WITHER GOES MARVEL

PART ONE

Welcome back for another What Th--? go-around. We’ve gotten a few, a very few, letters with questions, so I’m once again asking that everyone send in something you’d like to see discussed here. I probably won’t have any answers, but we may be able to spark some sort of debate here, which is great.
Secondly, two weeks from now we will feature our continuing series of interviews, this time with Mark Millar. Look for it.

From Dirk J. Abraham - dirkja@rconnect.com comes a letter with a question so fascinating it will take two weeks to answer it.
Marv, here's a question for you to ponder.

I collect comics - mostly Marvel super heroes. I also use the Internet to check out comic-related web sites. But, I often find on-line comic sites, message boards and columnists have a very negative attitude toward super hero comics in general, and Marvel in particular. Reading some of these sites, I get the impression that anyone who reads super-hero comics is a buffoon, and the "cool" people are all apparently reading some obscure black-and-white comic. In your opinion, why do so many Internet participants have this apparent bias against Marvel and super-hero comics? By the way, I'm 47 years old, I have a B.A. in communications from a good liberal arts college, and I don't live in my mother's basement.

Concerning super-hero bashing: it basically comes down to tastes changing but not realizing it, so you want something you used to like to still be as meaningful to you as it was when it, frankly, was more important in your life. Given that loss, you attack what you once loved, instead of just saying your tastes have changed. Sometimes, Super-heroes no longer do it for you. That’s all right. I no longer read Richie Rich – and don’t say that’s because it’s no longer being published, okay? Of course, with some folk, it’s not enough to no longer like what you once loved, you have to attack it so people who still like it are made out to be morons. Ignore those people. They don’t know how to have fun.

Marvel bashing is a phenomenon that has been going on since the early 90s and doesn’t seem to be letting up. What is so bizarre is that readers still buy more Marvel Comics than any other brand, which means they love the books yet hate the company. It’s truly amazing and I had been wondering about it ever since I first noticed the trend beginning a decade ago.

There was a time, back in the 60s and throughout the 70s that “Make Mine Marvel!” was a rallying cry for all Marvelmaniacs. As a fan back then, we truly loved the stories, art and characters that Marvel was producing month in and month out. It was as if they almost couldn’t fail. Thousands joined the MMMS, the Mighty Marvel Marching Society – I still have my kit somewhere in the garage – and we couldn’t wait to see what book our names would appear in under the “Here’s 25 more MMMS members” banner.
What made Marvel back then, beyond the stories, which were so much better than what anyone else was doing, and the art, which was exciting instead of dull, and the characters, who were unlike anything we’d seen before, were the editorials and letter columns written by Stan Lee.

Say what you will about Stan. Every fan in comics has his or her own view over who and what he is, but as someone who worked side-by-side with Stan under trying conditions on a daily basis, I can tell you that beyond his obvious talent, which was undisputed back when he revitalized comics in the 60s, Stan is the gregarious, fun, friendly and straight forward guy everyone is trying to put down today. Perhaps his endless enthusiasm turns off people in this age of irony, but I can tell you it’s no act. He is enthusiastic. He has a boundless love for what he does. And yes, he is corny, but it’s not manipulated corn. That is his personality. I’ve seen it when the two of us were alone, walking down the street to a restaurant. If it ever was an act, it had long ago become assimilated into his personality, but people who knew him back in the 40s say he was like that even then. Yeah, his penchant for alliteration was always silly, but, tell the truth, if you were reading comics in the 60s, you probably loved it. I did.

He made us feel like he cared about us. We liked believing there was an actual Marvel bullpen when, in fact, all the freelancers worked at home. We loved believing everyone at Marvel was friends with everyone else. We believed we were part of a family. And knowing Stan, he was doing it because he thought it was fun.

Back in the 1950s, EC Comics did pretty much the same thing in their letter columns. They made their readers believe they were part of an exclusive club. The letter answerers at EC didn’t have the effusive charm that Stan has, so they handled their letter columns differently, but essentially, they were selling an exclusive EC club, and Stan was selling Marvel. And Comics – remember, Stan would always say “Read us, read our competition. Just read.” Whether he believed that or not, he was never putting down the competition, except with his silly “Brand Ecch” routine. Everyone back then knew it was fun and we took it as such. We didn’t think Stan hated the guys at the other companies. Hell, any time a DC artist was available he’d grab them up. No, it was all part of creating a family atmosphere and nobody, I repeat, nobody was better at it than Stan, because that is who he is.

