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Reviews and commentary by Tony Isabella
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TONY'S ONLINE TIPS
From COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1440 (06/22/01)

"I have a bone to pick with Fate.
Come here and tell me, girlie,
Do you think my mind is maturing late,
Or simply rotted early?"


Ogden Nash

I'm going to do something that drives comics creators, myself included, absolutely nuts. I'm going to be writing about comics I have not read or even seen yet.

Kids! Don't try this at home! I'm a trained columnist and, even beyond practicing this amazing stunt over and over again under the most exacting conditions, I will be including enough qualifiers to choke a crocodile.

Please note that the above banter is exaggeration for effect. No crocodiles were harmed in the preparation of this week's column on Marvel's forthcoming "mature readers" line and said publisher's dropping of the Comics Code.

Mike Sangiacomo, who writes a syndicated column on comics for newspapers and for the online Newsarama, reported that Marvel would be launched a "mature readers" in September. He named three titles in his initial story: Brian Michael Bendis' ALIAS, "a series about a failed super-heroine trying to make it as a private investigator;" BLADE, featuring the vampire-hunting hero created by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan during their legendary TOMB OF DRACULA run; and Gail Simone's NIGHT NURSE, which is "about a hospital in New York that treats unsavory characters when they are injured."

Simone's NIGHT NURSE is the one I'm most looking forward to on account of Simone is a very funny writer and the basic concept is a good one. In fact, back in the day, I once pitched Marvel on a medical drama based in the Marvel Universe, figuring that at least one New York hospital would have adapted to the needs of the super-heroes and villains and those civilians caught in the backlash of their senses-shattering slugfests. If I have any trepidation with this series at all, it's that I suspect it could be done and done quite well without going the "mature readers" route.

Digression. I freely admit I have a problem with Marvel or DC taking characters and concepts first created for their "all ages" comics and shoe-horning them into "mature readers" books. It's not that there haven't been many wonderful DCU/Vertigo stories in these books. One need but read Neil Gaiman's THE SANDMAN or Alan Moore's SWAMP THING to recognize that. But, in lesser hands, the "mature" label has encouraged an excess of profanity, perversity, violence, nudity, and sex. Though I'm tempted to commence a quick stanza of "My Favorite Things" here, it would be more accurate and on point to state my belief that creative moderation is a far more effective storytelling technique than extravagance. Lest anyone think I'm a total nun, I'll likewise state that, as opposed to stories whose creators merely want these elements on screen or paper, there are tales the proper telling of which do demand sex, nudity, violence, perversity, profanity, the millionaire, his wife, the movie star, and the rest.

Going back some years, I don't think THE CRYING GAME would've been as effective without the nudity and sex. In fact, I think the movie would have been more effective with more of these elements. On the other hand, outside of the occasional visual treat, the use of nudity in NYPD BLUE is very often forced and, as such, distracts from the stories. Thus ends the first digression.

Digression the second. Don't hold your breath waiting for any discussion of the Blade title in this column. If it's not written by creator Marv Wolfman, if he and Gene Colan don't profit from it, then it's not something in which I have any interest whatsoever or that I care to support. In my book, Marvel owes Wolfman and Colan on Blade and owes them big time, regardless of what a misinformed judge might have ruled. Thus ends the second digression; collect the whole set.

This brings us to ALIAS and a whole boatload of qualifiers. According to Sangiacomo's column, Bendis described Jessica Jones, his detective character, as "a washed-up super-heroine with a bad self-image and a penchant for booze and bad relationships." At the time Bendis pitched the book to Marvel, the company didn't have a "mature" line and Bendis was willing to tone the character down to accommodate that reality. It was Marvel President Bill Jemas who decided Marvel should have a "mature" line and that ALIAS would be perfect for it.

Here come the qualifiers.

Bendis is one of the best writers in comics today. I like his work and I like him personally. He's been an absolute joy to work with at Mid-Ohio-Con every year and has built a phenomenal and much deserved fan base. He occasionally calls me "Uncle" and I try my best not to be insanely jealous of him. The latter isn't as hard as it might otherwise be, if only because I know how hard he works to deliver the goods every time out. But the question I must ask is: if Bendis once believed he could do ALIAS as a regular Marvel title, does it really need to be a mature title now?

One answer was given in Sangiacomo's column

    The big difference in ALIAS and the mature readers label will be the freedom to explore aspects of super-heroes that have long been taboo.

    "In the first issue she meets Luke Cage (Power Man) at a bar and takes him home," Bendis said. "I don't want to say much, but the sex scenes that follow are pretty dramatic and nothing that has ever been seen in a mainstream comic. It's important to show how Jessica sees herself and how she uses sex to further punish herself. I didn't write this for sheer shock value, but to make the character more human."


