Marvel Comics has offered licensed books to its fans throughout its 80-plus-year history. “We’ve had some sort of presence in the market always and have some titles that have not been out of print in 50 years,” says Sven Larsen, Marvel’s v-p, licensed publishing. “But in the last few years our publishing presence has ramped up.”
For Marvel, licensed publishing is not about raising exposure, as brand awareness is at an all-time high, but rather about reaching new and existing fans, no matter their ages or interest levels. “Publishing gives the fans multiple entry points into the Marvel storytelling universe,” Larsen says. “We look at it through a lifestyle lens. How are readers incorporating Marvel into their life, and what are their needs at different stages of life? If you were 18 when the first Marvel movie came out, you’re 31 now. Your life looks very different.”
New releases, though generally not tied specifically to entertainment projects, are often timed to take advantage of films or TV shows. Disney Publishing Worldwide, its Marvel Press imprint, and Marvel publishing licensees have all seen good success with several Black Panther titles in 2022, for example, as the movie sequel Black Panther: Wakanda Forever raised interest. Creative director Michael Siglain, who oversees Marvel Press, pointed to hits such as Black Panther: Wakanda Forever: The Courage to Dream; Okoye to the People; and the final volume of the middle grade series Black Panther: The Young Prince, all from Marvel Press, as well as DK’s Wakanda Atlas; Random House’s Dreams of Wakanda: Creators, Writers, and Comics Legends on the Impact of Marvel Studios’ Black Panther; and Becker & Mayer’s Protectors of Wakanda.
With so many characters, there’s always an anniversary to celebrate, and these also make good hooks for new publishing. New titles capitalizing on the 60th anniversary of Spider-Man in 2022 and 2023 have included DK’s update to the Spider-Man Character Encyclopedia, Marvel Press’s Spider-Man’s Beyond Amazing Adventures, and Spider-Man’s Social Dilemma by Preeti Chhibber, according to Siglain. “Spider-Man is definitely our most popular character, and he’s probably the one that appeals to the broadest range of readers,” Larsen notes.
The popularity of Spider-Man extends to alternate versions of the character that are part of the “Spider-Verse,” such as those in which Miles Morales or Gwen Stacy don spider suits. These are among a growing pool of diverse Marvel characters coming to the forefront. “We’re delighted by the emergence of characters like Black Panther and Captain America,” says Larsen, referring to how, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Captain America moniker has been passed to Black character Sam Smith. “They allow us to broaden our readership and tell different kinds of stories.”
With 8,000 characters in the Marvel archives, there is always room for new IP to shine. “There are lesser-known characters that have strong fan bases waiting for stories to be told,” explains Gwendolyn Nix, editor at Marvel licensee Asmodee Entertainment’s Aconyte Books. Aconyte’s novel Sound of Light by Amanda Bridgeman, starring mutant singer Dazzler, has become a bestseller, for example.
Preserving Marvel history
“A big initiative for us is memorializing some of our legacy content,” Larsen explains. “There’s a need to archive and preserve things, and our licensed publishers can help us with that.”
One publisher in this realm is Taschen, whose Marvel Comics Library to date includes works on Spider-Man, the Avengers, and the Fantastic Four, which will be joined by X-Men next year. Titles include photographs of roughly 20 complete comics per volume, editorial pages including a 10,000-word introduction, and photos of rare ephemera.
To produce the series, Taschen partnered with Certified Guaranty Company, a grading service for collectible comics, to find and photograph classic first editions. Taschen used only ink colors that were available during the original time period and developed new paper stocks, including an “elevated wood-free uncoated paper that has the smell and feel of the old comics while giving them new life and strength,” says editor Sarah Southard.
In addition to securing Marvel’s history, such archival publications are the only way most fans can experience older or rare comics. “They’re so valuable and expensive you can’t read them anymore,” Southard says, noting that Amazing Fantasy #15, the first comic to feature Spider-Man, sold for $3.6 million in 2021. These archival publications are “hugely important for us to be able to give people these comics most of them can’t access any other way.”
The Folio Society has been working with Marvel since 2018, starting with three books highlighting the golden, silver, and bronze ages of Marvel; each comes in a box with a facsimile of a comic from the era and an art print. In addition, a Marvel Heroes series includes volumes on Black Panther, Captain America, the Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, and Thor. Roy Thomas, a Stan Lee protégé and editor at Marvel from the 1960s to the ’80s, curates the titles.
“Marvel is a good fit with our audience,” says James Rose, head of editorial for the Folio Society. “Comics were seen as purely for children, but now they’re accepted as part of the literary world.” Each title incorporates scans of original comics; newly commissioned art from noted comic artists, such as for the end papers; and a unique paper stock that has the rough feel of a 10¢ comic.
