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August 31, 2009

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The End of the Modern Age of Comics

A few reactions to Disney’s purchase of Marvel:

  • Can we call this the close of the Modern Age of comics? Sometime during the early 00s—maybe even earlier—it seems like big corporate comics (DC and Marvel) shifted decisively from creating new characters and storylines to mining the creative capital they’d accrued over decades. (There’s a fossil fuel analogy lurking here.)

  • I’m not talking about relaunches and re-interpretations, a la The Dark Knight Returns and John Byrne’s Superman reboot back in the 80s. I’m talking about all you do is look backward—whether it’s retold tales like Marvel’s Ultimate Spider-Man or recursive loops like DC’s Infinite Crisis.

  • Okay, I’m sure there are lots of little exceptions, but I really really want to pronounce Marvel and DC dead. C’mon, can’t we just pronounce them dead?

  • And what I mean by that is: They are no longer engines of creation. They now exist to license, merchandise, expand and exploit the IP they’ve been nurturing over the years. Which is totally okay! But…

  • Who’s gonna create the new characters?

(Hmm. That ended up being more suited to paragraphs than bullets. Oh well, not changing it.)

Another detail from the story: Marvel has just 300 employees. Think of that company’s cultural “throw-weight”—not insignificant—and divide that by its headcount. Pretty impressive.

What have you noticed about comics in the last 3-5 years? Anything noteworthy? Anything that this deal crystallizes? Where is the medium going?

Posted August 31, 2009 at 9:26 | Comments (7) | Permasnark
File under: Briefly Noted, Comics


I'd argue Marvel was already perished or perishing in the 90s. Specifically with the character bubble that began, in the X-Men line, with the introduction of Bishop. Bishop was the perfect new 90s character: He came from the future, he had a mysterious and sinister past (sic), and his power was a meta-power (he could absorb other powers and shoot them back out). He came from the future and introduced new storylines into a stale narrative (oh and he was black, which they needed at the time).

Post-Bishop X-Men was all time-travel and alternate worlds theory (I thank Marvel for inspiring me to get a Philosophy degree) and through all that reality-hopping they kept introducing new characters. So many new characters. New X-teams. New short-run single character comics. Derivatives of existing characters and boyfriends/girlfriends from other possible universes.

But importantly, none of them ever really stuck. Remember "X-Man" (who was I think a young/alt-future Cable?). He had his own title run for a year maybe? None of the characters from this period ever reached anything near the status of a Wolverine.

So, yes, sadly, I don't think Marvel has been an engine of creation for a long, long time. They've been busy maintaining the integrity of their blue chip stocks. But certainly have not innovated any new products.

It's almost as if all this rebooting were really just a different engine of continuity!

It's weird to think that Marvel now is basically in the same situation that Disney was before The Little Mermaid. Oh, god, are there going to be superheroes in Disney World now?

One of the symptomatic characters to look at in this discussion might be The Sentry, a weirdly all-powerful character introduced in the 2000s complete with the backstory that he was a classic Marvel character who everyone had forgotten about. Seriously, I picked up some new comics, and I was fooled. "Hey, maybe I forgot about this guy."

There's a weird way, though, in which this discussion takes up the terms that it purports to criticize. It's like, yes, it's true, Marvel's produced some good stories, but they haven't made any bankable franchises lately. (Okay, maybe Blade.)

You nailed it: they aren't in the business of creating new ideas or properties. In fact, the properties they snatched up (Image/Wildstorm) were beaten into the ground by the same business model. Take something like Stormwatch. One so-so book to start turns into The Authority, one of the most promising books of its time. What happens? Spin that off until you get a Midnighter crap-a-thon. There have been FOUR reboots of Wildcats and that started in 92. The only things I've read from the big two that were even semi-interesting to me in the last five years were either from a particular author of whom I happen to be a fan boy (Morrison/Brubaker) or the 'event' stuff that exists seperate from the rest of the nonsene (Planet Hulk).

Sadly, comics aren't dead: they are thriving and bigger than ever. Its just that we'll never see anything new catch hold because it might cut into the sales of one of the 20 Batman books that drop every month.

Posted by: DeadSinceYearOne on August 31, 2009 at 10:26 AM


@Tim: I'm not criticizing bankable franchises at all -- I love 'em! Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter -- LOVE that stuff. It's exactly as you say: I want Marvel to be working on NEW ones. Blade's actually a fair example... maybe there are more I'm overlooking (I don't think so, though).

@DeadSinceYearOne: Ha, that's a funny (and accurate) observation. The Rush to Reinvent. You know what your fave old characters "feel" like; you want your new creations to feel like that; you rush it. Who's got the patience to build a character, a world, a mythos over decades?

Are they dead? They're dead to me.

When I was 12 years old my dad worked out of town (Anchorage) and I spent the summer in the little fishing town of Cordova. We lived 10 miles from town at the FAA station, there was nothing to do, I was lonely and made no friends.

I haunted the drugstore downtown for new issues of Marvel comics and ingested enough to change my life forever. I can't imagine what I'd do if all I had were today's comics.

Re: the 300 employees thing - didn't Marvel shrink way down (in employees, titles, and print run size) after their bankruptcy in the 1990s? I'm half-remembering things from a comics documentary I saw a year ago.

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