Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary















Home > Commentary and Features

X-Men Neither Advance Nor Retreat; They Run in Circles
posted October 11, 2004
 

A Response to "X-Men... Retreat! Part One"

image(This is a letter I chose not to send to the magazine The Comics Journal, about this essay by still-new Managing Editor Dirk Deppey in late summer 2004. It is a bit wonkier than most of the commentary I plan to write for this site, and I apologize in advance for all the turgid moments to come.

I wrote this not to antagonize Dirk Deppey but to clear my own head on certain matters, and later decided to offer it up here for discussion's sake.
)

Dear Journalistas:

I read with great interest Dirk Deppey's opening take on New Marvel or "NuMarvel." I found a lot in it with which I strongly disagree. My general feeling is that Dirk's article doesn't seem to be about anything other than its own aggressively asserted view of recent comics history. In this way, it's a lot like much of the comics-related writing that appears on the Internet, chattering around an issue without making any real point. Because no ethical stand is adopted, no moral issue outlined, I have a harder time forgiving Dirk a few factual oversights and a general blinkered assertiveness on behalf of his version of events. If "X-Men... Retreat!" was intended to depict a certain type of industry reality, it failed to describe that reality in a way that's new or insightful. In other words, I find Dirk's article has been loaded in order to make something of a non-point. His essay lacks context and fudges the facts for a strained argument that needlessly exalts Marvel's recent past.

For instance, I'm very puzzled by the article's treatment of Grant Morrison's career. Dirk frequently distorts Morrison's career path, I can only guess to better support the article's general thesis about the nature of Marvel's decision to give the comics writer a prime-time X-Men gig. As Dirk states, Morrison's writing career indeed "began in the late 1970s," but for Galaxy Media and Govan Press rather than Fleetway and Marvel UK, with a single story for DC Thompson before the decade turned over. He only later wrote extensively for the companies Dirk mentioned, in what seems to be a pretty normal career progression.

Morrison's first work in North America wasn't for Vertigo. DC's Vertigo imprint wasn't created until 1993, at which time Morrison had already completed his runs on Animal Man and Doom Patrol. These were proto-Vertigo titles in that they shared an approach to comics that helped defined that imprint, but they were still published by DC proper. That Morrison's first suite of series took place in DC's conventional "universe" makes his eventual move onto New X-Men that much less of a startling career-path departure.

Morrison has for the duration of his career tackled both big-name projects and smaller, quirkier assignments. Dirk's editorial emphasizes the experimental entries on Morrison's resume, perhaps to put in a more flattering light the assertion that Marvel made some sort of courageous decision in hiring him to work on the X-Men franchise. But with a full accounting on the table, I would suggest Morrison's record at the time of the New X-Men gig says, "Give me a big, fat, fucking superhero assignment, please" as much as anyone's resume in the world of comics.

Morrison followed up his run of British comics and minor DC superhero titles with a couple of major hits among the more out-there offerings. As Morrison himself likes to remind us, Arkham Asylum is the best-selling original graphic novel DC ever produced. It clearly established Morrison's ability to sell on a name character. More to the point, and surprisingly never mentioned in the article, Grant Morrison directly preceded his work on New X-Men with a highly praised, successful run on the DC super-team comic JLA -- a new iteration of the Justice League of America, about as corporate and license-filled superhero property as exists. JLA was a tent-pole hit around which various mini-series and subsequent creative team pairings were made, and made clear to the entire industry that Morrison could write a mainstream hit without sacrificing the underlying substance of his more wild ideas regarding the end of the world, spectacle and superhero comics pacing. Never mentioning JLA and bringing up Sebastian O is like lauding the courage of the movie studio that hired director Peter Jackson to helm King Kong without once mentioning the Lord of the Rings films.

I also find a great deal of Dirk's recent comics history suspect. "The early 1990s had been a time of robust growth" is true only if you see something robust in mainstream publishers flooding product through hundreds of dubious, half-invested comics accounts. A "number of competing distributors" is surface truth; in the same way, technically there are alternative distributors today. The more pertinent fact is between 75 to 85 percent of the market in the early to mid-1990s was split between Capital and Diamond. By 1993 any "increased public awareness of graphic novels" lingering from Maus had been matched if not supplanted by an increased public awareness of stunts like The Death of Superman -- 1993 was at least just as much an era of finding remaindered copies of Raw Volume 2 #3 as it was an explosion of graphic novels, if not overwhelmingly more so. Some publishers thrived in the early '90s, other publishers struggled, some shops expanded, some closed, and at least one company started an erotic comic book line in order to keep itself above water. Except for brief, sunshiney moments when shortsighted mainstream comics publishers shoved as much product they could through existing channels for whatever profit could be seized, Dirk's "storm clouds" were just as present in 1993 as they were in 1987 and 1995. Bloated and emaciated are two sides of the same unhealthy industry coin.

