Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Numbered Things I Love and/or Hate: Marvel Comics (Over the Last Decade)

In a effort to jump-start my blogging juices, I decided to try something new. Since list posts seem to be the most popular type of post you can do, I am going to view-whore for all its worth with this one! So Welcome to Numbered Things, a hopefully recurring feature where I condense everything I love and/or hate about a particular thing into easily digestible chunks for the time-starved and attention deficient!

Today's topic: Marvel Comics. home of flawed heroes, complex villains, and a much more realism-oriented world than the distinguished competition. Recently undergoing a renaissance in pop culture relativity thanks to the success of Marvel Studios and the Avengers experiment and now part of the Wonderful World Dominating Conglomerate Of Disney, Marvel the company is riding high. But the comics arm, arguably the flagship of the company, is hitting some nasty bumps in the road. I can't say why that is for anyone else, but I can give my unasked opinion on the subject.

So, without further ado, let's talk about...

The Marvel Universe
All images courtesy of

Three Things I Love About Marvel Comics (Over the Last Decade)

Point 1: Mark Waid's Daredevil 

Okay, this is kinda weird, considering that Marvel is known for their tortured heroes and their damaged psyches. But this book and Dan Slott's Spider-Man work demonstrate these are two of the few writers to remember the "comic" in comic book. Daredevil goes in a new, more lighthearted direction, reflecting the main character's own decision after hitting rock bottom in "Shadowland". Matt Murdock stops the self-flagellation and Catholic guilt, two aspects that have been calcified onto the character from the beginning, but really driven in by writers Frank Miller, Brian Michael Bendis (will see you in the latter half, buddy) and Ed Brubaker. Instead, Waid has Murdock take a new lease on life, engaging with his old buddy Foggy Nelson and trying to find a new love. But Waid doesn't let Matt completely off the hook, and pulls palpable drama from the sudden change. Foggy thinks Matt is deep in self-delusion, and honestly and believably questions if his friend could honestly give up such a defining aspect of his character and just be happy. Normally this would piss me off, the doubting best friend angle, but considering all the shit they had been through, Foggy

Point 2: Dan Slott's Spider-Man, including Superior Spider-Man

I LOVE Superior Spider-Man. There, I said it. You read some places on the net, you think they took the arachnid behind Marvel HQ and put two in the back of his head. But let's be honest, Dan Slott's run on the Spider-Man books has been everything fans have been wanting for the longest, and "Spider-Island" pretty much fixed almost all of the complaints people had about the disastrous "One More Day" storyline, and did it with no retcon copouts. Slott said "Yeah it happened, and I'm not changing it, but I am going to make it go down better than it did." He fixed the relationship between Peter and MJ, got the the secret identity nonsense resolved in a pretty awesome way, and got the Marvel Universe (or at least NYC and the Avengers) to give Peter the respect he deserved for so long. And the big reveal on Superior Spider-Man, not to mention the lead-up to it, was masterfully executed and breathed new life in a stale title. With all the complaints about Quesada's demands and the reboot film feeling so unnecessary, being able to make Spider-Man interesting again is no small feat.

Point 3: Deadpool with, amongst others, Brian Posehn.

Deadpool Vol 3 1I can't even...just read the book. Go. NOW. Read the book. He is killing zombie presidents in the first storyline. And I am being quite pedestrian with that description. Just do it.

Okay a bit more. All the stuff I mention about having fun and ridiculousness? This book has it. It is, like Nextwave, a "pure comic book". It doesn't have any lofty goals. It doesn't try for allegory or metaphor. It jsut wants to get you from point A to Fuck Yeah. Maybe with a side trip to Bug Fuck Crazytown during the ride. This is the kind of book we need: a comic that realizes it's a comic book, and takes advantage of all the crazy shit that the Marvel Universe (and by extension all superhero comics) have to offer. The fact that they are able to do this with at least three named writers is mind-boggling to me.

Three Things I Hate About Marvel

Point 1: The Continuing "Legacy" of Avengers Disassembled and Civil War.

Civil War Vol 1 1 VariantLook, I love a lot of what Bendis brought to the table at Marvel. Jessica Jones and the revamped Luke Cage (which I believe helped get Iron Fist and Heroes for Hire some attention from writers, with Iron Fist getting the best treatment out of the bunch), Spider-Woman, just a lot. But then stuff went...astray. Avengers Disassembled, while I have my problems with it, it not in and of itself terrible. But it started Marvel down the path it's on now, where too many books try to do this weird pseudo Dark Age thing where favorites and stalwarts are either killed off or utterly derailed in order to evoke falsely earned pathos. And let's not forget that it directly led into that albatross around the publisher's neck, Civil War. Oh good God, that mess.

Then it spread. Yeah, Ultimate Marvel was pretty grim, but it varied from title to title and there was little in the way of BIG EVENT THAT SCREWS UP EVERYTHING. Then Ultimatum  happened, books got gutted, I lost any interest I had, and....

I just...ugh. Don't get me started. It all ended up as a half-assed attempt at realism that became a farcical rehash of the 90s grim and gritty period. There was no fun to be had in the millennial Marvel Universe. Well there was, but...

Point 2: Killing The Fun 

Avengers Academy Vol 1 39Avengers Academy was one of the few bright spots that came from the dismal morass that was the Superhero Registration Act. It was a return to comics as fun escapism, but still had shown the maturity that the medium had went through over the years. It had teen characters I didn't want to strangle (looking at you Runaways), reveled in the joy and fun of having superpowers while also showing the drawbacks, and even made a good case for why something like the SRA was needed. If the plan for Civil War was supposed to have the pro-registration side being in the right, the Academy was the best case for it.

