Marvel Comics State of the Union
By Jake Hill
Comic book reboots can be a tricky thing. When DC rebooted its entire line with the New 52, there was a sales boost, but a negative critical reception quickly had commercial consequences. The more recent DC reboot, “Rebirth,” has not only won the hearts of fans and critics; sales have been strong and consistent.
Marvel Comics has a similar opportunity. The most recent super-mega-ultra Crossover Event, “Secret Empire” was bashed by critics, and was one of the lowest selling Marvel Event comics ever. That frames Marvel’s latest initiative, “Marvel Legacy,” as a potential comeback. So what are the problems Marvel needs to overcome, what are they doing to correct them, and what does the future look like? Let’s take a moment to address the State of Marvel Comics.
What’s the Problem?
Marvel’s troubles have been framed around a false dichotomy between old fans and new fans. This sometimes is further characterized as a conflict between older, white male fans who want to read about Iron Man and the Punisher and woke, diverse female Millennials who want to read about Kamala Khan and America Chavez.
There is no sales data, and little anecdotal data to back this up. While it is true that some vocal fans are frustrated with how many Marvel heroes have been replaced by a new generation, just as many fans have come to comics because of the characters. There are fans of Thor who don’t like the new Goddess of Thunder, but there are also readers of that comic who have never picked up a Thor book before. There are also plenty of fans who have found it in their hearts to enjoy both.
The real test of success in superhero comics is simply the quality. Good books gain positive word of mouth, and they sell well. Some of Marvel’s biggest hits of the last few years have included Squirrel Girl, Ms. Marvel, and The Mighty Thor. But classic heroes have enjoyed sales success as well. Tom King and Gabriel Walta’s Vision comic went into multiple printings. Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s run on Daredevil saw some of the biggest sales the character has had in years.
This is because the hardcore comics fans know that the characters are almost irrelevant. They follow creators. It doesn’t matter if he’s writing about the X-Men or a miniseries about a b-list hero’s nemesis, I will always pick up a Marvel book by Kieron Gillen. Great creators generate enough enthusiasm to become popular.
The problem lies in Marvel’s short attention span. I mentioned Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s run on Daredevil, one of the best comics of the last decade. I’ve never finished it. That’s because Marvel reset the numbering of the book to #1, and continued the story as if it was another series. By the time I knew the book was still continuing, I had fallen far behind, and it seemed too hard to catch up.
This is not the only way Marvel makes their books hard to follow. There was a period of time when the titles of the comics contradicted the content. Uncanny X-Men is the classic title of the series about Marvel’s mutants, which ran (mostly uninterrupted from 1963 until 2011. Since then, there have been three different series in the last five years called Uncanny X-Men, the last of which wasn’t even about the X-Men; it was about the mutant assassination squad X-Force. The X-Men were in a title called Extraordinary X-Men which spun out into X-Men Gold, not to be confused with X-Men Blue, which follows a team of younger time-traveling mutants.
And none of that takes into account the crossovers, the events, the deaths, the resurrections, and everything else that can derail a book. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t want to follow the X-Men (whom I love) because every year the book will be re-numbered, re-titled, pulled into a crossover, derailed by an Event that pits them against another superhero team, and then bogged down by a story sifting through the new status quo and costume changes. There’s no time to enjoy the status quo, because I live with the constant fear of editorial shifts interrupting the story.
That’s the problem. Trust has been broken.
The Marvel Legacy
“Marvel Legacy” is the latest initiative to drum up sales and enthusiasm. It plays on nostalgia by restoring most Marvel comics to “legacy numbering,” meaning issues are numbered based on every installment of every series that character or team has starred in. Black Panther is now up to #166, Venom is on issue #155, and Amazing Spider-Man #789. This is supposed to seem like a mission statement: Marvel is done with the constant renumbering, relaunching, and confusing of their titles.
The nostalgia also extends to stylistic choices. Covers now bear the corner boxes that many fans remember from the 90s. Even advertisements within the issues are styled after classic Marvel kitsch. It’s a worthy effort to lessen the confusion, but only time will tell if Marvel is capable of sticking to the initiative.
The best example we have of their ethos going forward is a one-shot issue, Legacy #1. It has been touted as an unprecedented mission statement, but actually, Marvel has launched a lot of initiatives with similar one-shots. Still, we can learn a lot from the issue, which was mostly penned by Jason Aaron and drawn by a slew of artists.
The Future of the Universe
The issue boasts a few intriguing developments, all of which will be spoiled here, so look out. It starts a million years in the past with an over-the-top superteam that includes everyone from Odin to the Phoenix to a Ghost Rider who rides a flaming woolly mammoth. The issue checks in with characters as far ranging as Deadpool, Captain America, and a newly resurrected Wolverine.
The caveman Avengers thing is pretty fun, but all-in-all this is a fairly typical setup from Marvel. Some books promise to diverge (Deadpool is going to be much more villainous), some promise a return of the status quo (Captain America is no longer evil). Some storylines promise unthinkable twists (Loki is the new sorcerer supreme).
The thing is, to quote a famous supervillain when everyone is special, no one is. Loki as the Sorcerer Supreme sounds intriguing, but if the story only lasts a few issues, who cares? Likewise, Thor picking up his hammer after being unable to wield it for the last few years may be a cool storyline, but if nothing is gained from his unworthiness, what was the point of this story? Sam Wilson served as Captain America for a little while, but he’s going back to being the Falcon. What was the point?
It’s too early to see if these previously envelope-pushing storylines will have any narrative impact, but that’s the real problem Marvel has been dealing with, and one that it seems unwilling to address. Consistent numbering and nostalgic covers are fun, but if good stories get canceled to serve bad ones, trust will continue to erode, until no one wants to commit to a superhero comic series.
The most ominous portent in Legacy is the promise of the return of the caveman Avengers. As welcome as these cool new characters may be, everything they foreshadow screams “Event Series.” It seems the typical setup of secret histories, terrible villains, and universe shaking consequences. Practically, it feels that the next interrupted super-story is just over the horizon.
Maybe I’m being cynical but then again, I’ve been trained to be cynical by Marvel. At the end of the day, all anyone wants to read is quality ongoing stories from good creators. Legacy may be the start of a golden age for Marvel, a time when creators are allowed to run free and tell cool stories. Or it may be business as usual for the House of Ideas, and the only real changes may be cosmetic. I know that I’ll be checking out the new Marvel series and hoping for the best, but if my favorite comics are again interrupted by irrelevant meddling, it’s going to be harder than ever to go back to them.