Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What it means to be human...

In a quest to find meaning in the action figures piled neatly in the closet, it's inevitable that you come across details you did not expect.  For example, here's a question that held little meaning until a few days ago:

What do Sue Richards (the Invisible Woman), Daredevil and the US Agent all have in common?

If you said all three are Marvel comic book heroes, you wouldn't be wrong.  I imagine you would be hard-pressed to link them together in some another way, however (aside from some obscure issue perhaps).  Sue is part of the Fantastic Four, wife to stretchy scientist Reed Richards and sister to the Human Torch (the Partridge family of the Marvel Universe). Daredevil, the man without fear, is more of a self-made hero (along the lines of Batman), who relies on his heightened senses and martial arts to fight crime.  US Agent is a veritable clone of Captain America, who spends his time moving from team to team trying to find his own identity.   Although all three characters have called New York City home at some point, what makes them truly special is how the US Customs Service views them: as human beings.

Although obviously not literal, that distinction was at the heart of a landmark trade case pitting former toy manufacturer Toy Biz (now Marvel Toys) against the United States for reparation of import taxes. Without boring you with too many details (click here to read them), here's a brief summary of both Toy Biz and the case itself:

The comic book explosion and speculative market of the early 90s made anything superhero-related a hot commodity.  Issues of X-men, Spiderman, Superman and Batman were being printed and collected by the millions, and publishers were quick to license their properties to other media. Toy Biz, a former subsidiary of Canadian licensor Charan Industries, managed to secure royalty-free license rights to Marvel's stable of characters in exchange for a large chunk of their equity. Investor Isaac Pearlmutter then restructured the company, bringing in spend-thrift CEO Joseph Ahern to outsource manufacturing to China and cut costs to improve margins.  Avid Arad (who was busy overseeing Marvel's animation division at the time) came onboard to form an unholy marketing juggernaut: the popular Saturday morning cartoons become vehicles to market new Marvel characters (and their action figure counterparts).  Profits skyrocket as a result, opening the door to additional properties (owned by former board chairmen Ron Perelman) including Hercules/Xena, NASCAR and even candy and learning aids.
Not surprisingly, the good times came to an end when the comic book bubble burst.  Oversaturation coupled with waning public interest forced Marvel to file for bankruptcy in 1996.  Various attempts at investor takeovers were thwarted as Toy Biz merged with Marvel Entertainment to force Marvel Enterprises.  Avi Arad took the reins of the newly minted Marvel Studios, and was given the go ahead to pursue film opportunities.  Their first licensed film, Blade, became a sleeper hit in 1998, and the rest is history.

Getting back to the court case, US customs officials classified the action figures that came over from China as dolls, possessing human qualities.  This effectively doubled the tariff rate (12%); robots and monster toys are generally classified as other, taxable at 6.9%.  If you consider the millions of toys that were imported between 1994-2003 (when the judgment was finally handed down), that's a considerable sum of money.  Toy Biz argued the Marvel characters possessed nonhuman qualities (e.g. tentacles, claws, wings, etc.).  Further, they stipulated these features effectively made them animals or non-human creatures  and were therefore not classifiable as dolls.  After studying 60+ figures, judge Judith Barzilay sided with Toy Biz.  Toy Biz was a division of Marvel, so this resulted in a public outcry from fans (who found humanity to be a central theme among Marvel superheroes).

So what makes the aforementioned heroes so special?  During the proceedings, both sides effectively gave each other 'gimmes': Beast and Robot Wolverine were obviously nonhuman, while characters like Sue Richards, Daredevil, Punisher and US Agent were unquestionably human (and therefore subject to the higher tax rate).  Looking at the toys now, it's weird to think they cost Toy Biz more to distribute. The figures themselves are diminutive: not quite as small as a GI Joe or Star Wars figure, but certainly not large, either.  They are painted simply in muted primary colors, and their accessories are limited.  The US Agent is even a repaint of Captain America (the star is clearly visible on his chest). To think these figures were a staple in many a millennials' toy collection is impressive.  I admit my first toy was the brown and yellow suit Wolverine (with slashing claws that were spring-loaded).   My inner child smiles a little now that I know the US government considers him an animal. 

No comments:

Post a Comment