It’s been a couple of years since I’ve written this column. But every now and then, a story concerning the comics industry comes along and I have thoughts. Thoughts that roll around my brain until I put them down on virtual paper.
Marvel’s current Secret Empire event, aka Hydra/Nazi Cap, is one of them.
Because the idea of Hydra/Nazi Cap is a misreading of what superhero readers want from the genre. And Marvel’s not the only one to make this mistake. DC did with the New 52 line of comics and Warner Bros. is doing it with the DC movies so far. (Wonder Woman is a wait-and-see proposition.)
This misreading is shifting me away from Marvel and some DC properties and to other publishers. For example, I’m thrilled to see the new Catalyst universe from LionForge Comics. The first book, Catalyst Prime: Noble #1, is written by Brandon Thomas with art by Roger Robinson, and it’s in stores May 3rd, 2017. This is a chance to get in on a new universe on the ground floor, and it’s written by talent as diverse as the world around us–talent that isn’t tone deaf to the world around us.
Yes, it’s been said before and we can say it again: Marvel and DC Entertainment still have a diversity problem.
And I mean that not only by the diversity of talent but diversity of stories. (Though, usually, one will come from the other.)
Let’s use Marvel’s Secret Empire as an example. In this alternate reality, Hydra won World War II but the Allies used the Cosmic Cube to win instead, thus forcing Captain America, a secret Hydra agent, to go undercover. So Cap was always Hydra in this rewritten universe.
Marvel and DC always do these big events to boost sales, complete with tie-ins and various covers. Clearly, they decided shock value would be the way to go this time.
To the objectors, Marvel people are saying that this is a story that needs to play out. Naturally, it will all come out right in the end because no one, even Marvel, wants Nazi Cap forever. I’m sure the decision to do this was based on the need to draw attention–hey, look that worked–and to have a big event in order to force those reading Marvel Comics to buy other issues to get the complete story. What’s more shocking than Captain America being a Nazi, er, oops, Hydra, as Marvel Comics has been careful to point out?
But Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on television, for one, isn’t buying the whole “Hydra isn’t Nazis in the least” thing. It’s weird when your own television show throws shade on your storyline.
But the point is to draw all that ire and sell comics because people must see how Steve Rogers gets out of this and how our heroes save the world again. Smart marketing, right? Wrong: there is at least one comic shop owner who feels Secret Empire is failing Marvel, sales-wise.
But, hey, the story has lots to say about the current state of the world and how people view heroes. That’s smart writing, right?
Wrong. All wrong.
Not that an audience should always determine what a writer should write, but a writer and company who don’t stay attuned to what their genre readers expect are quickly going to find themselves in deep trouble.
Romance readers will desert a writer in droves if that writer promises a Happily Ever After (HEA) at the end and then says “oops, nope, nevermind.” It’s not a trope, it’s a non-negotiable part of the genre.
So what are the non-negotiable elements of the superhero genre?
One, yes, big action sequences. Let the artists who are the true stars of this genre show up. Let’s see Darwyn Cooke’s Justice League take on the Island That Time Forgot in DC: The New Frontier. Let’s see Jack Kirby’s Captain America fight the MadBomb. Let’s marvel over the amazing action sequences that David Finch has done in his recent run on Batman or admire the re-styling of Batgirl via Babs Tarr as she fits into a brand new neighborhood.
Two, super-powers. Yeah, sure, Batman is a normal human. Hahahahah. Okay, supposedly he is but we all let go of the fact there’s no way a normal human can take the kind of punishment Batman does.
Three, heroes. Good people with flaws who fight the good fight and win. Maybe sometimes they die–see DC: The New Frontier–but they leave the world a better place.
I’ve noticed the big two superhero companies often forget #3: they’re writing heroes.
DC went through a whole period in the New 52 of Superman as an angsty, jerky loner with a Batman who seemed to be so driven as to be insane, and other heroes who seemed to be people with super powers who had no understanding of what it means to be a hero. (When three of the Teen Titans are mass murderers, that’s not good.) Those comics were joyless and the New 52 reboot faltered. Since Rebirth, many of the comics seem to feature heroes with problems who are nonetheless heroes, and nowhere can that be seen more than in the recent Superman comics. Even in the brilliantly-written Deathstroke, which centers on one of the villains of the DC Universe, the writing never forgets that Slade Wilson is a very bad guy and contrasts his reactions to those who are heroes.
Marvel heroes have always been more grounded in reality than DC heroes. The Fantastic Four had to pay bills for the Baxter Building, Peter Parker was perpetually short of money for rent, the X-Men were hated and feared because they were different. Tony Stark is, well, an egotistical jerk at times. But all these people acted for good when they needed to do the right thing. Sometimes they failed, sometimes circumstances moved against them, sometimes some of them were corrupted, but, in the end, the good stories featured one essential element: hope.
This is one element the Marvel Cinematic Universe gets right, almost every time. Even at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, order is restored, Cap has a new best friend, and there’s hope for his lost friend. (Captain America: Civil War did this less well, unfortunately.)
Plus, it’s the journey, too, not the ending. Why would I want to read sad, sad Superman? I want to read about a Superman who does wondrous things. Why would I want to watch an entire movie of Batman and Superman being sad at their losses and beating each other up instead of being heroes? (Warner Bros. still hasn’t figured out that theatergoers want to see heroes win on-screen, though maybe Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman will help them catch a clue. If it’s good. Please, please, please, please be good.)
Which brings up back to Nazi Cap.
What is fun or interesting about the story of Steve Rogers becoming a Nazi? Obviously, something will happen and he’ll be back to the conscience of the Marvel Universe but, in the meantime, what’s entertaining about seeing him commit evil? Where’s the fun in seeing Rogers reflect vile positions held by real-life people who are endangering lives in the here and now? I suspect Marvel thought they were tugging at heartstrings and thought appalling readers would bring in sales. Isn’t this a cool twist?
Doesn’t this have you on the edge of your seat?
Nah, mostly, it has me walking out of the theater because Nazi/Hydra Cap simply provides no fun in the journey and, because we know it will be reversed, there’s no true suspense. No matter how well-written, there are times when a company and writer seriously misjudges their genre. If this were a one-off story, it wouldn’t attract much attention. But Marvel has built their whole summer blockbuster strategy on this. Either buy in or buy out.
But, beyond that, you add this to a Marvel executive’s comments about how “diversity doesn’t sell” and not only do you have a tone-deaf genre story but you have a tone-deaf story that unfortunately plays into real-life events in all the wrong ways.
The solution? For me?
Look for my superheroes in other places. I’ve read Noble #1, and, yes, it’s a superhero story. It’s full of action, suspense, and yet includes the humanity and the need to help that a good superhero story will always have. You can get your own look at this story on Free Comic Book Day.
The creators behind the Catalyst universe are as diverse as the world around us, bringing with them different perceptions of stories and society that the superhero genre desperately needs to remain relevant to our times. After all, it was two Jewish men who created Captain America in the first place because they were appalled at the world’s failure to help the Jews in Nazi Germany. Superman was created by non-whites as a fable of how immigrants could showcase the best of America.
Without non-white creators, the superhero genre as we know it wouldn’t exist.
LionForge has reached out for different voices to create stories that they’re excited about.
Diversity doesn’t sell?
I guess we’ll see. But I believe the real question is: do heroes and hope sell anymore?
I sure as heck hope so.