The times, they are a-changin’. Comics this week, at least in my mind, have highlighted an interesting shift in comics line-ups, which I would describe as world-tending versus world-building. Or, in other words, the Great Contraction. What do I mean? Well, put your SPOILER BEAMS on, and read on after the cut!
In this week’s Dark Avengers, Norman Osborn assumed the role of Iron Patriot, and took several of the most ruthless (and popular) Thunderbolts — Venom, Bullseye, and Moonstone — to become a new team of Avengers. The catch? The villains have assumed the mantles of our beleaguered heroes, becoming dark reiterations of Spider-Man, Hawkeye, and Ms. Marvel. In other words, if Venom goes off the deep end and eats someone, Norman can chuckle to himself and say, “Oh, that Spider-Man. I tried so hard. I gave him everything in the world. But Spider-Man is a menace!”
But wait — isn’t there already an Avengers book? In fact, there are two: Mighty Avengers, which will be helmed by Dan Slott and Khoi Pham, and New Avengers, which will be led by Bendis and Billy Tan. (And if you count Christos Gage’s Avengers: The Initiative book, you’d even have three. And that’s still not counting the Ultimates line.) The really interesting thing — as I mentioned in a previous column about Marvel’s legacy heroes — is that the ancestor to Dark Avengers, Thunderbolts, is still going strong, albeit with a new team comprised of the Ghost, Paladin, Black Widow, and the Irredeemable Ant-Man.
Now, this is pretty good for comics, right? Well, unfortunately, the last few months have been known for their casualties: today, the big rumor of the day was that Captain Britain and MI:13, sung in the same high praises as Incredible Hercules and Guardians of the Galaxy… was to be canceled, presumably after its highly anticipated “Vampire State” arc. While Marvel and Newsarama eventually dispelled the rumor, the fact that someone as well-connected in Marvel as Jim McCann could think this certainly doesn’t clear my cynicism for the survival of the book. (Sales did drop by about 25% between October and November — he’s not an idiot, people. But I would be happy to be wrong on this one.) Of course the rumor gained credence, because after all, recently the hits have kept on coming: The Amazing Spider-Girl, previously saved several times over from cancellation, has been axed, as has She-Hulk. To make matters worse, The Immortal Iron Fist, one of Marvel’s most buzzworthy projects just a year ago, has had its share of internet rumblings for possibly being next in line for the cancellations guillotine.
How about across the city? DC Comics too has had a swarm of cancellations, made a little bit cleaner due to the naturally-expiring mini-series surrounding its Final Crisis blockbuster event. But if you listen closely, you’ll see losses of well-liked indie books like Manhunter, Catwoman, and Blue Beetle, not to mention the post-Batman R.I.P. and New Krypton title shuffling of the Batman and Superman franchises. But what does it all mean?
From 2004-2006, comic book events instigated what I term a world-building environment. For example, following Identity Crisis and Infinite Crisis, a slew of off-kilter series were released from DC Comics — Manhunter, Firestorm, Blue Beetle, The All-New Atom, Checkmate, as well as new directions for the Justice League of America and Justice Society of America franchises (not to mention Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers maxiseries which came out starting in 2005) — that really increased the breadth of stories being covered.
Over on Marvel’s side, Civil War really shook up the status quo in 2006 by killing Captain America, splitting up the Avengers, and installing Iron Man as Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Like their DC counterparts, new titles with second- and third-tier protagonists like The Immortal Iron Fist, Ms. Marvel, and Heroes for Hire were released. But its most in-depth world-building apparatus came straight from the Civil War storyline itself: The Initiative. Part training ground and part power broker, the Initiative not only was an interesting book in and of itself, but it spawned new team books based on where heroes stood on registration: for those in line with the law, there was the Order, and those against the SHRA, there was the New Warriors. (And for those really digging the moral ambiguity, there were the new, federally-mandated Thunderbolts led by Norman Osborn.)
But times change. The economy has withered, and with that in mind, I would argue that the zeal to experiment has decreased. In other words, the Big Two have begun to consolidate and tend to the strongest worlds they have, rather than go out on a limb and risk damaging losses to expand lower-selling new ones. (Remember: comics are business first, art second. Or in other words, they are not a museum, they are a brand line-up.)
Over at Marvel, its flagship title — The Amazing Spider-Man — shrunk from three separate titles to one thrice-a-month series. Yet Spider-Man, like Skippy peanut butter, is a brand name: there’s always going to be people who want peanut butter, regardless of quantity or price. The Avengers and Thunderbolts franchises, which have been wildly popular, are expanding. Wolverine now has three series (Wolverine, Wolverine: Origins, Wolverine: First Class, the upcoming Wolverine: Weapon X, not to mention a string of one-shot issues), not to mention his X-Men and Avengers appearances. Many of the newly released series of the last year or so are X-Men related, with X-Men: Legacy, Cable, X-Force, and a possible new New Mutants book. The only anomalies at this point are the possibly-terminal Immortal Iron Fist, Guardians of the Galaxy, Incredible Hercules (may it not be canceled), and the silent-running Ghost Rider.
At DC, similar shake-ups are occurring. Blue Beetle, the last vestige of the 2004-2006 DC expansion, may be gone, but Jaime Reyes will not be forgotten, having been absorbed into the ever-growing Teen Titans franchise. (As of last count, we currently have Teen Titans, Titans, and now Terror Titans.) The new Adventure Comics will be starring Superman, as Action Comics deals with the Superman-related fallout of Nightwing and Flamebird. The Batman books are being rearranged to align more closely with the main Batman book, with tangental books like Birds of Prey (and even Nightwing) being streamlined. A new Justice League series, written by James Robinson and painted by Trials of Shazam artist Mauro Cascioli, is on the horizon, and this year’s weekly series Trinity has adhered closely to DC’s top three characters. R.E.B.E.L.S. is built off the Legion and Superman franchises, and even new series Vigilante got its start in a Bat-book (Nightwing), and looks like it will at least at first get its footing in the increasingly dangerous streets of Gotham. (They too have their anomalies, with Booster Gold and the Mighty existing without heavy prior continuity support systems.)
I’m really torn by this trend of world-tending as opposed to world-building. From an artistic standpoint, the museum analogy stands strongest for me: why should your museum only have Van Gogh, when it could have Renoir, Picasso, Norman Rockwell, and Andy Warhol? But while I’ve felt that having quirky, off-the-beaten path superheroics (rest in peace, Blue Beetle) is something to strive for, I also see the business side of things. No matter how critically acclaimed these titles are, if people aren’t buying them, they’re not viable commercially. It just so happens that people do speak with their wallets much louder not for what reviewers call “fun” books like Manhunter or Captain Britain or She-Hulk, but for PB&J hit characters like Batman, Wolverine, the Avengers, and the Hulk. (And it’s not just for the characters — popular creators like Bendis, Johns, Morrison, Millar, Deodato, McGuinness, Loeb, Yu, Frank Miller, Jim Lee, they too all have their own dedicated followings, which gives them and their chosen associates more top-tier assignments. But that’s for another post.)
What do you think? At least at 2009 has opened, it’s looking like while the mid-2000s were the Comics Expansion, I think the end of the decade, in the face of shifting tastes and economic woes, will be known as the Comics Contraction. Do you prefer world-tending, or world-building? Sound off, readers!