Marvel’s muscle-bound superheroes will join Mickey Mouse, Kermit the Frog and new characters from Pixar Animation this weekend for the Walt Disney Co.’s D23 Expo in Anaheim, marking the first time the company will attempt to bring together fans of the comic book world and devotees of other parts of its corporate kingdom.
The three-day consumer event at the Anaheim Convention Center, which begins Friday, will feature star-studded panel discussions, presentations on theme park attractions and first-look footage from upcoming films and TV shows, a formula borrowed from Comic-Con International, the annual San Diego pop-culture extravaganza. Disney used that template for its first D23 Expo in September 2009, the same year that the company bought Marvel Entertainment for $4.24 billion. Now, for this second edition, Marvel heroes like Iron Man and Captain America will be part of the presentations.
The first D23 Expo (the name alludes to 1923, when Walt Disney arrived in Southern California) was far smaller than Comic-Con — Disney officials put the attendance at 40,000, although some insiders say it was barely half that number. But this time around, the growth of the namesake D23 fan club and wider public awareness of the event have set the stage for a bigger turnout. Steven Clark, the head of the D23 club, said that tickets — which cost $47 for adults and $37 for children each day — have been sold in 48 states and 19 countries.
Many attendees are bringing their youngsters to see live appearances and performances by the Disney Channel stars, or to check out the merchant area where new collectibles, vintage rarities and trading pins will have die-hard Disney lovers reaching for their wallets. Amid the Disney princesses and cartoon figures, the presence of Marvel characters may appear incongruous.
“The question is: Will people go out of their way to go to D23 to see Marvel, and no other comic book brand or products? I don’t know,” said Rich Johnston, founder of Bleeding Cool, a British website that covers the comic book industry. “Will Marvel’s presence appeal to Disney’s traditional fans? I will be very interested to see how it goes.”
There has been considerable angst among Marvel insiders and fans about how the spiky, outsider ethos of “the House of Ideas,” as the comic book company has been called, would mesh with Disney’s orientation toward families — after all, the razor-clawed mutant Wolverine seems to appeal to a very different demographic than the Little Mermaid. This weekend may provide clues of how well Disney can meld the hybrid cultures, as Marvel’s chief creative officer, Joe Quesada, and Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige appear alongside Disney executives.
Marvel Studios was notably absent from Comic-Con‘s Hall H this year, and the industry perception is that Disney was holding back some sizzle for its own event. On Saturday, at the midmorning preview of upcoming Disney releases such as “John Carter” and “Oz the Great and Powerful,” Feige will join Walt Disney Studios Chairman Rich Ross to preview “The Avengers.” The May 2012 release will be the first Marvel film to fly under the Disney banner, after the studio’s other films, including “Captain America: The First Avenger,” “Thor” and “Iron Man 2,” were distributed by Paramount Pictures.
Disney scooped up Marvel precisely because its characters and stories appeal to an audience that has proved elusive for the Burbank entertainment conglomerate: young men. The prospect of adding Thor, the prince of Asgard, to a toy shelf packed with pink-hued properties is the ambition behind the deal.
“Disney sees Marvel as a way of getting the princes,” said Henry Jenkins, a media scholar at USC. “They need Prince Namor, and the other princes Marvel owns, to complement the Disney princesses.”
Disney considers D23 a ripe opportunity to introduce Marvel to its most ardent fans. Quesada will even host an introductory course on Marvel, tracing its history from its origins in 1939 as Timely Comics.
“It’s like, ‘Hey, we’re really thrilled to be with the family, we can’t wait to get to know you guys and we want you guys to know us,’” said Quesada. “This is such a wonderfully Disney-centric event and there will be many fans there who aren’t really aware of who we are, our characters and our history.”
Marvel comics may benefit from exposure to Disney’s broader audience and large retail footprint, including stores and theme parks. Although comic-book-inspired movies often perform well at the box office, comic book sales continue to languish. Hot-selling titles seldom exceed 100,000 copies a month, with individual sales declining over time, said Laura Hudson, editor in chief of Comics Alliance, a comic book news website.
“That’s something comics have been struggling with for a long time,” she added. “It’s a niche product in a lot of ways.”
One key difference between Marvel and Disney is the degree of consistency of their characters’ stories across multiple platforms, from films to TV and books.
Jeff Gomez, chief executive of Starlight Runner Entertainment Inc., a company that has worked with Disney and other firms on such issues, said Marvel has reinterpreted some of its most popular characters in multiple ways, making it hard, say, for a child who loves Hugh Jackman’s film portrayal of the Wolverine character to get the identical experience in comics books, on TV or online.
“There are five or six different Wolverine characters: the comic book version, the cartoon version, the movie version, the alternate universe comic book version,” Gomez said. “That’s the challenge Disney’s going to face.”
— Dawn C. Chmielewski and Geoff Boucher
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