Sunday, October 09, 2005

Don't Trust The Fanboys

I've been thinking a bit about this recent article that ran in The Motley Fool. It flew around the blogosphere a few times and gained a general chorus of approval, which mainly appreciated the fact that a third-party from outside the industry was finally becoming hep to a conventional wisdom that had gained some currency in comics circles a long time ago: mainly, that Marvel can't keep making gangbuster profits on retrofitted versions of 60s and 70s characters forever, and at some point the paucity of lucrative properties from the succeeding decades will hurt them.

Well, first, as Tom Spurgeon pointed out, the strong implication here is that somehow or another Marvel can take rational steps to replicate the irrational success of phenomena like Spider-Man, which is on the face of it kind-of specious. No-one can predict something like Spider-Man, and the history of modern media is littered with attempts at replicating the incredible - but essentially unpredictable - success of a few freak lightning strikes. Sometimes it works, but nowhere near as well.

But even if you discount that, it seems as if the conventional wisdom is making another pretty specious error here: trusting the fanboys who compose the main audience for Marvel (and DC and most "mainstream") comics. On the face of it, the idea that the most successful media adaptions are automatically going to be the same exact properties that have traditionally been popular among comics fans is just not a strong conclusion. Sure, it goes without saying that the most popular ideas have the appeal of a built-in fanbase and a pre-existing media presence. Most people knew who Spider-Man and The Hulk were, long before their movies premiered, because of decades of previous media exposure - even if the X-Men weren't quite the same kind of household name, they still had a long and proven track-record.

But for every single decade of Marvel's existence, there are hideen gems which, for whatever reason, the comic-buying public passed on. The reasons for this are actually fairly simple: comic fans are incredibly conservative. Unless it comes from a familiar brand (X-, Spider-, Bat-), chances are a new property will flounder, and if a property flounders it becomes a punchline. But you should ask yourself, on an objective basis, why is Wolverine "cooler" than Darkhawk? Why is one character a comics icon while the other is considered a joke?

No reason at all, except for the prejudices of the people who actually buy the comics. To an investor or a potential consumer, these prejudices are not only less than important, they are actually counter-productive. Just looking at properties like the X-Men and the Punisher, it's easy to see that the "intrinsic" value of a property (whatever that is) can sometimes take years or even decades to be appreciated. Sometimes it just takes the right approach to bring out a previously-ignored facet, or a change in public tastes, but from the standpoint of someone trying to build future successes for a well-known brand, there is absolutely no reason why previous failure circumscribes future success, especially in reference to second- and third-string properties that have little or no media presence.

Take a look at the Fool's casual dismissal of more recent Marvel properties:
Marvel hasn't created an enduring hit character since 1974, when the improbably coiffed mutant Wolverine turned up in an issue of The Incredible Hulk. Even among the 10 big screen-bound properties Marvel recently announced as part of its production deal with Paramount, only two -- C-list teams Cloak & Dagger and Power Pack -- date past that period, and they launched back in 1983 and 1984, respectively.

To someone who has never heard of them before, they have no idea that Power Pack is a "C-list" idea. In the right hands, Power Pack could probably be an incredibly success, because of all the properties in the Marvel stable it comes closest to synthesizing the kind of kid-friendly charm of the Harry Potter series. Pitch a Power Pack movie as "a family of super-hero kids from the peopel who brought you Spider-Man, certain to appeal to the same audiences who flocked to Harry Potter", and you've got a good chance of making money. And furthermore, since most Marvel properties created since around 1980 or so are subject to long-standing royalty agreements, the creators of said properties actually stand to gain if their "C-list" properties are made into successful movies, which is something that can't be said for any of the other cash-cows Marvle has so-far produced. (We have seen the effects of this in the subsequent treatment of creators like Marv Wolfman and Dave Cockrum, who created Blade and many of the New X-Men (respectively) before Jim Shooter's profit-sharing initiatives began.)

So look at the aforementioned Darkhawk. Sure, he's been a punchline in Wizard for a decade now. But so what? Forget the fact that his title imploded in the mid-90s when everything Marvel did sucked, just look at the bare-bones of the concept:
A not-too-bright kid from a blue-collar family stumbles on an object of incredible power that enables him to transform into the mysterious Darkhawk. He must use these powers to learn the secret of his father's disappearance by negotiating a complex world of organized crime and police-corruption, all the while dealing with the instability in his family caused by the father's absence.

If you were a Hollywood executive, and didn't know anything about the property, that would probably jump out at you, wouldn't it? Give it the right treatment and you've got a feasible chance to make some money - and if a Darkhawk movie ever got made, Danny Fingeroth, Tom DeFalco and Mike Manley (to my best knowledge the character's creators) would get a small (certainly compared to what Frank Miller made off Sin CIty) but not insignificant piece of the action.

Sure, there are some ideas which could probably never be adequately resurrected (sorry, Kickers, Inc., we hardly knew ye), but there are also a ton of ideas which could be successful in contexts besides the ones in which they were created. Imagine a Rocket Raccoon series on the Cartoon Network, done in the same style as Krypto or Atomic Betty and I think you might get my drift. So if I were an investor at Marvel or a creator who stood to profit from a royalty agreement, I'd be pretty optimistic -- that is, if the powers-that-be could separate their business decisions from the prejudices of the fanboy classes.

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