15 comments on “Back Matter #7 — Marvel/DC Events

  1. Hi, guys. I’m a fairly new listener to your podcast, but have devoured more than half of your episode archive over the past couple months. I really love how you’ve rekindled my interest in reading stories, like All-Star Superman in preparation for an episode…and get me excited to re-read them again after I’ve listened to it. That’s powerful work, and I hope you continue the show for a long time

    But, great power come with great responsibility. And, as a minority comics reader, I’m at a crossroads with the argument that I should feel ashamed for not exactly being pleased with the ‘representation for representation’s sake’ marketing strategy Marvel’s taken recently. For clarity’s sake, I’m not someone who agrees with political stances/decisions such as eliminating Affirmative Action or overturning the Voting Rights Act, as the mere fact that so much attention is called to racial and gender representation today proves we are not over racism. Obviously, what Marvel is doing, which is giving minority/female a chance to step into the costumes previously worn by white male characters or finding them side roles in previously established franchises/worlds, is more beneficial than harmful.

    But, that’s all they’re doing. Falcon is the leader of the Avengers because he’s wearing Captain America’s costume. Ms. Marvel, while being a massive step forward in terms of diversifying the Marvel heroes culturally (as well as being a non-panderingly written teenager for change), dons the namesake of a white female character who herself was last in a line of mostly white male characters. I don’t feel like NOW!-era Marvel has yet surpassed their previous benchmarks of simply letting Luke Cage lead the Avengers or pulling a Claremont by simply introducing a new international cast of strong characters and announcing, “This is your new X-Men team.” Similarly, DC’s pinnacles were pre-New 52 (Mr. Terrific as chairman and big brain of the JSA and John Stewart and Hawkgirl being established as default/mainstay JL members in the animated series.)

    Maybe it’s the cynic in me, but it’s hard not to see recent decisions at Marvel as reactionary and temporary. I don’t necessarily blame them, as negative reactions toward things like the Milo Manara cover, while legitimate in context, are often overblown out of context by a media that other wouldn’t give the industry a second thought. Why wouldn’t Marvel redirect that spin by announcing a female Thor? I think representation for representation’s sake is essential in comics geared toward younger readers who would actually be inspired by seeing someone of his/her/their background kicking ass *ahem* butt (sorry, kids.) But how many of Marvel or DC’s main titles are under T+ these days? As an adult, I expect a little more than just passing the torch. However, I understand that the blame perhaps lie more in our franchise-oriented corporate comics culture than any racial factor.

    Thank you for reading.

    • First Wade, let me say thank you for the very verbose, well composed, and well thought out comment. And thanks for listening.

      You’re absolutely correct in that the Mighty Avengers and Mr. Terrific—taken as statements on our evolving racial politics—are much better than simply putting minority or female characters into names or identities previously held by white men, as with Sam Wilson as Cap and the new female Thor. And way better than ham-fisted retcons of existing characters, al a Allen Scott. There’s a fine line between representation and tokenism.

      So I at least do not blame you for having qualms about it. If you’re not pleased, that’s an entirely valid opinion. But my counter-point to it—and I’m hesitant of coming off as a Marvel apologist here—is that it’s easy to let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

      As you say, we’re talking about corporate comics here. These characters are far more valuable as intellectual properties than the individual issues Marvel and DC sell. This is, after all, the era in which a brilliant cartoon—Young Justice—was cancelled because it was attracting the wrong demographic for the toy line they wanted to sell.

      On that level, launching a brand-new character without any sort of connection to a known entity is hard, if not borderline impossible. I’m scouring my brain to try to think off a break-out superhero character created in the past 15 years that was a wholly original creation, and I’m not coming up with much.

      It would definitely be better if we had more Static Shocks (who debuted in 1993, and only became a DC character later) versus Miles Moraleses (Miles Morali?) or Kamala Khans. But every character we get who isn’t another Barry Allen, Steve Rogers, Hank Pym, or Clint Barton “blue-eyed blond-haired white guy” is at least a step in the right direction. Every time we get a Black Spider-Man or a Girl Thor it moves the ball down the field a couple of yards.

      So I give Marvel points for at least trying to make their universe more diverse. Not *all* the points, but some. Yes, that increase in diversity might be a reactionary ass-covering move by a corporate entity looking to solicit some cheap good will. But at the end of the day does it really matter WHY they’re doing it, or THAT they’re doing it?

