With the political climate down to a presidential horse race between two candidates that don't seem to have a single viable idea between them on what to do about 8% employment, i've slowed the usual stream of Liberal Outrage posts to a trickle. Barring the rare bit of Godzilla news (it seems to me that if one were to combine Pacific Rim with characters from the Godzilla franchise, you'd have an awesome), that pretty much leaves comic books to talk about here. But i've been holding back on that front as well, because i've discovered Tom Brevoort's Formspring page and the quality of the questions there are so awful it's just sort of put me off from talking about current comics at all. Just looking at the negative comments, the things people complain about and they way they articulate those complaints... it just makes me never want to say anything negative about Marvel again (on the other hand, the positive Formspring comments are downright sycophantic).
The truth is, i'm actually kind of conflicted. I've said, and i still believe, that the Quesada period (actually three periods, right? Quesada/Jemas, pure Quesada, Alonso/Brevoort/Quesada) is the best since the Shooter era. And i initially didn't understand the anti-Bendis sentiment at all and even now i'm mostly a defender of his. Everyone's got their weak points. So i think this rambling post will be me waffling back and forth about the current state of Marvel. Who knows where it will end up? I certainly won't have the energy to come back and revise it by the time i'm done.
One of my planned complaints was about the reshuffling of writers with this Marvel NOW! phase. I like Bendis but was ready for him to move on and i find Fraction and Hickman really dry, and i don't like Aaron for different reasons, and the fact that it seems like those four seem to be just getting shuffled around on the core books while really fun writers like Parker, Gage, Van Lente, and Abnett & Lanning are remaining on secondary books is confusing to me. I also don't understand why Marvel keeps going back to Jeph Loeb, who doesn't seem to have a single defender on the internet (speculation that Rob Liefeld was talking about Loeb here rings true).
In fact (tangent warning: i told you this was rambling) i enjoyed Greg Pak's Hulk quite a bit during the World War Hulk event, but i stopped following the book after that because it was tying into a Loeb-driven story. I've since gone back and picked up the Pak issues (#601-611) and found them to be really enjoyable (except where i felt like i was missing half the story due to the tie-ins with the Loeb issues). But Loeb's involvement not only kept me away from his own book, but also Pak's (having subsequently bought the books used doesn't help Marvel any). But i did, counter-intuitively, read Parker's (Red) Hulk book because it seemed self-contained.
And that brings up another twist in this ramble. I can't tell you how many recent characters have been introduced that i rejected on a basic level that i've later turned out to like. Most of them are Hulks. All of the Hulk children. Pak has made me like Skaar and Thundra-Shulk. As for Hiro-Kala, i haven't read that yet but holy crap! His story took place on Jarella's world during the Realm of Kings event and he faces off against Arcturus Rann and the Enigma Force? How the hell did i skip that? Because i was blindly anti-Hulk children at the time, that's why. As for the Red Hulks, turning Thunderbolt Ross and Betty Ross into Hulks is stupid on the face of it, but Jeff Parker has made me love Red Hulk and i am really impressed with his mission statement for Red She-Hulk.
Beyond Hulks, there's X-23, to which my initial reaction was "Are you kidding me? A cloned daughter of Wolverine?!", and now thanks to Yost's X-Force and Gage's Avengers Academy, i think she's a great character. I've even liked the appearances of Daken that i've read. Heck, i'm willing to admit that Flash Thompson as Venom isn't that bad an idea. So next time i start complaining when a new character is announced, someone needs to tell me to STFU until i at least actually read a few of their appearances. (Does this apply to the time-traveling Silver Age X-Men?)
Back to the "Marvel Architects", as i've seen Bendis, Fraction, Hickman and Aaron referred to (along with Brubaker but unfortunately it seems he is mostly bowing out to focus on indie stuff), i'm somewhat baffled by their prominence but unlike Loeb i see that the three that i don't personally like definitely have their fans. As for Hickman, you'd think stories where the plots are "Mr. Fantastic creates a school that includes Gee Power, Artie & Leech, and Franklin Richards and also Spider-Man's involved and gets a cool new costume" or "The Kree experimented on other alien races, including Dire Wraiths and Kymellians" would be catnip for me, but i just haven't been able to get into his writing.
