Saving Superheroes from their Gatekeeper

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

Just two years ago Advertising Age magazine listed DC Comics as one of America’s hottest brands. Though the referred to it as “a move fraught with risk,” they applauded DC for reworking every character in the New 52 as an effort to broaden their audience appeal.

That is what every owner of a brand wants, universal appeal. That has been the power of comics and superheroes in particular, for generations. They have had appeal to everyone as a general whole. Who wouldn’t want a character that represents “Truth, justice and the American way” as their trademark?

Few characters in the world are as iconic as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, followed by the supportive cast of the Justice League of America and the rest of the DC Universe. That is why you can you can find their images licensed on every product imaginable from baby toys to automobiles.

It is obvious that once Marvel was bought by the merchandising masterminded Disney Corporation, Time Warner and DC felt they needed to step up their game to prevent Supes, Bats, and WW from being overshadowed by the likes of Spider-man and those damn Avengers.

Rather than polishing up the classic style guides and reminding markets why their product was responsible for the entire genre of superheroes and has stood the test of time having been viable for seventy-five years, they decided to “shake things up” by making their product more edgy, gritty, trendy, socially relevant, sexy, modern, and violent.

Viola! The New 52.

There is evidence that this move has certainly perked up comic sales and generated some new found publicity, though much of this is related to the sinister speculator market.  There also seems to be an influx of new readers, woman in particular, who appeared to be absent from the comics scene just a few years ago.

But has all this change really been good?

Say what you like, the damage is done as evidenced by a stirring, must-read, fan letter to DC, eloquently and passionately written by Gabrielle Friesen, who could not have spelled out more clearly how DC has set the time bomb that is destined to annihilate their, once invaluable IP.

Her diatribe is lengthy and painful to anyone who has grown up loving comics. She details, situation after situation where DC has taken beloved characters that she enjoyed since childhood and subjected them to rape, torture, murder, exploitation, mindless prejudice and persecution all for the sake of “broader audience appeal.”

A brief synopsis can be found in this quote from her letter but seriously, please read the whole thing:

“You want to know something DC? You’re the super villain here. Your company is Doomsday. Lumbering, stupid, terrible, leaving a path of pain in its wake, killing beloved superheroes left and right. Fans like me? We’re Superman (and this is the only time I have ever identified with Superman). We’re brave and smart and powerful, and we want the world to be good and safe. We want our comics to be good and safe. And you are pummeling us down, but Superman rose up again. The Death of Superman was a stupid, and ultimately temporary move on your part. More and more fans like me are leaving, using our superpower of the dollar, withdrawing it, and warning everyone we know not to come near the radioactive toxic waste heap that is your company, that it won’t give them superpowers, only hurt them. We’re going to outlast you; whether its your company collapsing because dominant culture dudebros are not enough of a market to support your behemoth weight, or whether you pull through, get a new editorial team, or just wise up to the fact that more than just dudebros exist in the world, that people love your characters but not the way you treat them, that consumers are smart and have power. You are bleeding out and actively resisting a tourniquet, spitting in the face and insulting the medic offering it to you.

Comics were started by the downtrodden. Superman, the alien immigrant, was created by Jewish men. Wonder Woman was created by a man wishing for women’s equality. Superheroes protect the weak, not those who seek to dominate. You’ve forgotten your roots, and completely assimilated to dominant, oppressive culture.

You are in control of beautiful characters. Kind, compassionate, flawed human characters. Characters who want the world to be better, who help the downtrodden, who rescue kittens from trees and save lives. People who can fly.

But you’re stuck on the ground, actively digging yourself deeper into mud.”

What trademark owner wants to get this letter from a fan? What licensee who paid tons of money to secure the rights to plaster their product with DC superheroes wants to know that these characters are no longer the wholesome bundle of Americana they thought they bought into?

Does Fisher-Price, Mattel and every other maker of children’s toys and apparel want to know that DC editorial thinks it’s humorous that one of it’s major characters were the subject of an art contest where they were to be shown naked in a tub attempting to commit suicide a week before National Suicide Prevention Week?

