The Lens Between Wishes and Fact

This column will generally be about older, perhaps obscure, works. It may be mostly about comics, as that’s a particular passion for me and there seems to be a dearth of discussion about many of the titles and characters that I so loved as a kid. And, I add hastily, it is my hope that someone else with these same passions might add to the Spinner Rack, as well. I found the discussion of read books on the RA Facebook page of much interest, and it seemed to me that it would be nice to have a place specifically devoted to igniting passion for anything beloved by any of our members. So there is also room for not only prose, film, and music– art– but also on occasion something new in the world of sf. As this week’s column is here to attest.

Marvel Comics. Their sales are down. Not the sales for their films, which are doing very well at the box office, thank you very much, but for their comics. Now, why this is seen as such an amazingly strange occurrence I can’t say. Marvel’s gone bankrupt and been sold two or three times before, just not since The Mouse bought it. And why are we talking about this at all? I mean, this is probably a minor fluctuation in the grand scheme, right? It’s not like Disney’s going to cancel the Marvel Comics line or anything. Right?

Right. What caught my attention about this is really two-fold. First, there’s the the headlines, which all make it seem like Marvel’s leadership is burying its collective head in the sand and blaming the readership for being too provincial and close-minded to “get” what Marvel’s creative teams are doing in trying to promote diversity among the characters and titles. Problem is, when you take the time to read the articles, you find they are and they aren’t. David Gabriel, Marvel’s– something– VP of– printing– or pasting– something– let’s just start the sentence over with the foreknowledge that Gabriel is in charge of something and is the guy putting out the statement. Ready? David Gabriel talks about the economy and this and that, all of which is probably okay as far as it goes. But then… “What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity. They didn’t want female characters out there. That’s what we heard, whether we believe that or not.” Wow.

Background: A couple years ago, Marvel had a series called Original Sin, in which someone killed The Watcher. The mini then goes on for however many issues until it is finally reveled that Nick Fury is the murderer (that’s a whole ‘nother column of complaint). During the final battle, Fury gets close to Thor and whispers something into his ear that makes him unworthy to wield his hammer, Mjolnir (in the Marvel Universe, in case you don’t know, the Norse god Thor’s hammer is enchanted such that only someone deemed worthy of it can lift it; Captain America, for instance, has done so). Of course, Thor immediately drops the hammer and thus began a series where there is suddenly a woman carrying Mjolnir with the Mjolnir-less son of Odin trying to work through whatever issues Fury’s whisper brought to light. My problem with this woman having Mjolnir was that they called her Thor, because that’s his name not his title. Turns out the woman was Jane Foster, a long-running Thor character and good choice… but still not Thor. Just to wrap this up a little bit, the editorial staff recently spent a month or two telling us all how amazingly, incredibly, astonishingly brilliant the wrap-up of all this was going to be as we would finally find out the three words spoken by a professional liar and murderer that would suddenly make one of the noblest beings in the Marvel Universe unworthy of his own weapon… only to have a near-universal “Wha–?” from fandom as all was revealed.

Now, of course, we also have a new Ms. Marvel– since the first was promoted to Captain– and a female Iron Man (think Steel with hair). Speaking for myself, it’s not that I don’t want to see any female characters, I’d just be more impressed if you’d come up with new ones instead of grasping firmly to the shoulders of giants like Lee/Kirby, or even Thomas/Colan. If you want diversity, have diversity. But make it really diverse instead of pseudo-diverse. Having Sam Wilson (a black character) take over as Captain America is fine because, as The Falcon, Sam’s been connected a part of the CA mythos since the ’60s and would be the most probable choice of Steve Rogers himself. But beyond that, give us something new. Like comics creators used to.

