WITHER GOES MARVEL

PART THREE

Two weeks ago I received the following letter. You can read the first two columns addressing this letter by clicking on the archive columns to the right.

From Dirk J. Abraham - dirkja@rconnect.com.

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.

Without recapping what I wrote – read them if you haven’t already done so - let’s go right to the videotape.

I don’t know what’s going on at Marvel. I don’t work there. Hell, I’m not even allowed to work there since I sued them a few years back and my name is verboten to top management, but I do know the fans are having a problem with Marvel today that has little to do with the books themselves because, even without me (or maybe because I’m not there!) the books are better than they’ve been in a quarter of a century.

Marvel’s problem comes from two sources. From what I see on the net, Joe Quesada’s matter of fact, unvarnished words, irritate the fans. They feel he’s arrogant and is explaining away bad decisions. As I say, I don’t know Joe, but from the letters he’s posted on the net I can tell he doesn’t have the ability to shmooze away stuff through the charm Stan showed. Hell, none of us could even come close to having Stan’s charm which effused its way onto the written page.

Let me digress: I used to joke (emphasis on “joke”) that you could be brought into Stan’s office and he could say the following to you: “You are a disgusting, no talented hack who should be shot, stuffed, then used as a piñata by angry baby seals with large clubs who should beat you until your bloody entrails are scattered across the planet.” Because of Stan’s personality, you would shake his hand and thank him as you left his office. Then you’d walk into, say, a different editor-in-chief’s office, and he would look down on you with his furrowed brow and say, “Umm, urrr, we’re giving you a million dollars, tax free,” and you’d be wondering what’s up with this guy. Stan’s a charmer and could make the worst news in the world sound like you’ve won the lottery. No one else can.

So, on the occasions where I’m looking for some gossip to read, because I love gossip, I read a letter to the fans by Joe and I simply wonder why he even bothers. From Stan to Roy to everyone, including me, when you’re editor-in-chief you have to do spin control. It comes with the job. But there are many decisions made that cannot be spun unless you have Stan’s ability to charm the pants off you. Sometimes it’s best simply not to answer, because, the internet being the way it is, if someone doesn’t like your decision, whether it be right or wrong, they’re going to have the last word and shout you down.

I wouldn’t spend the time trying to justify what may be a business decision I either do or don’t agree with, or an editorial change that is made simply because you’re in charge and want to do it this way and not that way. I wouldn’t give a long, complicated reason why I fired this person or that. I would simply say it was differences of opinion. Period. And, if I didn’t agree with the decisions made by those above me, I wouldn’t give some treknobabble explanation why it’s right.

As an editor, whenever I had to tell a writer or artist about a decision that was handed down to me, I always said “Look, I may not completely agree with this, but that’s the way it is. Now, can we make the best out of it?” The talent knows the decision made, which could very well be wrong, but even if it was my idea, it is not up to debate. It’s the way it is.

My advice to Joe: Having been editor-in-chief of Marvel, I know you have to defend, or at least implement, unpopular decisions, some of which you may agree with, some you may not. Some decisions could be 100% right and nobody will still approve, and some could be 100% wrong, but you have no choice in the matter. And then there’s that whole gray area between.

I don’t believe you are obligated to explain everything to everybody. If you don’t have Stan’s effusive personality, a simple “No comment” or “We regret this decision, but—“ can suffice. People are still going to argue over it, but they will no matter what is said. It’s hard to defend stupid decisions or even smart but unpopular ones, because people won’t listen and if you try, you look like you’re an apologist rather than an editor-in-chief and it undermines your credibility.

Trying to explain in detail why, say, Mark Waid is no longer writing the Fantastic Four is, simply, impossible. I don’t know if the decision was made in advance, or if it happened through accident, or if there’s something sinister involved, or if it’s just a matter of “he said, she said,” but no answer is going to make anyone happy, especially when they are conflicting.

A simple, “We regret that Mark won’t be writing the Fantastic Four, but we’re looking forward to the great ideas that new writer Irving Forbush has planned,” is all that needs to be said. And, by the way, that is the truth. I’m sure everyone at Marvel regrets losing Mark, for whatever the reason is, and you are looking forward to the new material.

Whether Mark was let go because there was a decision to change the direction of the book, or if, as some fan gossip columnists insist, because Marvel wants to cut down on high paying writers, frankly it doesn’t matter. Mark could have been fired because Marvel has pictures of him having group sex with Osama, Saddam and Mother Theresa – the way she is today. I know this is a great difference between me and the fans, and as much of a lover of gossip as I am, I don’t believe, when it comes to certain decisions, that you have to explain everything to everyone. You just need to be honest if you do. Fans have a way of seeing right through the B.S.

