State of the Industry Part One: Marvel

Before I begin this week, an observation from the online preview solicitations of DC, illustrating the perils of copy-editing:

Batgirl Annual #1 - Batman guest-stars in the first annual to star the all-new Batgirl. When a young Indian actor is kidnapped from the streets of Gotham City, Batgirl and the Dark Knight travel to Indiana to solve the mystery...

Indiana? The world's greatest detective might want to brush up on his geography. At any rate...

These past two weeks, while reviewing comics, things have been occurring to me, such as what I like about Oni, or what really impresses me about Marvel lately or how amazing it is the market saturation that DC Comics has. That suggested a column theme to me, and so I will be tackling each publisher in turn over the next few weeks, in a series I like to call the State of the Industry. First up is Marvel Comics.

Marvel is like the redheaded stepchild of the comics industry. Everyone just loves to take out their frustrations on them. Got a problem with the way hot artists have made the prevailing style look? Blame Marvel. Think the big companies are screwing over their talent? Blame Marvel. Industry sales in the toilet? Blame Marvel.

Now, this is not necessarily completely unfair. I tackled a few of the things Marvel has done to deserve such treatment in a prior column, and I still have my problems with Marvel today. But while reading the preview packet that was sent to me last week, it dawned on me that I was looking forward to almost every book in there, and that Marvel books tend to be the ones on top of my stack to read when I get comics every week.

Fact is, the reason that Marvel gets blamed for everything is that they have always tended to be an indicator for the industry. DC may have market saturation, but Marvel has the characters that appeal to the biggest chunk of the market. X-Men, Spider-Man, Captain America, Iron Man... these may not be names that are as instantly recognizable as long-time icons Batman and Superman, but they're names that comic fans know, and for the most part, seem to respond to. Sales is not a good measurement of quality, but Marvel must be doing something right when their books make up well over half of the Diamond Top 25.

This is mostly a reflection of the first company that got me into comics, but I tend to prefer Marvel's characters to DC's. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created a universe that was filled with flawed human beings (and aliens and mutants), which makes them easier to relate to and more interesting to read about. DC has since retrofitted their characters with these flaws, emotions and real problems, but the core of the characters is still made up of characters that were golden age paragons and dealt with external problems rather than any kind of internal conflict. This is also why it pained me more to see Spider-Man ruined through the clone saga than it did to see Hal Jordan ruined through Emerald Twilight, not that I was wild about either story.

So I'm going to present the thesis that Marvel has a stronger basis for popularity, on the basis of stronger, more easily identifiable characters. If those characters are treated right (which is a big matter of opinion), they can maintain a solid market position. And right now, with one glaring exception (*cough* Spider-Man *cough*), they're being treated very well.

I may not personally like everything going on at Marvel these days, but I love a whole lot of it, and let's take a look at what they're doing right:

  • Marvel Knights - Daredevil comes out, what, every four or five months? And I don't care one bit, because the craft that went into it shows on every page. Inhumans was one of the most introspective, character-oriented stories that Marvel has ever done. And Black Panther provided a strong launching pad for the long-neglected Avengers character. Now there's Punisher, which is black humor at its finest (at the very least, it's got people talking, which is the same effect the first Marvel Knights Punisher limited series had as well) and Marvel Knights in the wings. Both these titles are by exceptionally talented writer/artist teams with a record of on-time delivery, making them nice companion pieces to the flagship of the line, the perennially-late Daredevil.
  • Avengers - Dan Jurgens is tackling Captain America and Thor, and while I don't care for the latter, a lot of fans do, and I have been surprised by how much I love his take on Cap. Joe Quesada is turning in a controversial (there's that word again... something about these Marvel Knights guys) run on Iron Man that is dark, creepy and has me completely enthralled. And George Perez/Kurt Busiek on Avengers was and is a dream line-up, the kind of things fans used to dream about at conventions and consider about as likely as Claremont working on the X-Men again.
  • Did I mention that Chris Claremont is writing the X-Men again? The result, coupled with two terrific artists (Adam Kubert and Leinil Francis Yu), has been what looks to me like a return to glory for the books. Not the glory of the Claremont/Byrne era, to be sure, but at least as good as the books used to be in the mid-200s. And Warren Ellis as plotmaster has brought some spark back to the ancillary books, giving X-Man an interesting twist (for some) and turning Generation X and X-Force practically into new books. (He turned X-Force into Planetary, but that's a comment for another time.) Wolverine by Matrix storyboard artist Steve Skroce looks like another successful new writer/artist effort, based on a solid first issue. John Byrne is pleasing fans (without pissing off numerous others, as he did with Spidey) with X-Men: The Hidden Years. There's also the occasional glimmer in the really ancillary X-Books Gambit and Bishop, particularly the former, which gets really good when Fabian Nicieza brings in characters from outside the in-bred mutant sub-universe.
  • Speaking of Nicieza... Thunderbolts has become probably the best straight-out super-hero team book in the industry right now, thanks to his re-teaming with New Warriors penciller Mark Bagley. Surprises, solid characterization and twisting, inter-twined plots combined with spectacular artwork really make this book shine.

    It used to be you could count on Marvel to put out a whole lot of material, most of which made readers wonder "Who's buying this crap?" It seems that once again, picking up a book with a Marvel logo is more likely to net you a good read. For those who gave up on Marvel long ago (and I know from talking to folks that there are a lot of you) and still like super-heroes, I'd suggest you give them another shot. They're not the industry powerhouses they once were, but I'd say we're looking at a comeback.

    Randy W. Lander

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