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Holy Plot Twist : Marvel Comics’ Parent Sees Artists Defect to Rival Malibu, Stock Dive

TIMES STAFF WRITER

BIFF! SOCK! WHAM!

That’s how it must have felt Tuesday in the New York offices of Marvel Entertainment Group, publisher of Spiderman and other Marvel Comics, as Wall Street gave the firm a hammering.

Marvel’s stock tumbled $11.375 a share to $54.625 in trading on the New York Stock Exchange, losing $137.6 million in market value, after Barron’s, a weekly financial newspaper, published a story over the weekend critical of the comic book firm.

Marvel’s growth is stalled, Barron’s said, its debt is high and it “increasingly resorts to gimmickry to break down consumer resistance” to its price increases.

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And Holy Exodus, Batman! It was learned Tuesday that eight top Marvel artists and writers have defected to rival Malibu Graphics of Westlake Village, where Malibu said they would be given unprecedented editorial and financial control over the characters they create. Trade reports had hinted that a defection was imminent.

Marvel lashed back at the Barron’s article, calling its assertions “inaccurate and highly misleading.” It reported that earnings were up 267% for the fourth quarter and 196% for full-year 1991.

President Terry Stewart also downplayed the artists’ breakaway, saying that such movement is common in the industry and that “the importance of the creative people is still secondary to the (comic book) characters.”

Marvel, 60% controlled by financier Ronald O. Perelman, is the industry leader, accounting for 47% of the comic book market in dollar sales and 57% in unit sales, according to February figures compiled by Internal Correspondence, a Madison, Wis.-based trade publication. Second-place D.C. Comics has 17.6%; nobody else tops 10%.

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However, 6-year-old, privately held Malibu Graphics--with 3.6% of the market--claims to be on its way up, propelled by the coup it announced Tuesday. The people who left Marvel to sign with Malibu include artists and writers responsible for the three highest-selling issues in comic book history--all released last year.

One of the defectors is artist and writer Rob Liefeld of Anaheim, who worked on Marvel’s popular “X-Force” book. He is the creator of “Youngblood,” a Malibu Graphics comic that has yet to be released but whose advance sales to retailers made it the nation’s No. 1 book for February, according to Internal Correspondence. It was the first time in the ranking’s history that a publisher other than Marvel or D.C. had captured the top spot.

Others jumping to Malibu include Jim Lee and Chris Claremont (“X-Men”) and Erik Larsen and Todd McFarlane (“Spiderman”).

Top artists are independent contractors who earn a percentage of comic book sales and can make more than $100,000 a year--sometimes much more--if they have a hit. Since Marvel has the lion’s share of the hits, it has typically had the richest stable of artists.

A drawback for the artists, however, is that Marvel retains ownership of and most editorial control over the characters its artists create. A Spiderman or Batman can be worth millions in licensing fees.


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