I’ve been thinking lately about comic books in general and Marvel Comics specifically. I used to work at Marvel from about the beginning of 1990 until the summer of 2005. I was one of the people in the office who worked behind the scenes to get the comics made. I was in the Bullpen doing production work. First it was by hand and then by computer.

I go to the comic shop every week to buy my comics but I never get any new Marvel comics. My tastes have leaned towards indie books since I was about 20 years old in 1986 but I still checked in with Marvel and DC every now and then. I still check in with a DC book here and there but no Marvel’s at all. I was even a Marvel kid so that’s where my nostalgia is but even that doesn’t help. They’re not a good brand to me anymore.

I can remember in the early 1990s at the height of the comic book boom talking to an editor (I can’t remember who) about the boom. At that time sticking a specialty gimmick cover (foil, hologram paper, metallic paper, a fifth ink, embossing, die cuts, etc.) on any random comic insured that it would sell a ton more than without that cover. Everyone knew this was a bad idea in the long run. It wasn’t even debated. We were essentially “Tricking” people into thinking a comic was special and sooner or later they’d get wise to the trick and probably feel betrayed.

I naively asked “Why do we do it? Why don’t we stop?” Then the editor asked me “How can we stop?” Those comics with those covers put an extra couple of grand into people’s pockets every month. Even if it’s bad in the long run people aren’t going to give up that extra money now. How could they? Who is going to turn down money for giving customers what they want?

I had no answer for him. I didn’t know how to make it stop. It took me a lot of years to know the answer is good leadership at the top. Someone at the top should have noticed that this was a bad idea (as we all did) and even though it made money put and end to it. The person should have had the vision to take a more stable path to profit. That’s good leadership. Short term gimmicks are not better than focusing on making excellent comics. But good leaders are rare and not usually in leadership positions.

The leaders and decision makers at Marvel made their success by exploiting Marvel’s intellectual property to make money. That’s how you move up the ladder in a big entertainment company. Not by making great entertainment but by making great deals. It certainly isn’t a bad thing to make great deals but the idea that the great deal comes from a great comic gets lost. Without the great comics you can’t make any great deals. But eventually, almost inevitably, the cart is put before the horse. The deals become what drives the business. After all it’s the deal people that are in charge. Deals come before everything and making excellent comics take a back seat. That’s a tough environment in which to make excellent comics.

Make more comics to make more money is also basic wisdom at Marvel. But that’s a tough road and can water down a brand. Imagine that Marvel made fifty comics a month. How many of them would be excellent, good, satisfactory, and bad? Maybe ten excellent, fifteen good, fifteen satisfactory, and ten bad. That’s not a bad average. You have a four in five chance of being satisfied and a fifty percent chance of thinking “That was good.” That’s a good brand.

The problem is that the people in charge (who may not know a good comic from a bad one) think that if fifty comics are good then a hundred will be better (Marvel was publishing a hundred comics a month in the early 1990s). But the reality is that a hundred will be worse. The excellent-good-satisfactory-bad ratio doesn’t scale up. You won’t automatically go from ten excellent comics to twenty. If you could do that you’d already have twenty excellent comics out of fifty. You’d be lucky to add one or two excellent comics to the bunch.

If you’re publishing fifty comics a month you already think you have your fifty best creative teams. Add fifty more comics and unless you get lucky the talent will be lesser. The ratio for the new fifty will probably be more like 2 excellent, 8 good, ten satisfactory, and thirty bad. You just went from ten out of fifty bad comics to forty out of a hundred bad comics. Twenty percent bad to forty percent bad. That makes for a bad brand.

I don’t even blame the makers of the comics for this (from editors to letterers). I blame the leadership and decision makers at the company. That’s because making excellent comics isn’t in their wheelhouse. It wasn’t the key to their success so why should they know how to do it? They should be held accountable but first making excellent comics has to be prioritized. Deals still have to be made but they will be made easier with excellent comics.

How does this all affect the creating of comics? Well the creators aren’t dumb. They are all freelancers so they have to keep the staff people happy or they don’t get work from them. So they learn what work will keep the deal people happy. Spider-Man is a best seller? So let’s give them more Spider-Man. And lot’s of other Spider-People. Need deals for backpacks for young girls? Here is Spider-Gwen, Spider-Woman, Spider-Girl, and Silk. Do those ideas make for excellent comics? Who knows? That’s not really the priority.

So that’s why I don’t buy Marvel comics anymore and haven’t even checked in with nostalgia buys in the last five years. I think the creators are all trying their best to make good comics and there are probably even some good ones from Marvel (the odds say there has to be) but it’s a hard environment to make excellent comics in and after being burned by so many unsatisfactory comics form Marvel I don’t trust their brand anymore.