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Reviews and commentary by Tony Isabella
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TONY'S ONLINE TIPS
From COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1451 (09/07/01)

"Go see 20 movies and tell me how many of those are good, and then go read 20 comic books and tell me how many of those are good. I guarantee you that we do better."
Joe Quesada, Marvel Comics editor-in-chief

If you've been following my growing disdain for the elevation of Hollywood movies over the comic books they so often draw upon, it won't surprise you to read that I'm in near-complete agreement with Quesada's sentiment. I wanted to begin this week's column on a positive note. Let's see where we go from there.

CBG's theme this week is "Marvel plans" and, since all I know of those plans is what I read, my role becomes one of commenting on various things Marvel. During the course of this column, feel free to discuss among yourselves whether or not I "get it," whether or not my I.Q. is dropping by the paragraph, and whether or not I've failed to evolve properly. I'm much too busy to keep track of such things myself.

******

MARVEL MANGA. In January, Marvel will be releasing a special "fifth-week" event featuring manga versions of various characters. Ben Dunn, whose Antarctic Press has been creating and publishing popular American manga for many years now, is overseeing the event. According to news reports, the proposed-but-unconfirmed titles will include Ultra Kaiju Hulk, Super Sentai Fantastic Four, Combat Mecha Ironman, Masked Rider Spider-Man, X-Men Legacy, and God Warrior Thor. What? No Sailor Moondragon?

All kidding aside, I love this concept. Yes, it's a gimmick. Yes, it will likely appeal only to avid fans of Marvel super-heroes and/or manga-style comics. Yes, I doubt any of the books will sell over 50,000 copies. So what?

This is a fun idea, a great way of trying something different with some great characters without messing with their established "realities." Bringing in Ben Dunn to work on the project is also very cool. He's a terrific choice for the gig.

I believe that the comics industry has to reach well outside its current customers to even begin to regain its past success, but that doesn't mean I'm against a publisher, occasionally, coming out with comic books specifically designed for, not the general public, but their most loyal fans. I see this as a friendly tip of the hat to those readers, a recognition of their strong support since the dawn of the direct sales market. If the books entertain, if they make a few bucks for Marvel, then everybody who buys them or works on them ends up a winner.

******

MARVEL MAX. I have some marketing and philosophical problems with Marvel's "Max" line of comics for mature readers. Although, to be fair, a recent press release from Bill Rosemann, Marvel's Marketing Communications Manager, did address one of my concerns. Rosemann wrote

These comics, falling under our new Max Comics banner, will contain what you'd experience in a R-rated movie. Some harsh language, intense violence, perhaps even some partial nudity. To avoid confusion, the Max titles will be designed to look very different from our mainline Marvel titles. They will not carry a Marvel logo on their covers, they will not be sold on the newsstand, and they will not be marketed to younger readers.

So far, ALIAS, FURY, and U.S. WAR MACHINE have been offered to retailers, with more titles joining them in the near future.

I'm delighted the "Max" titles will not carry a Marvel banner or look like the mainline Marvel titles. Still, without ascribing any ulterior motives to Marvel, can we truly accept the notion that these comics aren't being marketed, perhaps unwittingly, to younger readers? Especially when we consider a trio of troubling factors in the imprint as it now exists?

This new imprint is called "Max" comics. I'm assuming "max" is short for "maximum," an abbreviation often found in advertising and marketing aimed at young consumers. It is a decidedly juvenile name for a mature readers imprint and, as such, it undermines the intent of the imprint.

Another troubling factor speaks to a marketing/philosophical difference I also have with DC's "Vertigo" imprint. If these comic books are intended for a more mature audience than the mainstream DC and Marvel titles, characters should be exclusive to one or the other and not cross back and forth between them. In allowing this, the publishers are trying to have it both ways, but the effect is a destabilizing of the market integrity of characters created to be accessible and available to readers of all ages. Whether Marvel intended this or not, the presence of mainstream Marvel characters in their "Max" titles constitutes marketing to the younger readers who buy their mainstream titles.

