Op-Ed: Marvel NOW! Is DC’s New 52, Refined

When you’re working in any industry, whether it’s steel, food, or, er, comics, you can’t help but respond to whatever innovations the other guy has been doing. So it’s not a total surprise that Marvel is unveiling their new, bold initiative Marvel NOW! about a year after DC Comics announced their New 52 initiative. Further on the non-surprising scale? Once again, Marvel has taken someone else’s core idea, learned from their mistakes, and refined the process.

There’s no denying that the New 52 was a shocking, bold maneuver. DC has rebooted their superhero line before, post Crisis on Infinite Earths, and again after Zero Hour. And in general, proposing a “New, All Different!” take on superheroes is something every mainstream comics company (okay, all two of them) try every year, if not every six months. That kind of rejuvenation is necessary to hold on to the core audience, keeping them interested in the stories, while never really having any sort of actual forward movement. Eventually, a year down the line, the stories start to feel like they’re repeating themselves… Just in time for the next All-New, All-Different Take.

The New 52 felt bigger than that. Sure, it was essentially the same product in different wrapping – it’s not like Superman was suddenly a giraffe who’s power was to barf candy or anything – but beyond the story trappings, it felt like the stagnant DC was actually trying to reach out to the mainstream consumer… And for a time, on the surface at least, it looked like it worked.

Now, we’re getting mostly into speculation here: as any Editor or Publisher would tell you, the sales figures you see on websites are speculation at best, as neither DC nor Marvel release actual sales of comics to the public. However, assuming the TRENDS of those figures are accurate, if not the actual numbers, there’s a few things we can say about the success, or lack thereof of the New 52:

– The top of the line looks great, with Justice League, Batman, and more way beyond where they were a year ago.

– The rest of the line, however, may have slightly bumped, but has fallen to mostly pre-New 52 levels.

The biggest reason, I think, is the quality of the books. DC publishes some fantastic books now – Batman is, arguably, one of the best comic books being published, period. But the biggest regret that I had with the New 52 was that it didn’t shake things up more. The creative teams, for the most part, continued from pre-New 52, to post-New 52 with no changes. If you liked Paul Levitz on Legion of Super-Heroes? Well, you’ll still like Paul Levitz on Legion of Super-Heroes. Same with the Green Lantern family of books, the Bat family of books, and more. The only real exception was the Superman books, and those have floundered from the initial excitement of Grant Morrison anchoring Action.

Beyond that, though, the continuity was a big problem. We were told over and over that the New 52 was a brand new entry point. And yes, I’m coming at it from a biased perspective, as I read pretty much every comic released. But from experience, trying to explain to new readers who WANTED to read DC’s comics, explaining to them why the Superman in Action Comics was about a year earlier than the one in Justice League, and five years earlier than the one in Superman made their eyes glaze over.

So all of this is preamble to Marvel NOW!, and what we know about what’s coming up in their books. The answer? Not a whole lot, other than what’s in the Entertainment Weekly article, but what we do hear there is promising. The biggest thing is, the shake-up. Sure, not every change is going to work, but every single one of the initial titles announced are an exciting change to the line.

Yes, Brian Michael Bendis has had his detractors, particularly on the Avengers franchise, but there’s no denying those books have been a sales juggernaut for most of his decade long stint. Now that we’re at a point where Avengers is probably the most recognizable name in comics, other than Batman? That’s the perfect time to mix things up, and let some more up and coming writers take their hand to Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. And look at the teams: Jonathan Hickman on Avengers; Rick Remender and John Cassaday on Uncanny Avengers.

Unlike the arguments that Bendis may or may not have something to do with the sales on Avengers (I’d argue he has a lot to do with it, frankly, but that’s for another time), there’s really no discussion that Jonathan Hickman has single handedly revived Fantastic Four as a title. Even Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch – two superstars, if the industry ever had some – didn’t do for the FF what Hickman did: first, making Fantastic Four a must read, key title in the Marvel Universe with huge, exciting ideas; and second, making it popular enough that there are now TWO Fantastic Four series running, both with healthy sales.

So having Hickman on the core Avengers title makes a ton of sense, and should, once again, make the Avengers the core title in the Marvel Universe, as well. That’s what Avengers for Marvel, and Justice League for DC should be doing, right? Leading the Universe, rather than just responding to what’s going on? Hickman seems the right man for that job – and vaulting him from the relative safety of smaller titles like Secret Warriors, and even the previously stagnant FF title onto a speeding train like Avengers makes sure he stays at the top of his game.