Same with Fraction. Take Fear Itself. Daughter of the Red Skull makes an alliance with a forgotten Asgardian God of Fear and a bunch of major super-villains get Thor-style hammers and attack the world alongside Nazi mechas? Of course i should love that. Actually i skipped it just because i'd already decided i dislike Fraction. Judging from the online reaction that seemed like the right move, but who knows? I've just finished reading Gillen's Journey Into Mystery and Uncanny X-Men tie-ins and loved them both (and why wasn't i reading Gillen's UX all along?), and i'll soon be reading the Fear Itself series (another "recent backissue" order triggered by the JiM books), so we'll see.
I also recently picked up the first appearance of Northstar's now-husband Kyle Jinadu, just to see how he was introduced, and it was in an issue of Fraction-written X-Men. As an overall issue it actually wasn't bad. Again, a little matter-of-fact or dry. Greg Land's art (also on the Gillen UXs) is another story - does he just trace all his people from pictures from Cosmo and GQ? But the story at least seemed interesting from a set-up perspective. It just so happened to also be the beginning of the X-Club set-up, bringing in a diverse and interesting group of characters including the doctor from Whedon's AX run, Dr. Nemesis (a Golden Age/Invaders character!), and a dude from Marvel's Godzilla series! The X-Club mini (not by Fraction) was disappointing, but i still like the basic idea of a super-science/tech group. So maybe i don't really dislike Fraction; at the very least i like his continuity mining.
The problem seems to be that i like Fraction's plots and story ideas, but i find his dialogue unengaging. Same with Hickman mainly (although my attempt to get back into Hickman resulted in trying out the 900 page FF #600 which was just a mess; in retrospect i'm willing to say that issue was an exception). But that's a pretty weak complaint, especially when i compare to the books i've been going through on my timeline project. If i could go back and take Bill Mantlo's Hulk run and replace the histrionic dialogue with Hickman's, i'd probably be giving those books A ratings. But now i'm comparing Hickman to Parker and Gage instead of to the historical average.
Another factor may be that we were (or maybe i should say "i was") introduced to Fraction and Hickman in a sneaky way. Bendis was co-writing Secret Warriors with Hickman, and i remember starting off thinking the book had a lot of promise, and then 15 issues later i realized the book wasn't as good and i looked down and said "Why am i reading this series? Who the heck is Hickman?". Similar with Brubaker/Fraction and Iron Fist.
So am i saying here that i should buckle down and just get all the core marvel books (plus whatever second-tier books i know i'll like)? From a timeline project perspective, and just as a long time marvel fan, that makes a lot of sense to me. I hate missing out on what's happening in the FF and the X-Men. But the problem is that Marvel just puts out so many books. I'm fortunate enough that i could probably afford them all but there's also time and space considerations!
Even reading through the Pak Hulk back issues this week, i was amazed and overwhelmed by the number of additional mini-series that i would have had to pick up in order to get the whole story. Savage She-Hulks, Son of Hulk, Planet Skaar, Alpha, Gamma, Hulked Out Heroes, Incredible Hulk, adjective-less Hulk, Red Hulk. Holy crap! And that's just the Hulk!
The X-titles alone seem to be impossible to keep up with. There's so much interaction it doesn't seem feasible to stick with one title (except, perhaps a non-core title like Astonishing). I don't even know how to dig in and find out what books are happening currently. And now Marvel's announcing new titles with Marvel NOW! so i have no idea what's where.
I think the sheer volume that Marvel produces causes a lot of the crankiness among fans, directly or indirectly. Marvel knows very well that their main selling point is their shared universe, and over the years fans have been encouraged to keep up with all of what's going on. But people obviously can't get everything so they stick to core books, and then important stuff happens off in odd places. I remember being pretty weirded out when the Scorpion showed up with the Venom suit, and it turns out that happened in like Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man or something, a title that just screams "skip me". And i imagine people are feeling pretty similar about Battle Scars right now.
