With “Spider-Man” ruling the bigscreen and “The Incredible Hulk,” “X-Men 2,” “Daredevil,” “Blade III” and “The Punisher” all winding their way to theaters, it seems almost impossible to imagine a time when the characters of Marvel Comics weren’t the mainstay of tentpole pics. Less than ten years ago, however, Marvel Comics was almost vanquished. “Comic Wars” is an engaging examination of how the company was almost torn asunder in the 1990s by Wall Street powerbrokers Ronald Perelman and Carl Icahn in their quest for profits instead of the protection of the company’s intellectual property.
When Marvel was founded in 1939 it immediately found a loyal World War II audience that relished the notion of larger-than-life superheroes standing up to the all-too-real evils of the world — like Captain America beating Adolf Hitler. Thanks to innovative artists like Stan Lee, over the decades the characters changed with the times. “The X-Men” thinly veiled the plight of those marginalized in society because of racism and “Spider-Man” mirrored the youth movement’s dissatisfaction with the status quo in the ’60s.
To those in the investment world Marvel seemed like an unpolished gem. But when barbarians finally did storm the gate, they brought down upon the company a tangled mess of lawsuits and disputes based more on the hubris of 1980s Wall Street mavens instead of than practical business sense.
In 1989, Ron Perelman bought Marvel from New World Entertainment, hoping to own a company that was “fun” in addition to his empire that at one point or another included cosmetic giant Revlon, jewelry store chain Cohen-Hatfield Industries, and film processor Technicolor.
One of the companies Perelman brokered a deal with was Toy Biz, the Ike Perlmutter-owned manufacturer of dolls and action figures. In exchange for a sweetheart deal on royalties, Toy Biz would make figures based on Marvel characters and Perelman would get 40% of Toy Biz.
Perelman, however, seemingly overextended himself on other Marvel-related acquisitions, racking up more than $700 million in debt and in turn earning the attention of the quintessential corporate raider, Carl Icahn.
As the Marvel slid into bankruptcy a near-ludicrous number of interested parties prepared to divide the assets, with Perelman, Icahn, Perlmutter, investment banks, the bankruptcy court and a legion of attorneys all vying to have their say in the matter. The stage was set for a sequence of over-the-top courtroom theatrics and bitter conference room sniping.
Author Dan Raviv, known for his duties as national correspondent for CBS News, reveals his extensive amount of knowledge of the tussle over Marvel in a style reminiscent of veteran business scribes Connie Bruck and Michael Lewis. The reader gets plenty of reconstructed conversations and events told from an omniscient viewpoint.
The story is intensely complicated in a cloak-and-dagger, back-room wheeling and dealing sort of way, but Raviv’s staccato recitation of the facts surrounding the bankruptcy keeps the action clear. His reliance on what was no doubt a voluminous number of court documents avoids the trap of becoming dry legalese.
One fault may be seen by readers who start the book expecting a look at the creativity of Stan Lee and his stable of writers and illustrators who developed the standard for the comic book genre and icons that still resonate with the public. But an examination of the business wrangling of multibillionaires can often wind up as a study of good versus evil.