I’m Not Buying It!

About a month ago, the kids and I wandered into our local Target superstore in search of nothing in particular. Killing time in the suburbs often involves trips to Target; it’s how we roll. Halloween was in the air and we soon found ourselves perusing a section that had been dedicated to all things black and orange. Amidst the plaster pumpkins and witches brooms, I came across a particular item that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since then, namely an officially licensed Spider-Man pumpkin carving kit.  That’s right, it was a set of fairly low quality plastic cutting utensils festooned with the likeness of ol’ Webhead himself. Now I know that doesn’t sound like a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but something about this particular licensed product implanted itself in my head. It haunted me…sort of. The idea of a Spider-Man pumpkin carving kit admittedly made me giggle at the time, but mostly because it seemed downright odd that anyone would choose to buy this peculiar item simply because it was the Spider-Man version.

In the weeks that followed, I started to wonder about the licensing of superhero images and the notion that putting a picture of a “hero” on something makes it more desirable to the consumer.  When faced with the choice between the regular version or the comic character version of something as mundane as toothbrush or a pair of kid’s roller skates, does the licensed character version always win out? And as we march steadily toward the holidays and willingly immerse ourselves in the great season of spending, I find myself asking if perhaps things have gotten out of hand. Truth be told, it seems like the quality control is non-existent when it comes to what they will and will not greenlight as an officially licensed Marvel or DC product. A quick Amazon search results in a laundry list of everyday items plastered with our friends from the big two universes.

To prove my point, I decided to venture into the heart of darkness to do a little further research, namely the local “dollar store” or as I like to call it “the place where licensed Marvel products go to die.” Now if you’re looking for licensed products and you want the bottom of the barrel, this is the place for you. You see the dollar store is really just a liquidation front, where they sell the things that didn’t sell in regular stores. So while you think you’re getting a bargain for those nifty Avengers “flying discs” or those Batman band-aids, you’re really just helping someone somewhere cut their losses. A quick walk through the aisles verified my worst fears, as the place was awash in cheap plastic Avengers and Spider-man gewgaws that barely qualified as toys, as well as some thoroughly misguided Avengers grocery bags. Simply stated, the place was a bummer, so after buying myself a slightly stale Clark Bar, I got out of there.

Who is it that decides what can and can’t be licensed? Judging by the amount of stuff out there, I get the sense that these gatekeepers of our beloved comic book characters aren’t particularly picky about where the likenesses of these characters appear. I totally get that the money made off these licensing deals does in some way help comics themselves stay afloat, but it also seems like giving anyone with enough money the right to put a character on anything and everything degrades the value of the property itself. I realize that the images of Spider-Man or Superman are much more valuable than the actual comic books featuring Supes or Spidey and you certainly can’t fault Marvel or DC for exploiting their properties. It’s just that there’s something somewhat unseemly about putting the Avengers on something like, for example, a child’s toilet-training seat. That’s right, there’s an Avengers potty chair. That’s what it’s come to. I guess the idea is that if junior is going to learn to go number two then he needs the urging of both his parents and the Mighty Thor, who he’ll sit on directly as he does his…well…business.

It seems like there really isn’t anything they won’t Spider-Man-ize or Wolverine-ify. So where do we draw the line?  Do we need to draw the line? I suppose the sight of a superhero on something that doesn’t really need a hero on it will always have the potential to make me giggle at least a little bit, but it’s also a sort of sad when you think about it. In the end, there seems to be no real filtering mechanism when it comes where you’ll find Spider-Man’s webbed head or Iron Man’s metal mug, but in my humble opinion, something is lost in the translation when our heroes leap from the pages of our beloved books and land on items that have nothing to do with comics or, even worse, are basically disposable junk.

I’m not immune to the pull of this sort of thing, admittedly. I have a small collection of “Marvel Bearz” that I picked up on clearance in San Diego a few years back. These are essentially Marvel characters depicted as…uh…vinyl bears. By my own definition, they are little more than licensed plastic crap. But they’re sort of whimsical and they look good on a shelf with my trades, so I’m giving myself a mulligan here. But on a more macro level, when it comes to putting images of the Avengers on tiny pieces of plastic that really serve no purpose other than getting lost under the couch, I start to wonder if perhaps we’ve gone off the deep end.

Maybe it all goes back to that cursed pumpkin carving kit. When you really think about it, the only thing you need to carve a pumpkin is a knife and it damn well doesn’t need to have the Incredible Hulk on it to do the job. I forget who said, it, but just because you CAN do it, doesn’t mean you SHOULD do it. There’s likely no turning back from this sort of thing at this point; it’s just part of reality, whether we like it or not.  Nevertheless, maybe we can speak with our dollars this holiday season and spend our cash on actual comic books featuring the characters so often slapped onto things we don’t really need. Imagine that.

Gabe Roth is a TV writer trapped in the suburbs of Los Angeles. He’s @gaberoth on Twitter.


  1. So the pumpkin carving kit didn’t come with the Marvel heroes patterns to use that are displayed on the front? If not that is strange. Oh, and I may or may not have Batman band aids in my house.

