Friday, August 21, 2009

Marvel acquires Marvelman: Has anything like this ever worked out well before? Part 3

Go here for Part 1, and here for Part 2.

This time I hope to explain why I think that there may be opportunity costs involved in investing in these new acquisitions and that in order for them to work in their new settings these concepts must have some unique or exceptionally strong qualities that complement the existing library into which they are being placed, which unfortunately has rarely been the case.

First off: Captain Marvel/Shazam. I think it's a given at this point that the similarities between Superman and Captain Marvel are such that as long as they own both the whole "Shazam Family" will be surplus to requirements at DC.

Ive already conceded that the money DC paid to buy the Fawcett characters in the 1970s must have been paid back many times over by now by the returns from the various comics, TV shows, cartoons etc. But would the company have made that money anyway without the character?

Who can say that, without Shazam/Captain Marvel, the money that was invested to launch those products would not have been put to better use on Superman or even another, more unique DC property like say Green Lantern? DC has never lacked for concepts - surely one of them could have generated a higher return? after all none of those Shazam products were runaway successes.

Over the last year, DC has acquired the rights to three different sets of old superhero properties - the Milestone, MLJ and THUNDER Agents characters. I cant see that I see the logic in any of these moves.

The company already has an excess of characters - are these concepts so unique that they add something significantly valuable to their library? I have enjoyed stories about characters from all three lines in the past, but I think that's a testament to the work of the various creative teams rather than any unique properties inherent in these concepts.

For example, what stories can you tell about Hardware that you cannot tell with Steel instead? couldn't you use the ideas from the Shield revamp on a new version of the Americommando or one of the other many patriotic trademarks DC owns? is the THUNDER Agents such a unique concept to justify all this investment, when DC already has strong properties like Suicide Squad that they haven't been able to get right?

There has never been, to my knowledge, significant demand out there for any of these concepts to return. There may be a market for reprinting the old material, but even the acclaimed THUNDER Agents stuff has probably only a niche audience at best.

Why is Marvelman different? well chiefly because the concept continues to be in demand, independent of nostalgia. There is an aura of prestige around the whole property that comes from the caliber of talent have worked on it, making Marvelman the most credible candidate to fill the "Superman distaff" role in Marvel's catalogue. Also that quality work, by creators with proven crossover appeal, makes the potential audience for the Marvelman back catalogue wide and deep.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

There should be a "best cover" Eisner

My pick for best cover ever

Earlier this week Brian Cronin put up his latest post on comic covers at Comics Should Be Good, this time rating Marvel's October offerings. The column is always worth a read, and though I don't always agree with Cronin's selections or analysis, he consistently has an interesting angle.

But the latest piece has got me thinking - why aren't there any prominent awards out there for individual cover work? sure the Eisner's and the Harvey's have a "Best Cover Artist" category but that's not really the same thing - it rewards the totality of an artists' work over the year, not any single piece by them. There are plenty of awards for individual achievement in internal story work - why not for covers?

It seems to me that the most positive effect of such awards is to encourage the improvement of the general standard of work in the industry - giving out specific awards for good covers would encourage artists to create more ambitious pieces by giving them specific guidance as to what quality work looks like. "Cover artist of the Year" already kinda does that but it seems to me that the effects are pretty diffuse. Making it specific would focus the effect much more.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Friday Capsule Reviews - 14 August 2009

Blackest Night #2
Two issues in and I can't say that I'm particularly into the set-up of this series yet - all the revived heroes are uniformly and blandly evil - I don't see where the drama comes from having them interact with the regular characters. Also Geoff Johns has a lot of skill, but lately he seems to have become enamored with clever- clever bursts of dialogue that really seem forced. The previous issue had characters saying things like "Jean did something I've never seen anyone do in all my years with the League - she made the Atom feel small" and "the fastest man alive does something I haven't seen him he do since he's been back - he sits down" - uggh!. In small doses that sort of thing can be effective, but when it is done repeatedly in one issue (and on two consecutive pages like those quotes) it wears thin fast. This issue has a scene with Barbara and Jim Gordon that is filled with such contrived, cutesy dialogue. The art by Ivan Reis is a revelation though - detailed and flashy - he has outgrown the overpowering Alan Davis influence that was present in his earlier work.

