Friday, September 4, 2009

Disney buys Marvel: Is this good for Marvel

Bart Simpson's favorite hangout. In real life, you're more likely to find middle-aged men than 10-year-old boys at comic book stores.

Watching Bart Simpson makes me nostalgic. In so many ways, I was Bart when I was 10 years-old.

One way in particular is that we are both comic book collectors and fans. From my childhood through my mid-teens, a great deal of my allowance, and money from other sources, like birthday and Christmas gifts, went to comics.

As soon as I had it, I’d be off to the Acme Mall Bookstore,
Sleeping Giant Books or The Paperback Trader, getting the latest issues of X-Men, The Fantastic Four or Captain America. Or, in the case of the Paperback Trader, back issues as well.

I identify so much whenever Bart is found hanging out at The Android’s Dungeon, home of John Anderson, aka Comic Book Guy. (If you’re a Simpsons fan and didn’t know his real name, shame on you!)

Trouble is, in real life, you won’t see 10-year-olds hanging out at comic book stores. When I was 11 years-old, my $1 allowance would be enough for three comics. Today, my son’s $2 allowance would buy him about half a Marvel or DC comic.

Comics have been priced out of most kids’ budgets. Plus, they are competing with so many other forms of entertainment - video games, DVD’s, hundreds of cable channels - that we couldn’t even imagine back in the 70’s.

Kids today still love their superheroes. My son’s superheroes are many of the same ones I had when I was his age. He likes them just as much as I did. But he doesn’t get his heroes from comics anymore. He gets them from movies, TV, DVD and videogames.

Two days ago, I wrote in this space about the cons of Disney's purchase of Marvel Comics. Today, I wish to talk about how Disney can help Marvel, especially in these interactive, multi-media times.

Marvel Comics has a long history of failures when it comes to bringing their heroes to TV or the movies. A 1960’s TV show, “Marvel Superheroes”, which featured the Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, was so horribly animated that its only value is for the cheese factor.

Several animated TV shows for “Spider-Man” and “The Fantastic Four” had mixed success.

In the 1970’s, Marvel tried bringing several of it’s characters to live action on the small screen. Spider-Man, Dr. Strange and Captain America all bombed. The live action version of The Hulk, with bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno, enjoyed some success and lasted for almost four years.

Marvel's live-action version of The Hulk (above) was a moderate success on TV that lasted for almost four seasons (1977-1981). The same could not be said for Captain America (below) which bombed after two made-for-TV movies.

However, attempts to introduce Daredevil and Thor in TV movies with The Hulk were horrible, horrible embarrassments in the late 1980’s. Movies based on The Punisher and Captain America in the early 1990’s went straight to video.

Matt Salinger (son of author J.D.) in a Captain America movie that went straight to video in 1990.

It wasn’t until a relatively minor character, Blade the Vampire Slayer, was brought to life by Wesley Snipes in 1998 did Marvel enjoy any major success on the big screen. The “X-Men” in 2000, as well as its sequels in 2003 and 2006, were also extremely successful.

Wesley Snipes version of a minor Marvel Comics character, Blade, The Vampire Slayer (above) in 1998, singled handedly turned around Marvel's poor track record at the box office. That success was repeated with the X-Men (below) two years later.

Several movies with Spider-Man followed, as well as Iron Man in 2008. Both of those characters were quite successful.

Sadly, the success could not be replicated with “The Incredible Hulk”, “Daredevil” or “Elektra.” The first Fantastic Four movie was pretty good, despite some liberties taken with the characters and their back stories. The second sucked, despite the introduction of the Silver Surfer.

“Ghost Rider” had some great special effects, but personally, Nicolas Cage was not my first choice for the lead role.

The fact is, comics are a dying art form. The only people who still read them are middle-aged to seniors, with the occasional college kid or serviceman. Just go to a comic store on the day the new comics arrive. Those 30 and 40-somethings with the suits and ties stopping in after work are not buying for their kids. Those books they buy will be bagged and boarded and stashed away where the kids can’t read them as soon as the buyer gets home.

If we are going to keep those characters and their stories alive, film, TV and animation are the ways to go. And Disney dominates in all three mediums. Disney gave us the first full-length animated movie with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” in 1938. Disney owns the ABC television network, several theme parks, several cable channels and a shitload of downtown Orlando, FL.

Disney is synonymous with feature animations and for good reason - their movies are some of the best animated films ever made. And their live-action movies are very good, too.

As a corporation, Disney employs thousands of writers, actors, stuntmen, animators, special effects technicians, cameramen, editors, musicians and computer experts. In fact, they pretty much have everyone they need on their staff in any facet of the entertainment industry.

With Disney’s vast financial resources, coupled with their vast human resources, they could turn around Marvel Comics’ mixed success with bringing their characters to the large or small screen. Whether with live actors or animation, they have what it takes to make great movies, DVD’s and TV shows.

As long as they stay faithful and respectful to the spirit of the characters, as long as they realize that Wolverine is not Mickey Mouse and that the Punisher is not Goofy, I see no reason why this partnership can’t be successful.

But for now, the only thing we can do is wait and see how Disney and Marvel handle this great entertainment opportunity.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Disney buys Marvel: Is this a sign of the Apocalypse?

Followers of “Tales from the Carport Kwoon” know that I tend to venture off into a wide range of subjects, no matter how tangentially they are connected to martial arts or fitness. In previous posts, I’ve proclaimed my preference for The Green Hornet over Batman and mourned the passing of “Kung Fu” star, David Carradine and “Enter the Dragon” villain, Shek Kin.

