Uncanny Marvel NO.

The House of Ideas is overflowing, not with creativity, but with blood.

That’s the image I had in my mind as I stepped timorously through its doors four months ago, and the image I haven’t been able to shake during my visit. It’s an outsider’s view, the sort that frankly I think is hard to convey to anyone who has spent too long living inside that house. Some will argue that inexperience precludes passing judgment. I’d argue ingrained bias precludes rejecting the judgment I pass. Put simply, I had nothing to lose coming into this, and I’ve still managed to lose it.

I continue to meditate on the concept of superheroes. On justice. On hope. On the great responsibility that people who have great power are supposed to exercise.

That was the advice I was given through Peter Parker’s eyes.
But Peter Parker is dead. And Axel Alonso’s looking a lot more like the Kingpin than Uncle Ben.

A well-meaning friend heard about my decision to, for all intents and purposes, sever all ties with Marvel comics, and wrote this blog in an attempt to counter my position. It is the proverbial “don’t let a few bad eggs ruin Easter” argument combined with the notion that the company must offer something worth sticking around for, or they wouldn’t be the top dog after all these years.

I’m going to begin by addressing Avengers Arena directly, more specifically my friend’s comments, because I don’t think he properly understands the extent and the reasoning behind my vitriol. His language makes light of the situation, including Arena as one of several “titles that quite a few fans don’t favor or approve of.” Later, he points out an impending death and notes “I can see why this would make some fans angry” before likening that death of my favorite character to a major change made to one of his favorite characters.

I’ve pointed out a great many unlikable things about Avengers Arena but the one which has infuriated me like no other, and the one which nullifies every pacifying remark anyone has ever attempted to sling at me, is the solicit for the book within the pages of Avengers #1, which explicitly pitched the book to people who believed Marvel had too many teen characters and who hated characters like the Runaways and the Academy kids. This solicit promised that group — of people who do not want to see those kids around — that they would be pleased by Arena.

This is not, my friend, merely a matter of me being annoyed by the book. It is not a matter of my approval or favor. It is not even a matter of fearing for this character or that’s well-being.

It is about a company which, right in front of me and my proverbial “I love X-23” t-shirt and collection of Runaways books, says to the guy who hates my guts “pst, wait’ll you get a load of this.” It is a company which actively promoted its book to non-fans in such a way as to implicitly (but no less clearly) state “if you have invested time, money, and emotion into these characters, you’re about to be really upset.”

It is about a company which has no respect for its readers or their dedication, telling me that they would rather take the favorite characters of a guy who has spent literally hundreds of dollars across many years and many series investing in them and feature them in a slaughterhouse designed to royally piss me off on the off-chance that there are enough haters or ambivalent casual readers to sell a single ongoing title.

This isn’t just a book where Marvel said “well, some of the fans may not like the direction we take this, but it’s interesting and for the best.” This is a book where Marvel said “screw the fans, those characters are disposable.” And I’m sorry, but I don’t actually think anyone else really has a fair comparison. An unpopular narrative decision with your favorite character’s motivations hardly compares to this. At least he was still alive. At least his change had a chance to be redeemed. But what redemption is there for death?

The longevity of comic fan commitment is, if I’m honest, only as intimidating as it is baffling. For in the face of my worries that characters I love would die, the resounding response I got (beyond “who cares”) was “don’t worry, they won’t stay dead forever. Give it five, ten years, and they’ll be back.”

Never before have I encountered such nonchalance towards waiting for a decade or two for something to happen. And yet there it is. Five years ago I was a freshman in college. Five years before that and I was still on the bottom of the high school food chain. A tremendous amount of life happens in five years. It’s a long freaking time. And perhaps if you’ve spent your entire life being indoctrinated into the cult of comic groupthink, then that’s a reasonable period of time to wait to see if the things you loathed are retconned or redeemed.

But I’m an outsider. I’m trying to find excuses to stay in an industry I didn’t grow up in — to decide if this is something I want to make a permanent fixture in my life. And if waiting five or ten years is what it takes for Marvel to finally apologize for something that really hurts me today, then that’s about five or ten years too long. And when I see that something like “One More Day,” perhaps the most mind-numbingly awful event in comic history of which I’ve yet been made aware, which outright ruined decades of character development for one of the most iconic couples in American comic history, has gone six years without being retconned, what hope do I have that the deaths of a few obscure teenagers are going to get the makeover treatment any sooner?

And you see, that’s the irony of it all. In trying to tell me “this isn’t so bad,” what my friend actually said was “heck, we’ve all had our favorite characters butchered and destroyed; everyone who invests time and money and emotion into Marvel ends up getting screwed over and angry.”

