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Ponchos and Throw Pillows: Douglas doesn’t actually review a 7/18 book

Douglas Wolk

As I was waiting in line to buy my comics this week at Midtown Comics in Manhattan, the power went out for a moment, and a bunch of other customers pointed out the huge plume of smoke rising up from the explosion at Grand Central, three blocks away; I figured that whatever happened over the next few hours, I’d probably want something to read, so I paid for my comics and then went down to join the crowds of businesspeople running away from the explosion site. (It was just a steam pipe that had blown up, but we didn’t know that at the time.) Understandably, I didn’t really feel like turning immediately to a comic book about Manhattan getting smashed, or about a couple of characters trapped in rubble.

So when I finally got to sit down and read, the first thing I pulled out was Giant-Size Marvel Adventures The Avengers #1, as the indicia has it, although the cover calls it Marvel Adventures Giant-Size Avengers–cue the “where are Giant-Man and Goliath?” jokes. It’s actually a perfectly normal-size 22-page-story Marvel Adventures Avengers comic, padded out to $4 size with reprints of the first appearances of Namora and Venus, from Marvel Mystery Comics #82 and Venus #1. Those two stories were also just reprinted a couple of months ago in the Agents of ATLAS hardcover, in which their creators aren’t credited either. For the record: the Grand Comics Database also isn’t too clear on the creators’ names, although the Namora story seems to have been drawn by Ken Bald and Syd Shores.

But the real raison d’être of this comic doesn’t turn up until a few pages into it: a two-page spread dedicated to a bunch of the Spider-Man merch that ties in with the new movie–a card table, folding chairs, some throw pillows, a poncho, and two photos of what an explanatory caption notes is CHILDREN’S BEDDING. Another caption: “Available at fine stores everywhere. Product may differ by store.” I should hope so!

This is followed, a few pages later, by an ad for Marvel Heroes bottled water, “The Coolest Water in the Universe!” This is as good a juncture as any to point out that bottled water is almost by definition uncool (seriously, go read that story). In another ad, Wolverine is wearing boxers with his own image on them, and saying “bub.” Another ad is for the Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer game based on the movie based on the comic book, which features “truly destructible environments.” The movie FF’s likenesses advertise milk, overleaf.

The only place where you can actually live the adventure, though, according to another ad, is Universal Orlando Resort, where the pictured Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride cost $100 million to build. Just to put that figure in perspective, let’s say that after “One More Day,” Amazing Spider-Man starts selling Civil War-ish numbers, 350,000 copies of each issue (and that its cover price is permanently three bucks). By my back-of-envelope calculation, it will still have to sell 95 consecutive issues at that level before their cumulative combined cover price is as much as it cost to build that one Spider-Man ride. Which it’s reasonably safe to assume is making money anyway.

This is one weird, sort-of-guilty secret of superhero comics: they’re really just caretakers for the licenses that go on CHILDREN’S BEDDING. The money isn’t in Batman comic books, it’s in Batman video games and throw pillows and coloring books. The comics’ responsibility is to keep each franchise alive, in the “they still make those?” sense, and maybe if they’re very lucky give it a little bit of cultural currency. As long as Iron Man and Wonder Woman don’t do anything shocking enough to get their likenesses permanently removed from theme park rides, they’re golden. The Big Two’s market-supremacy skirmishes don’t matter in the grand monetary scheme; I don’t even know if superhero comic books’ profitability matters. All that matters is that people keep wanting boxer shorts with Wolverine on them, which means that Wolverine has to keep being a thing of the present rather than of the past. This is not news, but it’s irritating to have the comics themselves rub it in your face.

On the other hand, there’s a curious kind of freedom that goes along with the way superhero comics are locked into a much bigger system of superhero commerce: as long as Marvel and DC don’t rock their franchises’ boat too much, they can do whatever they want with them. That’s how projects like Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane and The Irredeemable Ant-Man and Paul Pope’s Batman: Year 100 (and, thinking back a few decades, the Bill Sienkiewicz New Mutants period) happen. On the rare occasions when comics do give a superhero franchise more cultural (not just subcultural) currency, it comes from cutting loose within the limits of the franchise. Which is something I’d like to see a lot more of–Kirkman and Hester’s Ant-Man hasn’t caught on for a bunch of reasons (I’m convinced that one big one is the five-syllable word in its title), but it doesn’t look or read like any other comic book right now, and that means it at least had a better shot at staying power than, oh, World War Hulk: X-Men.

GSMATA also includes a fun Avengers story by Jeff Parker and Leonard Kirk (involving the Agents of Atlas, Kang, time-travel, what would have happened if Captain America had been thawed out too soon, etc.). Kirk is credited as “penciler” only; there’s no inker credited, but then again Marvel hasn’t been crediting its inkers at all in solicitations for the past few months. I’m not gonna review the story as such, other than to say I enjoyed it, for the same reason I’m not giving it a rating (although I’ll be giving other things ratings, never fear): partly because the commercial realities of superhero comics are clawing at me more than usual today, and also because I’m on a panel with Parker on August 1 (at Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon!), and if I started logrolling now I’d also have to point out that Jim Ottaviani and my pal Dylan Meconis’s Wire Mothers: Harry Harlow and the Science of Love is out this week from G.T. Labs, and will tear your heart out if you care about monkeys, parental love or both.

Finally, a bit more self-introduction and self-promotion, which you can skip if you don’t like that stuff: Hi! I’m Douglas. I’ve got a new book out called Reading Comics, I do semi-regular graphic novel reviews at Salon, and I also write about comics for Publishers Weekly and its free email newsletter companion PW Comics Week, as well as a few other places. And I’m pretty sure I’m the last of the Legion of Savage Critics to post something; does that make me the Whilce Portacio of this crew?

One Response to “ Ponchos and Throw Pillows: Douglas doesn’t actually review a 7/18 book ”

  1. […] because I’m in the company of good writers like Douglas Wolk, whose latest piece reviews the ads in a typical Marvel comic. I was told, somewhere I don’t remember, that one of Marvel’s conditions for licensing […]

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