Comic book publishing is small business. Two companies, Marvel and DC, lord over 80 percent of the industry. As a result, top talent only has two top choices. The resulting competition between these two companies has been one of the most entertaining rivalries in business for several decades.
But the rivalry has reached new lows. After a few years of the biggest named comic creators signing multi-year exclusive deals with either publisher, only to be stolen away by the other, it seems the battlefield has had to widen. Now the people only super-avid fans know by name are fair game. Editors are the new turf war.
Steve Wacker, editor of the weekly comic series 52, said last week he will be moving to Marvel Comics, leaving the 52 issue series at the half way mark.
Other editors, including Mike Marts and Bill Rosemann traded places only a week apart moving to DC and Marvel respectively. But Wacker’s moves is all the more shocking because of the media attention and publicity around 52, including its creative audacity to tell a full comic book year in 52 issues.
The rivalry and near literal war for talent between Marvel and DC makes for excellent news value, and us comic fans love news to debate. But from a business standpoint, this is scary territory that only seems to be escalating.
When Joe Quesada became editor-in-chief of Marvel in 2000, one of his first tasks was getting top talent writing and drawing Marvel’s characters. He courted courted many creators from DC, including one of their editors, Axel Alonso. It took about two years for DC to respond, stealing back many of the talent that defected to Marvel. But DC signed them to exclusive contracts. So Marvel started signing creators to exclusive contracts. Now creators are specifically associated with one publisher or the other, making moves to the opposing publisher all the more intriguing.
Unfortunately, when there’s only two big publishers, there aren’t many options for comic creators who can demand big money for their work. But this business model can only last so long. The back and forth of creators will create animosity. What happens if Marvel doesn’t keep Wacker happy? DC claims they will keep a good relationship with the editor, but between the PR lines, anger most certainly lingers.
The celebrities of the industry, the creators, still get the money, but the content lacks. A huge standard has been placed on big names on big titles to generate big sales right away. But because these exclusive contracts guarantee writers and artists a certain amount of work, writers and artists are less inspired to meet deadlines for a paycheck. The most popular comics seem to suffer from inescapable lateness, from the blockbuster events Civil War and Infinite Crisis to regular series like Ultimates and All-Star Superman. Lateness contributed to the industry crash back in the 1990s and that could happen again.
The comic industry is too small to be mean. A Marvel employee will bad mouth DC until he’s at DC, then starts to bad mouth Marvel. Many industries deal with rabid rivalries, but often, the competition is greater, the business is bigger, and as a result, the damage is lesser. Even though comics seem to be enjoying rousing growth, this rivalry that is ravaging through the creative pool will do more damage good, if either company wishes to think long term.