To quote my friend, “But did they survive? Yes.”

Sadomasochism, it seems, is an acquired taste. Despite the inevitability of suffering, people choose to persevere.

And so to the numbers game. My friend points out that 31,000 people are enjoying Avengers Arena.

I’d point out that at its last issue, 22,000 people were enjoying Avengers Academy, the book which directly preceded Arena, and had one of the main characters of that book quite literally blown to shreds in the very first issue of the book he had been used to promote to them. I’d also point out that in less than four months, Arena has lost over 50% of its readership, so a lot less people are enjoying it than thought they would…and I imagine most of those Academy readers — you know, people who bought the book because it had characters they knew and liked in it –are part of the 33,000 people who have stopped reading it.

So yes, people are enjoying it. But more people have decided they don’t enjoy it than have decided they do.

I accuse Marvel of being a bloodbath. Let’s look at some of the other books which are enjoying success right now (as my friend pointed out).

Age of Ultron — a series in which everything is terrible, a lot of people are dead, and all signs point to at least some significant deaths being permanent (or at least “wait five or ten years” permanent).

Superior Spider-Man — a series whose whole premise depends on the headline-grabbing death of Peter Parker, and whose readership largely agrees that its chief purposes are to make life hard for the inevitable return of Parker and to once more make sure that he never gets back together with the woman who was — six years ago — his wife.

Wolverine‘s first issue — as with many first issues — sold well, but released to mediocre reviews. Not that it matters, because plans have already been revealed from Marvel that next year they are killing Wolverine.

Guardians of the Galaxy has sold well but has infuriated almost all pre-existing fans of the series and the cosmic universe in general; even the most accepting among them are having difficulty truly embracing the book. So here again is a series that Marvel banked on attracting new fans with even if it meant completely disregarding all the ones they already had. Besides, there’s a movie coming out soon, and that’s clearly all that actually matters.

And what’s on the horizon, aside from the “shocking” conclusion of Age of Ultron, the death of Wolverine, the continuation of Avengers Arena (along with Hopeless’, as of today, promise that most kids will be dead by the end of the arc)? Thumbing through the solicits, one finds Thanos Rising, “the book so blood-soaked you’ll be glad it’s a mini-series.” No, really.

Marvel NOW is new, and as a new thing it is going to have inflated sales. Just ask the people at DC, who have already had to cancel a variety of underperforming New 52 books and who don’t seem to even be agreed on whether or not they’re actually making substantially more money than before (nevermind the fans who are livid over how many of their favorite characters were either retconned out of existence or distorted so terribly as to defy recognition).

There’s no reason to believe that this moment of prosperity is anything beyond artificial; Marvel knew how to make a lot of money right now, but when the dust settles and all the new fans with no established devotion to the company peter off in pursuit of something new, will Marvel have been wise to have alienated hundreds of thousands of fans across the various corners of its readership? I sincerely doubt it.

This isn’t a matter of whether Marvel has talented people working for them. It’s not a matter of whether they have a rich history filled with incredible, lovable characters. X-23 is still my favorite, even if I refuse to buy the book she’s in.

This is a matter of a toxic, abusive relationship.

Yes, my friend. Marvel’s a talented guy. He makes you feel good. He buys great gifts. He knows how to cheer you up. You’re right, friend, he does “know how to make you smile.”

But he also knows how to beat the crap out of you because it fits his mood. He knows how to take you for granted and ignore you for months or years at a time.

He knows how to never actually apologize, because he knows that you’ll come crawling back to him no matter how badly he treats you. He promises to do better, that it won’t be like the other times.

But of course it will, and you both know it. You both know that it’s impossible to be a fan of Marvel without having your heart ripped out and dribbled up and down the proverbial court like a useless piece of rubber rather than your real emotional core. Yes, you’re right, there are books that I can read right now and love, and that will put a smile on my face.

But you know what? I bought every issue of The Runaways because that book put a smile on my face and made me happy. I loved that series and those characters. And do you know what some of my favorite characters, whose adventures made me happy, are up to right now? Fighting for their lives in a death arena because someone thought that’d be neat.

You know what else put a smile on my face and came from Marvel? Seeing Laura Kinney, the girl who never had a life of her own and was always being used by other people for their violent ends, finally getting to explore her humanity, to make friends, to pursue romance, to stop being a cold killing machine and start having real heart. And do you know where she is now? Fighting for her life in a death arena where someone is trying to use her to kill her friends and has a chemical which can make her do that… because someone thought that’d be neat.

