Aug 07

It Were All Nerds Round Here When I Was A Lad

FT + The Brown Wedge8 comments • 581 views

Via I Love Comics comes this link to a remarkable collection of pictures from a 1982 comics convention. It’s a parade of earnest men – mostly men – in polyester suits, from a time when even respectability was an aspirational dream for the industry, let alone cool. Which doesn’t stop a politics of cool emerging from the pictures – several men from the emergent indie comix scene are (gasp!) tie-less, and there’s a picture of indie publisher Gary Groth smirkily enjoying being a hep fish in a hopeless pond. (The radical firebrands of early 70s comics, like Steve Engelhart and Steve Gerber, look awkward and morose in their suitiness, but suited they are).

There are no Brits in visible attendance – only one European, the magnificently moustachioed Sergio Aragones. There are no film-makers or TV writers, there are a few fans in costume but no “booth babes”. Nobody looks like they’ve heard a record made since 1976. It’s a different world, though you can see here and there the seeds of what comics were going to become. A young, sharp-eyed Frank Miller is pitctured sketching, and on one of the panels Engelhart sits next to Jim Shooter, Marvel Comics’ then Editor-In-Chief, who was busy purging Marvel of its seventies quirkiness and tying up branding and toy deals. So there’s an innocence about the pictures too (though of course innocence is the easiest thing to spot in old photos).

It makes me think about the public faces Marvel and DC comics offer now. I find both of them pretty unappealing, but then I’d guess I’m a little outside the target market these days. Historically the two companies have presented themselves quite consistently – Marvel as a gang of mavericks engaged on a crazy plan to remake comics, DC as a more staid place where top writers craft solid, fan-pleasing stories. Marvel has always tried to give the impression their staff all hang out together, DC pays only lip service to this notion. DC’s reputation has often rested on its more experimental or highly-targeted lines of comics, Marvel lives or dies by the same core properties – Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Avengers – that it did in the sixties and seventies. In fact, to go back to the distinction I made at the top, DC’s secret dream has always been to be respected, Marvel’s has always been to be cool.

The modern Marvel and DC don’t stray too far from these parameters. DC’s current communications style, under Dan DiDio, is brisk, slightly impersonal, a bit too sales-y. DiDio came from a marketing background, and like a politician who talks about his boyhood love of football, his grasp of what makes fans fans often seems erratic. He has a terrible habit of giving away major plot points in interviews, while playing less interesting cards tediously close to his chest. He also has the marketer’s skill for flogging dead horses – when an idea works commercially, he does it again immediately, so following a twenty-year gap between one big-selling “Crisis” series and its sequel, a third “Crisis” is hot on its heels only two years later. He often sounds combative in interviews, irritated by fans and their opinions, and very rarely do you get the idea he’s having any kind of fun.

All this isn’t a great impression for the editorial head of an entertainment-based publishing company to give, but the current heads of Marvel somehow manage to put me off more. Joe Quesada, the editor-in-chief, is mostly blameless in this: he has a common touch the like of which the industry has been missing since Stan Lee, and is always friendly and funny in interviews – gently baiting readers but never seeming peevish or stand-offish. As a face for Marvel, he’s perfect, even if editorially he tends to give star writers too much leeway, and has a spotty track record for noticing bad ideas. His style has struck a chord with readers, too, helping push Marvel further and further ahead of DC in market share. So why do I find Quesada’s Marvel so hard to like?

Mostly it’s the way Marvel under Quesada has positioned itself, as a toadying adjunct to a wider fandom-entertainment complex. Marvel’s selling point now is basically that some of its writers work on TV, and that it gets TV guys to come and write for it, and they all know each other and hang out in a groovy nerdy suburb of TVland. There’s a jockish, backslapping tone to Marvel nowadays which always has an edge of fear – fear of not being cool, of being dragged back into the polyester suit world from which their business came. Marvel has always thrived on giving the sense that its creators are a gang – but where once that was a gang of likeable creative doofuses, these days it feels more like a high school clique, with a definite pecking order: Quesada gave several horribly embarassing interviews last year gushing over how a roomful of writers would fall silent when Buffy creator Joss Whedon would casually toss an idea into the ring.

Marvel’s sense of where the wind is blowing is as strong as ever: the talk at this year’s comics convention seemed to be mostly about movies and TV shows. Real stars were in attendance, actors luminously good-looking when pictured next to fans, relaxed with themselves in a way which still feels foreign in comics (I project a little, of course). But polyester suits or no polyster suits, comics are still for nerds, even if we kid ourselves they’re not by nerds anymore. The raw material – outsider wish-fulfilment and secret power-fantasies – is the same as it ever was, and as powerful. Marvel’s genius – as it ever was – is to project those fantasies onto the creators as well as the characters.


  1. 1
    Andrew Farrell on 20 Aug 2007 #

    Hmm, I disagree with most of this, but too tired to actually do so at length tonight. Most strikingly, are there actually any creators exclusive to either side left?

  2. 2
    Tom on 20 Aug 2007 #

    Yes – Jeph Loeb, Bendis, Grant Morrison, Geoff Johns, Brubaker, Dan Slott, Busiek I think – all exclusive to one of the two, and that’s just the prominent writers: loads of artists are.

  3. 3
    Tom on 21 Aug 2007 #

    In fact it’s harder to think of key creators who AREN’T – some nobody wants (like John Byrne), a few TV types like Allen Heinberg, who seems to be a poisoned chalice anyway; Mark Waid, who was DC until he accepted the Boom E-i-C job a few weeks ago…and there are people like Whedon and Meltzer who are too ‘big’ to work for any specific publisher but still only actually do stuff for one of the two mainstream biggies.

  4. 4
    Andrew Farrell on 21 Aug 2007 #

    Okay, they may have short term contracts, but out of that lot Loeb, Morrison, Brubaker, Slott and Busiek (and Mike Carey) have all been writing for the other team within the last five years, and even Marvel stalwart Bendis has an indie sideproject. My (revised) point is that it’s near impossible to come up with an idea of “our guys” vs “their guys”.

    (Artists are as always a massive blind spot for me)

  5. 5
    Tom on 21 Aug 2007 #

    Yes but my point isn’t about “who is on what team”, but how each brand and team communicates and presents themselves. The constant movement between groups just underlines for me how consistent the overall style is.

  6. 6
    Tom on 21 Aug 2007 #

    A good criticism of my point would be “can you actually see any of this in the comics?” though – & I’m not totally sure you can see the ‘team mentalities’ coming through though definitely DiDio and Quesada’s editorial presences are very strong.

  7. 7
    Ergo, Sariagones on 4 Sep 2007 #

    “only one European, the magnificently moustachioed Sergio Aragones”

    Who emigrated to America at about the age of two!

  8. 8
    Mark M on 4 Sep 2007 #

    America in the sense of the continent, not the US – la familia Aragones emigrated to Mexico, where a good tache has always been honoured.

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