From the "regular" Marvel Universe titles to the more teen-oriented Ultimate books and to the versions seen in films and cartoons, there sure are plenty of Marvel universes out there. But one version that's caught on with readers in a big way is the Marvel Adventures line, which has built for itself a loyal following among readers both young and old. In this first part of a two-part series, CBR News will take a closer look at Marvel's all-ages line and talking to some of its architects about what makes it tick.
Consisting of its own versions of the "Spider-Man," "Fantastic Four" and "The Avengers" titles, the MA line of books offers "done-in-one" issue tales of Marvel's biggest heroes that are appropriate for all ages. Created by rotating teams of writers, the MA books specialize in fun, goofy tales like Spider-Man "adopting" Doctor Octopus's stray arms as pets, and the fan-favorite "Doom, Where's My Car?" in which the Human Torch inadvertently buys Dr. Doom's old car and wackiness ensues.
Mark Paniccia, who edits the MA line, believes the books' success comes from their refusal to talk down to the reader, even if that reader is a child. "You're not going to find a [Marvel Adventures] story that's specifically geared for seven year-old," Paniccia told CBR News. "You're going to get a story that can entertain anyone from age seven to 70."
Paniccia also believes that the unique structure of the titles also contributes to the line's success, explaining, "Because the stories don't rely on long arcs [nor are they] affected by current continuity, [readers] end up with a 'done-in-one' that pushes the boundaries and is usually off-the-wall fun. And the essence of the characters is preserved. This is the same Spider-Man or FF that many of the older readers fell in love with [as children]."
Jeff Parker, whose work on "Marvel Adventures Fantastic Four" received a Harvey nomination, has used the MA format as a platform for such offbeat fan-favorites as the aforementioned "Doom, Where's My Car?" and "Goom Got Game," where Spider-Man and the Human Torch fight an extra-dimensional creature whose knowledge of Earth comes from MTV. "I was lucky to anticipate a trap I could have easily fallen into, and that I think many creators have done in the past," said Parker, who begins a second tour on "Marvel Adventures Avengers" this month. "They get assignments like this, which have certain restrictions and aren't in continuity, and let that taint their process- 'I'm not doing the real version of this, I'm doing the kiddie book.'
"I made up my mind when they gave me that year of 'Marvel Adventure Fantastic Four'- to hell with the other FF books being done now, this is the real 'Fantastic Four' comic! And adopting that attitude freed me up to do stories I was very happy with. You can use being out of continuity as a strength and do things the other titles can't."
Fred Van Lente, who's currently working on a four-issue "Marvel Adventures Spider-Man" arc and will take over "Marvel Adventures Fantastic Four" next year, agrees. "You can play with all the Lee and Kirby toys, but you don't have to adhere to where they are in current Marvel continuity," Van Lente said. "You don't have to worry that the Hulk has been exiled into space, so you can't use him for a couple or months, and Doctor Doom can just pop in and out. You get to revamp characters!
"The obvious thing to compare it to is the Bruce Timm 'Superman' and 'Batman' cartoons, where you get to use all the toys, but you have this great opportunity to, in the case of the Marvel characters, take 40 years of appearances and put it in a blender and make this gestalt out of all the best parts of the character. In February, in the last issue of the "Marvel Adventures Spider-Man," I get to introduce Venom, and do him in one issue, and that's a lot of fun."
The Marvel Adventures books adhere to a careful formula. "First off, they're all self-contained," Paniccia explained. "Since these books are going out to the mass market, there's a good chance this is someone's first experience with a comic. We want to make sure they get a beginning, middle and an end--that the experience is satisfying and something unique.
"Second, we're very careful content-wise. There are things we stay away from such as guns, risqué situations or anything we think might be too graphic. And you know what, you don't need those things for a great story. The books are straight up, awesome adventures that an adult can read and feel comfortable passing on to a younger reader."
Zeb Wells, who's completed a four-issue stint on "Marvel Adventures Spider-Man" and is currently in the middle of a "Marvel Adventures Fantastic Four" run, explained the process in more detail. "There are, you know, little guidelines here and there, because it's a pocket universe, where there's a little less talk of death and no guns and stuff like that.
"It's all about feeling out what's acceptable and what isn't. You know, like sometimes you'll have a security guard pull out his gun, and you have to go back and turn it into a billy club or something like that. I've never really run into anything that affected the story."
Parker says working with Paniccia is, "A constant, pleasant surprise. Mark calls and says 'Would you be interested in working on...' and then the thing he says is always something I would have asked for myself." Parker added, "Often, I'll write part of a story thinking, 'they'll never let me do that.' And Mark will give that part the thumbs up and egg me on to do more. When he does ask for changes I tend to get cranky because it means there really is a problem I need to address. He's extremely concerned with making great stories and has a strong intuitive sense of what will take us down that path.
"Editing is an unsung craft, because the reader with the finished book can't tell what the editor did. But you may be able to point at some of the most interesting books coming out from Marvel and note how often his name is in those credits."
Paniccia just hopes that his books entertain, and that they serve as a "gateway" book for new readers. "My hopes are that new readers will be enthused enough to go out and discover the wider world of comic books," Paniccia said. "If that means tracking down a comic shop or going to their local book store's trade paperback shelf, than I've done my job."
Coming up in in Part Two, the MA Mafia discusses the specific challenges of creating single-issue stories, the place of all-ages books in today's marketplace, and gives us a sneak peak at the book that's got everyone talking: EVERYBODY BECOMES MODOK! (or MODOC, as you'll see).
CBR Staff Writer Andy Khouri contributed to this article.
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