This month’s editorial action at Marvel Comics is poised to have more of an impact on the future of Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-man, et al. than any of the publisher’s recent mega events, including Secret Wars, Secret Empire, or Civil War 2 (or Monsters Unleashed, Inhumans vs. X-men, Iron Spider World, Dead No More: The Clone Conspiracy, Apocalypse Wars, etc...also, I made at least one of those up). In fact, viewed a certain way, November 2017 could be the most significant month in the modern history of the company.
Really, I’m talking about two major moves:
Writer Brian Michael Bendis signing an exclusive deal with DC Comics
Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso abdicating his position to C.B. Cebulski
Bendis has been Marvel’s most significant writer over the past 20 years, having created exciting new characters like Jessica Jones and Miles Morales, and having guided an all-time great Spider-man run that served as spiritual inspiration for the recent movie. Alonso, meanwhile, lead Marvel Comics for the past seven years. Both of them departing in the same month matters in a way that’s telling about the state of the company.
Let’s look at where Marvel is now: in the comic zeitgeist (meaning Twitter, plus the two or three local shops I stop into each week), Marvel’s cachet has faded.
The reasons are simple:
Too many events: Civil War II was the breaking point, but more on that later.
Too many relaunches: I didn’t hear anyone outside of Marvel utter a word of excitement about 2016 Marvel Now! (there was also 2012 Marvel Now!...seriously). Just a bad idea, especially given All New, All Different Marvel restarted every book 12 months prior. People were grumbling about Marvel’s cheapening of number ones, and this was the push many readers needed to walk away.
Too much synergistic movie marketing thinly veiled as plots: I get that for longevity, superheros often regress to familiar status quos, but Marvel doing it like clockwork to coincide with new movies hurts the sense of possibility that drives sci-fi and fantasy adventures. Marvel has boxed itself in too often (see also, eliminating the Fantastic Four, diminishing the X-Men).
The problem is that movies make way more money, so much more that Marvel’s leadership has come to view comics as tangential instead of as root documents, and the company’s efforts to make more money have become too transparent. Capitalism has always been inherent to comics, sure. Most fans come for stories and stay for the very American idea that something we love might one day be so beloved by others that someone will pay us thousands of dollars for it. But nobody wants to feel like they’re buying movie trailers, and Marvel comics in recent times have blurred that line too much.
So, we have the current troubles. Now, onward to the future. The reason I think Bendis leaving and Cebulski being brought in is telling, is that the former verifies concerns about movie shilling, while the latter provides a brief glimmer of hope the company is aware and working to fix this.
Bleeding Cool has reported that part of the reason Bendis left was his diminished role providing input into Marvel’s movies. I absolutely believe this. You can see it in Bendis’ writing and in the cinematic universe. Bendis' role with the movies was once active, if not major. He essentially created the version of Nick Fury portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson, a huge contribution, and there have been fuzzy inklings online that he wrote dialogue for certain scenes.
That, however, was back when the cinematic universe was nascent and making one of Marvel’s movies was not yet a lucrative privilege for directors, back when they struggled to draw talents like Black Panther's Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station) and Thor: Ragnarok's Taika Waititi (Boy, What We Do in the Shadows (!!!)). Bendis, one can assume, is no longer actively involved. To make matters worse, marketing demands of these movies started to box him in creatively.
2016’s Civil War II, which Bendis wrote, was clearly designed to sell comics after the Civil War adaptation opened at the box office. This event was not a success. It’s not my aim to be critical here, but most parties seem to agree. In fact, I think Bendis revealed as much himself. He is historically a super positive and diplomatic interview subject, yet soon after Civil War II ended, he was quoted as saying he does have a bandwidth limit, even if Marvel doesn’t always realize it. Shots fired, in a Bendis-y way. Then, in Jessica Jones he wrote a character who was aware the Marvel Universe was destroyed during Secret Wars and was dismayed all these huge things seem to happen without lasting impact. It’s like people don’t even remember, he says. This character was an obvious avatar for Bendis, at least for that one thought (I think that same character also murdered someone, not cool).
So, we see a clear trajectory for Bendis, who went from helping to shape the films to being creatively boxed in by them. As a writer, this is understandably upsetting, enough to see why he would want to try the other big superhero publisher instead of his long-time home, which I’m sure he’d thought about anyway.
Bendis leaving matters for Marvel, which has slowly bled talent, if not to DC then to creator-owned work at Image: Jonathan Hickman, Kieron Gillen (despite still writing the Star Wars book), Jeff Lemire, Rick Remender, Ed Brubaker...the list is insane. Marvel has lost the best, some of whom later grumbled about creative restrictions, although none directly linked with increasing concern over the dynamic between the comics and movies. Then Marvel lost Bendis — one doesn’t have to strain to see this as a last straw that led to bringing in Cebulski, who is beloved among the creators Marvel has had trouble retaining lately.
All indications are that Cebulski is a perfect candidate to entice new or prodigal talents, but it remains to be seen whether they will return, or continue presumably fleeing the demands of movie marketing along with the creative ennui resulting from incessant relaunches and mega events that undo storytelling in what has always been a long-term, slowburn medium. Part of me is excited to see if Cebulski can do it, but part of me is also cynical, noting his most recent posting was in China, which Hollywood widely views as an increasingly-vital market for making money with what? Movies.
With that in mind, maybe the real excitement should be over what Bendis does when he gets to DC.