Like many of Marvel’s licensed titles, the Folio Society’s books are meant for a wide audience. “They’re not just for major collectors; they’re for everyone,” Rose says. “This is a good way for more casual fans to get immersed, because you have an expert telling you which issues are key to understanding the character.”
IDW was an early player in preserving Marvel history: since 2010, it has been releasing artist’s editions of art created for Marvel comics. Starting with Mighty Thor by Walter Simonson, the list has grown to more than 35 titles. Scott Dunbier, IDW special projects editor, tracks down original comic book art from artists, collectors, and others. The black-and-white art is scanned at 100% size and in color, so readers can see nuances like blue pencil marks, Wite-Out, and tape. “It’s the closest many people will get to experiencing the original art drawn by Todd McFarlane or Jack Kirby,” Dunbier says.
A different take comes from Gestalten, a German publisher of graphic, editorial, and newspaper design books, whose Marvel by Design examines the company’s graphic design heritage. “Marvel’s influence cannot be overstated, not just in pop culture but in visual storytelling, design templates, typefaces, and editorial design,” says Gestalten CEO Robert Klanten. The book features archival images and lots of text about how Marvel designers developed the logos and how the looks of characters and design elements have evolved over time.
Abrams’s ComicArts imprint launched a program celebrating Marvel’s history in 2018, with seven titles to date. These include Panel by Panel books that delve into the history of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, a box set including reproductions of 1960s mini-books sold in gumball machines, and titles highlighting the history of Marvel collectibles such as value stamps and black-light posters. “Marvel has such a rich history,” says ComicArts publisher Andrew Smith. “There are so many different topics we can do that are of very high interest to the fan base.”
FPG Universe is also highlighting collectibles, namely trading cards, with its first title under a new Marvel deal: Joe Jusko’s Art of the 1992 Marvel Masterpieces. “While other trading card series in the ’90s were selling 5,000–10,000 boxes of cards, the 1992 Marvel Masterpieces sold an incredible 350,000 boxes,” says Mike Jaye, client services. “This series literally did for the youth of the 1990s what the creation of Spider-Man and Fantastic Four did 30 years earlier; namely, it introduced tens of thousands of fans to the Marvel Comics universe.”
Marvel in the classroom
Another area of expansion for Marvel is the library and education market. Last fall, Marvel partnered with the New York Public Library for a library card featuring an image of Peter Parker, Miles Morales, and Gwen Stacy in their respective Spidey costumes to mark Spider-Man’s 60th anniversary and encourage fans to explore NYPL’s holdings.
Marvel has long had some presence in the education market. Jim Abdo, publisher of school and library specialist Abdo Publishing, signed a license with Marvel in 2006. “I was taking my kid to school when he was in second or third grade on a snowy Minnesota winter day, and I noticed everything he was wearing was Spider-Man: the hat, coat, boots, everything,” he says. “I thought, I should call Marvel and see if I can get rights to some of the books.”
The result was a three-year deal for 100 different titles, mostly in six-book series focused on different characters, all in library bindings. “I had colleagues tease me, saying, ‘This will never work,’ ” Abdo recalls. “But when young boys saw Spider-Man comics in hardcover, the libraries couldn’t keep the stuff on the shelf. And it’s still going strong in 2022.”
At the other end of the educational spectrum, the new Penguin Classics Marvel Collection is likely to bring the brand into more high schools and universities. The first three comic book anthologies—Black Panther, Captain America, and The Amazing Spider-Man—debuted in June 2022. Each includes origin stories and other seminal works, with a detailed scholarly introduction.
Disney premiered a new TV series, Spidey and His Amazing Friends, for preschoolers in August 2021, which Siglain says quickly turned into a mega-hit.
At PI Kids, an imprint of Phoenix International Publications, books featuring Spider-Man have seen at least 50% annual growth for each of the past three years, according to John Russell, v-p global licensing and marketing. “The movies have done so well, and I think we’ve done a better job of finding format fits that have clicked,” he says. In the past year, Spidey and his Amazing Friends has accounted for about 25%–30% of PI Kids’ Spider-Man sales. “Spidey adds a freshness to the brand, and it’s perfect for our formats,” Russell notes.
Printers Row Publishing Group’s Studio Fun International has 20 active Marvel titles with 500,000-plus copies in print, according to Debra Mostow Zakarin, publisher and senior director of PRPG children’s publishing. The bestseller is Marvel Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse Magnetic Playset, which includes an activity book, die-cut magnets, and play scenes. “Overall, Spider-Man does the best for us among Marvel tie-ins and we’re expanding that line, especially now that there is a preschool property. Kids can really relate to the story.”
