Holy bottom line, Batman! Look what's shaking in the Marvel Universe!

Holy bottom line, Batman! Look what's shaking in the Marvel Universe! Some of Marvel Comics' greatest superheroes are about to meet their makers -- literally. Captain America, Iron Man, The Avengers and The Fantastic Four -- classic foes of evil and guardians of Marvel's profit margin since the 1960s -- will cease to exist as we know them, screams the breathless copy from Marvel's publicity department. This fall, Marvel is preparing to change the future of comics again. While Marvel jettisons its past in the hopes of becoming the once and future king of comics for the 1990s, Old Town Publishing, a tiny entrepreneurial operation based in New York, is celebrating that very history. Old Town publisher and writer David Allikas, 39, touts the virtues of his company's first title, Dr. Wonder, by comparing it to the old Marvel Comics of his youth.Allikas wants to make a dent in the market by appealing to nostalgic baby boomers. Lamenting what he sees as the declining quality of comic book writing and art, Allikas promises that Dr. Wonder will remind baby boomers of the comics they enjoyed as kids and will make them want to share it with their own kids.It's a good idea, but Marvel is one step ahead of him. "We want to get a new audience and pay respect to the audiences we've had," says Marvel Comics' editor-in-chief Bob Harras. To accomplish that mission, Marvel plans to kill off all its old superheroes. Or does it?Marvel hits the stands this week with the first issue of Onslaught: Marvel Universe, featuring the climax of a story line that Marvel launched at the beginning of the summer, but whose backstory began about two years ago. Here's a quick synopsis for non-Marvel fans: It seems that Prof. Charles Xavier, founder and leader of Marvel's X-Men gang of hero mutants, used his telepathic powers to wipe clean the mind of the archvillain, Magneto. Because of this, Xavier's mind was altered and he transformed into Onslaught, a character who became more and more evil until he posed the greatest threat ever to the Marvel Universe.To help battle Onslaught, the X-Men enlisted the aid of other Marvel heroes, paving the way for an archetypal battle between good and evil. In the final confrontation -- and this isn't spoiling the suspense, folks -- Onslaught will defeat The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, Captain America and Iron Man. That's roughly equivalent to the aliens' blowing up the White House in Independence Day. But, hey, all's not lost. These are comic books, after all. Through the talents of artists Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld, the Marvel heroes will be born again in the fall with a decidedly nineties attitude in a new series, Heroes Reborn.All of this sounds suspiciously like DC Comics' super-hyped Death of Superman series a couple of years ago. The Man of Steel didn't really die, of course. He just went into a coma until DC's sales got healthier. But Harras denies that Marvel's Heroes Reborn campaign is as blatant a marketing ploy as Superman's death. "That was a real gimmick," Harras says of Superman's faux demise. "We went to the key creators of our characters and asked them how they would like to refurbish them."Marvel's radical corrective surgery on its seminal characters stemmed from readers' perception "that some of our older core characters had gotten a little musty over time," Harras says. "They started the company, but other characters have overtaken time in popularity. We decided to take a second look at them."So how does a 1990s superhero differ from the 1960s version? Well, Marvel created its bizarre quartet of heroes known as the Fantastic Four in 1961, when one of the big issues was beating the Russians to the moon. The retooled post-Soviet Union superheroes will face more contemporary threats and Harras implies that they will exhibit new, more politically correct character traits.For instance: Sue Strong, the Invisible Girl of the Fantastic Four, used to faint when she used her powers, just because she's female. In the new Fantastic Four configuration, "Sue is much more dynamic and vital," Harras says. Still, he maintains, "a hero is a hero, no matter what period. They do noble deeds and battle evil. That's the magic of these characters."Even so, Heroes Reborn smacks of savvy marketing. Harras admits that Marvel's sales have been off recently, but notes that "now, we are meeting expectations. Of course, we'd like to do better." A softening market and rollercoaster sales have given the comic book industry a bumpy ride in recent years. Marvel remains the nation's number one comic book company and is at the top of the pyramid created by the Big Four publishers -- Marvel, DC, Image and Dark Horse.For his part, David Allikas would at least like to hold his own as a new kid on the block. It's not easy getting product onto the shelves, because comic dealers typically order stock sight unseen from distributors' catalogues. "It's tough to get an unknown title ordered from a catalogue," Allikas says. "The big guys dominate." Then again, one of the big guys was his inspiration.Allikas became hooked on Marvel superheroes in 1965, when the Fantastic Four, Spiderman and the Hulk began to appear. "I started reading comics when I was 5," Allikas says. "I liked the superheroes and bought them all. There was a human element to them. The characters had love lives, real- world problems that DC heroes didn't have."Those comics also had cleanly drawn, clearly written stories and didn't revel in the kind of graphic sex and violence that Allikas charges has ruined contemporary comics for its core youth readership. Allikas also has little patience for current comic artists' infatuation with what he describes as experimental "MTV visual stuff. Why can't they put out a story and art that we can follow?"Although its interior pages are black and white, Dr. Wonder sports a crisp visual style, slickly-drawn characters and unambiguous story lines that clearly limn the differences between good and evil. If the style of Dr. Wonder looks familiar to long-time comics fans, it's because Allikas has hired two veteran artists from the 1940s' Golden Age of comics, Dick Ayers and Irwin Hasen, co-creators of the popular daily newspaper comic strip Dondi, which ran in newspapers for more than 30 years.Ayers became involved with Old Town when he answered an ad that Allikas had run in a comic trade publication. "David wanted an artist who drew in the 1960s style," Ayers says. "I responded, why don't you get the original?" Ayers, now 72, has worked on a plethora of classic comics in his half-century career, including, ironically, the Fantastic Four, X-Men, The Avengers and Captain America.Ayers shares Allikas' views about the decline of quality in comics. "I love the good old storytelling fashion, not the computer-type stuff of today," he says. "The graphics got confusing and the heroes got to be anti-heroes. It just got boring. You like to see nice, heroic characters. It gives you something to look up to." As Allikas sees it, the world needs a few square-jawed, morally upstanding superheroes to do battle against the flashy, sexy, slasher art and nihilistic plotlines that have come to dominate an industry that began with good, clean, family fun. I'm trying to make a point here, which keeps me going, he says. Whether the audience for comics agrees remains to be seen. Despite a slow start, Allikas has released a second issue of Dr. Wonder and has four more issues ready to go.There's enough irony and suspense in these intertwined developments to fuel an entire book of comic cliffhangers. And the success of Marvel's and Old Town's very different approaches may determine the future of the comic book superhero.

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