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Saturday, October 20, 2012 

Salon interviewed Sean Howe, author of Marvel's Untold Story

Salon ran an interview with Sean Howe, the author of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, where he tells a bit about how he himself grew up with comics and how the company evolved, and some of the most interesting parts include:
So for the future of Marvel, do comics even matter anymore?

I would like to think so. I’m sure that for the people who work at Marvel comics there’s a lot of love for the art form there … I don’t like the way that after spending so many years caring about the art form of comics and holding things close when no one else really cared, now these big blockbuster movies are coming out and the world at large is hip to what “Iron Man” is, or maybe even the “Cosmic Cube”
I think what they're getting at is how today, Marvel is concentrating far more making bank from the movies than the comics they began as. And sadly, I'm afraid the interviewer summed it up first - if we refer to the company as a whole, comics clearly haven't mattered since they adapted Blade into a movie successfully in 1998 with Wesley Snipes, and that began the whole line of largely successful films based on various Marvel properties.

I notice a little something the interviewer doesn't get quite right when he alludes to the early 90s:
That was also the time of the Image defection, where a lot of the Marvel superstars like Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane founded a creator-owned comics company, and suddenly these superstar artists were making tons of money and living really wild lives — until then there was really no example of that.
Correction: there was. It was called Dark Horse, founded by Mike Richardson, which first began their business mostly in Oregon as early as 1985, and they're actually bigger than Image even today; third largest indie publisher in the USA. And the difference is that they were usually basing their marketing more according to how well the stories they published were written, unlike early Image, which first began basing their marketing approach more on the popularity of the artists, no matter how awful Rob Liefeld was, and not the quality of the writing. Worst, they were banking on the speculator market, and that's how it plummeted. Several years afterwards, they wisely decided to change the strategy, and that was when Liefeld left, which was fortunate, because he, with all his frequently terrible or just plain dull artwork had become the poster kid for all that was awful about their early output. If they'd just gone by how Dark Horse usually ran their trade, the industry and medium might not have suffered so badly during that period.

However, Howe himself says in a later response something I don't quite agree with:
...it was nothing like after Image came along. Those were guys who didn’t necessarily need any kind of track record to be suddenly raking it in. The Image guys are fascinating because so many of the things that they’ve said in interviews seem so arrogant that you don’t really want to root for them as the good guys, but the fact of the matter is that they deserved to make that money. They really were the David fighting the Goliath. They really changed the industry in a permanent way. Then again, just by fucking up their shipping dates, they also had a hand in screwing up the industry in the ’90s. They weren’t totally averse to doing variant covers, either.
Did they "deserve" to make the dough that they did? It's hard to say. Yes, they have a right to earn a living, but considering how worthless the storytelling was (and in Liefeld's case, the art), I'm not so sure that's something I can fully get behind. But the arrogance they displayed, that was just simply not acceptable, and hinted that they were more determined to make money through soulless ventures with no true interest in entertaining the audience. I don't know about permanently, but they sure did change the industry in a bad way, at least until the people in charge of Image began to rework their approach by the end of the century, and their obsession with variant covers only compounded the vibe that they were cashing in on the speculator market, and not people looking for good storytelling, even on the simplest level of escapism. I'm not sure I fully agree with the following by the interviewer either:
They [the artists] did seem egotistical and arrogant but, seeing how their predecessors had been mistreated, their defiance was kind of understandable. You described a lot of these creators from the ’50s and ’60s who were just defeated. It was awful. An old Jerry Siegel working as a proofreader — the guy who co-created “Superman”! Or Carl Burgos, who waited 28 years for the copyright on the original “Human Torch” to come up, and then Marvel reintroduces “The Torch” and kills him.

