Tomorrow I’m going to post a list of my TOP 25 favorite comics of 2017, but first I want to share some miscellaneous thoughts that have stayed with me this year. That’s what this piece is all about, a grabbag of 2017 oddities, for which an alternate title could be Wherein I attempt to navigate the minefield of reasons Marvel’s standing among fans has declined — gulp!).
An Issue I Want to Mention but Can’t Find the Right Context:
Harbinger Renegades #5: Or, **SPOILERS** that one where a military group slaughters tons of super-powered kids. Bold. And, really, that’s all I’m comfortable saying about this.
Killer Books That Won't Make Our Best Of Due to Delays:
Guys named Jason or Jonathan Hickman did really well in this category...
The Black Monday Murders by Jonathan Hickman / Tomm Coker
Dying and the Dead by Jonathan Hickman / Ryan Bodenheim
Southern Bastards by Jason Aaron / Jason Latour
Allegedly Killer Comics We Need to Read:
My Favorite Thing is Monsters: I know two things about this graphic novel — it’s a metaphor for adolescence and it made basically every best of list. I’m hesitant to read more about it, because, you know, spoilers.
Spinning: I know two things about this graphic novel — it has something to do with ballet and it made basically every best of list. I’m hesitant (did you just get deja vu?) to read more about it, because, you know, spoilers (did you just get deja vu?).
Redlands: I often miss out on excellent horror comics because I don’t generally like horror comics, but I read and enjoyed Babyteeth by Donny Cates and Garry Brown this year, so I’m willing to give Redlands, which landed on way more best of lists than Babyteeth, a shot.
- Jean Gray and Secret Warriors: Look, I know amid these Secret Empires and Legacies and Resurexxions (is that how it was spelled? what a mess), Marvel had solid creators putting out solid books. Hell, I read a bunch Bendis and Waid, plus a grabbag of Black Panther and Ms. Marvel and The Ultimates, but for the most part, I deliberately did NOT make mine Marvel in 2017. Apparently, because of this I also missed out on some good books, books I will catch in trade.
And now, the volatile stuff..
Things Marvel Did That Felt Like Triage in a Bad Way:
Secret Empires and Legacies and Resurexions (is that right? just awful). Marvel promised it would change over and over, like a shitty boyfriend, and then just kept hitting on our friends and lying to us and telling us our ass looks fat in those jeans and no he won't turn down the AC even though we're cold, also like a shitty boyfriend.
I mean, the entire fandom zeitgeist admits Marvel has faded, but there is debate over how and why, and, like everything in our incredibly irritating times, this debate over Marvel’s decline has been weaponized and made political, leading to deeply entrenched and straight up annoying online debates about race and gender for some reason (God, I miss 2013).
But here’s the thing, I don’t think Marvel’s diversity efforts merit discussion, like, at all. What I think is far more worthy of thought is how Marvel’s many small bad habits have turned it into a publisher that's flaying and lost.
So, here we go:
Relaunches: Former Marvel boss Axel Alonso used to say in interviews that Marvel was heading toward a seasonal model, wherein every book launches with a new #1 and fresh story arc annually, like shows on TV. He used to say this as if it were an act of nature beyond control, one we all just had to accept like we do the winter or spring. Guess what, though. It’s totally in someone’s control, and that someone is Marvel. Guess what else. Nobody anywhere outside of a corporate boardroom asked for this.
Constant rebrandings and relaunches are the clear cause of 75 - 80 percent of Marvel’s declining sales and cancellations. It’s simple, really. There are so many good books now that most readers actively look for reasons to drop titles from pull lists. Relaunches make it so kids don’t even have to initiate a drop. It just happens. Plus, new #1s dilute Marvel books' resale value, consideration of which still factors into more buying decisions than I think most execs realize.
Too Many Titles: Marvel is eating its own lunch by having, for example, a bazillion Avengers books. One, or two, or three, fine. But Marvel’s heroes are spread so thin that nothing seems to matter each week.