The Marvels Project #1
Great stuff. I am a bit wary of the new "secrets" (i.e. retcons) Brubaker is set to reveal in this series but on the strength of this issue he has certainly earned my trust. All the new ties that he sets up between these characters seem natural and unforced. I love the use of the Two-Gun Kid - of course he would go back to his own time to die, bringing news of the future with him. He also serves as a nice link between the three major Marvel Comics historical eras (western, golden age and modern day). The original Angel is certainly getting a lot of attention at the moment (with this story and the recent X-Men: Noir) and I like the sympathetic depiction of him here. It seems he is going to be the central protagonist of this series and that's fine with me, though I hope that the whole "Scourge" thing that Mark Gruenwald set-up with the character is not completely ignored. Epting's art is amazing - he seems to have taken another quantum leap in the quality of his work. If all involved keep to this high standard for the remainder of the series it could be a classic.

The Walking Dead #64
I just finished reading Cormac MacCarthy's The Road and it's amazing to me how similar some of the themes are in this comic, especially at the moment with the cannibalism storyline. I'd definitely recommend the book to fans of this title. Anyway, this is another solid issue as the fallout from Dale's disappearance is played out and the threat from the hunters starts to materialise. The free inclusion of first issue of Viking makes this a pretty attractive package, though that comic is not as strong as last issue's Chew #1.

Ultimate Comics: Avengers #1
The first two pages are pretty cute, as Nick Fury's reaction is a clever nod towards the fact that Millar himself is also just returning to the devastated (in more ways than one) Ultimate Universe. And this issue is a testament to Millar's skills - a tightly written and well executed plot with some spectacular set pieces. It's a light read, but exactly the sort of "widescreen" story that the Ultimate line should be doing.

Uncanny X-Men #514
This Utopia crossover seems to be finally coming together as Cyclops starts to implement his plan. It's basically a lot of vague set-up, so although the developments in this issue seem promising, the payoff could still prove disappointing. There are some nice little touches here though - like the pithy description of Psylocke ("long story") and Illyanna's comment on meeting the still secret X-Force team ("do you guys, uh, work together a lot or something?"). Solid stuff.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Retro Reviews: What If? Volume 2 #13

Cover by Jim Lee

Okay this may become a semi-regular feature where I talk about individual comics stories that, for whatever reason, have left a big impression on me.

First off is May 1990’s What If? Volume 2 #13 “What if Professor X had become the Juggernaut?” by writer Kurt Busiek, penciller Vince Mielcarek and inkers Ian Akin and Brian Garvey. A great story that I think still holds up well today.

But my take on this may be seriously skewed by my experiences with the comic. This was one of the first books that I ever bought. I was eleven years old when the issue came out and had only recently discovered my local comic shop. I bought a batch of comics on that trip and this issue in particular fascinated me and - more than any of the comics I bought during that period – made me come back for more.

The turning point

Here is a very basic outline of the story: in this world Charles Xavier grabs the Cyttorak gem and is transformed into the Juggernaut (in the original story his step-brother, Cain Marko, had done this). He is buried alive in a cave-in, but over many years he climbs his way out. Embittered by this experience and gifted with his Juggernaut powers as well as his own psychic abilities Xavier quickly takes over the world.

Scott Summers (aka Cyclops) is initially one of Xavier’s lieutenants, but he becomes disillusioned with the abuse that regular humans suffer at the hands of the new mutant overclass. He takes a group of fellow mutants (Jean Grey, Colossus, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver) and working with Magneto they lure Xavier in to a trap and remove him from power.