  2. Disney’s licensing division is a major component in how they make money. Its giant…they want stuff in every category, segment and demo possible, and and always available. They are more of a mass market approach, where if you can show you can get X amount of product into X amount of stores and can sell X amount of product, you’re good to go. High Brow, Low brow and everything in between.

    The Marvel characters and licensing opportunities were a major reason why they wanted to acquire it. Total reliable cash cow. Disney does a pretty amazing job of maintaining the value of brands even when they appear to be watering it down with all these cheapo products you say. Really fascinating if you’re into branding.

  3. This kind of branding comic book charaters is totally inevitable, so the only thing one can do if these “products” irk you is not buy them.

    I can already picture THE WALKING DEAD napkins, utensils, floss, and toilet paper.

  4. it should really be a green goblin pumpkin carving kit…

  5. I read up on this recently. In 2010 (the most recent figures I could find), Disney, who makes the most off licensing of any company, made $28.6 billion – yes, BILLION – from licensed products. In 2011, total corporate revenue was $40.8 billion, so you can see how much of that revenue licensing generates.This is BIG money, people. And they aren’t even making the products in many cases, just letting others pay to use their IP on things!

    If you’re a parent, I’m sure you’ve noticed Disney characters on everything. They over-license – they’d put Princesses on a turd if it would sell. Speaking of which, the Princess brand is the No. 1 girls licensed toy brand in the United States among all girls and the No. 1 toy brand for dolls and role play among girls ages 2-5.

    Since the bought Marvel and Lucas, expect more comic and Star Wars merch in the future. The paltry $4 billion they spent on the Lucas empire will be recouped in licensing in the first year by a long shot. Hell, in 2012 Marvel alone made $5.6 billion in licensing in 2010.

  6. I believe you’re paraphrasing at the end is Jurassic Park’s Ian Malcolm: “…your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

    That said, I think it’s just another sign of superheroes entering the mainstream. The Avengers are now as much of a brand as Justin Bieber which I think overall is a good thing.

  7. I would love it if comic companies would thin the herd on crap they put their characters on, or at least make stuff thats not crap( Looking at you, McDonalds). Anybody remember the batman toys that were just Batman with different colors and attachments?

  8. I don’t know what the average age of iFanboy fans is, but I assume that at 48, I’m a (grey) hair older than many here. The overwhelming number of superhero related products never ceases to amaze me, because I still remember growing up in the ’70’s, it was nigh impossible to find any superhero toys or products, licensed or otherwise. Sure, there were some Superman & Batman toys to be found (the ’60’s Batman TV show was a merchandising machine of its own), but you NEVER saw any Marvel character stuff, nor any DC characters other than the Big 2. I remember in the mid-70’s Marvel did a promotion with Seven-Eleven where they sold plastic Slurpee cups with a ton of different Marvel characters on them, and I searched far-and-wide to get each one, because it was just so rare to find anything like this. (They even had Slurpee cups with Black Bolt and Doc Savage on them– couldn’t get much more obscure than that back then. Couldn’t believe 7-11 ever went with this promotion.)

    Now you can’t take a step without tripping over something with a Marvel or DC character on it. Feast or Famine, I guess. But it makes the stuff so less… special when it’s everywhere like this.

    • I remember when they did the Slurpee cups. We didn’t have 7-11 in our area then, so I got my aunt in Dallas to go get me a couple. I actually had the Black Bolt cup!

      The other big thing they had in the 70s were Mego action figures, as I’m sure many of the more mature folks here will recall. I had a ton of them – Marvel, DC, Planet of the Apes, Star Trek… you name it. I think they were all sold in a garage sale when I was at college. Still pissed about that one.

      But yeah, it was few and far between to get any superhero stuff back then.

    • bpage and kennyg: What about Captain Action? Was he before the 70s? I grew up in the 90s but I always kinda dug Captain Action.

    • I know what you mean and I’m only 32… I remember being excited by the 1989 Batman merchandising blitz, but I was the bullseye demo back then. I think my disillusion with this kind of thing began shortly after the first Spidey movie.

      It was exciting, albeit briefly, to see Spider-Man everywhere that summer and with as much as I was loving Marvel in the Jemas/Quesada era after a long hiatus from comics I truly believed in my nostalgia-clouded mind that this stuff was going to help comics as a whole in some way. Once I saw the first non-movie stock CG art (see the toilet seat or pumpkin carving kit) adorned Spidey merch show up in Target I knew the magic was gone.

      But I guess that’s my biggest complaint about this stuff and more importantly what’s making this merch so damn un-special. I mean, Marvel employs artists to render their characters in all kinds of interesting styles but all we ever seem to see on licensed products are the generic versions we see on that toilet seat above.

  9. I have a 3 year old who’s just getting into superheroes so this isn’t too surprising. We went to Build-A-Bear and he chose the Spider-Man costume to go with it. Also has a Spiderman backpack for preschool and a set of plates and utensils with DC guys on them. I guess I just don’t see the problem. Seeing that stuff has made him more aware of comic characters and that seems okay with me.

  10. When I was 12 or 13, I would buy anything Gargoyles-related including action figures, popsicles, and lip balm. That lip balm purchase may have been my lowest point as a fan. But I had my rows and rows of Goliath action figures to keep me company!