Marvel's Still-Uncertain Universe

For all of my skepticism over the value of Marvel Entertainment's (NYSE: MVL  ) stock, I like what's happening at the comic book publisher. Today's fourth-quarter report does nothing to dampen my enthusiasm.

And that's with plenty of not-so-great news. For example, sales and earnings fell for the quarter and the year. Guidance, meanwhile, was adjusted downward, thanks to an expected increase in Marvel's tax liability.

Then there's Ghost Rider. Marvel's hellacious stunt motorcyclist set fire to box-office records during his film debut over the Presidents Day weekend. The film has taken in more than $95 million worldwide to date, according to Box Office Mojo. Nevertheless, management told analysts that Ghost Rider won't have a material impact on earnings.

So why am I optimistic? Two reasons. First, the core business is doing well. Publishing, for example, juiced its operating margin by 4 percentage points, thanks to the success of its Civil War comic book miniseries, in which major characters in the Marvel Universe divide over the need to register their powers with the federal government.

Second, Marvel is still producing plenty of cash. I'm not talking cash from operations, either. That line got a huge boost from a one-time $105 million payment from Hasbro (NYSE: HAS  ) and licensing prepayments relating to Sony's (NYSE: SNE  ) Spider-Man 3.

Excluding those items, as well as stock-based compensation and other working capital changes, left $61.7 million in 2006 owner earnings, which was more than enough to cover the $15.1 million spent to begin production of Iron Man.

That's important, Fool. Marvel's movie business is more complex than it appears, as those who've read my coverage of its film financing already know. What you may not know is how much of a risk Marvel is taking in becoming a studio and what rights it retains.

Recently, I went to New York to find out for myself. Tune in tomorrow for more details in the first of a two-part series that includes interviews with Marvel executive vice president John Turitzin and editor Joe Quesada.

Need related Foolishness? Excelsior!

Marvel and Hasbro are both Stock Advisor recommendations. Get 30 days of free access to the entire portfolio of newsletter selections, which is beating the market by more than 40 percentage points.

Fool contributor Tim Beyers, who is ranked 1,720 out of more than 23,300 in our Motley Fool CAPS investor-intelligence database, still owns more than 2,000 comic books. Tim didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article at the time of publication. His holdings can be found at Tim's Fool profile. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy is a hero to your portfolio.

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