(Important disclaimer. I am something of a partisan, in that my brother is writing two monthly comics for Marvel. This partly explains why I’m so interested in their strategy, but I haven’t mentioned his titles in this piece. Oh, and Hazel Robinson writes for this site. And I’ve been to the pub with Kieron Gillen, but then so have a lot of people. Look, speculative Internet random, just assume I’m very biased. Sorry.)
POSTCARDS FROM THE DINERVERSE
Young Avengers ended well. If I say that my favourite issues were 6 and 7 and 14 and 15 it might seem like a terrible unintended slight to Jamie McKelvie, who drew only one complete issue of those four, along with everything else. But they were my favourites – the issues where the comic was most clearly about the parts between the adventures: shit jobs, cheap eats, parties. The stuff of late teenage life.
Marvel NOW! – the publishing initiative Young Avengers was part of – has included plenty of superhero adventure comics, some fine, some tedious, a few excellent. Even so, “the parts between the adventures” has been something of a theme. Business writer John Kay calls it Obliquity – you achieve success by letting it happen while you focus on something else – and Marvel’s superheroes are more oblique now (or NOW!) than they’ve ever been. The line’s other great critical success, Hawkeye, took it as a premise: this is what Hawkeye does and who he hangs out with when he’s not Avenging. In FF the quartet – temporary replacements for Marvel’s original adventurers, the Fantastic Four – awkwardly mark time, flirt, and try to fill 50-year old shoes in a comic about absence. In Superior Foes Of Spider-Man, Spider-Man never appears – it’s a Tom Stoppard take on petty supercrooks. The line’s flagships are not immune: Brian Bendis’ All-New X-Men lets issues roll by in a haze of delightful character interaction – the plot barely moves and it’s a smash hit. Even the grimmest book in the line, Jonathan Hickman’s New Avengers, is mostly about superheroes waiting between round after round of a cosmic Russian Roulette game.
Lightly ironised fights surrounding the really intractable human problems – this was Marvel’s original selling point in the 1960s, and in that sense Young Avengers was a very old school Marvel comic, even as it destabilised the idea of one. A lot of its particular skew played wonderfully to the strengths of McKelvie. The strength I knew he had: his cool, detailed figurework and facial expressions make him the master of the meaningful half-glance. So plot beats and suspense in Young Avengers were driven by hand gestures, or facial expressions behind what you might think was going on. And the strength I didn’t know he had: gorgeous designer fight scenes, as formal, clever and fan-pleasing as the old two-page cutaways of Quinjets and Baxter Buildings in 60s Marvel. The fights were pin-ups, beautiful distractions while the real action might be hidden in an offhand comment or a bit of body language.
What we ended up with was a different take on what critic Tim O’Neil described as “momentism” – “a style of writing predicated on the singular iconic ‘moment’ as the indissoluble element of superhero writing”. The powerhouse writers of DC, Geoff Johns and Scott Snyder, are the current kings of momentism: their books filled with blockbuster ‘story beats’ and the kind of “whoa – did he just?” splash pages that fans have long adored. Marvel try this too – their event comics have plenty of badass violence, heroic speeches, hammers smashing through chests, etc. – but for me it never quite comes off: epic momentism doesn’t feel like the natural mode of any of their current main writers (and all the better for it).
Instead what Young Avengers, and Hawkeye, and the more interesting end of Marvel Now! give us is a quieter, slyer, character based soft momentism – single- or double-panel vignettes that shed light on a protagonist. The last two issues of Young Avengers – a multi-artist jam about a new years’ party – are just full of them: Billy and Teddy’s dancefloor embrace, Loki’s flirting with David, America’s closing remark to Kate, and of course Loki’s photograph. Sometimes they reveal something new, even turn a character inside out. More often they’re just funny, or sad, or sexy. They give you feels.
Which brings us to Tumblr.
The Young Avengers acquired a reputation as a Tumblr type of comic. Some of that was slightly lazy, primed by the recap pages as much as anything, but the comic was indeed big on Tumblr. More to the point, I don’t think I’d be off the mark in saying it was designed to be big on Tumblr, because Tumblr might represent the future of Marvel Comics.
Justify that? OK. There’s a shorthand image of Tumblr – social justice and feels – which helps define what we think of as a “Tumblr comic”, or at least a Tumblr superhero comic (the platform, obviously, is host to all sorts of wonderful and successful webcomics, with a comics community thriving well beyond the superhero stuff I’m talking about here.)
But it’s well worth asking why Tumblr has this reputation – even if it is all social justice and feels, there must be a reason for that. You need to understand the platform to understand the way mainstream comics exist on it.
