The Mouse Caterers

You know who I love? Deadpool
Mousepool by Sketchmasterskills

The purchase of Marvel by Disney this week has caused quite a stir, as is to be expected, though it’s actually two stirs, the first of which is the uproar among finance, the second occurring within the comics community. And presumably with those jerk lawyers at Stan Lee Media, who file extortion by way of lawsuits to get payoffs.

Of course we all know the real tragedy in this week’s mega-purchase is that I sold my Marvel stock around $33. I was even planning to hop back aboard this week. Le sigh.

However, that’s not what disturbs what we shall heretofore affectionately and self-referentially call “Fanboys.” What disturbs them is this, thusly, then: Marvel has long positioned itself as the fun yang to DC’s formal yin, hip Pepsi to DC’s classic Coke, friendly Mary Anne to DC’s unapproachable Ginger. Their most popular characters are teenagers, rebels and berserkers, whereas DC’s flagship is Superman: the definitive superhero, defender of the status quo. Remember when he was keen? That guy used to punch out gorillas and dangle slumlords from flagpoles.

Who else sells for DC? Batman? Yeah, a millionaire beating up everyone who doesn’t obey his vision of a perfect society. Frank Miller may have made him an outlaw, but Miller’s own work tends to veer towards “Fascism You Can Believe In”.

Shoot, Wonder Woman is probably the only DC character the public can name whose raison d’etre is to buck the system, and her book never sells. (If I recall it rightly, DC has to keep her in continuous publication or the rights lapse to the Moulton-Marston estate.) Moreover, she’s never been at odds with the establishment she was sent to overturn. In 60 years, Wonder Woman’s been bound, spanked, stripped of rank, blinded, beaten, battered, bruised and occasionally even made awesome by Greg Rucka or Gail Simone (to name a couple of writers), but at no point has she tried to tear down The Way Things Are and teach man’s world the Amazon way. In fact, she’s usually the perfect woman (sort of a rorschach blot definition for the writers who handle her; her creator made her little more than a fetish doll). Men want her, women want to be her, she sweats perfume (except she never sweats) and speaks diplomacy with a voice like a silk riding crop.

And this is the one where she's not ruminating on how to submit to men
Ms. magazine’s presidential nominee, folks

Green Lantern? Space cop enforcing universal order as dictated by a cadre of old men. Flash? Solid midwestern values embodied in a police scientist. Justice League of America? All the same pillars of virtue. Justice Society of America is that plus more in the form of guys still enforcing their World War II “golden age” right and wrong. It might be a terrific book (it is) with well-rounded characters (they are) but it’s certainly about good vs. evil, not metaphors for the personal problems of its audience. DC has always been focused more on service to society, a more mature value than Marvel’s external conflict as representation of internal struggles. Even the Teen Titans are all sidekicks to older heroes; hardly the misfits and rebels of the X-Men, who band together because no one else understands or sympathizes with the freaks they are.

Dark and edgy, except where bright and classic
And ye shall know the pioneers by their uniforms

This is not to knock DC. I became a fan of their stuff in high school and have preferred that universe of stories ever since. I’d say their efforts to reposition themselves as dark, edgy and dangerous in recent years have come off as nothing more than the drunk at the end of the bar proclaiming every few minutes how he can beat up everyone in the joint. DC shouldn’t have to prove anything, because it actually DOES give us the creative work that challenges our comfortable boundaries. Marvel has nothing like WATCHMEN or any of the Vertigo titles, save the incredible PUNISHER MAX, written by a fellow theretofore known primarily by his Vertigo work.

What I’m saying is merely that DC’s sales and identity thrive on order in the face of chaos without, while Marvel has positioned itself as an expression of victory over the chaos within. DC is about saving the world. Marvel is about YOUR problems. And that’s the identity they’ve established for themselves — the inmates in charge of the asylum. The house of ideas. The crazy adventurers. Your pals.

Here are Marvel characters who thrive:

  • Spider-Man — Teenage angst.
  • X-Men –Tight tribe of friends united by their outcast status. Works great unless they’re fighting aliens. Why? Because nobody wants to find out their dad is a space pirate dating a skunk-woman hybrid. That sounds too much like Dad’s midlife crisis, and no kid’s proud of that.
  • The Hulk — Irrepressible emotion.
  • The Punisher — Violent response to the apostatic realization that the world is not sane, structured or fair.
  • Have web, need editor
    And like teenagers, he talks too much

    Here are Marvel characters who hang in there without much to commemorate them:

    And all while she was wearing dominatrix gear
    This is not edgy.

