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December 9, 1997


by Chuck Miller

I really wanted to say something nice about Marvel Comics this week, mainly so I won't start looking like a shill for DC, but the sad fact is that they aren't doing much of anything noteworthy these days. While Marvel still outsells DC, mainly on the strength of their numerous X- Men titles, DC has them beat all hollow quality-wise. And this is very sad. There is no doubt at all that the "Marvel Revolution" of the 1960s raised the quality bar for everyone else in the industry. One of the reasons DC is so good today is that awesome competition they once faced. Marvel changed superhero comics from a childish pastime to an art form that otherwise sane and reasonable adults could devote a large portion of their time and income to. We all know that, and we're all grateful to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and all the rest for what they did for us back then. But what you have done for us lately?

Not a hell of a lot. Last year's "Heroes Reborn" fiasco was a disappointment to those of us who expected anything from it; for the rest of us cynics, it was just another confirmation of our growing apathy toward "The World Greatest Comics." Now that concept has run its course, and we are presented with "Heroes Return." The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Captain America and the Avengers are all starting over again with brand-new first issues -- for the second time in a little over a year. We've all heard the saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Well, let me add, "If you can't fix it, you might as well junk it."

Do I want to see Marvel go under? Not at all. But they almost did. The company is currently in the midst of reorganization under Chapter 13 bankruptcy. But that's a whole 'nother column. I won't get into all that, except to say that much of their financial distress seems to be attributable to their policy of pumping huge amounts of money and resources into merchandising, TV and movie projects, and other ancillary stuff, and ignoring the commodity that put them on the map in the first place: THE COMIC BOOKS!!!

While DC has worked hard to establish and promote its "Vertigo" line of creator-owned comics, Marvel has gained a reputation for shabby treatment of writers, artists and editors. As a result, over the past few years, they have lost many of their best people. Some of them went to DC. For whatever reason, the quality of most of Marvel's line has dropped dramatically over the last 10 or 15 years. Company policy is geared toward generating money, not toward helping talented writers and artists make good comic books. Take Marvel's recent decision to self-censor their books in order to get them on the shelves at Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart recently decided that comics were bad, and so, fulfilling the God-given mandate of all discount stores to guard public morality, they pulled them. All of them.

Marvel wasted no time caving. As reported by Mike Sangiacomo in his nationally syndicated COMIC column, Marvel Vice President Shirrel Rhoads says, "Getting into Wal-Mart will give Marvel a valuable chunk of the market -- kids." Marvel Comics will no longer feature excessive violence (which ain't so bad), reference to hell, devils or demons, or references to homosexuality. The latter omission is a giant step backward for the company that introduced the first gay superhero (Alpha Flight's Northstar) many years ago. "I suppose a character can be homosexual," says Rhodes, exhibiting great magnanimity, "but it won't be addressed." I believe the above remarks illustrate how much respect Marvel's current hierarchy has for their loyal fans.

So, for the time being anyhow, my rallying cry is, "Make mine anybody else!" But I gotta say SOMETHING else about them. Peter David's work on "The Incredible Hulk" is still good. I wish I could mention the wonderful "Untold Tales of Spider-Man," but it got canceled a couple months ago. You can still find it in the back-issue bins of the local comics stores, and if you've never read it, I urge you to do so. It was written by the talented Kurt Busiek, whose "Astro City" is still available monthly from Image. And the new Captain America looks as though it might be worthwhile. That's about all I can think of right now.

Quick Picks

Harvey Pekar's slice-of-life "American Spendor" is now being published by Dark Horse. Critics' darling Starman, from DC, is about 50 percent as good as its hype, which makes it about 50 percent better than most everything else on the stands. Writer Alan Grant tells me that the fourth Batman/Judge Dredd team-up, "Die Laughing," will be out before the end of the year (better hurry!), as a two-parter.

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