Unusually for a big event, there is actually an awful lot to say about Marvel’s Civil War series, the last issue of which hits UK shops today. I’m not going to say an awful lot in this post: basically, as a comic it was kind of rub, as a set of ideas it was interesting but problematic, as a repositioning of the Marvel Universe brand it was impressively ambitious, as a short term marketing move it was a commercial knockout, and as a long-term marketing move it might just be an absolute triumph. It’s this latter point I want to talk about in this post, which means revealing the ending, so watch out – spoilers below.
The new status quo at the end of Civil War is a shared Marvel Universe radically divided. The plot of the comic, if you weren’t reading it, hinged on the introduction of a “Superhero Registration Act”, under whose terms heroes who had acted as vigilantes would have to work for the government. At the end of the series, this act is law, and the setup is as follows:
– The SHIELD agency, now headed up by Iron Man, which co-ordinates superhero training and operations.
– Fifty different official superteams, one for each US state.
– An underground resistance of unregistered superheroes, acting illegally.
– A bunch of supervillains, who go round doing bad things as per usual.
The glaring standout plot point here is the fifty different superteams: way too many to write about effectively and a huge hassle to keep track of. What point do they serve? Are they just a throwaway idea? To answer this, and to realise why Civil War has been so potentially clever as a long-term marketing move, you have to look at what else Marvel is working on at the moment.
One of its big upcoming projects is an XBox and PC MMORPG set in the Marvel Universe, to rival the hugely popular City Of Heroes game (which has run into occasional legal flak when its players create characters who are too close to big Marvel or DC brand names). In this light the status quo change in Civil War makes sudden sense: the fifty different teams is ridiculously unweildy for a comics publisher, but for an online game universe they are an excellent fit – fifty ready-made character clans, organically transforming a freeform storytelling universe into a structured playing area. Throw in the resistance (and possibly supervillain clans too) and you’ve got massive potential. (You have to remember, too, that while the maximum audience for a comic stands at around 300-350,000, the maximum audience for an MMORPG is higher and the revenue streams probably better.)
If this is what Marvel are doing, then it’s a really clever move. What are DC Comics, its major publishing rival, doing to catch up? DC also publishes shared universe comics, and is also working – with Sony – on a MMORPG. Just like Marvel, it’s been working hard lately to give direction to its Universe. And also, just like Marvel, the direction seems to be very game-friendly.
DC’s current big project – ending soon – is 52, a weekly comic which is expected to reveal that the DC Universe is a “multiverse”, with (I’m guessing) 52 different realities, each different in some crucial way. Or, to be cynical about it, 52 different game servers or player groupings (with some potential for crossover). This set-up feels more artificial than Civil War’s successful transition to a new status quo – but then DC have never been particularly good at intra-character conflict, as last year’s forced and tedious Infinite Crisis crossover tended to show.
It’s DC’s new project, Countdown, that’s even more interesting, though. This is also a weekly series, but one set in “current” DC continuity (52 was set in a “missing year” within the continuity), so it’s planned as a comic that will move the overall macro-plot of the DC Universe forward. This ties in with the “Big Continuity” theory I was spouting in the pubs last year – that a subscription-based model for digital comics would involve a centralised published continuity (with tiered subscriptions for the number of titles you would access) which could then link to and influence developments in any MMORPG gameworld. DC at the time seemed to be sniffing around doing more stuff with digital comics but pulled out, scotching my theory. However a weekly ‘anchor title’ works just as well! How the anchor continuity ties to the multiverse is the main unresolved issue here.
So – if I’m right, and I might just be mental – we have initiatives from the major comics companies that seem designed to set up alignment between their publishing arms and their ongoing MMORPG projects, and which also set up clear points of branding differentiation between them. Go with Marvel and you’re entering a setup-driven universe oriented for conflict between heroes. Go with DC and you’re entering a less conflict-driven universe but one in which you’ll interact with whatever overarching macro-plots the company devises. Both options point to a future for shared universe comics (and for shared universes) that’s significantly different from our current situation.