By Don Alsafi. It’s all led up to this.
As we’ve discussed over the course of this series, Marvel have fallen on hard times over the past decade. Their sales took a hit, as did much of the industry, during the financial crisis of 2007-2008. Regrettably, their response was to increasingly rely on gimmicks and short-term sales boosts (an explosion of variant covers, a never-ending cycle of crossover events, the constant rebooting of titles on a sometimes-yearly basis), rather than just focusing on well-told stories accessible to a multitude of readers. The Marvel Legacy relaunch, kicking off this week, ideally should be a reversal of these mistakes, and has been seen by many as perhaps Marvel’s last chance to win back their largely alienated fanbase.
It’s a tall order. But last year’s DC Universe Rebirth special, which drew a final line under the failed experiment of DC’s New 52 initiative, showed that all it takes is one fantastic story to win back lost readers, and get them excited for their superhero universe all over again.
Can Marvel do the same? That’s the question before us this week…
Written by Jason Aaron.
Art by Esad Ribić & Steve McNiven.
Additional art by Chris Samnee, Russell Dauterman, Alex Maleev, Ed McGuinness, Stuart Immonen & Wade Grawbadger, Pepe Larraz, Jim Cheung, Daniel Acuña, Greg Land & Jay Leisten, Mike Deodato Jr, and David Marquez.
Colors by Matthew Wilson.
Letters by Cory Petit.
From prehistory into tomorrow. So there’s a lot riding on this comic, and there’s pressure to make this a story that stands out. And to that end, Marvel Legacy #1 has a pretty unusual structure. It begins around 1,000,000 BC, with ancient characters like Odin, Agamotto and the Phoenix mixing with what seem to be prehistoric analogues to Black Panther, Ghost Rider, Starbrand and Iron Fist. They’ve gathered to stop an otherworldly threat, and it’s implied – in Marvel’s marketing, at least – that these were, for all intents and purposes, the first Avengers.
From there, the narrative jumps forward to the present day, in which two mostly-unconnected plot threads play out. In one, Loki sends a group of Frost Giants to liberate a mysterious artifact from SHIELD, only to be met with resistance in the form of Sam Wilson (in his last outing as Captain America), Thor, and Ironheart. In the other, Robbie Reyes – the most recent incarnation of Ghost Rider – finds himself caught up in a set of bizarre events, mostly focused around an inexplicable attack by the current Starbrand. (This latter character choice is especially bemusing since, his recent spell as an Avenger aside, he’s only ever been known from headlining Marvel’s short-lived “New Universe” imprint from 1986-1989.)
Flashes of things to come. These two plot threads regularly interweave through a series of ten one-page vignettes showing what’s going on with other significant members of the Marvel Universe. And if you were wondering about the long list of additional artists listed above, that’s because each of these one-pagers was illustrated by a different artist or team, most (though not all) of them by the artist that will be tackling the reigns on that particular title going forward.
The standout tease might be the page giving us our first glimpse at Chris Samnee’s Steve Rogers, as Samnee and Mark Waid will be launching the new Captain America title in November. On the other hand, even these small glances can have the occasional misfire: One page shows what’s labelled as the homeworld of “the Intergalactic Empire of Wakanda” (a planet too-cleverly named Bast), which seems … a bizarre-as-heck direction to take the Black Panther comic, maybe? And the page checking in at Avengers Mansion contains a fairly radical retcon to Avengers history in the final panel – but the element in question is so small that if you haven’t already heard about this twist, you’re likely to miss it entirely. (Ideally this page should have ended with an establishing shot of the area in question, followed by a closeup.)
Major Marvels missing. As a look ahead into what’s coming down the pike in the various titles, including the one-page glimpses was undoubtedly a smart move. Equally canny was the decision to take two pages at the end of the comic and spotlight a dozen of their upcoming titles, with notes on each as to where a particular story thread would be followed up. (“Steve Rogers’ search for redemption continues in…”) Though those pages also tease upcoming storylines in X-Men Blue and Gold, Avengers and Champions, none of whom appear in the comic … and they somehow fail to mention the upcoming arc in Doctor Strange wherein Loki is allegedly set to become the new Sorcerer Supreme. Given Loki’s prominence in this issue, that omission seems a mystifying oversight.
In a similar disconnect between editorial and marketing, the Marvel Legacy relaunch has been largely touted as bringing back the classic Marvel heroes, and the classic Marvel feel. To be sure, the four-page wraparound gatefold cover by Joe Quesada features no less than fourteen classic Marvel heroes proudly standing in all their glory! (Fifteen, maybe, depending on whether you view Lockjaw as a character or a pet.) And yet, out of all those cover-starring characters, four of them appear for only a single page! And the rest? Not seen even once.
Double-sized comic, half-sized story. And yet regardless of who the featured characters are and are not (bait-and-switch cover notwithstanding), a good story is a good story, and that’s really all that matters. But by the end of the comic, we haven’t actually gotten much story from it! Plot threads, new mysteries, and looming threats are all set up – but what we’re missing is any central character with which to connect, or a sense of any personal stakes beyond world-shattering danger. If there’s a character who we get to know to any slight degree, it’s maybe Robbie Reyes – and that’s mostly a sense of confusion and being out of his depth, as he’s smacked around by someone he’s never seen before yelling about an unknown cosmic threat.
Jason Aaron almost certainly had a veritable laundry list of elements he was tasked to fit into this 40-page tale. Among these, two characters who have been off the board for some time are shown again in the final two pages, and another far more major character returns from the dead in an impressively executed comeback scene. (Although you might have already known that, since Marvel – as is typical for them – leaked the reveal to major news outlets the day before the comic came out.) It’s also worth noting that the art by Ribić, McNiven and the rest is almost uniformly gorgeous throughout, and Matthew Wilson’s colors shine regardless of which artists he’s applying them to.
And yet amongst all the secrets, machinations, check-ins and renewals, this wide-reaching story seems to have forgotten the human element. We get new ideas and intrigue galore, but the one thing we’re missing is any sort of viewpoint character the audience could connect with, and be moved by. That’s not as big of an issue if you’re only attempting to tell your story to the people who are already tuned in. But if your goal is to reach an audience you’ve lost – or even better, readers you’ve never had before! – then you’d better have at least one strong, compelling character in an exciting story that connects to your readers on an emotional level. Every piece of strong fiction that’s ever been beloved, regardless of the medium, has succeeded by making its audience feel something.
This is by no means a bad comic, and the interstitial single-page glimpses do the needed job of getting us excited for some of the titles coming up. But to get back the many readers Marvel have lost over the past decade, they really needed to hit this one out of the park. And while it’s a decently acceptable comic – especially for those who are already invested – it’s perhaps a little too all-over-the-map to be the massive shot in the arm which Marvel needed.
We still hope to see Marvel regain the sales prominence they once held. We still love all these characters, darn it! They should be a success!
But maybe that change will simply have to be slower, and more gradual, than we’d hoped.
7 out of 10