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Saturday, December 08, 2012 

Boston Phoenix interviews Sean Howe about his Marvel bio

The Boston Phoenix published an interview with Marvel Comics: The Untold Story author Sean Howe, where he gives some more insight on the ups and downs with Marvel's management and how it's affected the company since its original inception in the late 1930s. Among the notable things brought up are how somewhere along the way, they decided turning into franchises like movies, cartoons and TV, and became less devoted to the original material and more obsessed with the adaptations:
In the ’70s and ’80s, there was often talk and rumors that “Maybe they’ll make a movie of this someday.” But in your book, you see how people behind the scenes were constantly trying to find ways to monetize these characters, whether in film, crappy cartoons, television series, etc. It seems, then, that for people at Marvel, especially Stan Lee at times, it wasn’t about comic books as an art form, but about the characters, and making those characters last. Did people at the top care about the art form?
Well, I think that Stan Lee was someone who believed in the form of comic books, but I think that he was also someone who, many years ago, came to the conclusion that comic books were not a healthy industry, and that his best shot and the best shot for the company was to move into another industry. I don’t think it was quite the same as, you know, when a corporation says, “We want to turn this into a transmedia property.” I think for Stan Lee, it was more like, “The comic book industry is in trouble, what are we going to do with these characters?” Now, everyone in the industry seems to be very happy to move into other media and I think that that’s great, I think people should make money from their creations and I think, you know, better a Hawkeye movie than another Battleship movie. But the thing that I guess sort of bothers me is that nobody is saying, “There’s a lot about the art form of comics that the movies will never be able to touch.” It seems to me that people have just decided that movies are the next step up for comic books, that that is what comic books should aspire to. And I feel like, for example, that Gene Colan’s Iron Man is going to give you something that no movie could ever give you!
So do I! There's plenty about the older Marvel writings (and drawings) from the 60s to the 80s that no movie is going to duplicate, and not many of the movies made to date based on the heroes of Marvel and DC ever try to get into the kind of character drama and topics that you'd see being discussed in the comics of those times. The movies can be exciting and enjoyable on a simple level, yet there's so much regarding character development and drama from the comics that even a TV series's producers may not try to evoke, and no telling if they'd pull it off as successfully either.
It’s almost like the ’80s noir-ifying of comics was people saying “Look, these comics you love could be movies if we ditched these ’60s archetypes.” It seems like it was all about getting people used to the idea of seeing live action humans dressed in costumes without it being lame, and I guess that’s what happened by the late ’80s.
Yeah, but I think even beyond that, it’s more about — like if you’re going to Thanksgiving dinner, you could well be talking to your mom’s sister or whatever, and she could be like, “Oh, I saw the Iron Man movie, and now I understand what you were into all that time.” There’s a tendency for the public at large to ascribe all the value of what comic books are to the actual characters, and I think people involved in the comic industry are doing nothing to change that perception. It would be really tremendous if comic books were marketed a little bit more as, “Here’s an expression of something by this guy and this guy.” But they’re not going to give too much credit to the creators, for business reasons. For the Walt Disney Company, it’s fine — they probably couldn’t give a shit that people only think of comic books as the sum value of these characters.
He's got it right about the severe disinterest today's contributors have in changing any negative perceptions about comics in general, and Avengers Disassembled and Identity Crisis are just 2 leading examples of how they've demonstrated their disinterest in pleasing the masses when they put out stories with repellant themes and discriminatory angles. Those are textbook examples of how NOT to appeal to the masses in any form of showbiz. And Howe did give telling signs in his book about how much of the medium abandoned mainstream bookstores, on the one hand because they didn't want to pay too much to put them there, but on the other hand, it was also because they were becoming increasingly insular and showing little or no interest in making it possible for new readers to try them out. Sticking with the outmoded pamphlet on an almost always monthly schedule for release is just one of the ways they're hurting themselves, and so long as they stick with company wide crossovers, that's why even digital publishing isn't bound to help them either. Even writers and artists who insult the audience aren't helping matters.

And that's an interesting point about how the modern day owners give very iffy, limited credit and thanks to the people who are responsible for creating the heroes and other characters making them money now, because it hints at the disrespect today's conglomerate executives have for the people who've created what they invested in, and aren't willing to thank them by paying their medical bills, as in the case involving Jim Starlin. The conglomerates are making billions of dollars and they can't even give a small sum to the creators? It would hardly lose them anything, and that's why it's dismaying to see them unwilling to thank the people who thought up those nifty concepts in the first place.

