My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were financial flops, critical failures, or lack a substantial cult following.
These days being the president of Marvel is like being the president of the United States, only it comes with greater power and greater responsibility. At the very least, it’s like being the president of show business. Marvel has transcended being a mere comic book company—these days it’s the white-hot epicenter of entertainment. Unless the world dramatically decides that it doesn’t care for The Avengers or the movie with the space raccoon that wears people clothes, that doesn’t look likely to change anytime soon.
Yet 13 years ago, being the president of Marvel apparently afforded so much downtime that Bill Jemas, the company’s controversial head, decided to try his hand at writing a comic book of his own. The comic book was called Marville (a tortured play on words combining Marvel and the young Superman TV show Smallville), and it was the subject of a stunt called U-Decide where fans would decide whether Jemas’ new Marville, cult comic writer Peter David’s revamped Captain Marvel, or a Batman parody called Ultimate Adventures would survive.
Of the three, only Captain Marvel lasted more than seven issues. Marville wasn’t just unsuccessful: It was an enormous bomb that made IO9’s list of “10 Comics Marvel Would Desperately Like To Forget They Published” and Comics Alliance’s “15 Worst Comics Of The Decade.” Comic-book veterans who had suffered under Jemas’ leadership could derive schadenfreude knowing that when given carte blanche to create his very own comic book, the boss created something that wasn’t just bad, it was nearly unpublishable.
For Marville at least, Jemas transformed the powerful comic-book company into a vanity press for himself. The artwork and lettering and coloring may have been professional, but the writing betrayed the project’s fundamentally amateurish nature.
Marville is best understood as a powerful man’s indulgence. At the end of a collection that brings together the first six issues of Marville, Jemas humble-brags dickishly:
Marville does not have the stuff that makes for top-selling comics, but it does explore the origin and meaning of life, so I thought it was worth a six-issue series. And, because I’m president of Marvel, I could ignore the bean counters and publish Marville without regard for minimum sales projections and margin requirements.
In two paragraphs that finish the job of ensuring that anyone who makes it to the end of Marville will hate him, Jemas says that he told the bean-counters that they could shove their minimum sales projections and margin requirements up their asses, because he was writing about shit that mattered. Like, origin-of-man, meaning-of-life, why-are-we-all-here, profound shit. But also, he’s the boss, so he’s in a position to do whatever the fuck he wants, like publish an insanely self-indulgent, obnoxious comic book in violent defiance of logic and basic decency.
Marville opens in 5002 A.D., and immediately sets about alienating readers with inside jokes so inside they barely appeal to Jemas’ minions at Marvel, let alone the outside world. “After three thousand years, the comic industry finally recovered from Ron Perelman bankrupting Marvel” crows a cheerful man in a comic-book-store T-shirt.
The last book I read was Sean Howe’s wonderful Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, an epic tome that delves deeply into the inner workings and long-simmering resentments and rivalries of Marvel. And I am still not invested enough in the company, or its colorful past, for these jokes to work on any level.
On the next page we’re introduced to mogul Ted Turner, who has purchased Earth and renamed it AOLon, before selling it to AOL for stock. This is the one of an endless series of jokes about the rapaciousness of AOL-Time Warner-Turner as a corporate behemoth, and jokes about the ubiquity of those free hours of AOL discs, and the hopelessly inflated nature of its stock. It’s ironic that AOL, depicted as a society-devouring force here, is now dimly remembered as the web provider of choice for 75-year-olds who don’t know the internet has changed since 1998 (Hi, Dad!), while Marvel remains a dominant cultural force.
If Jemas wanted to find the voracious, synergy-crazed octopus of a corporation that would hold the sum of pop culture in its slippery tentacles in the not-too-distant future, he needed look no further than his own employer. Yet for a project as doggedly self-obsessed as this one, Jemas doesn’t seem to have much of a sense of where the future is headed, in comic books or outside them.
Ted Turner has named his son KalAOL, in a punny play on Kal-El, Superman’s real name. Even Jemas seems to realize that the wordplay of dubbing an AOL-spawned Superman figure KalAOL is so awful it hurts the brain, so KalAOL quickly trades in his full name for Al, because he’s into the whole brevity thing.
Just as Superman was dispatched from a dying world to save ours, KalAOL is sent by Turner and his wife Jane Fonda from a future world apparently about to be destroyed by meteors to 2002 A.D via a time machine. But before he goes back to the past, we’re treated to jokes about the Tomahawk Chop and zingers like Turner telling his son, “You see, Dad’s Comic Company (DCC) sucked. They couldn’t make a decent book. So I had to buy Marvel. The only problem was that two total dunces named Joe and Bill got to cash in their options and make a freakin’ fortune.”
Again, I recently read a great, exhaustive book about Marvel, and I only vaguely remember who Joe and Bill are, though I do appreciate the eloquent elegance of Marvel exquisitely lampooning a competitor by saying they “sucked” and “couldn’t make a decent book.” The insider dialogue continues when Al arrives in 2002 wearing a Marvel Enterprises outfit and is immediately asked, “Cool, Marvel Enterprises. Do you know Joe Quesada?” to which he impishly replies, “No, but my dad is friends with Paul Levitz.” (If you want to know who Quesada and Levitz are, ask Jemas.)
Forget the “Insider’s Guide” Cliff Notes explanations that open the collection. What Marville really needs are extensive, David Foster Wallace-style footnotes, and even those wouldn’t make the comic book funny, just comprehensible. Jemas isn’t ambitious enough to go for knowing laughs of recognition; he’s willing to settle for grudging groans of recognition.
