Marvel Comics is struggling, readers are losing interest, journalists are writing think pieces about what’s up, and some retailers have linked a downturn in the industry to poor Marvel sales. I’ve made my own theory known: these struggles stem from an ongoing obnoxious cash grab wherein Marvel over-connects its comics to its movie/TV premieres, and wherein it also cancels and reboots books before creators can execute the long-form serial storytelling that’s been a hallmark of the medium.
I’m writing more about Marvel’s struggles later this week, but what I’d like to do first is highlight some quality stories that have been told amid the strife, particularly in books shorter than 20 issues. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll say the troubles began at the end of the 2015 line-wide event Secret Wars, which narratively “destroyed” the Marvel Universe. Marvel had been relaunching titles for a few years before that, but it seemed to step up in the aftermath. Fans seemed willing to play along with All New, All Different Marvel, but the second Marvel Now! launch of the decade less than a year later was just too much.
SPECIAL NOTE: Runs like Jason Aaron’s The Mighty Thor, Dan Slott’s Amazing Spider-Man or Saladin Ahmed’s Black Bolt are not on here because those books are still alive, as are Brian Michael Bendis’ titles (I’d put Infamous Iron Man on here, but it’s an offshoot of a continuing Invincible Iron Man run, not its own thing). Furthermore, I’m not putting Dan Slott and Mike Allred’s Silver Surfer on here, because I’ve lauded it twice now, once in my Top Comics of October 2017 and again in my overall Top Comics of 2017. That run on Silver Surfer is truly special work, one of my all-time favorites, but writing about it three times in four months is excessive. That’s it, though, no other rules. Let’s do this!
The Ultimates (1 and 2) by Al Ewing and Kenneth Rocafort / Travel Foreman
There’s been a void at Marvel ever since a contentious movie rights negotiation (allegedly) resulted in the end of books about the Fantastic Four. This is partially because Marvel’s First Family contains some of the most iconic characters in comics, but also partially because there’s been a lack of ambitious cosmic adventures grounded in science. The Ultimates ultimately filled this gap a bit, with a lineup of varied, powerful characters, most of which were geniuses. This team took on the big problems in the Marvel Universe, such as satiating Galactus, and it ran in two iterations, both of which were fantastic, even if it did seem like Ewing had some longer-term plans cut short by the cancellation and maybe also disrupted by the 2016 event Civil War II.
Spider-Woman by Dennis Hopeless and Javier Rodriguez
This was an incredibly sweet book that started with Jessica Drew being a pregnant superhero before turning into book about Jessica Drew being a single mother superhero. There was really solid character-work, combined with a fresh premise, which gave Spider-Woman a warm and unique feel throughout its 17 issues. This book was an example of some of the highs that can be reached by taking a different approach to traditional Big 2 storytelling.
Scarlet Witch by James Robinson and various
This 15-issue run saw James Robinson team with a new artist each issue, including some of the best in the industry. In these stories, Wanda Maximoff wandered the globe on missions of self discovery and redemption, and the mostly self-contained tales felt like watching Wanda grow away from her tumultuous past. The sad part, however, is there likely won’t be any lasting effect on the character moving forward.
Black Widow by Mark Waid and Chris Samnee
Mark Waid and Chris Samnee just know good comics, from pacing to continuity to action sequences, and reading their work together often feels like watching a masterclass in superhero storytelling. Like the excellent run on Daredevil that preceded Black Widow, that’s how this book felt. I was shocked when it ended after a year of publication. The good news is that the band is back together, giving its same expert treatment to the traditional Steve Rogers iteration of Captain America. Their three understated issues have already been more interesting than the entirety of the Secret Empire event, which I was lukewarm on in terms of both concept and execution.
Moon Knight by Jeff Lemire and Greg Smallwood
This run was so good I haven’t been able to read a panel of Max Bemis’ current run on the character (which I’ve heard here and there is also pretty good) because I’m not ready to let go of the madcap yet introspective story Lemire and Smallwood told. The team really took hold of Moon Knight and his pliant mythos, and these 14 issues contained twist after twist, diving into ideas about mental health and then running laps around their fringes, looking gorgeous all the while due to Smallwood’s (and other contributing artists’) visual contributions.
Nighthawk by David F. Walker and Ramon Villalobos
This run only lasting 6 issues was an absolute tragedy. From the artwork to the thematic content rooted firmly in current events, this book was a fantastic read. Much was made when it died of whether fans properly supported Nighthawk, but the real conversation should have been about Marvel’s role in supporting its own books, and also about whether the book was lost amid the publisher flooding shops and over-shipping too many titles. Did we really need books about Black Knight, Weird World, Hercules, Web Warriors, Drax, or Starbrand and Night Mask? Would worthier books like Nighthawk have gotten a fairer shake without so much over saturation? It’s impossible to tell now, although DC’s modest Rebirth line serves as a glimpse to what could have been (however, I should also note that Nighthawk may not have existed at all if Marvel pulled a Rebirth, as the most obscure character during that launch was, arguably, Blue Beetle).
The Vision by Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta
This book was Marvel’s peak since Secret Wars, and, in my opinion, it ranks as a classic that ought to be remember among the best the medium has produced. It also marked Tom King’s arrival as a major writing talent in comics. In fact, before the 12-issue run had ended, DC snapped him up on an exclusive contract, a development then-Marvel E-I-C Axel Alonso seemed none too thrilled over. Through Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s excellent clean and emotive artwork, King’s scripts went to some truly dark and heartbreaking places.
As with Spider-Woman, The Vision also serves as a prime example of the good that can come from Marvel’s unrestrained editorial approach. It’s a quirky concept (a superhero in the suburbs! Superman + American Beauty!) executed by creators operating with total freedom, and it’s all about an often-minor character given a chance to star. Marvel’s milked the success of this book since it ended, putting out director’s cuts and hardcovers and all of that, but what if the publisher had had less titles, less relaunches, less series that looked exactly like their movies? Maybe books that were worthy, like The Vision, Nighthawk, The Ultimates or Spider-Woman would have found wider readership and hung around.
SPECIAL NOTE PART TWO: Later this week, we’ll look deeper into some of Marvel’s struggles, including what will possibly happen to Miles Morales with his name changing and Bendis stepping away, and how Marvel could be more successful by caring more about rewarding readers and less about swindling them into opening their wallets.