(Yes, weeks after this contest created a n offensive stir in the industry, DC has yet to take this link down from their site.)

If a sport star or celebrity had this kind of attention focused on them, you know that companies would be pulling endorsements left and right. Ask Tiger Woods, Lance Armstong, Mel Gibson and Paula Deen, just to name a few.

There were high hopes when Diane Nelson was hired lead DC after her tremendous job with the Harry Potter franchise. Is she even paying attention? Would she allow the Harry Potter property to be defiled the way the DCU is? Doubtful! What would J.K. Rowlings say?

Gabrielle Friesen is right. Fans do have the power of their money and their voices. These characters may be copyrighted and trademarked to DC Comics but they belong to us as a culture. It is the people that have embraced them and spent their hard earned dollars to establish them as the icons they are today. Superheroes are vulnerable after all, endangered by their own gatekeeper.

It is time that true fans save their favorite superheroes before it’s too late, before there is a complete meltdown of the entire DCU.

“Up, up and away!”

Gerry Giovinco

Mark Millar is Right!

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

Mark Millar’s assertion that a Justice League film is “an excellent way of losing $200 million” is dead-on but not for the reasons he stipulates.

The idea that the characters that comprise the membership of Justice League of America are outdated is insane. The core group of founding members of the JLA; Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Green Lantern and Martian Manhunter, are not only iconic characters, they have literally established and defined the entire superhero genre over their 75 year history.

Where the powers-that-be at DC and Warner continually fail and why a JLA film would tank is that, for some reason, these classic characters are considered by them as never good enough, never mature enough, never edgy enough. The properties are constantly the subject of reboots to make them more relevant, more gritty, more believable. In the process these characters have become unrecognizable to generations of fans that have an idealized passion for the originals.

Marketing geniuses that license the DC properties understand this passion and that is why classic images of these characters adorn every product imaginable from Converse sneakers to slip covers for car seats. You don’t see licensees rushing to conform to likenesses of these characters from DC’s New 52. Why? Because the reboots of these characters are a bastardization of the classics whose only purpose is to distance copyright and trademark enforcement from the original creators.

There is a reason that these characters have been around for as long as they have. Something about them has struck a deep cultural nerve that has allowed them to be ingrained into our society. They are beloved.

Leave them alone already!

I was watching a designer on the Rachel Ray show the other day who was expounding on the enduring virtues of classic design. Classics never go out of style. Update with accessories! This has been lost on DC.

Stan Lee has always said that a great character should be easily defined by a simple statement. The JLA lineup has that in spades to the point where just the name of each character defines most of them. These are the characters audiences want to see in a film not a convoluted mess like they saw in the film Green Lantern.

That movie should have been about a guy with a ring that gave him superpowers. Boom! Instead we had to suffer through the history of the Green Lantern Corps and be introduced to more characters than we were ready to digest. Seriously. I just wanted to see Green Lantern fight some bad guys and save the day with his bad-ass ring!

Marvel Entertainment gets this. They do a great job of embracing the original source material and simply defining their characters. Look at The Avengers. Iron Man – guy in a metal suit. Thor – god of thunder. Captain America – super soldier. Hulk…now there’s a study.

The Hulk was in two films that audiences could not embrace. Those films were too much about what made Bruce Banner tick. Inner conflicts. Fancy cinematography. CGI. They strayed away from what was simple yet great about the character: Make Hulk mad and Hulk will smash. Oh, and he’s green.

Director Josh Whedon understood this and gave us the Hulk that we saw in The Avengers. Suddenly the Hulk was a breakout character again. Hulk was there. Hulk got pissed. Hulk smashed. Ta-da! The audience ate it up.

The Avengers was brilliant in its simplicity regarding character development. Every character was easily defined, relying heavily on what people knew and expected from them, not from their previous individual movies as much as what we knew about them from their decades of existence in popular culture.

With The Avengers film, Marvel Entertainment had a plan to market each character through their own feature film then combine them as a super group in The Avengers capitalizing on the exact marketing strategy that Stan Lee exploited with the comic books featuring the same characters. Stan, ironically, borrowed this strategy from DC who’s success combining their own banner characters to form the JLA, in part, instigated the creation of The Fantastic Four, miraculously giving Marvel a new life.

