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Old 6th December 2002, 01:14 PM
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Did I Think That Out Loud?!? #2: The Creative Campaign

By Jim Lemoine, darkkelf@earthlink.net

Three years ago, Marvel comics were strikingly different books. The X-Men were a team of superheroes who wore gaudy costumes and traveled the world fighting supervillains and aliens. Iron Man's greatest fear was the public revelation of his secret identity. Thor spent most of his spare time juggling a mortal life with occasional beatings of criminals. Nate Grey, Gambit, and Bishop were heavily involved in their own solo adventures. X-Force was a youth paramilitary group, and Generation X was a school-based mutant team. Captain America's series was relatively boring and predictable, and the Spider-Man books were just plain awful.

And now? The X-Men, who no longer wear bright red and yellow costumes, are an extension of a public boarding school. Iron Man's greatest fear is that his mechanical heart will give out, and Thor no longer has any spare time; he's too busy running Asgard and unintentionally converting mortals to his worship. Nate Grey hasn't been seen in years, and Bishop and Gambit tend to stay put with their X-Treme comrades. X-Force has become the X-Statix, a Hollywood property. The Massachusetts Academy is no more, and Generation X has disappeared along with it. The Captain America series is an amazingly different animal, and the Spider-Man franchise is arguably more interesting than it has been in years.

All of these drastic changes are a part of Marvel's push away from the two-fisted superhero tales of the Silver Age and toward a more gritty "realism." Now, realism's a word that's been bandied around in comics for a long time, and for many different reasons. Stan Lee said in the '60's that his comics were successful because they were realistic; by this he meant that the characters weren't always carefree and didn't always get along. In the '80's and '90's, comics like X-Men and New Warriors were hailed as realistic for their focus on how superhumans dealt with world issues, but the realism generally only went so far. The only truly realistic books to come from major publishers, the only ones that honestly showed what a world with superheroes might really be like, were few and far between: Miller's Dark Knight Returns, Gruenwald's Squadron Supreme, Busiek's Marvels, Waid's Kingdom Come, and possibly Harris's Slingers.

Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada, on the other hand, have taken the idea of realism farther than ever. Would superheroes really want or need secret identities? Would they wear bright costumes that no doubt make them an easy target? Would they focus on fighting bad guys, or would they do more with their powers?

Although the Marvel Ultimate line was originally identified as Marvel's push to make their characters more modern and realistic, it's easy to see the exact same thing happening to the original characters. To help with this drive, Marvel has recruited the best line-up of creators that it's had in years. Marvel's current creative staff reads like a "Who's Who" of the comics industry: Kevin Smith, J. Michael Stracynzski, Paul Jenkins, Mike Grell, Mike Allred, Geoff Johns, Ron Zimmerman, Mark Waid, Alex Ross, Grant Morrison, Brian Michael Bendis, Garth Ennis, Peter Milligan… and the list goes on. However it is that they're doing it, Jemas and Quesada are hiring the best talent in the industry to create the new Marvel.

Which is all well and good for the fans, because it's great to see our favorite characters being handled by top-notch creators. Who isn't excited by the prospect of Kevin Smith writing Amazing Spider-Man? Who isn’t thrilled that Garth Ennis signed on to return the Punisher to his roots? How can you not appreciate the majesty that Dan Jurgens has finally restored to Thor?

But there's another side to the "Marvelution," and it's a side that Marvel likes to gently sweep under the rug where it won’t be noticed. Many long-time fans feel betrayed that this publisher who they've supported for so long would destroy what existed before. Cannonball and Meltdown from the old X-Force were just short of Marvel Icons, but what happened to them? What about all the fans who love costumed superheroes? What about all the fans who enjoy seeing Thor or Iron Man or Captain America have to think fast to protect their secret identity? What about the people who miss seeing a benevolent Hulk?

