Thursday, March 01, 2007

An Open Letter To Marvel Comics

Dear Marvel,

My name is John Seavey, and for a long time, I've been a customer of your company. Since I was a small child, I've been purchasing Marvel's brand of periodical publications, and I've come to associate the 'Marvel' logo with a certain quality, and more importantly, a certain identity in entertainment. Much as I expect to see light-hearted family entertainment when I watch a Disney film, I've come to expect that when I pick up a Marvel comic, I can be assured of upbeat, family-oriented, fast-paced adventure stories. You've published books in a wide variety of genres, something I admire and respect, but I've always felt that Marvel knew what its strengths were and played to them well. You've almost always done an excellent job in shaping a solid stable of continuing characters, and choosing writers and artists who publish new stories in keeping with the tone and ethos of your publishing history.

Recently, though, you seem to have forgotten what your customers are looking for--a fact that isn't simply dissatisfying, but actively worrying to me as a consumer. Your writers (and more worryingly, your editors) seem to be more interested in indulging their own personal whims than in maintaining a stable of characters and stories that have a long-term publishing future; the recent 'Civil War' storyline is a perfect example, in which both Iron Man and Captain America, two of your flagship characters, were portrayed in a light so unsympathetic that I have difficulty imagining myself wanting to read about them in future. Perhaps this was an interesting individual story, but was it really worth trading on the brand identity Marvel has spent so much time and money to establish?

Your company has worked very hard in associating its trademarks and logos with certain expectations; indeed, in an industry where "hot" writers and artists come and go, these expectations are the only thing of real, permanent value you have. When you sell a comic that I, as a consumer, expect to be "upbeat family enterainment", and when I read it, it's "bleak, depressing adult storytelling", you are essentially using my goodwill as a consumer to line your pockets. This is not to say that I do not read adult stories, or that I have no stomach for thought-provoking tales. But if that is what I wanted, I know where I can find it. I purchased your comic in good faith based on expectations you have worked hard to establish; if you're unwilling to live up to those expectations, you should not be surprised to see your consumer base shrink.

Goodwill is not available in an unlimited supply, nor is its supply predictable. What causes a sales spike now (out of belief in your company's future performance, buying habit, or simple morbid curiosity) will not last indefinitely; I can't predict exactly when or how, but I guarantee you, if you continue to neglect the publishing ethos that made Marvel a success, your company will founder. And, due to its position, it may well take an entire industry with it, a tragedy nobody wants. Marvel should tell the stories it's best at, not the stories that the "writer of the week" is most interested in.

I'm not going to conclude this with a statement like, "I'll never read Marvel again!" I will continue to read the comics that I enjoy, those that live up to my expectations of Marvel comics as a brand and as a company (such as your 'Marvel Adventures' line, or your collections of archived material). But the "Marvel Universe," the flagship line of publications you have worked so hard to nurture over the decades, is traveling in a direction that I have no interest in, and that I do not wish to spend money on...and unfortunately for you, I consider myself to be a reasonable barometer of customer opinion. Perhaps you are telling the stories that you want to tell right now. But at this rate, you might not have anyone left to tell them to.


Tyson said...

Well written!

However, this is not a new development - you could have written a nearly identical letter ten years ago. There's nothing in the main Marvel Universe that I follow anymore, but ten years ago they were the only comics I'd read.

I used to be a Spider-Man fan, but the only Marvel books I buy anymore are Ultimate Spider-Man (in TPB) and Spider-Girl, because they both feel closer to the original Marvel vibe than anything they're doing in the main Marvel Universe. (Yeah, they're both cheesy at times - but that's part of the fun! The "storytelling engines" for both of those are closer to the original Spidey than what is now in place in the main Marvel Universe.)

It's worth pointing out that "grim and gritty" can be cool, but Marvel usually does it very poorly.

Anyway, I hope you actually sent your letter to Marvel, and didn't just post it on your blog. They really need to hear this.

Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly, and I agree that you should send this in written form to Marvel if you haven't already.

As Tyson said, this trend actually started long ago. I saw its origins in the first massive "event" storylines like Secret Wars and Crisis on Infinite Earthes. But things totally went downhill in the 90's. It has reached a point to where writers have substituted pacing, good storylines, and quality writing with cheap shock tactics, deaths, and "events". Marvel has largely forgotten how to weave an interesting story. Ed Brubaker and Dan Slott are among the only writers at Marvel who I consider exceptions.

I don't believe it's any coincidence that comic book sales started sliding downhill about the time the quality went into the crapper in the 90's. I used to buy over $150 a month worth of comic books but with the constant price hikes, cheap gimmicks, shock tactics, and generally bad writing and art, I realized one day that I didn't enjoy much of anything I was reading any more.

Unfortunately neither Marvel nor DC seem to realize that the directions they are taking comics into are going to provide short-lived sales spikes now, but destroy the medium in the long term.