So here’s the lesson I’ve learned: every time I invest myself into getting to know a character or group of characters because they make me happy, I run the extremely real risk that Marvel will kill them off, forget about them, or ruin their character so badly that the name is the only thing that character still has in common with what I had enjoyed.

I get why people need to defend their cognitive dissonance, to delude themselves into avoiding the reality of the situation. But I’m new to the game, and I haven’t put on the blinders yet. My decision here is probably the last chance I’ll have — because if I can get through this series this early into my relationship with Marvel, then they’ll own me for life. I won’t be able to say “no” because I’ll look back and I’ll say “hey, it sucks, but it’s not as bad as the time they took my favorite character and a whole bunch of other kids I really loved and murdered them because The Hunger Games was doing well at the time,” and no matter who dies or what terrible excuse there is for superheroes to fight each other instead of fighting evil, injustice, and (eyes up front, class) greed, I’ll just say “I want more.”

So I’m sorry, my friend, but this isn’t “just one silly book.”

This is Peter Parker being dead, and those with power being completely irresponsible.

This is the House of Ideas, overflowing.

And whether you see it or not, it is overflowing with blood.

Marvel NO: Redux

Amazing how a few days’ rest (and in my case, sickness) can generate perspective on things that seemed so very important in the moment. That’s not to say I feel regret. What I wrote about Avengers Arena last week is precisely how I felt. None of it is untrue.

That said, if I accused Dennis Hopeless of speaking in a way that belied his desire to truly appeal to readers, it must also be said that I wrote in a way that belied my desire to make him (or anyone at Marvel) care. Yes, nestled deeply in the first portion of my first blog was the personal backstory leading to my outrage — but these were hardly the letters of an adoring fan begging for mercy. This was war.

A war, of course, which could not hope to be won.

I’ve seen a great many mishandlings of licenses in the past which had me up in arms. I alluded earlier to being a huge fan of Deadpool, and yesterday a friend reminded me of that character’s “appearance” in the Wolverine movie a few years back, wherein the “Merc[enary] with a Mouth” was quite literally stripped of his capacity to speak. Naturally this stripped him of any capacity for winning new Deadpool fans through the film, and likely diminished the chances for a true Deadpool film to emerge (despite those wonderful Ryan Reynolds rumors).

And then there’s that whole Spider-Man 3 existing thing…

I suppose the point is that Marvel has disappointed me many times over in various ways, sometimes small, sometimes more dire. They’ve never really gone quite so far as this (after all, even Deadpool returned at the end of Wolverine). Perhaps someday they will go further. And it will always bother me, because unlike most deaths — which are at least part of a greater purpose — these have been sectioned off in their own self-contained arc that has no bearing on anything else. If X-23 had died in Civil War, or AvX, or whatever, that at least would have been collateral of something beyond her. But here, if she dies, the only reason is so that she’ll be dead. The “how” doesn’t really matter.

Of course, this is a premature funeral. She hasn’t actually been killed yet. The series hasn’t ended. Now, I’m not going to have some false sense of hope that my original conceptions of the series were wrong, as I don’t think they were, and I’d hate to go through the depression cycle twice. That said, the heaviness of the first time was undoubtedly exacerbated by reading Heart of Darkness and viewing Apocalypse Now at the same time; there’s only so much weightiness a person can put up with. When it’s all said and done, if (or when) this character I care so much about is actually dead, I’ll have already mourned her. If she’s not dead, all the more cause for celebration. Heck, maybe I’ll go back and consider reading Arena.

Then again, maybe not. Maybe I’ll get lucky with my favorite but the rest of the characters really will have been sacrificed meaninglessly. In that case I maintain the solidarity I suggested in my earlier words. Even if everything I and others are assuming about this series is wrong, Marvel must at least be indicted for such misleading promotion. Happily that’s a far lest grievous offense. In my excitement I would probably give them a bye.

Meanwhile, though, I’ve been cautioned by several folks to either not flat-out stop reading Marvel, or to do so only insomuch as my money can better be spent on other stories in the medium. Both sides have made valid points. I’ll tackle the second first, as it leads into the former.

Despite more or less constant shallow exposure, I have never truly been immersed in the overall medium of comic books. Only now am I truly appreciating its capacity as an art form, both in the traditional sense, as the pencils and coloring of these books have a vibrancy rarely found outside the medium (or in such abundance), as well as in the abstract: a story told more in image than in word, but relying equally on both. As a commodity, individual books are short and expensive, but their posterity as a collector’s item remains valid. The books that I took care of from my childhood are still intact more than fifteen years later, many in the same condition as when I first picked them off the rack.