Howe and the interviewer also acknowledge the recent publicity stunts by Marvel and DC involving homosexuality and other forms of trying to be "diverse", and how in sharp contrast to past efforts, these really are just cynical attempts to force already cliched steps down everybody's throats:
Your book details how Marvel tried to keep up with the times — with African-American characters, female heroes, in the ’60s and ’70s and beyond. Do you think this was a cynical attempt to cash in on things that were happening, or was this an earnest effort to reach out to people and make a grander statement?
I’d say it’s a mix. I don’t think that Black Panther, for instance, was a cynical cash-in. I think Luke Cage may have been a little more cynical! I mean, certainly there’s that moment where they’re launching all these things and there’s this marketing mandate that is like, “We need to reach these different kinds of readers.” For the most part, though, I don’t think social advocacy was at the root of it. I think it was “Let’s tap into these markets.”

Yeah — one can’t help but think of it that way when you read about, say, DC’s new Green Lantern coming out as gay, or X-Men having the first Marvel Comics gay wedding between Northstar and his boyfriend.
What a dumb reason to want to buy a comic book! I mean, I suppose that there could be someone for whom this is their first exposure of someone coming out, that they have to pay four dollars to buy a comic to read about it. But to me, it seems like a weird gimmick.
A cheap gimmick too. Now that I recall, I don't they sold particularly high this time compared to most other publicity stunts of yore, which suggests that their influence at pushing all this nonsense down the audience's throats is waning. I'm glad that Howe and the interviewer addressed and agree - at least in part, and nobody should have to pay big sums of money for something so petty. Race, sexual orientation and religion are not what make a book worth buying; it's the quality of the writer's efforts that do. And few writers today have proven their ability to heed by that advice. As a result, their storytelling comes off as extremely contrived, forced, and extraordinarily disrespectful of the audience. And the worst part? The people who've cranked out these PC-tactics only care about getting a paycheck.

As for past efforts to introduce heroes like Luke Cage, I would say in defense of Archie Goodwin's creation that they were trying to draw inspiration from the blaxploitation movies of the 70s like Shaft with Richard Roundtree. And on that level, that's where it really worked. Misty Knight's use of a bionic arm to replace one she lost in a terrorist attack also added another nice touch of sci-fi element along with Luke's superhuman strength when she joined the cast of Power Man & Iron Fist a few years later. None of the "diversity" notions seen today have that kind of simplicity, and come off as far more heavy-handed ideas for politically correct social propaganda. And the biggest problem is that they still limit themselves to just a handful of backgrounds that they consider "minorities" worth using: Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, gays/lesbians, and more recently, Muslims, as seen in X-Men with Dust, and Green Lantern with Simon Baz. Yet there's still many more possibilities that nobody in the medium seems interested in like Armenians, Danish, Bulgarians, Mongolians, Peruvians, stuff like that.
You mentioned in your book at the end that the current average age of a comic book reader is now 30, which is a lot older that it used to be. With that in mind, what’s the future of comics— is it all just nostalgia at this point?
It’s hard to say. Certainly the people who work in the editorial division of Marvel think about this a lot more than I do. And it’s not like they’ve given up on it and said, “Oh well, the movies are doing well.” But it’s tough to compete when you’re neglected. They’ve lost the teenagers; it’s too late to get more of them! I don’t follow the digital comics distribution very closely right now, and I suppose a lot will depend on that right now, because they’ve priced themselves out of being accessible to little kids when it’s $3.99 for a hard copy!

If you’re trying to make comics books that look like cool movies, you’re going to lose. For instance, if you’ve seen some of Mark Waid’s Daredevil, and he’s been teamed with some amazing artists, and it has a really great ’60s pop art feel, kind of like the way Mike Allred did. Something that looks in no way like someone’s trying to make it into storyboards. And I think projects like that where people are really given the value of this art form are where it’s at, bringing out all the things that are great about reading a comic book, rather than being like, “We’re going to have good coloring, and it’s going to be widescreen and the dialogue is gonna feel like a movie.” That can only get you so far.
Another very astute observation - recent efforts have often resembled cinematics more than traditional storytelling. Or, as in the case of an artist like Greg Horn, they've made the artwork stiff as a board, looking more like a computerized book-length portrait than a serious attempt at storytelling in terms of art. Or, there's even been efforts by some writers to concoct a story that's more like a subtle insult to people who don't like a potentially bad approach they've taken, writing it like a conversation on a message board. These are exactly the kind of steps that have brought down the mainstream comics.

So here's a definite plus from Howe, that he understands some of the problems that brought down famous comics and their heroes over the past years, something I don't see the people in charge publicly addressing. It's also flattering to see a paper published in a left-wing bastion like Massachussettes acknowledging things I'd have thought they'd be fine with are hurting the medium much more than helping.

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