In its dreadful second issue, Marville suggests a comic-book version of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, where superheroes swing into the frame, announce who they are, are the subject of gags as tasteless as they are brutally unfunny, then disappear. Iron Man, for example, casually kills some people KalAOL is trying to give money to. When a black man points out that thousands lost their jobs when Iron Man moved a plant to Mexico, Iron Man counters, “I know, I destroyed the local economy. But you can pay Mexicans and they work like N-”
Before Iron Man can utter a racial epithet, Black Panther counsels, “Careful. People would think poorly of you if you said a bad word.” Marville depicts Iron Man, Batman, and Black Panther as right-wing creeps under the sway of Rush Limbaugh, who perplexingly is depicted as being far younger and more attractive than he actually was. Then, for reasons Jemas never bothers to delineate, Limbaugh turns against his ostensible political allies by destroying them with a magical golden microphone because he’s only pretending to be a right-wing blowhard? Or maybe he is a right-wing tyrant but even he hates superheroes? Honestly, none of this makes any more sense in context.
In 2002, Al picks up a sidekick in Mickey, a fetching redhead habitually clad in tiny denim short shorts and a midriff- and cleavage-baring top. In any other context, she would be ridiculously over-sexualized, but by comic-book standards, she is the picture of modesty. She might as well be wearing a burqa over a nun’s habit. To compensate for having the primary female character be only nearly naked, the covers by Greg Horn for Marville are pure softcore porn, full of voluminous breasts and naked flesh.
Al lacks superpowers (and basic intelligence), but he keeps being mistaken for a hero and disproportionately rewarded when, for example, a bad guy is knocked out not by Al’s fists of fury, but by his time-traveling dog’s debilitating flatulence. In another example of Marville playing around with real-life figures in ways that barely made sense at the time, Al and his compatriots Charlie and Lucy (a cop habitually clad in tight, revealing outfits) hunt down supervillain Kingpin, who is a fat, white, tall man in Spider-Man comics but here is revealed to be Spike Lee, or quite possibly Spike Lee “playing” Kingpin to prove the validity of colorblind casting. Sure enough, the “Insider’s Guide To Marville” illustrates that Kingpin is, in fact, historically a large white man and that for him to be played—or inhabited or whatever it is Lee is doing here—by a small black man is incongruous in a way that apparently struck Jemas as funny.
The first two issues of Marville have the feel of a particularly limp, self-satisfied joke delivered at an executive’s retirement party. It would be easier to appreciate and enjoy this kind of meta-comedy from someone like Stan Lee, who has cultivated an image as a skinny, over-caffeinated, endlessly self-promoting Jewish Santa Claus forever delivering superhero movies and toys and comics to all the gentile girls and boys. If Marville had come from Lee, we’d know that it came from a place of love and appreciation. And if the humor was corny, that’s part of Lee’s charm.
But Marville is utterly devoid of charm, corny or otherwise. And in its third issue, it does something deeply strange and unexpected: It more or less turns into a different comic book. It’s not just that the art and character design become strikingly different. The format shifts dramatically as well. The conventional comic-book structure is replaced by something that looks more like an illustrated script, with dialogue appearing over and outside of images instead of comfortably nestled inside dialogue balloons.
The content undergoes a similarly intense transformation. Without warning, a deeply stupid, fairly hateful goof on comic books, superheroes, and the rivalry between DC and Marvel turns into a trippy meditation on the nature of existence and the origin of man. Al, Lucy, and Charlie take their time machine to the very beginning of time and extensively debate evolution versus creationism with a well-built, handsome black man named Jack who may or may not be God.
The jokes come to an abrupt halt and are replaced by the kind of faux-philosophical debate about existence that has historically taken place in dorm rooms, and generally within reach of a marijuana-smoking apparatus of some sort. Marville doesn’t get smart so much as pretentious and ponderous. The tonal shift is jarring: It’s as if the comic book went from being Movie 43 or InAPPropriate Comedy to emulating Waking Life and A Brief History Of Time. The shift is an improvement only because anything would be an improvement over the first two issues.
Marville continually changes what kind of a terrible comic book it is. It begins as a deeply misguided goof on comic books, then becomes a trippy meditation on the nature of existence. It morphs again into an adventure comic when Jack, Al, Charlie, and Lucy visit prehistoric times and discover that Wolverine was the first man, or a paradigm-shifting Neanderthal or something, but not The X-Men’s Wolverine, which, again, really makes no more sense in context than it does without it. And this is from an era when Marvel employees didn’t drop acid and smoke weed to get the old muse up and running.
In another context, the creators’ eagerness to upend expectations and shift tones and genres radically might be bold and admirable. Here it just feels like Jemas is completely losing interest in what he’s doing, and deciding to continually do something else entirely just to keep himself occupied.
The sixth (and essentially final) issue of Marville offers the least-warranted victory lap in comic-book history, as Jemas summarizes the entire title in the form of a spiel Al gives an unseen publisher about how he should publish his story as a comic book for the good of mankind. Then comes Jemas’ bizarre justification, part of which reads, “Marville has been a story that would never have been published if I didn’t happen to have this here job as President of Marvel.”
Jemas wanted to show his writers something about originality, and making something of lasting substance and value by penning his very own abomination of a comic book, but he only succeeded in illustrating perfectly what not to do. Instead of a bold new beginning for an old company, Marville became a bizarre time capsule doomed not to outlive the curious cultural moment that created it.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Fiasco