Current State of the Comic Book Industry: Marvel NOW!
When DC comics did the reboot for the New 52, they basically gutted the DCU like a fish. They then put the same fish back together in a way that did not please many fans. The New 52 boosted readership and market share briefly, but now DC is back in the position of having to make more desperate moves to stay in the spotlight.
On the other side of comics is Marvel. Since the debut of The Fantastic Four in 1961, Marvel Comics has been the company to watch. By the mid-1970s, DC had begun to stagnate and Marvel became the industry leader, a position they have held ever since. In the days before Marvel was actually called Marvel (they were Timely and Atlas and other names in the Golden and Silver Ages), the company was not an innovator in the industry, but rather existed as a follower of the current trends. Every hot trend that hit the industry, Marvel was quick to copy. The most notorious of Marvel’s copycat methods is the patriotic hero The Shield from MLJ Comics (later Archie Comics) which Marvel copied and called Captain America. (The original shield Cap carried was too similar in shape to the one The Shield character carried so Marvel replaced it with the now well-known circular shield as a way to avoid any legal actions).
Today’s Marvel is a different animal, mostly. Marvel is no longer the industry copycat but is now an innovative company willing to take risks (at least as risky as things get in comics today). DC’s New 52 was the first risk taken by that company in decades and it is hard to tell even now if it paid off. Marvel seems willing to try almost anything to get readers talking about their books. Often in recent years it seems that talk is angry talk, but people are still buying the books.
Marvel NOW! Well not now, more now-ish!
Marvel’s response to DC’s New 52 was Marvel NOW! and it is hard to call it anything other than a success. Where DC did a line-wide reboot and renumbering of their books (some more changed than others), Marvel opted for a soft re-branding that coincided with major changes in the books and major shifts of the long-running creative teams responsible for them. Not every book was directly affected and few saw major change even by comic book standards, but the re-branding of the titles seems to have been enough to renew fan interest. The real item of interest though was the trading and mixing up of the creative teams on many of the books.
Marvel has been very fortunate with their ‘event’ crossovers in the last several years. Civil War was a huge hit (scheduling delays not withstanding) and generated a lot of media buzz while Secret Invasion sold well, even if the fan reaction was more mixed. For the most part, Marvel seems to be able to get fans interested in these big event crossovers. The biggest in recent years was AvX.
Avengers vs. X-Men (AvX) was a surprise in two ways; first it was a well written series not too plagued by delays and second it actually changed the status quo for the many of the characters affected by the storyline. To expand on this new direction, after the 12 issue story arc, Marvel put all the characters from the two groups ‘in a hat’ and scrambled them up, putting a number of X-Men characters into Avengers books. Now we are presented with the Uncanny Avengers by Rick Remender and John Cassaday, a book that has performed well despite scheduling delays. Also in the Avengers books, Jonathan Hickman is writing two Avengers books (Avengers and New Avengers), having left The Fantastic Four franchise behind. The three Avengers books are all still selling in the top 25 regularly and are very interesting books that have stirred fan response a great deal mostly because Hickman and Remender’s writing styles are serving the books very well.
On the X-Men side of AvX, the X-books have also endured some shuffling. Long time Avengers writer Brian Michael Bendis is now writing All-New X-Men to huge praise and commercial success. His first act in the X-universe was to bring back the original X-Men from the past in a bit of time-traveling trickery so the old crew can show the current crop of heroes what they are doing wrong. In the other X-titles, Brian Wood is writing an all-female team in X-Men and Frank Cho launched the very successful Savage Wolverine, mixing his trademark ‘good girl art’ in the form of Shanna the She-Devil with Wolverine in all his bloody violent glory.
Under the heading of X-books that have not fared as well, well honestly there are no ‘poor’ selling X-books. The weakest of the lot still sells in the top 100. X-Men Legacy and Astonishing X-Men are still moving along but critical success X-Factor was recently cancelled as writer Peter David has decided to move on to other projects.
The major character changes like returning the Scarlet Witch to active duty in a few books and the shift of Cyclops to full-on anti-hero (bordering on terrorist villain) have made these books interesting to read again and fan reaction has been very positive.
Eeek! A SPIDER!!
The Spider-Man group of books has had a much more mixed reaction from the fans. The sales have been outstanding on one of the most talked (and yelled) about books Marvel has released in years, Superior Spider-Man. While none of the other Spidey books have been huge sellers, Dan Slott’s Superior Spider-Man has been. Even the people that claim to hate it are buying it in monster numbers. Spidey books usually sell in the 50 thousand copies a month range but SSM has consistently been selling 80k or better with the first two issues well over 100k mark. The changes to the character have sparked outrage and fascination in equal measure, causing this to be Marvel’s hottest title.
Other books in this group have not sold as well. The most recent attempt to make two-dimensional character Venom interesting has been met with muted response, but is a decent book according to those who have been willing to give it a chance. Scarlet Spider is another Spidey group book that has limped along in terms of sales (it was cancelled late last year), showing that the fan market for all things spidery has its limits.
