21 Jan 2015


"I think it starts with our core readers because the long and short of it is that this is not a reboot. We don't transform our world. We don't go back in time. This is all taking place in the Marvel Universe that readers are already invested in. It's characters that they already know and the important thing is that the Marvel Universe is entering into a new era..." Axel Alonso

Stewart R: You might look at that quote and think that it's taken from yesterday's Secret Wars press briefing delivered by the Marvel bods from Midtown Comics. In actual fact that's taken from a CBR interview conducted in 2012 with Axel Alonso when speaking about the then incoming Marvel NOW! initiative. At that time Marvel were keen to refresh their canon whilst sidestepping the backlash and criticism that was difficult to miss when DC rebooted their line wholesale with the New 52.

So no 'reboot' per se, but since 2012, Marvel have quickly and efficiently set about altering the shape of their central Universe via a host of core title shifts, drastic manipulations to the status quos of characters now predominantly in the public consciousness thanks to the success of Marvel's cinematic arm, and seemingly dropped some of their once successful properties into a sealed box due to conflicts of interest with other Hollywood studios and lacklustre sales.

In 2015 we now have Captain America as a depowered octogenarian, father to a son born in another dimension (Iiiiiaaaaannnn!!!), his latest replacement the flying African American superhero formerly known as Falcon. Thor is now depowered to a degree, handicapped by his own guilt, his latest replacement a female hero capable of wielding Mjolnir. Tony Stark, the eponymous 'Genius, Billionaire, Playboy, Philanthropist' has now been twisted into an ultra-capitalist ideas machine, devoid of ethics or restraint. Even The Watcher, a stalwart support character through countless Marvel titles for 50 years, has been killed off to be replaced by former S.H.I.E.L.D commander, Nick Fury who in turn has been replaced in the aforementioned global law enforcement agency by his son and Samuel Jackson lookalike, Nick Fury Jr. Fantastic Four has been cancelled and the X-Men titles continue to wane in their wider popularity with Marvel's clear intention of pushing the Inhumans into the vacuum left behind coming to slow fruition. Oh and Doc Ock was Spider-Man for a while.

For something that wasn't a reboot, there's been an awful lot of sweeping change as a result of Marvel NOW! and All-New Marvel NOW! All this in just the space of two years, and in many cases some 20-30 issues. Remember that line from Alonso 'We don't transform our world'? Put Marvel's universe circa 2011 next to its universe today and I'd say there's been transformation of Pete Burns level proportions! Because it's all been conducted steadily and stealthily however, these alterations have avoided the backlash, the venom of embittered fans and risk of reader exodus.

A very different looking Avengers lineup awaits for 2015
And so here we now stand in 2015, monumental change truly in the air and huge uncertainty about Marvel's direction for the next half decade and beyond being felt. What will they do on the grand scale, and then in terms of its smaller titles going forward? To be honest, Marvel, with this latest announcement, have teased much and delivered next to nothing. The cards are still very close to their chest and there's a sense that this surprisingly careful company may just be ready to go all-in with one heck of a gamble, albeit a calculated one.

Here's an actual quote from yesterday's Secret Wars reveal from Alonso:

"This is putting an endcap to decades of stories, and starting a new era. When you see the scope of the stories, you'll see what we're willing to do."

What they're evidently willing to do is finally mash together the recognisable 616 Universe that has been the primary focus of the company for over half a century, with the millennial youngster, the fading force yet influence for some of the blockbuster movies that is the Marvel Ultimate Universe. Along with a smattering of other, alternate realities they'll put these in the blender and see what colour it all comes out the other side. The past two years appear to have been merely a testing ground to see just how drastically they can shake up (or 'fuck with' depending on your stance) their playground under the guise of individual titles and story arcs, and found that they can pretty much do anything they want to the core characters without much in the way of protest on the stands. While some readers may bitch, moan and walk away, a large majority will stick around to see what happens and younger readers may just invest to see what the fuss is about.

The key with this Secret Wars announcement is that the likes of Alonso and Tom Breevort are saying that everything that has come before in the 616 Universe remains. That statement immediately steers them away from the dreaded 'reboot' label once again and pushes this under the 'relaunch' category where they've already tested the model with Marvel NOW! and generally come out with a win financially as well as from a position of creative freedom. The history will remain, fine, but with such brazen and blatant insistence that big change is now imminent don't hold out hope of your favourite character avoiding a major reconstruction and heading in a very different direction in the next year or two regardless of what they've done or how they've behaved in the past 50 years.

