Oh-oh. I think the jig is up. Tom DeFalco just realized that I'm having fun on the various European business excursions he's sending me to. See, his idea to send me first to the Frankfurt Buchmesse (Book Fair) and then to the Bolgna Fiera del Libro per Ragazzi (Children's Book Fair) was to punish me. Really. He thought I was having entirely too much fun being his second-in-command, his aide-de-camp, his right hand man...so I had some serious dues-paying coming to me. The way he made Marvel's foreign books fairs sound, I figured I was in for mind-numbing confusion mixed at times with utter boredom. But lo and behold, when I got there I had terrific times, met throngs of very nice people, and came away flushed with new perspectives and ideas for new projects. Well, I must have crowed a bit too loudly about the merits of the Old Country, because Tom's been making grumbling noises about going abroad again and leaving me behind to hold down the fort (we wouldn't want it to rise, would we?).
Be that as it may, I just got back from my second trip to the Frankfurt Book Fair and found it just as interesting and enjoyable the second time around. I must admit, however, that it wasn't the revelation my first trip was-- how could it be? You're only a wide-eyed novice once. The most interesting distinction between this year's trip and last was that we happened to be in town for the big German Reunification celebration on October 2, 1990. Frankfurt, of course, was not the hub of activity-- Berlin was. But if I leaned my head out of my hotel window-- farther...farther...whoa, I'm about to lose my balance...I could see fireworks over the Frankfurt skyline.
And I do have one very interesting thing to report to you, my fellow Americans-- contrary to what I read in the various news magazines when I got back, the German people seem to be against reunification, or at least the rapid manner in which it was done. (Imagine learning something about the world's political situation from MARVEL AGE MAGAZINE!) The first tip-off was the big Anti-Reunification Parade we stumbled upon walking back from our first day of setting up the booth. Not well-versed in German, I couldn't tell what the parade was about even after being handed a pamphlet. Fortunately Bladkompaniet editor in chief Terje Nordberg was standing nearby to translate. (He's Norwegian but knows German.)
Then I talked to a number of native Germans (natives of what was once West Germany, that is) including Hans Fuchs and Heike Vollstaedt of Condor Verlag, our German publishers of Marvel comics, and watched a news documentary on German TV about the fall of the Berlin Wall. What seems to be the current sentiment of many of the people is this: the East Germans are against rapid reunification because their integration into a capitalistic economy is a scary prospect after 45 years of communism. As communists they were guaranteed jobs, but now they have to compete for them. East German factories are closing, unable to compete with Western products, and workers are being laid off right and left. The feeling among the former East Germans appears to be uncertainty and dismay.
The feeling among the former West Germans, on the other hand, appears to be resentment. Not only are "East" Germans competing for jobs in what was once "West", but those who get them do not as yet know what capitalist work standards are just yet, being used to somewhat less stringent work conditions under the communist system. Those "East" Germans who cannot get jobs or hold onto them have to be supported by welfare, which is paid for by the government, which in turn comes out of tax dollars. The "West" Germans resent hundreds of thousands of more people added to the welfare rolls. Finally, when the economies of the two sister countries were joined together, the East German Deutschmark was decreed to be equivalent to the West German Deutschmark so as not to devalue the hard earned savings of the "East" Germans. This is also resented by many "West" Germans since it does not reflect the currency's former buying power and gives the "East" Germans an alledgedly unfair advantage.
So, you ask yourself, why did Germany reunify so fast if it was not the mandate of the people? Well, as I understand it, Chancellor Helmut Kohl wanted it to happen during his term of office so his would be the name to down in the history books. Okay...I hear some of you saying-- enough with Gru's Views on Current Events-- get on to something comics related! Well, all I've got to say is this is my opinion column and I can write about whatever I want. So there.
Ahem. According to my dreadlock-adorned editor Jim Salicrup, if I don't get to something comics related within the next ten words, this will be my last Mark's Remarks. Three words left.
So did I tell you people how I almost became the Polish Spider-Man? True story. After Frankfurt, I was dispatched to Warsaw, Poland to attend a press conference for the members of the Warsaw press-- we're talking newspaper journalists here, not fanzine journalists-- announcing the new Polish-language editions of SPIDER-MAN and THE PUNISHER that premiered there earlier this year. The only thing was nobody would tell me till I got there what it was I was supposed to do there. Matter of fact, I knew Cristian Hammarstrom, editorial director of Semik Sweden, the parent group of the publishing operation in Poland, had brought one of our official Spider-Man personal appearance costumes with him. And I knew that he was too tall to fit into it and I was about the right height. And everyone kept telling me I was going to have to wear it at the press conference. So what was I to do but believe them?