Obscure Characters: You can blame the poor sales and subsequent cancellation of Gwenpool and America and Iceman and Spider Gwen and even Captain Marvel on diversity or backlash toward diversity or whatever else, but that’s reaching. The simple explanation is these are obscure characters and it takes years for less-known creations to gain a large enough following to sustain a book. I mean, even Guardians of the Galaxy doesn't really sell well. And while, yes, sometimes books are instantly viable—see Ms. Marvel—even then they often fade sales-wise when novelty wears off—see, again, Ms. Marvel (a book I have on my own pull list because I like underdog stories, so don’t @ me).
Many superhero books die because there are like 8 - 10 compelling superhero narratives, and they’ve been the same 8 - 10 for decades. Meanwhile, indie comics have now become widely available plus also widely freaking awesome, and the superhero market share is smaller, even for the 8 to 10 compelling narratives. So, you can’t throw 12 new heroes out there and expect all (or any, really) to work. Robert Kirkman can do no wrong in comics these days and even he has to end Invincible.
Also, new characters do better when solo books are born of narratives, rather than marketing. Generation X, for example, didn’t get a new title because the real X-men were gone and the kids were needed, or because something necessitated schooling a new class. No, that book was born (and later died) because of an X-Men marketing push (ressurerctionx … I’m not even close now, am I?). Simple.
The Movies: I know this sounds nuts, but I’ll say it anyway: the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has hurt Marvel Comics. Crazy, but true. Everyone expects movies to generate foot traffic in shops, and maybe they do. I know I've seen parents in shops with kids looking for Teen Titans Go! Forget that, though, because movies and TV shows have also diluted the freedom of Marvel’s storytellers with stuff like Steve Rogers becoming young again just in time for the premier of Captain America: Civil War, or Peter Parker losing his company just in time for Spider-man: Homecoming.
These mandates hem creators in and lower stakes, making story arcs predictable and dull. The beauty of comics is it can explore ideas that are often too grandiose, niche or downright wacky to translate to stage or screen, but comics fail at that stuff when they have to be reflections of their cinematic counterparts (again, please don’t @ me, I realize there are examples where this isn’t true...but c’mon, you know I’m right).
Hemorrhaging A List Creators: I saved this for last because it’s a symptom rather than a causation. Bendis is the latest and most high profile creator to bail on Marvel, before him it was Jeff Lemire and Jonathan Hickman and Kieron Gillen and Rick Remender and Ed Brubaker... a mass exodus of great writers, and there are probably some I forgot. I know the freedom and potential financial benefits of creator-owned work is a draw, but I also know many creators are willing to sacrifice that to write characters they’ve loved since they were kids. I mean, Greg Rucka came back to Wonder Woman for Rebirth, even though there was supposedly bad blood between him and DC.
Rucka, however, even showed up for the Rebirth streaming launch announcement at Emerald City in 2016, and when Geoff Johns or Dan Didio or Jim Lee or whoever (can’t remember which) asked why, Rucka said he couldn’t say no to Diana. There have to be A list creators who’d say the same about Spidey or the Avengers or Wolverine, but not if they can’t tell the stories they want without being boxed in by events or relaunches or artists getting shuffled around due to movie marketing.
Things Marvel Did That Felt Like Triage in a Good Way:
That last bit was rough, I know. I mean, I’ve loved Marvel since I was a kid, since the Spider-man and X-Men animated series in the ‘90s, plus the Spider-man and X-Men movies, got me into comics. There is, however, reason to be hopeful. Here’s why:
Marvel gave two interesting titles with great artists to Double Dynamite Donny Cates (both Doctor Strange and Thanos have been fan-fucking(sorry for swearing)-tastic under his early guidance), they’ve given increased prominence to work by Matthew Rosenberg (who in addition to being a good storyteller also seems to be a nice guy), and they’ve cut back their output of books (although, to be fair, we won’t know if this holds until we see the April and May solicits). And Marvel has been more willing lately to label certain things mini series, which seems to have lured big-name creators to work on Legion and the Inhumans, creators like PRIEST and Peter Milligan and Wilfredo Torres and Phil Noto (big names to me, anyway).
These are small bits of hope, to be sure, but, hey, at the very least we’re getting some killer work from Donny Cates. That’s not nothing. Oh yeah, and Marvel fans should find hope in an odd place: DC, which made its own 180 degree turnaround less than two years ago from even more dire straights.