Dark Horse vs Marvel: The Future of the Comics License

A long time ago, in a galaxy not-so-far-away, in 1977, the first Star Wars movie was released…into a world that already had a Star Wars comic. Marvel published Star Wars #1 a month before the movie’s release. Licensed comics have been a part of the franchise since its inception, and while formats, styles and publishers have changed, I don’t see that changing. With the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney, new films pending and the comics industry undergoing a financial recovery, we’re left with a lot of interesting questions about their future…

The History

Marvel originally acquired the rights to publish a limited six-issue adaptation of A New Hope, but it sold so extraordinarily well that they pushed for the opportunity to continue publishing it as an ongoing series. The limitations placed on them meant that they were not able to advance the plot or characters in any significant way, but this pushed them towards expanding outwards, introducing new characters and locations. Tonally, the Marvel comics vary wildly from later installations of the Expanded Universe, and it’s true that as a body of work they sit further down the canonical hierarchy, associated with giant green space bunnies and cheesy predictions of doom. But they also introduced characters such as Lumiya, who returned as a serious villain in Del Rey’s recent Legacy of the Force novel series. They introduced a complicated and well-received backstory for the Mandalorians, one that has proven remarkably resilient to retcons as authors keep finding ways to work it back in. John Jackson Miller states that Archie Goodwin’s work on the original Marvel Star Wars series directly inspired plotlines in his much more recent series, Knights of the Old Republic.

Falling sales eventually led to the series’ cancellation in 1986, along with the cancellation of the recently launched young readers’ comics designed to tie into the Ewoks and Droids cartoons. But those cartoons failed to replicate the success of the movies and licensed Star Wars fiction would not see a renaissance until the following decade.

In 1991, the new licensees, Dark Horse, published a six-part mini series, Dark Empire. Featuring a storyline designed to continue the adventures of the iconic characters beyond their movie adventures in unexpected and meaningful ways, Dark Empire is emblematic of the twenty years of Expanded Universe material that populates the era following Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire. With the novels covering much of the immediate aftermath and leading the direction of the post-Return of the Jedi timeline, Dark Horse shifted its focus to other time periods and storylines, and continues to do so to this day. Tales of the Jedi, focusing on ancient history, was one of its early successes and Legacy, set in the far future, is one of only two Star Wars titles so popular it was brought back for a second volume. (The other being the eponymous Star Wars). Dark Horse embraced diversity of genre (from the militaristic Rogue Squadron and Empire to the high fantasy and humour of Knights of the Old Republic to the literal anything-goes environment of Star Wars Tales). They also embraced diversity of format, and by now they regularly publish a mix of monthlies, mini series, standalone graphic novels, one-shots and even digest-sized novellas. The company acquired the rights to Marvel’s Star Wars work and republished those issues in omnibus format, with the specific goal of keeping older works available at affordable prices.

The Disney Buyout

When Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012, speculation began immediately that this would lead to the comics license reverting to fellow Disney subsidiary, Marvel. From Disney’s point of view, it would certainly seem to make sense to keep the financial rewards in-house. And from the perspectives of Lucasfilm and Marvel? Well, who wouldn’t want to see a partnership between these corporate giants. How could Marvel turn down something as big as Star Wars? How could Lucasfilm balk at being published by Marvel?

It certainly sounds synergistic. But I think there’s an alternate perspective to be found if we look at the way these publishers treat their licensed comics, direct vs mass market sales, graphic novels and sales figures.

The Markets

The first thing to note is the difference between the direct market and the mass market. The direct market is a distribution network that supplies comics, trade paperbacks/hardcovers (which are collections of single issues) and original graphic novels (which were never originally serialized) and various other goodies you’ll get in your friendly local comic book shop to, well, your friendly local comic book shop. The direct market supplies to specialty comic retailers. It does not supply to mainstream retailers such as Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Those retailers are supplied by the mass market, and the mass market deals almost exclusively with trades and graphic novels.

Diamond Comic Distributors hold a monopoly on the direct market and publicly release sales figures for the North American market. Sales figures for the mass market are not publicly available. This has a negligible effect on the figures for monthly comics as they are almost all sold through the direct market. However, as anyone who’s walked into a large bookstore will know, graphic novels have become a staple presence and are sold in significant quantities through both the direct and mass markets.  For a franchise like Star Wars, which targets a Venn diagram of an audience (comprised of comic book fans and Star Wars fans), this is particularly frustrating as availability in mainstream bookstores is likely to be an important part of the sales data. Still, some broad behavioural patterns do become apparent.

What does Marvel even publish?