DC would do well to reverse engineer this marketing plan by giving us a Justice League film that gives us highlights of the classic characters as we know and love them in a dynamite team adventure then spinning each character off into their own film after audiences have re-embraced the characters. This would work best if they were sure not to convolute the characters and dramatically depart from the institutions that they already are.

Good luck with that.

Maybe DC would be less likely to over think their characters if the film was titled Super Friends.

It may be that the only producers capable of making a profitable Justice League film are those in the porn industry. Those superheroes are always recognizable, even with their clothes off.

More on this rant next week.

Gerry Giovinco

The Big Bang Theory: Is the Joke on Us?

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

There has been a lot of rumblings among comic fans about the stereotyping of Geek Culture in the hit television show The Big Bang Theory. This seems to have really come to a head after the episode The Bakersfield Expedition” where the female characters went to the local comic shop advertised as “where no woman has gone before.” The conclusion being that all involved with the production of the show must hate comic book fans because of what was interpreted as negative stereotyping of comic shops, comic books, and comic fans.

This reaction surprises me because I assume, and I’m sure this is a stereotype itself, that comic fans have a keen sense of popular culture, and would recognize that, as an outrageously popular sitcom, The Big Bang Theory most likely would employ all the usual conventions of the typically successful sitcoms which generally include, stereotyping and low brow humor. Since comics and cartoons have a long tradition of capitalizing on stereotypes through characterization literally and visually, I expect that comic fans would at least be accustomed to its use.

Is the pot calling the kettle black?

Humor is generally rooted in something painful. Our ability to laugh is a primal reaction that is soothing to the anxiety of dealing with what hurts or causes fear. We fear things that we do not know or understand as much as we fear things that we are sure will hurt us. Stereotypes are a false but identifiable veneer that keeps us focused on the superficial, preventing our awareness of the distinct particulars that define the true structure of the subject. The stereotypes used in sitcoms preserve their humorous impact by maintaining the mask that prevents a more complete understanding of the subject.

Occasionally, through sitcoms, our laughter accomplishes its primal goal and soothes cultural fears.

Vice President, Joe Biden received a lot of attention when he credited the sitcom Will & Grace for its impact on social mores regarding gay lifestyles during his appearance on Meet the Press. “When things really began to change is when the social culture changes,” He told host David Gregory. “I think Will & Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anybody’s ever done so far. People fear that which is different. Now they’re beginning to understand.”

No character could have fit the gay stereotype more than Jack, played by Sean Hayes yet the show was beloved by viewers throughout its eight-year run.

Last week Charlie Sheen walked on the stage of The View to a rousing ovation. He was credited by Barbara Walters as being “loved by America.” His character on the insanely popular sitcom Two and a Half Men, produced by Chuck Lorre who also produces The Big Bang Theory, was an often drunken, drug induced louse of a playboy whose sexploitations of women were the focus of the show, representing the ultimate cliche of the male chauvinist pig.

Sheen’s character was a frightening mirror of his actual life which exploded into public view during the antics of his tirade when he was fired from the show in 2011. Yet, he was welcomed into the open arms of Barbara Walters, Whoopi Goldberg, Joy Behar, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, and Sherri Shepherd, the five co-hosts The View who are powerful morning voices of women all over America.  Joy Behar even flashed him her reportedly perfect tootsies in response to his foot fetish. I suspect he is loved because somehow people feel they can relate to him now because of their familiarity with his character on Two and a Half Men.

Because of this phenomenon of cultural acceptance induced by sitcoms, I think it would do Geek Culture some good to be able to laugh at itself and simply accept The Big Bang Theory for what it is, a successful sitcom that is, not intentionally, paving a road of acceptance for a subculture that is not fully understood.

I am personally watching this phenomenon play out in my own house. My twenty-year-old daughter, Jenna,  whose eclectic interests  have never included anything remotely influenced by science fiction or superheroes ( with the notable exception of Captain Underpants when she was in third grade) is a huge fan of The Big Bang Theory. Her bedroom wall, which was once plastered with posters of the Jonas Brothers, now displays images of her currrent favorites: Junior Middleweight boxer, King Gabriel Rosado, rap star, Lil Wayne, movie star John Travolta, iconic beauty, Audrey Hepburn, and Big Bang’s character Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) barking “Bazinga!”

