Tuesday, June 21, 2011

And now, a few positive words about Marvel Financial V.P. Barry Kaplan

By the time I finally got Marvel's board to agree to allow a royalty program (and that was a tough sell), DC had already announced theirs. Easy for them. Only three or four DC titles sold enough copies to qualify for royalties under their plan, and one, Superman, just barely, because royalties started after the first 100,000 copies. Teen Titans was their number one book and it sold roughly 175,000 a month. So, their exposure was minimal. Unless sales increased dramatically, their program would cost them almost nothing. As I've mentioned before, Vince Colletta once showed me three DC royalty checks that did not total one dollar. They were hoping that their plan would help them steal talent from Marvel, which would theoretically boost sales, in which case they'd be happy to pay out some royalty money.

Meanwhile, at Marvel, our line AVERAGE was over 200,000. EVERY Marvel title would pay royalties from the inception of our plan, assuming we matched DC. Even Dazzler sold 140,000 copies a month. From inception, if sales stayed the same, our plan would take around a million dollars off of the bottom line. Make that make sense to a room full of business sharks who don't give a rat's ass about anything but the bottom line, I dare you. But I did.

After I got board approval, I laid out DC's plan to Barry Kaplan. I said this is the bar we have to reach with our plan. Barry said, "We can do BETTER than that." We matched DC's plan as our base level, adding some improvements and modifications, and then Barry added a SLIDING SCALE. The more copies your title sold, the higher the royalty rate, up to double the base rate. With Barry's help, the base plan and sliding scale feature became policy. I personally wrote the documents.

Some Marvel creative teams made sooo much money...! The X-Men team in particular.

When I first took the job as EIC, I did so on the condition that I could begin paying royalties. When I posed that condition to President Jim Galton back then, in 1977, he said, and I quote, "You mean we don't?" He came from real world book publishing, so he wasn't philosophically opposed to the idea.

Instituting the plan was delayed for years, for several reasons. For one, because of Kirby's legal threats, our lawyers at K&K advised against it, on the grounds that royalties, or royalty-like incentives implied a creator ownership, or ownership stake in the work, which might bolster the claims Kirby's lawyers were making. Sigh. For another, there was a great deal of back and forth between me and the financial types about how such a program should be structured. The final hurdle, as mentioned above, was board approval. DC announcing their plan forced our hand -- thank you, Paul Levitz -- and gave us a template structure to work from. We were always careful to call it a "sales incentive," not royalties, by the way, to avoid ownership issues.

The Marvel plan didn't take a million off the bottom line that first fiscal year. It took over TWO million. Which was fine, because when you're paying those kind of royalties, it means that your sales are soaring through the roof, and the bottom line is many millions fatter.  

9 comments:

Ian Hewett said...

This is fascinating stuff, Jim. I'd like to echo the sentiments of many other commenters on previous posts that this would make an excellent book. I follow a lot of blogs, but don't read them religiously. In the past week, yours has become the exception. It's spurred me on to put the extra effort into my own comic (which is very much an ongoing hobby, and available on my profile if anybody's interested!).

I first read your name at the age of 7 when I picked up issue 1 of the (UK) Transformers comic. I remain a fan of the Marvel TF to this day, over and above other incarnations. I would have loved the original storyline to end up being the basis of the live action movies (or even an animated series), and I look forward to reading the Secret Origin.

Louis Porter Jr. said...

I find it AMAZING that Dazzler was selling 140,000 a month. Thanks you giving us a look behind the business curtain and Marvel. I have found a lot of this quite helpful in my own business.

Marc Miyake said...

Dear Jim,

Last night, hours before I read this entry, I read your essay "The Truth about Dreadstarlin" in Dreadstar #1. You mentioned how you wanted to "open up a new era of opportunity for creators" and "got enthusiastic cooperation" from "Upstairs." I guessed you were referring to Barry Kaplan. And lo and behold, he's today's topic!

