Alberto Mingardi  

Spiderman and the trust-busters

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I am no big reader of business books, but I was recently most fascinated by "Marvel Comics. The Untold Story" by Sean Howe, published by HarperCollins in 2012. Howe does a superb job in telling two stories at once: on the one hand, he leads the reader into the intricacies of the "Marvel Universe," that is the narrative world where Peter Parker and The Thing live. I was a huge Marvel fan as a kid, but stopped reading comic books quite a while ago: the amount of creativity put into stories, cross-overs, deaths of characters and their sudden second births, that happened since I stopped following X-Men is just amazing. Howe points out that the greatest innovation of Marvel Comics was the idea of a "continuity" that interlocked all their superheroes. This may seem a rather trivial point, but was key to transforming consumers from occasional readers to loyal fans of basically whatever Marvel published. On the other hand, Howe tells the story of Marvel as a business: how the publishing house kept control of its characters, how authors and comic book artists gained contractual leverage over the years in spite of their work-for-hire contractual arrangements, how superstars of the sector emerged, how the distribution chain of comic books evolved, how tensions typically erupted between those writers, artists and "pure businessmen" who regarded comic books as a trade like any other.
Very often we mistakenly consider a business to be "simple," just because its products look "simple." Comic books are not rocket science. But Howe does a superb job in revealing all the hurdles and challenges Marvel had to cope with - to thrive, expand, or to survive crises. Marvel (which is now part of Disney) went a long way: initially its core business was publishing comic books, but now it really deals with managing some of its most beloved characters. Quite a few of them became movie blockbusters lately.
Howe's book also conveys a message which is both simple and very often forgotten: that is, enterprises are ultimately human adventures. "Chemistry" among staff members plays a big part in real world business histories - and certainly did in the case of Marvel. Most of the company's most egregious strategical mistakes happened because of personality clashes, that Howe pitilessly reports.
Of course publishing is not an entirely deregulated business, and that applies to comic books, too. Interestingly enough, however, the comic book hysteria of the Fifties (when a few city councils tried to ban crime and horror comics) convinced the industry to put together a self-censorship authority, the Comics Code Authority. The Comics Code disciplined comic book companies by discouraging stories on sensitive issues such as drugs and demanded that "if crime is depicted it shall be as a sordid and unpleasant activity." The Code became anachronistic at some point, and publishers stopped following it, resorting instead to internal rules.
One of the most interesting stories in Howe's book is that, at some point, Marvel could acquire the license for Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman, which are basically the blockbusters of its oldest competitor, DC Comics. The then-editor in chief of Marvel, Jim Shooter, told the story in his blog here The project was never to take off because of a smaller publisher, First Comics that "launched a lawsuit against Marvel Comics and others, alleging anti-trust violations, among other things." "I think it's safe to say--Shooter notes--that when you're being sued under anti-trust laws, it's a bad time to devour your largest competitor." We typically associate anti-trust with breaking Standard Oil into pieces, or with making impossible to GE to acquire Honeywell. Here's another great story: it prevented SpiderMan from publishing Batman.


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Another story about anti-trust law hindering innovation was the difficulty of bring bar code technology to fruition in the 1960s. AT&T had the communications skills and IBM the computing knowledge. Getting them to cooperate was a hard problem to overcome (I was told this by a former senior executive of AT&T).

The first industry to use them was grocery retailing and wholesaling. Heinz was a stumbling block early on. Similarly, later, GM was wary of using it for replacement parts distribution for the same reason; they were always in the gun sights of the DoJ Anti-Trust division.

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