Thursday, February 02, 2006

An Open Letter

Dear Marvel Comics,

First, thanks for publishing so many Essential volumes, and for publishing artist-specific hardcover tributes which - even if I can't afford to buy them all - are still something we'll probably never see from DC. So I appreciate that.

But more importantly - and the reason I am writing you today - I want to ask what the hell you're thinking re: this whole new costume for Spider-Man thing. I'm not asking this as a fan - because I don't buy any Spider-Man comic books anymore, and I haven't in a long time. I'm merely asking this as someone concerned for the mental health and well-being of everyone responsible.

There's an old saying that goes something along the lines of "insanity consists of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different resutls each time". I've heard this attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but the provenance is possibly older. It's a recurring idea in addiction literature, particular the literature of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous: if drinking leads to negative, self-destructive and injurious consequences, why do so many alcoholics rationalize their backsliding behavior with the old "one drink won't hurt me" shtick? They've seen, time and again, that one drink leads to two drinks leads to losing your wife and children and job, but somehow, if they've got a little bit of sobriety under their belt, they think that just one beer will be enough to tide them over . . .

Now, imagine a comic book company as an alcoholic. It's easy to understand why certain negative behaviors are repeated year in and year out - because the negative repurcussions are so far removed from the original incident that it's easy for an institution to forget. People don't seem to have a memory for these types of things that goes back longer than a few months, let alone years or decades, so the same mistakes get made over and over again. No one wants to remember that certain behaviors have negative consequences because it's easy to lose track when the short-term results are so gratifying. But some negative consequences are more immediate.

If you will allow me to mix my metaphors: if the comic book company is a recovering alcoholic / drug addict, the different sales gimmicks and strategies represent differing levels of drug abuse. Something like a line-wide crossover is so ubiquitous and accepted that it's essentially the equivalent of chain-smoking cigarettes. The short term gains are small but the long term negative consequences are such that it's easy to pretend that they don't exist - until you've been smoking for thirty years and your doctor tells you that you have six months to live. You probably know, in your head that you should quit, but it's just so easy to smoke one more pack . . .

Something like buying your own distributor and trying to leverage a dwindling retailer base with strong-arm tactics . . . that's more like smoking heroin out of the skull of an iguana after downing half a bottle of 151 while careening down the LA Freeway at 90 miles an hour. If you live at all, the hazy memory of your brush with death will probably keep you on the straight-and-narrow for a good long while.

But changing Spider-Man's costume, that's like crack cocaine: a cheap, nasty high that lasts just a few minutes and results in long-term health problems. Everyone knows its a short-term thing. No one even pretends that any new Spider-Man costume is ever going to stick around. It's going to be a punchline in six months, if it isn't already. There really is no excuse: you can't even say it's about merchandising anymore, because really, there's not exactly a huge market for Scarlet Spider or Web-Armor Spider-Man action figures. No - the only gains to be had are an extremely short term blip in sales that results from morbid curiosity, and then the long, long hangover that results in having chipped away at a little more of the dignity that Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and John Romita originally gave the character.

It's a joke. Everyone seems to know it's a joke but the people actually responsible. Why is this? They don't seem to be particularly unintelligent. They are, each of them, perfectly capable of producing good work. And yet - somehow, they are pooling their resources with the stated goal of doing something that has already been done half a dozen times, doesn't work, has never worked, and only gets worse as the years go by. I wonder - I really, really do - how these decisions are made.

You may be asking yourself - what about the first time? The black costume was pretty cool. To which I will answer: yes, despite it's somewhat shifty origins in Secret Wars, the black costume was pretty cool. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it improved on the original (surely an impossible task), but it was damn striking, a minimal design meant for maximum visual impact. It was just plain cool. And then what? They turned the costume into Venom, which is the comics equivalent of using heroin with a dirty needle and contracting Hep-C. Your liver is scarred forever and your life expectancy is significantly shortened. Sucks, don't it?

So, yeah, it's just not a good idea. It's not too late, Marvel, you can still put down the pipe and retain some of your dignity. It's not as if I'm personally invested in the decision, but it makes me wonder why certain people are inexplicably drawn to jackass behavior, despite every rational impulse that should be popping into their heads. Listen to the voice of reason. Do it for the children.

Thank you.

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