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Comic Wars By Matt Singer
For mainstream comic book fans in the 1990s, Marvel's bankruptcy was an ever-present itch, impervious to scratching and Calamine lotion. Personally, I was unclear as to what was going on, understanding only that Marvel was in the financial toilet. As long as they kept making comics, everything was simpatico, but there was always that lingering thought that Marvel might just stop existing.
That was scary. What's scarier still is how close it came to happening, and even MORE chilling, the staggering number of times it got near complete corporate meltdown. Reading Dan Raviv's COMIC WARS, about Marvel's financial troubles, is like running in a circle that is slowly closing in on itself. Every page feels like a step closer to the end. Every comic book fan knows Marvel emerged from the bankruptcy relatively unscathed, but reading the book, that fact seems like a genuine miracle.
Before Marvel finally lifted itself out of bankruptcy, it was under the stewardship of two men (Perelman and, briefly, Carl Icahn) who had admittedly never read comic books. They were businessmen, plain and simple. Each had success in the past as corporate raiders, but Marvel was the thorn in both their sides. The cover word balloons say it all: "How two tycoons battled over the Marvel Comics empire...and both lost!!"
Comic book fans interested in the corporate side of industry will be fascinated by the details. I hate business (and the dubious morals on display here represent a big reason why), but reading the accounts of Marvel creditors clawing their way at the limited assets of the company is akin to the fascination-repulsion instinct when watching a car wreck. These people's actions are variously deplorable, nauseating, pathetic, underhanded, and fiendishly clever. But it makes for good reading.
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Raviv's narrative is filled with plenty of interesting tidbits and insider information. Sections on Avi Arad, a toy designer who has become a Hollywood producer and bible thumper of sorts for Marvel is an especially intriguing fellow. The notorious Bill Jemas pops up in the final chapter to give a Zen take on marketing ("Media is merchandise, and merchandise is media").
Still, the book could be better. Raviv's fly-on-the-wall style, incorporating public documents with interviews, is heavy on facts and light on style. His prose reads fairly well, but this isn't exactly a page-turner either. His attention to detail also becomes a bit of a detriment; by page two hundred you've read about so many creditors, debtors, trustees, holding companies, junk bonds, and preferred stocks that it's almost impossible to keep them straight in your head. And while Raviv chides the new owners of Marvel for not caring about their famous characters, he has written a 275-page book about the company and shown little more interest than they did; this is a book about a bankrupt company that happens to be in the business of comics. Do not expect a history of the characters, or even a history of the company. The phrase "high-yield" appears far more often than "comic books" (Marvel is, after all, an intellectual property company).
COMIC WARS doesn't so much end as it stops. Marvel is out of bankruptcy, but Raviv struggles to find some sort of happy ending, and none comes. The final few pages present possible futures for Marvel, mostly cause the company's story is continuing. If he had waited a few months longer before publishing the gigantic success SPIDER-MAN movie (of which Marvel gets a huge licensing fee AND a cut of the gross receipts from the tickets) would have made a fine conclusion, especially since Arad's fervor to get Marvel movies made is heavily charted throughout.
This book is not for all audiences, that is for sure; if you don't have a keen interest in Marvel or the quagmire of Chapter 11 bankruptcy, then your money won't be well spent on this expensive hardcover. Still, the depth of the information is impressive, and the narrative is as thorough as it is mind-boggling (Why would anyone give Ron Perelman money that he could use however he saw fit is, after reading this, completely beyond my realm of comprehension). It is a story of facts and numbers. The only conflict, the only desire, is about money. It is hard to make good comics when you don't care if they are good, so long as they sell lots.