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Dr. Toon: Mouse, Marvel and Mythos

Dr. Toon dissects Disney's Marvel Purchase as a cultural benchmark.

Martin Goodman.

Wolverine's facial expression suggests that he has ingested a dose of medicine that no spoonful ofsugar could sweeten. In his razor-taloned hand he holds sheets of music. His eyes are rolled upwards, gaze fixed on a sweet little bluebird fluttering above his mouse-eared cowl, rather than the one coyly perched on his deltoid. Behind the disgusted mutant an unseen assistant is releasing more of them. Worst of all, Wolverine is being exhorted by a tweedy musical director to sing "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes" with "PIZZAZZ!" Who has doomed this most feral of X-Men to such a fate? Magneto? Apocalypse? Mister Sinister? The Phalanx? Perhaps a glance at the heading above this Sept. 2 editorial cartoon by Nate Beeler of the Washington Examiner will give us a clue: "News Item: Disney Buys Marvel Comics…"

A fantastic four billion dollars sealed the epic deal that brought the popular comic book company to Disney, along with 5,000 characters and numerous complicated licensing arrangements. This new deal would enable Mighty Marvel to become, in essence, its own movie studio instead of licensing its characters to the likes of Sony (as they did with Spider-Man). With the deal also comes artistic freedom for Marvel to conduct the various book lines as they wish. What does Uncle Walt's empire receive? Disney had long been in pursuit of the young male audience for quite some time, having nicely captured the female demographic with numerous princesses and the ubiquitous presence of Hannah Montana. Their last effort to capture the boys was a live-action show called "Zeke and Luther." Almost predictably, it was the jeune filles who clicked the remotes to see the clean-cut cuties while the boys only had eyes for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Clearly, some rebranding was in order. Enter Marvel Comics.

Thus, Disney's Bob Iger and Marvel's Ike Perlmutter have combined to form an entertainment powerhouse that allows independence -- and collaboration -- for both. Imagine a three-way team-up between Marvel, Pixar and Disney to bring some of the Marvel properties to both large and small screens. Marvel TV productions had been more or less on a par with DC's properties, producing a very good Spider-Man series and very adult versions of the X-Men while DC did the same with Batman: The Animated Series and Justice League Unlimited. However, it is no secret that DC had been thrashing Marvel in the DVD arena; while DC had scored major triumphs with superb DVDs such as Superman Doomsday, Gotham Knight, and Justice League: The New Frontier among others, Marvel Prods. trotted out some serviceable but inferior offerings such as Ultimate Avengers and retellings of the origins of Dr. Strange and Iron Man. One outright disaster was Next Avengers (a.k.a. Avenger Babies).

What the media overlooked in the financial complexities, emotional reactions and creative potentialities of the Disney-Marvel deal was the cultural impact of combining two of the greatest storytelling entities on the planet: Disney is now the largest repository of America's modern mythology. In this age of media conglomerates, few deals, mergers and buyouts will have greater impact on this country's psyche. As the two corporations combine and intertwine their narrative powers, the myths we enjoy will be continually evolving, refining and redefining themselves.

This new deal would enable Mighty Marvel to become, in essence, its own movie studio.

Before we explore this theme, allow me to state that this buyout occupies no moral domain. It cannot be said that it is good, bad, benign or evil. The con-geeks of this world may rejoice and the enemies of capitalism may groan, but at bottom, both sense the truth: Myths have always been with humankind, and they will continue to be generated as long as Homo sapiens possess an imagination. Whether it is the ancient Greeks eventually turning religious polytheism into a soap opera filled with lusty and capricious gods or American film studios spending millions of dollars in order to put the stories of Batman, Spider-Man and Superman into theaters, the song remains the same: Humans are a myth-producing species.

Wolverine (despite the existence of a flesh-and-blood Hugh Jackman) is a mythical construct. So, in fact, is Mickey Mouse, who has an origin story, a chronological history and figurative temples and houses of worship dedicated in his name. Donald Duck has much the same, plus an extended family in the bargain. Disney, truth be told, has had more success integrating their own characters into American mythos than they have in animating actual American mythology (which we tend to call "folktales"). It is very likely that even most college students are more familiar with Goofy and Scrooge McDuck than they are with Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, Pecos Bill and even John Henry, despite Diz' reworking of this tale in 2000. Needless to say, they also are more likely to identify Iron Man than Ichabod Crane. America is a late entry in world civilization, with a history spanning about 400 years if one counts the earliest attempts at habitation by European cultures. It was also a nation conceived in monotheism, a religious conviction that pretty much ruled out the creation of new myths.