Frankly, I think the majority of fans have great respect for Joe. He editorially turned Marvel around. I know of no other industry where it’s expected to explain every unpopular decision. When John Wells, exec producer of West Wing had to announce Aaron Sorkin’s departure, he didn’t go into all the gruesome details (Where there any? Tell me! Tell me! I have to know!) He said he thought Aaron was a brilliant talent and that he hated to see him go. Period.

I would use the net only to tell about all the great things Marvel is doing and trying to do. I would use the net to disseminate information that you want everyone to know, not gossip. And, when bad things happen, or mistakes are made, acknowledge them, learn from them, and move on. Fast. Don’t offer excuses. Don’t insult the readers. Say your piece and leave.

To Bill Jemas. Bill’s a different problem altogether. Based on what I’ve read on the internet, Bill seems to enjoy baiting the fans. It may be fun. He may think it’s humorous. It may be a deliberate attempt to create a “bad boy” image, but it’s ultimately not only wrong, and unfunny, but foolishly wrong for someone in his position to be doing it.

As I said, I don’t know Bill, but I do know there’s no reason to attack the very people who are buying your product.

I don’t know if my figures are completely right – perhaps someone out there does - but here goes: In 1990, we had something like 7,500 comic book shops spread across the country. At the end of the 90s, we had something like 3,500 shops. Rumor has it we now have fewer than 2,000 shops. It has

been said that every time a shop closes, only 25% of its customers search out new shops. The others give up the hobby.
We are losing enough fans by still producing material they don’t want to buy, so we certainly can’t afford to lose more readers through the constant barrage of attacks and bad press.

My advice to Bill: Let Joe do all the talking. I honestly don’t believe people are finding the bad boy stuff funny, whether it’s real or a put on. I think there are so few readers to begin with these days, and they are more in touch with all the gossip, true and false – and the net is filled with both - that a wrong word can effect percentages. In the old days when we sold a quarter million copies, if you angered a hundred readers, it didn’t matter. Today, that could be the difference between profit and loss. Why hurt someone with a mean word anyway? And certainly, why do it deliberately?

Marv’s theory which is Marv’s: In the old days, comics were the only place where you could get heroic fiction. Today, it’s all over the movies (Marvel has had 7 number one films in a row, beginning with, he said modestly, my own character, Blade). What we do is now all over the movie screens, TV, video games, commercials, toys, in fact, everywhere. Since super-hero material can be found in so many other places, these days, super-hero comics are, I think, somewhat redundant and can be easily given up by readers. For this reason alone we need to include people, not send them packing in anger.
You have made a ton of great decisions for Marvel. The new look, the new concepts, the new approaches, according to Joe come from you. Obviously, you not only know what you’re doing, you’re defying odds by making people care about the characters again. So, why piss them off by needlessly being flip?

Like I said, let Joe do the talking.

Finally, to the fans and professionals:

Some of the problems comics is suffering from is an explosion of bad press that is exacerbated by the internet press who realize the fastest way to make their name is to attack! Attack! Attack! People love to read such stuff, and Marvel, like every company in the world, has enough disgruntled employees, current and former, to feed the minute by minute need for news updates and gossip.

A comic book writer gets their story tossed out at nine in the morning, by noon he’s written a 30 page diatribe that’s appearing on 50 websites.
We canned stories way back in the 70s and 80s but nobody said boo. A book gets pulped, for the wrong reasons or right, execs get slammed, even though it’s their right to make such decisions. And, by the way, those decisions have always been made. Just not reported on. I’m not saying the fans are wrong and Marvel is right. Frankly, with the exception of the gossip columnists out there who love to stir up trouble, the fans ARE right and Marvel is wrong for one and one reason only. The basic truth (or lie) of American business: “the customer is always right.”
If enough fans believe they are being crapped on, well, someone should pause to wonder if they are indeed being crapped on. Or spat on. Or someone accidentally stepped on their toes. The fans are the people, the ONLY people, buying comics today.

We don’t have “readers” the way we used to. Almost nobody today casually buys a comic. Because we effectively dismantled the newsstand market and limited their purchase to a thousand or so out of the way tiny hole-in-the-wall shops, we have destroyed the concept of comic book readers and created the uber fan.

Today, we only have true fans because only a true fan would go out of their way to get into their car, drive across town, go into the shop and pick up what they had already ordered. Maybe, and only maybe, will they then look at the rack and pick up one or two other titles because the cover catches their eye.

If you owe your life to people with one red eye, then it’s best not to piss off people who have one red eye.

So, the fans who complain are right. Something is wrong and needs to be dealt with, if only for self preservation.

On the other hand, Marvel’s job, and, for that matter, DC’s, Dark Horse and the rest, are to give you, the reader, good stories worth reading.
There’s a maxim in writing comics, TV, animation, movies, books, etc. It’s “Show, don’t tell.” It means show us what’s going on, don’t have someone’s talking head gabbing about it. In the case of Marvel, I believe you need to follow that example. Don’t tell us what we don’t need to know.

Do your job and show us great comics.

See you in seven,
Marv Wolfman


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