Avengers NOW! and Marvel in the 2010s
Marvel Comics’ announcement that its new Thor is going to be a woman has attracted plenty of froth and comment – especially since it turned out that this was part of a general refreshment of their core titles under the Avengers NOW! banner brand. Captain America is to be replaced by long-standing partner The Falcon (who happens to be a black guy), and Iron Man is going to become a dick (they may have trouble presenting this as a radical change).
There have been a range of responses. Superhero comics are built on the “illusion of change”, but apparently have the most reliably troll-able audience in media history, so some people are upset at the idea of a status quo change. That it’s a status quo change away from a white guy in two cases – and those two cases are the ones drawing all the heat, nobody is saying “I love Tony Stark! How dare they make him even more of a jerk” – is not coincidental to the level of rage.
But then you have people who are well aware of the illusion of change thing, and think Marvel are pulling a fast one – it’s a gimmick, it’ll just change back, haven’t we all grown out of this stuff? These people point to the 2015 release date of the next Avengers film – which won’t, most likely, star a lady Thor and a black Cap – as evidence of an expiry date on these plots. This sort of “wrestling – it’s fixed!” metacommentary (ongoing serials have subplots that begin and end – pass the smelling salts!) isn’t a great revelation but it stings more here because the spin on this has been that this is part of an important push towards greater diversity in comics – reaching to new audiences, launching more female-led titles, and so on. So if this is just the usual headline-chasing plot twister they’re playing with fire presenting it as something else.
And the third reaction is enthusiasm, broad or guarded – Falcon Cap and Lady Thor and maybe even Dickbag Tony will be good stories well told, and diversity really is important, so well done Marvel.
What do I think? I think the Avengers NOW! initiative is interesting as a clear progression in terms of Marvel’s current creative direction and recent history – and probably also needs to be understood through the lens of previous superhero replacements (there have – gasp – been a few) and what they mean.
STARS OF THE SILVER (AGE) SCREEN
Marvel Comics right now is in a position that’s both familiar and unusual. It’s the biggest fish in a fairly small comics industry pond – that’s the familiar part. It’s also the publisher of several enormously popular and vastly profitable sets of movie IP – one it owns (the Marvel Studios films) and some it doesn’t (the X-Men and Spider-Man films). This is unusual, historically.
So there’s a reasonable expectation that the movies will influence the comics, which is at the root of the “everything will reset by the time the next Avengers film comes out” response to Avengers NOW! And in the broad sense that Marvel’s publishing initiatives recently seem to have played up the properties Marvel Studios owns, and that more comics with THOR on the front show up when a Thor film is in cinemas, this is true: Marvel is Avengers-centric now to a degree that would have seemed absurd for most of its history.
But an actual lockstep between the films and the comics? No. Marvel put out a “movie Avengers” title, Avengers Assemble!, with the film characters and much Whedon-esque banter, which opened to high-ish sales numbers then quickly declined and was cancelled by issue #25 – not a disgraceful performance these days, but certainly not proof that “comics reflecting the films” is what the comics audience want, or that publishing such things brings new readers in. As we’ll see, there’s a difference between publishing comics designed to appeal to new fans from the films and comics designed to imitate the films. Marvel haven’t taken the latter path much since their film success started, so there’s no real reason to imagine they’ll suddenly begin that in 2015.
NUKE ME WITH THE NOW
So if they haven’t been tracking the films, what have Marvel been doing in the last couple of years? Avengers NOW! is the third annual refresh of the line – following 2012’s Marvel NOW! and last year’s All-New Marvel NOW! (and yes, the branding is getting a bit exhausting). And the comics now do genuinely feel somewhat different from the comics of a few years ago. What has the company been changing – for better and worse?
MID-LIST BOOKS: The most influential Marvel comic of the 2010s is Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye, which pushed the company to an unfamiliar level of critical acclaim and trade paperback success. Hawkeye’s ground-level, beautifully designed take on the everyday life of the Avengers’ everyman character showed that breaking away from a house style and giving creators license to find an individual angle on a book could pay off. Marvel have always had the occasional quirky book, but it feels like Marvel NOW! is actively chasing them as a publishing strategy. Since Hawkeye the company has established a thriving tier of low- to mid-selling comics with strong individual voices and visual identities – She-Hulk, Silver Surfer, Ms Marvel, Ghost Rider, Black Widow, and more. Not all of these work for me, but they feel less like each other than Marvel books have in a very long time, and the company’s critical stock has risen accordingly.