What's more, why did books that really were different have to go away? Deadpool is the most obvious example of this: the series was cancelled and relaunched with a new title character just a few issues into what was arguably the best run of the series. Like Deadpool, the old X-Man series had its own creative direction completely unique in Marvel; if the reason for cancellation was to eliminate redundancy, why did that series have to die? A big change is coming for one of my personal favorites: Thunderbolts. A new writer, a new artist, a new first issue, and a completely new team are all on the way for the T-Bolts. Why? After all, Marvel's never had a book anything like Thunderbolts, and fans like these characters. The premise of Thunderbolts truly is as unique as Quesada could possibly hope for; why is he destroying the title as it is today?

In short, what happened to the good old superhero comics we've enjoyed from this company since the Sixties?

For better or for worse, Marvel seems content to be rid of them. The Avengers series is perhaps their last standard costumed superhero book, and even this bastion of superheroics has been greatly affected by the events of solo titles and the more mature plot presented by new writer Geoff Johns. As for the rest, Marvel has made it clear that the current direction of titles like New X-Men, Thor, and X-Force/X-Statix is the way of the future, and that we can expect even more of their books (like Thunderbolts) to revamp themselves into the new model.

So how should the fans of Marvel react to all this? Currently there are two lines of thought on the subject: the "Bill Jemas is Satan" side, and the "Bill Jemas may be a jerk, but he has some good ideas" side. Odds are very high that if you care enough about Marvel to read this far down into the column, you know exactly which side you stand on. Fans either love the new direction or they loathe it. They either appreciate seeing their heroes deal with real-world situations, or they miss yellow spandex. And there's something to be said for both viewpoints.

People on the "Bill Jemas is Evil Incarnate" side would do well to remember that these characters have been stagnant for years. Honestly, how long has Franklin Richards been four and a half years old? How many times has Tony Stark lost and regained his company? How often has Thor mused about doing more with his life? And on a related note, would a deadly predator of the night like Wolverine really wear a yellow spandex costume? Similarly, would a character named Nightcrawler wear the most visually noticeable color (red) with white shoulder-pads?

Sometime in the late '80's to early '90's, most Marvel comics stopped becoming more realistic and froze exactly where they were. The best example of this is the X-Men franchise: look at the core X-Men titles from the day that Chris Claremont left them to the day that he returned many years later. How much had honestly changed? The characters looked almost exactly the same as they did when he left, the membership was almost identical, and they were going on exactly the same kind of adventures as they did during his last run. With the possible exceptions of Onslaught and the Age of Apocalypse, the nineties were filled with stories that didn't really evolve or affect these characters at all.

If you're on the "Bill Jemas destroyed Marvel" side, remember that Quesada and Jemas finally broke the titles out of their ruts. Daredevil is as good as it was when Miller was around, the Spider-Man titles are finally interesting again, and the X-Men titles are at least unpredictable. And even if you dislike all of the changes floating around, even critics have to admit that it's wonderful to see a return of emphasis on character development. The emphasis throughout the last decade has been on amazingly drawn female bodies and action-packed battles; today, conversely, we get to see what our favorite characters are really like and how they react to difficult situations. It can't be denied that characterization has seen a huge improvement.

But on the other side of the coin, fans of the "Change is Good" mindset should keep in mind that the other camp really does have some valid points. The characterization is great, sure, but are they changing the characters too much? Since when does Hank like to think he's gay? Since when does Sam Guthrie hate the name "Cannonball"? Why is Thor acting so responsible all of a sudden? There are too many changes, made in the name of realism, that don't do a good job of explaining themselves in terms of continuity.

And even the most devoted New Marvel supporter has to admit that Brian Wood's Generation X was a rare and great book. There honestly wasn’t a very good reason to kill off Deadpool, even less for Agent X to go away. Let's admit it: the first wave of Marvel Icons limited series (Cyclops, Rogue, Iceman, and Nightcrawler) weren’t all that great (in fact, most were horrible), but the second wave (beginning with Chamber) has seen a marked improvement in story quality, if not issue sales. The 'Nuff Said silent month was a bad idea poorly executed, and many of us miss the Annuals.

