At a recent convention panel, Marvel Comics editor-in-chief C.B. Cebulski laid out his vision for how the publisher should proceed when it comes to tackling real-world issues and themes in its stories: Real issues are fine, but entertainment is paramount.
Speaking at Terrificon in Connecticut earlier this month alongside Marvel writers Charles Soule and Nick Spencer, Cebulski — who took over as editor-in-chief last fall, replacing the outgoing Axel Alonso — was asked by one fan about Marvel's long history of dealing with real issues and sending messages with its stories. What, the fan wondered, did Cebulski see as the messages he wants Marvel to convey to fans in his era?
Here's his response, as recorded by moderator John Siuntres for his excellent Word Balloon podcast:
“Marvel has always been, as Stan [Lee] always said, is ‘the world outside our window.’ It’s the reflection of the modern times that we live in. And, you know, Marvel has never shied away from that... around what happened with 9/11, even what we were doing with Secret Empire... And we’re going to continue that tradition," he said. "There is a couple of [upcoming issues] that are going to reflect things that are going on in the real world.
"However, one of the things I want to make sure is when we do tell these stories is that — I don’t know how to put this in the right way — they still have to be entertainment. If we want to see the real world, we can turn on CNN, we can turn on the TV, we can pick up a newspaper and see what’s going on there. And yes, it’s our responsibility as a comic book publisher, especially Marvel, given the history that we have, as you say, to reflect those times, but they still have to be fun. They still have to be fiction, and they still have to be escapism.
"We can’t get too deep into the politics. And the characters can take sides, choose sides... turn evil, turn back to good, but they still have to entertain, and that’s first and foremost. No matter what real-world events we are going to reflect, they are going to be fictionalized and they are going to have the Marvel, the classic spin that Stan always brought to them. They will be serious, but they’ll also make people smile.”
There's a lot to unpack here, with the caveat that Cebulski was delivering these remarks completely off the cuff and without any specificity in terms of what he actually thinks "too deep into the politics" means. That said, this sounds quite a bit like hoping to have it both ways, which is perhaps by design given that Cebulski can't possibly predict what each individual creative team is going to bring to the table in terms of issues and viewpoints they'd like to explore in their stories.
What's particularly interesting, though, is that Cebulski seems to be making a distinction between stories that delve deeply into politics and stories that are "escapism" or "make people smile." The phrase "all art is political" gets thrown around a lot right now, and it's true, but just as that phrase means that the most escapist story in the world still comes from a particular point of view, it also means that a work of art that is earnestly, unapologetically political in its messaging can also be a work of great entertainment. Just ask fans of The West Wing, or The Handmaid's Tale, or Transmetropolitan. Even Godzilla, a film about a giant lizard stomping through Tokyo, carries inherent political undertones. It doesn't mean it's not also a fun movie about a huge monster.
Again, it's important to note that Cebulski is not speaking to particular stories here, nor is he outlining any particular issue or story that he would deem too political to publish in the pages of Marvel Comics. Even the most political Marvel superhero stories have always had to balance messaging out with action, so we can read Cebulski's words as a plea to continue that balance.
Whatever the case, as long as Marvel Comics is the home of characters like Captain America, Black Panther, and the X-Men, any editor will be hard-pressed to keep political viewpoints out of the stories entirely.