NEW AUDIENCES: Marvel has made it an increasingly public priority to attract new audiences to its comics – new meaning younger, more female, more diverse. It’s exactly the right time to be doing this – to take advantage of people switched on to characters by the films, of the wider availability of digital comics, and of the terrific fit of comics to social media platforms where new audiences live. It’s also the right thing to do, commercially – dragging comics to the same broader-based fandom that other kinds of ‘geek media’ have enjoyed for a while. It hasn’t paid instant and obvious dividends for Marvel, but it’s helped keep them the number one publisher at a time when rival DC has been particularly commercially aggressive.
The extent to which Marvel has won the PR battle over diversity, in fact, is embarrassing for DC. By the metrics of creator diversity – bad at both companies – and series fronted by female characters, the two organisations are well matched. (Marvel’s public pride at having eight female-led ongoing comics may be down to it being the first time it’s topped DC’s ‘New 52’ launch total of seven.) But unlike DC, Marvel has largely avoided fuck-ups and firestorms around its handling of female characters, and – helped enormously by the very high quality of comics like Muslim superheroine Ms.Marvel – it’s made diversity part of its creative branding in a way it’s never managed before.
EVENTS: Marvel is now more than ten years into an era of line-wide events, and seems more invested in the format than ever. Marvel events of the 00s had two purposes. One was to sell exceptionally well. But they were more directionally important than ever, too – they built a sense of a universal meta-plot that was driving Marvel along, letting the company play the “illusion of change” game across the whole line at once. This impression of a single larger storyline, so prominent between hero-versus-hero slugfests Civil War (2005) and Avengers v X-Men (2012), has dissipated in the Marvel NOW! era. But not because the company has de-emphasised events – far from it. The pace has increased to two tentpole events a year, with a couple of breather months in between. Age Of Ultron (robots take over) last spring was followed by Infinity (space war) last summer, with a few months before Original Sin (cosmic detective romp) almost overlaps with the upcoming AXIS (villains get their shit together).
By shipping individual issues of these comics more often – so a six issue story takes three months not six – the overall footprint of event months doesn’t change, but twice as many books and tie-ins can come out. But this frenetic pace leads to a marketing situation where currently-running events are drowned out in the hype for the next one. And it means the thing Marvel did so effectively with its 00s events – use them to set up and shift status quos on a yearly basis – is off the table: the universe is too incoherent for that. While event comics are obviously still selling, in the 00s they also had a longer-term effect as a springboard for new titles: the damp squib of “Inhumanity”, Marvel’s one recent effort at a cross-line branding a la 00s efforts “The Initiative” or “Dark Reign”, suggests that might not be the case now.
FRANCHISES: One of the more interesting and risky decisions of the Marvel NOW! era – and a revealing one vis-à-vis the company’s priorities for the Avengers books – was its choice in 2012 to tie the future of most of its major books to long-term storylines by its biggest-name writers. This included the Avengers. Hot off the most popular superhero film in history, Marvel locked their Avengers franchise into not one but two parallel, sometimes contradictory, multi-year uber-plots reliant on a single writer apiece (Jonathan Hickman on Avengers, Rick Remender on Uncanny Avengers). Each of these has leaned heavily on characters who weren’t in the films. Neither have finished yet.
This suggests that Marvel have decided that the comic audience and the film audience are basically irrelevant to one another: even when they’re the same people, they’re the same people wanting different things. So instead Marvel use the comics as an ideas lab – things the films can do 5 or 10 years later, not as an attempt to make a tiny smidgen more money off what they’re doing now. Of course, if you don’t like the idea of Jonathan Hickman doing a prog rock Avengers epic, you get to sit out three years of comics. And there’s another downside to this, which is that the uber-plots dominating Avengers actually cut off some commercial room for experiment – they immediately demarcate which titles “matter” and don’t for a plot-driven reader, making it hard to extend a franchise in the way DC have been doing with Batman. Not that this stops Marvel trying: there are still 8 or 9 Avengers titles a month.