I’ve spent a fair bit of professional time thinking about social media platforms. A social media platform is what it is because of two things: features – what is possible, and more to the point, what is easy to do on it – and culture. Culture is what actually gets done – the norms of a platform. Social media spaces are huge, of course, and can contain multiple cultures. The part of Tumblr I’m talking about, the Tumblr of Marvel and of mainstream comics in general, is a fraction of the whole. But it has its norms and it has its features, and three things make it unique.
The first is the demographics. Tumblr genuinely is younger than most other social platforms, and more diverse. A greater proportion of its users are people of colour than on any other major platform. Women users make up a higher percentage than anywhere else bar Pinterest. Teenagers over-index dramatically. And while Pew and other research agencies don’t tend to ask about sexuality or gender identification, LGBT visibility in Tumblr fandom is very high. What looks to dim outsiders as some kind of obsession with “social justice” often just springs from people talking about themselves, their lives and the shit that happens to them.
The second unique thing is the fandom culture. This is the part I’m on shakiest ground on, because I’m not much of a participant in any fandom – I’m too old and too square. But fandoms moved – some by drift, some en masse – to Tumblr as a result of the decay of other fan spaces, like LiveJournal. This means it’s known as a space for fan activity and creativity – a place where people appreciate the space to interact with a story or characters more creatively and intimately.
And the third unique thing is the functionality. Tumblr is as image-heavy as Pinterest, as easy to share on as FaceBook, and as open in terms of publishing and subscription (who can follow who) as Twitter. The result is an environment where images are the main currency and circulate extremely rapidly and widely. With a certain number of notes a post can hit a sort of escape velocity, circling the Tumblrsphere endlessly, crossing the same dashboards again and again.
So all this adds up to an environment which is absolutely perfect for the kind of soft momentism Young Avengers trades in, and where it has predictably thrived. A wider demographic means wider tastes, a thriving fan culture means an appreciation of character, and ultra-fast circulation of images means that comics fandom in particular is a perfect fit. Superhero comics fandom and criticism on Tumblr has evolved a grammar of the single panel beat or the multi-panel character collage – a collection of faces of Loki or Prodigy or bearded Noh-Varr, pulled from one or two issues. These panel snippets – as fan and commentator Charlotte Geater has pointed out – are radically anachronistic: they can be drawn from all across a character’s publishing history, set in dialogue with each other via the social media stream. A character like Steve Rogers or Loki is understood on Tumblr not by his actions as described by one author in one comic, but by the transmedia collages of moments fans put together from the works of many authors in many decades.
This leaves us with a reversal of the priorities of epic momentism. Epic momentism, of the kind which delights a lot of online fans, is all about the payoff moment – the reveal, the explanation, the action (like an ass getting kicked) which seals off the story. Soft momentism on the other hand likes moments which open possibilities up, which create gaps, hint at new angles on characters, kicking star-shaped holes in things that the curious fan can scamper through and explore.
CRISIS ON EARTH-88
Young Avengers was accused of pandering to Tumblr, but it was really just the comic in the right place with the right characters to take advantage of it. But if there is a Tumblr wave of superhero comics – mostly from Marvel – why is there? Young Avengers was not, in print at least, a sales juggernaut. Why do Marvel care?
It’s a question where the obvious answer is the right one – new audiences live there. Just as Tumblr is more diverse than the Internet as a whole, so comics fandom on Tumblr is more diverse than comics fandom on IGN or CBR or Newsarama. It’s younger, queerer, more racially diverse and most obviously a lot more female – and those voices lead the conversation, they don’t constantly have to fight to win a place on it. It’s also – perhaps anecdotally, perhaps not – newer to comics. I argued after the end of Young Avengers’ precursor series, Journey Into Mystery, that Marvel’s original strength was built on leapfrogging the kids to attract a new, smart, post-teenage audience back in the 60s, and that now they needed to do the same thing in reverse: leapfrog the long-term fans to win that same audience back. But that new audience looks very different now.
There’s been much discussion of Marvel’s recent diversity initiatives. From a character perspective, they’re getting better. From a creator perspective, it’s still pretty shocking. But the characters are only a means to an end – winning a different generation of readers is the prize, winning the audience for whom digital comics are the natural medium. (Digital issues can be screenshotted immediately, so the currency of moments goes into quick circulation).
Corporate comics have been down similar roads before. If you look at the flagship new books of Post-Crisis DC – in 1987 and 1988 – it feels not unlike Marvel NOW! There’s a few traditional approaches but underneath them a bunch of comics visibly itchy to shift expectations and do things differently. Then as now, we’re looking at a company seeking new audiences in a market shift (the decisive move away from newsstands to the direct market). Then as now, this company was fighting for share and attention with – and borrowing the best talent from – an indie upsurge (Image today, Eclipse and First then). And then as now, the parts between the adventures, where the comics whirl away from superheroics, were always the most important. JLA played it simply for laughs. Flash mixed whimsy, social justice and a baroque supporting cast. Wonder Woman was a gentle and thoughtful celebration of sisterhood and conflict resolution.