She named her cat Dr. Sheldon Cooper and her horse Leonard Hofstadter as homage to the show. Though she never read comics,  she now proudly proclaims her favorite superhero to be Green Lantern and has a shirt with his logo, and a plush version of his character. She has actually ventured into comic shops unaccompanied by me or my son presumeably to shop for us. And though my own comic book swag was once a source of overwhelming embarrassment to her, this year, beneath the Christmas tree, was a Justice League belt, a Captain America wallet and a DVD of the animated Ultimate Avengers. All were gifts from her to me.

I can only imagine that her affinity for The Big Bang Theory has softened her attitude towards a culture she had formerly vocally denounced as “dorky.” She has more than accepted the characters, she has embraced them and opened a place in her life that is willing to accept a subculture that before was alien to her.

My final suggestion to comic fans is, though it is fine to be critical and analytical of The Big BangTheory, look around at everyone laughing.  We know that the stereotypes are not a true representation of the sub culture but they represent what the general public sees on the surface. Laugh with them and invite them beyond the veneer where they can be actually laughing with you than at you. If we can’t laugh at ourselves we can’t expect others to take us seriously.

Making Comics Because We Want to,

Gerry Giovinco

The King and The Man

Monday, May 30th, 2011

Jack Kirby & Stan Lee

Recently my son Michael had to write a high school essay, choosing from a list of subjects considered to be the most influential Americans. Surprisingly, or not, Stan Lee was on the list for his significant role in the cultural impact that Marvel Comics has had on our society.

Mike’s decision to pick Lee as his essay subject was a simple one, knowing that he would have access to plenty of reference material in my personal library including Stan Lee’s interviews in David Anthony Kraft’s COMICS INTERVIEW the Complete Collection Volume One published right here at CO2 Comics.

My son’s approach to his essay was standard fare, family bio, life experiences, significant achievements, and cultural impact all of which focused, of course, on Stan Lee’s involvement in the creation of the iconic characters at the center of the Marvel Universe. His twist was to point out that, though Lee’s creations do have a significantly positive cultural influence,  these characters and Marvel have so heavily dominated the comic book market for so long that they have oppressed the creative growth of of the comics industry for decades. What a kid!

No sooner did Mike hand in his paper, I found myself being directed by The Comics Beat to the infamous 1990 Gary Groth interview with Jack Kirby that is now posted in its entirety in the archives of The Comics Journal website. Kirby boldly takes credit for having created all of the major Marvel characters single-handedly and accuses Lee of having only ever written the single word “Excelsior!” This interview is a truly mind-blowing read that flies in the face of the history that Stan Lee has recounted repeatedly over the years. If you have not read it, make sure you do!

What a different paper my son would have written!

Of course there are two sides to every story, and my experience in this field of comics has taught me that the creative ego can absolutely convolute one’s memory, especially when it comes to ownership of an idea or a concept. Haggling over the notion of Lee and Kirby’s roles in the creation and success of Marvel and its characters may go on forever just for this reason.

Demonstrating this point are two contradicting excerpts, one from each of their individual interviews, that focus on the conception of the FANTASTIC FOUR.

Jack Kirby from the 1990 The Comics Journal #134 interview with Gary Groth:

I came in [to the Marvel offices] and they were moving out the furniture, they were taking desks out — and I needed the work! I had a family and a house and all of a sudden Marvel is coming apart. Stan Lee is sitting on a chair crying. He didn’t know what to do, he’s sitting in a chair crying —he was just still out of his adolescence. I told him to stop crying. I says. “Go into Martin and tell him to stop moving the furniture out, and I’ll see that the books make money.” And I came up with a raft of new books and all these books began to make money. Somehow they had faith in me. I knew I could do it, but I had to come up with fresh characters that nobody had seen before. I came up with The Fantastic Four. I came up with Thor. Whatever it took to sell a book I came up with. Stan Lee has never been editorial minded. It wasn’t possible for a man like Stan Lee to come up with new things — or old things for that matter. Stan Lee wasn’t a guy that read or that told stories. Stan Lee was a guy that knew where the papers were or who was coming to visit that day. Stan Lee is essentially an office worker, OK? I’m essentially something else: I’m a storyteller. My job is to sell my stories. When I saw this happening at Marvel I stopped the whole damned bunch. I stopped them from moving the furniture! Stan Lee was sitting on some kind of a stool, and he was crying.”

