Is Disney Playing Dirty or Just Letting Marvel Monkey Around?

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Disney playing dirty?For 88 years, Walt Disney (DIS) has been the epitome of good, clean, family fun. Mickey Mouse. Disneyland. Donald Duck. But when Disney purchased Marvel Entertainment for the prince charming sum of $4 billion in 2009, a new cast of characters with entirely different rules moved into the House of Mouse.

Disney's purchase of Marvel included its comic book subsidiary -- Marvel Comics. And in comic book land, marketing practices may be a bit more in-your-face than Disney watchers are used to.

Scalping the Competition

Last week, called out Marvel's "Comics for Comics" promotion. The plan goes like this: Marvel has a big summer "event" comic called Fear Itself -- think of it as the comic book version of a big blockbuster summer movie. Marvel recently prepared a special edition of this comic with a "variant cover" -- essentially, new artwork that makes the edition a collector's item.

Any retailers that want to get hold of a copy to sell can do so easily. All they must do is ... rip the covers off 50 copies of one of the titles involved in rival DC Comics' own summer event, Flashpoint, and mail them in to Marvel, coupon-style.

This is typical razzing between comic companies. Marvel pulled the same trick last summer, when its Siege series went head-to-head with DC's Blackest Night. But this time, it's getting mainstream attention because Marvel Comics is now part of a very mainstream company.

Some Smell a Rat

Marvel calls the program a way to "help" comic book store proprietors in "tough economic times." As pundits point out, many of the titles Marvel wants "scalped" have been sitting on store shelves for weeks, earning nothing for store owners.

Chances are, retailers will ultimately have to discount the titles to move the stale inventory -- or they may never succeed in selling them at all. So Marvel is offering retailers a chance to get something for titles that may now be worth far less than their cover prices.

A more evil interpretation would be that Marvel hopes its offer will result in the destruction of tens of thousands of copies of its rival's comics, preventing DC from reaching a wider readership. However, tearing off covers has been a common practice in the industry for years; retailers used to do so when returning any unsold copies to their distributors.

Negative publicity surrounding Marvel's Comics for Comics has led to grumbling in the comic community, where the consensus seems to be that this is "dirty tricks." But remember, we're talking about comics that (a) readers already had plenty of chances to buy and (b) sold only a few tens of thousands of copies anyway.

In the end, the promotion likely won't do any damage to rival DC Comics' bottom line, nor really make a dent in Disney's image.

Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own (or short) shares of any company named above, but Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Walt Disney and DreamWorks.

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