by Don Alsafi. In May 2017, Marvel was in a rough place. Sales were low, as they had been across the board for all publishers — but in an age where Marvel movies are numerous, critically applauded, and routinely draw the biggest ticket sales of the year, it’s crazy that this mainstream acceptance hasn’t translated to more people picking up their books. So, we wondered, how can Marvel turn this sales slump around? Which storytelling and publishing strategies – whether employed today, or in the past – can welcome readers both new and old? Which attention-grabbing stunts do more harm than good, and should perhaps be done away with entirely?
These are but some of the questions we were grappling with when Building a Better Marvel started looking at Marvel’s newest releases a year and a half ago. And with this, our 50th column, I’m happy to say that the trajectory Marvel is on has been, on the whole, an encouraging one.
The challenge of serving two masters. The first comic which BABM looked at was Secret Empire #1, the beginning of their then latest crossover event – and it seemed an almost textbook example of everything wrong or off-putting about superhero comics. Its thematically-troubled premise featured a Captain America affiliated with Hydra, leading many to wonder how Cap’s Jewish creators (Joe Simon & Jack Kirby) would have felt about their creation being cast as part of a Nazi-affiliated organization in a storyline which would take nearly two years to play out. It also failed in such basic craft as introducing its main cast for the benefit of new readers – as well as proving to be the third act of a narrative which Captain America had been telling over the past year! In other words, despite the #1 on the cover, this was in no way a comic for anyone except those who had already been buying that story.
This is one of the biggest hurdles which superhero publishers have increasingly wrestled with for decades: How can they design stories that will appeal to the current audience of hardcore comics fans, while at the same time making them accessible and understandable to the casual reader coming in off the street? In the famous adage attributed (perhaps apocryphally) to Stan Lee, “Every comic is someone’s first” — and if publishers forget the importance of that ideal, they will continue to only sell comics to a dwindling market. The only long-term solution is to find ways to grow that audience.
Fortunately, Marvel have made encouraging steps in that direction!
An expanded roster for an expanded readership. One potential hurdle, noticed by today’s savvy comics readers, is that the superheroes known to the mainstream public are almost all straight white men. Given that most of these characters were created a half century ago by creators of that same demographic, it’s understandable – but still problematic. To their credit, Marvel had already begun making strides to correct this issue long before 2017, with one of the highest-profile launches of recent years being the 2013 debut of the new Ms. Marvel, a Pakistani teenage girl from New Jersey.
This initiative toward greater inclusion was embraced by many who had previously felt under-represented by the demographics of Marvel’s superhero icons. And so the next few years saw, for instance, Bruce Banner set aside for a while, with the Hulk mantle being held by both Jennifer Walters (previously called She-Hulk) and the Korean teenage genius Amadeus Cho. Even better: Rather than handing off these new iterations to the typical straight white male creators, Marvel has largely given these characters to creators who might know a thing or two about those demographics, like the bisexual Latinx America Chavez being written by queer Latinx writer Gabby Rivera.
But surprisingly, an unintended side effect was that perhaps too many of these changes happened all at the same time. Thor Odinson was MIA, replaced by a Thor who was Jane Foster. The African American Sam Wilson took over the mantle of Captain America, and Iron Man was no longer Tony Stark but a young black woman named Riri Williams. These efforts toward greater diversity were long overdue, and absolutely to be applauded – and yet the Marvel Universe was, to many, becoming somewhat unrecognizable.
As such, Marvel has faced the challenge of a two-pronged approach: Crafting comics which will excite (and not alienate) its current readership, while making their books accessible and appealing to all. Fortunately, the past eighteen months have shown real strides toward addressing that balance.
Superhero comics like you’ve never seen before. To be fair, there has still been the occasional misfire. The relaunch of Generation X committed the cardinal sin of assuming the readers to be already familiar with its cast, while the cosmic epic Infinity Countdown continued plot threads from the recently-cancelled Guardians of the Galaxy series and took no efforts to catch new readers up to speed.
And yet more recent launches have seemed far more aware of doing something new, while remembering what made these characters so iconic for so long. Jason Aaron & Ed McGuinness launched a new volume of Avengers which combined elements both classic and unusual in a blockbuster action book that still hasn’t slowed down. The Amazing Spider-Man relaunched with a new creative team and new status quo, yet felt more like classic Spidey than readers had seen in years. The Immortal Hulk perhaps won the prize by elegantly combining parts both traditional (Bruce Banner, the Jekyll-and-Hyde trope of transforming into an immoral creature at night) and freshly conceived (the new Hulk is The Monster Which Cannot Die — and, oh yeah, Hulk is a horror comic now!). And even while some of the classic characters have returned to the comic book pages, the newer characters are in no way forgotten – as this week’s release of the Riri Williams-starring Ironheart can surely attest.
It’s also worth noting that even aside from consumers having more entertainment choices available than ever before, the truly stellar indie comics scene means the superhero publishers have had to step up their game. No longer can DC or Marvel shove out yet another X-Men or Batman book and expect that alone will be “good enough”; instead, today’s readers require any new book to have a legitimately unique reason for existing. Fortunately, the past year has seen such debuts as the New Mutants recast as paranormal investigators, a new Runaways series which perfectly captures the teen drama/superhero mix of Brian K. Vaughan’s original run, and the “X-Men history with an underground comix vibe” which is Ed Piskor’s X-Men: Grand Design.
Such great heights. I started reading Marvel Comics in the 1980s, and have followed them with passion and dedication for most of my life. The Marvel Universe is still my enduring favorite for a superhero setting, and their books and characters are where my heart and instinctive loyalties forever lie. Even in their most challenging times, I want to see Marvel’s publishing arm become just as successful as their film branch!
When DoomRocket’s editor-in-chief first proposed my tackling a Marvel-centric column, we debated various ideas for the title. “Building a Better Marvel” summed up the issues I wanted to tackle, filtered through the lens of reviewing their latest releases, but I wondered: Would it be seen as inflammatory? (In retrospect: Yes, at least somewhat.) But to my mind, the perspective intended was less a singular one, and more communal: After all, if we want to see Marvel regain the heights of its past, then that perhaps requires a conversation between not just the publisher and its creators, but also readers, critics, and the retail outlets which are both comics’ front lines and traditionally its biggest fans and cheerleaders.
To be sure, superhero comics still have an uphill battle ahead of them. But new series over the past year and a half – like the spy thriller Nick Fury, the multiversal Exiles, and even the completely bonkers comics/gamebook hybrid You Are Deadpool – have shown a consistent willingness from Marvel to try something new, and reach for the stars. And with no small amount of success!
Looking back over the past eighteen months, in this 50th column retrospective, the verdict seems clear: As hoped, this publisher so many of us love have indeed been Building a Better Marvel.
With any luck, the next eighteen months – and more – will only see that continue.
Thanks, Stan. Thanks, Jack. Thanks, Ditko, and Heck, and Colan and the rest. Thanks to everyone at DoomRocket. And thank you, readers, for joining us on this fun and enjoyable journey of Marvels!