I wonder how much royalties Marvel creators make these days when no comics sell over 100k. Yesterday I learned that an obscure 1986 black-and-white one-shot got more orders than the prelude to this year's X-Men event named "Schism" (argh, like the DEFIANT crossover!) and many other Marvel and DC titles. If DC paid under a dollar in royalties in three cases back then, how much does it pay now?

Yesterday I also happened to order the Essential Dazzler TPBs reprinting the entire series plus the graphic novel. You wrote Dazzler: The Movie as well as a number of issues of the series (overlapping with the period in which you wrote Secret Wars!), and I wanted to see your work in context. Dazzler had some great Bill Sienkiewicz painted covers during your run, followed by a couple of covers inked (and in one case, penciled) by John Byrne. Were those part of an attempt to increase sales? Were you writing Dazzler because no one else wanted to? What was your vision of Dazzler's role in the Marvel line at the time? I just realized that she was the only mutant with a solo regular title - even before Wolverine got his own title in 1988! (I'm not counting his 1982 miniseries.) She was also the first mutant to have a solo Marvel Graphic Novel. Archie Goodwin himself took over Dazzler, but even he and future star Paul Chadwick couldn't save the title from cancellation. Why didn't Dazzler take off?

Doug said...

I gotta throw in my .02 cents. I've been a fan of Jim's since I was a kid reading old X-men, and then I loved the Valiant line. I really do. I read your post about creating a house style and I was one of those geeks that loved it, and did mention that it felt like reading an old Marvel Comic, so just so you know at least one of us fans out here saw what you were trying to do. (well 2, my brother feels the same way). however I just want to say that I am getting a huge kick out of reading your blog. I appreciate how you temper your opinions with a disclaimer and do your best to stick with stating the facts. There's not any "well so and so said such and such" so it has to be true" kind of comments on here. If you can keep the stories coming, just know there are a bunch of us out here that appreciate the inside scoop you've been dishing out. Also... You mentioned that "Dazzler" sold over 140K copies a month. I read a statement recently that said "no comic released in the month of May" sold over 100K... sad statement about the shape of the industry. I am wondering what if you have an opinion on why that is the case and if you'd be willing to share it. I have my own and posted a hurried note on my facebook page (not a comment put a note), and I am very curios as to wha tyour opinion may be. Thanks! (ok.. gotta get back to work)

jimshooter said...

Dear Marc,

RE: My piece in Dreadstar #1: You realize, of course, that in print I had to put the best face on goings on at Marvel. Talking about the thickskulls upstairs unflatteringly wouldn't do. That said, I encountered no resistance to EPIC Comics, largely because, at that time, I was the fair-haired boy. We were making so much money that the big bosses mostly left me alone and went along with whatever my crazy scheme du jour was. As long as it didn't cost too much. Publisher Mike Hobson was, indeed, enthusiastic, and I suppose he could be considered "upstairs," though his office was on the comics floor.

RE: Royalties: I believe the major companies have lowered the threshold for royalties. And still, very few creators earn any.

RE: Dazzler: Of course, we loved having Bill Sienkiewicz do the covers, but the main reason that happened is because he wanted to do them. Couldn't hurt sales, always a concern. Yes, few people wanted to write Dazzler, and few really could. Her show biz/super heroine duality confounded most. Too hard, too much work. My vision of her was that she could be a unique and intriguing Marvel Universe star. It was difficult for me to keep up with the writing. My EIC job took long hours. Archie asked to do the book. I think he saw the same potentials as I did. He did great stuff. He worked as I did back at DC, doing small roughs for every panel. Way better than mine ever were. I wish you could see the layouts he did for Chadwick. One could practically blow 'em up, trace 'em off and ink them. Brilliant stuff. Ask Paul. Why didn't Dazzler take off? I guess we just didn't do it well enough.

jimshooter said...

Dear Doug,

I'll be addressing this in a post soon. Stay tuned. And thanks for the kind words.

Marc Miyake said...

