Ninth Art - For the Discerning Reader -

Comment: I Was A Marvel Zombie

After twenty years as a Marvel reader, Andrew Wheeler is calling it quits. He explains why the publisher's conservative streak and its fraternity of cherished writers have chased him away from the characters he loves.
15 May 2006

After twenty years together, Marvel and I are undergoing a trial separation. The passion has gone from our relationship. We've drifted apart. It's been six months since I last bought a Marvel comic.

This isn't because I no longer love comics. My affection has taken a battering in recent years thanks to the march of increasing mediocrity, but my appetite for the medium has not diminished in the face of this famine. Nor have I become too old for superheroes. There will always be a place in my heart for muscle-bound powerhouses punching the crap out of each other. I haven't even stopped appreciating the wonder and charm of the Marvel universe or its brilliant and idiosyncratic characters. Marvel and I have lost that loving feeling, but it's not because I've changed.

It's not me, Marvel. It's you.

Officially, the reason for the separation would have to be given as irreconcilable differences. For example, I take the view that SPIDER-MAN should be a comic about Peter Parker's struggles to balance his everyday life with the responsibilities and challenges of being a vigilante hero. Marvel thinks it should be about a celebrity with Batman armour and Wolverine claws, who lives in a big tower with a supermodel and a billionaire while his elderly aunt pretends to be Iron Man.

Then there's the matter of mutants. I think Marvel's mutants offer endless potential for exciting and fantastical stories, and that the only thing really hindering them is overexposure and market saturation. Conversely, Marvel takes the view that there's more potential to be had in getting rid of most of the mutants, while simultaneously increasing the number of books that they star in. They believe that the best way to deal with an inconvenient minority is through mass extermination.

The list of irreconcilable differences goes on. I think Marvel should celebrate Grant Morrison's franchise re-energising X-MEN run. They think they should erase it. I think Marvel should be proud of having the first major gay superhero in comics. They decided to make him a serial murderer and kill him three times in a month. I think there's no such thing as a bad character, only bad writers - even Speedball is entertaining in the hands of a talent as fresh as Zeb Wells. They don't seem to have got their head around the good writers/bad writers divide, so they believe that Speedball must die.

A company once regarded as the counter-culture, anti-establishment alternative to DC's stodgy pantheon of vanilla waxworks, Marvel has become the most pro-establishment publisher in the industry, home to bombastic conservative notions and reactionary impulses. The birthplace of psychedelic 70s favourites like Doctor Strange and the Silver Surfer has given up smoking dope and signed up to go to war.

Marvel has lost its way. It has become not just an embarrassment, but also a burden on the industry. On the one hand it's over-reliant on the sour milk of a Hollywood brood mare that's pushed it firmly to the middle ground, away from the risk-taking and innovation that characterised the occasionally wayward Jemas era. On the other, it's now dominated by a fraternity of writers whose talents have been consumed by their vanity - writers who oblige everyone else at the company to work to their lacklustre blueprints. Given the chance to leave their mark in the universe they grew up with, these writers have become too enamoured of the sight of their own fingerprints - and they may be the only Marvel fans who are still enjoying themselves.

It's not that these writers aren't capable of producing good stories - they just don't anymore. Their ideas and treatments over the past 18 months have either entirely missed the mark on the characters, as in JM Straczynski's approach to Spider-Man, and the recent tortuously inconsistent characterisations in CIVIL WAR, or they've placed delusional levels of importance on the weight of half-baked ideas - as with Brian Michael Bendis' insubstantial reinvention of the Avengers, or again with CIVIL WAR, which misguidedly demands that we apply absolute realism to a universe that depends on indulgent fantasy. One can only assume that these former innovators have become lazy and complacent on the acclaim of their loyal fans and the chummy support of an editorial office that relishes having a boy's brigade to go to strip clubs with.

That's not to say that there aren't great writers, wonderful artists and even entertaining comics at Marvel. Books like X-FACTOR, NEXTWAVE, YOUNG AVENGERS and ARES have been unexpected delights, but it seems they can only survive in the current climate with the benefit of a strong patron on the creative team - a writer like Allan Heinberg or Warren Ellis, creators whom Quesada wants to keep sweet. Even then they're not always free from the crossover tendrils of Phi Gamma Bendis. One never knows when these books might be derailed to serve the next overblown event.

The real tragedy of the way Marvel has stumbled is not in the mistreatment of its own universe, but in the way it has nudged some of comics' brightest lights into a creative cul-de-sac. Between them, Marvel and DC have entrenched all of comics' most saleable talents into exclusive contracts and waved money under their noses to get them on to as many titles as possible. This both dilutes their talents and prevents them from pursuing original ideas. This has the side effect of stopping bankable stars from pushing work towards the small publishers that desperately need them to stay alive, which in turn robs the industry of its best talent incubators.

So for these reasons, and because I love comics, and because I love Marvel, I've realised that I can't give the publisher my support any more. At first I just cut back on a few titles, but as of November last year I gave up on them all.

I was thinking of giving my reasons for quitting Marvel in an open letter addressed to Joe Quesada and his frat house of M - but I know what a vain effort that would be. Marvel isn't beholden to the opinions of individual fans, nor would it make sense for them to pay too much attention to the basement editorialising of outspoken message board posters and self-appointed pundits.

More to the point, though, Marvel doesn't even care what its fans think en masse, let alone individually. Through decades of courtship and pretend camaraderie, the company has cultivated a degree of loyalty that no other publisher can claim. They face the same market pressures as anyone else, but they have a more resilient bedrock of uncritical buyers to depend upon.

These, of course, are the Marvel zombies. Marvel can do whatever it likes, and these fans will not merely accept it, but be grateful for it, because they want to feel they're loyal. They're so enamoured of the Marvel universe and so invested in its characters that they'll forgive all sorts of exploitation and inferior product. They reward Marvel for doing bad work. They are perhaps the most willingly abused fans in sci-fi and fantasy, making even STAR TREK fans look obstinate.

And while I say 'they', I of course mean 'we'.

I was a Marvel zombie. I have been buying Marvel comics for twenty years, through good times and bad. I was one of those fans who wanted to support his 'team'. I belonged to Marvel and Marvel belonged to me, and that meant they could get away with anything so long as we had each other. I even tolerated the grotesquery that was RAWHIDE KID.

But now Marvel is plumbing new and greater depths, even as it boasts of soaring to new heights, and I can take no more. I want them to do better, but there's no value to be had in my trying to assail the behemoth with my entreaties. Marvel doesn't listen to its fans. It doesn't need to.

What I can do, however, is make an appeal to the fans - a plea from one Marvel zombie to another. I come to you as one of your own, one who understands your experiences and knows your pain. If you're suffering under the yoke of inferior characterisation and miserable crossover plotting, know this; the only way to love Marvel is to leave it. The only way to pull Marvel's writers out of their creative nosedive is to stop giving the publisher your money. If we reward Marvel for bad stories, second-rate art and exploitative crossovers, Quesada and his gang will keep lowering the bar.

I'm not asking for anything so adolescent as a boycott. I don't even expect other fans to cut the publisher off completely. What I want is for the Marvel zombies to get re-animated. It's time for Marvel fans to show some common sense at last, and start voting with our wallets.

Fellow zombies, look at the Marvel before you today. You don't owe it a thing. Quesada and his cohorts don't understand what makes that universe great. They aren't true believers like you and I.

If you love the Marvel universe, let it go.

Andrew Wheeler is a London-based entertainment journalist.

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