The solo books and the also-rans
Marvel’s other books; many of them solo rather than team titles have been an amazingly mixed bag. At the top has to be Mark Waid’s multiple award winning run on Daredevil. Gone is the “Matt puts a gun in his mouth to end all this crap”, spectacularly dark and unhappy version of the character. In its place is a fun adventure book more akin to the classic Daredevil stories of the late 1970s with smart flair and wonderfully crafted stories. DD feels like a classic Marvel book and it is a feeling many fans appear to have missed. Also by Waid is Indestructible Hulk, while Jason Aaron’s version of the character never really took off, Waid’s Hulk seems much more appealing to the fans. The classic Marvel characters suit Waid and his writing style very well.
The solo Wolverine, Deadpool and Captain America franchises are still going strong. The new creative teams having greatly energized both the stories and the fan interest, especially Brain Posehn, Gerry Dugan and Tony Moore on the Deadpool book. The biggest surprise though would have to be Hawkeye. The solo Avenger’s book by Matt Fraction, David Aja and Franchesco Francavilla has been a breath of fresh air at Marvel. It has become a funny yet still exciting book, much like the Iron Fist series before it.
The Fantastic Four books have fallen significantly since Jonathan Hickman completed his story, but through no fault of Matt Fraction and gang. Hickman is a tough act for anyone to follow and so far the books are languishing. Another item of concern is the Ultimate line. There is some doubt that the line will continue in its present form for much longer as the only title to generate any real interest recently has been Ultimate Spider-Man. The adventures of this new young character in the mask have been a hit and are well worth the effort to keep alive. Unfortunately, the rest of the books have failed to maintain any reader interest over the last few years.
Movies are coming, let us realign
With the second Marvel movie cycle starting this year with Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World and continuing with the new Cap film, the cinematic future for the company’s characters looks bright. The biggest buzz has to be about The Guardians of the Galaxy, so Marvel has recently re-launched the comic of the same name in the hopes of capturing some of that excitement. So far, the book has sold very well and looks to be a critical hit as well.
Another trend that can be seen in the books is aligning the comics with the movies somewhat, an example is the forthcoming Wolverine story arc titled Killable. This and the rumored death of the character sometime this year are a fairly obvious attempt to capitalize on what Marvel hopes will be a much better film than the first Wolverine. Personally, I just hope they haven’t hitched their wagon to a lame horse.
The high profile of Hank Pym in the new Age of Ultron crossover event (selling very well) is another sign of Marvel’s desire to have at least some synergy with the films now that the Ant-Man film is on the production slate.
Icon and other special projects
Marvel’s Icon line has never been much more than a vanity imprint for the preferred creators. Some feel the company has to do creator owned vanity projects and surprisingly, they have seen moderate success. Kick Ass has done very well and several of the other books have been optioned for films though none have actually been made. The line will likely continue unchanged for the foreseeable future.
Marvel does have a few higher profile projects coming too. Most notably Warren Ellis’ first work for the company in a few years, the 150 page original graphic novel Avengers: Endless Wartime. If promoted well, this book could sell very well for its price point. Combined with the next major event, Infinity, which will set the stage for the ‘cosmic books’ (including a rumored Jim Starlin project). The lead-up to the second Avengers film continues makes Marvel’s future look strong and potentially very exciting.
Wish list for Marvel’s immediate future
1. Would someone please just pay Frank Cho to not waste all this time on Marvel books so he can go back to doing Liberty Meadows? Seriously though, I am a little surprised there has been no attempt to bring Cho’s creator owned book over to the Icon imprint to keep him at the company.
2. Keep the obvious editorial hands out of the process. Some of DC’s biggest missteps in recent months have been allowing the details of editorial changes out into the public. Everyone knows that these major corporate characters are often as much in the hands of the ‘suits’ as the writers and artists, but like sausage and laws, nobody wants to know too much about the process. The press surrounding the changes is distracting from the stories and many fans get turned off a book when their illusions of its creation are altered.
3. I’m not sure who is really in charge of Spider-Man. It may be all about the editor or Dan Slott may really have this all well in hand, but whoever it is the Superior Spider-Man story needs to run its course. DON’T BACK DOWN FROM THIS! Some readers will hate it, some will love it but there has not been a more talked about book at Marvel for years. Don’t drop the ball on this!
4. The creative team shake-ups and the changes to key characters has been a strong jumping-on point for readers, both new and returning ones. Don’t let the momentum fade which has been DC’s mistake. If a change is needed, make it. This is comics; you can always reverse yourself if it does not have the desired effect.
5. In recent months the production quality of the hardcovers has gone right down the tubes. Bring back the higher grade printing and covers with dust-jackets. What is currently coming out of Marvel looks as cheap and juvenile as a kids picture book, much to the delight of the industries’ detractors no doubt.
Between the success of Marvel NOW! and the amazing popularity and quality of the Marvel films, things really could not look brighter for the House of Ideas than they do right now!
What do you think? Leave a comment.