Thursday, July 18, 2013

Comic Observations: Marvel vs DC - Round Two: Marvel NOW!

Ad for Marvel NOW!
In my last post, I began a two-part feature looking at the State of the Union for each of the big two comic publishers. I've been reading almost all of their output for a while now, and this article is an attempt to suss out which one is producing the strongest line overall, indeed which one has the strongest and most satisfying universe to offer and why that might be.

My final view on DC was of a company that may have some very strong individual titles, but that overall the line was seriously hampered by editorial interference and a lack of a cohesive focused direction. Does the House of Ideas, namely Marvel, fare any better?

Just like DC, Marvel has recently attempted to pull its line under an overarching banner in an attempt to pull in new readers and give a greater direction to its titles. Marvel has titled this direction Marvel NOW!, and like DC, relaunched a lot of their books in an attempt to inject some freshness. Marvel NOW! is far more nebulous than DC's New 52 reboot, but that's actually an okay thing. I know that sounds weird, given that I spent most of my last post slamming DC for its lack of strong direction, but hear me out.

Over the last few years, since Civil War in 2006, Marvel has been very smart in using their events to set up new status quos in which their characters operate. The events themselves have been successful to wildly varying degrees, but they almost always have resulted in a change to the Marvel Universe that can act as a launching pad for a slight variation in the stories, a slightly new world in which their characters operate. Civil War ended with Tony Stark's super-hero registration act taking effect. Secret Invasion ended with Norman Osborn stepping up as major force in the Universe, and created stories of how the heroes deal with that. Siege saw the end of Osborn's reign, etc. In each case, it's been about moving things forward. Yes, things often change back to more familiar settings because, hey, this is comics! But where DC's New 52 was all about wiping away continuity to go backwards and re-examine the characters' beginnings (for something like the third time in my lifetime), Marvel was about providing a launching pad for moving forward that doesn't need any rejiggering of continuities or erasing of anything that came before.

This doesn't mean I can really say what Marvel NOW! actually IS, but it does mean it creates less problems for long-time fans, and weirdly, is more accommodating for new readers. All of their major titles that were relaunched with new #1s all had solid and easily explained jumping on points that required very minimal knowledge. Bruce Banner is the Hulk, and he takes a job working for SHIELD in Mark Waid's Indestructible Hulk #1. If you've seen The Avengers movie, then you can follow it. Captain America is trapped in a nightmarish alternate world in his new series. Iron Man goes into space on a sort of cosmic road trip in his book. The Avengers and companion book New Avengers relaunched under writer Jonathan Hickman with parallel story lines and new teams for both. Matt Fraction took over writing chores on Fantastic Four and sister book FF, sending Marvel's First Family on a road trip through time and space while a substitute team takes over on Earth. And Marvel's superstar writer Brian Michael Bendis took over as the main creative force in the X-Men universe, writing Uncanny X-Men and All New X-Men.
Daredevil # 25

Of course all these bold new beginnings wouldn't matter at all if the books weren't good. And here's the thing; by and large, they are. Each book may not be to a particular reader's taste, but the biggest difference between Marvel and DC proves to be the feeling that Marvel's editorial presence feels far less oppressive. The books feel like they are the individual vision of their respective creators, who are given a free hand to create their stories, abetted by editorial. I'm not saying that's what is actually happening, but merely that that is how the books feel. Throughout the entire line, the books feel like they breathe. They feel secure. And even with the books that don't work (and we'll get to those), it still feels like they don't work because of creative issues, not because editorial is micro-managing or because the overall direction is lacking in cohesion.

I could list a bunch of really good books, but there are a few that stand head and shoulders above the rest. Mark Waid's Daredevil book is perhaps the single best super-hero book on the stands. For decades, indeed since Frank Miller's legendary run in the 1980s,  Daredevil had been positioned as a grim, street-level hero, with many stories examining the emotional cost of the super-hero life. Some of the runs since then have been amazing (Kevin Smith, Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker all had great success with the title), but Waid managed to bring back a fun sense of derring-do to the character while not ignoring that grim noirish tone that makes the character unique. Currently paired with the amazing Chris Samnee on pencilling duties, Waid has crafted the most satisfying super-hero book out there.

