Marvel Comics is in the midst of a line-wide crossover called Secret Wars that will press the reboot button on Marvel Universe. Nothing will be the same again, and some of your favorite characters will not make it into the brand new Marvel Comics.
However, the culling of characters has already begun. Over the last year, Marvel Comics has been systematically removing or minimizing the Fantastic Four and X-Men from their comic line and from their merchandising. The reasons why are shrouded in mystery due to Marvel’s radio silence in the matter. But the topic rose to a head this week when the image for the yearly Marvel poster from Trends International was released. The company has been releasing posters featuring a collage of images of most of the Marvel characters for years. Here is the 2007 version:
I’d send you on a “Where’s Waldo” type of quest for the X-Men and Fantastic Four in this poster, but that would be a fool’s errand. Because while the poster features obscure characters such as Devil Dinosaur, White Tiger and the Wrecking Crew, there’s no Fantastic Four and the only X-Man present appears to be Emma Frost, who appears in between Ronan and Venom in the upper left. Of course, that could be another character or just a mistaken inclusion.
This harkens back to the incident that started this whole controversy. Last year, Marvel published a commemorative comic book for its 75th Anniversary. The cover, seen at left, was profoundly lacking in any characters from the Fantastic Four, the team that jump-started the Marvel Age of comics, or the X-Men, by and far Marvel’s most popular property over the last four decades.
I spoke on that controversy exactly one year ago as I am writing this sentence. I theorized that the quarantine, which was then mostly place on the Fantastic Four characters, might be because of the then pending Supreme Court hearing of the lawsuit brought by the heirs of Jack Kirby. However, more developments have arose that makes this reason unlikely.
First and foremost, Marvel made a settlement with the Kirby Estate, so that sword of Damocles is no longer over their heads. Also, the Fantastic Four titles were cancelled. A mandate was sent out to keep the Fantastic Four characters from being used in any trading card set. Then embargoes were placed on the X-Men characters. Writers were told to not create any new mutant characters for the series. T-shirts based on iconic comic covers would have the X-Men and Fantastic Four characters either removed or replaced with other Marvel heroes. Toy makers were forced to cancel their lines based on the mutant characters. Marvel even went so far as to kill of the popular Wolverine in their books, and it looks like the X-Men books will be cancelled post-Secret Wars, and the X-Men becoming space-faring heroes in whatever series they are in next.
It has become obvious that what I tried to deny a year ago was really the truth–that Marvel’s mothballing the Fantastic Four and X-Men has something to do with Fox holding the film rights. But what? Some think it’s being done just to spite Fox, or because Marvel is sick and tired of promoting films they have little stock in? Possibly. But throwing away a revenue stream just because it promotes in part a studio seems a bit extreme. And Fox could get more butts in seats with one ad on the side of a New York City bus than all of Marvel’s books and merchandise can give them.
Is it a ploy to try and get the film rights to the X-Men and Fantastic Four back from Fox? Dubious. Fox makes millions on the X-Men franchise and hopes for the same for Fantastic Four. Marvel could kill off every X-Man and every member of the FF and Fox would still not be willing to give up that gravy train.
But I have a theory more outlandish than even that. When Marvel sold the rights for these properties to Fox, it was going through bankruptcy and there was a very good chance that it could have gone out of business. Films were thought to be a quick supply of cash to keep the company afloat, and Marvel was desperate to make a deal. This is why agreement is top loaded in favor of Fox, and why they can keep the rights to the properties as long as they keep films featuring them in production. But what if a desperate Marvel gave away even more than that?
What if Marvel gave all merchandising rights to Fox for the Fantastic Four and the X-Men? What if the same 5/95 percent split in favor of Fox wasn’t just for film merchandise and the films themselves but for any comics and merchandise featuring the comic versions of the characters too?
It seems crazy, I know, but like I said Marvel of the late 90s, early 00s was a desperate Marvel. Marvel’s Tom Breevort has stated in regards to the scorched earth policy about merchandising the properties that Marvel earns a smaller percentage of the revenues for the X-Men and FF characters than the rest of their characters and had mentioned that if someone did not have merchandising rights to the characters, they couldn’t sell merchandise featuring them.
This was taken to mean that Marvel had control over who they gave rights to. But if Marvel no longer had complete control over the rights to the X-Men and FF, the amount of time and effort they take in removing the character from their merchandise would make much more sense.
However, this is just a theory. Unless someone does a cyberhack of Fox’s e-mail, we’ll probably never know the truth. But it doesn’t look like you’ll be able to buy a Wolverine T-shirt anytime soon.