Spiderman and the Trust-Busters

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

Alberto Mingardi found himself fascinated by Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story:

Howe does a superb job in telling two stories at once: on the one hand, he leads the reader into the intricacies of the “Marvel Universe,” that is the narrative world where Peter Parker and The Thing live. I was a huge Marvel fan as a kid, but stopped reading comic books quite a while ago: the amount of creativity put into stories, cross-overs, deaths of characters and their sudden second births, that happened since I stopped following X-Men is just amazing. Howe points out that the greatest innovation of Marvel Comics was the idea of a “continuity” that interlocked all their superheroes. This may seem a rather trivial point, but was key to transforming consumers from occasional readers to loyal fans of basically whatever Marvel published. On the other hand, Howe tells the story of Marvel as a business: how the publishing house kept control of its characters, how authors and comic book artists gained contractual leverage over the years in spite of their work-for-hire contractual arrangements, how superstars of the sector emerged, how the distribution chain of comic books evolved, how tensions typically erupted between those writers, artists and “pure businessmen” who regarded comic books as a trade like any other.


One of the most interesting stories in Howe’s book is that, at some point, Marvel could acquire the license for Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman, which are basically the blockbusters of its oldest competitor, DC Comics. The then-editor in chief of Marvel, Jim Shooter, told the story in his blog here. The project was never to take off because of a smaller publisher, First Comics that “launched a lawsuit against Marvel Comics and others, alleging anti-trust violations, among other things.” “I think it’s safe to say — Shooter notes — that when you’re being sued under anti-trust laws, it’s a bad time to devour your largest competitor.” We typically associate anti-trust with breaking Standard Oil into pieces, or with making impossible to GE to acquire Honeywell. Here’s another great story: it prevented SpiderMan from publishing Batman.

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