However, as we have noted, we must create myths. Since these myths were devoid of any other gods besides the god of Abraham, they had no religious content and were thus heavily tied to entertainment. It is no surprise that Westerns (as a genre) were among the first films to be produced, and that this genre continued to amass mythical power over the years.

Buoyed by dozens of film celebrities and later by television, the Western became the prime vehicle for the transmission of myths about this country. In 1959, 26 westerns were airing in prime time during a period when only three networks were broadcasting. Eight of the top 10 rated shows were Westerns. Add to this the fact that an extensive film library of westerns were also being shown to TV audiences during that time. But 1959 proved to be the peak year. Clearly, new myths were in order. They were to come from an unlikely source.

Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and several other talented artists and storytellers sensed that a new era was at hand. They were the caretakers of a largely moribund comic book company that, by 1960, seemed to facing extinction. Lee and company created America's next great myths by coming up with mighty, yet emotionally skewed characters who could just as easily be antiheroes. Spider-Man's original motivation, for example, was a paycheck. Lee was a Wagnerian at heart, and he infused his tales with mythic overtones. Bearing titles such as "If I Must Die…Let it be with Honor!," his stories packed enough drama to hook any adult reader. At his side was Jack Kirby, perhaps the most imaginative science-fiction illustrator ever to masquerade as a comic book artist. His specialty was the dramatic pose, and possibly no one ever did it better. Together they created superheroes that were freaks both to the public and to themselves.

As they expanded their stable of heroes and villains, the scope of their stories grew. Every issue of every magazine seemed to hold a particle of the Apocalypse in its fervid pages, and to make things more interesting, the storylines twined across multiple issues, at times crossing over to another character's magazine. For a buck and a half, you could buy all of them every month and fill your dreams with heady adventure and peerless artwork. Sure, Superman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and Batman were around, but they quickly lost ground against Marvel's new gods (as Jack Kirby might have it). Best of all, Marvel was able to reinvent itself several times through the decades, until it became an entertainment empire in its own right, with consumer products, TV productions and ancillary items galore.

Disney, as mentioned, was already in the myth business. It was becoming difficult for children to realize that many of Disney's films were taken from other sources. Disney managed to take control of a cultural phenomenon known as "standardization of interpretation." In simple terms, this means that one version of an artifact becomes definitive over all others within a given culture. This can sometimes be seen with consumer products, as in the case where all adhesive wound coverings are called "Band-Aids" despite the fact that there are rival versions. When an entire generation thinks of Pinocchio or Peter Pan, what instantly appears is a mental depiction of the Disney version. No one conjures up the illustrations that Enrico Mazzanti did for Carlo Collodi's book, nor do they consider the original stage version as conceived by J.M. Barrie. As Disney produced more films and characters, the company soon "owned" the myths that America's children (and later, their children) came to accept as a standard telling.

Disney has been assailed for doing so, in some cases not unfairly. The animated version of Peter Pan violated all but one rule set forth by Barrie for his stage productions of the story. Had Disney not done so, the world would not have a definitive image of Tinkerbelle, much less all of her BFFs that made their first appearance this year. Like Marvel, Disney also created original mythic tales; The Lion King is perhaps the best adaptation of Joseph Campbell's formulations than any other animated film ever done. At any rate, the bottom line is clear: two of the greatest mythmakers in history are now as one.

There are some near-precedents for this in history, but they haven't gone well. After Rome subjugated Greece, the Italian culture adopted the mythical Greek gods and changed their names as well as some of their properties. The conquerors infused some of their cultural sensibilities into the tales in the process. The new deities were duly worshipped amongst the Romans for awhile, eventually degenerating into what amounted to folk tales and then displaced by emperor worship. Emperor worship eventually crumbled under civil unrest, barbarian attacks, and a messianic religious sect that later came to be known as Christianity. Along all of these steps, the Romans forced these religious myths on every indigenous population they conquered, notably the Jews, who usually staged a bloody rebellion in response.

But that was then, and this is 2009. Myth is now recognized for what it is, and new visual components have been added to verbal tradition. Stir in a sophisticated, highly technological population and wired culture, and myths have a different meaning in the age of memes. If, say, a reviewer of some future project deemed Disney's use of a Marvel character as "heretical," no blood would be shed today. In truth, nothing but good can come of this merger, and I for one am excited by the possibilities. The technological tools of animation have never been sharper, and a series of live-action film franchises have Marvel's heroes riding a high tide, indeed. Let those who consider both Disney's animated cartoons and Marvel's comic books as lowbrow entertainment take heed; between the two storytelling giants may come a creative, artistic synergy that elevates mythology to Olympian heights. Now, Mr. Wolverine, from the top with PIZZAZZ!

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.

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