Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Dark and Gritty and Sad...

Maybe Danny Glover was right. In Lethal Weapon, his recurring line is “I’m getting too old for this s#*t.” Maybe that’s my problem. But I feel sad for Marvel.

I spent a few hours reading through my friend’s collection of recent Marvel Comics, specifically all the issues of the series-changing Civil War, pitting hero against Hero in a story of super hero power registration that’s supposed to be evocative at once of the Patriot Act and the movie The Incredibles, on acid. It was more evocative of my belief that editors are not doing their job.

When I was at Marvel, part of the editors job is to shepherd great stories; to hire great artists and writers, brainstorm with them to produce brilliant and beautiful stories that thrilled, entertained, provoked thought and provided excitement. But another important duty was to safeguard the characters. You could have a great idea, where Captain America lost both his legs and had to learn crime fighting from a wheelchair, and say, man wouldn’t that shake up the status quo? Sure it would. It might even run for 12, or let’s be generous, 24 issues, a full 2 years. And when the writer with the great idea gets bored, and wants to move on, and has fully exploited his great ideas, it’s up to the next writer to figure out how Cap regrows his legs so that we can tell stories that return to the core. Editors had to make sure at the start that they weren’t knee-jerking into a no, and would let creators creative latitude to play with a character, But editors also needed to play through the idea, and assure that that the idea of cutting off his legs wasn’t just stupid, and short-sighted, if it was, to be strong enough to say no. It’s the editors job to make sure, in terms of story, that there’s an inherent strength to the story, and something real to be explored, and also that there was out built into every storyline, a plan to get back to the core, however far afield the story may seem to go. The better that built in is, the more believable it is, and the smoother the transition back to the core, the better the editor.

What I’ve noticed with the latest storylines in comics is that the core seems to have been abandoned. Thor is dead. Iron Man has been transformed into a manipulative fascist. Spider-man’s identity is revealed to the world. Speedball, the lightest, funniest of the Marvel characters outside of MadCap, has been transformed into Penance, a character who has spikes that torture him as he moves, built into his costume. And a host of characters have been killed, last resort of the hack. People read stories for the specific purpose of finding out how the heroes survive. The death of heroes might’ve been daring fifteen years ago, but now its just desperate. I could go on and on, but all these so-called character developments add up to two problems, IMHO.

One is that the core is violated. Comics, like movies, have the strongest concepts when they can be boiled down to a few sentences. An eccentric candy millionaire sends out golden tickets in candy bars to kids across the world, as a device to pick his new successor. Charlie Bucket wins one, as do a group of other kids. One by one their greedy, mean spirited attitudes remove them from the tour, until Charlie is selected at the end, and becomes the successor to the Chocolate factory Empire; Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider and assumes the powers of a spider including strength agility, and an uncanny spider sense. By not stopping a robber who would later kill his beloved uncle, he learns that with great power comes responsibility, and becomes the Amazing Spider Man; Last survivor of the doomed planet Krypton, Superman, with the ability to leap tall buildings, bend steel in his bare hands, bla bla bla, and who disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great Metropolitan newspaper, fights a battle for truth, Justice and the American way. Short. Clear. What Civil War has done is add two or three sentences onto the core, and done so in such a way that it cannot be undone. They’ve betrayed the core, and while for some that’s exciting in the short term, in the long term they’ve ripped all the fun and the hope out of the stories.

So, two is that the comics are darkened. And how dark and gritty can comics become before they’re no substitute for watching the freaking evening news? I don’t know if there is one mainstream Marvel comic I would want my 9-year-old to read. Happily, his favorite is Sonic the Hedgehog, published by Archie Comics, one of the last mainstream bastions of comics for kids. There, the hero faces desperate circumstances, maybe even faces a devastating loss, but finds a way. He finds a way. That’s what it’s about, people. Life is about finding a way, and getting somewhere better. And if it’s not, then isn’t that the reason we turn to escapist fiction in the first place? The idea that there are no “fun” comics in at Marvel anymore is the saddest element of all. Putting on the geek hat now. In past years, there’s been ThunderStrike, and Speedball, and a host of others that worked to fill a need for light, happy, wacky fun stories of high quality. Okay, hat off.

In talking about this to others, the subject of self publishing, or going to a smaller publisher comes up. This segues into analogy two; you could create the best car in the world, and build your own factory to produce it. Your Tucker could be the best car since the original Tucker, and you may even sell one in every state. But that’s still fifty. Fifty cars won’t change the world. Many of the people who might want a Tucker would never even hear about it, let alone see it. Your dream car, high in quality and potential, will nonetheless be doomed to obscurity. If you could’ve gotten your car to Ford, or GM, or Toyota, or Honda, your car may have changed the way cars are made. But going with the big guys you key into the major distribution and connections nationwide that come standard with larger outfits. That would have made a difference. Marvel and DC and the big car manufacturers. But it seems (outside of Vertigo) like they’re not interested in anybody’s Tucker. Tuck that.

I hope attending the convention will change my mind.


Steve Buccellato said...

Obviously, from your last line, you wrote this before you went to the convention last weekend.

As someone who still reads comics, and has long abandoned the Marvel books for the very reason you state, I would be extremely shocked if you came away from the convention with a more positive attitude.

Unless you've found hope somewhere other than Marvel, that is. In my view, Marvel's betrayal of the "core," as you put it, is ultimately a betrayal of the fans. And why the readership demographic is all screwed up. How many actual KIDS did you see at the convention, I wonder?

Well, I'm enjoying your NYC "diary," and I'm hoping for a happy ending!

Sara Kocher said...

Sounds like Marvel went in with no exit strategy.

Where have we heard that one before...

Marie said...

I agree with Steve. I agree with Marcus. When I hold a comic at arm's length, unless Liquid colored it, I can't even tell what is happening on the page (because of art and coloring, I can't even get to the writing). It just give me an impression of "Hey, that's mud." I can't see anything at all. What would Mark Gruenwald have thought as he held up cover after cover at assistant editor's school?

The good news is that it's fiction. Actually, anything can be undone.