I found Brevoort's Formspring page when he made this somewhat controversial statement that continuity isn't more important than the stories themselves. I'll come back to that statement, but he follows it up with "I can't tell you the number of times I've seen angry letters from readers who feel like we've violated continuity who had simply missed the story in which that situation had changed." I think that's a bit of a strawman argument in itself, but there probably are a lot of cases where people just didn't know to pick up the Fear Itself: Food Itself one-shot to find out that Captain Vegan is indeed now eating honey. An easy solution here is footnotes, but some basic expository scripting wouldn't hurt either. You can't expect readers to have read every book so you have to provide a little background.
The big complaint on Formspring right now is that Starlord's hair is blond. Coloring issues are the least of my concerns, but while Brevoort is sticking to the fact that Starlord's hair was apparently blond in his 70s appearances (although not in my reprint or on Marvel's own wiki page), he's being really stubborn about acknowledging that most people who've come to know and love the character over the past 10 years have experienced him with brown hair.
I don't care about the hair. And i have nothing but sympathy for Brevoort having to field these questions repeatedly. But his attitude in responding shows a man who is just disillusioned with what he's doing and he's gotten to the point where he can't distinguish between complaints about hair color and complaints that the Vision seems to have two opposite personalities in two Bendis-written comics published the same week.
Back to Brevoort's larger point, i've said this a thousand times before, but with Marvel, the continuity is the story. The truth is no one really cares about men in tights beating the shit out of each other for the umpteen-millionth time, and even if we do, we can get better from, say, Robert Kirkman's Invincible. It's the shared universe, the ongoing uber-story, that is cool to us and keeps us buying the on-goings. The way you hear Brevoort and others complain, it's like they could be producing works to rival John Steinbeck (to pick a personal literary fav) if only these annoying fan-boys would stop asking how Star Lord is suddenly back from the dead. Get real. You're producing super-hero comics, and your main distinguishing characteristic is your shared universe.
I recognize that mistakes will be made. It's not easy keeping track of it all. Going through my timeline project has made it clear that even in Marvel's supposed continuity heyday there were inconsistencies aplenty. But a lot of effort was made, fixes were retconned in, the whole thing just wasn't treated with such disdain. And again, another important fact was the footnotes and exposition. It's not a mistake that Captain Vegan is spreading honey on his wheat toast? Explain it.
I was actually pleased to see footnotes in the Hulk stuff that i read (and it got me to order some trades, so, you know: revenue, people!) but i know they are generally out of favor due to some misplaced sense of embarrassment. I don't understand it at all. If Tom Brevoort is right and the majority of the fan boy rage he has to deal with is all a big misunderstanding, why not placate your audience in advance? Footnotes are also new-reader friendly; it's an opportunity to explain stuff. And again, if we can't get over the embarrassment of footnotes, well written expository text should be perfectly acceptable. They do this stuff in TV shows, people. It's ok!
I recognize that comics have gotten more sophisticated, and the writing better (at least at the mid-tier level. I'll put 80s Roger Stern or Walt Simonson up against any writers from any time period, but i'll take Hickman and Fraction over Mantlo or DeFalco). But it seems to be at the expense of some of the basics. Doesn't mean one period is better than the other but it feels like we've gained in some areas and lost in others. And we're losing sight of what's important about Marvel. It's the shared universe, stupid.
And the contempt we see for that is actually part of why there's all this rage and a lack of acceptance. I think i'd be much more accepting of the Hulk having a family or General Ross turning into a Hulk if i wasn't afraid of the implications. Marvel spent the better part of 3 decades thrashing about after the Spider-Man/Mary Jane marriage. Is there going to be a Brand New Hulk event in 5 years when the next Hulk movie comes out and marketing realizes that every character in the movie is actually a Hulk-creature in the comic? Marvel rebooted the entire Spidey-verse and then made Flash Thompson Venom? That's why people howled about Franken-Castle. Awesome concept, but it changes the character. Are we sure we're ok with that? And often you can put the toys back in the toybox; they actually did a fine job of that with Punisher. But it's going to be pretty difficult to retcon away the Hulk's children, and it's going to be pretty difficult to believe that Ross can go back to generic Hulk hunting when this is all over.