Too bad nobody wanted to read that kind of well-written stuff, so now they get to be killed off.

Yeah I am not a fan of Avengers Arena. I have read the first three or four issues, and while it isn't an utter schlockfest, I still don't like it. One, because it's being done much better elsewhere (Hellooo, Deathmatch); two, because it reeks of retconning or "it was all a dream/illusion/hologram" ending (seriously, since when has that guy had this kind of power?); but mainly three: it is a sad opportunistic ploy. And no, I don't mean the fanboy claims of ripping off Hunger Games or Battle Royale (they all "rip off" The Most Dangerous Game, geniuses). I mean the trend to kill off any character that isn't a morose stick in the mud just to buy audience sympathy points. Nobody is allowed to be happy in the Marvel Universe anymore. Everything has to be world-ending darkness. There are no heroes;  just broken people trying to play pretend.  This is why I loved the stuff above: they were the lone shining stars in a sea of darkness and gloom.

And don't get me started on how much of a fucking breath of fresh air Nextwave was. With everyone around them acting so damn serious, it was great to see a "pure comic book" where things got kicked, then exploded. It was wonderful.

Point 3: Event After Event After Event

Avengers Disassembled. Civil War. Secret Invasion. World War Hulk. Siege. Annihilation. Schism. Messiah Complex. Fear Itself.  Heroic Age. Avengers vs. X-Men. And now Age of Ultron. And those are just the ones I could remember off the top of my head.

How many times over the last decade has the Marvel Universe been under threat? How many times have heroes betrayed each other? How many times have the villains "won"? How many times has a beloved character either been killed off or turned into an utter asshole? How many times has Marvel promoted an event that would "change everything", only for nothing to actually change except the dwindling number of dollars in your pocket?

Marvel NOW! promoThe really sad thing is there were some real gems that, at any other time in comics history, would have been major. The ideas behind Civil War and World War Hulk were golden, Annihilation was awesome space fantasy, Schism could have led to an interesting dichotomy in the X-Men. But it was all for nothing. Nobody did anything with this stuff, because they were too busy prepping for the next damn event.

Even Heroic Age was touted as the ultimate reprieve from all the damn event comics, and establish a new continuum for the books to come, and what happened? At least three more damn events that I can remember! Events to fix events! Only to have more events fix those events! WHY DO I HAVE TO BUY SO MANY DAMN BOOKS JUST TO GET A STORY, MARVEL?!?!! HUH?!!

And now we have Marvel NOW!, a psuedo-reboot kinda-event promising to get things back to a continuous status quo. I'm not holding my breath.

Bonus Point: No Transition Titles

Here's what I mean by "transition title": A comic that isn't written solely for kids, but also does't have the ultradark elements of more adult-oriented titles. A true "all-ages" book that anyone can enjoy, but mostly functions as a step-stone between the kids' books to the more standard fare without overwhelming the reader with needless elements.

Yes, Marvel has a line of all-ages books for kids, based off the Earth Mightiest Heroes and Iron Man: Armored Adventures animated series. But that's about it. Not much else for the future comic book readers to latch on to. What, they are supposed to go from that to Indestructible Hulk? Really? No kind of buffer? Nothing that might relate to the young adult audience? Especially since they are the main ones dragging their parents into comic stores after seeing the Avengers on the big screen?

These kinds of books are essential to growing the potential comic book audience. You don't give a 10 or 12-year-old a copy of Watchmen and wish them luck. You give them options, give them something they can handle. And not in a condescending way, but in a way that understands that there are readers who don't know every bit of continuity, but your book should make them want to. DC was really good with this, at least before the New 52. A lot of their titles were fairly lighthearted and easy to enjoy, while still having some depth. Stuff like Young Justice (both the original series and the Cartoon Network version), Blue Beetle, and the Wolfman era Teen Titans were great at this. You didn't feel like a kid reading them, but you didn't get all the gloom and doom that the mainstream books had at the same time. Marvel had that too, for a time. Spider-Girl and the MC2 universe, Ultimate Spider-Man (they are still trying to fuck that Ultimate Marvel chicken, aren't they?), and a few more titles here and there.

It was true escapism, and while that seems verboten nowadays, it is something extremely needed. I don't want allegories to 9/11 or the Iraq War or Wall Street or any of that. I want psychic monkeys with jetpacks fighting aliens with a man made of stars.

In Conclusion

Wow. This is getting long. Point is, while Marvel is riding high in some areas, there are others that are showing severe signs of decay. These are not simply me hating books I don't like, but trying to point out an intrinsic problem in the direction Marvel is going in. I know they are probably never going to get the numbers they pulled back in the day, but withdrawing into a hardened, misanthropic niche of fanboys isn't going to get them what they want. And with the films being such successes, why would they make their mainstream books so hard to get into? Why did I have to struggle to find so may ways to say "doom and gloom" when writing this?

Even though my list of hates is much longer and more detailed than the list of loves, don't take this to mean I hate Marvel Comics. I really do love the publisher and the universe. If anything, the fact I have some much to complain about is proof that I do care about this company and wish it all the success in the world, even if that success isn't in concert with my particular interests. I just wanted to get it out there somewhere.

So now I throw it to you, my dear readers. What are you loving or hating about Marvel nowadays? Or any comics for that matter? Do you agree or disagree with my points? Why? Is there something I should have mentioned? Do you just want to call me an idiot?

Please comment!

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