Media Coverage of Comic Books:

The Case of 60 Minutes II

Tonight, I watched 60 Minutes II because I read online that Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada, popular hero for returning (or contributing to the return of) Marvel Comics to greatness (or something closer), would be on the show. The story focused on Marvel’s many movies in the wake of Spider-Man yielding almost a billion dollars, making it the top-grossing film of the year, surpassing Star Wars Episode II. Shots were featured of X-Men, a lesser success, and the many upcoming film adaptations of Marvel Comics, including DaredevilX-Men 2Spider-Man 2, and The Incredible Hulk. No mention was made of Blade and its sequel, which also had a Marvel Comics origin. The emphasis was very much on the money these films were generating, as well as the apparent sudden popular love of such books.

One of the best moments occurred when a comic book convention was shown and the voice-over discusses how sales of actual comic books are slipping, particularly of the mainstream comics receiving the 100-million-dollar treatment. I felt pain as I watched, among the many dressed as characters from Dragonball Z, actual comic book readers shifting through unbagged comics, probably in a discount bin, looking through the four-color dreams of the 1970s — juxtaposed to the narration recounting how it once seemed every kid had his face in a comic book. Of course, I would point out that, in the early 1940s, it seemed as if every soldier had his face in a comic book, and that not only are they not now, but that comics weren’t always considered for kids. But it was a poignant moment nonetheless, dramatizing the low sales of comics — underselling many local papers — with the high sales of their film adaptations. Though 60 Minutes II didn’t point it out, this comes as those comic-book originals have greater quality than in the past, both in terms of technology and, in many cases, in terms of narrative and artistic sophistication.

The 60 Minutes II segment focused heavily on Stan Lee, who the program presented as revolutionizing comics. Of course, there is some truth to this, particularly the idea that he gave super-heroes negative attributes and personal problems. But the emphasis on the importance of Spider-Man in this regard was greatly exaggerated, and nothing Stan Lee brought to super-heroes (not to comics, per se — E.C., for only one example, certainly depicted characters with personal problems, though not necessarily in continuing narratives) was unique to him, although the particular combination of elements was, well, particular.

Later, 60 Minutes II pointed out that Stan Lee gets no residuals on movies such as Spider-Man even though he created — actually co-created — the characters. Lee is shown cringing, in what can only be carefully edited footage, as he is asked why this is the case. He explains that his was work-for-hire, then stresses that he likes Marvel and likes working for them. 60 Minutes II narration then says that Lee doesn’t like to think about the matter because it makes him sad. We’re, presumably, supposed to pity him. And Marvel certainly would have been considerate to have paid Lee, though Marvel’s own take on the pictures released so far is not in evidence and rumored to have been much smaller than one might imagine. But equally certainly, there have been worse victims of the policy of work-for-hire and its continuing legacies than Stan Lee, virtually canonized as the patron saint of comic books. Consider Jack Kirby, who cocreated most of the same characters (minus Spider-Man, notably), and who did not go on to a cushy job at Marvel; Kirby’s attempt to get back his original artwork became a celebrated cause of comics creators in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Perhaps worse than ignoring this is the implicit attack upon Joe Quesada that the report’s attack on Marvel’s treatment of Lee represents. Although that implication is entirely that, and is never stated, Quesada was seen on the segment prior to Lee’s cringing, introduced as Editor-in-Chief. Absent is Bill Jemas or any other member of the Marvel upper echelon. Though lovingly filmed going to work, looking like an everyman, and at his drawing board, Quesada is implicitly left to hang alone for the crime against Stan Lee, depicted as sole creator of Spider-Man and other suddenly-lucrative properties. Quesada was interviewed for two hours, by his own report, only a minute or so got on screen, leaving enough room for the dramatic story of the tragedy of poor Stan Lee.

In a report that confusingly jumped from one subject to another, mixing without commentary images from Spider-Man’s original appearance with images from Ultimate Spider-Man #1 (arguably the contemporary equivalent, the images of which, with their slick computerized coloring, misrepresent Lee and the origin of Spider-Man), praise is due to the attention, little that it was, that was paid to alternative — i.e. non-super-hero — comics.

