Feb 07

Brandwatch: Civil War, 52, Countdown, and the future of “shared universe” comics

FT + The Brown Wedge/9 comments • 1,815 views

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.


  1. 1
    Pete Baran on 22 Feb 2007 #

    How can you do an article on comics and not have any pictures. For shame!

    This is one of those fabulous pieces of writing you do occasionally Tom where the scales fall from my eyes and suddenly all becomes clear. What is great about it is that EVEN IF IT ISN’T TRUE, by writing it, it probably will happen!

    Hits are a-coming this way I don’t doubt.

  2. 2
    Tom on 22 Feb 2007 #

    My TOTALLY AWFUL work PC makes it really really hard to insert pics for some reason (also links but I am competent and non-lazy enough to work the html for them). If you have edit privs feel free to put GURNING CAP FACES in.

  3. 3
    Andrew Farrell on 22 Feb 2007 #

    The maximum audience for an MMORPG is already playing World of Warcraft, which is very good at keeping its players hooked. I was talking to Tracer about Second Life the other day, when he claimed that the vast majority (around 80%? I might have just made up that figure) of its billions and billions of users don’t stay around for longer than 40 days.

  4. 4
    Tom on 22 Feb 2007 #

    There’s a post from earlier this week, or end of last, with a link to a discussion of SL audience figures.

    How many people play City Of Heroes?

  5. 5
    Seb Patrick on 23 Feb 2007 #

    That’s completely and totally insane… but you might just have something.

    Or, at least, you might just have something when it comes to Marvel (I’ve struggled to try and find some reason for why they’re dumping themselves in the current status quo, which seems to me to be more problem-causing than problem-solving); I’m not sure how much it ties in with what DC are doing, since I don’t know if they even KNOW what they’re doing (despite how excellent 52 has, on the whole, been, I question the wisdom of their just launching into another mass crossover straight after it rather than letting the individual titles/characters breathe on their own for a while). But it makes a lot of sense when you apply it to the Marvel setup; and also when you consider the success and plaudits that Ultimate Alliance has so far garnered (and that there would therefore surely be some sort of desire to shift that success into the online field).

  6. 6
    Tom on 23 Feb 2007 #

    Yeah the DC bit is much more of a reach I freely admit!

  7. 7
    miss bum bum on 17 Mar 2007 #

    giuguu8tiibigjnjhuyuhihkn this is fukin dinamite!!!!! people r wankers and cunts

  8. 8
    Admin on 3 Apr 2007 #

    Marvel’s 1st press release on their MMO development http://rustmonster.net/2007/04/02/marvel-universe-mmorpg-coming/

  9. 9

    […] Sonic The Comic is probably most notable for honing the career of one Mark Millar, recently seen putting his scottish stamp on the Marvel Universe as a whole and turning it into a far more ‘realistic’ place, both in terms of increased grimness, grit and politicisation and also in terms of internal coherence. Rather than all the Marvel Superheroes concentrated totally in New York and running around destroying buildings willy-nilly, they’re now heavily regulated, with a team of heroes assigned to every state of the union, as well as various government-run training programs, black ops units and of course outlaws who refuse to toe the line. And the X-Men, who are too complicated for the US Government to bother with and thus get a free pardon. What does all this rigmarole achieve for Marvel’s various franchises? Well, replace ’states of the union’ with ’servers’ and… voila. […]

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