I bought a lot of comics on that early trip to the comic shop, but this one definitely stood out. The scope of the story, its dynamic artwork, strong characterisation and elegant resolution – all hooked me in strongly.

Two of Mielcarek's redesigns - Thunderbird and The Angel

I remember my mother – anxious about my new fascination comics – actually picked out this issue from the batch and gave it a read to make sure these "comic book" things were suitable reading material. I’m not sure that she got through the whole thing, but I remember her saying that she was impressed by the lofty tone of the first few pages. To me that was high praise coming from someone who hated most fantasy fiction and it made me read the story with extra care.

These days you often hear critics complaining about the inaccessibility of comics, how lots of characters and continuity alienate and confuse new readers. That certainly has never applied to me – I was always fascinated by the deep texture of these stories – how many of these concepts had rich histories and hidden relationships to one another that were only hinted at at first. I guess it amplifies the escapist quality that I most appreciate in comics. This issue is full of that stuff, all done subtly and thoughtfully.

For instance, in the panel below I was fascinated by all the bright costumes and different styles. It was clear to me that these were not original inventions – each one had a unique importance and history that I was dying to know more about and understand.

In anticipation of writing this post I recently asked Kurt Busiek a number of detailed questions about this obscure story and, to his enormous credit, he took the time to answer them in detail. You can read the full exchange here, but I want to touch on a few interesting points.

Originally the plot of the story was completely different with the Xavier Juggernaut becoming a heroic figure. The editor of the book demanded some changes that severely weakened that plot though, so Busiek “replotted it completely at the eleventh hour, because the editorial changes wouldn't leave anything worthwhile in the story, and submitted virtually a completely different story. The new story was approved with no changes, and that's what Vince drew, but it was the result of maybe a day and a half's concentrated work after the other version had run into difficulties.” It seems amazing to me that a story I admire so much could have been put together so fast.

The penciller of this issue was Vince Mielcarek, a Marvel bullpenner who tragically died at the age of 28 shortly after this issue was published. I think that he would have had a long career in the industry if he had lived – he had a lot of talent – a strong storytelling instinct and a fluid, dynamic style. Apparently, at one point Busiek pitched a Luke Cage/Power Man series with him which unfortunately didn't get approved.

In this issue, Mielcarek manages to tell a packed story and still leave space for arresting images like the one opposite. He also did extensive costume redesigns for several of the characters in the story. It was Busiek’s suggestion that “if Magneto had been in charge, the costumes should look like the kind of mitteleuropean comic-opera stuff the original Brotherhood of Evil Mutants wore, not the straight superhero jumpsuits Xavier designed”. Mielcarek ran with the concept and created thoughtful and original new looks for characters like Thunderbird, Cyclops, Jean Grey and the Angel.

One other point which Busiek makes is that Wolverine’s absence from the story was not an issue when the story was approved in 1990. It’s interesting that, though he was already very popular in 1990 the character had not yet attained the status that he currently enjoys. The idea that such an expansive X-Men story could be told today without at least acknowledging Wolverine’s existence is crazy and, I think, a shame as he would not have added anything to the story and probably would have only detracted from its quality had he been included.

This has been a really long post, so I’ll end with the final panel from the story. It left a big impression on me – to my eyes it was an iconic image that lent extra weight to the open and somewhat melancholic ending of the story. It left me desperately wanting to know more – about these characters and about what happens next – something all comics should aspire to do.

