Touring The Marvel Adventures Universe, Part II

In part one of our spotlight on the Marvel Adventures imprint, CBR News spoke with some of the writers and editors behind the popular all-ages line and learned how its unique style works and, most interestingly, why it works. In this final part, we talk to even more members of the MA team about the line's specific restrictions, how they're often more beneficial than cursed, and the Marvel Adventures' standing in the complex comics market.

Writer Fred Van Lente, whose "Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man" storyline retells the "black costume" story as four stand-alone issues, stated that multiple-issue arcs are off limits in the MA books, so as to make sure new readers can jump in at any time. "You can't expect anyone who's buying this comic randomly at a Wal-Mart will know this, because this could be their first comic," Van Lente said. "You can't explain who Alicia Masters is...you've got to treat everybody like, literally, this is their first comic."

Van Lente believes the enforced Marvel Adventures structure is actually conducive to his style of writing. "My stories tend to be very dense anyway. I'm definitely more used to...I wouldn't call it 'condensing,' but being efficient. I love things like 'Curb Your Enthusiasm,' where it's 25 minutes, but it's very dense."

The writer also explained why the restrictions of the MA books have forced him to be "more creative," something Van Lente hopes to demonstrate in his upcoming run on "Marvel Adventures: Fantastic Four."

"We have [the FF] going back in time to ancient Egypt," Van Lente said. "We have them solving a mystery on an Atlantean station the Sub-Mariner has built to have better relations with the surface world. We have the Skrulls trying to take out Reed and Sue while they're on a date that's already going particularly badly. We can do all sorts of crazy things and different things [in single-issue stories] that we haven't seen a million times [before]."

"Marvel Adventuers: Avengers" writer Jeff Parker feels that writing a 22-page self-contained story can be harder than scripting a "mainstream" Marvel book. "The main challenge is bringing that story in for a landing by page 22, because these all have to be done-in-one issue," Parker explained. "My natural tendency is to juggle a lot of elements- I would normally run longer. But as a discipline it's really honed some aspects of my writing. I can cut to the chase and get across information much faster than in the past."

Current "MA: FF" writer Zeb Wells agreed. "You can't cover up weak plots with subplots or plots from other books. You really have to put a lot of work on that one simple A-plot and make sure it holds together in a one-issue context."

One upcoming issue that's received a lot of attention on the internet is "Marvel Adventures: Avengers" #9, which features the entire team transformed into replicas of big-headed villain MODOK. "Again, that's embracing the freedom the Adventures books allow," Parker said. "We're not obliged to try to make the characters serious and realistic like the fanbase for the '616 'universe titles seem to expect, so we can jump both feet into the insanity comic books can be so good at. MODOC (Mental Organism Designed Only for Conquest, in our version) concludes that things would go smoothly for him if his enemies were more like him. The covers are usually done way before the script because of solicitation needs, and once I saw Cameron Stewart's cover for that, I knew we had something beautiful on our hands."

The "MA: Avengers" team, featuring an eclectic mix of old, new and some X-Men characters, is the result of an attempt to create a broad fan base for the book. "The lineup for the Avengers was geared mainly towards characters that would be recognizable to non comics readers," Parker explained. "I thought Storm was a natural since the X-movies had her, and of course Spider-Man and Hulk were familiar. It was just kind of assumed that Captain America and Iron Man would be in for it to feel more like the Avengers. Wolverine I groused about, but I couldn't argue that he wasn't a good candidate for those reasons."

Giant-Girl, an original twist on old Avengers members Giant-Man and the Wasp, has become a favorite of many fans. "Everyone kept suggesting Giant-Man since it also feels right to have a giant character, so I started pleading for having Janet Van Dyne be Giant-Girl, which has been done, she was just never called that," Parker said. "So they gave us her, and she's turned out to be one that readers really respond to.

"A big part of that is that she works well as a correspondent to Spider-Man, in that she can joke more easily than other characters. Her costume is really just Giant-Man's old one, and I'm not crazy about it. Hence the antennae when she doesn't actually control ants. If I get my way, we're going to change it some in issue 13, 'Attack of the 50 Foot Girl.' Since readers keep wanting to know what her background is, we're finally going to do a story focusing on that."

The MA line's lighter content allows the books to be sold through Wal-Mart and Target stores, potentially giving the books an extremely wide audience outside of comic stores. "The books are something that's...I wouldn't say, 'safe for kids,' but something where a parent wouldn't come across it and go, 'Oooohhhh! What is this?'" Fred Van Lente remarked. "The economic trend is such that Marvel not only needs to replenish their consumer base, but also that they need to get their product in a place where younger readers can get to it."

Superhero comics' consumer base has been the subject of much discussion over the last few years. In 2004, Pulitizer Prize winning novelist and comic book writer Michael Chabon gave a keynote address at the Eisner Awards ceremony in which he stated that "children have not abandoned comic books - comic books have abandoned children."

Parker agrees with Chabon's assessment. "The American comics industry is still too concerned with seeming mature that we make what should be children's material that way," Parker declared. "I think as we make more comics with general appeal and less dependence on continuity, we'll keep wiggling back into the distribution system that spurned us long ago."

Parker added, "In the Direct Market, I think it's mostly older readers who like sheer, visceral fun stories with their childhood favorites. In the 'real world' of Target, Walmart, 7-11 and so on, it's younger readers [who want the same thing]. Now we gotta get those middle folk. Look at "Captain Underpants" - younger-targeted than what we do, and it sells huge. What we need is a modern Harvey Comics or Fawcett that caters to very little kids. There are plenty of creators out there who want to produce that kind of material and can do it well, but some clever publisher will have to bring them together."

Zeb Wells feels that Chabon's statement doesn't address the entire issue. "I think it's definitely a more complex issue than just 'the market moved away,'" Wells said. "Markets are organic, and they provide for what's selling the best. I know the Marvel Adventures line isn't a top seller in the direct market, but I think it has a lot more to do with the fact that there's more for kids to do... such as movies or video games. I don't know who to blame for the loss of our readership, but I think there's still a place for all ages, definitely.

"I think that you never want to leave that market completely behind, and I like the idea that there's still comics for kids. I feel like comics made me a better reader as a kid, and anything that can get kids reading, and thinking about stories and increasing their vocabularies is a good thing."

Marvel Adventures editor Mark Paniccia feels that the books are reaching a wide variety of consumers, both kid and adult alike. They're placed with other All-Ages material, but also available in the Direct Market—that's where we're getting the love from the older fan, Paniccia said. Producing the books for channels such as Wal-Mart and Target means they are on an even tighter publishing schedule than Marvel's other books. These books are on a strict publishing schedule since they serve so many different distribution channels, and Assistant Editor Nathan Cosby helps me keep those trains running on time. Shipping these books late is not an option, and both of us are committed—along with the creative teams we're lucky to have—to making these the best books they can possibly be.

This hard work has been validated by response from reviewers and fans alike. It thrills me to see positive reviews of the books online, Paniccia says, that the seasoned comic reader is getting a kick out of them—but it's also great getting a letter or e-mail from a new reader telling us how awesome they think the Thing is or that the Invisible Girl is their favorite superhero or that the latest Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane digest is their favorite book ever.

It would appear that there are many such e-mails pouring into Marvel, as the Marvel Adventure line will continue into the future with a top-secret fourth book written by Fred Van Lente premiering in 2007. "Keep your eyes peeled for Free Comic Book Day, 'cause that's when you'll get your taste for the new MA series!" Van Lente teased, offering one hint. "When you hear what it is, you'll go, 'oooh, okay. That makes sense."

Now discuss this story in CBR's Marvel Comics Forum.

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