Stan Lee’s version from his 1983 interview in Comics Interview #5 conducted by David Anthony Kraft and Jim Salicrup:

Jack never pushed me to do superheroes. What happened was, one day, Martin Goodman called me into the office –– this is when Jack and I were doing all of those monster stories –– and Martin, who was the publisher at the time, said: “You know, Stan, I’ve just seen some sales figures for this DC magazine” –– it may have been JUSTICE LEAGUE, but I no longer remember -– “it is doing pretty well. Maybe we ought to do some superheroes.” And I said, “Fine.” And he said, “Let’s do a team like the JUSTICE LEAGUE.” And I said, “Fine.” I went home and wrote an outline, a synopsis for the FANTASTIC FOUR. And I called Jack, handed him the outline, and said: “Read this. This is something I want to do. And you should draw a team.” Jack , of course contributed many, many ideas to it. And I would venture to say that Jack and I co-created  THE FANTASTIC FOUR, in a way –– although the name was mine, the characters were mine, the concept was mine, originally. But he never pushed me to do superheroes. Jack was at home drawing those monster stories, until the day I called him and said: “Let’s do the FANTASTIC FOUR.”  I think Jack is really –– I don’t know what to say, I don’t want to say anything against him. I think he is beginning to imagine things.”

FF plot

Stan Lee’s interview happened about seven years prior to the Jack Kirby interview but it was obvious that Lee was responding to the same allegations which Kirby continually made and stood by until his death in 1994.

Regardless of who you believe or which side you defend, when it comes to cultural impact, it is impossible to imagine Marvel Comics or their characters without the influence of either Jack Kirby or Stan Lee. Kirby’s dynamic images and visual storytelling not only established the standard idioms of the comics medium and superhero genre, they defined the graphic footprint that became Marvel’s trademark. Stan Lee brought an infectious enthusiasm to Marvel that was difficult to ignore. Stan Lee’s Soap Box bristled with the same hip banter that was present in the dialog espoused by the characters he is credited with scripting. He built a relationship that brought together the readers, the characters and the Bullpen that formed bonds with fandom that were much deeper than ink on paper.

Listen to this audio file of a recording called “The Voices of Marvel” made available  through the fan club  Merry Marvel Marching Society and you will understand why Stan Lee’s influence goes beyond what he may or may not have created or scripted. He was the cheerleader.

The reality is that Jack Kirby and Stan Lee simply represent two different types of men. Jack Kirby was an amiable, creative genius who’s imagination knew no boundaries. He created for two primary reasons, to comfortably support his family and to express his ideas. Any reward beyond that was secondary to his nature, by the time he realized his loss it was too late.

Stan Lee had his eye on the prize his whole career. He continues to live for the fame and the fortune. He believed in the Marvel product and aggressively sold it with a huckster’s gleam in his eye that exists to this very day.

The irony is that Stan Lee himself clearly defined their roles with flashy nicknames, Jack “King” Kirby and Stan “The Man” Lee.

There was a chemistry that brought these two, very different, gentlemen together at the perfect time in history to create a magic that ushered in Marvel and the Silver Age of comics. Had they not united, what would have become of either man? What would have become of the comics industry?

All differences and injustices aside, the important thing is that both of these men need to be remembered for the joy and energy that they brought to comics, our culture and each and every one of us that were inspired by their careers. Generations from now, they will both continue to be revered for their creative contributions to comics, a medium which is just beginning  to realize its potential. I think both men would be satisfied with that reward of creative immortality.

Making Comics Because I Want To

Gerry Giovinco

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