And so reporters are sent to interview Art Spiegelman, patron saint of alternative comics and who holds a post at The New Yorker. Artie sits there, smoking, at least acting the intellectual. And this portion even shows images of Chris Ware and a brief interview with him, how he’s received an award in Britain. And images from Road to Perdition — the movie, not the graphic novel, though at least the graphic novel is accepted, and even called as much, all of which is in stark contrast to the coverage in the popular press, outside of an NPR report, which underplayed if not outright ignored the film’s origins. 60 Minutes II misidentified Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize as one for literature instead of a special prize awarded that year only; so too was it not the first such prize for a work of graphic literature, rather than more accurately saying it was the only such prize awarded. But at least the segment mentioned the Pulitzer Prize. At least it gave alternative or art comics a voice.

But using Spiegelman as embodiment of artsy comics is just as problematic as using Lee as embodiment of mainstream ones. While I don’t agree with the denunciation of him by Ted Rall — who condemned Spiegelman’s failure to bring more alternative comics creators to The New Yorker, which in turn generated more backlash against Rall than anything — I would have liked to have seen at The New Yorker a representative of comics, or at least art comics, and not just a representative of Art comics, or comics as Art sees them. The deeper problem is that Spiegelman is as much a false icon as Stan Lee, although both serve their purposes. Ware deserves the mass media attention, but Spiegelman’s gotten too much of it. Joe Sacco does a better job than Spiegelman, who 60 Minutes II would have us believe was every bit as “revolutionary” as Stan Lee — which may be true, so long as one puts Stan Lee in a more proper context. A better hero of mature comics might be Will Eisner. Or even Alan Moore, whose From Hell or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film adaptations go unmentioned (as does that of Ghost World) — though Moore would no longer have provided such a luscious quote affirming how uninteresting he finds super-heroes, if he would have even granted the interview. But Eisner and Moore didn’t receive the largess of a guilty Pulitzer committee that had previously utterly ignored an entire medium, nor did they work on something that, like Shindler’s List, virtually compelled its own praise from the politically correct. And of course, there’s Gaiman, whose The Sandman — followed by bestselling novels — would have made a great case. But the genius of these much more prolific and influential artists is dwarfed by Pulitzer- and New Yorker-granted credibility, so Spiegelman gets the nod. Fine.

Except that, at least as edited, they get Spiegelman to affirm, with his credentials, that comics are tremendously popular right now, as if this were unprecedented. As if the boom from 1989′s Batman to the commercial crash of 1993 hadn’t happened. As if the 1940s and 1960s hadn’t happened. After all, unprecedented makes such a better story.

I’m being harsh, I know. It could have been a lot worse. A lot shorter. I’ve certainly seen a lot worse. Our newspapers are filled with articles praising Lee with headlines that include “Pow!” and “Biff!” and “Bam!” — headlines that often point out things like “comics aren’t just for kids anymore,” as if no one noticed what DC put in their bar code boxes on direct sales copies of their books in the mid-1980s. Yes, I’ve seen worse. But that’s no excuse.

And there are plenty who will say that any attention is good attention, that critics should just shut up, lest they discourage programs like 60 Minutes from covering an entire medium. Of course, I’m not advocating lack of coverage. Obviously, the 60 Minutes crew did their homework. If they interviewed Quesada for two hours, and gave similar attention to Lee and Spiegelman, plus the producer of the Marvel movies, plus an hour to Chris Ware, not to mention any actual research, they must have known better. But they chose to make a story out of it, complete with dueling “revolutionaries” Lee and Spiegelman, with Quesada as unindicted villain against Lee, with the present situation depicted as unprecedented in general — rather than in the number of films in process, or the growing disparity between their financial yields and the financial yields of the comics upon which they are based.

Next time, let’s hope they have the decency to give me a ring.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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