Marvel Legacy comics

Can Marvel walk their 'A Fresh Start' tight rope?

Contributed by
Feb 23, 2018

Black Panther, the 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, opened to the tune of $242 million during Presidents' Day weekend, something analysts deemed unfathomable until only a few days before release. And with the biggest competition in its second weekend being Alex Garland's arthouse sci-fi Annihilation and the R-rated comedy Game Night, T'Challa is poised to dig his claws deep into ticket sales.

Between this film and the upcoming superhero tour-de-force Avengers: Infinity War, can anything get in Marvel's way?

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Well, it may come as a surprise to casual fans that Marvel's biggest problem right now is the comics themselves. Despite a wealth of fantastic writing and artistic talent combined with a veritable smorgasbord of great characters, Marvel's comics sales have been suffering as of late. Now, mere months after their last initiative "Marvel Legends," a rebranding that promised to return the heroes to their roots, the company has announced yet another relaunch with "A Fresh Start," which will do away with the old numbering system in favor of, yet again, all-new issue number ones.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a comics fan online that isn't a little perturbed by this announcement, with a handful viewing it as the death knell for the brand. In order to understand what Marvel can do with this "fresh start" to make it the success they hope for, first we must look at how they arrived here in the first place.

Slumping sales isn't a Marvel exclusive problem: in 2017, the entire comic industry saw a drop of around 10 percent after a steady rise in sales since 2011. However, it is clear that the decline has been led by a somewhat directionless Marvel. Their competitor DC Comics managed to turn things around from a dire situation with the successful "Rebirth" relaunch in 2016, which allowed them to take seven of the top ten comics slots last year; previously they'd struggled to get even one title in that bracket.

And DC doesn't seem to be clouding their clear vision for their lineup. At the tail end of last year, they went for the jugular and straight up stole Brian Michael Bendis from Marvel, a company he worked almost exclusively at for 17 years. Bendis was instrumental in the creation of the Ultimate Universe, a major initiative Marvel undertook in the early 2000s that modernized and retold pretty much every one of their heroes' origins. Following dismal sales in the '90s that had Marvel on the verge of bankruptcy, the Ultimate Universe singlehandedly saved the company.

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Without Bendis, it's very possible the MCU wouldn't even exist, and that's to say nothing of his amazing character contributions such as Miles Morales and Riri Williams. With Marvel on the defensive, the last thing they needed was one of their biggest talents to go to their competitor.

As alluded to previously, Marvel's problems stem from a lack of direction. A few years ago, this wasn't the case, as prolific writer Jonathan Hickman was tasked with the impossible: destroy the Ultimate Universe. You see, the initial goal of the Bendis creation was to allow new readers the chance to jump into comics with a cleaner, less convoluted lineup. But over time, the Ultimate Universe became as bloated as the 616 (the common name for the regular Marvel Universe).

Hickman, however, pulled its death off with the latest Secret Wars saga, and crafted a meaningful story that managed to keep what worked with the Ultimate lineup and leave the rest in the literal dust. Marvel couldn't have been in a better position following that event to build their now singular universe.

Unfortunately, they've struggled ever since, and it's largely due to their own films.

In 2016, the next big event to follow Secret Wars was Civil War II, which launched right after Captain America: Civil War was in theaters. It's undeniable to say that the comic event existed solely because "Civil War" was heavily in the fandom's lexicon at the time, as the story was incredibly insular and featured what many consider to be some of Bendis' weakest writing.