Most recently, I appealed to my fellow gun owners, no matter how you feel about the health care debate or about President Barack Obama, to leave y
our guns at home when you go to public meetings. You’re only playing into the hands of those who would like to obliterate the right to keep and bear arms.

Today, I’ll be commenting on Disney’s buyout of Marvel Comics Group for $4 billion. What do comic books have to do with martial arts? Well, martial artists are notorious comic book fans and comic fans are major lovers of martial arts in film and TV. I personally know three black belts who’ve owned or managed comic book stores.

I also know comic books have inspired many young men to enter the gym and build up their muscles in an effort to look like their favorite characters. Former professional wrestler and one-half of the champion tag team, The Killer Bees, B. B
rian Blair, once admitted to me that his love of Superman was what started him on his own physical fitness kick.

Pro-wrestler Brian Blair, left, said his desire to be like Superman inspired him to hit the gym.

If you’re looking for an easy answer about whether Disney’s purchase of Marvel is a good thing, stop now. There are few easy answers in life and you’re not going to find it here.

I’ve been a longtime fan of both Marvel and Disney. I grew up with Disney in my house, primarily because of my father. I had paperbacks and comics featuring Disney characters as a small child. When I adopted my son, the first place my father took him was to Walt Disney World.
The first Marvel Comic I ever owned.

When I was seven, I was hooked on Marvel Comics, especially with the purchase of Marvel Spotlight issue five, the first appearance of the Ghost Rider. Today, I have a collection of between 3,000 and 4,000 comics. At least two-thirds of that collection consists of Marvels.

First, lets look at some of the cons of Tuesday’s purchase by Disney. The Disney company is synonymous with “family entertainment.” Of course, family entertainment is pretty much a euphemism for “toning down and dumbing down entertainment for the palatability of small children.”

Perhaps the worst example is Disney’s version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” a very dark tale by Victor Hugo, and turning into the usual song and dance production.

Not the only, but perhaps the most egregious example of how Disney has taken dark, gothic literature and toned it down for children.

But it doesn’t end with “Hunchback.” Disney has taken many classic tales from the public domain and adapted them for screenplays, especially fairy tales like “Snow White”, “Cinderella”, “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Little Mermaid.” Anyone familiar with the original stories, as recounted by The Brothers Grimm and Lewis Carroll, knows that they were also much darker, much more gruesome, than Disney would have you believe.

Meanwhile, Marvel has a well-deserved reputation for pushing the envelope. Even when under the restrictive Comics Code Authority, they loved to see what they could get away with. They even exerted pressure on the CCA to ease up on some of their standards. For example, the Code originally prohibited depictions of occult figures, especially “living dead” creatures like vampires and zombies.

Only under pressure from Marvel Comics did the Comics Code Authority ease up on their rules to allow horror comics, like these featuring Dracula and Frankenstein's moster, to hit the newstands.

In 1972, Marvel got the code to ease up on that restriction, and released a number of horror comics, including “Tomb of Dracula” and “The Monster of Frankenstein.”

In one famous incident, Marvel released “The Amazing Spider-Man” number 96 without the Code’s seal. At the time, the Code forbade any mention of drug abuse, even if it was anti-drug. But Marvel’s editor-in-chief and co-creator of most of its superheroes, Stan Lee, was asked to do an anti-drug story by the White House. When he asked the Code for permission to do a story about Peter Parker’s friend, Harry Osborne struggling with drug addiction, the Code said “no.”
Quick! What's missing from this cover?

Lee was shocked that they would say no even though this request came from the President himself. So Lee shocked the industry by releasing that issue without the seal.

But Marvel has pushed the envelope in other ways, ways that seem incredibly minor today but were shocking when they happened. The company gave us heroes like The Punisher, Wolverine and Blade the Vampire Slayer, who didn’t share other heroes self-imposed restrictions on killing bad guys. In X-Men 116, Wolverine fatally dispatched a sentry who was guarding an enemy’s hide-out. The reader doesn’t see the killing, but the horrified look on Nightcrawler and Storm’s faces leaves no doubt as to what happened.

In the 1980’s, while still operating under the Code, Marvel pushed the limits in another, then-shocking way in the pages of the Fantastic Four, showing husband and wife characters, Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman sharing a bed. Horror of horrors! A married couple in the same bed! You'd think they were answering the question about whether Mr. Fantastic could stretch all parts of his body!

Though it should be noted that the same taboo wasn’t broken on prime time network TV until the 1970’s when Mike and Carol Brady were shown sharing a bed on “The Brady Bunch.”

Still, The Fantastic Four pushed a lot of boundaries. Long before the Simpsons, they were the first dysfunctional family in comics. The FF dealt with everything from marital infidelity, divorce, domestic violence and even child abuse just among its members.

Perhaps the other way Marvel pushed the envelope was with the vocabulary used by its characters. When Marvel was started, the general rule in comics was to avoid three-syllable words. Four syllable words were pretty much verboten.

But Lee considered himself a writer, first and foremost. He wanted characters and stories which appealed to adults. His critics once derided him by saying that a kid would need a dictionary to get through a Marvel Comic.

Lee responded that there are worse things to do to a kid than make him look up a word in the dictionary.

Of course today, Lee and Marvel are still going strong. Can rival companies, like Gold Key, Atlas or Charlton say the same?

So where do things go now? Will we see The Punisher forced to load his M16 with tranquilizer darts? Will Wolverine be forced to sheathe his claws? Stay tuned, folks.

And come back here tomorrow for the pros of Disney’s purchase of Marvel.

Same Kwoon time. Same Kwoon channel.