Where were you when you heard the Spider-Man news?
Okay, that question might sound a little too grand, I admit, but Spider-Man joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a big deal. For those that are hyper-aware and ultra-concerned about comic movies, the new deal between Marvel Studios and Sony is like the comic book movie moon landing. This is a giant leap forward for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
So where was I when I heard the Spider-Man news? I was on my couch, looking at Twitter with the sounds of “The Tonight Show” filling my living room. My fiance was trying to tell me something funny but I couldn’t pay attention to him because Marvel had just announced their moon landing.
I was not happy.
This reaction is what I’m trying to work through today, because I’m not proud of it — and in fact, I have very complicated feelings about all the complicated comic book feelings I’ve been having lately. I was not initially happy about the Spider-Man news because it wasn’t about the X-Men. Everything is about the X-Men with me lately — and, again, I acknowledge this is a problem. Over the past few years, my brain has slowly been rewired into a conspiracy-detecting machine, but since conspiracies are, by nature, secretive, subjective and buried under a few layers of truth, it’s becoming hard for me to not see conspiracies everywhere — about comic book characters! Conspiracies are supposed to be about lizard people living at the Earth’s core or second shooters or what really happened at Roswell — you know, things that conspiracy theorists claim have an impact on the world at large. I’m freaking out because Marvel’s only putting out a dozen X-Men comics a month.
While the Spider-Man news doesn’t relate to any conspiracy theories — at least any that I have, but I’m sure you’ll find one if you Google enough — it did kick up my general feelings of anxiety regarding Marvel’s mutants. As the big franchises not owned by Marvel Studios, I always felt like the X-Men and Fantastic Four were in good company with Spider-Man. He’s Marvel’s mascot, their most recognizable character, and Marvel didn’t even own his rights. For some reason it was comforting to know that the X-Men weren’t the only big name characters getting the MCU shut out. With Spider-Man now back home at Marvel, the X-Men are left to fend for themselves… with the Fantastic Four, who just had their comic book cancelled.
To attempt a ridiculously specific metaphor, the Spidey move made me feel exactly how I feel when my friends tell me they’re moving to Los Angeles. I’m a comedy writer in New York City — or Fox, for the purposes of this paragraph. A lot of my friends are in Los Angeles, which is where all that sweet sitcom staff writing action is. All the big names — and people trying to become a big name — gravitate toward that city. Every time someone tells me they’re moving, I get hit with a lot of emotions. I’m glad they’re going out there to get work as there’s a lot of work to get, but I’m also ridiculously bummed that I won’t get to see them anymore. I know that this move is going to be great for Spider-Man, but I’m ridiculously bummed that the non-MCU gang has shrunk from three to two franchises.
See? Doesn’t that sound weird? Why does this bug me so much? I don’t even care about the X-Men being integrated into the MCU. I may have my fair share of problems with Fox’s handling of the franchise but I’m still on board with what they’re doing. I really only care about the movie rights business because of how it affects the comics — and because it does affect the comics. This is where the conspiracy brain sets in. People at Marvel continually say that there’s nothing to worry about and they malign fans that voice concerns about some of the fishier developments. I don’t fault them for it because I don’t know what else they could say. But the signs are there, no matter how much hand waving is done, and I’ve written about them at length in articles about the danger of the disappearing X-Men and the danger of synergy. See? I write about this stuff a lot. Why does this bug me so much?
Yesterday I received a package in the mail that kinda clued me into why this bugs me so much. I got a copy of “Marvel Masterworks: The Uncanny X-Men” volume 9, which reprints early ’80s issues that were last reprinted in color in an old trade paperback called “Uncanny X-Men: From the Ashes.” These issues mean a lot to me. When I first discovered the X-Men in the third grade, I only had one or two back issues and three trades: “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” “Greatest Battles of the X-Men” and “From the Ashes.” I reread “From the Ashes” repeatedly from the moment I got it up through high school. Kitty Pryde proving her worth to Professor X, Storm’s duel with Callisto and her punk rock makeover, Rogue joining the team and teaming up with an angry Wolverine, all the kissing — this collection of issues meant so much to me and it still does. Reading it reminds me of when I first started reading comics, when all I knew were the characters on the page. The stories felt like stories, not marketing, and the dramatic twists felt organic, not the result of synergy.
Yeah, this is why people always say things were better “back in the day.” That’s because “back in the day” we were younger and unaware of what goes on behind the scenes. Things weren’t actually better “back in the day,” as books like Sean Howe’s “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story” reveal. Comic creators have always had to deal with outside factors and marketing and business — I just wasn’t aware of it then. “Back in the day” is really “before I knew all the details.” So before I knew all the details, I formed a fiercely personal bond at a young age with the X-Men because of comics like the ones in that “Marvel Masterworks” volume. That’s in me, it’s in my bones. Lately it’s been a little hard to reconcile the deep connection I have with these company-owned characters with the logical and justifiable actions of a company that’s, you know, behaving like a company.
Marvel is making great comics right now and even better movies, but it’s still been a little hard for me to fully enjoy them because I’ve been so preoccupied with this X-Mess. What’s my ultimate fear? It’s that the X-Men will be shunted off into a side dimension, never to interact with the rest of the Marvel Universe. It’s that they’ll never have another cartoon or video game or line of action figures, and it’s that a new generation of readers won’t learn lessons of acceptance and diversity that are intrinsically X-Men. That’s what I fear.
But even if all that happens, that same “Masterworks” volume offers me a bit of comfort. Those stories that I love are still alive and they’ve been upgraded from a beat up 22-year-old paperback into a hardcover book of glossy pages. My connection to those comics hasn’t changed just because Rocket Raccoon has become more visible than Wolverine. With the super awareness that comes with today’s social-media-powered fandom, it’s very easy to let conspiracy theories derail your enjoyment. That’s a problem I’ve been struggling with and flipping through some of the comics that made me love the X-Men helped clear my head after a lot of time spent in some anger-fog. Even if it’s not the X-Men’s time to shine after thirty years in the spotlight, these characters still matter because at least they matter to me.
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He makes videos for the Upright Citizens Brigade as a member of UCB1 and writes for the sketch comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).
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