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The Time Marvel Almost Got the Rights to All of DC’s Characters

Great Hera!

We’ve been running kind of heavy on the comic book related stories today, but it’s hard not to when ones like this pop up: Jim Shooter, Marvel Comics’ ninth editor-in-chief, shared an anecdote on his blog this Friday where he details a moment in 1984 when DC Comics almost had the publishing rights for all of its characters licensed to Marvel.

And it’s not even as if it was a fleeting mistake, rather the negotiations went on for weeks until they were halted by an anti-trust lawsuit. Oddly enough, it wasn’t even related to those negotiations.

Shooter begins at the beginning, when Bill Sarnoff called him up and offered him all of DC’s characters on a silver platter:

Sometime in February, 1984, my secretary (it was okay to say “secretary” in those days) the wonderful Lynn Cohen told me that Bill Sarnoff was on the phone. Not his secretary, Bill Sarnoff himself, holding for me.

Great Scott!

Bill Sarnoff was the Big Cheese, I forget his exact title, of the publishing arm of Warner Communications. Among the operations under his purview was DC Comics.

Bill introduced himself, as if that was necessary. What he wanted to talk about was licensing the publishing rights for all DC characters to Marvel Comics.

Holy hegemony, Billman!

Bill said, more or less, that Marvel seemed to be able to turn a substantial profit on publishing comics, as opposed to DC, which consistently lost money, a lot of money, and had for a long time. On the other hand, LCA (Licensing Corporation of America), Warner’s licensing arm did very well with the DC properties, while Marvel “didn’t seem to do much licensing.”

I guess the few million a year we made from licensing, mostly from Spider-Man, seemed paltry to him, what with the fortune that just their big four, Superman, Batman, Robin and Wonder Woman brought in.

Shooter then describes connecting Sarnoff to Marvel Comics’ president at the time, who then turned them down, reasoning that if DC couldn’t make money on their characters then the characters must not be any good. Shooter’s pleas gave Sarnoff’s offer a second chance, however, and Shooter began to prepare a pitch that would involve Marvel producing a line of seven initial titles (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Teen Titans, Justice League, and Legion of Superheroes) with more to come. During the preparation of his pitch, news of the talks leaked internally at Marvel and suddenly pitches and fully drawn covers for Superman: 1st Marvel Issue! were mysteriously appearing on Jim Shooter’s desk.

Shooter says negotiations had just begun when First Comics (creators of American Flagg) launched an ultimately unsuccessful anti-trust suit at Marvel, who at the time comprised 70% of the market share of American comic sales (this days Marvel and DC together comprise about 70%). Understandably, once the company was being investigated for creating a monopoly, acquiring the rights to publish all of your biggest competitor’s intellectual property was not seen as the most politically expedient thing to do.

You should definitely check out Shooter’s whole post on the matter, and then begin your alternate universe comics history speculation accordingly. Recall that in 1984 The Crisis on Infinite Earths had yet to happen but the Dark Pheonix Saga had just wrapped up. Have your fics on my desk by Friday.

(via everyplace, but most recently Newsarama.)

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Susana Polo thought she'd get her Creative Writing degree from Oberlin, work a crap job, and fake it until she made it into comics. Instead she stumbled into a great job: founding and running this very website (she's Editor at Large now, very fancy). She's spoken at events like Geek Girl Con, New York Comic Con, and Comic Book City Con, wants to get a Batwoman tattoo and write a graphic novel, and one of her canine teeth is in backwards.