The Gold Standard: Solving The Marvel Problem

I’m not sure if it’s because we just came off of an underutilized fifth week, or because it’s December, but I’m bumming right now. I’m still excited for somethings, I mean, dudes, Resurrection Man has a book again. Kyle Rayner has a book again. Dan Jurgens is still writing Booster Gold in the pages of JLI. Hell, Amazing Spider-Man is one of my must read Marvel titles. So why am I bumming out? It’s a good time! My X-Statix omnibus shipped out yesterday!

 

So what’s my malfunction?

 

Could it be the cancellation of X-23? I liked the book, but it never really graced my top ten. A consistent 7-8/10 from month to month, but with no one moment of “this is the greatest book ever”. Maybe it just had Spider-Girl syndrome and I liked it out of my craving for something I can’t typically get out of Marvel in a strong female lead. Or, more likely, it’s what it represents. I could go on about this book for a while, but I’ve been there and I’ve done that.

So how about the knowledge that Marvel’s knee-jerk reaction to DC kicking their hide a few months in a row in the sales is to cancel a handful of lower selling books in favor of making over twenty other books double ship. Seriously, that’s their plans. Cancel X-23, Daken, Alpha Flight, Ghost Rider, Black Panther, and some books I can’t even remember in favor of making virtually everything else come out at least twice a month. I believe Spider-Man is back to three issues a month.

 

With the New 52, DC took a chance and tried to give the readers something new as a way of shaking up an otherwise stagnant product line. Sure, they’d made big jumps over the years by making titles like Green Lantern and Flash matter again, but Superman and Justice League and Wonder Woman were eternally treading water. Nothing seemed to move in the sales for a bit there. That’s what DC changed with the New 52, and while no, they didn’t take the top fifty-two spots on Diamond’s chart, they did manage to reinvigorate a reader base that seemed to have faded away. There were interesting concepts, some must see creative match ups, MARKETING, and above all else, DC treated every book as important. Even the titles that fans were labeling as throw aways were receiving the right kind of respect from DC, and thus, found readers who were interested.

 

Marvel doesn’t do that. They seem to prefer launching a bunch of titles all at once and then canning them in mid-arc when they aren’t selling. They throw books together for any reason under the sun, grant them no marketing, and then can them without warning. Then when they say it’s due to sales I can’t help but wonder…Thunderbolts and Avengers Academy sell worse than X-23, but X is actually relocating to the Academy (I may get into my thoughts on that book later, haven’t decided). There’s little rhyme or reason as to how a bad selling Marvel books get cancelled, which is probably why books like Spider-Girl and X-Factor (both personal favorites of mine), managed to survive so long without any issue. Now sure, Spider-Girl got canned and replaced with an eight issue race changing replacement, but I will never turn away from an excuse to bring her up. X-Factor is not only still going, but despite selling worse than several of Marvel’s recent cancellation, it’s actually getting a roster change due to Regenesis and will be one of the twenty something books Marvel at least double ships come February.

Maybe it’s because X-Factor is getting its first marketing since the last X-Men event it got roped into. That’s how it happens there, X-Factor gets love when they do a line wide crossover with the rest of the X-Men. The Paul Tobin written Spider-Girl series probably would have thrived on par with Venom had they given it a more apparent Spider-Island tie instead of giving her a three issue mini for it. Actually, promotion past the first issue would have helped too. Tom DeFalco’s Spider-Girl maintained a level of sales for years without any promotion due to positive word of mouth, but Tobin’s didn’t receive enough issues to generate any real buzz and Marvel gleefully pulled the plug the first chance they got. There are just holes in the logic, you know? There’s a lack of consistency with how things are handled from line to line.

 

So what are the big things Marvel has to do to turn things back around and get back on top? Well, here’s a little list.

 

First thing is first, pull back on Brian Bendis as the franchise of the company. He’s their flagship writer, not unlike Geoff Johns over at DC Comics, but there’s a tremendous difference between the two; namely that Johns knows how to not stretch himself too thing, whereas Bendis doesn’t know when to step back. Examples? Geoff left JSA when he knew that it wasn’t getting the right kind of attention for him. He chose to take over Aquaman and give up Flash after just a year of using Barry…and while I doubt he’d admit it, I imagine that the end result of his year on Flash stood out. Bendis has been on Avengers for the better part of the last decade, writing Avengers, New Avengers, Mighty Avengers, Dark Avengers, Avengers again, and New Avengers again. Now he’s doing the New Dark Avengers in New Avengers? I’m sorry, but is anybody else getting the feeling that he may have burned through most of his gold material? The franchise is in need of major change, the kind it won’t get so long as Bendis keeps shuffling up the rosters and claiming it’s a new title. Storm is on the Avengers now? Dropped.

