Like last time, some links to start us off:
Glen Weldon at NPR: Why Disney's Delicious Snack Cakes Don't Threaten Marvel's Golden Eggs.
Marv Wolfman weighs in.
And for giggle: An Imaginary Memo From Disney to Marvel. And Penny Arcade's take.
My previous post dealt primarily with the [known] business ramifications of Disney’s acquisition of Marvel Entertainment, and attempted to get to the heart of some of the fear [at least my own], and perhaps expose the origins of some of the public/fan outcry against this change. In the past couple of days a few new questions have been raised, such as the fate of Marvel’s existing contract with Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure Theme Park, and the future of the exceptional “Spectacular Spider-Man” cartoon. Perhaps more troubling is the possibility of Disney choosing to self-distribute through Harper Collins over Diamond Distributors, a change which could easily alter the landscape of the direct market, and possibly end it completely [I find it funny I’ve only seen that mentioned here – but as much of a rag as Bleeding Cool can be, someone should be talking about this].
One of my biggest concerns regarding Disney’s purchase of the House of Ideas has very little to do with business, and is more about the future of comics, and what new management could mean for the continued improvement, or lack thereof, in the medium overall. I’ll also be looking at how, even though I’m very leery of Disney’s influence, it could, ironically enough, encourage the very sort of innovation I’m worried about it squashing.
It’s been my belief for some time now that comics, graphic novels, and other sequential literature are overdue for their own renaissance. Of all the manners of story-telling, few seem to still have the untapped potential comics do. One of my professors at Bennington, Chris Miller, would occasionally theorize that comics might be the last medium to as yet be explored to its full potential, and that always felt, to some degree true to me.
Graphical literature, particularly in America, has always been a little stunted. Often I blame Fredric Wertham’s “Seduction of the Innocent,” which eventually led to the Comics Code Authority, a set of rules so strict that only the simple morality tales of superheroes could survive in the market, thus allowing one genre to dominate mainstream comics. With “superheroes” more or less becoming synonymous with “comics,” the medium was largely and wrongfully disregarded as infantile and less diverse writers and artists were drawn to it. Comics effectively became a niche market, and an unsavory one at that.
Look no farther than the Japanese comic market than to realize this is true. Comics covering a large variety of topics, ranging from love stories, memoirs, to straight up pornography share the medium with what might be analogous to our superheroes. Comics there are popular, varied, and even a little disposable. Different kinds exist for different ages and interest, and creators there come from many different places, with many different backgrounds, often outside of their main “industry.” Though still a business, creativity and innovation thrive, and comics as a whole have not been homogenized to a single genre.
Thanks to the super-hurdle and the CCA put to us in the fifties, America has admittedly been a little behind. Outside of the mainstream, new and interesting comics have been popping up since the seventies, but only recently, perhaps at the end of the eighties, have these off-beat, non-superhero books found their foothold. These “Indie Comics” have recently been joined by the wealth of almost newspaper-strip like web comics, which have appeared with the rise of the internet, and have found great followings with relatively little cost to their creator to maintain. Many these kinds of comics, both independent and web-based, have adult themes and mature situations [though not all], and the medium is slowing getting out of the peg hole the mainstream had cut for them.
Depending on how you look at it, this is a change that many in the industry knew was coming, or saw and began moving towards. Be it Alan Moore’s work on “Swamp Thing,” or Neil Gaiman’s refashioning of obscure Kirby character for “Sandman,” the eighties brought new kinds of stories to mainstream comics, and lead to darker takes on superheroes like “Watchmen” and “The Dark Knight Returns.” This would eventually lead to DC launching its Vertigo line, and comics overall skewing slightly older [though, the fan base was aging as well], with more mature content, adult themes, and a less strict rating system. As comics shed their “kiddie” image, they attract more creators, and said creators use sequential narrative in new and different ways.
The point is, while the artistic merit of mainstream comics [still dominated by superheroes] could be questioned, innovation in the medium, which often leads to artistic development, doesn’t just in independent comics. Or, at the very least, in the fringe projects of the mainstream, thus making the movements of the big two – DC and Marvel – important to gauge the overall future of comics.
So, what does all this have to do Disney buying Marvel?
Disney is very well known as a family company, and as I’ve already stated, part of what has begun dragging mainstream comics away from superhero-centric books is the publishers’ willingness to go a little more mature with their content. Marvel has two lines for this, one called “MAX,” and the other called Icon Comics, as well as a couple titles within their main line of Marvel books, such as “The Punisher,” or “Moon Knight,” that are slightly more adult-oriented. And though I’m not sure of the sales on any of them, I know several of the Icon comics such as “Kick-Ass” and “Powers” have seen some critical acclaim. And I know none of them come anywhere near “family friendly.”
Does that mean Disney will pull the plug? It’s difficult to say for sure. Disney does distribute movies with similar content to those books, but not directly under the Disney banner. If company higher-ups decide that Marvel is not meant to be so varied, that all the books would need to be of similar, family friendly values, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Marvel’s more adult books cancelled and the overall content of the comics change to something a bit more like the tone of the Code years.
This is the kind of worry that many Marvel fans have, and I think I’m in the same place, though for different reasons than the majority. As I mentioned, when content is policed more closely, stories are going to scale back to their more basic superhero origins, which will in turn bring a lot of stigma back to comics. I could honestly care less if Marvel is allowed to publish a book that Wolverine can say “fuck” in. But if having a book where Wolverine can say “fuck” somehow changes the perception of the business away from its more simplistic reputation and can help get someone like Stephen King or Kevin Smith interested in writing for comics, then losing it would be bad.
