After the WEAPON X and MARY JANE novels came and went with little fanfare, Marvel has announced a new book deal with four different publishers. Except, it all sounds a little familiar. Ben Wooller reads between the lines.
24 January 2005


Six months back, Marvel created 'Marvel Press', a line of novels featuring its various properties, targeted at different age groups in an effort to cover as large a portion of the market as possible.

So far there have been two Young Adult novels starring Mary Jane, to cash in on the lucrative 'YA' market, which consists largely of young girls, and presumably to get some crossover sales with the MARY JANE comic. The other book that appeared was a WOLVERINE/WEAPON X novel, for 'grown ups'. These books were talked about, released, and... promptly disappeared.

Putting aside the fact that I'm sure only die-hard Mary Jane/Spider-Man and Wolverine fans cared about these books, even though they were marketed towards the larger book-buying public, the one thing that struck me about the books was the price and format were way too restrictive for those readers who have no idea who these characters were.

'I'm sure only die-hard Mary Jane and Wolverine fans cared about these books.' Hardcover books are beautiful, hardy objects, but I'd be a fool to fork over $24.95 for a novel by a writer I didn't know, and for a story that has already been told by a fairly noted comic professional (not to mention that the limp blurb elicited no interest from me whatsoever). A paperback or trade format would've been a better option. Marvel's hyping of a "bestselling author" on the WEAPON X book who no-one outside of movie novelisation readers and fans of OJ and Princess Diana biographies has heard about is hardly the way to treat one of the most visible and popular Marvel characters.

This isn't to say writers who tackle movie novelisations shouldn't be read: several well known - some celebrated - writers, both within comics and without, adapt movies: Peter David and Chris Claremont, Joan D Vinge, John Shirley and Elizabeth Hand have had a go: bills must be paid.

But wouldn't it have been better to get someone with a name to write the WOLVERINE novel, especially a story that is so integral to the character? If Claremont wrote it, not only would he be able to tackle a story he wanted to write in the first place, but he also knows the character, and his name recognition would pull in the fans... which I guess is kind of a moot point: X-fans would buy it even if it was written by Fay Weldon.


Last week Marvel announced the move that they probably should've made originally: a licensing deal signed with DK Publishing, Harper Collins, Meredith Books and Simon and Schuster. Like the previous deal, this one will attempt to "bring the Marvel Universe to broad consumer audiences and demographics by establishing a significant presence in the largest mass-market book categories including adult novelizations, children's fiction, all-age non-fiction compendiums, as well as pre-school novelty formats and picture and sound storybooks".

I think Bookslut summed it up beautifully: "Want to read comic books without the hassle of, um, reading comic books?"

Harper Collins will focus on the movie tie-ins, which might not be the best strategy given Hollywood has realised it can make its own superhero movies; Meredith Books will handle the children's gear from picture books to colouring-in books, featuring all the big guns including the RESCUE HERO-esque SPIDER-MAN & FRIENDS. (This should make my three-and-a-half year old niece happy. She loves Spidey, mainly from repeat views on the movie, and runs around the shops, arms pumping, fingers curled shouting, "Fst! FST! I'm Spider-Man! I saved you!")

Simon and Schuster's Pocket Book division is going to release 'adult' paperback novels of Marvel characters, which seems to be a smart move, paperbacks being cheaper than hardbacks (the HELLBOY novels and movie tie-in have also been released by Pocket Books, which is a good sign); and DK Publishing will release all-ages book under their "Ultimate Guides" label, with the central Marvel titles being first.

'The deal will attempt to "bring the Marvel Universe to broad consumer audiences".' The only problem with this is, well, it doesn't sound a whole lot different to what's already going on. There have been novelisations of most of the recent Marvel movies (the '90s fanboy in me took a bit of interest in X2 being adapted by Claremont). The $2 shops are already filled with cheaply produced AVENGERS and X-MEN colouring-in books. There's a heap of SPIDER-MAN books for kids, mostly to do with the movies.

And DK have published Ultimate Guides for X-MEN and SPIDER-MAN respectively (alongside ones for SUPERMAN, BATMAN, JLA, CATWOMAN and TRANSFORMERS, as well as smaller books for the cartoon incarnations of several of the above, and all written by people in the know: Simon Furman wrote the TRANSFORMERS one). Personally, I love the Ultimate Guides: they manage to introduce the hectic and convoluted histories of these characters in a concise and entertaining way. They should be mandatory for anyone picking up one of the above titles for the first time.

I thought it odd none of these previous projects were mentioned in the press release. It quotes Bruno Maglione, President of Marvel International, as saying, "Mass market trade publishing has been under-served of Marvel products to date. There are a variety of publishing formats we identified as natural fits for our character franchises and the audiences they attract. In each case, we have teamed up with a specialist leader imprint in the field who has the capability and market knowledge to address these commercial opportunities rapidly, and with the support of long-term publishing strategies".

So, judging from the release, there's just going to be an increased promotion of books that already exist in bookshops, and a scant few new products. While it's nice to have all your bases covered, I'd think promoting something like trade paperback collections of existing Marvel comics for the bookshop market would be a better idea - you know, just for something new.

How about they go one step better and follow Jeff Smith's recent deal with Simon & Schuster, reproducing BONE as a colour children's book, which is a wonderful idea. Not only is BONE an excellent series, it'll go great guns with fans of LORD OF THE RINGS and HARRY POTTER. Can't Marvel find a respected book publisher able to repackage its backlist for a new audience?

I can't help but dwell on this part: "There are a variety of publishing formats we identified as natural fits for our character franchises and the audiences they attract."

There's one publishing format that's a natural fit. Comics. Simple, really.

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