Broadway Books

  Highlights from Comic Wars


• Ronald Perelman, the Revlon tycoon, hates to talk about Marvel Entertainment.
Perelman's seven years with Marvel were an obvious failure, ending in bankruptcy at the end of 1996. Yet, in fact, by cleverly timed sales of Marvel junk bonds during his years running the company, Perelman pocketed hundreds of millions of dollars.

• The book reveals that a litigation trust representing former shareholders and creditors is suing Perelman, alleging that he pocketed $553.5 million in "unjust enrichment" from the junk bonds.
The suit (now in the deposition stage) declares that Perelman had Marvel making deals meant to goose the share price (the ticker symbol was MRV), with short-term profit promises rather than long-term gain to the company. He took advantage of the sky-high share price, making his stock the collateral so he could sell Marvel bonds.

Raviv does his own calculation, based on thousands of pages of court and other documents, to conclude that -- thanks to the junk bonds -- Perelman netted a profit of $280 million from his eight years running Marvel.

Perelman's privately held company, MacAndrews & Forbes, denies it did anything improper. One executive at M&F's headquarters, known as The Townhouse, said: "This is a money-making enterprise, not a church choir."

• Carl Icahn also hates to talk about Marvel.
Icahn bought a controlling interest in the junk bonds, just before Marvel declared bankruptcy in 1996. Then he tried to woo the banks, the "secured lenders," to support the notion that he should take over the company. Led by Chase Manhattan, the bank syndicate was terrified of Icahn. He did, however, win that stage of an uproarious and unpredictable court fight. In June 1997, Perelman's people were forced out; and Carl Icahn became chairman of Marvel Entertainment.

• Neither Perelman nor Icahn had any sense of the Marvel Comics characters or their impact on popular culture.
Even as an affluent teenager in Philadelphia, Ron Perelman read corporate balance sheets rather than comic books. Carl Icahn, despite more humble beginnings in Queens, never read comics and saw Marvel as a pure financial play -- and a way to foil
Perelman's junk-bond strategy.

• In the bankruptcy fight of 1997-98 and even before, comic books fans saw the quality of the publications suffer.
Consumers deeply resented a series of gimmicks that Marvel tried, such as creating "collectors' editions." The small businesspeople who ran comic book stores suffered a lot, and most of them blame Perelman for unfeelingly ruining the business.

• Two obscure immigrants from Israel managed to outfox two of New York's top tycoons.
Perelman and Icahn both lost this war. The winners were Ike Perlmutter and Avi Arad, who ran a company called Toy Biz with an exclusive license to make Marvel-related toys. Perlmutter is a Florida-based investor who stays behind the scenes, but is constantly on the phone concerning himself with every minute aspect of Marvel operations. Arad, who became a millionaire thanks to royalties on toys he designed, now lives in Beverly Hills -- the very active executive producer of all the movies based on Marvel characters.

• The Spider-Man movie represents an artistic and financial turnaround.
Comic Wars tells how the cinematic rights to Marvel's most valuable characters, Spider-Man, were tied up in a web of contract disputes and bankruptcies. Sony Pictures paid Marvel a $10 million advance (in 1999) and agreed to share box-office revenues: the two Israelis, IkePerlmutter and Avi Arad, boast that "first dollar participation" means not having to wait for Hollywood accountants to declare a profit on this film.

Avi Arad is now busy with three projects being filmed: The Hulk (directed by Ang Lee), Daredevil (starring Ben Affleck), and X-Men 2 (with suddenly hot stars including Halle Berry, Hugh Jackman, and Sir Ian McKellan). His Marvel office in Los Angeles has sold the rights for over a dozen more movies, in various stages of development, based on comic book heroes.

• Marvel (post-bankruptcy stock symbol MVL), while still publishing the comic books, and still dabbling in toys, hopes to earn most of its money from the low-overhead "licensing" business.
MVL is expected to turn a profit this year, for the first time since 1994, and the stock price has been soaring since last summer as the fear of another bankruptcy fades. A major revenue source for Marvel will involve collecting license fees and royalties when any of the 4,700 Marvel characters are used in any way -in any media (including TV and video games) and on any product (from boxer shorts to breakfast cereal).

• Ronald Perelman did not want to make movies.
The Prologue of Comic Wars takes readers inside his high-security corporate Townhouse on East 62nd Street, where the strategy was to "keep up the multiple." Movie projects were frowned upon, as being too risky and not favored by Wall Street.

• Stan Lee got caught up in an alleged stock fraud.
At age 79, the greatest human dynamo in Marvel's history has returned to cheerleading the company he loves.

As told in Comic Wars, he was Stanley Lieber, a cousin of the owner's wife when he joined Marvel (under the corporate name Timely Comics) more than 60 years ago. In the 1960s, his energy, charisma, and wacky sense of humor turned Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk and other characters into some of the world's most recognized entertainment properties.

Over the years, Stan Lee was edged out of the comic-book operation in New York. He moved to Los Angeles and helped Marvel-based cartoons get a foothold on TV. But most of his ideas for movies were foiled, and he uncomplainingly has collected on a lifetime contract from Marvel.

His ambitious non-Marvel project in the 1990s ended in humiliation. When Stan Lee helped set up an Internet entertainment company build around his own name and reputation, the stock soared at first. But the Securities and Exchange Commission alleged there was fraud. The company ( shut down, and the SEC had to track down the head of the company (controversial ex-lawyer and promoter Peter Paul) to Brazil.

Stan Lee is among the many who worried about Marvel during the bankruptcy battle. But, like others, he always believed that the Marvel characters and their popularity would survive.



Comic Wars
Dan Raviv

April 2002