A MIGHTY MARVEL NON-EVENT
What does all this add up to? A pretty happy reader, in my case. I’m not especially invested in events, I am very interested in books with individual voices and creators doing their things, and I think a broader range of featured characters is good politics, good storytelling, and good for the medium’s future. But I also think it’s fair to say that going into Avengers NOW! Marvel feels a bit unbalanced. Looked at over the last couple of years, the House of Ideas is on a creative high, putting out fun, individual comics with an abandon it hasn’t shown since its chaotic, fertile 1970s. But this vibrant 2010s Marvel co-exists with and commercially relies on the declining 2000s Marvel, driven by events and macro-plots, an approach whose wheels seem close to falling off.
(The last time I paid attention to DC it seemed to have the opposite issues – no surprise, the two companies’ approaches often cycle – a sense of direction at the top end of its range and then a completely stagnant mid-list milling around waiting for the mercy of cancellation. I don’t know to what extent the weeklies DC recently launched have changed this. And the old rivalry isn’t strictly relevant to this post anyhow.)
This is all the context in which Avengers NOW! happens – a convenient rolling up of existing plans and plot developments into a marketing event, if not an in-universe one. Back in those wayward 1970s, Marvel put out The Defenders, which it liked to describe as a “non-team”, a bunch of characters who just happened to star in a comic together. In this sense, Avengers NOW! is a non-event, a similar bunch of things that just happens to be happening simultaneously.
But that non-event status might play to Marvel’s current strengths – it’s a potential way of squaring the circle between what it does well now and what it seems to struggle with, of absorbing the better parts of its 00s model and pushing its 10s one forward. It promises individualised approaches and new angles for its higher-selling books, and greater diversity to boot. But it also leaves the door open for a meta-plot along Civil War lines – how well will the new heroes respond to crises, work together, and so on. And it opens up their franchises in more interesting ways.
Which is necessary, because of the other big long-term trend in comics, one Marvel is on the wrong side of. Marvel’s viability is based on its intellectual property, and its intellectual property is largely very old. The House Of Ideas finds it harder than ever to create new ones. There have never been great incentives to create brilliant characters for Marvel or DC – you won’t own them, and you might get to look on as the people who do make lots of money off them. But there haven’t always been great alternatives to work-for-hire, either. Increasingly over the last twenty years there have been, and breakout characters and ideas – the kind people cosplay – are coming more from independent publishers. The story of Marvel since its bankruptcy and rebirth is the story of a company adjusting to this reality – a world where new IP is scarce, so you expand and burnish the old to its maximum potential. In the ‘metaplot’ years this was done mostly by re-arranging existing major characters in new configurations: Cap and Iron Man hate each other now! So do Cyclops and Wolverine! So do the Avengers and X-Men! It was a very effective way around the problem, but always a short-term one.
THE THIRD ACT TRAP
It could- of course – all end terribly as a set up for a big event in which your regular white dude heroes turn up and save the day. That’s your Hero’s Journey, third-act-plotting logic – where the “hero” in question is the one going through the trauma of getting replaced – and its gravity is very strong. But by publically raising the stakes about this – stressing the diversity angle rather than settle for a meeker “good story” approach – Marvel have made that option a bit less easy for themselves.
But it’s easy to see why people are worried about lady Thor and Falcon Cap being just plot devices against which the standard-issue characters can Prove Themselves for the umpteenth time. That’s how it’s tended to happen in the past. The first Marvel comic I read was Secret Wars, a 12-issue advert for a toy line which happened to reflect the status quo of the day, and the status quo was that Iron Man was a guy called Jim Rhodes, who was a) black and b) worried he couldn’t do the job. And indeed he couldn’t: by the time I caught up with the American Iron Man, Tony Stark was back. Meanwhile another replacement plot was underway – Captain America had quit because the Reagan administration wanted him to be its stooge, and said government promptly hired the kind of Captain America the 80s deserved: a punch-first right-winger. It went poorly; the original Cap was back after a year or so.