It was an odd interregnum and ended badly, as DC’s gamble went wrong. There really was a new audience for comics but it was teenage and ferociously male, flocking not to DC’s smart superhero range but to the visceral pop energy of McFarlane and Liefeld at Marvel and then Image. DC responded with the Death of Superman, and while they continued to publish many good comics at the fringes, the rest is fisty scowly history.
Could it happen again? Will Marvel NOW! and its Tumblr-friendly oblique superheroes face a smilar doom? The mainstream comics biz is geared to respond quickly to any spike in traditional fan demand. When a hot writer like Scott Snyder revitalises a hot character like Batman, it can drag half a publishing line in its wake. There’s an oil rush mentality around hot comics – exploit, exploit, copy, copy, drill baby drill. The new audiences out on Tumblr don’t spike sales in the same way yet – they need to be cultivated, celebrated and to some extent subsidised.
SVENGALI IN BRAT FORM
But it is working, I think. The fan response to Young Avengers shows the potential. And Marvel are attracting new readers. The comics fandom track at this year’s Nine Worlds Convention – a celebration of exactly the new, diverse audiences Marvel needs – is being handled by Charlotte Geater and Hazel Robinson, neither of whom had ever touched a superhero comic until they came to Marvel’s recent stuff. And now they’re running part of a convention. I would say this is the precise equivalent of the fandom switched on by Marvel back in their passionate 1960s – the people like Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas and Steve Englehart who’d go on to restaff the company. I’m not saying Piratemoggy is going to end up editor-in-chief of Marvel (though you never know), I’m saying Marvel has always survived and renewed itself by giving fans a leg-up, and this is where the new fans are now. If we are going to see more diversity among creators – and the virtuous cycle that should bring in terms of content and readers – it will start with the new Tumblr audience.
So what happens next? For all my praise of Marvel NOW!, it’s hard to say how much all this is a strategy and how much is simply lucked into on the back of a few good titles. It hasn’t all been great, and the company may be on more of a creative tightrope than it looks. Marvel needs a constant renewal of staff: the more talented and well-known a Marvel creator, the more likely they are to shift their efforts to creator-owned work and enjoy the freedom and rewards it offers. Meanwhile, the pressure of the trad market is also strong – at some point fandom building and future cultivation needs to translate into pleasing sales. Feeding an audience active on social media builds anticipation of involvement by creators – which has been a feature of Young Avengers, since McKelvie and writer Kieron Gillen are both super approachable. But if creators are expected to join in the Tumblr party, that’s an additional strain.
Finally, you need a steady flow of comics that work as good gateways to a universe. The second wave of Marvel NOW! (called, a bit laboriously, All New Marvel NOW!) is hopeful: it promises a lot of tonal and stylistic variety on titles for lower-selling and lesser-known characters: Black Widow, Silver Surfer, She-Hulk, even Doop. It feels like the constant turnover of books – short runs becoming the norm – can have a liberating, not a deadening effect, encouraging creators to risk more.
It’s a new strategy in reply to the old question: what do we do about Hollywood? How do our comics react to the success of our films? In the 00s, the answer was “imitate them”,which worked to a point, but the comics never really saw the kind of sales boom Marvel might have anticipated from such monster movies. Marvel NOW! keeps a toe in that strategy but seems more to be about doing the stories Hollywood can’t, or won’t yet. Why imitate the films – why not light paths for them?
Wherever Marvel goes, it goes without Young Avengers – or at least, without this team. Loki ended his last series destroyed by the Marvel Universe’s own internal, change-denying logic. He ends this one with the flickering possibility that change is possible, and having helped bring that change on, metafictionally speaking. It’s a bit happier, anyhow. And now it’s all done, I can think about my – silly with hindsight, thankfully not written-down – worries about what the series might do, and the dumb expectations I had for it, based on a lifetime of reading worse teen superhero comics.
I worried it would be awkwardly cool – but in fact it was nerdily enthusiastic: yes hugs, yes learning. I worried it would load on pop culture references – but its most glaring one (Loki’s Tyrion speech) was one of its best scenes: absolutely in character, revealing, and eyerolled by everyone else in the comic who heard it. I worried, ultimately, that I would resent Young Avengers because it would remind me of the kind of teenager I wasn’t, and in the end I liked it for reminding me of the kind of teenager I was. The kind who went to parties, and worked shit jobs, and sat around having breakfast with friends. A grand job from all concerned: I hope the examples it set are ones Marvel remembers.
Image credits: All pictures are from Young Avengers by Jamie McKelvie (a) and Kieron Gillen (s) except the one of Darla Deerling which is from FF by Michael Allred (a) and Matt Fraction (s) and the one of Flash and Pied Piper which is from Flash by Greg LaRoque (a) and William Messner-Loebs (s).