Marvel is currently in the middle of their best large-scale crossover story in the past four years. While Avengers Vs. X-Men has had some missteps, is has for the most part appropriately raised the stakes, forced real reactions from their characters, and made its conflict more interesting than something that can be easily punched away. Marvel knows it’s in the middle of a positive media moment after taking the spotlight back from DC less than a year after the New 52 reboot, and with nothing more than solid, interesting storytelling. But don’t worry! They’re quickly restoring their reputation back to the status quo with another stupid marketing gimmick in the Mighty Marvel Manner.
Ladies and gentlemen, presenting Marvel NOW!
(It’s not a reboot!)
Last week, Marvel announced its most recent publishing initiative, Marvel NOW!. (Dear people who are supposed to be professional editors: If the title of your new project forces other people who write about it to have a period immediately follow an exclamation point, YOU ARE DOING SOMETHING WRONG.) Depending on which Marvel big shot you’re asking, Marvel NOW! is “the next chapter in the ongoing saga of the Marvel Universe” (Axel Alonso), “a coordinated creative refresh across our entire publishing line” (Tom Brevoort), or, from the biggest of big shots, Joe Quesada: “...not a reboot. It is a universe-shifting catch-all.”
I’d like to tell you, the uninformed reader, why all of this is stupid, but first, I’m going to explain why it isn’t stupid. Allow me to be clear regarding that phrasing: This IS stupid. Marvel NOW! is very stupid. But while this is stupid marketing meddling, I have to explain why this idea, in and of itself, is not a bad one.
Mainstream superhero comics are a genre that stands unique in all forms of storytelling media. This isn’t for its characters, supernatural, fantasy, or sci-fi elements, or costumes, but for its sheer longevity. The vast majority of characters and stories currently populating comic book shop shelves have been going for decades, some since the 1920s, without ceasing. The only other style of storytelling I can think of that has this scope is the slowly dying daytime television soap opera. Spider-Man’s activities in 1963 still very dramatically affect his activities today in 2012, and keeping up with all that continuity – maintaining it, not breaking it, and respecting it, all while attempting to tell new and exciting stories – is extremely hard to do.
Long-time fans constantly cry out for fresh, interesting stories but completely lose their pants when one panel of canon from four decades ago is broken to make room for a new character or plot twist. While it’s not impossible to have a balance of both invigorating stories and ongoing canon, it is damn hard to maintain that balance in every issue of every title. If a publisher tries to constantly straddle that line, they are going to inevitably fail. There need to be compromises on both sides of the issue.
Even if a publisher does manage to keep the diehard, long-time fans happy, they don’t support a growing capes-n-tights empire on their own. For the comic book business to survive, it has to attract new customers. New and independent comics can easily do this; new readers are happy to pick up an interesting story for the first time when there aren’t 80 years‘ worth of references to keep track of. Big publishers, like Marvel and DC, are always trying to find new ways to bring these new readers into their worlds. Audiences are hooked in the the movie theaters, but are overwhelmed at the comic shop. They need an entry point, and it’s fair to ask for that.
With these points in mind, a creative refresh is not a bad idea in and of itself. DC accomplished this recently with The New 52 universe-wide continuity reboot. Decades’ worth of continuity were streamlined and simplified; character histories were respected but compressed and sifted. The important parts of characters were kept as the extraneous pieces were cut. And so far, it’s been working for them. They were completely transparent and upfront about what they were doing, and got right back to telling good stories as soon as the reboot happened. And they’re doing well for it. They’ve kept the diehard fans, and made it easier for new readers to jump on board, even me, a long-time, diehard Marvel fan. The New 52 is a great example of a continuity reboot done very, very well.
The creative refresh/reboot/recharge, whatever you want to call it, isn’t a bad thing. It can be reinvigorating and breath new life into a stale universe that needs it. The case could even be made for making it happen every decade or so. So why do I hate Marvel NOW!? (That exclamation mark is infuriating, for starters. I’m not nearly that excited about that previous sentence as it makes me seem to be.) While a storytelling clean slate can be done well and to good effect, this isn’t that. This is mere pandering, another stupid marketing gimmick from the House of Ideas.
The idea of a new start for the Marvel Universe, a unified jumping off point for new readers to come on board at, is a good one. So good, in fact, that Marvel has attempted it before, not even two years ago, with The Heroic Age. The Heroic Age was the next big thing for Marvel, the next epoch in all the characters’ stories. It was the start of something new, the beginning of the rest of the superheroes’ lives, so to speak. If you didn’t know anything before it, you could jump in with The Heroic Age and be able to keep up.
“But Sean!,” you didn’t just say. “That was two whole years ago! Isn’t it good to continually have opportunities for new readers to jump on?” Absolutely! Which is why Marvel also has its Point One initiative. Point One is pretty simple, and effective, in concept. Every few issues, release a “point one” along with the normal issue for that month. Let’s say I’m writing the current Wolverine story arc, and it’s set to end by issue #34. Issue #35 would be an issue as normally planned, and #35.1 would release alongside it. #35.1 would be written for readers who want to start reading Wolverine, but aren’t caught up with all his recent history and don’t know what’s going on. It would give him or her an idea of Wolvie’s status quo. After reading that, they’d be able to easily slide right into #35 and be able to keep pace with what’s going on.
What bugs me about this whole Marvel NOW! thing is their steadfast refusal to call this what it is: marketing. OK, this is the big Fall push, there’s nothing wrong with that. Marvel is a company (owned by a giant corporate conglomerate) that needs to sell books, and they need to market the stories in those books in order to sell those books. What is so wrong with calling it that? Stop baiting me with “major, major changes coming to the Marvel Universe!” if what’s coming is only going to be majorly, majorly changed in less than a year.
There’s been a troubling trend at Marvel lately. Their movies have been doing incredibly well, ingratiating themselves with the mainstream market, and that success is going to their heads. They’re abandoning their loyal fans for flash and spectacle, and it’s going to hurt them in the long run. Every time I see an Augmented Reality logo on a splash page, every time I hear about new technology in the comic books, I roll my eyes and impotently shake my fist.
I don’t read comics for new technology. I read comic books for the stories, for the characters, for the twists and stakes. I read comics for the escapism, not for the reminder that I am reading about my favorite characters’ exploits in a comic book with their names on it. Marvel seems to think that people are reading comic books only as long as there is some new flashy logo on the covers, and their desperation is showing. Their big stories lately have been stale and predictable (AvX, so far, is the exception, but still needs to prove itself), too reliant on tie-ins, flashy logos, and technology.
Seriously. Technology. In the page of a comic book. Somehow. I guess?
Excellent stories keep people buying your comics, not flashy gimmicks. Hook the new fans, but if you can’t keep them there with a story worth investing themselves in, they’ll move on to other characters that are respecting their time. Scott Snyder’s run on Batman, for instance, has been pret-ty alluring....
Image courtesy of ADB Designs