Bendon has been working with Marvel for more than 20 years. “We look to the live-action films as a nice incremental pick-up for our program,” says PRPG CEO Ben Ferguson. “But Marvel is one of the everyday brands in the planogram. A lot of times action properties are a harder play for coloring, activity, and board books, but Marvel has done well with those formats.” What works best? “Spider-Man, Spider-Man, Spider-Man,” Ferguson says. “Spidey and His Amazing Friends is probably taking the lead right now, but it’s all of them.”
Crayola also publishes Marvel color and activity titles, sold in the same aisle as other Crayola products at mass market retailers. The company offers 96-page coloring books, bound coloring books, and Color Wonder mess-free coloring pads featuring characters such as Spider-Man and the Avengers. In the spring, it is adding a giant coloring book as well as an impulse format exclusive to the value channel, both featuring the web slinger. For tweens and up, one of Crayola’s core licensed formats is Art with Edge, and Spider-Man is the top license overall in that series. “It has content that is older and more detailed, and it really pulls in that comic book aspect,” says associate product manager Briana Carelli.
The success of Spidey and His Amazing Friends in publishing has spurred new initiatives for 2023. Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, about an African American girl and her dinosaur living on New York’s Lower East Side, launches on the Disney Channel early in the year. “It’s for the Spidey and His Amazing Friends crowd as they get a little older,” Larsen says.
Marvel is also debuting Marvel Beginnings, a new publishing program for ages two to four, starting at Marvel Press before expanding to other licensees. This is for the fans who have grown up and have their own kids, known at Marvel as “Gen M,” and will pull in multiple Marvel characters.
Marvel preschool publishing programs can appeal to collectors as well as kids. Random House Children’s Books, for example, offers two to four new Marvel-based Little Golden Books, a highly collected format, per year. Dennis Shealy, editorial director, licensed publishing, says the core properties tend to perform well. “Spider-Man especially, but also Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America—all the classics,” he notes. “Captain America was one of the first, and it still sells well after 10 years. And as Marvel branches out, it helps us bring diversity to the Little Golden Books line with the wealth and variety of characters they have.”
In addition to its ComicArts programs, Abrams has published 18 high-end novelty titles for children since 2019. The first was Alpha Block: The Marvel Cinematic Universe from A to Z, which is for preschoolers but has crossover appeal to adults; 125,000 copies are currently in print. In 2020 it expanded further into preschool with My Mighty Marvel, a series highlighting the backstories of key characters. The books, numbering 10 so far, have gatefolds and a bold, nostalgic look. “It’s a first introduction to the characters for young readers, but in an artful way that’s collectible and appeals to adult fans,” Smith says.
Middle grade and beyond
Original graphic novels have proved a popular way to bring new stories to Marvel fans, especially middle graders, though other age groups are not forgotten. After publishing its first of three middle grade novels starring the Black Panther character Shuri, Scholastic entered the Marvel graphic novel space through its Graphix imprint, starting with Miles Morales: Shock Waves by Justin Reynolds in June 2021.
“We’re always looking for authentic voices that can tell these diverse stories,” says Debra Dorfman, v-p and publisher, global licensing, media, and brands at Scholastic. The program has grown to include another Miles Morales title as well as several other series, including Shuri and T’Challa, Ms. Marvel, and Avengers Assembly.
For younger readers, Graphix Chapters has published two titles in Steve Foxe’s Spider-Ham series, which will be joined in 2023 by a Graphix Chapters graphic novel and 8”×8” storybook tied to the animated mini-series Rocket & Groot. “Marvel’s done such a great job of making its characters relevant for kids,” Dorfman says.
Meanwhile, Random House has brought Marvel into its new Screen Comix format, which features screengrabs from movies and TV shows, starting with Spider-Man: Maximum Venom, Vol. 1.
Original licensed Marvel graphic novels are being released for older readers, too. Abrams ComicArts launched MarvelArts, a graphic novel series whose inaugural title, 2022’s Fantastic Four Full Circle, is by noted comic artist Alex Ross. Similarly, the Folio Society entered the original Marvel graphic novel space in November 2022 with a deluxe slipcase edition of a new Black Panther graphic novel by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Original storytelling in partnership with known authors is key to Marvel licensed publishing, whether prose or graphic storytelling. “There are many ways to tell a Marvel story, and we want to see how Alan Gratz or Jeffrey Brown or Mike Maihack tell theirs,” Larsen notes.
When Scholastic author Alan Gratz, known for titles such as Refugee, heard Scholastic had partnered with Marvel, he asked his editor how he could pitch a Captain America story he wanted to tell, resulting in Captain America: The Ghost Army (Jan.). Mike Maihack, author of Scholastic Graphix’s Cleopatra in Space series, is doing a new series for Abrams called Mighty Marvel Team-Ups, in which Spider-Man saves the day by pairing with other Marvel characters. The first, in 2023, is Spider-Man: Animals Assemble!, featuring the Avengers. And Jeffrey Brown, author of Darth Vader and Son, which has sold three million copies to date, is coming out with Thor and Loki: Midgard Family Mayhem from Chronicle Books in 2023.
