Marvel-ous battle of comic-book characters

I’VE BEEN CONCERNED lately about Ron and Carl. They’ve been circling each other, making angry noises , but their inhibitions have prevented them from venting what’s really on their minds. And that’s not healthy, as any analyst will tell you. Indeed, they should probably take a lesson from Rupert and Ted. Maybe we could all use a lesson. Ron and Carl, of course, are Ron Perelman and Carl Icahn. These two grizzled veterans of corporate combat are presently locked in a battle over the Marvel comic book empire, of all things. In fact, the battle’s gotten rather nasty. One might well wonder why two renowned entrepreneurs are that excited over controlling the company that gave us Mort the Dead Teenager and Blade the Vampire Hunter. Not to mention that mother of all insects, Spider-Man. Apparently, it’s as much pride as anything else. Perelman, the emperor of Revlon , originally latched onto Marvel seven years ago for roughly $ 80 million in borrowed money. Much more recently, Icahn, who once controlled TWA, started scooping up Marvel bonds. Events escalated when Perelman announced a recapitalization plan that, critics said, would richly benefit Perelman while reducing bondholders to the role of idle spectators. When suddenly confronted with a fusillade of criticism, Perelman came up with a better idea: bankruptcy. By filing for Chapter 11, control of Marvel’s restructuring would be taken out of the hands of bondholders like Icahn and put into the hands of Perelman, who would also gain access to $ 100 million in bank financing to cover salaries and other expenses. The bankruptcy filing set off a new round of fireworks at least, Ron-and-Carl-style fireworks. Mustering all his powers of rhetoric, Icahn called the move “unconscionable.” Reaching still further, he termed it “reprehensible.” In response, Perelman, who disdains conversing with working-class journalists, nonetheless saw to it that an unnamed spokesman for an unnamed aide labeled Icahn’s accusations “slightly disingenuous” and called Icahn a “vulture investor.”

THESE PRONOUNCEMENTS are pathetically bland compared to the rhetoric of the Murdoch-Turner wars unhealthily so. Earlier this month, Turner appeared on “60 Minutes” to reiterate his opinion that Rupert was essentially “a scumbag.” While retreating a bit from his earlier descriptions of his media rival as Hitler-like, Terrible Ted nonetheless insisted that Murdoch’s behavior was akin to that of the Fuhrer in that he sought to control the media for his own ideological purposes. He feared Murdoch, Turner acknowledged; certainly he did not trust him. Murdoch himself has not as yet responded to these remarks, but his newspapers, especially the New York Post, continue to suggest that Turner is emotionally unstable, if not downright Looney Tunes. Not surprisingly, CNN cannot be found in the Post’s TV listings. To be sure, some pundits have been critical of the Ted-Rupert feud, suggesting that it diminishes the stature of their vast media empires. Some also point out the irony of Turner “fearing” the scope of Murdoch’s global power. Turner himself is the biggest stockholder in Time Warner, which controls the most extraordinary mother lode of movies and TV shows in the history of the entertainment business. Who should be scared of whom? At the same time, there’s something downright healthy about two titans avoiding fancy euphemisms like “disingenuous” or “unconscionable,” not to mention artifices like having unnamed spokesmen release statements through anonymous PR men. After all, Ron and Carl aren’t fighting over Time Warner or News Corp., but rather a comic book company a messed-up one, at that. Here are a couple of suits who’ve invaded the calm domain of the Silver Surfer and what do they do? They overpay for two trading card companies. They disrupt their distribution apparatus. They wander into confused merchandising schemes and even try to synergize storylines of their comic book characters. If Spider-Man had his own anonymous spokesman, he’d label these strategies “disingenuous.” More likely, he’d borrow from Turner and call his corporate suits a bunch of scumbags.

MAYBE THE LESSON IN ALL THIS is that the big-time corporate movers and shakers should focus on the big targets and steer clear of little companies like Marvel. I realize that the acquisition of “intellectual property” takes high priority on every maven’s wish list, but arguably Mort, Blade and Spider-Man fall into another category entirely unintellectual property. And I doubt if even Rupert and Ted would bother fighting about that.

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