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Pipeline2, Issue #37

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Pipeline2, Issue #37

STAN LEE, MEDIA MOGUL

[Stan Lee]

It’s always fun to watch dot.com stocks, isn’t it? Everyone wants to throw their money at a dot.com company with name recognition, particularly if they’re doing e-commerce. The entire World Wide Web is fast becoming a gigantic mall. (Really, isn’t that just what the world needs right now?)

Enter Stan Lee. Set adrift from the sinking bankrupt Marvel boat, he founds Stan Lee Media. All of his Hollywood connections and his promotional one-man machine are called into battle, and his capitalization soars through the roof, thanks to the dot.com-rich stock market.

In fact, it gets to the point where Stan Lee’s company is worth more than Marvel. And Lee floats the idea in a TIME Magazine article last week that it would be fun to buy out Marvel.

Immediately afterwards, Stan Lee’s stock drops like a lead balloon.

Marvel is so tainted, financially, that the mere mention of someone buying it is enough for investors to think twice. Is this the first sign that dot.com investors are actually paying attention to what the companies are doing? Amazon.com doesn’t post profits and continues to add new section after new section, sinking more and more money into a mega-web-site that can’t support itself, and investors line up around the corner to buy its stock. Everything is based on the future. If the company has the potential to make a profit ten years down the road, invest in it now. The web is still a baby, and when it gets past the internet equivalent of the Terrible Two’s, there’s a bunch of big money to be made. Right?

But think of it another way – Stan Lee and Marvel is the perfect match. Maybe you can go home again. Stan Lee’s web comics would receive a HUGE boost from existing Marvel characters. And investors would have to love investing in a new medium which uses characters with devoted followings, as presented by – in many cases – their co-creator. After all, they’re buying into the company based on name recognition, right? Why wouldn’t its product follow the same suit: None of these cheesy internet-powered superhero teenagers the web site keeps promising. Not the latest teenage pop quintet in spandex kicking villainous ass to save adolescents everywhere.

“Stan Lee and Marvel is the perfect match. Maybe you can go home again.”

Actual, established, entrenched characters. Spider-Man. Hulk. Fantastic Four. The X-Men.

If I were an investor, the thought of Stan Lee Media (SLM) buying out Marvel Entertainment would look very healthy to me, if only as grist for the mill I saw future success in. The only way it couldn’t look like a good idea is if you were just investing in more dot.com mania for the sake of it.

The concept of web comics is still questionable. Take a look at last Friday’s COME IN ALONE column for an overview of some of them. I’ve looked at them, too, and there ain’t much there that excites me as far as packaging goes. I’m not sure fans are ready to jump into this, although all the creators seem to see it as inevitable, and many of the companies are dabbling in it, if only to get away from the confiscatory distribution system currently enabled in this country.

SLM has a huge hill to climb to bring web comics to respectability. Thanks to partnerships with Macromedia, they may have the technology to present streaming presentations, but is that enough? Are people really crying out for this?

“Does any of this leave you pressing the “refresh” key repeatedly on your web browser day in and day out hoping for the strips to finally be there?”

[Mighty Mouse]

Right now, SLM has Mighty Mouse, the Backstreet Boys, and a Stan Lee creation all its own about super-heroes who formed on the Internet. Granted, I would love to see a good Mighty Mouse comic. But does any of this sound exciting to you? Does any of this leave you pressing the “refresh” key repeatedly on your web browser day in and day out hoping for the strips to finally be there?

So if you’re going to be the biggest web comic producer in the country– If you’re going to single-handedly show them how it’s done– If you’re the one everyone is looking at to produce this brilliant epiphany of content and design–

— you’d be a fool not to love the concept of using Marvel characters. It’s the best safety net this company could have. If Internet stocks are as rich as everyone makes them out to be, then you’d have to go with Marvel Comics as a loss-leader meant to generate further concepts and characters for use on the web, right? Picture this as Marvel’s response to the current set-up between DC and AOL-Time-Warner. DC only publishes to feed the multimedia empire that is AOL-Time-Warner. Marvel is currently set up to feed the action figure line at Toy Biz. Let’s put some Internet money in there to save the day.