The Ultimate line is both point two, and a continuation of point one…which will be point three. I don’t read the new Ultimate line, I tried a few first issues, but I didn’t care. You know why? Because DC rebooted their core line. What does that matter? Well, here’s the deal, Marvel relaunching the Ultimate line for the second time in two years after less then ten years before the first one? The line was promised to us as something easy and accessible that new readers could get involved with without worrying about the years of canon that they had missed out on. Which would be awesome if the Ultimate line hadn’t crushed so much material into a small time that it was actually harder to keep track of than its mainstream counterpart. I give Marvel credit for handing Jon Hickman and Nick Spencer the reins of Ultimates and Ultimate X-Men, but Bendis’s big contribution? Miles Morales. Now sure, I hear nothing but good things from fellow readers, but it just doesn’t sell to me.

 

I mean, is killing Spider-Man to replace him with a new multi-racial Spider-Man really what needed to be done? Why does he have to be Spider-Man? Why can’t he be someone new? Hell, why couldn’t they have launched a new line of books to showcase him and characters like him? As it stands, to me, and this is not meant to be a knock on a book I don’t read, but does it need to be Ultimate Spider-Man?

 

I actually hope the book is as good I hear it is, to be honest. Bendis is at his best when doing character based stories that contain a smaller cast, really, that has been his downfall on Avengers. He’s not an epic writer, he’s a character writer, he’s a dialog guy. He can tell an amazing one and done with characters in detention, but give him Kang the Conqueror and it’s boring. Give him an event and he can’t sustain it through the ending once he needs to pull it all together.

So what’s the problem with the Ultimate line? That they aren’t trying the same thing with their core line of titles. The Ultimate shake up is something that was much needed, because really, the line needed new voices. But so do the Avengers. Avengers needs a new writer, New Avengers needs a new writer, Captain America needs a new writer, hell, Iron Man and Thor need new writers. Marvel has banked so long on a handful of guys that things have gotten boring and rather than bring fresh voices to the table, they just bounce the books back to number one and let the same guys keep at it. But I’ll get back to that with point four.

 

Point three is Point One. Seriously, what the hell was that? Charge a premium for a bunch of teasers and call it the future. It’s not even so much that they released a bunch of teasers as their next big thing, but it’s the price point. Marvel loves the blown up price tags and the release schedule. Remember how I mentioned their new plan to double and triple ship books? That’s what I like to call “price gouging”. Six bucks for a bunch of teasers? Price gouging. Now, I’m not saying you can’t jack up the price if it’s deserved, hell, the eight dollar Fantastic Four #600 I found to be a fantastic deal, but not every book has that. Marvel does $3.99 for books of all sizes, eighteen pages, twenty pages, twenty-two pages, hell, sometimes even more than that. The problem is that they will use that four buck price tag on books that are the same length of their three dollar ones. DC held the line at $2.99 with twenty pages of story, and Marvel made fun of them for it, but at least we know what to expect for our money from DC.

If you want to charge four bucks for a book, fine, go for it, but make sure it feels like the reader is getting their moneys worth or else you’re going to earn the wrath of readers. The Avengers titles have dropped out of the top ten, hell, out of the top twenty. And I don’t mean gradually, I mean from August where Avengers and New Avengers were both top ten books, to November. Is it the flood of New 52 books? Sure, maybe, maybe DC managed to just force down Marvel’s entire line below their new titles, but those places on the sales charts have only dropped more since September. Is it the excitement of the relaunched titles? Or is it fans realizing that…maybe the Avengers books have been falling apart. At four bucks, Justice League and Action Comics have had no problems holding on to top spots for the past few months. Sure, once the shiny new-ness of the New 52 wears off, sales will drop and things will settle, but I don’t see Avengers making that climb back up. Sales are down about ten thousand copies an issue from just six months ago. You know how you lose a seventh of your monthly sales over six months? By pissing off readers.