Uncanny Avengers, though, is the title that made my jaw drop a bit. I’ve been a fan of Remender’s writing for a good long while, particularly titles like Fear Agent and Strange Girl made sure I’ll pick up everything the guy ever writes. But his work for Marvel has been characterized by big insane ideas intimately focused on character – and a willingness to put his creations through the wringer. He’s shown this on Uncanny X-Force, and he’s shown this on Secret Avengers… And both titles have been very unafraid of going dark. Uncanny Avengers seems like it could be the pinnacle of that, and putting John Cassaday, probably the best superhero artist in Marvel’s staple, on a book that sounds like a fans dream makes us giddy to get our hands on a copy.

Oh, and then there’s All-New X-Men, by Bendis, with art by Stuart Immonen. Like Cassaday, Immonen is a stellar talent who draws mainstream superhero comics like no other artist. And seeing Bendis’ take on the X-Men franchise, the one set of books he has yet to try out, is a fascinating and exciting idea.

So right off the bat, these three titles seem to have two driving forces behind them:

– Challenge the writers to either go out of their comfort zone, or step up to the plate in a big way.

– Get the best damn superhero artists in the Universe to draw the books.

The former is either a recipe for success or total disaster, but that’s what makes it exciting. The latter is just a recipe for success: even if the writer falters, you’ve got some amazing looking art in store for you.

And yes, this is only three titles out of an entire superhero line, so who knows what’s actually in store for us? This may be the big three, and then everything else is same old, same old… But I imagine not. I think what Marvel learned from DC is that every announcement needs to be more exciting than the last; there’s no room for fans to shrug and say, “I’ll skip that title.” I could be wrong, but right now I’m eagerly awaiting what’s next.

This, by the way, hasn’t even touched on two other aspects of what makes Marvel NOW! different than the New 52:

1) The slow roll-out.

2) It isn’t a reboot.

The first one is another idea that, I think, is pretty smart on Marvel’s part. It probably means they won’t dominate the top 10 in October the way DC did the first month of the New 52, but that’s a quick fix at best. No comic fan, even a guy who buys nearly everything like I do, can keep up with fifty-two new comics every month forever… At some point, you’re going to start dropping titles like flies. With Marvel’s slow roll out, particularly if the rest of the titles are as exciting and “new,” we should see this pay off in the long term, rather than the short. You won’t get “Top 10 Dominated By Marvel!” headlines, but you’ll actually sell copies, and continue building a fanbase.

The second part is more important, and perhaps the biggest question mark about this. While I’m glad Marvel isn’t aping DC down to the letter by rebooting their superhero universe, I’d question how really new reader friendly any of this can honestly be. Even with an AR app recapping things from page one, even with an editorial mandate to make sure these titles work for new readers, the fact remains: the guys writing and editing these books have read comics before; most of humanity has not. And for most of humanity, that continuity is a brick wall they’d like to avoid entirely.

The problem here is that as a writer, if you’re told “make it new reader friendly!” that doesn’t mean you should ignore what’s happened in the character’s pasts. And in particular, using that baggage is going to be important to developing something that’s rich and exciting to read. However, that same baggage will weigh down a new reader either through exposition, or just lack of knowledge.

I really don’t think there’s a way around that, either. Unless you get a guy who’s never read a comic, and say, “This is Peter Parker, he’s been bitten by a radioactive spider. Go!” and just see what happens, you’re going to have to reference the past. And the longer you go on with that, the more convoluted it’ll become, and the more it’ll antagonize potential new readers.

Yes, there are ways around it, and yes olde timey comics used to recap what was going on each issue in that issue. But we’re not there anymore. The space in the comic just isn’t available, when the norm is three-five panels per page, instead of nine or more. Writers just don’t have the room for that, and a recap page doesn’t necessarily do the trick.

So we’ll have to see. I’m not particularly hopeful this is a long term solution, just because every time someone has told me a long running mainstream comic is new reader friendly, in six issues or under there’s a shocking reveal of a character from the main guy’s past, or a villain you’d have to have been reading sixty years of comics to know about. There are exceptions of course: I think Mark Waid’s current run on Daredevil is probably the first actually new reader friendly comic I’ve read in years. But not every writer is as facile as Waid at knowing how to work exposition into dialogue, and not every writer wants to make every issue essentially done in one (even when there are ongoing plots and two or three part stories).

In fact, you probably shouldn’t expect that from everyone, and that’s what makes reading comics such a rich, rewarding experience. But, at the same time: that’s what’s going to make a new reader hit that wall.

With all that in mind though, what I think Marvel has done is take all of the excitement about DC’s New 52, and figure out a way to reduce the concern or nervousness. For fans who are reading Marvel Comics and liking them, nothing is really changing. For fans who aren’t reading, you have a chance to jump right into the Marvel U. And for writers and artists, this is a chance to stretch their legs and really test themselves as a writer. It’s Marvel challenging themselves, and the industry, to not remain creatively stagnant, without upsetting the core base.

And hey, hopefully it’ll work, and Marvel NOW! will be the new status quo everyone strives for… At least until the next big event that CHANGES. EVERYTHING.