  • Fantastic Four — These guys used to be awesome. They hijacked a rocket because they were sick of Uncle Sam’s lollygagging. At least one of them was considered a freak, even though he looked like he gave way better hugs than the creepy know-it-all who led them. And there was a dude on fire, which is pretty much what ages 13 to 16 feel like. But then they stopped smashing through barriers in the name of Science! and became a boring married couple, effectively turning the two entertaining characters into baby-sitters.

  • Forsooth! I'm kind of a frat boy!
    Fear not, my mortal allies! My allfather’s influence will keep us out of trouble!

  • Thor — The difference between Thor and Apollo is a hammer. And you know why Apollo’s not interesting? The same reason John Cusack villains from the ’80s don’t get their own spin-off films; he’s just going to daterape his way through life until he takes over his dad’s business. I’d have read Thor if he acted the way you’d expect a Viking with a hammer to do: bash someone’s skull in, say something impolitic, and then get drunk, which would make him trouble for the fellow Avengers to rein in. Oh wait, that’s pretty much what Mark Millar did in ULTIMATES: make him part Jesus, part berzerker.
  • Did..did he say Crazy son of a bimbo?
    That crazy, free-wheelin’ son of a bimbo is your grampa? Smooth moves, Mr. Rogers!

  • Captain America — icon of an ideal at the exact age Marvel’s readership is becoming aware ideals don’t live up to reality. Did you notice his book didn’t hit its stride till Ed Brubaker assassinated him? Captain America’s ghost is far more iconic than Steve Rogers, motorcycle-ridin’ comic book artist. His other high point was when Mark Millar basically made him Optimus Prime, your ass-kicking older brother who always knew exactly what to do or say.!
    The way he’s reaching for that gauntlet you’d think it shoots relevancy.

  • Iron Man –Millionaire weapons developer by day. Hedonistic playboy by night. Nothing wrong with that double-life dramatically, but it’s not most folks’ dream at 16 (and remember, Marvel is high school, DC is college. That’s their corporate identity they’ve been building). Even if it is, it kind of makes Tony Stark more interesting than Iron Man. Half the reason his film was so astonishing is that his book has never been anything special. Alcoholism was the best thing to ever happen to him.
  • Marvel movies — the successful ones, at least — are about the young versus the old, the revolution versus the establishment. Okay. So what?

    So Disney is the first and last word in control. They sue everybody. They issue uniform underwear to their costumed employees and refused to let them wash it. They carefully select talented babies and breed them, via ABC, Disney Channel and music industry contacts, into lifetime career Mouseketeers. They mandate Disney Store employees address customers as “guests” and speak of “stepping backstage” when they have to go to the bathroom. They pioneered the kind of bullshit and bureaucracy everyone in Office Space despairs of dealing with.

    Is that wrong? You try running the world’s largest entertainment/media company without some strict quality control, particularly if you’ve built your brand on family friendly fare. Maybe its existence is wrong, but the way they go about it is rational, if dehumanizing. Humanity isn’t Disney’s goal. Delivering a specifically sanitized fare is, or at least putting out the good stuff without their name on anything other than the bank deposit. They cater to a particular world view. It’s one they’ve lost sight of. It took Pixar to show them that true quality includes authenticity. It’s gotten so that a long, long, long-running secondary identity is not the mouse’s paw extended to the world, but the iron fist inside the white glove. Know them by what they do, not what they present.

    While Marvel’s had its cool moments and its embarrassing ones, at least they were earnest. The two corporate identities are disparate, and fanboys fear the one they prefer will be subsumed. Ideally, they’ll infect Disney with some spontaneity and swearing.

    I wouldn’t worry about it. The inmates, of course, aren’t in control of the asylum, and haven’t been since there was actually a bullpen in Marvel’s office. Things will continue as normal. But let’s hope for more Deadpools and fewer Thors.

    ADDENDUM: I invoked the specter of Disney management meddling in the first issue of DOSE a couple of years ago. Guess this Marvel news re-contextualizes it.