 

Which takes me to my next point, Marvel needs some major shake ups. Ed Brubaker has been writing Captain America undisturbed for pretty much the last seven years, really just a few months shy of Bendis on Avengers. Now, Cap was one of my favorite books for a long time, but it really hasn’t been the same since Steve came back from the dead. It really seemed like Ed had more plans for Buck than for Steve, and really, that’s why I’m so psyched for his upcoming Winter Soldier book. At the same time, his recently relaunched Captain America title is…well, it’s enough to make me want to see some fresh blood handle it. Not unlike when Matt Fraction took Uncanny X-Men out of his hands, which really made the book turn out better in my opinion.

 

Now, on the vein of Fraction, he’s an example of Marvel milking one writer to near Bendis levels. I don’t hate him either, hell, I declared him the best thing about Marvel in 2010. But 2011 wasn’t his year, Fear Itself was awful, his Thor has been crap, and Iron Man, one of Marvel’s best books, has completely fallen apart. He left Uncanny X-Men in the more than capable hands of Kieron Gillen, and really, it’s been better off. Fear Itself is over now, Thor has been replaced by Tanarus and the twist was spoiled in the first issue about who this replacement is, and Iron Man…I want it to get back to where it was, but as long as Tony drinking is part of the plot I can’t see it getting there. Defenders launches this week, and I’m buying it, but I’m wary about it. Maybe it’s what he needs, but I also think it wouldn’t hurt to give him a chance to breathe and get his creative bearings back. He seems as over worked as Nick Spencer a few months ago.

A long run on a book isn’t always a bad thing though, and I’m going to keep this at Marvel. Mike Carey is a few issues from ending his five year run on X-Men Legacy, and while it hasn’t always been great, I haven’t regretted a single issue. It’s been well paced and thought out, and despite not being overly eventful, I’ll miss it. He went in, told some cool stories, did some unique things with Rogue and Gambit, wrote Age of X (which I enjoyed!), and now he’s leaving it in the capable hands of Christos Gage. He didn’t overstay his welcome, and what I’ll remember the most is how creepy and different his Proteus was during Necrosha. Necrosha, vastly underrated.

My solution? Honestly? Let Bendis devote time to Ultimate Spider-Man, hell, let him keep writing New Avengers. Just pull him from the flagship, let him do a more character driven title with more street level issues, and let him be Bendis. Take the actual Avengers title, the supposed flagship, and give it to a fresh voice. I’d say Jon Hickman if he wasn’t already writing Ultimates, FF, and Fantastic Four, but really, I do like Geoff Johns three book rule. It’s nice and easy and really, three books isn’t impossible for most writers, but most cases where I’ve seen a writer take on more than that is when I start caring less and less. It’s a combination of over exposure and stretching too thin. Few do their best work when multi-tasking multiple books and plots….though I’ll grant exceptions for books that tie closely together, and even then, depends on the writer.

 

Spice things up! You don’t even need new number ones! Let the marquee writers do what they do best while letting other writers reinvigorate the marquee books. It’s working with X-Men right now with Jason Aaron and Kieron Gillen, hell, look at the other X titles with Christos Gage replacing Carey on Legacy (I’d actually call for him to write Avengers if he wasn’t writing Avengers Academy, X-Men Legacy, and Angel & Faith…can’t break the rule of threes), Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning on New Mutants, James Asmus on Generation Hope (he just replaced Kieron Gillen), Peter David on X-Factor, Rick Remender on Uncanny X-Force, and Victor Gischler on X-Men. I can’t dig up Regenesis sales yet, and I know that a few of these books are selling pretty horribly, but you know what the line has that is lacking across other lines at Marvel? General quality. Seriously, Gischler’s X-Men is the only one of those books I don’t care for.

 

There’s a lot that can be done at Marvel to counteract the DC Relaunch, but double shipping everything isn’t the method. Sales are dropping on books coming out once a month, so what’s going to happen when the books are coming out more often? That’s not a recipe for success, that’s gouging customers that are already trying to jump off. But hey, people respond to quality. Amazing Spider-Man seems to be doing better than it has in years, Uncanny was doing fine before the relaunch, Daredevil is selling decently and is phenomenal, and apparently the Ultimate line is doing well. Really, the only example I can give you of people not flocking to an awesome book at Marvel is Avengers Academy, which is the jewel of the entire Avengers line right now. In fact, how about Marvel starts by marketing the ever loving crap out of the book like they would if Bendis wrote it and see what happens?

I’d love to see what happens.

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