Using data from Comichron and ICV2, I looked into the licensed comics Marvel actually publish. It is not many. Using the most recent two years’ of solicitations, Marvel appears to be publishing – as an ongoing commitment – John Carter of Mars, The Wizard of Oz and Stephen King’s Dark Tower. They have also published standalone mini series for Halo, Castle, Dexter, Northanger Abbey, Ender’s Game, and a host of short series or one-shots for Disney properties such as Toy Story, Monsters Inc, The Muppets, etc.

Of these, the rights to John Carter and The Wizard of Oz are owned by Disney and Castle is a television show that runs on ABC, also owned by Disney. The properties such as Toy Story and the Muppets were previously licensed by BOOM! Studios but the licenses migrated to Marvel after they were acquired by Disney.

I described Marvel’s publication of John Carter, Oz and Dark Tower as an “ongoing commitment” rather than an ongoing series, because these are not monthly comics.  Rather they are published in a series of limited mini series, between two and eight issues long, before taking a break for a month or two and then returning with a new mini series. John Carter’s last mini series ended over a year ago.

Historically, Marvel shed nearly all their licensed comics during their mid-90s bankruptcy, understandably cutting back to their very core products in an attempt to survive. Their reluctance to embrace licensed work in the modern era is not something to which I can find an official answer, but I suspect the reason is closely related to low sales of single issues and Marvel’s relative disinterest in the mass market.

The single-issue market is dominated by Marvel and DC. It’s unusual to see more than five independent comics in the top 100. Marvel’s worst-selling superhero title outsells its best licensed work (which would, for the record, be the Dark Tower tie-ins, averaging 13,000 – 14,000 copies, followed by Oz, which averages 7000 – 8000. For comparison, Marvel’s superhero titles tend to enter the zone of potential cancellation once they drop below 20,000).

Licensed work may often have a stronger relative performance if released in collected form as a trade paperback, but, to compare like with like, while Marvel often outperforms DC in singles sales, this is not true when it comes to trade paperbacks and graphic novels. While Marvel are not fool enough to ignore the chance to repackage issues they have already produced and, essentially, sell them again, they do not seem to invest as much time and attention to exploiting this market as their competition.

The New York Times graphic novel bestseller list is, frustratingly, not very useful to us in our attempts to analyse Star Wars’ general performance in the mass market because it provides only the top ten weekly best sellers and Star Wars titles do not generally succeed at this level, but it can help demonstrate the depths to which Marvel underperform in this arena. I will be referencing this article from The Beat, offering an analysis of the most recent complete year of sales: 2012.

Not only do Marvel fail to outperform DC, they arguably fail to outperform Dark Horse, even though market share in the comics industry tends to be a three way tie between Marvel, DC and an awkward coalition of “everyone else”. While Marvel manage to get eight distinct titles onto the list to Dark Horse’s six, Dark Horse’s climb higher and stick around for longer. It’s only fair to note that Marvel improve their performance in the smaller hardcover market, soundly defeating Dark Horse, but Dark Horse choose to publish very few hardbacks, so it’s difficult to tell if it’s because Marvel has the titles that can command that treatment or if it’s simply a different approach to business. Even in the hardcover sales, Marvel comes in distant fourth place (behind Image, DC and Random House).

The trades sell in much, much smaller quantities than single issues, so overall, we mustn’t understate Marvel’s sales prowess, but I think it’s safe to say that, in the very different landscape of the trades market, Marvel don’t perform well, and apparently don’t care to, if this account of owner Ike Perlmutter’s penny-pinching ways is to be believed. The Beat reports that the reason Marvel’s graphic novels go out of print so quickly is an official policy of keeping a tiny back catalogue so as to save on storage costs. It would certainly explain their regular liquidation of their own stock.

But what about Dark Horse?

Dark Horse has a much more comprehensive approach to the market. As you can see from the links above, it performs very well for a smaller company in trade paperbacks. It also publishes a mix of original work (such as Hellboy and Usagi Yojimbo) as well holding a number of well-known licenses in addition to Star Wars (such as Buffy and Mass Effect).

Its decisions on format seem to vary based on the property involved. Buffy is published in “seasons” and spawned a second title – Angel & Faith. Mass Effect was a series of mini series, similar to Marvel’s treatment of its current licenses, but has now spun into an ongoing, Foundation. Star Wars has multiple ongoing titles (currently Legacy and Star Wars), titles that are ongoing but tend to run in arcs, with breaks (Dawn of the Jedi, Dark Times), linked mini series (the Darth Vader and… titles), one-shots (Purge), standalone minis (Crimson Empire, The Star Wars) and original graphic novels (the digest-sized Clone Wars material).