      I don’t blame you for not being 100% on board with the Marvel-love fest. For me, I feel that progress is progress, and positive reinforcement is better than negative. The fact that Ms. Marvel was the #1 trade last month says a hundred times more to Marvel than a mountain of negative comments on reddit ever could.

      It would have been better, perhaps, if she was her own character away from any reference to the blue-eyed blonde-haired white girl who used that name before her, or the white guy who she was named for. But I’ll take the little win.

      • I think the “why” matters to the degree that it effects the execution. You call out the Allen Scott one as a bad example. It’s bad because it’s a pro forma gesture; half-hearted and lacking in depth or authenticity.

        It might be cold business logic that drives Marvel to diversify their roster, both in the bullpen and on the page. That doesn’t automatically reduce that diversity to tokenism. So long as the creators are afforded equal creative freedom and the characters given strong voice, I don’t feel the need to demand exceptionally altruistic motives from their corporate sponsors. Not when we can so easily find examples of transparently artificial diversity, the sort that justifiably merits condemnation.

        A starving artist has the ability to create art for purely art’s sake. A business has bills to pay. If they figure out a way to make their profit while simultaneously creating good art, I’m not going to be too upset.

        • Well, once you invoke the tragedy that was Young Justice’s cancellation, it’s hard for me to disagree with any of your points, Tobiah. Also, Adam makes me regret using Kamala Khan as an example, for at least it encouraged Marvel to actually hire a Muslim woman to write her (I’m glad to hear Wilson’s taking over X-Men soon as well.)

          The lack of diversity in the bullpen tends to be a side-effect of the passing of the torch trend because it’s understandably difficult to hand off, say, Sam Wilson Cap over to a newly-hired black writer when Cap’s the lead character in several events Marvel’s orchestrating in a given year. Maybe event fatigue will be the catalyst for Marvel taking that next important step. (Realistically, I see the experimental showcase series, like Spider-verse and 7th Anniversary increasing demand from fans for more unique creator voices. What I’d give to have DC revisit similar experiments, like Solo and Wednesday’s Comics…)

          • Man, now I wish they’d relaunch What If… in the style of Edge of Spider-Verse, where each issue re-imagines a classic character in a new genre, or a new setting, or in some way twists the status quo. That would be amazing.

          • Re-reading your first post, there’s something I feel I needs to put in context. You call out the All New X-Men team as a good example for diversity. (Created by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum, then immediately handed off to Claremont who quickly adjusted the roster to suit himself.) We have to remember that at that point, Uncanny X-Men was a failed series.

            The original run was 1963-70. From 1970-75 Uncanny was running repacked reprints. During that time Beast turned furry and joined the Avengers, while the rest of the team was limited to occasional appearances in Marvel Team-Up. So the All New X-Men wasn’t a bold new direction for a flagship title It was a long shot gamble to revive a minor series that had been effectively canceled for five years.

            Compared to that, passing the mantle of Captain America or Thor is a far braver thing to do. Especially when those characters are staring in a multi-billion dollar movie franchise. Maybe these are temporary moves; as the guys said on the podcast, it’s a game we play to pretend that anything in comics will have lasting consequence. But we can still hope the characters themselves become lasting ones.

            Establishing new characters and getting the audience invested in them is a difficult and imprecise art. Any long term comic fan can tell you about their favorite under appreciated character, the one who just never established a wide enough appeal to sustain a high profile. Attaching a new character to an already established one is an old and widely used trick, be it superhero comics or Pro Wrestling or whatever you please.

            Maybe it will all end in tears. Maybe the push for diversity will trail away as soon as the heat is off, maybe these new characters will end up as forgotten as Sleepwalker and Thunderstrike. Or maybe not. Maybe they establish a following, maybe a more diverse range of creators gets hungry to come to Marvel for a chance to write those characters, maybe this is the first step down a long but fruitful path.

            I really don’t know which it is, but I try not to let cynicism cause the fruit to wither before it has a chance to grow.

  2. I’d totally be on-board with that, Tobiah. I haven’t followed Morrison’s Batman epic into the New 52, but Tomasi and Gleason’s Batman & Robin at all successful in that vein of pushing the status quo once they had new team-ups every month?

    And, thanks, Adam, for correcting me on the Wein/Cockrum credit. Cockrum, along with Zeck and Wrightson, is among my favorite Bronze Age pencillers, so I certainly didn’t mean to overlook him. I feel terrible that my brain somehow completely skipped over Wein, though.

