Wednesday, May 23, 2007

did you get to shake your ass to
the sounds of modern jazz and soul?

I think this is a great cover. It's funny. On it's own, in the context only of other comic book covers, there is absolutely nothing special or (pardon the pun) inflammatory here - super heroes are getting set on fire all the time, and I'm sure whichever of Captain America's fiendish foes is setting ol' Sam Wilson alight is gonna get a good pounding when all is said and done.

But to me the cover is funny because, well, it's further proof for many (myself included) that there is a tremendous disconnect between the faces of Marvel the multi-billion dollar publicly-traded firm and Marvel the niche comic book publisher. At some point all major corporations that deal in intellectual properties (as opposed to, say, news or commentary, which operate under different rules) make the conscious decision to moderate what is done with their intellectual properties, in such a way that the only risks taken with time-warn properties are calculated risks designed to offend as few people as possible. Offending people is bad because it risks offending the bottom line. Marvel and DC haven't reached this point yet. It's not that people aren't paying attention to the companies, merely that the kind of attention being payed isn't detrimental to the perceived value of the characters in question. But at some point this will inevitably happen: someone at Marvel and DC will wake up to the negative potential inherent in just such a screwball move as this cover, or a hyper-sexy Mary Jane statue, or Power Girl's strangely disproportionate boobs, or any number of other similar gaffes, and realize it is not in their best interest to put out anything with even the slightest potential to offend their audience. Because ultimately it's about money, and moneyed interests will always seek the most conservative course available.

But for now, the existence of these artifacts - tentacle porn and boobs and flaming black men - is really the best testament to comics' continued niche status. No one bothers to stop these things from hitting the stands because so few people are paying attention. The actual Spider-Man comics are considered such an a distant ancillary to Spider-Man Inc. that they can afford to publish books with Spider-Wang and statues of lusciously-rendered Spider-Bewbs. If they can get away with doing that for a character with one of the top two or three most successful franchises in film history, well, obviously the standards for Misty Knight and Power Girl are going to be a wee bit lower.

One of these days, however, the mainstream superhero folk are gonna get pulled kicking and screaming into the contemporary intellectual property landscape. Spider-Man will eventually join the ranks of Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Yoda and Buffy Summers as valuable characters who really shouldn't be appearing in comic books without their trousers on (er, Bugs being the obvious exception). It's not like it's much of a sacrifice, when you think about it: it's essentially how these types characters have always been handled. These last few years have been rather odd in this respect, as comics have raced slightly ahead of already loosened societal standards in the pursuit of an ever-more-specialized demographic that doesn't really bat an eye at, um, questionable gender politics and occasional insensitivity towards minority groups. One of these days Marvel's going to hire an ombudsman, and their responsibility will be to ensure that the company doesn't ship comic books that have black people burning to death on cover. Not that, as I said, there's anything really offensive about the image (leastwise, not for anyone who knows anything about comics), just that there's always a chance of pissing people off. It's good business sense, and that alone makes it inevitable.

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