Marvel Mystery Monday: Sweet XVI, reaching female readers from ancient Rome

For this week’s MMM, Monomythic has a special treat: the creator of an obscure Marvel character has offered to help fill in the gaps. Please visit Barbara Slate’s website to learn more about her amazing comics!

Comic fans and creators – presumably mostly male – have long asked, do girl’s read comics? In the early days of comics humor comics were made for little girls, comics were soon made for teenage girls and in 1947 Captain America’s creators started the romance comics genre with young women in mind.

This trend continued for many years, with Marvel having successful characters like Patsy Walker lasting well into the Silver Age super-hero era. A new try for young readers was made in the 1980s with Star Comics, but by the 1990s, it seemed like there was no chance for a female-centric, young reader-minded comic to emerge – and yet, that’s exactly what happened.

Marvel hired Barbara Slate to create Sweet XVI, Marvel’s answer to Archie if Riverdale was in first century Rome!

Slate’s newest work, You Can Do a Graphic Novel from Alpha Books, will hit shelves this fall and uses Slate’s distinctive style to reach out to teenage readers.

“I try to vary my art style. Of course the art and story need to relate to each other so I change my style accordingly. I like the quick sketches when I first layout my graphic novel. Tightening them up while trying to stay loose is tricky. Sometimes I draw with my left hand if my sketches are too tight. The writing comes pretty easily. I struggle more with the art.”

She did both for Sweet XVI.

Background:

The book itself is an odd mix of slapstick comedy, historical references and Roman numeral puns, not what most think of when they think early 1990s comics.

Slate explains:

“Whenever anyone reads Sweet XVI, they are shocked that it’s a Marvel book. What?! No super heroes in spandex? Well, I was lucky because there was a brief but shining moment in the 90’s. Well, it was several moments, years actually, when Marvel Comics under the leadership of the legendary Tom DeFalco, who was editor-in-chief at the time, actually began a girl’s line. At that time, the girl readership was about 5% of the market. This was obviously before the Manga onslaught. Not only did he commission me to do Sweet XVI, with the great editor Sid Jacobson, but Tom also licensed the rights to Barbie from Mattel. I wrote 65 Barbie comics. Hildy Mesnik was the marvelous Marvel editor.”

“My brief and shining years ended when Ron Perlman checked the bottom line of all the girl’s comics and even though we were slowly but steadily building our market, it couldn’t possibly compete with the boy super hero genre. Was I upset? Yes. Was I bitter? Yes. Luckily, Archie was still producing great comics so I have been writing Betty and Veronica for about 20 years. There is nothing I would rather do than write and draw comics.”

The story:

“It’s a love triangle with Aria, Cornelia, and Antony. Whether it’s set in modern or ancient days doesn’t really matter. The emotions with a triangle are always raw. I’m not sure how the theme came to be–something about a Marvel think tank with Ancient Rome as a theme,…then I developed the characters and the storyline.”

The cast was as robust as any other teen-comic. Her royal highness Cornelia competed with Aria for the love of the poor (but handsome) potter Antony while stringing along the prideful (and handsome) soldier Seneca. Other characters included the servants Augusta and Julia, Virgil the artist, the big-boned Lollilis on ancient roller skates and the Galacian shephard Klaus Vonhick (a red-headed giant invited to the Sweet XVI party by mistake).

“Each comic had a main story (beginning, middle, end and twist) with subplots leading to the next issue. Many of the plots had current themes, such as Antony running for class senate. If I had to summarize the entire series, it would all lead up to Cornelia’s SWEET XVI party.”

“There’s no telling where it would have gone. The good news was that Tom commissioned me for a 6-part series so I knew right from the beginning how to pace the story.”

Abilities:

Cornelia, the main character, doesn’t have any powers beyond being able to order everyone around and still be liked by the people. Seneca and Antony were likely good fighters (not that it would’ve come up at a party).

Why hasn’t the character shown up again?

“I don’t think they fit in the Marvel Universe. At least not today. Maybe someday Marvel will try to tackle the girls again but I’m not holding my breath. I still think love comics can find their way back into the main stream. I remember reading them at camp. They were all about romance and heartbreak and no violence. It was perfect for an 11- 13 year old.”

How could the character be brought back?

As characters, Cornelia and company could easily be considered parts of Marvel history, and there’s no shortage of characters who have either survived to the modern era since the Roman period, or were inspired by that time.

More importantly though, could such a comic survive today? Marvel is giving comics for women a shot again with two new series Marvel Divas and Models Inc. (both with Patsy Walker as a regular character). Who knows? Maybe Cornelia’s time will come again.

“I’m thrilled if Marvel is actually thinking about bringing out a girl’s line. Actually, I believe Tom DeFalco told me about it awhile back but that’s all I know. I have a 12 year old who learned how to read by reading Archie Comics. She knows everything about everyone in the Archie Universe and is my co-writer on many stories. In fact, I never send anything out without her approval. I know she and her friends would gobble up romance stories, model stories, and anything to do with girls and boys.”

“My target audience is girls–young girls for the Barbie, Sweet XVI books. teenage girls for the Angel Love series, and older women for Yuppies from Hell. Happily, my YOU CAN DO A GRAPHIC NOVEL book is for girls and boys!”

“I really don’t see why girls don’t go into comic book stores except for the fact that there’s not enough comics for them. Just put a few racks with comics for girls in the store and they will come. Girls talk. Word of mouth is the greatest marketing tool.”

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