I have no reason to doubt Bendis here, but, given his earlier willingness to do ALIAS as part of the regular Marvel Comics line, I'm back to my question: why did this have to be a "mature" title? Bendis is certainly a good enough writer that he could explore the same themes without being so explicit as to require that a book set in the traditionally "all ages" Marvel Universe is not available to a great many Marvel Universe readers.

Recognizing that I am definitely into the territory of writing about a comic book I haven't read, I do have a more serious problem with ALIAS as described by Bendis himself and that is in his use of Luke Cage as an easy pick-up for his heroine. Allowing that Bendis may well write this scene in such a way that my objections will be rendered null and void, I'm not thrilled with the sequence as it is described above.

There aren't a whole lot of black super-heroes in the Marvel Universe. The Black Panther and the Falcon came before Cage, but he was the first and one of the few to headline his own book. From his first appearance, the character has been consistently portrayed as a intelligent man of integrity. He's definitely one of the good guys, compassionate, courageous, loyal to his friends and his loved ones. In regards to romantic relationships, he has likewise been consistently portrayed as a monogamist. I can't think of a single previous appearance which showed him as involved with more than one woman at any given time. In fact, it seemed clear to me than Cage is not a man who seeks casual relationships. He is, as they say, a one-woman man.

From the brief mention above, it would seem that Bendis has a much different view of Cage and it's not one which I can accept or excuse. Beyond the violation of character, it plays to the ancient stereotype of the immoral black super-stud. If the sequence plays out as described, I might well find it offensive.

As I've mentioned--I did warn you about the qualifiers-Bendis is a fine writer. It could be that he's figured out a way to make the above work without diminishing Cage or violating the character we've come to know and admire. Hey, I figured out how to do it and I'm practically a nun. But, if he's treating Cage's involvement as casual, if he's treating this intimate contact as just some sort of one-night stand for a Spandex stud, I'm going to be disappointed and quite possible royally ticked off...and will doubtless be very vocal about that in these pages.

I've one more comment on Marvel's mature line. Even allowing for the possibility that the initial titles may all be breathtaking examples of comic art at its finest, I remain skeptical that Marvel will reach new readers with what are essentially super-hero comics in mature drag. And, being skeptical, I must then question if the company really needs a mature line or, at least, if it needs this kind of mature line. Even as a dyed-in-the-world super-hero fan, I would much rather see creators exploring other themes and other genres. Marvel already has the super-hero genre more than covered; the company and the readers alike would be better served by taking our imaginations in new directions.

In a related story-first cousins, if you must know--Jemas and Editor in Chief Joe Quesada have announced that Marvel is dropping its membership in the Comics Magazine Association of America and its use of the Comics Code standards required by the organization. Marvel will adopt its own content guidelines and label their comics with the appropriate advisories. My admittedly knee-jerk reaction to this news was

"Way to go, Bill and Joe!"

Had either of them been in my office, I would have leapt from my desk and high-fived them.

I make no apologies for my opinion that the CMAA and the Code, as first conceived, were frauds. They were desperate efforts to pass the First Amendment buck to those with stronger backbones and, in doing so, take out a couple of feisty competitors whose comics were selling quite well, thank you, but which withered and died in the grip of the Comics Code. Say what you will about how the CMAA and Code might have saved the comics industry from destruction in the 1950s. Applaud whatever marketing successes for which the CMAA claims credit, successes which have somehow not managed to restore the comics field to the level of success it enjoyed in the 1950s. Call me a bitter doubting Thomas, but, I maintain my position that the CMAA and the Code, born of fear and duplicity, condemned comics to third-class citizenship in the public eye and on magazine racks for 50 years and counting. Three cheers and a tiger to Marvel for removing these unsightly boils from their creative backs.

Of course, with Marvel, there always seem to be a downside to even the company's best decisions. I agree that the Code has not served any creditable purpose for many years. As a parent, I look at many Code-approved comics and am appalled anyone could consider them appropriate for my children. I welcome Marvel's plan to offer better guidance to parents. And yet I find myself asking questions that put a damper on my enthusiasm.

I applaud the idea of Marvel dumping the Comics Code for their own ratings. I just wish I had more confidence that these ratings will be clearly defined and that they will be uniformly applied to all Marvel titles. My cynical guess is the guidelines will be bent whenever the current superstars want them bent and, if that is the case, then the Marvel ratings will be no more effective or useful than the Comics Code.

At the risk of being too cute to be allowed to live, I ask who will be watching the watchmen. I ask if Marvel will be willing to risk losing a star writer or artist by insisting that they conform to the guidelines which have been set down for whatever title said luminaries are doing.

If Marvel alleges THE SENSATIONAL SPUD-MAN is suitable for all ages, I don't want to spend two dollars to find out they've looked the other way so that Reginald Writer can present his twelve-issue orgy of potato procreation. If the Marvel ratings turn out to be as mercurial as the Code standards, then the change means nothing to me as a consumer and as a parent.

One more comment/question for the road.

