Friday, November 8, 2019

All The News That's Fit To Disclose

Thanks to my investment advisor, who's known for some time of my fixation on comics, I've indulged in some fascinating reading lately on Marvel's annual reports from the 1990s--a topic which normally wouldn't elicit much interest from the average comic book reader, considering that annual reports generally make for pretty dry reading. What makes the subject a little bit different in this instance is that, with the company's IPO in mid-1991 which made 40% of its stock available for public trading, its annual reports to its new shareholders were presented in (what else?) comic book format, with all the facts and figures cleverly folded into a fully-produced story.

Yet the true draw here is that these reports, begun when Marvel Entertainment Group had every reason to believe the company's outlook was rosy, chart decisions, acquisitions, divestments, and various other factors which would eventually lead to Marvel filing for bankruptcy at the end of 1996--though you'd never know that was on the horizon from the positive spin of the tale featured in its (to my knowledge) final report from 1995, where not even a hard news man like J. Jonah Jameson is interested in digging for the real story.

The plot of the story by Gary Fishman is easy reading: Essentially, the Impossible Man--all for the sake of fun, of course--has stolen the Bugle's pages on the Report, leaving it up to Spider-Man and a number of other heroes to recover them in time to meet Jameson's deadline.

For a more unvarnished look at Marvel's financial straits during the '90s, I'd recommend two sources: First, the Wikipedia entry* on the subject, which very briefly breaks things down by year--and then, for a more investigative approach, a well-written article** from 1998 in The New York Times which does an excellent job of bringing to light everything and everyone that was involved. What I found particularly interesting in the article was the importance placed on speculators, whose penchant for buying multiple copies of a single issue and hanging onto them on the assumption that they would be worth far more than their cover price over time gave Marvel a false sense of how many consumers were actually fueling the market. (Which makes me strictly bush league in that regard--on occasion I'd buy an extra copy, maybe two, of an issue I thought likely to increase in value substantially, but the article speaks of people who would buy twenty copies of issues across the board, many of whom would become retailers in their own right.)

*Marvel Entertainment: Public offering and acquisition; Bankruptcy and Marvel Studios
**Adam Bryant, "Pow! The Punches That Left Marvel Reeling" - May 24, 1998

I haven't delved into the pages of the '91-'94 reports, but I found some of the names that popped up in the company's Board of Directors to be surprising:

Wrapping up the story was a page which offered a look at plans for increasing its exposure in other venues--most notably its "Marvel Mania" themed restaurants which fared poorly, and a Marvel Universe section at Universal's Orlando theme park (which ended up recycling the Marvel Mania concept and toning down the Marvel "universe" to a simple theme store.

On a closing note, and in the interest of full disclosure, my advisor treated me to not just one but two copies of the '95 report--which leads me to believe he knows more about being a speculator than he's willing to let on.

Covers from the 1991-94 Annual Reports.


Big Murr said...

Graphic designing and laying out annual reports are the financial pillars of my year. I'll have to pitch this design idea as a possibility!

(an artist can dream, no?)

Anonymous said...

I stopped reading comics around late 1983 (and started again in 2007 - you can take the boy out of Marvel but you can't take Marvel out of the boy...or something) so I was hear the er, shocking news that Marvel was going bankrupt!!

Comicsfan said...

Murray, may your decisions be more wisely made!

Colin, by this time I think my interest in collecting comics was waning, and I wasn't really keeping tabs on Marvel's business dealings--but if those dealings reflected the dismal state of their product on the racks, I would likely have just nodded my head in resignation. In any event, I stuck around long enough to see the company rally at the turn of the century--and when the films took off, it felt like old times for this nostalgic comics fan. :)

Big Murr said...

I sent those cover images to one of my Annual Report clients and suggested this was next year's theme/design. They "LOL'ed" and said..."no."

When Marvel was teetering on the bankruptcy cliff, I was visiting the comic store out of desperate habit, but buying very little. My reaction was pretty much just that; sighing with nostalgic regret but nodding that this mad dog should be put out of its (everyone's) misery).

Though they pulled up their socks in many ways, and produced some excellent material, other times what I see/read make me think they should've just gone away.