At this year’s TerrifiCon in Connecticut, Marvel Comics’ recently-appointed Editor-in-Chief C.B. Cebulski sat down with comics writers Nick Spencer and Charles Soule, and reporter John Siuntres, to talk about the publishing company’s future.
Over the course of their conversation, which you can listen to here, Cebulski enthusiastically spoke at length about new developments on Marvel’s horizon, like the Fantastic Four’s return to prominence and Chris Claremont’s upcoming return to the X-Men. But when asked specifically about the tonal direction Cebulski plans to take Marvel’s stories, the editor shifted into a much more corporate and perplexing posture.
One audience member in attendance for the panel made a point of asking — given Marvel’s extensive history dealing with and commentating on politics and social issues in the pages of its comics — what kind of messages the company wants to tell people today. Cebulski took a moment before responding with a point about how comics can’t get “too deep” into politics:
“Marvel has always been, as Stan [Lee] always said, ‘the world outside our window.’ It’s the reflection of the modern times that we live in. Marvel has never shied away from that, around what happened with 9/11 or what we were doing with Secret Empire. And we’re going to continue that tradition. There are a couple of [upcoming issues] that are going to reflect things that are going on in the real world.
However, one of the things I want to make sure is when we do tell these stories — I don’t know how to put this in the right way — they still have to be entertainment. If we want to see the real world, we can turn on CNN, we can turn on the TV, we can pick up a newspaper and see what’s going on there. And yes, it’s our responsibility as a comic book publisher, especially Marvel, given the history that we have, to reflect those times, but they still have to be fun.
We can’t get too deep into the politics. And the characters can take sides, choose sides, turn evil, turn back to good, but they still have to entertain. That’s first and foremost, no matter what real-world events we are going to reflect, they are going to be fictionalised and they’re going to have the classic spin that Stan always brought to them. They will be serious, but they may make you smile.”
It’s odd to hear Secret Empire held up as an example of Marvel’s political commentary given how much time the company spent insisting that it wasn’t meant to be a political story, despite that obviously not being the case. Cebulski has a point — comics are meant to be entertainment. But at the same time, it’s silly to pretend that entertainment should exist in an impenetrable cultural bubble where the realities of the things people experience first hand and see in the media aren’t foundational parts of the stories being told and the people telling them.
One of the most frustrating things about reading comics from legacy publishers is that, inevitably, there comes a moment where you can’t escape the fact that things don’t really change all that much. Wolverine comes back, Jean Grey dies again, the Fantastic Four have some sort of family drama, and readers are expected to get excited every single time. Sure, for a while, that can be entertaining, but in time, it becomes a reminder of the historical, systemic inflexibility of the comics publishing industry that, on the whole, has only made the slightest of advancements in terms of diversifying talent pools and staff and pushing for better representation on the page.
The reason that people advocate for timely stories grounded in reality, be they about politically-charged events or not, is because more often than not, those stories centre traditionally marginalised people in meaningful ways that other stories do not. Much noise is made when new characters who aren’t straight white men are introduced, but those characters suffer (narratively speaking) when they’re just plopped into plots readers have seen time and time again, because they break the illusion of comics being as ever-changing as breathless press releases would have you think.
It may come as a surprise to some, but most people aren’t in favour of wall-to-wall Very Special Issues that strictly focus on social injustices week to week. But relegating those narratives into a few sequestered plot lines that don’t play a part in the long term doesn’t seem like a particularly good idea. And perhaps having the EiC of a major publisher downplay politically themed stories while women, people of colour, and queer people in the comics community are being targeted by hateful crusades of harassment wasn’t the best call.