    As far as which choice was braver between All-New X-Men and the recent Avengers relaunch, I don’t follow sales charts enough to know whether the latter case of film franchise fans picking up a comic and not recognizing any characters under the masks affects whether they buy it. I’ve actually wondered since hearing the news how people who’re jumping on in the wake of all the positive publicity are reacting.

    Does having a new Cap or Thor who’s struggling with all the baggage of the previous mantle-bearer have the same effect as heavy continuity often does to newcomers? I wondered the same thing when reading Cap after Bucky took over. Brubaker would keep hammering the idea of Bucky having to measure up to the shield and I would think, Does this mean anything to people who jumped on after the Death of… controversy? Are they actually going to be encouraged to pick up back issues of Cap to see what Bucky is whining about?

    Also, I was hoping that by saying that this direction was more beneficial than harmful that my position didn’t come across as wanting “the fruit to wither before it has a chance to grow.” As you mentioned, what Marvel is doing is an old and widely-used trick. That’s exactly why, as beneficial as it is, I want Marvel to be above the strategies that merely generate that most press. Maybe that’s unrealistic for a multibillion dollar corporation. But, if we’re predicting the future, I agree with your comment that the “why” matters execution-wise because character choices born from headline-chasing run more risk of dating or merely becoming a footnote in the next Dorling-Kindersley ultimate character guide, which is the last thing I’d want.

    • Edit: I’m aware that, with the cancellation of titles, like Mighty Avengers and She-Hulk, Marvel is still struggling with how to generate press into actual sales. I wish I had a solution to the problem of finicky media so that we get to the point that diversity just exists and isn’t a selling point (after all, treating a property as ‘alternative’ from the on-set isn’t the way to garner a sustainable mainstream readership) but I don’t. However, thanks to the New 52, Marvel is winning as an alternative to DC current staleness and line-wide dysfunction, so I’m hoping they continue using that advantage to set the standard going forward, albeit in a less self-congratulatory way.

    • No, you weren’t coming across that way. I’m just spinning the conversation into a broader one. And you’re right to be cautious. But context matters, and for me the context right now is that the Marvel of recent years has earned the benefit of the doubt, just like the DC of recent years has lost it.

      Tangenting onto the issue you raise, I think one of the key factors is which comes first, the story idea or the marketing gimmick. The Death of Superman was cooked up first as a marketing gimmick, and they figured out how to get there second. All those insane Silver Age covers, the cover came first, and then the writer had to script a way to justify it.

      I’m not saying that Marvel is running these big events and mantle passes without the intention of getting attention with them. Gathering an audience is every author’s goal. It’s a question of what the core of the idea is. One with no substance beyond being the most attention grabbing headline is in a much worse starting place than one that’s actually about the characters.

      • Very true, all of your points. Now that Marvel’s put its handling of diversity in superhero comics front and center, even if they hadn’t already earned the benefit of the doubt from you and other readers, they’ve boldly opened themselves up well beyond their established fan-base for criticism should this not pan out. I guess the worry for me comes from Marvel doling out all these changes in one wave, which reads “experimental phase” to me, at least until Marvel announces Anthony Mackie as Chris Evans’s successor (which seems unlikely with Sebastian Stan’s nine-picture contract revealed earlier this year) or some similar announcement with the films that shows their commitment to re-branding their mainstays with new faces behind the masks. After all, apart from the Marvel Legends toy line, which medium gets spotlighted by merchandising? Until then, especially with this giant multiversal event in the works, Marvel has several opportunities to reset things back to status quo.

        They already seem to be faltering a little with their fourth issue solicitation for Thor, which is “THOR vs. THOR!!!” Although I don’t see the rightfulness matter being resolved so soon, I really wish Marvel had left old Thor’s story for a separate mini-series. After all, he’s already been front and center for the past fifty-two years; I’m sure he could sell books on his own even without the mantle. Marvel was so adamant about claiming she is Thor now. The most mature way of showing that is to give her her due space so she can prove herself as such–and as someone readers should care about–not just in comparison to her predecessor.

        On a last note, as I don’t want to you guys to dread my commenting on future episodes by pigeonholing myself into a topic we’re virtually in total agreement on, I’m a little surprised by your citation of Alan Scott as an example of DC’s miscalculated approach on this issue. I read the first couple arcs of Earth 2 in trades, so I missed out on whether DC editorial campaigned on Scott’s change of sexual preferences the same way Quesada did recently on the Colbert Report (which I found similarly problematic to the Colbert interview about that “gate” that shan’t be discussed.) But, apart from his lover’s abrupt death looking worse in retrospective following the Batwoman marriage controversy, it read as inoffensive to me (at least their kiss wasn’t drawn as a splash page.)