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This kind of reactionary behavior to the MCU has plagued Marvel for years. In 2013, they pushed one of their more disappointing crossovers Age of Ultron out, clearly designed as a way to refamiliarize fans with the villain before the big movie of the same name came out less than two years later. The Inhumans, one of the smaller superhero teams in the comics, received a big push around the time they became the focus of Marvel's TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Black Bolt, Medusa, and the rest of the Inhuman royal family absolutely deserve to have rich, engaging stories told about them. But the agenda to make the Inhumans relevant in the comics was ham-fisted, with several comics featuring the characters suddenly springing into circulation, meaning they didn't receive the focus they deserved. Marvel tried to reinvent the Inhumans as the new X-Men and it simply didn't work, both in the MCU and the comics. With Avengers: Infinity War, we are on the verge of another Infinity Stone/Gauntlet storyline in the comics, and it's hard not to worry that it will suffer the same fate as other recent tie-ins.

Some readers also believe that Marvels' struggles stem from an initiative to become more diverse and inclusive. Iron Man passed the mantle to female black teenager Riri Williams; the latest Hulk is the young Korean-American Amadeus Cho; and when Thor Odinson was no longer worthy of wielding his hammer Mjolnir, the responsibility fell to Jane Foster.

Let me be clear: these characters are in no way the problem. Writer Jason Aaron's Mighty Thor has continuously been one of the better comics to come out of Marvel's House of Ideas in recent years; similarly with the other new characters. What is an issue is the attention that has been put on these heroes has left little creative energy for the mainstays that fans love. When Sam Wilson took over the moniker Captain America, Steve Rogers' eventual return with the Secret Empire story arc was considered uninspired by fans.

Fortunately, "A Fresh Start" will seemingly have Marvel's creative teams put equal efforts into both new and old characters alike; an evolution from ideas and stories proposed with "Marvel Legacy". As such, this "fresh start" feels less like a comic book event and more like a rebranding initiative for the company. This comes hand in hand with the promotion of controversial editor C.B. Cebulski to Editor-in-Chief.

In order to pull this off, several things are going to have to occur.

Firstly, the continuous resetting of issue numbers has to come to an end. Legacy reverted comics back to their original numbering, and will soon become a subheader to a brand spanking new numbering. This duality isn't ideal, but it's the spot Marvel is currently in, and it's something that should be the norm for the considerable future if they wish to go that route, rather than renumbering once again in a year or two.

Secondly, Marvel needs to take a Jarnbjorn-sized axe to its lineup, which it has already proceeded to do by having only one Avengers title (seriously, who thought U.S.Avengers was a good idea?) There are no less than four X-Men team comics on shelves and five Spider-Man titles. The company does not have the creative bandwidth to cultivate consistent quality across its publications. Compare their current slate to DC's, and it dwarfs their competitor's in size.

One Avengers title, one X-Men title, one Peter Parker Spider-Man title, etc. is the way to go. Readers will be far more inclined to invest in a smaller, more streamlined output, resulting in more sales than an XL lineup ever could.

Thirdly, the 616 universe needs to be almost deaf to the machinations of the MCU. Creating crossover events primarily to capitalize on the movie of the moment breeds inorganic storytelling: the bane of every comic books existence. Writers should concern themselves with stories that are born from character-driven actions; characters advanced by plot instead of the inverse will almost always result in poor writing. In addition, Marvel's best crossover events have always taken the most buildup. Fewer, more infrequent crossovers will assist in a streamlined, focused production.

And finally, if Marvel really wants to go on the offensive, they shouldn't be afraid to look into their competitor's talent. Bendis was drawn to DC because of Rebirth, and he wasn't the first. Notable Marvel artist John Romita Jr. has been at DC for some time now, drawing the likes of Batman and Superman. Marvel should make "A Fresh Start" incredibly appetizing for a writer like Scott Snyder or Tom King to come spend some time at the House of Ideas.

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Marvel is in a tricky spot, but it is in no way the dire situation it found itself in the '90s. Additionally, the only thing to rival the MCU's pop culture status currently is Star Wars, and even then it's a close call. The success of the movies will mean the comics will be around for an inconceivable amount of time. It's clear that the minds at Marvel are working hard to come up with a good solution to their problem, and that their current agenda could very well lead to incredible success. Hopefully, they're able to fire on all cylinders creatively and stick the landing.