Saturday, February 19, 2011

Behind The Mask

Wasted Death

As we all know, and as I mentioned way back in my January 2010 blog article about death and rebirth in comics, comic book death never lasts forever. But now, Marvel Comics has decided to take things to a new and ridiculous level. At a ComicsPro retailer summit in Texas, David Gabriel, Senior Vice President of Sales at Marvel said, “As a result of the Fantastic Four sales and media coverage, Marvel is going to kill a main character every quarter.” He followed up this statement by saying, “This is not a joke.” I dare to ask, and hope that if this is true, it backfires in Marvel’s face in a big way.

For those of you who do not know, Marvel spent many months and many marketing dollars hyping the death of one of the core members of the Fantastic Four. Cynics speculated, correctly so, that this was a publicity stunt to jump start a comic book franchise whose sales had lagged behind such Marvel stalwarts as the Avengers, the X-Men, Spiderman and the Incredible Hulk for many years. Unfortunately, the public also bought into the hype and made Fantastic Four #587, the death of Johnny Storm (aka The Human Torch), Marvel’s highest selling comic for the month of January.

Aside from the fact that readers did not see the actual lifeless body of Johnny Storm (the last image we have is Johnny being overwhelmed by FF villain, Annihilus’ hordes), the skeptical fan was already predicting that the Human Torch was just being put “on ice” so that he could make a triumphant return when the FF celebrate their milestone 600th issue. Whether this occurs remains to be seen. Next on the Marvel death circuit appears to be the Ultimate Universe version of Spider Man. Oh joy. And then we have the next big Marvel event, Fear Itself, which should continue the Marvel kill parade.

If Gabriel’s statement is indeed true and Marvel plans to kill a main character every quarter, they will find that this bold, novel idea will go the way of polybagged or foil comics, the yearly summer mega event, or the 90’s era of comics with fancy art but little, to no, story. Big sales and lots of media attention will be generated in the short term, but then reader fatigue will set in and sales will go down the toilet. Death will become an even bigger joke and loyal comic book readers will roll their eyes and yawn. Hopefully they’ll leave the Marvel fold altogether. Death, in essence, will become as common as the Hulk getting stronger as he gets angrier during a fight.

But the main problem with Gabriel and Marvel’s statement is that they are ultimately destroying their characters and what makes them “heroes”. In the not-so-distant past, death in comics was a jaw dropping, rare event. When a hero died, if the writer and artist did their job, the impact was staggering and left the reader feeling as if he or she had lost a member of their family. The reader felt the impact of the hero’s sacrifice because he knew that in all likelihood, his or her favorite hero would not be returning. Or, if their favorite hero was returning, it wasn’t going to be anytime soon. Can anyone honestly believe that if Marvel decided to kill off, Wolverine next month, he wouldn’t be back in a year or two tops? If you do, I also have a bridge to sell you.

Sadly, with this announcement Marvel is just confirming what many suspected all along. It’s not about producing good, well thought out, satisfying stories, but generating gratuitous hype in the hopes of bringing in big bucks. But as we all know…hype will only get you so far.

- Hamilton Maher

Image courtesy of

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Fiction's Philosophy

Philosophy of the Complete American Dream
When the character, Harrison Shepherd, speaks to his attorney in Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, The Lacuna, Shepherd wants to understand America’s hatred toward Communism. Yet his lawyer Artie’s answer could equally speak to the language of today’s Tea Party.
Shepherd dared to ask why the public in the early 1950s could be so confused between facts and propaganda. In his daring, he questioned whether the public really felt hatred towards another enemy.
Artie commented that, “Anticommunism is not much concerned with Communism.” He stated that the image the anticommunists had about America was that of a finished product, so any new change to that product would become a perceived threat.
The conversation occurred in the novel when Shepherd sought advice to deal with the ways the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) clouded his past. Shepherd grew up as a cook and then secretary for Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo. He later served as secretary to Leon Trotsky before his assassination. Both Trotsky and Shepherd shared a horror of Stalin’s oppression. Then Shepherd migrated to the states where he helped coordinate the transfer of famous paintings for storage for the state department during World War II. 
However, Shepherd's crisis with HUAC arose when the country feared Shepherd's novels would endanger people because of his background. The HUAC spurred propaganda portrayed Shepherd as a threat because all Communists were the same. The HUAC’s propaganda resulted in showing Shepherd as making a quote to disparage the country’s leader instead of revealing that the quote came from a character in one of Shepherd’s novels. The propaganda resulted in distorting Shepherd’s activities. Because of his job transferring art work, Shepherd was stated to still be working for the government. Shepherd’s writing notes with Trotsky on the terror of Stalin were explained as though Shepherd wrote material to encite people to overthrow the American government.
When Artie told Shepherd that the public knew nothing about Communism, he pointed out the public failed to think through a charge and simply reacted to primeval fears. Shepherd thought most workers would appreciate the means of owning and controlling a product or service. But the idea of oppression by an elite group that called itself Communistic should not be seen as an example of Communism. 
Artie, however, spoke to Shepherd about the charges levied against Shepherd as if the charges only touched on surface issues. The 1950’s public held fears because of a loss of security with the advent of the nuclear age. The public feared a new global society beckoning. That countered their vision of America being a finished product. The vision believed that the American system went beyond the problems of Europe in the 1700s. That dream carried the vision to the West coast and any idea of changes meant a loss to the scope of that vision.
Artie could have easily been thinking about today’s Tea Party dialogue. The messages chant that government should spend less, taxation hurts the average person and the government should stay out of healthcare. 
The chanting misses the mark like the propaganda from the 1950s. The Tea Party people fail to see that less spending means that local towns have to lay off police people and teachers. The new propaganda fails to make connections between taxes and funds to help spur job growth. Government incentives have long helped the oil industry despite the vast profits accrued by those firms. Government incentives could help the alternative energy industry grow, but the dialogue from the Tea people only focuses on the taxes — not the result. A failure to tax the top three percent of the population means that the rest of the people would pay more because they would receive fewer services. The new language also fails to recognize that private firms control healthcare and only a larger government system could stop those firms from raising premiums on the average person.
In both cases, the propaganda uses language that clouds the real fear. Artie said the HUAC feared the bomb and the changing scope of the world. We dare to ask where the real fears of the Tea Party people lie. In chanting for a taking back of America, are they worried about a more diverse America with many ethic faces to go with Gay Rights and more respect for Women? Was the American product finished with an all White, Protestant, female-working-in-the-kitchen household? Artie and Shepherd might answer that Tea Party dialogue should think through their messages and learn more about the facts they abuse.  
Picture Courtesy of
House UnAmerican Activities Committee
Picketing HUAC, Los Angeles, CA 1962