Looking at sales, in the singles charts, Star Wars is the only title to consistently sell over 40,000 copies – a figure that ensures it is actually competitive with major superhero releases from Marvel and DC. Although it’s worth mentioning that the first issue of The Star Wars – a limited series based on concept art and early drafts – sold almost 80,000. Second issues frequently experience very steep drops, but even so, it’s likely to be a strong performer.

The rest of the current line tends to sell between 12,000 and 19,000 depending on the title. This is actually pretty respectable for anything that isn’t a superhero book, and as you can see, even the worst-selling Star Wars titles sell almost as well as Marvel’s best-selling licensed work (Dark Tower).

In the direct market trades charts, Star Wars performs reasonably well, with most releases breaking the top fifty and more popular books making it into the top twenty. Their most successful title, Star Wars, debuted at #3. It doesn’t set the charts on fire, but it’s a solid performer, and we can perhaps infer Dark Horse’s commitment to the trade market from their creation of the Omnibus lines. These books collect large amounts of older material in digest-sized format, republished and sold at a low price (considering the amount of material included). The stated goal is to keep this work in print and available. Dark Horse also publish Omnibus collections for many other licensed properties, including Buffy, Alien, Predator and Terminator.

This appears to demonstrate a commitment to the trade format and availability of the material that stands in contrast to Marvel’s habit of allowing its collections to go out of print after very short periods of time.

So what’s going to happen?

Well, the disappointing answer is that I’m honestly not sure. We know that the Star Wars license will remain with Dark Horse for “the near future”, per a statement from its President, Mike Richardson. But a possible loss of the license wasn’t denied either, and the final lines where LucasArts talk about “business as usual” hardly inspire confidence considering they were shut down six months later. (Of course the legalities are extremely different – LucasArts was sold to Disney, Dark Horse is an entirely separate company who license the right to print funny books, but it’s illustrative of the fluctuating nature of the situation).

If the license does go to Marvel, it may simply be because they want it and pitch for it. They clearly are willing to publish licensed work despite the comparatively low sales figures, and Star Wars has the potential to sell far better than their current licenses even on its less popular titles. They may be looking at the sales figures for Star Wars and The Star Wars with interest.

But their lack of regard for the trade market concerns me. I suspect the property will be far less lucrative if that is not properly exploited. There is also the issue of ongoing titles, and publishing multiple titles simultaneously. Dark Horse has proven that this can be supported, but will Marvel feel the same way, or will they use what appears to be their standard approach of interlocking mini series? Will they take a tack reminiscent of their own intellectual property and give the heavy-hitters multiple titles – a Boba Fett on every team? Or will they stick with Dark Horse’s tradition of exploring the breadth of the universe’s timeline?

While their original trilogy era comic is their best-seller, Legacy which is set in the far future was so popular it came back for a second volume. They put fan-favourite team Ostrander and Duursema on Dawn of the Jedi, set in the distant past, which sold close to 20,000 during its first arc, and actually gained readership. Of course characters like Boba Fett and Darth Vader are staple sellers, but Dark Horse has a long tradition of exploring the true breadth of the Expanded Universe’s timeline. It’s doubtful we would have seen a Darth Bane novel trilogy without the work of Jedi vs Sith in establishing the era, or how much work Tales of the Jedi did in establishing ancient history as a potentially successful setting for a best-selling computer game. I’m reluctant to push Star Wars as an example of representation in terms of social diversity, because I love it, but man it’s full of straight white guys. That said, Knight Errant, the second volume of Legacy, and arguably Tales of the Jedi all feature female leads. Until September of this year, the only novels to do this were tie-ins to the Knight Errant and Dawn of the Jedi series. They have now been joined by Razor’s Edge which stars Leia. Another novel – Mandorla – which has since been cancelled, was originally to star Nomi Sunrider, the arguable protagonist of the Tales of the Jedi comics. Del Rey are clearly improving in this regard, but seem to be taking a lot of inspiration from their counterparts at Dark Horse.

Ultimately, Marvel has unparalleled resources and has shown it’s as adept at Disney when it comes to synergistic marketing and storytelling. Hypothetically a move to Marvel could be an exciting time.

But I think there’s more to the story than initially meets the eye and that if they really want to get the best out of the franchise, they’ll need to adapt Dark Horse’s proven methods rather than treating the property as a minor concern or a superhero analogue.

I also think it’s possible that Disney will realize that shuffling this license in-house won’t be as easy as moving Toy Story or the Muppets, which sell the occasional mini series at low levels.

Do Marvel want the license? So far they certainly haven’t shown any interest in pursuing many licenses outside those handed to them by Disney. And if that’s the case, will Star Wars suffer as a result? It may come down to a choice; would Disney prefer the franchise to stay entirely “in-house”, or would they prefer to see it at the publisher best-suited to making it a commercial success?

Answers in the comment section, please…

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