A Couple of Cartoon Villains, Their Epic Clash Over Marvel

Comic Wars: How Two Tycoons Battled Over the Marvel Comics Empire-And Both Lost, by Dan Raviv. Broadway Books, 320 pages, $24.95.

Like all great American art forms, the comic book is the child of bastardy and dumb luck. Born out of the incidental discovery that a proof sheet of tabloid funnies could be folded in half to make a book, comics thrived for decades as a noirish, gore-filled subconscious to golly-gosh America. In the 50′s, crusading prudes successfully linked lurid true-crime story lines to juvenile delinquency, at least in the mind of one Senator Estes Kefauver, whose Comics Commission drove violence out of the industry-and with it the talent and the louche charm. In the aftermath appeared two peculiar homegrown geniuses-the artist Jack Kirby and the writer and editor Stan Lee-who brought acrobatic wit, propulsive motion and genuine pathos to a stale superhero formula, thereby transforming Marvel Comics from a mom-and-pop operation into a publishing giant.

Dan Raviv’s Comic Wars tells the story of how a unique piece of Americana became the incidental vehicle for personal enrichment and vendetta, a battleground for two “greed is good” holdovers, Ronald Perelman and Carl Icahn. Mr. Perelman acquired Marvel in 1989, and in just seven years drove the 60-year-old company into bankruptcy. As punishment, Mr. Perelman pocketed, by some estimates, half a billion dollars, then proceeded to ask a bankruptcy court for an even larger slice of the company. (Mr. Perelman’s Chapter 11 reorganization plan, in its contempt for minority shareholders, is generally considered one of the most shameless corporate flimflams ever attempted.) Mr. Perelman came up against Mr. Icahn, however, who, smelling blood, had started buying Marvel bonds on the sly in order to make a play for the company in bankruptcy proceedings.

What exactly were these two veteran freebooters so anxious to get their hands on? Any baby boomer worth his salt can tell you what made Marvel great: The typical DC Comics superhero had been a starchy do-gooder in tight pajamas, about as supple as a lady candidate for the G.O.P. The innovative characters of the 60′s and 70′s were Marvel’s: They didn’t live in fakey nom de plume cities, like Gotham or Metropolis-Peter Parker lived in Queens, for chrissake!-and they had real-world problems, like dead ex-girlfriends and dead-end jobs. Under Stan Lee’s editorship, the stable of Marvel superheroes grew ever more kinky and beguiling, unlike anything comics had ever seen.

Today we live in a Marvel world. DC capitulated long ago, turning Batman in the 80′s into a Marvel character, renaming the book Dark Knight and handing it over to Frank Miller, the artist behind Marvel’s Daredevil. (It’s essentially Mr. Miller’s vision that ended up on screen in the Batman films.) The television show Smallville recounts the early years of a confused, very Peter Parker–like Clark Kent, ambivalent about his burgeoning superpowers. And, of course, the great nerd allegory Buffy the Vampire Slayer is nothing but a clever reincarnation of all the “O cursed spite” preoccupations from the Marvel heyday.

No wonder Mr. Perelman thought of the company as a “mini-Disney in terms of intellectual property”: Somehow, in the 90′s, everyone had profited from Marvel’s legacy except Marvel, and now it was their turn. But Mr. Perelman’s stewardship turned out to be less Mickey and Pluto than Leda and the Swan. It probably never occurred to Mr. Perelman, scheming from his palazzo-style townhouse headquarters, that a comic-book company’s success could be predicated on taste; and so, under Mr. Perelman, the writing and drawing were licensed out-from the legendary bullpen of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby-to piece-work contractors. The beloved medium of Jack Kirby, of such legends as Steve Ditko and John Buscema, had become that grotesque 90′s catchword, content. Bless them, the fans walked away in disgust, and Marvel’s market share plummeted from a 70 percent pre-Perelman high down to 25 percent in 1996. On the business side, things looked even worse: On top of fearsome quantities of debt, and at the height of a speculative bubble in pubescent collectibles, Mr. Perelman made a series of inane acquisitions-an Italian sticker-making manufacturer and the trading-card companies Fleer and SkyBox-that all but doomed Marvel. In December 1996, the company filed for bankruptcy.

Why didn’t Mr. Perelman and his lieutenants ever pursue Hollywood, the most effective way to stimulate demand for Marvel’s characters, the obvious route to the theme eateries and plastic figurines of Mr. Perelman’s dreams? Mr. Raviv dances around one theory, fervently espoused by Carl Icahn: that Mr. Perelman locked up Marvel’s one true asset-its intellectual property-in order to buy more of the company for virtually nothing. “Marvel is sitting there,” laments one of Mr. Perelman’s partners during Chapter 11 proceedings, “like a matza ball-not making any movies!” A trustee of the bankruptcy court concluded that Mr. Perelman had been incompetent, not corrupt.

Mr. Icahn comes off as marginally more likable. His negotiating strategy seemed to consist of inflating like a puff adder, spitting out a string of obscenity-laced invective, then ordering his staff to cook you an eight-course meal. Mr. Icahn actually wrestled Marvel away from Mr. Perelman, only to lose it in court proceedings to a couple of dollar-store merchandisers, colorful veterans of the Israeli military who, having tiptoed through the Perelman and Icahn years as Marvel’s exclusive toy licensers, are now set to profit mightily from the Spider-Man and Hulk franchises.

Long on info-, short on -tainment, Comic Wars is chilled by the gelid atmosphere of white-shoe power. Eager for some heat, Mr. Raviv dredges up every possible mano a mano confrontation, but mostly we get 11th-hour, chest-poking standoffs in law-firm conference rooms between overpaid minions. This gets boring, and it actually comes as a relief when the forces of personality (the two bumptious tycoons and their posturing lawyers) give way to the apparatus of impersonality (the Delaware courts).

Dan Raviv had Stan Lee, Ron Perelman and Carl Icahn vying over Spider-Man, the X-Men and the Hulk-why, then, is Comic Wars such a colorless book? To be fair, Mr. Raviv faced a tough hurdle: This is an 80′s-style story, complete with greenmail, cramdowns, corporate plundering and tides of junk debt; it feels played out before it even begins. What’s at stake is less Marvel’s museum-piece inventory than the legend of the Big Swinging Dick from the age of Liar’s Poker and Barbarians at the Gate. After a couple of decades of glitzy prominence, the investment banker may soon be drab furniture again-more like Fred MacMurray as the self-dealing corporate dullard in The Apartment than tube-tanned Gordon Gekko. Mr. Raviv should have seized on this irony: Human shading made Marvel comics into art, while splash and color turned petty thieves into larger-than-life villains.

Stephen Metcalf writes for Slate, The New Republic and The Nation.