In 1994, a small company called Marvel acquired the rights to sell children’s toys and comic books based off of their characters. During this time they were riding the wave of the comic book boom, a time when comic book consumption and production reached a sudden high. Marvel entered this period of success with high hopes, and followed the lead of other comic book companies to find success. This follow-the-leader approach turned against them when the market collapsed in 1997, forcing Marvel to declare bankruptcy.
All of this happened before Marvel Entertainment was the media power house we know today. Now, it seems as if Marvel is expanding into every corner of product design, churning out movie and TV series with a built in comic book and merchandise market at such a pace that some are calling this Marvel’s Golden Age. This approach is startlingly different than the company’s mantra in 1997, leading many Marvel enthusiasts to ask themselves what has changed between then and now.
Wesleyan alum Peter Olson ’97 was hired by Marvel in 2004, the year before Marvel changed their name from Marvel Enterprises to Marvel Entertainment – a move that made their expansionist dreams quite clear. Peter’s main assignment was to re-launch Marvel’s website, in a hope that they could rebuild through better online communication with fans. But Peter knew that, in order to really reach their full potential, Marvel needed to become a business. While working there, he landed on a golden question for Marvel’s future: “How can we take Marvel’s data and turn it into something useful for fans?” One of the results that came from this line of thinking was a visualization of all the character relations in the Marvel Universe, color-coded by the major franchises. Shown below, each node represents a character, and the thickness of each edge correlates to the number of interactions between the characters. Peter was only a cog in a large mechanical shift within Marvel, but the thinking that led to the creation of this data visualization is very representative of the change that took place after Marvel’s bankruptcy in 1997 – they stopped thinking about how they could use their data to merely market products, and instead focused on a way to draw in customers by using their data for interactive and proactive design.