And finally, is it just me, or does anybody else miss continuity? I mean, sure, we've seen it go way too far in books like the old X-Men titles, but surely we don't have to eliminate it entirely, do we? Isn't it possible for characters to have some kind of referenced history and still be accessible to new readers? Marvel will admit that the Dark Phoenix saga happened and that Gwen Stacy died; why do we no longer see any other examples of continuity? Isn't that what makes a 40-year-old Marvel Universe so strong?

No matter which viewpoint you hold to, there are simple truths in the debate. The first is that Marvel's current move toward realism is the next logical progression of the comic book industry. It was only a matter of time before the costumes came off and psychology received emphasis. Marvel took their first step when they made the original Fantastic Four fight with each other, then another when Spider-Man couldn't get a job, and then another when the X-Men had to fight a world that really did hate and fear them. Comics have been moving toward realism for a long time, and Marvel's latest push may well be the final step in a process that's taken them over 40 years.

The second truth is that DC has been slowly moving down the "realism chain" as well, and that they will most likely emulate Marvel's approach in hopes of duplicating Marvel's financial results. What we as fans like to forget is that comic publishers are for-profit businesses. Above any artistic or storytelling directives, they exist to make money. It's a fact that Marvel's new approach is more accessible to new readers and new target markets. This increases sales, which increases profits, which means that everybody at Marvel makes more money. Why would anybody there want to go back to the old style when it could easily mean lay-offs and/or pay cuts?

The final truth is that with change comes sacrifice. But the danger here, of course, is how far Marvel might go. When all of Marvel's books are done in the "new" style, where will fans of what came before buy their books? Will they abandon comics entirely? There are plenty of people out there who want to read about two-fisted, spandex-clad, old-fashioned superhero battles. These are people who liked Lobdell's X-Men, or Busiek's Avengers, or Jurgens' Captain America. What's left for them now? X-Treme X-Men, but that's about it from Marvel. Aside from that book, the only old-fashioned superhero titles left are Avengers and possibly Amazing Spider-Man. Title by title, Marvel has slowly been eliminating these "standard superhero" titles and replacing them, for better or worse, with the "New Marvel".

So what happens when there aren't any old-school superhero books left? What happens when that final relaunch is complete, and the fans of the old have nowhere left to go... except maybe DC? Sure, the excitement of this new Marvel style was enough to keep them hanging around for a while. But now, two years after it debuted, people are going to start to notice what's missing. Some will be happy with that, while some will have no choice but to abandon Marvel and buy their books from another publisher. Is this really the only way Marvel can succeed: by abandoning their longtime fans and pursuing potential customers who've never read a comic before?

Which brings to mind a hypothetical question: What if all of Marvel's attempts to draw in new readers fail? What if they lose a significant portion of their old readers because they don't have any books that appeal to the classic superhero fan? What if this bold "New Marvel Age" is nothing more than a false start caused by initial excitement over something new?

Kinda makes you think, doesn't it?

Whether you're for or against the New Marvel, what we’re left with is far from an ideal situation either way. The core question, perhaps, is, "Is this better than it was before?" In this columnist's opinion, the answer is definitely positive. Our comic book heroes are being taken seriously for the first time in their existences. Marvel has put top-notch creative talent on virtually all of their books, the likes of which we never would have seen in previous regimes. The renewed focus on characters and personality (as opposed to superheroes and masks) gives these heroes and villains the depth that’s only been hinted at in the past. Marvel is pushing the limits with new projects as well, telling stories in X-Statix, Exiles, and Howard the Duck that we'd never expect to see from a major publishing house.

Is this Marvelution a slam-dunk win for the fans? No, it's not. While I personally believe that it's an improvement, I temper my optimism with a conviction that Marvel should be very careful about taking this too far. New Marvel definitely has its rough edges, and a few great books have fallen through the cracks. But altogether, the changes made today may well become the classics of tomorrow. As fans, we should be cautiously thrilled that we get to play a part in this reinvention of an industry.
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