Bright Lights Film Journal

Book Review: Make Ours Marvel: Media Convergence and a Comics Universe, ed. by Matt Yockey

Thor: Ragnarok poster art

Make Ours Marvel: Media Convergence and a Comics Universe, edited by Matt Yockey. $29.95, 364pp. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017.

In August this year, Netflix released The Defenders, the fifth of their shows produced in partnership with Marvel Studios. Next month, November, sees the long-awaited arrival of Thor: Ragnarok in theatres. The superhero, and Marvel’s specific rendition of the figure, seems omnipresent. His (still all too rarely her) long history in American entertainment is well established enough that academia can embrace the figure wholeheartedly. It is not surprising, then, that writers spend their time analysing what the surge of superpowered characters means for media and film culture today.

Matt Yockey’s edited anthology Make Ours Marvel: Media Convergence and a Comics Universe examines the Marvel “phenomenon.” In 12 essays by a variety of writers (one a woman), the book takes its readers on a journey through the various “convergence” elements of Marvel: from the comics, through to the innovations the company has attempted within the medium, to its TV and film productions, capping it with a look at particular figures within the Marvel-verse, including the master of the “House of Ideas” himself, Stan Lee. In his introduction, Yockey states that “the goal of this present anthology is to chart some key points of the fluid borders of the Marvel Universe in order to contribute to a deeper understanding of how and why the Marvel brand has been so dependable and changeable for both producers and consumers for over half a century.” The anthology is part of the University of Texas Press’s World Comics and Graphic Nonfiction Series, which automatically raises it to a serious attempt to locate Marvel’s place in a larger, global culture.

How well does the anthology succeed? To his credit, Yockey has gathered a fascinating array of essays. He explicitly states that the book’s focus is Marvel in terms of media convergence, or the collation of various forms including print, film, television, and video games to create a sense of a “world” and its interconnected parts. The result is pieces that range in topic from the place of the auteur in Marvel’s print Daredevil (a wonderful read from Henry Jenkins) to the similarity of the Marvel multiverse to the quantum universe theory in physics (a bit of a mindbender by William Proctor).

One of the strengths of the book is its timeliness. Marvel’s films, the company’s most visible face (arguably), have become staples of the worldwide box office. Actors cast in these films regularly find themselves in the media spotlight, and can expect something of a career boost (Tom Hiddleston and Chris Hemsworth being good examples). The growing Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) draws in thousands of fans from cultures across the globe. In their essays, “Share Your Universe” and “Breaking Brand,” Derek Johnson and Deron Overpeck examine the place of Marvel’s “original” product, comics, in the light of the convergence revolution. Johnson’s piece tracks the relative failure of Marvel’s “Share your Universe” campaign, which was aimed at parents who had grown up reading comics and attempting to channel their nostalgia toward sharing the same “experience” with their children. Johnson’s analysis shows how the gendered discourse of the campaign, which seemed to expect comics transference between fathers and sons and hence excluded, obliquely, other caregivers and children, might have been a contributory factor in its fizzling out. In this regard, the essay highlights many problems endemic to targeted advertising, or marketing campaigns that are sexist and exclusionary without even really seeming, or being designed, to be so.

Anne F. Peppard, the sole female voice in this testosterone-dominated anthology, is perhaps predictably saddled with the task of writing about women in comics. Her essay, “This Female Fights Back: A Feminist History of Marvel Comics,” is placed in the first half of the anthology, which focuses largely on the print comics produced by Marvel. Peppard’s piece traces the history of the superheroine in Marvel, starting with the Cat, and continuing on through Captain Marvel in her various manifestations, and Jennifer Walters, or She-Hulk. Peppard highlights the conflicting ways in which Marvel used these heroines both to “solve the problem of female readership” and to cater to what they assumed to be their “main” audience, one that was largely male. In the process, the heroines are either presented as not in control of themselves when they morph into their powerful counterparts, or they’re blatantly sexualised, this sexualisation presented as a “feminist” clapback to the male gaze. In this essay, the omission of the filmic representations of these heroines seems strange, given the emerging conversation around the lack of female headliners for superhero movies. DC’s Wonder Woman (June 2017) bucked this trend, but Marvel has yet to release a female-led movie. The Netflix series Jessica Jones handles questions of trauma and sexual assault in what many critics have called a “nuanced” and sensitive fashion; the absence of discussion of these forms of the superheroine (or lack thereof) seems a glaring one.

Captain Marvel vs. Iron Man

The timeliness that makes the book important is also what burdens it. Only one essayist, Aaron Taylor in “Playing Peter Parker: Spider-Man and the Superhero Film Performance,” explicitly calls out the datedness of his own work. “[I]n the period between the writing of this chapter and its publication, a third film actor will have assumed the wall-crawler’s mantle: Tom Holland. However, this volume will go to press before the release of Holland’s heroic debut in Captain America: Civil War (2016), which obviously means his work will not be considered here.” The problem with writing about a media franchise as it is unfolding is a thorny one to resolve. There is no way these essayists could possibly be expected to halt their own considerations until Marvel has “finished” doing what it wants to do (whether that is releasing all the films they have announced as part of the MCU, or all the TV shows they are developing), but at the same time, the long production schedules of a book ensure that by the time it is released, the world outside has moved past the particular topics under consideration. Perhaps digital publishing could not only solve the matter of “timeliness,” but address other concerns too. For instance, Jenkins, in conversation, made a case for digital publishing: “[The] affordances of digital fix many of the problems we currently confront as a field, such as the reproduction of color images and the challenges of scale.” Jenkins’s essay in the anthology, which relies extensively on references to colour and the nuance various auteurs bring to illustration, is only half as compelling as it could have been, thanks to print restrictions.

Despite these limitations, Make Ours Marvel makes valuable contributions to the academic study of comics and the media they inspire. The essays are accessible, ensuring that students of various disciplines and at different stages of study could potentially read and enjoy them. Some raise points that would otherwise be ignored, such as the gendered discourse that continues to surround many of Marvel’s marketing efforts, and the fan-servicing that is so embedded in their productions. Dru Jeffries’s essay, “Spotting Stan: The Fun and Function of Stan Lee’s Cameos in the Marvel Universe(s),” is a particularly enlightening piece, picking apart what most people view as uncomplicated fan service in the MCU: the regular blink-and-you-miss-it cameos of a man who is perhaps Marvel’s most long-standing symbol: Stan Lee. With their sheer variety, the essays spotlight many facets of the Marvel empire that fans are familiar with, and extend their engagement through detailed, incisive commentary.

It would have been wonderful if there were more pieces on representation, a burning issue in both academic and mainstream commentary on comics, as well as a larger roster of female contributors. Also, given that the anthology is positioned as part of a “world comics” series, the absence of commentary on Marvel’s ventures and successes in markets outside of the USA is strange.  It might also have been helpful to have an essay that dealt explicitly with the differences between Marvel’s convergence strategies and those of its rival, DC Comics, given how much time Yockey’s introduction spends talking about how the former constructed its brand in direct opposition to that of the latter.

However, Yockey himself says this collection is only a “starting point” for “further academic explorations of this fascinating universe.” There is no way one anthology can hope to say everything possible about the Marvel giant, in the same way that one film, one TV series, or one comics event, cannot do justice to the sprawling universe the “House of Ideas” has built. As academics, our task is to soldier on and continue to fight the issues the “House” throws at us, modeling ourselves on the superheroes who rise undaunted, day after day, to save the world from doom and Doom.