I'm ok with - i prefer - the change. Preferably when it's lasting, but i'm even ok with the illusion of change that began (per Chris Tolworthy's mad-genius rantings) post-Shooter. It's when something can get ignored and rebooted just because a writer has a "great" idea, or to mesh better with some other media, that scares me.
What we really need here, and i'll try to wrap this up because i have a headache, is a bit of two-way acceptance. Marvel needs to come to grips with the fact that they've currently got about 100,000 readers, which is not a lot, but it's potentially a great fanatical fan base that can create mass success ala the Avengers movie. SuperMegaCo-Host Min was reading the latest Avengers vs. X-Men comic the other day in a public place and someone went up to her and said "Hey, is that any good? I used to read Marvel comics..." and she said "Nah, it sucks." (paraphrasing). I would've done the same. So yeah, Marvel's got 100,000 readers, but they're just as likely to badmouth as promote. Not a good situation. Most companies try to keep their current clients happy while expanding their market presence. When you're losing clients, you need to do some damage control. Marvel sometimes seems like it's at war with its readers. Throw us a bone. Acknowledge the importance of the shared universe and work to preserve it. No more Brand New Days. Don't give us a heart attack announcing "soft reboots". Try to figure out in advance where your tie-ins fit with the main crossover, and tell us. Stop fighting with us.
Oh, and get organized. There one more thing i wanted to bring up. If you check out The Hurting's thoughts on AvX, you will find this:
But you can't say that AvX is in any way arbitrary or unplanned: they've fairly clearly been planting the seeds for this story since somewhere around 2004. I believe them completely that this story has been brewing for almost a decade. The same people in charge of Marvel then are the same people in charge now; the same people writing AvX are the people who wrote all the other stories that fed into this one; and - at least on paper - this does actually appear to be the culmination of almost a decades' worth of event storytelling. But in actuality - well, yeah, this does read like the kind of story that they've been building to since 2004, in that it is so clearly a set of bullet points put together to clear out eight years' worth of dead-wood continuity problems.
I agree. In retrospect it does feel like there has been some uber-theme that's been building since Disassembled and/or House of M. And if so, i'm pretty excited about Marvel NOW! because it means a change in direction, finally. But the key here is that it only looks like there's a theme if you look at the big event level. House of M, Civil War, World War Hulk, Secret Invasion -> Dark Reign, etc. is all this building of a militarized super-hero force alongside a de-populated mutant minority, and at 10,000 feet that's an interesting story culminating in AvX. And it's a Marvel Universe size story. I should be thrilled! But in practice, at the individual level, character motivations are weakly defined and change from story to story without development, seemingly to fit the needs of the issue's plot, and it just hasn't been working. Reading that quote from The Hurting put me in mind of a story Friend Wanyas has relayed to me several times, that John Byrne has said that he and Claremont would get to talking on the phone about X-Men plots, and then the next thing he knew Claremont would be scripting stuff as if those plots had already happened. No idea if that's true, but it almost sounds like the same thing as what's going on here. The Marvel "Architects" get together and plan out the story beats at a macro level, and then go off and write their individual books and assume that the overall story is being taken care of, but it isn't. Someone needs to own that.
But going back to my two-way acceptance paragraph before i went down the Hurting tangent, fans need to make some compromises too. Give Marvel the benefit of the doubt when there's a mistake. Accept that we're a dying niche market, and that means higher prices, double-shipping popular titles, re-numberings, variant covers, and other gimmicks to keep books alive. And note that Marvel is reacting to fan criticism and experimenting with stuff. Avengers vs. X-Men has less tie-ins and supplementary mini-series than previous events (it's true!). And is this writing-by-committee approach on AvX an attempt to fix the uber-story coordination problem? It's not working - it might just be too late in this case - but we should acknowledge that they're trying something different. And i am personally committing to doing less bad-mouthing and pre-judging.
If nothing else, can we at least agree that the recent Captain Vegan appearances must have been a Skrull? Honey comes from bees; it's not vegan.