The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
Marvel Comics gives us silent treatment in December

February 1, 2001
By Franklin Harris

You never know what those crazy guys at Marvel Comics will come up with next. I've been enthusiastically supportive of their recent change in editorial direction, but this time I'm not sure.

Get this: In December, all of Marvel's regular monthly titles will be wordless.

That's right. Wordless. No dialog balloons. No thought bubbles. No narration boxes. No nothing.

Bill Jemas
Bill Jemas
Joe Quesada
Joe Quesada
This is all the brainchild of Marvel President Bill Jemas, who came along a year ago, found Marvel in disarray and promptly set about turning Marvel into a more creator-friendly place to work.

His smartest move was to hire former free-lancer Joe Quesada as Marvel's editor-in-chief, who in turn has brought in all the top-notch creators Marvel's old regime shunned. I'm talking about the likes of Grant Morrison and Garth Ennis. But to read the initial reaction on the Internet, this "Silent December" thing may go down as his dumbest move yet.

"We think this is going to be a lot of fun," Jemas said. "When we thought of the idea, we expected sort of a mixed bag from creators, but honestly we have yet to speak to an artist or writer who didn't get that glint in their eye."

But are those happy glints or the kinds of glints people get right before they take out an Uzi and mow down a room full of postal workers?

Sure, the few writers who have said anything at all seem supportive.

"This silent December thing is the publisher asking its talent to creatively stretch itself and find a way to craft a story worth telling by abandoning some storytelling conventions that most use as crutches," Brian Michael Bendis, writer of "Ultimate Spider-Man" said on his Internet message board. "So, I gotta say, it's got a lot of potential -- as much potential as the individual talents."

And elsewhere on the Internet, "Avengers" and "Defenders" writer Kurt Busiek said he already has plans for his "silent" issues.

But let me play cynic for a bit.

Obviously, this smells like a gimmick, and that's because it is a gimmick.

It isn't unheard of for comics to be wordless. Will Eisner, creator of "The Spirit," has made a career out of writing and drawing graphic novels that go for long stretches without any dialog or narration at all. He's Will Eisner, and he's a genius, and he can get away with stuff like that.

Then, of course, almost everyone who was reading comics in the '80s remembers "G.I. Joe" No. 21 and its story, "Silent Interlude." Scripted and drawn by Larry Hama, it holds the reputation of being the best of the series' 155-issue run.

''G.I. Joe'' No. 21
But Eisner and Hama had their reasons for telling silent and near-silent stories. They didn't have the idea dropped on them by editorial edict. In that "G.I. Joe" comic, for instance, the main conflict is between the hero, Snake Eyes, who is mute, and Storm Shadow, a ninja. And ninjas are pretty quiet guys.

Plus, I'll admit it, I'm biased. Many of my all-time favorite comics -- books like "Sandman," "The Dreaming," "Transmetropolitan" -- are written by people with a real command of the English language.

"Sandman" is brilliant in spite of sometimes-bad art because Neil Gaiman was simply the best writer in comics at the time. His words can almost tell the story by themselves. It's no wonder he now spends his time writing novels.

But that's not really why I'm upset. With the level of talent at Marvel today, I fully expect that December's comics will at least be interesting, and many of them may even be great. It's simply the principle of the thing.

You can have comics written by writers, which is the direction Marvel has been moving in, or you can have comics written by editors. And while giving writers free reign doesn't always lead to greatness, having editors micromanage everything almost always leads to trouble.

Now, I'm not saying that a one-time gimmick is going to lead to Jemas or Quesada jerking their writers around. I think both of them are too smart for that. But why do it at all? Why not just let the creators tell the stories they planned to tell without having to work around Jemas' Big Idea?

"The beauty of it is that it's a company wide crossover without anything really crossing over," said Quesada, and that's true. Silent December isn't like past company-wide events that writers had to shoehorn into their plans. It's less intrusive, but it's still editorial interference.

A month of nothing but wordless Marvel Comics is certainly a new and different idea. I hope it works, and I'm confident it will work on some level. But I think if Marvel wants to do something really new and really different, it should just let its creators tell their stories in the ways they deem best.

Now there's an idea.

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