Some Quick Hits

  • Rich Johnston seems to confirm my story that Bendis is writing Dark Siege. He thinks that Oliver Coipel is on art and that the story involves an exploration of the relationship between gods and men.
  • On a similar theme, Warren Ellis has announced his latest project from Avatar: Supergod. What a fantastic title – I’m amazed no one has used it before. I love the tag line “the man in the sky is not coming to save you”. It’s an ambitious and not wholly original angle to explore (see above) but I trust that Ellis has the right sensibilities for this type of thing. He has me on the hook for the first issue anyway.
  • Walking Dead as an AMC series? best news of the year as far as I am concerned. The comic is my favourite thing being published today and AMC’s Mad Men is the best TV series currently being produced (and new episodes of both come out this week!). Although it's still basic cable, AMC seems to be trying to become a “premium” brand so hopefully their instincts are to turn the series into a quality drama rather than appealing to the “gore” audience such zombie projects usually attract. I also hope that Kirkman stays involved in the project throughout its development - I'd hate to see the concept watered down or changed too much.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Jim Shooter Should Hire John Byrne For The Gold Key Revival

Yesterday’s post about Valiant Comics got me thinking about the recent announcement that Jim Shooter will be overseeing Dark Horse Comics' revival of the Gold Key characters that include Magnus, Solar and Turok.

I think it’s a smart move on Dark Horse’s part. The superhero genre is a gap in the market for the publisher, Shooter is a talented editor, these characters have been successful in the past and pairing Shooter with them again was a splashy announcement.

Shooter has said that he hopes to write much of the material in these revivals himself. Leaving aside the question of whether this is a good idea (his recent return to Legion of Super-Heroes would seem to suggest it is not) it seems clear that Shooter’s biggest job will be to act as the editorial director of the revival and to assign talent.

I think this is also where his strengths currently lie as a creator. Shooter has had enormous success in the past with “world-building” via tight editorial direction. This is a controversial way to produce comics and not all talent responds well to it, but when it works it can work out very well, as Shooter’s past successes at Marvel and Valiant can attest.

So who could Shooter recruit to work with him this time out? At his last two attempts at this sort of thing – Defiant and Broadway, Shooter relied on finding new talent like David Lapham to produce his books and he may go that way again. Certainly Dark Horse already has access to a stable of talented new creators who work on their various other titles.

But I think one of the major reasons that Valiant was a success (and perhaps that Defiant and Broadway met with less immediate popularity) was that he had a big name creator working with him. Barry Windsor-Smith had only rarely produced regular comics work before he began to contribute to Valiant, and the cache of having him on board brought the publisher extra attention and sales.

Windsor-Smith seems unlikely to be interested in returning once again to the monthly grind, so is there any other big name talent out there who might be both suitable and available? To me one name comes to mind immediately - John Byrne.

(The above John Byrne art is a recent private commisission for Christos Seros that I first saw here)

Byrne is a massively under-utilised talent at the moment. He is probably one of the most popular and successful super-hero comics creators of the last 30 years but at present he is stuck producing comics based on various science fictionand fantasy television series for IDW comics. His has had mixed fortunes with his work recently, but the image above shows that he still has the chops to produce quality super-hero work.

I have no idea how realistic this idea is. It is very possible, given the two people involved, that Byrne and Shooter hate each other’s guts and would never voluntarily work together again. But I am convinced that the pairing would make a lot of sense – Shooter needs the solid talent and the publicity boost that Byrne would provide while Byrne gets access to the type of established superhero properties he has done his most popular work with in the past.

It may seem counter-intuitive – Byrne is one of the most difficult personalities in comics and Shooter is reputed to be one of the most controlling editors – but I think these qualities may actually complement each other. Remember that Byrne’s biggest successes (on Uncanny X-Men and Fantastic Four) came at Marvel in the 1980s when Shooter ran the show.

Obviously I like this idea, but I know it’s only a remote possibility. If he has considered the idea at all, I imagine Shooter dismissed it out of hand as not worth the risk or effort involved. It will be interesting to see what he comes up with nonetheless.

Update: John Byrne has responded to this notion in his forum:

"Jim Shooter + Me = Hell Freezing Over"
Pretty succinct I think.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Marvel acquires Marvelman: Has anything like this ever worked out well before? Part 2

Go here for Part 1.

So if they never really work out for the characters how do I explain the fact that these acquisitions continue to happen?