Reference, art, and lore
Books that extend fans’ enjoyment of Marvel, from reference and art to in-world titles, remain core to the licensed publishing program. Longtime partner DK releases 10–12 new Marvel titles a year, focused largely on reference. The bestseller is The Marvel Encyclopedia, with more than two million copies sold. “Demand for it has actually gotten stronger even as the book has gotten older,” says DK publishing director Mark Searle. “It shows how Marvel is continuously bringing on new generations of fans.” Recent releases include fresh editions of the Spider-Man Character Encyclopedia and Marvel: Year by Year: A Visual Guide, with more than 1,000 images and 300,000 words.
The Quarto Group also publishes nonfiction and pop-culture formats, including The Wakanda Files, a guidebook to the world of the Black Panther, and Protectors of Wakanda, an in-world history and training manual about Wakanda’s all-female guard, the Dora Milaje. “It’s great to work on original titles like this that could be considered canon,” says Quarto publicity and marketing director Giuliana Caranante. Another title, Spider-Man: A History & Celebration of the Web-Slinger, Decade by Decade, includes information and artwork on the different iterations of Spider-Man in movies, TV, comics, and toys.
A new release from Insight Editions is Marvel Anatomy: A Scientific Study of the Superhuman, an in-world book with more than 100 original anatomical cutaway illustrations of 60 Marvel characters. “Our goal was to do something really unique and different that the fans haven’t seen before,” says Vanessa Lopez, v-p, licensing and partnerships at Insight. “Marvel is an amazing playground to be in and let our imaginations loose.”
Covering all the bases
Part of Marvel’s mission to engage fans from all phases of life involves pairing with unique formats and interests. Insight, for example, is expanding its Marvel cooking and entertainment list with titles tied to Black Panther, the digital cooking show Marvel Eat the Universe, and the Avengers Campus theme park attraction.
BenBella Books’ SmartPop imprint recently signed on as a Marvel licensee, debuting with Loki’s Book of Magic and Mischief: Tricks and Deceptions from the Prince of Illusions in August. “We’re tying into whatever’s most in the zeitgeist at the moment,” says marketing director Heather Butterfield. The company worked with a professional magician to develop 35 magic tricks for the book. SmartPop will also be releasing Iron Man: Tony Stark Declassified, an in-world memoir, in November.
Aconyte’s Marvel novels are accessible for hardcore and casual fans alike. “There are readers, moviegoers, gamers, and lovers of comics,” says Aconyte’s Nix. “We think about how we can get all of those fans into one room and take the characters into places they wouldn’t expect.” Series include Legends of Asgard, fantasy novels full of Norse lore featuring Thor and Loki; Untold, a darker series from the villains’ perspective; and Heroines, a female character–driven line.
Chronicle Books’ Marvel offerings focus on formats that make good gifts. “We’re applying the Marvel characters to formats we’ve done well with on Disney and Star Wars,” says Steve Mockus, executive editor. “The license fits extremely well with Chronicle’s overall mission to surprise and delight.” Titles to date include Spider-Man: 100 Collectible Comic Book Cover Postcards and Marvel Mazes.
Viz is bringing manga titles sold in Japan, mostly through its corporate sibling Shueisha, to the U.S. “These creators are taking Marvel’s iconic story lines and characters and putting their own twist on them,” says Kevin Hamric, Viz’s v-p of publishing sales. “The books have sold extremely well in Japan, and we knew they would do very well here.” Recent titles have included two Deadpool: Samurai! manga and Marvel’s Secret Reverse, by late Yu-Gi-Oh! creator Kazuki Takahashi. Viz currently has three more titles set for 2023: Wolverine: Snikt!, Spider-Man: Fake Red, and a $25 art book titled Marvel Comics: A Manga Tribute.
One nontraditional publishing licensee is DeAgostini, a partworks marketer offering subscription collections mostly focused on DIY collectibles. DeAgostini has worked with Marvel since 2002, but its first collection to hit the U.S. is a 24-inch replica of Iron Man’s Mark III armor introduced in 2021. Each shipment contains four of 100 total assembly stages for the build-up model, plus a 12-page magazine full of information about the character, the armor, the world, the character’s film appearances, and more.
“The editorial work is certainly amazing,” says Francisco Rueda, Marvel editor at DeAgostini. “It is hard work, but when you see the finished and approved magazine, it’s worth doing!”
All these varied formats, Marvel’s Larsen says, offer something for everyone. “One of the things that makes me happy is that we’re providing expanded access to Marvel,” he says. “We have a presence that wasn’t there five years ago. It means we’re reaching new people, and that’s really the reason for licensed publishing.”