New perspectives from other mediums often lead to growth and innovation. Disney doing anything that might halt that would be a very bad thing, and it remains a legitimate fear because Disney is certainly well known for going lowest-common-denominator with some of their properties. And a lot of people believe Marvel should go back to just being for kids, and if anyone could make that move successfully, then it would be Disney. But as much as the future of graphical literature may not depend on Marvel wandering into adult-oriented territory, losing an aspect or genre of the medium where innovation could happen feels like a loss to me. One that, partly because of my love for comics, and partly because I grew up with Marvel, worries me.
As bad as all that sounds, I would be remiss if I didn’t say how a big of an upside having Disney behind Marvel could also be for the overall quality and content of Marvel comics. A problem with Marvel being its own company is that the business lives and dies by its bottom line. Even the best reviewed book, no matter how many Eisners it wins, is in danger of being cancelled if the sales are not there. And when sales are the most important thing, Marvel doesn’t have a lot of reason to deviate from what works, never taking chances on new concepts or different ideas.
This was the Marvel without Disney. Nearly all of Marvel titles are superhero stories, the majority rest within the confines of their main “universe.” And while I have already said I think the medium can advance within the genre of super heroics, stepping out of it isn’t a bad thing, either. Marvel’s main competition, DC Comics, also publishes a line of manga through CMX, a line of girl’s-centered comics called Minx, and an adults-only imprint that has produced the bulk of the most creative and I would also argue artistic work within the mainstream – Vertigo. Very few titles in any of these imprints have super-heroes [that has not always been the case], and the most popular, things like Hellblazer, Y: The Last Man, Preacher, Sandman, Ex Machinca, and Transmetropolitian were unlike anything being published at the time.
Naturally, because of their uniqueness, they garnered a smaller number of fans and, naturally, sales. However, they were able to continue being printed because of solid regular numbers and the fact that, to DC’s bottom line, and more specifically, the larger and more financially sound bank accounts of Warner Brothers; the titles could go on being sold with no significant deficit to the company. These books were allowed to survive because of the deeper pockets of their parent company, and now stand as critically acclaimed achievements within the industry, some of them changing how people even go about thinking about comics as a medium.
As a part of Disney, Marvel could feasibly reap the same benefits. Not only will fans of cult books like “Runaways” no longer after worry about possible cancellations, but new characters and new ideas could be given more time to make an impression on readers. Disney means a level of security, and Marvel could become bolder, and wander outside its comfort zones of Spider-Man, the Avengers, and Wolverine, and publish real noir-style books, instead of reimaginings of already marketable characters. We’re not talking about wasting large swaths of Mickey’s money of course; we’re just talking about a cushion that would allow Marvel to branch outward.
Even more interesting is that Disney might want Marvel do this. Remember, it’s the characters and the licenses that Disney seemed most interested in when buying Marvel, particularly for movie adaptations. There is a possibility [though this is speculation] that Disney will expect Marvel to produce new types of comics other than their usual superhero books, with the hope to have access to these different sorts of graphical novels in much the same way Warner has with Vertigo. At DC, it’s always been important for the company to pursue non-superhero titles for Warner to push into production, and there’s no reason to believe Disney won’t want Marvel to do the same.
More comics outside the traditional genres mean a greater chance for new and interesting things to happen. And as new kinds of stories are explored, it’s very likely new ways to tell them in the medium will also be discovered. The end result is comics will only get better.
One last interesting tidbit is something I mentioned in the previous post as a negative – about Disney’s tendency to stay in house, and work primarily with those they’ve worked with before. I spoke on this as someone who hoped to work in comics one day, and anything that makes it harder to break through I can’t help but see as a negative. But from a creative standpoint, this could also be a positive, as new creators, ones who never considered comics, and who have made their names in film, or novels, or even other aspects of entertainment will be able to become involved with Marvel. While it’s not new blood in the traditional sense [as a lot of talent already in the Disney family have some… similarities in their work], it does bring creative people from outside the Marvel sphere into the company, with new perspectives, and perhaps even unique stories to tell.
It is very exciting all the possibilities something like this offer fans of both the Marvel brand, and for Disney. Creatively speaking, this could put mainstream comics back on the cutting edge, and make comics significant again in a way beyond the traditional waxing and waning of movie buzz and fads. Having taken the time to write this, to think about what Disney buying Marvel means I wouldn’t put myself as firmly in the camp against this as I did when I first heard the news. There are a lot of exciting possibilities here, and I am not so arrogant as to call those in the industry wrong, who seem so honestly pleased with this development, assured that big things are in store for Marvel Comics.
And they are. But big things do not necessarily mean great things, and there’s nothing wrong with fans approaching this change with some caution. For every benefit, there is a worst case scenario, and it is so early, and we have so little information that to come down firmly on either side and believe you have the full story is impossible. When I got the news, I was sort of horrified, and disappointed, as though I’d lost some important fight. Now, having as read what I have, I’m a excited by what could be, but still feeling a bit pessimistic about it all coming together as well as it could.
And the really funny thing? This whole "event" has just reminded me how much I really love comics. All comics; the indy books, the superheroes, all the horror, crime, and romance, the manga, and the artistic stuff.They've exciting, and absolutely brilliant.
So, just this once…