John-Michael Gariepy

Dear Marvel Comics, Why Can’t We Just Be Friends?

Dear Marvel Comics,

It’s true, you weren’t my first.  The first comic book I remember reading was an old Justice League issue in my neighborhood barbershop.  Doctor Light abducted the Justice League via a series of perfect traps.  He then… um… brought them… somewhere?  To make them fight their hologram doubles?  Which, if they ever touched them, that hologram double would explode, killing that member of the Justice League?  Even at the formative age of eight, I couldn’t believe how sloppy Doctor Light was.  Why would he make a robot dolphin that exploded when in Aquaman’s proximity, instead of capturing Aquaman like he captured the other heros?  Was Doctor Light that afraid of Aquaman?  And… and when Aquaman did confront the mechanical dolphin, that was the exact moment when Doctor Light got a stomach cramp and couldn’t watch his view screen.  “It is a pity that this stomach ache prevents me from watching the demise of Aquaman!”  Really?  Aquaman’s not dead, Doctor Light!  He figured out your trick, and used his fishy telepathy to ‘touch’ the mechanical dolphin, forcing it to preemptively explode.  He’s going to come back and rescue the rest of the Justice League, and Superman is going to gloat over your cowering figure while he attempts to instill morals in you.  Why didn’t you just ignore your stomach pain and watch Aquaman die?  For that matter, if you already captured the Justice League, then you’ve already won!  Why didn’t you just keep them trapped in whatever way they were trapped, instead of drag them out to fight explosive light duplicates of themselves?!  The book, top to bottom, was full of holes that any a fourth grader could recognize.  I needed to get my hands on more.

But finding comics as a kid with no allowance, and no nearby comic book shops was too much of a challenge.  I busied myself in He-Man coloring books, and re-watched discount G.I. Joe VHS cassettes.  I was limited by the things that my parents knew I liked and could easily get for me.  But, later, when I was a Freshman in high school, and a friend suggested we buy and share comics with what spending money we had, I was in.

It was 1992.  Image fought hard for my friend’s attention, and both WildC.A.T.s and Cyberforce traded hands between us.  The artwork in these early Image books was spectacular, but, the artists, now turned writers, struggled.  Something was missing in the telling.  Image tried so hard to be new or cool, while they introduced their myriad cast, hoping to find a new character that would sell its author lots of action figure royalties, that they often forget to tell a story.  DC Comics, on the other hand, had the history, but their characters struggled against ‘Saturday Morning Cartoon’ plots.  I didn’t want to read yet another story of how the ‘clever’ villain had, once again, ‘abducted’ the heroes, and tested their ‘intelligence’ with a series of ‘deathtraps’.  I wanted to read how Spider-Man had to not only stop Electro from stealing money from the Federal Reserve, but do it in the midst of another Spider-Slayer Robot attack, while trying not to lose his job taking pictures for Jameson and struggling to deal with the fact that his parents, Richard and Mary Parker, were not dead in an airplane crash, but had been spies working for the government.  I wanted to read about the New Warriors, a group of Generation X teen superheroes who wanted to fix everything wrong with the world.  I wanted to read about Luke Cage, a superhero from the slums of Harlem, with unbreakable skin, who was framed for the murder of his best friend, and fought to clear his name.  The other comic book companies promised good reading, but Marvel promised good stories.  I was hooked.

Marvel, I’ve always been your fan.  Even in those years where I declared myself ‘clean’.  I kicked the habit of buying monthly comic books.  Even when I grew tired of the endless chases, and strung together plots, I never blamed you, Marvel.  Courting comics is an expensive hobby.  If you aren’t reading a small pile of comics on a monthly basis, there’s no personal investment.  It isn’t fun.  But in order for that to happen, there’s a minimum number of books one needs to purchase when entering and exiting the comic book store.  No one goes in a comic book shop once a month to buy one book.  If they did, at some point, they’d forget to do it for a couple of months, thus breaking the cycle.

So, recently, when I realized that I could read thousands of digital comic books by paying a $10 monthly fee for Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited, I was overjoyed.  Two years ago, I had four mail order subscriptions, with the occasional trip to the local comic shop.  After I started my digital account, I kept my subscriptions active.  But it soon became apparent that I didn’t need to.  I let those subscriptions lapse.  Heck, reading comics online seemed better than reading physical comic books, if only because of all the full page advertisement spreads that fought the story for my attention.

It’s true that that was a loss for you, and a gain for me.  Each individual comic book subscription is about $50.  Not counting my trips to the comic book store (which was a mish-mash, and probably had less Marvel than other companies in it anyway), your company lost a total of $80 from me per year.  And that’s only because I’ve yet to buy a yearly subscription from you.  When I do, Marvel, the difference will be about $140 per year.  Granted, the overhead costs must be much cheaper.  You don’t benefit from the advertising that used to saturate every page of your books, but the cost of the United States Postal Service, alone, must have been expensive.

And now, I’m locked in.  I was tired of Daredevil’s Shadowland crossover event, anyway.  I was no fan of the new writer for Thor, and was looking forward to wriggling out of that book.  Maybe I would have found replacements.  Maybe I just would have stuck to The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man.  Maybe I would have let those books slide too.  Who knows?  What I do know is that I love my unlimited subscription, and don’t need this years comics.  I’m happy reading last year’s Captain America, and Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men run, and the Magik mini-series from 1986 and incredibly old copies of The Avengers, where Stan Lee continues to prove that he has no idea how magnets work.