I tried to present that very carefully. There’s some conjecture going. I’m just saying, “This happened and this happened.” I can’t say for sure that that was the reason, but it seems like a strange coincidence to me.
There's a difference between the Siegel-Shuster and Burgos cases and the artists who co-founded Image: the older creators were trying to gain the recognition and compensation they deserved for their classic creations, whereas in the case of the artists who went to Image, I will say in fairness that while I realize they might have had problems in retaining the rights to their original artwork, beyond that, it was hardly a case of where they had original creations all their own they'd sold away for too low a price to the majors. No, it was all from what I can tell a case of some artists, some talented and others not, who wanted to do creator owned stuff but without a true soul or dedication to story enjoyment for the readers. At least today, Image managed to overcome that early joke-portrait of theirs and produce stuff that's better in some ways, if not all.

The arrogant attitudes of the artists defecting to Image was pointless and they were acting more like victims for the wrong reasons. They were hardly making a positive impression on anyone new to comics either.
OK, now who is the worst Marvel superhero? You’re clearly the person to ask since you threw me with that “U.S. One” guy.

Hmm. Well … let me say something with the qualification that it was a little after my time, and I didn’t actually read a lot of these but … I feel like the character of Bishop can take some heat from me. That was definitely a “We need a black character” marketing initiative. His fashion sense was terrible. It was in the era of big guns, which I find problematic — I don’t think it’s coincidence that that era lines up with the [beginning of the] steroid era of baseball. And so, based on totally subjective, uninformed, negative feelings for the day, I’m going to throw out Bishop.
While this argument in itself has validity for anyone who finds the modern obsession with "diversity" doing more harm than good to the medium, there's just one little problem: Bishop, while from a future era, is an Australian of Aboriginal descent, and while he may be dark skinned and of mixed background, the Aborigines are more caucasian than some of the other races native to Australia/New Zealand and the Solomon Islands district. But Howe is right about the costume and fashion designs for Lucas Bishop - they were dreadful and didn't help the protagonist at all. I do hope he realizes that some of that was influenced by Liefeld with his Cable designs, one more reason why the early Image output was a waste of trees.
And the corollary of that is that Gambit is the prototype for Edward from “Twilight.”

That’s an interesting point. I have managed to never read or watch a “Twilight” product, but I have a sense … Is it his relationship with Rogue?

Yeah, it’s this unrequited thing … they can’t touch because if she touches him, she’ll absorb his memories, powers, life etc. On top of that he’s kind of brooding and sourly handsome. I found that kind of annoying.

I was just talking with a friend about how Gambit was a real shooting star. Ten years ago, maybe 15 years ago, if you were to say, “What are the big characters Marvel has come up with in the ’80s and ’90s?” you’d go, “Well, Gambit is a pretty important character.” He’s really the biggest disappearing act of the ’90s that I can think of. He was pretty huge for a time. I guess Cable was, too. Cable seems to have a bit more staying power. But Gambit was on TV.
Okay, maybe he doesn't realize that Liefeld's Cable design may have influenced Bishop, even if Whilce Portacio was a better artist. As for Gambit, yes, at one time, he was popular, and in fairness, I can comprehend why - the image of a cowboy-style protagonist who can throw kinetically-induced cards as weapons and fight with a quarterstaff clearly had some appeal. But they never built his characterization well, and that doomed him in the long run, plus the fact that his relationship with Rogue was very sappy and the writers missed a big opportunity to give her full control over her powers, which would've provided for better storytelling possibilities, IMO.

As for Cable, his background was so jumbled that I must disagree with that statement about his having more longevity. Not if they can't make it more comprehensive, that's for sure. And he has for the most part become all but obscure today, and far from having the following he may have once had in the 90s.

It's a shame if Howe's taking a lenient view here of some of the people who founded early Image, because it hardly helps get to the core of how the medium was badly damaged as a result of their being more interested in catering to the speculator market than coming up with real entertainment. To give a proper perspective of how the medium suffered, a more objective approach is what works.

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yeah, I never understood what the appeal of Cable was. Deadpool I always liked, due to the character's breaking of the fourth Wall, but to me Cable always represented everything that I hated about the Dark Age of Comics, the era where virtues of heroism were virtually thrown out in favor of "realism" and more politicized storylines.

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