Monday, May 21, 2007

Knee-Deep in the Suds

Now that I've jumped into the washing machine, I might as well stick around for the spin cycle. I'm not the only one.

Like practically everyone else in the blogosphere (honestly, I’m surprised Atrios hasn’t weighed in by now), Heidi at the BEAT has more to say about the MJ Laundry statue:

Having worked at Disney for nearly a decade, I can assure you that there is a rich fantasy market for pictures of Disney characters doing very very naughty things. In fact, I used to get some of them in the mail. The Marvel statue of Mary Jane isn’t quite as bad as Disney suddenly leeching coin off this crowd by making statues of naked Pocahontas and Mulan getting it on, but it’s definitely playing to the same kind of mindset. I mean, yeah, Disney WOULD do such a thing to make money if they could get away with it, but theirimage and their branding is too strong to allow it.

Marvel and DC don’t have brands that strong. Batman and Spider-Man appeal to young boysbut that doesn’t stop them from doing appalling things in various muti-verse or variant takes.

I think Heidi puts her finger on the undercurrent of a lot of the arguments against this statue. Above the fold, most anti-statue arguments lead with how the depiction, pose and activity are demeaning to women, and they turn off Spider-Man’s many female fans (most gained via the movies). Which is all well and good, and I think has at least the element of truth to it. Undoubtedly, a lot of fans don’t like the statue, and a percentage of them might look askance at other Spidey projects in the future. The only thing questionable in my mind is the quantity of those female fans – and the quantity of fans (male and female) whose buying habits would change because of this statue. And I don’t think there are many people in the conversation qualified to answer more than “Who knows?” to that question. And in terms of sheer dollars and cents, that’s probably not enough information to actupon.

I don’t know for sure whether Marvel’s publisher Dan Buckley or DC’s Paul Levitz really care about the depiction of women in their comics. Every interview I’ve ever read with Levitz (as well as his body of work writing Legion of Super-Heroes and other titles) leads me to believe he’s a decent, thoughtful man. I don’t think he makes decisions viscerally or impulsively; I get the impression he considers each move he makes. But I’m a complete outsider, and I could be 100 percent off-base about that. And I don’t really have a feeling for Buckley’s character at all.

But my guess is, whatever their personal feelings are, they probably have to swallow some of it to do their job effectively. Each man is under pressure to have their division perform, and sometimes that means going against their own personal grain. Levitz has mentioned in interviews that he didn’t enjoy Preacher, but he felt it was worthwhile for DC to publish it anyway, under its Vertigo imprint. For every one of these decisions he talks about to the press, there are probably dozens he keeps quiet.

And heck, I think I’m rambling. So let me cut to the chase. I think Levitz or Buckley could agree 100 percent with every critique of the statue (and to pull an example from DC, Michael Turner’s heinous cover of Justice League of America #10), and still not necessarily act on it. Because there’s not really an entrenched corporate mechanism to address these kinds of complaints.

But Heidi says it a different way: The MJ Statue dilutes the Spider-Man brand. The Power Girl cover dilutes the JLA brand. It’s the reason the DC and Marvel brands aren’t as strong as the Disney brand – because there’s not as stringent a control to make sure the characters look and act “on model.” This isn’t always bad – we’d almost surely never have gotten Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns with more stringent brand control. But at the same time, we wouldn’t be getting All-Star Batman and Robin now, so maybe it’s a wash. Too-strict brand control keeps characters frombeing able to offer true surprise to adult audience, and I’m part of the adult audience these companies cultivate. But without some sort of quality control, the products begin pandering to the lowest common denominator, and visiting that well too frequently can do lasting damage – not just among those who were initially offended, but among those who fail to get enjoyment out of the current, crasser content. Offense isn’t the only way to drive customers away.

It’s an argument that doesn’t try to appeal to their personal sensibilities; instead, it speaks to the nature of their jobs, as caretakers of these characters and brands. In that sense, the argument at least might be a more compelling tack.


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