Dirk claims several factors caused the dubious good times of 1993 to come crashing to the ground, but only goes deeply into one: the collectibles market. This is overly simplistic. It even fails to mention two crucial things about the collectible market at least as important as the speculation bubble in causing the industry troubles to come. First, as reported extensively in the Journal in 1993-1994, companies like Image were using the sales promise of that market to abuse the comic shop system through failing to deliver on product in a timely manner. This wreaked direct havoc on various stores' abilities to buy effectively, hurting cash flow, and eventually stuck them with unwanted product, destroying cash reserves. Second, the speculator side of collectible market existed in a wider context of reader dissatisfaction. Stressing comics as collectibles or entertainment product made the companies more likely to reach for short-term goals by flooding the market with either inferior product or simply mediocre product that over time exhausted fans and irritated casual readers. Wider business practices and reading trends have always been a part of the direct market's history; they need to be included in any serious discussion of industry cause and effect.

And even if you give him the point, the timing of Dirk's analysis is slightly off. As Dan Raviv reported in his book Comic Wars and as the Journal's reportage at the time indicated, 1993 could lay little claim to being a period of unfettered mainstream company good times. It was the perceived slowing down of the market in the second half of 1993 that led to many of the decisions that Dirk rightly criticizes in subsequent paragraphs. So why is 1993 emphasized? I think because by shoehorning industry turmoil into an issue of speculation vs. content, Dirk is allowed to create a version of recent comics history that comes down to a war of editorial cultures. It sounds like a version of comics history straight from the pen of ex-Marvel President Bill Jemas' publicist, a corporate redemption story of brave editorial decisions followed by a crisis in courage to continue carrying these reforms to their logical end. But the truth is a lot more complicated than that.

Dirk's analysis of what happened to temporarily humble the House that Jack Built ignores and confuses through selective argumentation. Ron Perelman's main contribution wasn't decision-making but creating an atmosphere whereby Marvel was required to remain a high profile, resource-rich cash cow. By tying Marvel's slide into bankruptcy court to their desire to distribute their own product, Dirk sacrifices a wider truth to make publishing changes later on seem more significant. The decision to self-distribute was an expedient to Marvel's financial troubles, not their sole or even main cause. Most credible observers I've read and spoken to say that Marvel's massive overspending on various subsidiaries like Fleer was the major culprit in the company's poor health, abetted greatly by Perelman's proclivity to borrow against the company's perceived value, further reinforced by Marvel's chronic inability to sign favorable licensing deals.

I believe a lot of what Dirk writes about the quality of the Marvel Knights line and then Marvel's books in general during the Quesada/Jemas era greatly exaggerates the excellence of these comics. As a result, his analysis lacks a skeptical eye that might have seen other factors at play throughout the company at the time. I think Dirk is right in that Marvel in the late 1990s was in the position of trying to find new readers and serve its remaining hardcore constituency. The thing is, Marvel's been in this position since 1961. What really distinguished Marvel in the late 1990s is that it had other masters, masters whose influence on Marvel's publishing philosophy Dirk drastically underplays. This includes the likelihood that various properties would be made into movies or kept viable for sequels (this gave Ron Zimmerman his Marvel Comics shot, I think, led to steady hand Bruce Jones' hire on Incredible Hulk, and played an obvious role in the shape of Grant Morrison's New X-Men), or the desire for beneficial publicity over long-term publishing success, which allowed for new titles to be tried and even discarded without the kind of bottom-line analysis and self-recrimination that followed such failures at Marvel in the past. Where Dirk might have seen a broadening of creative possibilities brought about by a talented crew of fresh-to-Marvel writers, I saw a group of established, skilled vets working within the context of what might work onscreen. In that way the Quesada/Jemas Marvel had more in common with the custodial and television-seeking Marvel of the early 1970s, or even the Goodman-owned trend follower of the 1950s than it did the innovative, comics-focused Marvel of the early 1960s. The creative model writers and artists looked to maintain was now provided by Bryan and Sam (or Avi and Ike) rather than Stan and Jack.

Dirk goes a little over the top when he says things like "For the first time in almost twenty years, one genuinely didn't know quite what to expect when picking up a new Marvel comic." Leaving aside that this somehow makes the early 1980s a creative highpoint in the company's history -- perhaps Dirk is asserting that Reagan-era readers were frequently surprised by the horrifying crappiness of US-1 and Team America -- I think it was fairly obvious what Marvel was trying to do: walk the line between movie-ready pop product and traditional superhero conceptual strengths, a dichotomy Dirk introduces but chooses to see as a heroic struggle rather than a savvy, considered compromise. Dirk's essay in general seems to generate a lot of its emotional oomph from being either so immersed in Marvel, or so willing to accept the word of those thus enraptured, that slight changes or tweaks in standard approaches must feel like cataclysmic, epochal moments of pop-culture history. They're not. Comics that depend on a contextual appreciation don't have much of a shot at a wider audience, either.

