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.

Avengers Inspirations 37: Spider-Man vs the Strangest Foe of All Time, Doctor Octopus

Avengers Inspirations


Jon and Lily are back behind the microphone to discuss Spider-Man’s first encounter with one of his greatest enemies, Dr. Octopus! But first, it’s time to see how the Agents of SHIELD were faring in the final weeks before the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. So strap in for betrayal and mistrust, followed by Spidey’s first big failure!


Avengers Inspirations 36: Iron Man Faces the Crimson Dynamo and The Return of the Omnipotent Baron Mordo

Lily and Jon are coming at you this time with three more episodes of Agents of SHIELD and two comic book adventures. First, Iron Man meets an iron patriot, but not of America. No, this is the Crimson Dynamo on visit from the halls of Khrushchev, set to take down Iron Man for the good of the Soviet Union. And then, Dr. Strange must face his first repeat villain, Baron Mordo. Wait, it’s only his third adventure, and he’s already repeating villains? Not even the X-Men stooped that low!

Highway 616 Weekend Edition Episode 12: Hope in the Chaos

Highway 616


Welcome to Episode #12 of Highway 616 and the third Weekend edition (Ed. Note: Sadly I am late posting this, so this weekend edition shows up mid-week). This time I give a detailed history of the widly confusing and intricate publication history of Lady Death and her associated characters. From her creation in Evil Ernie as a vacuous temptress through the re-imagining of her in her Chaos years and on through Avatar and Boundless into the modern day of Coffin Comics. For more information please check out the Complete reading order for the character on the forums – Lady Death Reading Order.


Avengers Inspirations 34: Defying the Magic of Mad Merlin and Ant-Man and the Wasp Defy the Porcupine

A few days late, but here is the latest outing of Lily and Jon Wilson, as they catch up with the God of Thunder and their favorite Insect-Sized Duo. It’s the end of an era of sorts for both books. Robert Bernstein has his last dance with Thor, putting him up against Mad Merlin, who has just woken up cranky after a millennium or so. And the final Ant-Man story in this run sees Pym and his lady love tackle the querulous quills of the Porcupine. Also in the MCU Rewatch, Thor: The Dark World! Come give a listen!


Highway 616 Episode 11: The Civil War of Mrs Deadpool

Highway 616


Welcome to Episode #11 of Highway 616 and the end of a beautiful friendship. Tony and Steve had just started to get on again and they had to bring back their biggest fight ever in Civil War #1. Considering how bad I thought some of the series have been in Secret Wars this was a fantastic week as it not only started the Civil War comic, but continued the successor to the Deadpool ongoing series in the form of Mrs. Deadpool and the Howling Commandoes #2.