        The Daily News article that came up first in my search quoted James Robinson as the seeming shot-caller in that he wanted some LGBT representation since his own Obsidian was written out of the DCU with the reboot. One could argue, if DC did milk the change in the press, that it was ultimately minor, but it’s not Robinson’s fault he was assigned to or felt better suited to an alternate universe title…or maybe it is, given the performance of his JLA run. The only problem I found was that the death, while shocking, was cheaply produced from DC’s Tragic Motivation Generator™ and even that resulted in a commendably visceral Reis/Prado cover for issue 3.

        Obsidian was actually written more problematically when Marc Andreyko cast him as the gay best friend in Manhunter. I wouldn’t say he was entirely defined by his sexual preferences in-costume, but nearly all of his scenes in plainclothes had a joke referencing them (Gay Bechdel test fail!) Don’t even get me started on Cameron Chase, who was also a fully defined character in her own series before Andreyko reduced her to her “quirky” relationship with Manhunter’s tech guy (and by “quirky,” I mean being extremely vocal in her repulsion toward him until she needed sex.) Both situations really stain a series that I champion with having some of the best-executed single issues I’d read in ’00s.

        • In response to your last note, this has been an excellent conversation, so I absolutely encourage you to contribute more of your thoughts on future episodes.

          In response to Alan Scott, I haven’t yet read Earth 2 beyond the first issue. As I recall it was being launched right about the time I gave up on reading New-52. But my reaction at the time was that it was a shameless attention grab, because it was a safe move.

          Alan Scott is a character whose name is well known enough to be easily recognized, but not so popular as to have a cadre of fans who might have been loudly upset by such a retcon. If they had recast a marquee character like Batman or Superman in that way—even Hal Jordan—it would have been a bold move, if still a little ham-fisted. As it was it seemed to me to be a disingenuous calculation, a way to get credit with no risk. Especially given that they immediately killed off his lover. Exactly the concern we were discussing in regard to Marvel.

          Now perhaps that’s unfair and it was in fact an attempt by Robinson to salvage some representation in a venue with less editorial meddling—which seems to be epidemic at DC in recent years. But that brings us back around to Adam’s point regarding execution and substance. It also raises the question of what attributes are critical to the core of a character. But that’s a whole other discussion (and perhaps a good one for a future Back Matter).

          • There’s a quotation that’s stuck with me. “A difference which makes no difference is no difference at all.” Google tells me it’s from William James, which means nothing to me, but it’s a very useful line.

            The sexual orientation of the Nu52 Earth 2 Alan Scott was a difference that made no difference. It didn’t seem to impact his dress, behavior, or attitudes. He was still the same old white bread Alan Scott. Maybe the differences were there, and the series was just too focused on punching things for it to show, but that’s hardly a justification.

            Compare that to Kamala Khan. Who and what her family are has a huge impact on her aspirations towards heroism and the problems she faces in her daily life. If you gave someone else with a different background her costume and power set it’d be a completely different story. Those are important elements of her character that shape who she is as a person.

            That’s why I’m willing to call out Alan Scott as tokenism. Robinson might have had the best of intentions towards increasing cast diversity, but attaching a minority label to a character isn’t the same as the character thinking and acting like someone with that background.

          • Well, in this case, I understand that they couldn’t alter Batman or Hal Jordan, since their New 52 storylines and supporting casts practically carried over from the previous Morrison/Snyder and Johns runs–yet another result of DC’s lack of proper coordination and planning during the reboot. Obviously Morrison and Johns weren’t going to alter their respective plans for Action Comics and Aquaman (especially with Mera being a major player in Johns’ sacred quest to convince everyone that there was nothing square .) So, that pretty much leaves

  3. (Sorry, accidentally pressed ENTER)

    …The Flash and Wonder Woman, who were also in creator-driven solo series, and Cyborg, who was already serving one token role at the time, discounting how developed he may have become later on.

    But, the point you bring up, Adam, about Scott’s change of sexual preferences not noticeably affecting him much is actually as legitimate an approach to take as Kamala Khan. Khan has religious and cultural traditions that affect her family and social life, and it was the books goal from the start to showcase how that bled into her costumed one as well. However, apart from being unequally treated by society, what unequivocally makes a gay characters noticeably different from a straight one. I wish this approach was more frequently used so terms, like “strong female character” would go away and so there wouldn’t be such an uproar over Johnny Storm being played by a black actor.

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