But since we’re on the subject of diversity…

In 2003, Marvel handed the reins of one of their old western characters, The Rawhide Kid, (that’s right, I did that) to Ron Zimmerman, who decided that the best way to “promote diversity” would be to take a character who had been around longer than Zimmerman had been alive and tell everyone who had read RK’s exploits for the past 40-50 years “He was always gay, you were just too stupid to notice it.” Also, about this same time, there was a Human Torch solo series, which had outstanding covers and average stories (Torch’s solo adventures in Strange Tales from the early ’60s were better, and maybe we’ll talk about them sometime in here). I collected this series until seeing in Previews that in the next ish “Johnny’s uncertain sexuality comes to the fore…” Johnny Storm’s sexuality is uncertain?!? To who? This was when I came up with my rule on these: “Make gay characters, don’t make characters gay”. Marvel had already created a gay character, Northstar of the Canadian superteam, Alpha Flight, and that was fine. In 2005, Marvel would create a teenage superteam called the Young Avengers in which they had a gay couple as major characters. I never got into Alpha Flight but Young Avengers was excellent. Point is, these series both did all right, and there was very little in the way of complaint about gay characters.

There’s even a way around my rule. Just reimagine the character completely. In DC’s New 52 continuity, the Golden Age heroes of the Justice Society were reconstituted from the ground up, with Alan Scott, the original Green Lantern, made into a gay character. That series, titled Earth 2, and that character were fantastic. Scott began the series offering an engagement ring to his boyfriend, Sam. They are then in a trainwreck and Sam is killed, with the ring becoming Scott’s talisman of power, a literal power ring through which he focuses his power. I cannot stress enough how great this series began, and how much I loved it. It sagged badly towards the end, when it seemed that every issue might as well have ended with “Can you top this?”, but I thought it was the best of the lot for awhile, although Batwoman might have had something to throw into that conversation. Now, Marvel did this same kind of thing with Iceman of the X-Men. X-Men: First Class apparently restarted the X-Men as teens and there was an issue where Jean Grey reads Bobby Drake’s (Iceman’s) mind and informs him that he’s gay. I read a small part of this so I won’t say much, but it really did seem at first that Drake didn’t realize he was gay. Hmmmm…

Marvel has never shied away from adding black characters, female characters, etc. but they used to do it more naturalistically (which is probably not a word but I’m running with it anyway) and, just as importantly, without fanfare. When Monica Rambeau became Captain Marvel, Marvel writers didn’t run around screaming, “Lookatme! Lookatme! Lookatme! I’m ‘versifyin’!” They just did it. They replaced a white male character with a black female character and there was very little discussion about “societal ramifications”. Monica was just a good character who was cool to read. Same as when they had James Rhodes take over as Iron Man during Tony’s drinking binge (this story was the inspiration for part of the film Iron Man 2). Rhodes was Stark’s best friend and a pilot, so it made sense that he would help out like this. During the original Marvel Superhero’s Secret Wars, there was even a cool little scene with Reed Richards when Rhodes had to remove his gauntlet, exposing his hand. While Reed works on the glove, James asks him if he was surprised that there was a black man in the armor. Mr. Fantastic lives up to his name by absent-mindedly replying, “Hmmm… no, I never gave it a thought. I knew there was a man under there.”

Basically, I want the same things from comics I want from film and television. Consistent, well-thought out storytelling with good visuals. If there are gay characters, fine. If there are female characters, black characters, Muslim characters… black female gay Muslim characters… fine. I can deal with characters taking on different roles, such as Wilson donning the Captain America identity, or having new characters assay established roles, like Miles Morales as Spiderman. But if you go to that well too often, and then jump and down pointing at yourself all the time, people are going to get tired of it and won’t even give it a chance. If you give Thor’s hammer to a woman, that’s cool. If you tell me her name is now Thor, that’s just stupid and I don’t care about spending my money on it. We already have an Iron Man, what else ya got? The Captain Marvel who used to be Ms. Marvel is still here and, outside of breast implants, still the same person. Why can’t this totally new character have a totally new identity?

And just to make this perfectly, crystal clear: I’m not saying it all needs to stop. Just create new characters instead of retreading old ones and patting yourselves on the back for being “cool”. Just think about the way you’re going about it a little more. I realize it makes the “creators” at Marvel feel better about things to blame everyone else for the “social battle fatigue” that seems to be setting in, but the truth is that readers are simply tiring of the perceived endlessness of the endeavor, along with the self-congratulation for doing things that have been done for decades.

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