How Licensing Saved the Marvel Universe

Marvel Licensed Comics

by Travis Starnes, CMRO Editor

During the 70s and 80s, Marvel went licensing crazy.  Both bringing properties from other medium, most notably toy manufacturing, into comics, and licensing Marvel properties out.  But why was there a sudden explosion of licensing, and why is it different from other comics, movies, or television shows that license out their work? And how did it save Marvel Comics?

What makes the way Marvel did licensing different is pretty apparent to anyone who read comics from the two or three decades when Marvel was licensing like crazy. From the point of view of licensing out their characters, Marvel isn’t totally unique.  Many companies licensed their characters out to television, DC most notably, and even more licensing comic characters out for merchandising.

What makes Marvel stand out is how much they brought characters from other companies into the Marvel universe.  Sure, DC created comics for other company’s licenses, but they were generally stand alone and not part of the greater DC universe.  Marvel on the other hand, not only brought characters like the Micronauts, Godzilla, Shogun Warriors, and Conan (to a lesser degree) into their larger universe, but they even took the ROM license and put it at the center of a story arc that covered most the major titles at the time.

I’ve done a fair amount of searching and I can’t find any instances of licensed characters becoming the center of another companies shared universe.  And even the other licenses I mentioned had continual, although more contained, connections to Marvel.  Shield and the Fantastic Four tangled with Godzilla, the X-Men bumped into Micronauts and Crystar the Crystal Warrior multiple time, and there is a litany of Marvel UK landing in the pages of licensed comics like Transformers and Doctor Who. They even had licenses cross with other licenses, such as when Godzilla faced off against the Shogun Warriors.

When it came to licensing, Marvel did it in a way no one else did, or has done since.  But why did it blow up so big?

The short answer is, Star Wars.

The comics industry was struggling in the 70s.  The old magazine stand distribution wasn’t working any longer, since magazine stands were starting to disappear.  While Marvel would figure this out in the mid-70s by selling into hobby shops and stand-alone comic stores that started to pop up, the bottle neck caused issues for most comic published.

By 78’ DC hit the wall hard, cancelling thirty-one of its ongoing titles.  It wasn’t until the early 80s when DC came up with new ideas such as limited runs (which many comic fans curse to this day) that they managed to pull out of their nose dive.

At the same time, Marvel was also struggling.  The editorial staff was in disarray with books regularly being finished late and the non-comic magazine part of the company was losing money hand over fist.  Future Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter, who was an associate editor at the time, described the company as seeming to be in a “death spiral”.

Stan Lee, who became the publisher of Marvel in 1972 when long time publisher and one time owner Martin Goodman stepped down, wanted to double down on comics featuring original characters.

This was when Charlie Lippincott and Ed Summer, who was a silent partner of George Lucas, talked to Roy Thomas about the idea of licensing Star Wars.  Thomas was known as being a major proponent of licensed comics in Marvel and had been EIC when Conan was licensed into Marvel.

Thomas liked the early artwork he saw, as this was before the movie came out. Thomas pushed the idea of licensing Star Wars, and he had one big thing in his favor.  The license would be free.  Lucas only wanted the first two issues of the adaptation of his script on newsstands before the movie came out, seeing it as a good way to publicize the movie.

To say it was a hit would be an understatement.  It went on to sell over a million copies over multiple reprints.  For context, Marvel’s best-selling book at the time, Amazing Spider-Man, sold just about a quarter of that.

Marvel’s parent company, Cadence Industries, made a boat load of money from this and the idea of licensed comics took hold.  With pressure from the parent company, and editors hoping to repeat Thomas’s magic trick, Marvel began to license comics in earnest.

At first Marvel concentrated on licensing movies, books and TV shows, such as Battle Star Galactica, John Carter of Mars, and Tarzan (once DC’s license had lapsed). But, coming into the 80s, there was a push by toy manufactures to use the now growing popularity of comics as a marketing tool.  US companies like Hasbro wanted to license their toy likes, such as a relaunching GI Joe, while Japanese toy makers were trying to break into the US market.

Thanks in no small part to the cash Star Wars continued to bring in as Marvel published ongoing stories under the license after the movie came out; they were the biggest name in the Comics industry.  DC had a significantly lower market share at this time, so much so that Marvel made a push to license all the DC characters (and imagine for a moment what that would have been like).  The deal was slowed by Bill Sarnoff, who only wanted to focus on the top 7 characters from DC, and then killed by the threat of an anti-trust lawsuit.

This left Marvel open to being the go to place for licensing comics by toy manufactures, and license they did.

The licensing boom only slowed when DC revitalized, using new ideas such as the limited series, and retook dominance of the mark, along with Marvel’s sale to New World Entertainment under Ronald Perelman.

Love them or hate them, licensed comics may have saved Marvel from an earlier sale, a break up, or even a loss of the company entirely.  So for every bad licensed comic you read from the 70s and 80s, just remember that they might be responsible for keeping Captain America and Spider-Man with us.