Robot 6

The Middle Ground #36: What Would Walt Do?

There are times when I want to stop reading into things. After all, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, as they say, and this is not a pipe and and and. But there’s something about comics that builds in a certain… I don’t know, distrust, about the stories that we get told about things, the official explanations; maybe it’s because we’re taught to believe in secret identities and ulterior motives and melodramatic plans that somehow come together much more than they would in real life. But anyway, back to my point. As I semi-asked on Twitter earlier today, what exactly does Disney think about comics?

The question really came to mind when I was thinking about the (great) news about Fantagraphics getting the rights to publish a definitive collection of Carl Bark’s Donald Duck stories the other day. It seems like a perfect marriage – Fanta has shown time and time again that it knows how to package and promote collections of classic comic strips (Just look at the company’s amazing – and much-imitated – The Complete Peanuts for proof), and Barks’ strips are calling out for that kind of care and attention – until I realized, Wait: Disney actually owns its own comic publisher. Why isn’t Marvel doing this?

Here’s what less cynical, more intelligent people said when I asked on Twitter earlier:


[Maybe Disney would] rather deal with [Fantagraphics publisher] Gary Groth than Joey Q?

The Beat’s Heidi MacDonald:

I would guess that the Barks material is NOT seen as a contemporary money maker but rather an archival prestige project. It’s probably something that Disney just doesn’t to take the time to get right to the degree they KNOW the fans will demand.

Marc-Oliver Frisch:

Don’t imagine the material would’ve profited much from the Marvel brand. Audience may be more likely to find & buy at from Fanta… Maybe they figure doing Disney comics would require too much heavy lifting, since it’s not the kind of material Marvel’s known for?

I think there’s definitely something to that train of thought – That Fantagraphics is just better at this than Marvel would be, and better positioned in the marketplace, as well. Following that, it makes sense as well for Disney to keep the Pixar and kids books at Boom!, who’ve been shown to have success with those books already (You’ve all picked up Roger Langridge’s The Muppet Show by now, right? Hopefully you’ve also given The Incredibles a try, as well), because Marvel treats its all-ages books like something it’d rather forget than making a big deal out’ve them – which it should, considering they are wonderful and often more enjoyable than the “main” Marvel Universe versions of the same characters.

But the thing about that attitude is this: If it’s true, then Disney really didn’t buy Marvel to get a comic publisher. It bought Marvel to get the IP, the movie studio and most importantly to get the foothold into that demographic – Note that the only synergy Marvel has had from Disney has been Tron comics and now CrossGen. Which, let’s be honest, isn’t necessarily a bad idea: Marvel’s strategy for the last few years has seemed to be “Aim for the existing readers and everyone else will come ’round eventually,” so buying the company to get those readers and then sell new projects to them makes some sense. But for comics featuring the characters central to the Disney brand…? Apparently, there are better places outside of the corporate umbrella to go for that. Which, for all of the Marvel bravado of “We’re not going to suddenly become Mickey Mouse Comics” during the news of the sale, still has to hurt the House of Ideas a little bit.



Honestly, I don’t think the Disney higher-ups think about comic books very often.
I believe they bought Marvel for the movies and the characters (they’ve been trying and failing for years to get the teen boy demographic), but the actual comic books are an afterthought.

Also, “Disney” isn’t a single, thinking subject here: as Gary Groth pointed out in his Robot 6 interview, it took him a year to find the right person to talk to within the company. Presumably the corporate structure has room for different players, groups and divisions. Things must not be so regimented that every proposal labelled “comics” gets automatically directed to Marvel. That looser structure probably allows for more creative and, in this case, better decisions. I’d hate to see Marvel produce the “Carl Barks Omnibus”!

While I was completely joking in my earlier comment on Twitter, I don’t think it’s a tough decision to make when you see how beautifully designed the definitive comic reprint projects books that Fantagraphics has produced over the past seven years: Peanuts, Popeye, Krazy Kat, Prince Valiant, Captain Easy, Gahan Wilson, Bill Mauldin, Usagi Yojimbo, Steve Ditko, Bill Everett. (And wait until you see the Buz Sawyer volume coming out in a few weeks!)

To add in full disclosure: I work for W. W. Norton, which distributes Fantagraphics to the trade book market and have worked with them extensively, so of course I’m prejudiced…AND very excited to see the Barks library, not to mention Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse, Kelly’s Pogo, and Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby over the next couple years.

And Gary Groth is a big sweetiehead. There, I’ve totally ruined his rumored hardass image.

I think Gary might just have taken less than a year to find someone at Disney to talk to if he had used alternative methods. Barks and his work is definitely not unknown within the Disney infrastructure, and Disney is more than willing to market to its most dedicated adult fans. That said I can see how it would take a long time to make a deal.

I do think the thought that Disney bought IP when it bought Marvel, not a comic publisher, is accurate, considering Disney’s track record on comics…they have almost always made comic books only via licensing (in US the exception was Disney comics, active 1990-93).
While Barks might not be unknown in the infrastructure, comics have always been a side interest there and the main topic is movies and theme parks (meanwhile, in Europe Disney equals comics first and movies and theme parks second, even while the publishers here are also just license holders).

Buying Marvel for the comics publishing arm of the company would be like buying Ford for the right to make the Model T.

Gary Groth had the initiative to contact Disney and propose this deal; maybe if someone at Marvel had decided to ask first then Marvel would have gotten the contract instead. It seems to me that a big reason Fantagraphics got the job is because no one else asked about it (which is fine by me because I love their stuff). I’m sure there are Disney comics fans at Marvel but releasing classic Duck material probably doesn’t come up often during their ‘stuff we can publish to make money’ meetings.

…maybe Marvel should push for getting Darkwing Duck. Or better yet, printing Duck Avenger stories in US, the material already is there and just a matter of translation (and figuring out where does one stand with the Gemstone license).

Comics journalism is weird. Other journalists and columnists usually start by contacting official representatives of the matter in question, then go to nonofficial sources to add more shades to the story. Comics journalists always seem to skip that and go right to the guesswork.

Disney does have a successful “disney” comics division, in England and Italy. They know how to market and publish the books. Much of what Fantagraphics is doing has already been done, both here in the U.S. (those huge Another Rainbow sets) and in Europe.

Disney, in the U.S., has not been successful promoting their comics. Disney Comics went belly up after about two years; Hyperion has had little success trying to market movie comics. Marvel COULD produce this, but I doubt Disney would put a Marvel tag on the book… it would more likely be Disney Press, to appeal to the Disney fans and collectors, just like they did with the Prince of Persia and Tron graphic novels. Instead, Disney has licensed the book to Fantagraphics, just like they licensed the book to the various Egmont imprints in Europe. (And remember, when Gladstone reacquired the Disney license, Marvel distributed those titles to newsstands.)

What’s not being reported? Boom! is printing parallel material, both by Don Rosa and via their WDC&S archive (as well as in their OGN Disney anthologies).

Darkwing Duck is at Boom, and doing quite well it seems.

What’s more likely? Kingdom Comics will become an imprint of Marvel, turning the more heroic Disney properties into comic book titles.

“I think Gary might just have taken less than a year to find someone at Disney to talk to if he had used alternative methods”

…to what?

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