Dear Jim,

RE: Dreadstar: I understood what you had to do when you wrote that piece and I don't think there's anything wrong with it. I've seen your Kaplan story before and thought his sliding scale counted as "enthusiastic cooperation." Also, I thought Hobson was upstairs. Oops! At least I assumed correctly that he'd be on the enthusiastic side.

RE: Royalties: Sorry I sounded as if I wanted specific figures. Not my intent. None of my business. Just wanted general info. Thanks. Good to hear royalties are still paid; bad to hear they're not often earned.

RE: Dazzler: I'm glad Bill Sienkiewicz wanted to do the covers. And that Archie Goodwin asked to write it! Too bad all that top talent didn't translate into success.

All I've ever seen of Archie's art has been his signature self-caricature. A shame I can't see the layouts you describe. I've seen samples of your DC layouts accompanying your Legion Companion interview and I'd buy a book of them side by side with the published art.

One reason I'm interested in reading Dazzler is, as you put it, "[h]er show biz/super heroine duality." She's not just another superhero. I am not very interested in mainstream superhero books. The Dazzler concept requires people grounded in the real world to write and draw it. Not people whose "creations" consist of the same recycled tropes that they got from other comic books.

JediJones said...

I would have to guess Dazzler didn't take off because of demographics. I think Marvel only had a couple titles starring female leads then, another being Spider-Woman which didn't last much longer than Dazzler. In addition to Dazzler being a female character, the fantasy of being a famous celebrity or star also tends to appeal more to females.

I don't have exact demographics but everyone knows that comics readers, especially superhero comics readers were and are mostly male. So it would have been an uphill battle getting them to even sample this series let alone become a regular reader, especially younger males. I think it did make good publishing sense to have something like this out there as an entry point to try to get more female readers interested in comics.

The question of demographics of comic readers is an interesting one that I'd like to see Jim address. I found this quote from Jim in a Time Magazine article from 1986, where he says that since 1980, "The target audience changed, from early teenagers or younger to the 16-to-25 age group."

It'd be interesting to hear what Jim thought about the demographics of comic readers at the time he became editor-in-chief and how that factored into his decisions. Was it the intention all along to turn this older age group into comics readers or was it just a side effect of bringing the writing up to better standards?

It does seem like expanding to different demographics was something of a priority for Marvel with new titles introduced to appeal to both young children and mature readers. I'm not sure if Dazzler was specifically directed at female readers, and I'm also not sure if Marvel managed to expand their female demographic during that time. It would be interesting to hear more about how demographics factored into Marvel's publishing and marketing plans at that time or how they've factored into Jim's approaches to all his comic writing.

jimshooter said...

Dazzler was created in hopes of making a deal with a record company to produce her music using studio musicians, ala the Archies. Almost worked. The Dazzler comic book sold well at first -- 428,000 copies of the first issue, which was the first all-direct comic book from a major publisher. It continued to sell reasonably well for several years. Eventually, sales drifted down to near 100,000 copies an issue, cancellation numbers for Marvel at the time, and we ended the series.

We generally didn't think about things like targetting female readers or any particular age group. If I used the words "target audience" it was quickspeak for that's who we think is buying our comics. We believed, and I still believe, that good stories told well will find an audience, or at least have a good chance of doing so.

NOTE: Obviously STAR Comics were expected to appeal to younger readers, but usually any "targetting" done was by the creators, not in accordance with some publishing strategy. Trina Robbins intended Misty for young female readers. Louise Simonson and June Brigman probably expected that Power Pack might appeal to female readers. There are other examples.

Generally, however, following in Stan's footsteps, we just tried to create comics that we, ourselves, would find interesting. Female characters? Sure, why not? G.I. Joe? I was shouted down at the distributors' conference where we announced plans to do G.I. Joe. Nobody wanted it. But it worked out pretty well. We were open to trying anything we felt had potential. I always felt that if we did something new, or different from the norm, and did it very well, we could succeed. The fact is, however, that what the audience supported best and what most creators wanted to do was super-heroes. I tried to encourage experimentation within that genre, too.

DC also took some interesting stabs at experimenting. Everyone wanted to expand the medium. Easier said than done.