If the 1990s were about selling variant covers to teenage magpies, the 2000s are all about licensing. Licensing is fun. Licensing is sexy. Licensing lets you sit back and watch the money roll in, as long as you negotiated the contract properly in the first place. (This is the bit where Marvel screwed up in the 1990s. They're better at it now.)
In fact, the world of licensing is so sexy and exciting that it has its very own magazine, License! Yes, that's License!, with an exclamation mark. It needs the exclamation mark lest there be any doubt as to just how sexy and exciting licensing is. It lets you know that the staff arrive each morning with beaming faces, thrilled by the possibilities inherent in another day covering the wonderful world of licensing.
Marvel will have been particularly delighted by their performance in License!'s list of 2004's leading licensors (link is to a .pdf file), where they ranked at number four, up from number 69 in 2003. That's a pretty impressive climb. It's even more impressive when you see that their worldwide retail sales of licensed merchandise leapt up from $189 million the previous year to a mighty $4 billion. And the list is taking a pretty expansive definition of "licensed", with the list including people like Cherokee and Ford.
Strictly speaking, Marvel actually seem to be joint fourth, but License! think ties aren't sexy and exciting enough. So they've used alphabetical order as a rather arbitrary tiebreaker. In a more rational world, Marvel would actually be listed as tying with Sanrio, the people who bring you Hello Kitty. Apparently there's a range of licensed upscale Hello Kitty jewellery due in 2006, which must be thrilling news for extremely rich children and the mentally ill. But I digress.
'In License!'s list of leading licensors, Marvel were ranked at number four.' The three companies which beat Marvel, in case you're wondering, were Disney, Warner Brothers and Nickelodeon. Of course, Warners includes DC Comics, but it includes a whole slew of other characters as well. Their total takings were $6 billion dollars, so DC would have to account for two thirds of Warner Brothers' licensing income in order to have beaten Marvel. Which would seem unlikely.
So how did Marvel achieve this remarkable growth? Well, er, they had a Spider-Man movie. And boy, it did well. And that's a really big part of it. This has to be the concern for Marvel - they're only as big as their last film, and the number of major properties is limited. None of them is likely to spawn an unlimited ongoing series of films, so the question is how you sustain this momentum.
Well, according to License!, Marvel has a plan. They're "focussed on continuing to leverage [their] classic character licensing business and supporting multi-character sub-brands it has developed, including Marvel Heroes, the preschool-targeted SPIDER-MAN AND FRIENDS, and the infant-geared Marvel Babies". And that's not all. "A core overall strategy will be to continue to consolidate license subcategories with category leaders that can help maximise awareness, distribution and retail support for the Marvel brand." Oh, and they're going to try and flog some superhero comics to Latin America, India and south-east Asia.
Which means... what, exactly? Well, I suppose it's open to debate whether "continue to consolidate licence subcategories with category leaders" really means anything, but the general thrust suggests that Marvel have recognised the basic problem they have. They have some hugely popular brands. But those brands aren't particularly associated with Marvel in the public mind; Spider-Man, the Hulk and the X-Men are primary brands in their own right, and the average punter doesn't really care who makes them.
'Marvel are only as big as their last film, and the number of major properties is limited.' (Comics fans often find it baffling to think that the man on the street doesn't know which company publishes Spider-Man and which one publishes Superman. They don't know because the information is useless to them and they don't care. Go and do a straw poll of people who don't read comics, if you don't believe me.)
In fact, Marvel's most famous characters aren't even particularly associated with the underlying product. The general public is aware of them, but for reasons completely unrelated to anything that appears in the comics. They know about Marvel's top characters from the films and TV shows. They know about Spider-Man and the Hulk because they're pop culture juggernauts, and everyone knows who they are. The commercial value in these characters stems from the public awareness of them, which, perversely, is completely unrelated to the actual comics. The Hulk TV show probably played more of a part in shaping public perception of that character than anything Marvel have actually published in the last quarter century.
Why does this matter? It matters because Marvel want to establish Marvel itself as a brand name. They need to find a way of positioning these characters so that they lead readers in to the wonderful world of Marvel where (hopefully) they can be persuaded to take an interest in other Marvel characters. This has worked wonderfully for the publishing division in the past, back in the days when readers were carefully trained to be fans of Marvel itself and not just fans of a particular character or creators. It meant that Marvel could launch any old title and be reasonably confident that an army of Marvel zombies would be prepared to at least give it a shot.
'Marvel want to establish Marvel itself as a brand name.' Of course, Marvel have rather lost the knack in that regard. Their publishing division, thanks to a hefty degree of money-chasing, has found itself in the same position as their general public awareness. Readers are interested in a certain number of key flagship characters (up to a point), and virtually everything else is released to apathy. Careful marketing succeeded in getting people to buy X-23, but there isn't really a loyal Marvel audience any more, waiting to buy any old comic just because it's from Marvel.
This is why Marvel have so much trouble launching new titles these days, at least without putting heavy publicity behind them. It's also, like it or not, a strong commercial argument for trying to restore the Marvel Universe itself as a selling point. Which is perhaps another reason why we're getting books like HOUSE OF M, and the whole concept of inter-title continuity, making a comeback after a few years in the wasteland.
Well, that's fine for the comics reader, but what about the general public? How do you market Marvel itself to them as a brand name? We've yet to see much in the way of a coherent strategy there. License! mentions "Marvel Babies". No, I've never heard of them either. Google reveals that Marvel sold some poor sucker the licence to make Marvel Babies clothes last year, but if there's an actual underlying product somewhere, I'm damned if I can find it.
Except for this thread from the CBR message board last May, which appears to show concept art for something that looks alarmingly like the Muppet Babies. The mind boggles. It's mildly reassuring to see that nothing seems to have come of it.
Ridiculous as it looks, though, it's not a completely absurd way for the company to go. They need to convert their existing momentum into a strong Marvel brand name, because that's the way to promote newer and second-tier characters more effectively. And if the general public won't read the comics - and most of the movie audience won't, no matter how well promoted they are - then they'll just have to try something a little more unusual. They've identified the right problem. The question is whether they've got a workable solution.
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