensing deals with toy companies, theme parks and other outlets.

At the same time, those comics remain an indispensable laboratory for the rest of the company, serving as a research and development pipeline from which the ancillary, more profitable products spring.

But sales of comic books are way down from their peak in the early 1990s, and the fan base has steadily grown older and wealthier as comics have become more expensive in recent years.

“That’s been an ongoing problem in terms of our attracting a younger audience,” said Chuck Rozanski, president of Mile High Comics, one of the largest comic book retailers in the nation. “I think that having Marvel characters, who are more dynamic for boy readers, is going to provide [Disney] with the opportunity of reaching a new demographic in a better way and for us to also reach that demographic with print.”

By attaching itself to Disney and its multi-tentacled distribution operation - including theatrical, television and retail platforms - Marvel may have found a way to replenish the market for its characters across the full range of media.

“Having animated stuff on Disney channels will help restock the audience for the comics,” said Jonathan V. Last, who has written about the comic industry for the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere.

This move “gives them a clear shot into TV, creating an easy outlet for the animated properties which they’ve been slowly getting into,” Mr. Last said. “This has the potential, I think, in the long term to reinvigorate the comic book business.”

Such expansion was clearly on the mind of Marvel’s chief executive officer, Ike Perlmutter.

“Disney is the perfect home for Marvel’s fantastic library of characters, given its proven ability to expand content creation and licensing businesses,” Mr. Perlmutter said in a statement announcing the deal. “This is an unparalleled opportunity for Marvel to build upon its vibrant brand and character properties by accessing Disney’s tremendous global organization and infrastructure around the world.”

There is equally clear upside potential for Disney, which has been less successful at appealing to the male half of the tween market. “Disney has the capacity to reach young boys in the 6 to 12 age group and has not been doing a particularly good job of marketing to them,” Mr. Rozanski said.

Disney CEO Robert Iger told CNBC, “We obviously know Disney has a lot of products that are more girl-skewed than boy. We’d like the opportunity to go after boys more aggressively.”

Marvel executives envision a partnership much like the one Disney has with animation studio Pixar. “If you’re familiar with the Disney/Pixar relationship, then you’ll understand why this is a new dawn for Marvel and the comics industry,” Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada wrote on the social-networking site Twitter.

Though Disney purchased Pixar - the studio behind hits including “Up,” “Wall*E” and “Toy Story” - for $7.4 billion in 2006, the computer-animation studio has remained largely autonomous. John Lasseter - the director of “Toy Story” and “Cars” - retained creative control of Pixar and took over as chief creative officer of Disney’s animation studio.

During a Monday morning conference call announcing the purchase of Marvel, Mr. Iger hinted that a Pixar/Marvel pairing might be in the offing with the disclosure that Mr. Lasseter had met with Marvel executives in the run-up to the deal and ideas were bounced around.

In addition to offering superior distribution avenues, a deal with Disney also would offer Marvel a level of financial security it doesn’t currently have. Though partnered with Sony on the “Spider-Man” franchise and 20th Century Fox on the “X-Men” franchise, Marvel recently started producing films on its own dime, building a $525 million facility from which to do it.

In the next two years, Marvel is scheduled to film and release “Iron Man 2,” “Thor,” “Captain America” and “The Avengers.” Though Paramount is handling distribution, the costs of those pictures rest squarely on Marvel’s shoulders.

“When you’re a small, independent producer the way [Marvel is], but you can’t make small movies because everything is so special-effects-intensive, every hit has to be hugely profitable because you need that money to make the next one,” Mr. Last said. “You have one bomb - or, God forbid, two in a row - and the company is dead in the water. That puts so much pressure on each movie that it probably isn’t good.”

• SONNY BUNCH can be reached at sbunch@washingtontimes.com.

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