These were the planned executions of long-term story arcs, and I was an absolute sucker for them. The replacement hero storyline is one of comics’ corniest moves, but it’s a move I will always fall for. But despite my affection for this stuff, it’s something Marvel have only really ever pulled off in the context of extended storylines. Attempted permanent replacements are rarer: it’s worth noting that the Reaganite Cap storyline came only a few years after then-Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter had tried to push through a permanent change for Cap, making him a high-flying Wall Street yuppie: nobody except Shooter thought this was a remotely good idea.
Of course, the line between permanent and temporary is a tricky one in serialised comics – rare is the editor who won’t keep a ball juggling a little longer if the readers are paying for it. But most of Marvel’s reboots, from Rhodey to Bucky’s stint as Cap a few years ago, feel like planned stories. And the Marvel reinventions that feel most like they were meant to be permanent are often also the biggest disasters. Spider-Man’s replacement by his clone, most famously, but also – from the same mid-90s swamp of foolish decisions – Tony Stark’s replacement by his teenage self. Even I couldn’t bear that one.
What’s the point, though? A short term sales boost, of course, but replacements are also a safe way of creating new characters – it’s no surprise they start surfacing at Marvel Comics after the company’s great 60s and 70s waves of original, profitable new properties begin to retreat. James Rhodes is still around – he just got a very short lived solo series. Reaganite Cap shows up now and then. Bucky’s reinvention as Cold War assassin/relic The Winter Soldier gave him a much more useful and resonant 21st century backstory than Cap himself could manage. We should expect a long afterlife for Lady Thor.
Historically, the company that’s played around with replacements and refreshments and legacies most successfully has been DC, not Marvel. In fact it’s been argued that “legacy”, as an organising principle of their storytelling, is DC’s major difference from Marvel. There exists a “Batman family” – a group of heroes (who can mostly sustain mid-selling books) ultimately drawing inspiration from Batman – in a way that isn’t the case for Captain America or Iron Man.
It was DC who seemed to have worked out, in the 80s and 90s, how to replace characters permanently – they switched out the Flash and Green Lantern for younger versions, and brought even older versions back into play around the same time. So perhaps Marvel’s long game is the establishment of Marvel equivalents of Wally West, John Stewart, Kyle Rayner or Dick Grayson – supporting characters who earned the spotlight long enough to build their own enduring fandoms.
The interesting thing about those characters is that – even though all but Stewart were straight white dude for white dude swaps – they helped DC get a broader audience. One of the reasons, I think, is that the establishment of legacy of ‘family’ characters inevitably throws the spotlight on inter-character relationships. For a primary hero, relationships with the supporting cast are often more nice-to-have than need-to-have – motors for a plot or character study piece, perhaps. The most important relationship within a Batman story is changeable – Bruce can find himself defined against Robin (pick a Robin), his parents, his secret identity, Commissioner Gordon, The Joker or Riddler or whoever… but in a Dick Grayson story, Dick is always already defined in relationship to Bruce: it haunts the comic, even if never mentioned. It forces a character to be defined in part by their feelings about someone.
Such unbreakable pairings seem to be fan gold – it’s hard to think of a character in the 1990s who had such vocal and creative fans, women fans in particular, as Dick Grayson, and Bucky and Steve have caught the imagination in a similar way. DC’s error was seeing this dependence as a weakness rather than a strength: they became obsessed by the idea of the ‘iconic’ versions of characters, and replacements with ten or twenty years of development were shunted aside. If DC were ever ‘about’ legacy, they aren’t any more.
But the idea is there as a strategy, waiting to be rediscovered – a mechanic that lays down a bedrock for stories based in character contrasts as well as conflict, a sense of family, and close relationships. The kind of stories the Hawkeye and Winter Soldier generation of fans want to see – doubly so if they’re increasing diversity and positive representation too. And I would see Avengers NOW! as Marvel making a grab for this strategy. So yes, it’s a gimmicky sales boost, and yes, it’s also part of a long-term and admirable push for diversity. But it’s more than those things: it’s an important way of moving Marvel from its 2000s approach to a 2010s one, and of fortifying itself in a twilight era where its new ideas of necessity have to build on the old.