With Secret Wars and the work beyond they can strip away what they perceive to be outdated or unworkable premises, tropes and attitudes within their canon, keep the more popular aspects and somewhat importantly, push their illustrated continuity closer to the mega-bucks, money-spinning continuities of the cinematic, animated and televisual universes which continue to capture the imaginations of adolescents and pre-teens today.

The unfortunate suspicion for me, and I imagine many long term readers too, is that amalgamation of universes could signal further changes in the way that Marvel operates from a writing and publishing perspective as they attempt to relate to the younger generations of today and tomorrow, perhaps (and probably rightly) focusing less on what we've come to love about Marvel comics in the past 10, 20, 30 years and looking further ahead.

With every year that has passed since Marvel struck gold with the Iron Man movie, and increasingly since their purchase by the merchandising machine that is Disney, it has seemed that Marvel have wanted to assess where their financial future lies and plan accordingly. The announced slate of movies extends as far as 2019, some four years from now, yet look back through publishing history and the company has held to a strict line of teasing ideas for the comic books just a year ahead of release. Regardless of whether this changes or not, you can bet that Marvel editorial now has a larger calendar and business plan in front of them that must compliment, support and benefit from those tentpole dates. What better way to do that than wiping the board clean, putting only the best pieces back and go at the task from a different angle with creative gusto?! 

In the past 12 months, the crux of my Marvel reading has been what I would regard as their fringe books; those that centre around the B-list characters and have a middling to poor circulation despite high critical praise and incredibly strong writers at the helm. She-Hulk, Elektra, Black Widow, Punisher, Iron Fist:The Living Weapon, Moon Knight and Superior Foes Of Spider-Man have all been read without pause or hesitation, yet one by one they have fallen to the axe of cancellation.  I've been drawn to those smaller books primarily because I'm looking and hoping for consistency, longevity and to a degree isolation within their storytelling. I want stories that slip below the looming cloud of Marvel's big events, the sweeping consequences that come with them, and of course shuffles within creative teams. It's that type of long term, immersive writing that drew me to the X-Men (both Uncanny and adjectiveless titles) during the reign of Brubaker and Carey where they seemed to get a chance to build something within the familiar, popular and still promising landscape of the 616 Universe, and that also saw me jump into Captain America as Brubaker once again steered that ship through years of issues, drawn out plots and superb consistency.

But the creative successes of this ilk - there would be no Winter Soldier and therefore no terrific Captain America sequel without Brubaker's engaging Cap run - are few and far between in terms of copies sold matching the high critical acclaim these days and Marvel has to back those titles it regards as bankers over those that pull in the plaudits yet remain unsold on shelves.

I personally still purchase heavy hitters in the shape of Amazing Spider-Man, Avengers and New Avengers, but am about a year behind in my reading of the latter two - a whole year - and the large changes that Dan Slott has steered us through with Superior Spider-Man and then ASM has made for some bumpy, albeit entertaining reading. I now no longer buy any X-Men books, so disillusioned am I with the way that Bendis' teleportation of the original team to the present has pervaded that corner of the universe, forcing the family of X-titles to overlap and adjust rather uncomfortably to fit, and pushing my interests away in the process, where once the majority of my Marvel purchases were mutant-related.

To the future, and beyond...
Let's face it, as much as we like to think that we, as readers in our twenties, thirties and beyond, hold Marvel in check with our demand and buying power, Marvel will be pinning their hopes on the 8, 9, 10 year olds of today using their disposable income of 2025, and even 2035, to bankroll their business for years to come. And that's not just the kids of America or the English-speaking world. Thanks to the global spread of their products and the global retail power of their parent company, they now have millions of potential readers in previously untapped markets that they will want to try to relate to. We older readers of today hold Marvel's past catalogue, with its inherent westernised, 20th Century styling, values and legacy in high regard, yet there's a good chance that a decade from now, readers will look back at the likes of AXIS, Secret Wars, Avengers Vs X-Men, even potentially the upcoming Black Vortex with its Guardians of the Galaxy centred premise, and hold these in higher regard than the defining storylines of the '60s, '70s and '80s that we cherish, yet they feel disconnected from.

The digital age has brought with it the power to buy, own and read comics instantly, from any point in publishing history along with a hunger for new material to be produced at an incessant rate. With this has come an increased sense of distraction and reduced attention span of the wider audience. Companies like Marvel and DC must fear the speed at which public tastes in the 21st Century change, not least because their history with, and production of periodicals has potential to leave them exposed to such sharp shifts with little chance to react immediately and try to get ahead of the curve.