I’ll admit to having been guilty of affinity for popular culture for far too much of my life. Even now, for reasons beyond my capacity for description, I find myself recoiling a bit at the suggestion of “indie” anything, be it film, game, music, or, yes, comic. Why I’d prefer sugarcoated, watered-down trash to the slightly-unpolished but truly unique, I can’t say. But often I do. Even when every person who talks to me is swearing I’ll find an experience worthwhile, I tend to shrug it off in favor of the known quantity. It’s a thing I’m making an effort to change about myself.

The funny thing is, I can usually point to the capacity to trust the known quantity as a reason for not taking risks on the other stuff. But here, I think, is the perfect example of how that isn’t true: Marvel, the mainstream, high-profile provider, actually has a track record of hurting and disregarding me. It’s another of those abusive relationships I talked about a couple weeks back. And just as with the others — Gamestop, Bethesda, etc. — there comes a point when you look at it and have to decide who’s getting hurt by you walking out, and where the morality really plays into it.

Marvel is, as X-23 ought to be, impervious. They’re not going anywhere, and my decision to support or rail against them isn’t, at the end of the day, accomplishing anything at all against them.

But, long before the actions of individuals move the corporate giant, they will affect legions of smaller individuals, the talented writers and artists who happen to be working at the moment under the Marvel umbrella. Obviously in the case of Hopeless, that’s precisely the effect I’m hoping for. But a blind boycott of all Marvel titles does nothing more to hurt Hopeless (or, more profitably for everyone, change his mind), and in the meantime it does nothing to help people who are not Hopeless to get the recognition and promotion they deserve.

So, going forward, I suppose you could say I plan to seek out talent and read based on that, regardless of what emblem is on the upper-lefthand corner of the book and, if possible, regardless of which characters are on the pages. To cite a somewhat mainstream example, there are plenty who only read Runaways for Joss Whedon’s run on the series. To the extent that that makes sense, I’ll pursue it. If I find myself utterly lost, I’ll reevaluate. And I imagine that pursuing talent over notoriety will lead me further into independent territory than I’ve previously ventured, which is fine so long as, absent the resources of a major publishing house, the writing and art I find are still of the sort that please me.

This whole little fiasco (which I’m sure has seemed a much bigger deal to me than to any of you) has opened my eyes to a truth about myself I’m rather uncomfortable with, and a broader understanding of relationships in general. I cited abuse almost (though not quite, as that’d be insensitive, but almost) nonchalantly in my discussion of corporate/consumer ties. Perhaps it took having actual emotions bound up in the affair to show me just how apt that metaphor was; how, in fact, perhaps it is not a metaphor at all, but merely a description.

The world was appalled at Chris Brown for what he did to Rihanna, and after a high-profile split most people were on her side. But for reasons that continue to dumbfound the world at large, she remained on good terms with him, spoke out in his defense, and now they are back together despite no indications that he has changed or aptly repented for what he did. Somehow, despite the fact that the relationship has brought her suffering, she continues to believe that whatever she’s getting from Chris is worth dealing with the heartache.

Here I am, having teetered on the edge of actual — that is, clinical (and I know the signs, because I’ve been there before) — depression because of what Marvel is doing. I’ve had, comparatively, the highest-profile split I could have. And yet rather than saying “good riddance” and moving along, I find myself actually wishing I’d said nothing, glancing through the proverbial store window at the latest Spider-Man or Deadpool stories, and knowing deep down that I’ve already given up. Everything I said last week was true, and that’s not enough to keep me caring.

So what, right? This is no great moral victory or loss. I think we can all roll our eyes a bit and say, “well, that just happened,” and then a month from now I’ll be talking about this great thing Chris Yost is doing in Scarlet Spider, and none of us will think twice about it.

But that insight, into real abuse — into the irrational force that drives women and men back, time and again, into the arms of people who actually hurt them and make them truly miserable, despite promises to themselves and others of “never again.” I once, to my shame, considered that kind of behavior weak. Comic books, of all things, taught me I’m no better. I’ve, if nothing else, a new-found respect for the strength it takes to truly overcome abuse.

My resentment of Marvel has lingered for almost a week now. I can only pray my appreciation for this new perspective lasts longer.

Since, you know, it actually matters.

Marvel NO, #2

It’s been a couple days since I wrote not inconsiderably about Avengers Arena. I’ve had some time to mull, to continue to seek other perspectives, to re-read my own perspective and decide if it was a heat of the moment explosion or something legitimate. Most of all I’ve been wondering why, as someone who has never cared a ton about comics, this makes me so angry.

Angry’s not actually the right word.

Livid.