An alternate view of what was happening, one that also explains the crappy comics rather than ignoring them, is that as the Civil War at Marvel ended and the Toy Biz faction took over, Jemas and Quesada cleared house of some longstanding relationships that had grown over-ripe under veteran Bob Harras. They continued Marvel's policy of trying new things to see what works, only they could be slightly less precious about it and could pursue them for the publicity gains just as much as the publishing yields -- publicity drives stock prices and movie deals, too. The president and editor-in-chief put into place an editorial infrastructure with the ability to hire many of the industry's more competent and better-selling writers to work on its premier properties. This shift of emphasis made possible the romancing of a market ready to be seduced and flattered. Any hint of a creative renaissance was a bonus. But very little was really at risk. To put it another way, I personally don't think hiring the guys who write the competition's best-selling titles to write your best-selling titles is a big deal. Who was more qualified to write Marvel's number one title than Grant Morrison? No, what happened at Marvel in the late 1990s is more a continuation of the policy that brought Kurt Busiek to the company a few years earlier than some bright, wild, new era, just done by editors fewer people despised. The significant difference between re-telling your older stories with Jim Lee and re-telling them with Brian Michael Bendis isn't artistic; it's that editorial can get behind the latter due to a more beneficial profit structure.

I don't really share Dirk's enthusiasm for the artistic quality of Morrison's New X-Men run, although I freely admit that's a difference of opinion. I feel compelled to mention the reason Morrison's work on New X-Men may have felt to Dirk like Claremont "without all the stupid bits" (a funny line, admittedly) is because Morrison was in part writing an overarching commentary on Chris Claremont's original Uncanny X-Men run in the guise of new adventures. The result was a savvy pop-culture do-over sampled from old comics riffs, a self-aware re-hash as helpless before nostalgia as any back to basics movement, a deep look inwards disguised as outreach. The underlying joke of Morrison's run is that the X-Men always ends up in the same place no matter how shiny the uniforms or how many throw-away lines referring to character sexuality. I also wonder about Dirk's assertion that New X-Men was some sort of brief shining moment from which Marvel has since moved away. Morrison enjoyed a multi-year run on New X-Men. This fits Morrison's profile when it comes to work on mainstream titles. He even brought his New X-Men story to a fitting conclusion. The business relationship had run its course as well. A sales bump was evident at first and near the end of the series when big-name artist Marc Silvestri handled the art chores for a few issues, but mostly Morrison's comics yielded about what you could expect from a long, disjointed, intermittently skilled meta-commentary sporting terribly erratic art: much praise from the first-screening attendees with their necks craned in the front row, and a slight increase in sales that came as retailers started to order the top end of the market more confidently.

As for what was going on in the rest of the line, I don't really see the "initiatives" Dirk lists as all that remarkable, either. Harras-era hire Dan Jurgens taking superheroes as God to its ultimate conclusion reads like solicitation copy for any of two dozen titles over the last 15 years. But I think Dirk's weakest assertion, and the key one at work here, is that such initiatives have somehow gone away rather than simply reaching the end of their natural cycle. Is hiring Brian Bendis, snatching away Vertigo darling Peter Milligan and beginning a relationship with filmmaker Kevin Smith any more startling from an artistic standpoint than just-announced moves to bring back Warren Ellis, take on Image Comics darling Robert Kirkman and extend the contract of playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa? What about hiring a pre-JLA Grant Morrison and pre-Authority Warren Ellis as Bob Harras' regime did back in the mid-'90s? Or putting alt-comics writer/artist Ed Brubaker and crime novelist Greg Rucka onto the Batman franchise and hiring humor cartoonist Judd Winick like DC did a few years back?

In other words, was there really a sea change in the air at Marvel or is it simply that the specific superhero comics Dirk likes (or perhaps the people Dirk trusts like) are now fading from view having reached the end of their natural lifespan? I fail to see why we should spend a lot of energy bemoaning the loss of slightly more clever X-Men comics in a period of growing excellence through the art form entire. I guess there's a "As Marvel goes, so goes the direct market" attitude, but the business impact directly attributable to Marvel's recent editorial era proved either ephemeral, or was built out of the reactions of certain flattered and ready to believe hardcore fans, or has to be asserted as a missed opportunity in a What If?-style scenario. Dirk and fans of a certain kind of Marvel comic book need to realize that companies like Marvel don't share their investment in the details, don't swoon with the changes in creative direction, however minor. They never did. Like it or not, today's Old Marvel is probably someone else's NuMarvel. Another turn pressed against the wonder window will probably present itself a few years down the line; the trick is not allowing yourself to be blinded.

X-Men cover art by Frank Quitely and copyright Marvel, of course