But I miss my friends.  I miss hanging out with DC, even as I disrespected him.  I miss Green Arrow and Booster Gold, and The Secret Six (a lot of us miss The Secret Six).  I miss having the option to snag a Tokyopop manga. And, while I know I never dipped into independent comic books as much as I should have, I miss having that option.  It’s kind of funny.  I never bought a Mouseguard comic book from Archaia.  I only borrowed or bought copies of the graphic novels after the fact.  Now that I have unlimited access to so many comic books, though, I can’t help notice books I can’t read.  The excellent Vertigo titles aren’t on my reading list anymore.  Neither are Image’s Invincible or The Walking Dead.

Marvel, you’ve got me.  You’ve had me for a long time, and no matter what the other publishers do, as long as you continue to produce quality material, I’m a reader for life.  I just wish you weren’t the monogamous type.  I wish you could get together with your competitors and share access to all your libraries.  If I want to read a normal digital book, I can download it from Amazon and upload it to my non-existent Kindle.  It doesn’t matter which company ‘published’ that book.  There’s no ban, that I know of, on specific publishers.  If I want access to a digital library of books, well, comes close enough.  I don’t know many people who need to buy more than two books a month… but if you do, most public libraries now feature extensive digital libraries that you can access online.  You should look into that.

Oh, I know, the idea is laughable.  Marvel and DC have always had this unbreachable problem, incapable of working together, except on rare occasions.  Meanwhile, you’re the company who has an excellent selection of comic books that can be read online for a fair price.  DC insists on charging full value for every digital comic book.  From the outside, gazing at this brave online world, it sure looks like you’re either winning, or keeping pace with your competitors.  But, eventually, your competitors will have digital online libraries as well.  And when they do, they will realize that, in order to compete with you, they will need to mix their selections together.  When that happens, you will no longer be on top of the digital comic book market.  You’ll be an outlier, and a late adopter, incapable of working with your rival companies.  Customers, such as I, will be given an option to stick with your material, or seek out a larger world.  And, when that day comes, Marvel, I will have to leave you.

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2 thoughts on “Dear Marvel Comics, Why Can’t We Just Be Friends?

  1. Isaiah on said:

    At least in the online world, it seems like Marvel is in the unenviable position of knowing its their game to lose. Especially with the double-edged sword of giving Stan Lee’s “true believers'” access to all of their digital library with one amount, I can only imagine it will make things more “interesting” financially, but Marvel might be in a unique and wonderful position because the company is branching out pretty effectively into other mediums. The best example of that might be found through how admirable they’ve been in producing their own properties’ films. That seems to contrast with DC who may now be dominating the “pulp comic” market, but is having mixed success in expanding its brand in other areas. The story may ultimately turn on which company, or, hmm, cartel of companies, is best able to transition its properties into other mediums, especially if the digital revolution grows. It’s an amazing things for customers and the struggling artist-writer who gives up on submitting their work and just rolls up their sleeves to create an interesting web-comic because its cheap and offers a way for the creator to have control over the property and whatever income it generates, but it may be sharpening that knife’s edge larger companies have to walk along just because publishing could bring in a lot less income if fans are free to look at all of their library for a flat rate. So if inter-publisher libraries began to show up online, I wouldn’t be surprised if mergers between those publishers were close behind on that same horizon. Though that might better integrate the properties and create those moments of cooperation, even if it won’t be thanks to, say, Batman and Spawn being friends, so much as wacky roommates when the lineup of Image has to move into the Wayne family mansion. In which case, I can easily imagine Batman muttering, “boy, I thought I was grim” with his gravelly Christian Bale voice when he sees Spawn brooding on his roof yet again. Either that or wondering if his house is a home for runaway emo and scene girls, as I just perused through Image’s current library and it looks like the Image formula about women is, “Suicide Girl+arbitrary power=superheroine”.

  2. The Image/DC thing is a strange conundrum, eh? Marvel sometimes gets its hands on other properties, but doesn’t really integrate them into Marvel continuity. DC’s policy on this has been a lot more fluid. Sometimes, the characters make full transitions (Such as Captain Marvel and Blue Beetle) where you never would have guessed the character didn’t officially begin in the DC universe. Image isn’t really a universe, so much, as a conglomeration of comic book companies owned by their original creators. I’m pretty sure DC can’t buy Image… or if it did, it would only have access to the logo, and not much else. What you mention, though, is kind of happening anyway, since DC owns Wildstorm Comics, originally printed under Images label, and are transitioning those characters in right now While Spawn (who belongs to Todd McFarlane Studios, not Jim Lee’s old company) ins’t hanging out at Wayne Mansion, Grunge from Gen13 could be found playing video games with Robin, and The Question (originally from Charlton, mind you) can be picking up on a trail that Zealot and Grifter left behind while hunting Daemonites.

    From the point of view of someone who doesn’t read DC, I find this all to be rather exciting, but confusing. I’m used to a comic book universe that builds on top of itself, instead of branches out, absorbs, then reinvents itself. You would think that the whole reinventing itself shtick would mean that DC would be the market leader. Evidently, no. Marvel represents 45% of all the money in comic books, while DC represents 33%. Considering all the properties that DC has access, and DCs willingness to experiment, that seems low.

    I do wonder if this willingness to recreate themselves has hurt DC more than helped them. In the short run, they get to be the exact type of comic book company for the exact audience they perceive exists right now. In the long run, however… actions in the DC Universe are chosen based upon whether it’s healthy for selling comic books this decade, and, I would assume, at this point, very little thought is put into the legacy of DC in the future. Why bother? The universe will just right itself every 10 or so years anyway. Every decision made in Marvel, however, has an unwritten scrutiny examining it asking “What will this look like in fifteen years? You know… because we’ll still be building stories on it later, so will this story make sense to us then? Could this be an unintended embarrassment?” I know that point of view is a simplification of the story… but there’s a sense of truthiness about it that I can’t put down.

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