Turns out they got some local actor to portray the web-man and all I really was there for was to give a little speech about Marvel's worldwide operations and our character's background. Hey, I had almost two hours to write the speech-- no problem. Giving the speech was almost fun (don't let Tom know though). Since as far as I knew no Polish journalist there understood English, I had a translator sitting next to me to translate my speech sentence by sentence, and when the translation gives you time to mentally rehearse and polish your next sentence before speaking it-- a cakewalk. If anyone would like a transcript of my speech to the Polish press, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to Mark's Remarks in care of this magazine. That way I won't bore the rest of you with the exact content of my pontifications.
I'd much rather use the space available to me this month to make a few comments about Poland and its people. What's that, Jim? This had better be comics related? Trust me, Jim. I'm a professional.
Warsaw wasn't exactly how I'd imagined it to be. I figured it was all going to be dreary monolithic gray and in point of fact, the buildings were various pastel shades of gray. The people seemed friendly-- particularly the women I managed to get to dance with me in the Warsaw Marriott discotheque, despite the fact they apparently had no idea what I was saying. After being in Frankfurt where most everyone knows at least a little English, it was bracing to be in a country where no one konws any English. (They were taught Russian as their second language, this being an ex-communist state.)
A few other points of interest. First, the city looks like something out of a World War II movie with its narrow cobbestoned streets and low buildings. I was informed that the city had been virtually leveled during the war but every building was rebuilt by Stalin according to is pre-war specifications. Thus there's a real old European feel to the place, a sense that it is not (yet) homogenized with the rest of modern Western culture. Second, there must have been some kind of ordinance that prohibits obtrusive signs and advertising. No store signs thrust out into the street. The only way you could tell a place was a store was by looking at the lettering on the front window, provided you could read Polish, that is. Third, considering that Poland was a police state, I never saw any police anywhere! Not a traffic cop, not a meter reader, not a badge-wearing law enforcer anywhere. Yet I felt perfectly safe wandering around alone. Apparently the crime rate is very low and there are no parking regulations to worry about.
Oh, and comics? Yes, comics are sold only on the newsstand there, places marked, "Ruch" which I never figured out if it meant "newsstand" or was the proper name of a newsstand chain. I checked out a number of them and sure enough saw SPIDER-MAN and the PUNISHER sitting on the counter in most places. I even saw a teenaged boy buying one! How tempted I was to try to tell him who I was, but I'm far too humble, particularly when there's an insurmountable language barrier. Hey, I could've given him my business card that has Spider-Man on it.
You know, as I wandered about in Warsaw on that pre-drizzy October afternoon, I wondered if Poland really needed to have SPIDER-MAN published there. I mean, must America export its pop culture everywhere on Earth? Wouldn't it be okay if a country remained pristinely, blissfully unaware of another country's pop icons and artifacts? Won't the institution of a homogenized global culture help stamp out the wonderful diversity each nation of people has to offer? Naah, it's just a comic book, and I'm an expendable cog in the culture machine that is Marvel. Er, what I meant to write is that it is just as presumptuous of a person (say, me) to patronizingly decide that a culture be preserved pristinely as it is to presume that every culture in the world wants a SPIDER-MAN on the newsstand. No culture exists in a vacuum anymore-- foreign influences always impact upon it. Yes, even here in America. If the Polish people have a need for Spider-Man, they'll buy the book. If they don't, they won't buy it and it'll be discontinued. It's the people's right to decide what should and should not be a part of their culture, not some outsider like me. And to judge by that kid I saw buying a SPIDER-MAN, there is a need for the webby guy in Polish culture.
I'd like to leave you kind indulgent readers with one last anecdote from the Warsaw press conference. My speech is over, I'm relaxing, the publisher of the Polish Marvel titles, Stanislas Dudzik, is chairing a question and answer session from the press, which I admit I'm not paying that much attention to since I can't understand it anyway. Suddenly Stanislas turns to me and says, "Mark, why don't you take that question?" I snap to attention and say sure. The translator translates it for me: "Do you feel that the Punisher is a good role model for Polish children?" I go slack-jawed. I know it's no one in Marvel-U.S.A's fault that we happen to be publishing a PUNISHER comic there-- they chose their own publishing program-- but all the same I mentally vow to punish everyone on our staff responsible for that title's popularity as soon as I get back. Provided, that is, I make it out of that room alive. Sure, Tom, it's your turn to go to Europe next time, right?