Grotesque Anatomy
Thursday, January 15, 2004
  A Tale Of Two Publishers
Reading Newsarama's interview with Joe Quesada and Dan Buckley highlighted for me one of Marvel's biggest problems.  Their idea of diversifying comics is to do multiple versions of Spider-Man for different target audiences.  Yet more often than not, the same readers end up buying the various versions of the character.   Aside from the failure to reach new readers, the "multiple versions of a single character" approach can end up backfiring in another way:  It creates confusion about what audience the character is intended for.

Consider this exchange between Matt Brady and Quesada:
NRAMA: Exactly, but still, it seems that when a Marvel comic that does push the envelope comes out, one of the quickest responses a pundit that the media dusts off for the occasion drags out the "comics are for kids" argument and that Marvel shouldn't be publishing such material.

JQ: There's no question where I stand on this issue. Sure - Marvel needs more all ages titles. We have very few, less than 10% of our line can be classified that way. Not at the exclusion of anything, but just because this is good content that can help grow our business and industry. Just look at what Harry Potter has done for prose fiction.
Can you imagine the outcry if Harry Potter were featured in a novel with "adult situations"?  And it wouldn't be because prose fiction is for children, but because that property has become so strongly associated with children (even if adults do enjoy the books as well).

Similarly, I think Marvel has become so associated with its superhero characters -- characters that are already perceived as children's material -- that the publisher itself is now seen in the eyes of the general public as being "for kids."  And Marvel doesn't do much to disabuse people of this notion:  Unlike DC, Marvel doesn't have distinct, well-branded imprints such as Vertigo to act as firewalls for "edgier" projects.  Marvel's idea of a mature line is to have some of its more obscure characters swear and engage in anal sex.  The fact that the characters are obscure does little to insulate the MAX comics from controversy, perhaps because at one point all the characters appeared in the "regular" Marvel Universe and everyone still remembers that.

In contrast, look at DC.  I've already mentioned Vertigo, but even with lines such as the much-maligned "Focus" imprint (which has been lampooned as DC's "New Universe") DC takes care to brand the books so they stand out from the regular superhero titles.  The covers for the Focus books feature eye-catching artwork from Tomer Hanuka and a distinctive trade dress:

Hard Time #1
Kinetic #1 Touch #1
Fraction #1

It's also instructive to look at the two companies and how they respond when they decide they want to go after new customers.  Marvel decides to redo old superhero stories with some newer, flashier art.  DC forms an alliance with the publisher of European comics.  Marvel reminds me of the proverbial carpenter whose limited tool set causes him to see every situation as calling for the same response.  "We need comics for younger readers?  Superheroes!  Comics for older readers?  Superheroes!  For people who think superheroes are stupid?  Superheroes!"

Disclaimers:  I'm not saying that all superheroes by their very nature are for kids only.  I don't think anyone would read Astro City and think that it was intended primarily for children.  But I do believe that Marvel's superheroes are thought of as being for kids.  Why is this so?  A big part of it is probably historical accident:  Since kids were the ones reading Marvel superheroes when Marvel first started out, the association between the product and the audience stuck over time.  And the fact that Marvel licenses its superheroes for all kinds of merchandise aimed at kids probably helps reinforce the connection.  You probably don't see many bedsheets or breakfast cereals featuring characters from Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.

I'm not saying it's a bad thing that Marvel's superheroes are still thought of as being mainly for kids.  Often times good stuff aimed at children will be enjoyed by adults as well, like with the Harry Potter books or the Pixar films.

I'm not saying I'm against darker takes on classic characters.  I enjoyed Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns as much as the next comic fan.  And I don't think Watchmen was an affront to the memory of the Charlton characters.

All I'm saying is that maybe there's a reason why Marvel is repeatedly the target of the "comics are for kids" line of thought whereas DC can put out stuff like Preacher and The Filth without anyone batting an eye.

Live by the superhero, die by the superhero.
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Iron Fist

by John Jakala

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