ECCC 2018: Marvel For Everyone?

by Noah Sharma

Professor Ben Saunders introduced the panel, officially declaring the name as “Marvel for Everyone, with an implied question mark.”

Patrick Reed, marketing consultant for the exhibition Marvel: Universe of Superheroes moderated the panel and introduced Ben Saunders (Professor of Comic Studies and University of Oregon and curator of the exhibition), Andrea Gilroy (comic scholar supreme), Chris Claremont (Uncanny X-Men, Powerman and Iron Fist, and much more), and David F. Walker (Powerman and Iron Fist, Nighthawk, Occupy Avengers).

Though Marvel technically began in 1939, with the publication of Marvel Comics #1, the sixties were really the Golden Age of Marvel. Reed pointed out, in amazement, how quickly the Marvel phenomena took effect. X-Men #1 and Avengers #1 both released the same day!

David Walker recalled discovering superheroes through television and then learning to read through comics. From an early age, Walker knew he wanted to create stories like the ones that inspired him. That said, at ten years old, he watched Superman: the Movie and realized that Metropolis was New York. It was just like the city that he lived on the outskirts of, but with one glaring omission: there were no black people. But that wasn’t entirely true, before long character actor Bo Rucker appeared as the only black character, playing a pimp. Walker nearly walked out of the theater

Ben Saunders’ introduction to Marvel was a Marvel UK reprint comic, where Spider-Man was hiding from the police. At first Saunders thought that Spider-Man must be the bad guy, but it’s only recently that he realized just how brave it was. It saw Sam Bullit running a “Law and Order” campaign for District Attorney and staring down Robbie Robertson in a verbal confrontation laden with overt racial animus.

Chris Claremont recalled comics in the Eagle Magazine subscription his Grandmother got him. A Life of Jesus strip is burned into his mind, five panels of Jesus sucking poison from an asp bite (as any good eagle scout would). The combination of something real and the biblical story spoke to Claremont, and Marvel opened the same possibilities, combining reality with imaginative fantasy.

He also remembered getting National Geographic magazine later in life and being transported to other worlds by images and stories of far off places. Though that experience has been made more mundane by the internet, it is still an incredibly powerful emotion for him, and realizing that comics could also do that, oftentimes by just visiting the same locations, was huge for him.

Gilroy’s first experience with Marvel was a Clone Saga Spider-Man story. And she still likes Marvel! Marvel to her is defined by its grounded heroes and soap-operatic drama.

The difference between DC and Marvel for Claremont is that the Justice League Watchtower is in orbit, but Avengers Mansion is on Fifth avenue and sixtieth.

Talking with the late Dwayne McDuffie, David Walker once asked about the best black characters in comics. McDuffie replied Thor. Walker was confused, but McDuffie answered that Thor’s story is about a boy trying to make amends with a harsh and distant father and that spoke to his Black experience. Walker took that and answered, Ben Grimm. Ben Grimm is the monster in the room, but he’s not really a monster.

That core, the idea that someone who is hated or outcast can be heroic, can find a place of security and acceptance in the case of the X-Men, has always been central to Walker.

Professor Saunders added that prolific letterer Tom Orzechowshi, who attended a predominantly black school, recalled that the Thing was a universal favorite there. “When people talk about the first Marvel hero of color,” Saunders noted, “they forget the green guy and the orange guy”. Now obviously it is deeply sad that that is a level of representation is necessary for readers of color, but as Saunders pointed out “the Hulk’s relationship with black readers is very different from his relationship with white readers.”

Reed and Saunders showed some examples of Marvel’s reality and adaptability from the exhibit. One, a Dave Cockrum advertisement for Claremont’s X-Men. That sparked a reaction in Claremont. The image held a host of subtle tricks. Claremont highlighted the size relationships between characters, pointing to that as something that carried storytelling force that he feels has been lost through time. He also stressed the value of his artists’ ability to use the team nature of his books to communicate, to create more action and more tension in each page because there were just more personalities  sharing the focus of a panel. Finally he looked at the way that the teo teams of X-Men interacted with eachother. The confusion, the differences of who trusted the other, the way that Jean and Scott (who were represented on both teams) differed on either side of five years, struck him. “That’s storytelling!”

Asked how involved he was in ads like this, Claremont admitted that his approach was not to get in the way of his artists. However, he acknowledged that the depiction of Charles Xavier didn’t sit as well with him as the other characters. Xavier, he said, usually looked like a guy with “a serious bug up his butt. My Charlie had fun!”