July 2002

Karin L. Kross


Comic Wars - How Two Tycoons Battled Over the Marvel Comics Empire -- And Both Lost by Dan Raviv

In 1996, Marvel Comics declared bankruptcy. The troubles had begun in 1989, when financier Ron Perelman bought the company and proceeded to gut it, much as he had done with Revlon and with his other holdings. Staff was slashed, titles were cut back. Perelman also bought a comics distribution company and tried to force dealers into using it as their only supplier. Meanwhile, the quality of the books themselves had gotten so bad that the readers engineered a boycott (apparently, those at the top thought that Marvel’s standing was so strong that the readers would buy anything; by refusing to buy, the fans showed them how wrong they were). With the dealers and fans upset, and with Marvel’s holdings badly overstretched, it was not long before the company found itself in a lot of trouble.

Enter corporate raider Carl Icahn, who bought up large amounts of Marvel junk bonds and bank debt, and who led an attempt to take over Marvel himself. Icahn ended up going up against Ike Perlmutter, the owner of Toy Biz. Back in the better days, Perlmutter had made a deal with Perelman in which Toy Biz would be licensed to produce Marvel-based toys without having to pay royalties. As Icahn moved into position to take over Marvel, it was not surprising that he took a dim view of the Toy Biz deal. He took an even dimmer view of Perlmutter when the Toy Biz executive decided that Marvel would fare better under his own stewardship.

This is the basic story at the heart of Dan Raviv’s Comic Wars: How Two Tycoons Battled Over the Marvel Comics Empire -- And Both Lost. And as you might imagine, the reading gets a bit dense at times. It’s a little ironic, given that a large part of Marvel’s troubles came from decisions that angered their fans, that this book might not be terribly enjoyable for the fans either -- unless one has a background in business, at any rate. There is much talk of junk bonds, bankruptcy court, bank debt, and stock holdings, and it can get a little overwhelming. As well, the timeline of events is not entirely clear at times; one might be aided by keeping a scrap of paper around on which to take notes.

Still, the story is interesting, and Raviv has certainly done his homework, reconstructing conversations and events in considerable detail. Most fascinating for the business neophyte is the look that he provides into the high-testosterone, high-dollar world of the millionaires and billionaires who own the world’s corporations. It’s a very different world from the one that the rest of us inhabit.

Marvel’s story, of course, does not end with the book; the book hit stores around the same time that the Spiderman movie was released. With the success of that movie and of X-Men, and with a number of other Marvel properties hitting the screen soon (The Incredible Hulk and Daredevil, for instance), the company seems to be on its way back up. Only time will tell if its rise will continue.

Comic Wars by Dan Raviv
Published by Broadway
305 Pages