I haven't read X-FORCE #116, the first issue by Peter Milligan and Mike Allred. Until I have done so, I won't address the issue of whether or not the Comics Code was justified in rejecting this comic book. What I will say is, that if Marvel felt strongly that the book would be diminished if it made the changes demanded by the Code censors, the company absolutely made the right decision-from the creative standpoint-to publish it without the Code symbol and with an appropriate advisory. However, to replace the Code symbol with a box reading "Hey, kids, look, no Code!" is an irresponsible and sophomoric bit of bravado that may yet come back to bite Marvel on its corporate ass.

For crying out loud, doesn't anyone in editorial ever read a newspaper or linger for a moment on CNN while channel-surfing their way to WWF SMACKDOWN? The current Congressional assault on popular culture--movies, music, television, video games-has been embraced by members of both parties. One of the key points the politicians have been stressing upon is the marketing of certain entertainments to consumers who, theoretically, are not old enough to partake in said entertainments. And, as loathe as I am to admit, they may be correct in this one narrow regard.

What do those sassy "in-your-face" bad boys at Marvel Comics do? They seemingly draw the attention of the kids to a book which is arguably inappropriate for them.

Yes, I get the joke. I have been around long enough to recall those bright-red spinner racks which contained a similar appeal to kids. But, I ask you, what are the chances that the news hacks who might conceivably jump on such a "shocking expose" will understand the jest or, for that matter, if they understand it, will care that it was a jest? Especially during a sweeps period.

I swear there are times when I think Marvel should hire a Ward Cleaver to curb its youthful excesses, to point out its mistakes, and to set a good example for it. My schedule is pretty full, but, if they throw in a set of pearls for my Sainted Wife Barb, I might be willing to take the position. I can almost see myself coming to the offices after a long day of using my senior discount card at various shops and restaurants

    Bill. Joe. Your moms tell me you made fun of the Comics Code again and that you also said some things about retailers that weren't nice. I'm disappointed in you. I'm afraid we need to have the "great responsibility" talk again...


******

ADDENDUM

On returning from an Isabella family vacation in Florida-and, yes, we had a wonderful time, thanks for asking-I learned my pal Brian Michael Bendis was calling me out for the above comments re: ALIAS. This "knowledge" came to me second-hand since neither Brian nor my editors at CBG sent his note to me.

[It was, apparently, posted on his message board as well, but since I don't generally visit there, and have been offline for the past eight days, I didn't see it.]

Hint. Never ASSUME that I have seen something because it has been posted online. My parenting and my writing don't leave me a lot of time for web-surfing. Your best chance of bringing anything to my attention is to send it to me.

Having now seen Brian's comments, I plan to run them in the next CBG column I write, followed by my response to those remarks. The column will appear in CBG #1444, which ships to subscribers in the first week of July. It will then be reprinted here on July 27. Try to deal with the suspense.

******

ONE MORE THING

Other than the above few paragraphs, I'm not adding anything else to this week's reprint. I need some time to get back into my regular work routine and also adjust to the whole "kids home from school for the summer" thing. I should be back up to speed by this time next week. In the meantime, let me ask YOU a question.

There have been columns when, between the CBG reprint and the new material, the word count goes to 3500 and higher. Is that too large a dose of me for you? Or do you figure you can take whatever I dish out? This inquiring mind wants to know.

I'll be back next Friday with more stuff.

Tony Isabella

<< 06/15/2001 | 06/22/2001 | 06/29/2001 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Message Board. Also, read Heroes and Villains: Real and Imagined and view my Amazon Wish List.

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THE "TONY" SCALE

Zero Tonys
ZERO: Burn your money before buying any comic receiving this rating. It doesn't *necessarily* mean there's absolutely nothing of value here - though it *could* - but whatever value it might possess shrinks into insignificance before its overall awfulness.

Tony
ONE: Buy something else. Maybe I found something which wasn't completely dreadful in the item, but not enough for me to recommend it when there are better comics available. I only want what's best for you, my children.

TonyTony
TWO: Basic judgment call. I found some value, but not enough to recommend it. My review should give you enough info to decide if you want to take a chance on it. Are you feeling lucky today, punk? Well, are you?

TonyTonyTony
THREE: This denotes something I find perfectly respectable. There are better books out there, but I wouldn't regret buying this item. Based on my review, you should be able to determine if it's of interest to you. Let the Force guide you.

TonyTonyTonyTony
FOUR: I recommend anything earning this rating. Unless you don't like the genre, subject matter, or past work of the creators, I believe you'll enjoy this item. Isn't it uncanny how I can look right into your soul that way?

TonyTonyTonyTonyTony
FIVE: Anything getting this rating is among the best comicdom has to offer. You should buy/read this, even if the genre/subject matter doesn't appeal to you. It's for your own good. Me, I live for comics and books this good...but not in a pathetic "Comic-Book Guy" sort of way.



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