So, what happened? How did we go from loving Marvel to wanting to string up their executives from their toes?

I believe the good will engendered by Marvel lasted through most of the 1970s. The people who followed Stan, namely Roy Thomas, Len Wein, myself, Archie Goodwin and a few others, believed in Stan’s basic approach to things. We always treated Marvel’s letter columns and the Bullpen Pages as if you were writing to your friends and family. Like Stan, we always signed our first names to the Bullpen Page. It was Stan the Man, Rascally Roy, Lively Len, Marvelous Marv, Affable Archie, etc. Not only is that the way all of us preferred being addressed – Mr. Wolfman was my father. I’m Marv – but using first names is always friendlier.
Also, we loved comics and, strange as it may sound, we loved the fans. Hell, we’d all been fans. Roy, Len and I all published fan magazines. I write this column and update my own website several times a week. Roy still is doing Alter Ego, and Len is struggling to put up his website, which should be done soon. We went to all the early conventions. Hell, Len helped put on the very first comicon – and gave it the name comicon – back in the 60s. So, like Stan, we weren’t so much catering to the fans, we were doing comics because we loved them.

But things changed when one of fandom’s favorite whipping boys, Jim Shooter, took control of Marvel. I’m not here to discuss whether he was right or wrong with what he did – I had quit Marvel and went to DC very early on in his rein – but Jim was the first person to sign the bullpen pages with only his last name – Shooter. Not Shining Shooter or Six-Gun Shooter. Just Shooter.

First names bring you in as a friend. Last names distance you.

During this period many professionals started talking directly to the fans and, for the first time, actively complained about Marvel. No one had ever done that before. We all have had problems with the companies we’ve worked for, but our complaints were always made in-house, not to the fans. Why not? 1: It’s not their business. 2: It’s not their business. Sorry, but it’s not.
Professionals left Marvel in droves, and many of them took the time to complain loudly and vociferously. Whether their complaints were justified or not isn’t the problem. What is is that the family atmosphere that Stan had spent so long creating was being shattered.

What? You mean every writer and artist at Marvel didn’t work in the Bullpen? You mean the people up there might not like each other? You mean they may actively hate the person they’re working with? You mean the people in charge are ruining creator X’s book by insisting on changing this or that or whatever? How dare he. This isn’t the Marvel of Stan Lee. This isn’t the Marvel of Roy Thomas and Len Wein and Marv Wolfman. Nobody disliked any of them!

Garbage!

We know now, through the parting layers of time, that Stan and the brilliant artist, co-creator and plotter of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, Steve Ditko, didn’t speak to each other for a very long time before Steve quit, even as they worked together on Spidey. We’ve learned that Jack Kirby, whose style literally formed the whole of Marvel, had severe differences with Stan. I’m not taking sides here. I’m not saying Steve was right and Stan was wrong, or Stan was right and Jack was wrong. I’m saying there were differences. Major differences. Differences that forced both creators to leave Marvel. But because the times were different, they didn’t go to the fan press and talk about it in public.

They both left because of “disagreements” but we went on believing in the wholeness of the Marvel Bullpen because they kept their differences pretty much to themselves. But, when a dozen or so creators exited Marvel between 1978-1981, and so many of them said the Ed-in-Chief was the reason they were leaving, well, the fracture was beginning.

Then Shooter, right or wrong, had his public battle with Chris Claremont on Dark Phoenix. Now, I’m more likely to believe that though this was real, it was also a great PR stunt, because the effects of killing Dark Phoenix took what was only a decent selling Marvel title and catapulted it into the stratosphere. People wanted to see what the Marvel empire was censoring. Chris, a top writer, took this windfall and ran with it for years, turning out more and more intriguing and controversial stories until the X-Men became unbeatable. Good for him.

But the seeds of discontent, the truth that the Mighty Marvel Machine wasn’t one big happy family, we’re definitely sprouting and the fan’s love for what they thought Marvel was, was slowly winding down.

Marvel started its popularity decline in the 80s and sank lower in the 90s, only to have a startling resurgence in the current decade, whatever you want to call it.

I will continue next week with both an analysis of what went wrong in the 90s, what is right and wrong today, and then offer some suggestions for improvement.

See you in seven,
Marv Wolfman.



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