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For veteran journalist Dan Raviv, writing a book about the comics industry should have been a piece of cake. After all, he had already authored several books, including 1990’s Every Spy a Prince, a best-selling account of Israel’s intelligence apparatus. “We approached the subject matter just as the tradition of secrecy in Israeli intelligence was beginning to crack,” says Raviv, 47, who co-wrote Prince with Israeli journalist Yossi Melman. “When we started the book, it was illegal even to reveal the name of the people who headed Mossad and Shin Bet [the two key Israeli intelligence agencies]. But as we were researching it, restrictions like that were being lifted, and some of the founders of these agencies were 70 or 80 years old by then—just old enough to want to talk to us.”
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In some ways, Raviv found it harder to pierce the ring of silence around Marvel Comics: His latest book, Comic Wars: How Two Tycoons Battled Over the Marvel Comics Empire—and Both Lost, chronicles the struggle for control of Marvel between two strong-willed financiers, Ronald Perelman and Carl Icahn, with supporting roles by a pair of Israeli businessmen and a massive cast of bankers and lawyers. Raviv is cagey about who actually cooperated with him, saying only that all viewpoints are represented in the book and that most of the players probably won’t be happy with their portrayals.
The bulk of Comic Wars’ 300-plus pages is devoted to the bitter, and Byzantine, Wall Street maneuverings that buffeted Marvel during the ’90s. Marvel—which birthed a venerable collection of characters, including Spider-Man, Captain America, and the Fantastic Four—had been founded in 1939 by people who, in Raviv’s words, “actually read [the company’s] products and liked them.” But Raviv makes it clear that neither Perelman nor Icahn had any interest in the comic-book company’s creative side.
According to Raviv, Perelman bought Marvel in 1989 to milk investor money from the junk bonds he issued in the company’s name. Icahn, for his part, entered the narrative in 1996, when he bought a controlling interest in Marvel’s junk bonds—not long before the company declared bankruptcy. That bankruptcy thrust the two men into a legal battle laced not just with big money but also with personal animosities.
“For Perelman and Icahn, it’s all about making money,” says Raviv. “They’re the epitome of the American tycoon for our time. There’s no reason for either of them to need more money in their lives….But everything’s about keeping score; who ranks where on the Forbes 500 is something that really matters to these guys.” Raviv, however, isn’t a comics purist: Despite his skepticism about the financial shenanigans of Perelman and Icahn, he acknowledges that the factors driving today’s entertainment industry—the movie deals, the toy licensing—would have eventually forced Marvel to expand beyond its modest origins as a producer of low-margin comic books.
Comic Wars is something of a departure for Raviv. A resident of Chevy Chase, Md., Raviv has been with CBS as a radio and television correspondent since the mid-’70s, based variously in New York, Tel Aviv, London, Miami, and now Washington. He decided to write the book in 1999 after hearing friends and acquaintances from Wall Street yammer on about the battle royal being fought over Marvel.
Ironically, as a child in Great Neck, N.Y., Raviv read only DC Comics—Marvel’s arch-rival. “As a teen, I felt that Marvel was too much about a sense of humor—being a wise-guy comic, rather than just fighting the bad guy,” he says. “Now my taste is for Marvel; their characters are more interesting.” —Louis Jacobson