Wednesday, October 23, 2013

What Marvel Does Right

I spend a lot of time talking about what's gone wrong in the industry because, well, that's what I do in my day job. Analysis, whether it's system analysis or business analysis, most often looks at what's wrong in a system in order to address its problems. However, it's also worth looking at what's right in a system, both to prevent trampling that good while fixing the bad and, to be quite honest, to blatantly copy what works in other systems. So for the next few articles, I'm going to focus on the positive, and talk about what some of the major and minor players in the industry do right. Some of this will be about the artistic side and some of it will be about business, and we all know that those are often at cross purposes with each other. However, just like it's important to recognize the context of bad systems, it's important to look at the context of why good decisions are made. Today, we'll start with Marvel Comics.

Should I have a parachute or something?
Live action movies - I don't think anyone could reasonably argue that, of all the comic book companies, Marvel is the most prolific and arguably the most profitable producer of comic book movies. That doesn't necessarily mean the most artful, but they don't all need to be high art. Sometimes I want to watch a well executed crime drama with a guy in a bat suit dropped into the middle of it, and sometimes I want to watch a giant green monster tear an alien invasion up. Both have their place, and Marvel does the latter better and more often than anyone else out there.

Getting and retaining talent - This matters a lot. The best runs at both Marvel and DC, not just on single books but company-wide, have been when the editorial and writing staffs (and, to a lesser but still important extent, the art staff) have remained fairly constant. Marvel has one of the longest average employment / contracted worker time of any comics company, and it shows in the consistency of their work. Bendis, Quesada, Fraction, and a number of others provide a stable framework of continuity for other, newer writers to play around in, enabling them to take artistic chances.

Stable continuity - This sort of ties in with the above point. Having the same person write the Avengers for 10 years means that, for the most part, Avengers continuity is pretty well handled. I've never been a big fan of strong continuity, the kind of continuity where the creators feel like they're in a straightjacket when trying to write a character with a troublesome past, but I'm also not a big fan of company-wide reboots to fix the problem; as someone who works in software, I understand the allure of breaking everything down to re-do it "better," but usually that means leaving a bunch of things that users have come to depend on out of the first few revisions. Marvel has very few reboots, and they mostly use their retcons to prune things that they feel don't work in their universe, and this tends to be a better way to handle long-running stories. It's not always the best way, of course; the crazy tangle of retcons following Morrison's X-Men run shows that. But as a general rule, revision is better than re-creation when trying to retain a fanbase.

Public relations - Marvel is only very rarely at odds in a major way with the fandom. There are always certain things that are angering the fans, most of them oddly centered around Spider-Man, but that's always going to be the case. However, there is very rarely the kind of PR nightmare that you sometimes see at other studios where something meant one way is taken another, then it takes two weeks to sort it out, and everyone is left with a bad taste in their mouth. You don't generally see creators leave Marvel in a huff, either. Now, as to whether that means they're happier there or not is a question, but either way, you and I don't hear about it. And that's good business for Marvel.
I am gonna miss this guy when he's gone

Diversity of characters - I've written on this a number of times before, and it's nearly time to make another Diversity In Comics spreadsheet and analysis, but Marvel gets better and better at this every year. They have, comparatively, a hugely diverse cast of characters. They're not quite at the US census number levels in some areas, but they're not far off in most of them, either. Of particular note at a company that creates primarily superhero content, they even have wide age diversity as well as heroes and villains that have disabilities that they overcome to do their jobs, and they deserve a hat tip for that.

So that's some of the stuff that Marvel does right. There are other things I could talk about here, like Marvel Unlimited, but you get the general idea. Marvel is the House of Ideas, and that extends not just to their stories, but how they run their business. Next up, I'll be talking about DC, and what other companies can learn from them.

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