Finally, these "Max" titles, as per Marvel's in-house ratings, will carry a "Parental Advisory: Explicit Content" warning on their covers. Doesn't such an advisory, containing as it does the word "parental," give the impression, inaccurate or not, that the comics ARE being marketed to younger readers?

I want to enjoy and support a mature readers line from Marvel. I could do this far more enthusiastically if it featured original characters and concepts created for such a line, instead of taking existing characters and twisting them into something their creators never intended them to be.

For now, I'm considering this a transistionary period. This is new territory for Marvel and the company will likely hit a few dead ends and rough roads along the way. But, when the dust does finally settle, I think the new imprint will have succeeded on its own creations or not at all.

******

MARVEL RATINGS. Marvel dropped the Comics Code seal in favor of its own ratings. Given that the application of Code standards was both arbitrary and inconsistent, I applauded the move. I would have loved to see other publishers follow suit, though I wouldn't expect to see that happen any time soon.

However, now that I've seen Marvel's ratings system, I find it flawed in both its substance and in the manner it was presented to the public. I don't think the flaws are insurmountable and I even think we should cut Marvel some slack while it traverses this new territory. That belief does not preclude discussing where I think there is room for improvement.

Once again, I'll be quoting from a recent press release signed by Bubbling Bill Rossmann. I realize that's a pretty wack Marvel nickname, but, hey, we can't all be Stan "the Man" Lee or "Darlin'" Dick Ayers or even Tony "the Tiger" Isabella. Feel free to suggest a more appropriate sobriquet.

I've addressed my concerns about the Marvel equivalent of an "R" rating above, so let's focus on the others

All Ages: These titles will carry no label and are appropriate for readers of all ages, whether they're 9 or 90! Titles such as Ultimate Spider-Man, Ultimate Marvel Team-Up, and Ultimate X-Men will fit in this category.

Marvel PG: These titles are fine for most readers, but if you're a parent you may want to read them with your younger children. After all, who's going to explain what "invulnerable" means? Titles you can expect in this category will be Fantastic Four, Thor, New X-Men, Uncanny X-Men and Amazing Spider-Man.

Marvel PG+: Similar to Marvel PG, but with a kick. In these titles you can generally find the violence and language turned up a notch. Recommended for our teen and adult readers. Look for titles like Punisher, Elektra, Marvel Knights: Double-Shot, and Banner to carry this label.

I have two problems with Marvel's "all ages" rating, or, more appropriately, non-rating. If these comics aren't listed as such, we shouldn't expect the parent or seller to recognize them as being suitable for all readers, which, in my mind, partially defeats the purpose of "all ages" titles. I'd prefer to see Marvel label these books and stand behind those labels, making every effort to insure that they are, indeed, appropriate for most readers.

I'd also question the placement of ULTIMATE X-MEN in the "all ages" category. I found the early issues of the title to be brutal (violence) and crude (characterization and language). I could not imagine giving them to a child.

My initial reaction to the "Marvel PG" rating was that it was wrong to thus label Marvel's core titles, the comics of my youth. I've come around to a different point of view, one recognizing that what I find innocuous (Dr. Strange's magic, mythological gods, and the Thing clobbering bad guys left and right) might be unacceptable for other parents. And, while I think today's kids won't have too much problem with words like "invulnerable," I support the idea of parents reading comics with their kids.

Even with Rosemann's explanation, I'm not certain the "Marvel PG+" books will be easily differentiated from the "Marvel PG" ones. The "plus" may make it appear that these books have something more (something better) than the "PG" titles and that could be viewed by folks less charitable than myself as an attempt to market them to a younger audience than that for which they are actually intended. It's a concern.

I wish I had a quick fix for this one. "Marvel Teen" doesn't sound quite right to me; anything stronger might limit the audience for the titles to post-teens. I do think the comics Rosemann lists for this category make a lot of sense.