(I’m not saying here that I think web comics will serve as the ultimate vehicle for Marvel characters. I don’t think that by a long shot. I’m just following the logic line of the investors in this company. Personally, I don’t see web comics as being all that interesting just yet.)

CORPORATE COMIC SPEAK

Generally speaking, it’s a lot of fun to read through the material at StanLeeMedia.com.

The home page greets you with the always-smiling Lee waving his arms, showing his pearly whites, wearing those dark shades, and shouting “Hello Capitalists!” Makes you feel good to be in a free-market, doesn’t it?

Some of the write-ups further inside are just as entertaining. It’s always interesting to see how business people phrase things like “comic books” and new creations and the executives who watch over them. In an industry where you’re a nobody unless your title begins with ‘C’ and ends in ‘O’, Stan Lee becomes the Chief Creative Officer, or ‘CCO.’ The stars of these books/serials/webcasts are “original branded characters.” (Branding, once reserved for cows, is now a corporate buzzword and Stan Lee intends to leave his distinctive mark on these characters. Is it too late to point out to him that Xavier Roberts already did it best and most perversely?) The descriptions in the write-ups on the site describe him as everything from a “pop culture icon” to “the Walt Disney of the comicbook genre.” (And, yes, it seems that SLM has decided that “comicbook” is not just one word, but also a genre. I’d like to ask the next novelist I meet what genre he writes in. Science fiction? Horror? Mystery? Comicbook? I love reading comicbook prose, don’t you?)

“In an industry where you’re a nobody unless your title begins with ‘C’ and ends in ‘O’, Stan Lee becomes the Chief Creative Officer, or ‘CCO.'” [ ]

In the end, SLM seems to be nothing more than the ultimate outgrowth of creator-owned property, but done with big business. The only way for creators to make money on their creations is to jump out of the gate with a ton of cross-promotional items, whether it’s action figures or movie deals or animated series. SLM is just doing it from the start with a big bank roll. Now Stan Lee has the benefit of enough people believing in him ahead of time that he can do it on a larger scale: video games, action figures, movies, webcasts, printed comics, etc.

THE MARVEL CONNECTION

I am a bit curious about the image of Spider-Man that appears in the header on the web site. Does Marvel know about this? All the other characters in that banner look like SLM-specific characters.

The separation between Lee and Marvel seems to be completely friendly. In a day and age when bashing Marvel’s every business move is de rigueur, it’s only fair to point out the following, listed in the SLM FAQ:

“In an agreement finalized in November, 1998, Stan Lee was ceded all right and title to his name, likeness, signature and “brand”, along with clear title to Stan Lee Presents, Excelsior! and Stan’s Soap Box. Stan has assigned all of the above rights and future rights to any newly created properties to Stan Lee Media as part of a lifetime employment agreement with the company. Stan Lee retains the title Chairman Emeritus of Marvel.”

Good for Marvel for doing the right thing, instead of bullying the man over creative property. (The cynic in me wonders what Marvel got in return, but let’s just take it on good faith that Marvel did the right thing here.)

THE END RESULT?

He’s got the hype. He’s got the technical backing. He’s got the money. But can Stan Lee be the one to define comics on the internet? Will the Backstreet Boys lead the way to the comics version of the promised land?

Somehow I doubt it. But I stand ready to be proven wrong.

DISCLAIMER

My apologies to SLM if any of the statements in this column constitute a “forward-looking statement” as defined by the Securities and Exchange Commission. In the interests of full-disclosure, I should also mention that I own no stock in SLM, Disney, nor AOL-Time-Warner-Whoever Else They’ve Bought Up Recently.

Discuss this column on the Pipeline Message Board.

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