And then there's Hawkeye. Or "Hawkguy", as it's called by its legion of fans, Matt Fraction and David Aja took on the Avengers' archer in a new ongoing series that has been something of a wonder from day one. Light on continuity, and high on atmosphere, tight plotting and a quirky sense of humour, the book takes a character that has historically struggled in the spotlight and crafted a lovable story of a roguish screw-up trying to do the right thing. Fraction's stories perfectly nail what makes Clint Barton a great character, and Aja is a star, utilizing crazily inventive layouts to give the book its unique feel. One of it's recent issues was told from the point of view of Clint's dog, using pictograms to tell the story. It's one of the great single issues in years, and one of those books that remind a reader what comics can do that no other medium can.

Amazing page from the Pizza Dog issue
aka Hawkeye #11

Those are just two examples, but there's many more. Bendis took over shepherding the X-Men corner of the Marvel Universe to great success. I'd argue his low-concept, character-focused storytelling style meshes far better with the naturally soap-operatic X-Universe. Jonathan Hickman is now the driving creative force on the Avengers, bringing his long-form, high-concept, epic style to Earth's Mightiest Heroes. It may not be for everyone, but those who like it, love it.

Even a smaller book like Young Avengers can hit them out of the park.  Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie bring an ultra-contemporary feel to this most youthful of books, creating a fun, modern and beautiful rendered story of navigating young adulthood. And it has pages like this:

Just crazy-good

There are a ton of other examples of books that are really excelling as well. Thor: God of Thunder. Deadpool. Guardians of the Galaxy. Nova.  Marvel has more books than ever with women as the main characters, such as Captain Marvel, an all female X-Men team, Red She-Hulk, Journey into Mystery starring Lady Sif, and the Fearless Defenders.

But Marvel NOW! isn't perfect. The Spider-Man universe hasn't quite hit the same heights. The decision to have Peter Parker's body taken over by Doctor Octopus, seemingly killing off Peter and focusing on Ock's tenure as Spider-Man, has been divisive with fans. I don't mind it, and think the story Dan Slott is telling is interesting, but I will agree that I'd rather read Peter Parker stories. Scarlet Spider and Venom are books that are executed well, but frankly haven't quite demonstrated why they're necessary. And the less said about Morbius The Living Vampire the better.

The X-Books feel close to flooding the market. We have two books with X-Force in the title, and I'd argue that neither of them quite work. Astonishing X-Men seems to have no purpose defining it at all anymore. Wolverine stars in three books, which is not unusual, but only one of them (Wolverine and the X-Men) feels essential or innovative. And with a limited pool of X-Men to draw from, many of these teams feel repetitive (how many teams is Storm on right now, anyway?)

Then there's the books (like Morbius) that are out and out bad. Red She-Hulk may be an interesting character to some people, but she isn't to me, and her adventures with Machine Man haven't grabbed me. And Avengers Arena may be well-done, but I always feel a little dirty after reading it, like I'm reading a story where perfectly interesting characters are being slaughtered for no apparent reason. I'm still reading it though, so one could argue that it is a successful book. It just feels......unpleasant.

But to say that only two to three books are out and out bad, that's pretty great. I'd say Marvel's biggest problem is that they have some books that are simply serviceable but haven't really distinguished themselves. The other problem is that they have too many books (what makes Avengers Assemble all that different from any other Avengers book, for instance? How many X-Men books do we need anyway before the brand becomes a diluted mess?).

So, the winner for me is clearly Marvel. It's capitalizing on its success at the box office, and most of their books I'm genuinely excited to read, and a few of them are runs that I can see becoming absolute classics in years to come. I hope that DC can right their course, but until they do, make mine Marvel!

Hickman's Main Avengers Team

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