One remaining area of concern, for me, at least, is that these books, all of them, need to be placed in their appropriate category and remain there. If the Marvel ratings are to be effective, the age-content of these books cannot be subject to the whims of their editors, writers, or artists of the moment. If Sammy Scribe or Ann Artist come to feel constrained by the rating of the comic book on which they are collaborating, they should move on to a title more in keeping with their creative drives. The integrity of the title has to carry more weight than the changing sensibilities of those currently and temporarily creating it.

******

WELCOME TO MY NIGHTMARE. Newsweek ran a photo of the newly-bearded Al Gore in its August 13 edition. One of the four comments on the former Vice President's new look read

Al-right. Gore + beard = HOT (in a Wolverine kind of way). If you had been a bit lazier during the campaign, there's no way that W wins. Note to Al: let it grow, let it grow, let it grow!

My nightmare begins when Tipper Gore, amused by this comment, walks into a comic-book shop to get the latest issue of WOLVERINE as a gag gift for her husband. She knows the character is a member of the X-Men because of the movie. Maybe she's even channel-surfed past one of the X-Men cartoon series.

Imagine her initial disgust when she flips through that latest WOLVERINE and discovers therein an artless and brutal story about a prison rape gang...in a comic that, to her inexperienced eye, had looked no different from any other super-hero comic . Imagine what she might do following this experience.

Wolverine has been around for over two decades. The character has appeared in children's cartoon shows, on children's clothing, and as countless action figures played with by children. Whether Marvel likes it or not, the vast public outside of the comics shops doesn't see WOLVERINE as adult entertainment.

Marvel and the rest of us can preach all we want about all of the many facets of Wolverine's character. We can expound movingly about his constant struggle to tame his inner beast. The public at large will not and should not care. What they will see is that a comic book featuring a character their child loves from the movie and the cartoons is completely unsuitable for their child and even the most forgiving of them will find it utterly unacceptable that Marvel has marketed this awful thing to their child. And, y'know, they're right.

Marvel and, for that matter, DC and all the other comic-book companies publishing characters whose fame reaches well beyond our little pond, should be consistent with how these popular characters are portrayed. The customer has a reasonable expectation that the product will be as advertised.

When you put Wonder Woman on underwear for little girls, you shouldn't (and DC, to its credit, hasn't) also attach her image to crotchless panties. When you put Wolverine in a Saturday morning cartoon series, you shouldn't also feature him in comic books which fixate on sadistic sexual violence. When your comic books portray Betty Cooper as Riverdale's ever-chaste sweetheart, you shouldn't authorize a made-for-television movie in which she is shacking up with her boyfriend. Even if you don't believe it's wrong from a creative and ethical standpoint, you're just kidding yourself if you refuse to recognize the marketing and public relations dilemmas birthed by such misrepresentations of characters.

When Disney, arguably one of the most successful entertainment companies of all time, wanted to branch beyond its "all ages" fare, it didn't star Mickey Mouse in sexual comedies or the Absent-Minded Professor in splatter films. It launched a separate brand name to make entertainment for older audiences and never tried to buttress this new brand with the "all ages" favorites of its earlier works. It set out to create something wholly new and it succeeded in that endeavor. I believe that, in that success, there are vital lessons for the comics industry...lessons which I hope we are smart enough to master.

******

ADDENDUM

Life continues to be extremely busy here at Casa Isabella with the new school year getting off to a great start, various workers doing various work around the old place, and yours truly trying to decide what he wants to do next. That's why this week's column is appearing a day later than usual. However, on the bright side, it does feature some new material.

The above column is notable for several reasons, not the least of them being that I got the phrase "crotchless panties" into CBG. Options were discussed with editor Maggie Thompson. I offered to change it to "edible underwear" or even remove the entire sentence. But, I'm assuming, the terrific Thompson determined that the phrase (in this context) was not inappropriate.

I think this column also set a record for one-word responses from my readers. I received twelve such e-mails and five of those consisted of the word/sentence "Bravo!" Several of them quoted the last paragraph of the column which, if I may be allowed a moment of immodesty, does sum up things quite nicely.