Livid is such a deceptive word, really, because it looks harmless, as impotent as someone who feels it tends to be over the circumstances generating the emotion.

I’m absolutely furious. And I’ve been trying to figure out why.

First, I hunt for an allegory. What is the endangerment (and extremely likely termination) of a single character to me? Why should i care this much? And why should the decision affect my outlook on the entire company?

The best I can say is that because I’m not hugely plugged into the industry, the few characters I’ve chosen to pursue are the comics industry for me. X-23 is one mutant in a thousand, but she’s the only one I care about or have spent time reading about. Comparatively speaking, her placement in Arena is for me the same as if Marvel had more or less signed a death warrant for the entirety of X-Men comics.

If an event were greenlit that was likely to actually ensure that, at least for the next couple years (if not indefinitely), there would no longer be a mutant in any Marvel comic, I imagine a lot of fans would get very, very angry. They’d be incapable of comprehending the decision. They’d say “but that’s the only reason I read your books.” They’d say “I’ve invested years, I’ve bought hardcover collections, I’ve actually shed tears over these characters, and now you’re just going to let them die, all because it might make you some money over the controversy?” In other words, they’d feel and act precisely as I am.

It’s macro vs. micro, but the comparison is identical when it comes to my own investment and interests. There would be no apology proportional to the offense: it’d be the sort of burn that wouldn’t heal, certainly not in a year or two’s time. My relationship with Marvel is more Warpath than Wolverine: it takes a lot to hurt me, but I don’t have a regenerative factor: you cut me off, that cut stays forever.

One of the biggest pacifiers being hurled into the screaming mouths of protesting fans is that comic book death is trivial and temporary. They point to deaths of major characters as a sign that death is part of the natural phoenix cycle of the industry. They point to what’s conveniently at hand, the very death I mentioned in my rant: Peter Parker. Peter Parker is dead, but few people seem to believe that’s going to last. And quite probably they’re right.

But Peter Parker’s different. He’s the comic book equivalent of Lehman Brothers: too big to fail. These other characters aren’t. They’re the sort who have appeared so infrequently, and their appearances have been so short-lived, it’s as if Marvel has said “Well, that’s it. We’ve tried, and we’re not going to try again.” There’s a finality to the deaths of these characters that simply isn’t present in the death of other mainline characters. To say “they’ll be back” is really a short-sighted statement because it doesn’t take into account the popularity of these characters in the overall Marvel cannon.

X-23, for example, just had a solo book which got cancelled. Her failure as a moneybag is fresh in Marvel’s mind, and as this isn’t the first time Laura has had disappointing sales performance, I can’t help but anticipate that it was her last. From a reasonable, canonical standpoint, Laura Kinney should win this fight. But Avengers Arena is neither reasonable nor respectful of canon, and for that reason she will lose, joining the line of other misfits being denied the chance for redemption. Fitting, oh so fitting, that their deaths are penned by Hopeless.

As a fan, I’ve gotten a glimpse of Oedipus through all this, unexpected as it was. The Greeks viewed tragedy as the inevitable working out of fate in spite of (and often because of) the protagonist’s attempts to escape that fate. Oedipus’ tragedy stems not merely from his patricide and incest, but from the fact that those things were the very things his actions were made to prevent.

We fans have been cast as the victims of a similar (if lower-staked) tragedy which stems not merely from bad things happening, but from reversal, a direct contradiction of the expectation of good. What began as excitement to see our favorite characters take on a fresh new role in a new comic universe has been cruelly flipped on its head by an unmovable higher power: they’re being brought back to be destroyed. Instead of what we hoped for — seeing them, at long last, starring in a comic series — we see them never to star in a comic series again.

Here we are, pissed off, righteously indignant, and Marvel couldn’t care less. Scour the internet and you’ll find people everywhere ranting against what’s happening. Marvel’s collective fan base is screaming at the top of its lungs in an echo chamber.

As to the spirit of Marvel, this is  the complete reversal of what superhero stories are meant to be. It is the money-hungry corrupt trampling on the powerless, the voiceless. It is quite literally the killing off of misfits and underdogs. Comics are where we seek refuge from a cold world of dog-eat-dog, where the weak are saved by the opportune arrival of the strong. And that, more than the death of any one character, is the real reason I’ve lost hope in them.

Marvel paves its future in the blood of pariahs.
Innocence lost, indeed.

Marvel NO.

Disclaimer: This is a rant. And it is almost 4000 words long. If you don’t care about comics at all, then you should probably move along, because this will be a supreme waste of your time. I’m still not sure it wasn’t a waste of mine. But this one’s from the heart, and here it goes: Marvel has pissed me off.

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