The last decade has been littered with Marvel's big event books, once something of a rare treat, now entrenched as an expected annual or biannual occurrence and boon to the Marvel coffers. More often than not, these stories dictate how the broader universe will unfold in the months afterwards. With a new relaunch, depicted through one giant event such as Secret Wars, with a focussed freshness and likely high quality feel to it, Marvel can play to a young and currently receptive audience. With recent proven evidence that mutating, remodelling and reinventing their most cherished characters runs little risk of permanently breaking the loyalty of the fans long term, Marvel is in the strongest position of its lifetime.

That's a strong position despite the relatively ambivalent critical reception of its event books and associated tie-ins through recent years. Despite the fact that some titles and characters still fail to find a large permanent audience and face cancellation within a year or two, and against a backdrop where the visual consistency of its work simply can't seem to keep up with the pace of the production schedule. The company's strength may help it tackle some of these problems and at the very least allows it to carry on at the head of the field without slowing.

I can't argue that this announcement is a hugely promising moment for Marvel as a company, and a potentially exciting time for a large contingent of the fans and readership. I can also say however, that the subtle way Marvel has gone about testing these waters of innovation with Marvel NOW! has slowly pushed me away from their titles, along with their insistence on looking at the next event before the current one has even finished and the ridiculous number of relaunches seen in the recent past. I've found myself steadily pushed towards the creator-owned, highly consistent and engrossing investments that the likes of Image and other publishers offer today.

With Secret Wars and yesterday's announcement suggesting that subtlety is likely out of the window, I'm bracing myself for that final, torrid push that sees me leave the publisher and its trove of beloved characters behind for the foreseeable future. Much like the Hydra mantra however, when you cut one fan off, two more spring up in their place... At least that's what Marvel will be hoping for!


Ian said...

That was a really interesting piece Stewart, thanks.
Looking at what you've said, and what Marvel have said, I am starting to ask myself now just who this event/reboot/relaunch is aimed at.
It can't be the long-term fans who all seem to be unanimously up in arms at just the slightest hint of a reboot.
It can't be the lapsed fans who are praising the concept but have no intention of picking up a Marvel book ever again when there is so much quality independant product out there.
So surely this is aimed at the young and upcoming fan who has discovered Marvel through the films and TV shows? Not really, no. The last 10 years have demonstrated quite clearly that the under 20's just don't buy comics in the same numbers or variety that their predecessors did in the 80's or early 90's. They buy the odd collection from a bookshop or music store after seeing Avengers at the cinema or download a few discounted packs on the app but they don't keep coming back month after month and supporting a title.
And don't get me started on the under 10's - as a parent of a 9 year old comic fan I can tell you that 90% of Marvel's output isn't suitable for them no matter how much they might want to read!
So what are Marvel doing? Cutting their nose off to spite their face? I have no doubt that Secret Wars will sell in huge numbers but who will keep buying in the months afterwards? When your favourite character is no longer your favourite character why waste your money?
Some of the titles being published by DC as part of Convergence seems to show that they have learnt this lesson too late - if you only have a limited number of fans then sell them what they want to buy not what you think they should be buying!
A lesson also being learnt by Cadburys at the moment in relation to their Creme Eggs!
Whatever happens it will be interesting to look back at the end of the year and see where Marvel stands - will they defy expectation and have fans praising them or will they have driven away the last of their hardcore fanbase? Interesting times indeed.......

Matt Clark said...

My take is that Marvel must have looked at how DC handled the New 52 and learnt from the mistakes made there. I know a lot of the Marvel bigwigs dislike the term '616 Universe' so this may be an attempt to cut the wheat from the chaff and have one, singular 'Marvel Universe'?

The proof will be in the pudding, of course, but I think Hickman's ambition has been so impressive on the lead up to this, there's no way I'd ever discount what he's got to offer, or jump to conclusions as some have elsewhere.

As long as they keep putting out interesting books (and like Stew, I have been attracted to more of the 'B-list' titles of late) then I guess I can still say Make Mine Marvel without feeling depressed!

Badger said...

Having been a collector since 1972 and having just turned 50 I fail to get excited anymore or put any stock in all these big changes going on with comics,as long as they still publish comics starring my favorite characters I'll still collect,but I will say as a guy who just mainly collects superhero comics I'm finding myself looking at what Image put out more and more each month and reading that Milestone Media are back in the game put a smile on my face,very nice article by the way Stewart.b