In 2011, DC Comics took an enormous risk, restarting their entire comic book universe, and relaunching ALL their properties with a whole new, streamlined continuity. In 2012, Marvel Comics announced their ‘Marvel NOW!‘ initiative, the details of which seem to indicate that Marvel is making some changes but not going back to the drawing board for a full-scale reboot. The reality is, after 50+ years of interconnected stories, the Marvel Universe desperately NEEDS a fresh start…
Since their debut in the mid-1930s, most comic books were aimed at children, and thus, questions of continuity took a backseat to entertainment. By 1985, DC Comics were serving a much older audience, featuring multiple alternate universes with multiple versions of their iconic characters to explain the passage of time. Crisis On Infinite Earths was designed as a fix for this problem, but editorial reticence kept them from fully embracing universal, sweeping change, even then. The 2011 New 52 relaunch admittedly alienated a portion of DC’s fanbase, but led to increased sales and a revitalized interest in comic books and comic book properties, as well as allowing the company to subtly rejigger certain aspects of their comic books to match the much more-widely-viewed television and movie versions of the properties.
And also some that weren’t so widely-viewed…
After some quick research, it seems that the biggest impetus for the DC Relaunch breaks down to 3 arguments:
1. There Are Too Many Universes/Character Variations
2. Readers Want To Start At The Beginning
3. Sales On Even The Biggest Titles Have Been Dropping for Decades
There are MANY secondary concerns (including editorial preferences, an aging audience, saturation of multiple media and a lack of diversity in creators and characters) but most, if not all of those can be broken down as a sub-header of one of the 3 overarching categories, and all three problems apply just as much to Marvel today as they did to DC pre-relaunch.
1. Too Many Characters?
After a little more than 50 years, (And, yes, I am counting the Marvel Universe as starting in 1961, even if elements of it predate Fantastic Four #1. Just because I bought a used alternator from the junkyard doesn’t make my car an antique.) The Marvel Universe has become an utter labyrinth of characters, many of whom used to be someone else. As of this writing, Johnny Blaze is once again the Ghost Rider, but Danny Ketch used to be, as well as a young lady named Alejandra. Of course, Carter Slade, Marvel’s original Ghost Rider is now known as Phantom Rider, after a stint as Night Rider, and has no fewer than FOUR descendents who share one or more or his hero names. Peter Parker is Spider-Man, but in recent years the name has been used by Kaine, Miles Morales, the late Ben Reilly, Mac Gargan, and a lost deity called Ai Apec. Madame Web is the former Spider-Woman, having been Arachne, which was the original name of the once-again-active first Spider-Woman.
The Marvel Universe is now more properly a Marvel Omniverse, with decades of told-out-of-chronological-order continuity (try explaining the origins of the Squadron Supreme/ Sinister and all it’s myriad iterations without a brain aneurysm) and contradictory stories all fighting for prominence. Given all the truly clever stories told in the Ultimate Universe, a combined/streamlined version of both Ultimate and 616 continuities would be not only cool, but welcome, especially given Peter Parker’s already Mephisto-tangled lifelines. We could, in one fell swoop, eliminate troublesome storytelling issues like “One More Day,” Reed Richards’ canonical service in WWII, and the fact that Iron Man and the Punisher’s origins are inextricably tied to the Vietnam War, a conflict that ended over 45 years ago.
2. Readers Want To Start At The Beginning?
It is a known fact that Marvel Comics loves #1 issues. The quintessential example is Captain America, whose series went from 1941 to 1990-something without renumbering, but has restarted with FIVE more #1 issues since then. The chance to reboot/relaunch the Marvel Universe will give them a chance to exercise that particular demon, especially given that a universe-wide event like this would preclude another renumbering for at least a few years. More importantly, the new #1 issues would have to be legitimate number ones, not just the continuation of an ongoing story like Marvel’s latest Captain America #1 last year. And, if we use a similar paradigm to what DC did, we could see things like a Black Widow solo book, a new take on the Black Panther, a Power Man/Iron Fist relaunch with Jessica Jones as a legitimate supporting character rather than a shoehorned-in retcon. It would allow for plot twists like the tying together of the Phoenix Force and the power of the Iron Fist to have some SETUP, rather than coming out of nowhere like a Vince McMahon swerve. You could also use this opportunity to remove not just timeline problems, but the various Silver Age embarrassments from our heroes origins, rather than just pretending that they didn’t happen.
Reed Richards forgetting about basic radiation shielding? REBOOT!
You think Peter Parker works better as a high-school schlub? REBOOT!
You want more Mark Ruffalo in your Hulk, rather than the thickly-layered barnacles of child abuse, multiple personality disorder and emotional dysfunction? REBOOT!
3. Dropping Sales?
“Paging Mr. Kid… Mr. Two-Gun Kid!”
“But, Matthew,” you say, “Marvel Comics is Number One! They have been for decades! Why should they worry about sales figures? Even the relaunched DC can’t take them down!” Possibly true, but there’s one thing that cannot be denied about the DC Relaunch: Sales have been up ACROSS THE BOARD for all comic companies since the advent of the New 52 in September 2011. The rising tide has raised all ships, so to speak, and has made it a real race between the Big Two for the first time in several years. For every angry fan who quits in rage, it seems that another couple of lapsed readers (or, perish forbid NEW readers) have made their way into the comics shops to sample the new characters, and they haven’t only been reading DC. With Marvel’s current sales dominance, one can assume that a relaunch done equally well (i.e., planned effectively, filled with star creators, with old favorites getting the limelight once again) would increase even the House of Ideas’ sales figures.
So, why don’t I believe that the upcoming Marvel NOW! initiative have a similar effect on sales? Two reasons: First and foremost, Marvel NOW! seems to be a continuation from the storylines of AvX, which continued from Shattered Heroes which continued from Heroic Age which continued from Secret Invasion, et al, all the way back to Secret War (or possibly even further.) The NOW! stories announced at this point are about established Marvel creators trading books, X-Men joining the Avengers, and other visual cues that hint at the illusion of change.
Worse still, the 22 (so far) new #1’s are going to be staggered out over several months, all the way through February of 2013, meaning that the primary target audience is clearly readers who already visit comic shops regularly, i.e. the current readership. It’s a move that makes sense from a corporate risk/reward standpoint, surely, but the All Or Nothing approach that DC’s relaunch took was clearly a factor in its success. Marvel Comics has, for years, taken the “quiet rewrite” approach to their history; witness the periodic retelling of Iron Man’s origins to loosen his pesky Southeast Asian connections, but rather than create a six-issue miniseries every time a character’s movie incarnation becomes more popular than the original (*coughNick FuryJuniorcough*) they can make the bold move and finally shatter the illusion of change.
In the wake of The Avengers movie, a movie that even my comic-illiterate auntie asked me about, it’s time for the Marvel Universe to take the next logical step, reset the shot clock, and build a coherent whole out of five decades of serialized storytelling. The best part is, since DC swore that the New 52 was NOT a reboot, Marvel can proudly own that term, instead of limping to the barn with the latest convolution of ‘re-evolution’, a term that reminds long-term readers of their disastrous 1995 editorial reshuffling.
If that doesn’t convince you, how about one final serendipitous factoid: What was the last comic book company to last 50 continuous-published years?
DC Comics, circa 1985, the year of ‘Crisis On Infinite Earths.’