Fingeroth ran Marvel Comics’ Spider-Man editorial line and is the author of Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us About Ourselves and Our Society. O’Neil, an expert on comics, pop culture, and folklore/mythology, was the guiding force behind DC Comics’ Bronze Age reinvention of Batman. Uslan, an Emmy Award-winning writer and producer, is executive producer of the Batman films. DeFalco, former Marvel editor-in-chief, is the author of Spider-Man: The Ultimate Guide. Dr. Arnold T. Blumberg is Curator of Geppi’s Entertainment Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, and has edited, authored or co-authored a number of comic and pop culture guide books. He teaches a course in comic book literature at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC).
It was a nice event for both the laymen and the comic book fan. Not only did everyone stay till the end of the two-hour program, most people stayed longer, and the Smithsonian staff seemed pleased by the attendance (since tickets were $25 a pop).
Bad news was, during the Q&A portion there were uncomfortable descents into fanboy wrangling between some of the audience and the panelists that left even hardcore comics-type like me squirming. The good news was, it was entirely focused on Spider-Man, which made Marvel fans look geeky and DC fans look adult and sophisticated. Nyah-nan-nah-na-nah, Marvel!
Seriously, panel discussions -- not just about comics but about anything -- should never be opened up to Q&A. I'm there to see the panelists interact, not listen to some mouthbreather charging that Spider-Man working with Iron Man is a violation of his core character while the panelists eye the exits. And that was the moderator.
I didn't learn too much, but these events are more about hearing where particular experts come down on certain issues, not for eye-popping relevations about comics' role in society (particularly for those of us who think, read, and write about such things alot; like, daily).
Best News of The Evening
Michael Uslan was an engaging speaker, with lively anecdotes and that rarest of combinations, a strong love of comics coupled with an understanding of how the real world works. He made three observations I found particularly interesting. First, Hollywood's attitude toward comic book movies has changed because the people now running Hollywood grew up reading comics. Second, Hollywood understands that "comic book movie" is not a genre. Genres wax and wane in popularity, but comics are a medium, which supplies source material in any genre. This means that the comic book movie is not a fad. Third, he predicts that we're on the verge of the next step in transmedia adaptations: quality television miniseries based on graphic novels too difficult to condense into a film.
Pleasant Unfortunate Truth
During the discussion on the portrayal of women heroes in comics, Denny O'Neill talked about his decision to depower Wonder Woman. Denny was (and is) by his own description a "pinko liberal", and affirmed that he thought the change was an advance for women characters. "You have to understand, " he said, "writers like me, we have the best of intentions. We simply don't always know how to do things well. But things are better now that there are more women writers." I've always assumed that was true, but it was nice to hear: writers aren't intentionally sexist, or racist, or out to ruin your favorite character.
[Oh, and I know that's not Denny O'Neill, but I couldn't find any pictures of him, and he looks sort of like Patrick Stewart, except for the nose.]
Unpleasant Unfortunate Truth
Well ... most writers aren't. When asked a question about the social ramifications of editorial decisions, Marvel's Tom DeFalco stated quite baldly: "We don't really think about things that like. We're just trying to sell books." In fact, he said, to some degree, "a writer's job is to piss off the readers," citing several instances where the louder the public condemnation of what he was doing with certain characters, the higher sales went. "
Rape is Real!
Naturally, someone from the audience just had to bring up the whole "Dr. Light/rape" thing.
Marvelites DeFalco and Fingeroth both said they simply wouldn't permit such a thing in a story. Apparently Marvel's vaunted realism includes Life Model Decoys but not a crime that victimizes, oh, around 600,000 women in the U.S. a year. O'Neill, although not exactly gung-ho on the idea, noted that what matters is how the subject is treated and how it serves the storyline; hey, this is the guy who wrote the Question series, remember.
The most interesting thing about the "rape discussion" was that the only person who'd actually read the story at issue was Uslan.
By Far the Best Exchange of the Evening
Denny O'Neill (charmingly self-deprecating): "Back when I was first working in comic books, the public considered us only half a step up from pornographers--"
Tom DeFalco (interrupting so as to steal the limelight with a lame joke, just as I'd expect a Marvel writer to do): "You mean half a step below!"
"Well," Denny immediately replied, casually withering in the superiority of his grise-y eminence: "Maybe at Marvel."
ZING! Denny's a very smart and witty guy, whom the years have sharpened, not dulled. I'd love to have him at one of my parties, but I'd be terrified to be on a Match Game '74 panel with him. Suffice it to say, that between the, ahem, earthiness of DeFalco and the urbanity of O'Neill my company prejudices were not undermined, but strongly reinforced (which actually saddened me, you'll be surprised to hear).
I'm delighted that the Smithsonian sponsored such a panel, and that I got to attend. It's a good sign they've got their finger on the pulse of current culture and know that there's more to U.S. history than Mamie Eisenhower's dress. Lovely though it is.
It was a nice mix of people and perspectives, but Devon had a more interesting idea: a panel "pitting" the Old Comics Guard versus the New Comics Guard (maybe even including some ... some GIRLS!).