About a month ago, the kids and I wandered into our local Target superstore in search of nothing in particular. Killing time in the suburbs often involves trips to Target; it’s how we roll. Halloween was in the air and we soon found ourselves perusing a section that had been dedicated to all things black and orange. Amidst the plaster pumpkins and witches brooms, I came across a particular item that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since then, namely an officially licensed Spider-Man pumpkin carving kit. That’s right, it was a set of fairly low quality plastic cutting utensils festooned with the likeness of ol’ Webhead himself. Now I know that doesn’t sound like a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but something about this particular licensed product implanted itself in my head. It haunted me…sort of. The idea of a Spider-Man pumpkin carving kit admittedly made me giggle at the time, but mostly because it seemed downright odd that anyone would choose to buy this peculiar item simply because it was the Spider-Man version.
In the weeks that followed, I started to wonder about the licensing of superhero images and the notion that putting a picture of a “hero” on something makes it more desirable to the consumer. When faced with the choice between the regular version or the comic character version of something as mundane as toothbrush or a pair of kid’s roller skates, does the licensed character version always win out? And as we march steadily toward the holidays and willingly immerse ourselves in the great season of spending, I find myself asking if perhaps things have gotten out of hand. Truth be told, it seems like the quality control is non-existent when it comes to what they will and will not greenlight as an officially licensed Marvel or DC product. A quick Amazon search results in a laundry list of everyday items plastered with our friends from the big two universes.
To prove my point, I decided to venture into the heart of darkness to do a little further research, namely the local “dollar store” or as I like to call it “the place where licensed Marvel products go to die.” Now if you’re looking for licensed products and you want the bottom of the barrel, this is the place for you. You see the dollar store is really just a liquidation front, where they sell the things that didn’t sell in regular stores. So while you think you’re getting a bargain for those nifty Avengers “flying discs” or those Batman band-aids, you’re really just helping someone somewhere cut their losses. A quick walk through the aisles verified my worst fears, as the place was awash in cheap plastic Avengers and Spider-man gewgaws that barely qualified as toys, as well as some thoroughly misguided Avengers grocery bags. Simply stated, the place was a bummer, so after buying myself a slightly stale Clark Bar, I got out of there.
Who is it that decides what can and can’t be licensed? Judging by the amount of stuff out there, I get the sense that these gatekeepers of our beloved comic book characters aren’t particularly picky about where the likenesses of these characters appear. I totally get that the money made off these licensing deals does in some way help comics themselves stay afloat, but it also seems like giving anyone with enough money the right to put a character on anything and everything degrades the value of the property itself. I realize that the images of Spider-Man or Superman are much more valuable than the actual comic books featuring Supes or Spidey and you certainly can’t fault Marvel or DC for exploiting their properties. It’s just that there’s something somewhat unseemly about putting the Avengers on something like, for example, a child’s toilet-training seat. That’s right, there’s an Avengers potty chair. That’s what it’s come to. I guess the idea is that if junior is going to learn to go number two then he needs the urging of both his parents and the Mighty Thor, who he’ll sit on directly as he does his…well…business.
It seems like there really isn’t anything they won’t Spider-Man-ize or Wolverine-ify. So where do we draw the line? Do we need to draw the line? I suppose the sight of a superhero on something that doesn’t really need a hero on it will always have the potential to make me giggle at least a little bit, but it’s also a sort of sad when you think about it. In the end, there seems to be no real filtering mechanism when it comes where you’ll find Spider-Man’s webbed head or Iron Man’s metal mug, but in my humble opinion, something is lost in the translation when our heroes leap from the pages of our beloved books and land on items that have nothing to do with comics or, even worse, are basically disposable junk.
I’m not immune to the pull of this sort of thing, admittedly. I have a small collection of “Marvel Bearz” that I picked up on clearance in San Diego a few years back. These are essentially Marvel characters depicted as…uh…vinyl bears. By my own definition, they are little more than licensed plastic crap. But they’re sort of whimsical and they look good on a shelf with my trades, so I’m giving myself a mulligan here. But on a more macro level, when it comes to putting images of the Avengers on tiny pieces of plastic that really serve no purpose other than getting lost under the couch, I start to wonder if perhaps we’ve gone off the deep end.
Maybe it all goes back to that cursed pumpkin carving kit. When you really think about it, the only thing you need to carve a pumpkin is a knife and it damn well doesn’t need to have the Incredible Hulk on it to do the job. I forget who said, it, but just because you CAN do it, doesn’t mean you SHOULD do it. There’s likely no turning back from this sort of thing at this point; it’s just part of reality, whether we like it or not. Nevertheless, maybe we can speak with our dollars this holiday season and spend our cash on actual comic books featuring the characters so often slapped onto things we don’t really need. Imagine that.
Gabe Roth is a TV writer trapped in the suburbs of Los Angeles. He’s @gaberoth on Twitter.