WITHER GOES MARVEL

PART TWO

This was originally going to be a two-part column, but my answer this week got to be so long I am making it three columns instead. Last week I received a letter. Here it is:

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.

I’m not going to recap what I said last week because you can read it by clicking on the archives to the right. So, picking up where I left off…

Marvel began a creative slump in the 1990s that took more than a decade to extricate itself from. Unfortunately, because they had lost a lot of the good will engendered by Stan, Jack and Steve in the 60s, and a number of other editors throughout most of the 70s, the fans began to attack the company for some real problems that existed.

The decline was subtle at first, and a lot of it can be placed at the doorstep of the New Universe titles, which most fans thought of as a slap at old Marvel. Stan wouldn’t do that, they said. Of course, had the books been good instead of disposable, nobody would have complained. And, further, of course Stan and company would have created a New Universe if he thought that would help Marvel’s sales. He’d just have done it better.

The problem with creating a New Universe was that the original Marvel Universe was developed over a long period of time, through trial and error and a lot of success and failure. The Marvel Universe didn’t just spring forth from the brow of Zeus. First there was one title. The Fantastic Four. Then months later there was a second. Spider-man. Then, some time later a third was added, etc. Nobody was creating a universe, they created a single comic, saw how people responded to it, then created not a handful of titles, but just one more. There was no Marvel Universe per se. There were two comics. Then three. Then four, etc. But they were added to the line up slowly. Very slowly. And even then not everything succeeded.
Remember, the Hulk didn’t make it at first. It was cancelled after six issues. Spider-Man was shoved into a dying comic. The FF began without costumes. Stan and company played with each character and title until they figured out what they were doing and the books became successful. But even then some characters were never successful enough to warrant their own titles: Ant-Man, for example, or the Human Torch, who appeared in Strange Tales as well as the FF.

Even though the excitement started early on, The Marvel Comics – before they were named Marvel - were not immediate successes. Most Marvel comics hit their stride in their third year.

To think you could create a half dozen or more titles from scratch, let alone a cohesive universe that took far greater talents years to guide into some of the best comics ever done, was an act of hubris that nobody should have tried. Books can’t be stamped out like car parts. There needs to be inspiration.

The fans rebelled and stayed away from the New Universe in droves. They felt the original Marvel was being put down for the ego of a very few.

But the New Universe died quickly. The people in charge were soon gone, and new folk took over.

And here is where the real rift between company and fans began.

First off, the Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox was now hard to make out and care about. The quality level dropped precipitously. Athousand new books seemed to be added to the mix every month, and only a very, very few were readable.

Further, the fans felt the Marvel staff was mocking their love for the characters, and, in fact, they were. I looked in on a few Marvel panels at various conventions and saw the editors treating the fans with such disdain it made me ill. They thought they were having fun, but I would hear the fans as they left the panels. They weren’t all that happy. It got so bad that Marvel mockingly called itself “The Evil Empire” in public to make fun of the fan’s views that they were, indeed, evil. Rather than addressing why the fans thought that, they simply mocked them. Wrong! At the very least, you need to pay attention to the customer.

But the fans were hurt. They were hurt that their characters were being screwed with so badly. They were hurt that it looked like all the company wanted was to take as much money from them as possible while giving back as little as possible. Marvel was always profit driven – business needs to be – but Stan made it feel like he cared about how he was making the money. He made it feel like he wanted to do the best books in the world which is why you would spend your money on Marvel and only Marvel. Fans were hurt that the legacy of Stan and Jack and Steve was being crushed in order to churn out more and more garbage.

Sales dropped. But when your sales are exponentially higher than the competition, you may lose a third of your sales and stay top banana, but in truth you are smaller. Closer to a plantain.

And that’s where things stood for a decade. Fans hated the stories, hated the arrogance and hated what was being done to characters they loved. They fled the books. Sales dropped for a half million to fifty-sixty thousand copies. That means not only the evil speculators but a goodly number of the people who were there before the explosion.

That’s not to say there weren’t some excellent, often brilliant books being done, but for the vast majority of titles, nobody cared.
Now, what about today?

First off, let me begin by saying I don’t know any of the current people working at Marvel. As far as I remember, I met Joe Quesada one time, for less than five minutes after I was on a convention panel talking about the old days writing the FF. Joe came up to me and thanked me. We spoke for a few seconds, and hurried off to some other panel we had to do. I’ve emailed Joe a few times in the past few years and he has always taken care of whatever little problem I had (usually getting copies of books reprinting my old stories, or making sure I got a reprint check). In short, Joe has always dealt with me honestly and with respect.

I do not know Bill Jemas at all. Again, as far as I know, I’ve never met him or talked to him, or even know what he looks like, so the only thing I know about him is what I read on line.

I say this up front because I have no personal knowledge of or problems with either of these men. This is not to say that now I’m going to put them down. Quite the contrary. I just want you to know where I stand. There ain’t nothing personal going on here.
When I first heard that Joe was handling the “Marvel Knights” line for Marvel I, along with most people, probably felt – but he’s just an artist. He was a really great artist. I loved the issues of The Ray he had done for DC, but he didn’t write them. Because I and Len Wein had been asked to work up an animated treatment based on “Ash,” the comic he did back in the 90s, I read those books and again, thought the art was fantastic but the stories were, well, not really stories.

But then I started to read Marvel Knights, and Whoa! This was different. This was good.

And when he took over Marvel itself, I saw an incredible change in their editorial. I hated, capital H.A.T.E.D. what had been done to Spider-Man and the FF, and now, my God, they were starting to be good again. We could all see an immediate change in the Marvel Comics. They were growing up. They were acknowledging that they were no longer in 1963 but in the 21st Century and they were updating their characters to meet this new world.

The fact is, all of you were looking at Marvel again. You were caring again. The characters were interesting again. The new writers were doing new things and yet not desecrating the old.

So why do fans still hate Marvel?

For all the wrong, and some of the right reasons, and they are the same reasons.

Fans get caught up in internal politics instead of the books. Yes, I know if you care about something so much you do get caught up in it. When I heard Mark Waid had been fired off the FF I went through the roof because his run was pretty much the first time since Stan stopped writing the book that I thought it was truly good again. And that includes my own run which I never thought much of. I’m sorry to break here, but this column does conclude next week. See you after San Diego with a con report as well as my belated interview with Mark Millar.

See you in seven,
Marv Wolfman



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