Looking over the above column some thoughts occur to me. What better time to share them with you than now?

MARVEL MANGA. I was way too optimistic when I said none of these titles will sell over 50,000 copies. Realistically, I think the best Marvel can hope for from these novelty comics are sales in the 30,000 range. This sober realization does nothing to curb my enthusiasm for the books. I'm planning to buy each and every one of them...just for the sheer fun of it.

MARVEL MAX. I haven't yet read ALIAS #1. It's waiting for me where I get my comics, but I don't know if I'll make it there this weekend.

For those of you asked, yes, I intend to honor my word to Brian Michael Bendis and read/review the book as soon as possible. Unfortunately, because Bendis "called [me] out" so publically and, in doing so, demanded my response in CBG, that is where the review will appear. It wouldn't be fair to the readers of CBG to move the discussion online.

My columns for CBG #1453-1455 feature my Wizard World report. Barring any crucial developments in the comics industry that would demand I write about them instead, I'll review the premiere issue of ALIAS in CBG #1456. That issue is cover-dated October 19...and goes on sale October 5. The column will then be reprinted online on October 19. I apologize for the delay but, as I said, I owe it to my print readers to continue the discussion there...and I owe it to CBG to let a couple weeks go by between their printing of that column and my reprinting it here. If you can't wait for my review that long, I suggest you take advantage of CBG's low subscription rates just as fast as you can get to their website

http://www.comicsbuyersguide.com


By the way, when I saw Bendis at Wizard World, he seemed to be satisfied with my response to his calling me out, though he hasn't yet made mention of that on his message board. So, rest assured, things are fine between us. Normally, I wouldn't even mention that here, but I've gotten a few e-mails from pesky online provocateurs trying to start a fight for their pathetic amusement. Give it up, children, this is as much satisfaction as you're ever going to get from me.

WOLVERINE. Is this comic book a train wreck or what? Frank Tieri may not be the worst writer in comics, but I'd give good odds that he's the worst writer working for any of the major publishers. The intended-for-adults ALIAS may be getting a lot of attention for the moment, but, if I had to lay money on which comic book will get Marvel the most bad press and ultimately cause them the most grief, it would be Tieri's artlessly brutal WOLVERINE.

Does anybody at Marvel ever *think* about such things before they send WOLVERINE to the printer? Hello, he's a Saturday morning cartoon character. He's on kiddie pajamas.

Oh, wait, Wolverine's not going to smoke any more. Well, that makes it all better, doesn't it?

I need to get myself to a happy place. Let's go to the mail for this week's concluding segment.

******

TONY'S MAILBOX

The following note from MARK LESTER was typical of what came my way after CBG #1451 was published

Bravo! I just read your column in the latest Buyer's Guide. Your point was wonderfully made. Using the comparison between how Disney handled their desire to produce more adult entertainment and how the comic industry leaders have decided to go about pursuing a similar goal was an inspiration.

I have been unable to defend comics for several years. To be honest, I've little reason to. Comics have become children's books that no child should be allowed to read. The publishers should have left Superman and other heroes alone and created new properties for their new, ever-changing mature ideas. In their pursuit of greater and more immediate profits, they've sullied the waters and created a real mess in the process.

If they had listened to this type of thinking 15 years ago, the comics industry would be in a much better position today. They should start listening now.

Comics won't even begin to improve, or find a new audience, or rediscover their old readership, until Marvel decides to name you, or someone who thinks like you, as the company's editor-in-chief. I can wait.

Do me a favor, Mark. Don't hold your breath while you wait. Though I received a report that a photograph of me is hanging on the wall of some Marvel office--and I'd love to hear more about how that came to pass--I'm guessing my phone number isn't on the speed-dial of either Bill Jemas or Joe Quesada.

Their loss is your gain. I'll be back here next Friday with more stuff. Not to mention thrice-weekly at Norman Barth's spiffy Perpetual Comics site.

Have a fun and safe weekend everyone.

Tony Isabella

<< 08/31/2001 | 09/07/2001 | 09/14/2001 >>

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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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