In a few of these cases there have been obvious reasons for these sales that have little to do with getting access to the intellectual property involved. It's well known that the main motivation for Marvel's acquisition of Malibu and, to a lesser extent, DC's of Wildstorm was to the acquire the sophisticated coloring departments both companies possessed.

Wildstorm also had exclusive contracts with arguably the two biggest creators in the business - Jim Lee and Alan Moore - and DC hoped to make use of those relationships. The other big benefit for Marvel and DC in buying Malibu and Wildstorm was that it immediately increased their market share by taking a potential competitor out of the marketplace.

It is this second, somewhat controversial motivation that I think explains why so many other properties have been bought up by the big two. Buying these characters removes the possibility that another competitor will figure out a way to utilise and disrupt the marketplace.

Valiant is an example of just that happening. Jim Shooter set-up this company in the early 1990s using a bunch of nearly-forgotten characters from 1960s Western/Gold Key Comics to launch his new line of comics. With solid production values and the full resources of a talented editorial and promotional team behind them, the company took off and quickly became one of the biggest comics publishers in the country.

Their success was brief, and in part based on peculiar market conditions of the time, but the example is as stark reminder of the potential disruptive power of new comic company using old concepts in a focused and well promoted manner. If Valiant had only been an imprint of a larger company I don't think it would have been anywhere near as successful, just remember Shooter's earlier attempt to a launch a new superhero line - his failed "New Universe" project at Marvel.

It is for this "spoiler" reason of wanting to block potential competition that I think DC may be kicking itself now that it didn't actively pursue Marvelman. The character probably wouldn't add a huge amount to DC, but he has the potential to help Marvel enormously in areas that DC traditionally dominates.

In part 3 I'll go into the opportunity costs inherent in buying and promoting these new acquisitions and explore the most obvious benefit these companies see in buying the rights to old properties - the idea that these new characters will add value to their pre-existing catalogues -and explain why I think that, except in rare cases (like Marvelman), this is usually a mistake.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Friday Capsule Reviews

Some minor spoilers follow ...

Amazing Spider-Man #601
So, in this issue Pete gets drunk and (apparently) has a one night stand? I'm guessing that some fans will be outraged by all this, but I honestly like it. It's realistic and the whole thing is dealt with in a light manner. I'm not sure how the writers can use MJ practically, especially if she remembers the whole spider-marriage (we find out here that she at least still knows that Pete is Spidey). Mario Alberti's art is nice - kind of like Tim Sale on steroids. The Bendis /Quesada back-up is neat enough - I think the use of old Ditko art is a cute if not a terribly original trick. I'm not so hot on what Bendis seems to be setting up though - Alias was one of my favorite series from the last 10 years and I think Jessica Jones works best as a jaded former superhero rather than just another costume.

Captain America: Reborn #2
I can't help but feel a sense of deja-vu this issue. The whole "Cap reliving past battles" plot was also a big part of Brubaker's early Cap issues. Anyway, this issue is well done, with nice Hitch/ Guice art - it's amazing how similar their styles actually are. I'm enjoying the current depiction of Norman Osborn throughout the Marvel Universe as some sort of polished Bush-era political megalomaniac, but it seems a bit of a stretch to me that he would think it was a good idea to try and work with a nazi like the Red Skull.

Captain Britain And MI13 #15
A great final issue that ends the Vampire State story on a high note. I was only a mild fan of this series up until this arc, but I think that Cornell really hit gold with his use of Dracula as a racist, military-minded super-villain, and I hope to see the character used in that vein again. The surprise guest-stars are also a treat - hopefully at some point in the future Cornell will work on a project that can make use of them again.

House of M: Masters of Evil #1
I am a big fan of Christos Gage and I loved the original House of M: Avengers mini-series, but this issue left me pretty cold. It's just that the set-up here is not sufficiently different to what's going on in the main Marvel Universe - the Hood basically has the same gang doing the same things in numerous other books. There are hints at the end that Gage is going to explore a different angle - the Hood becoming a popular figure among humans chafing under mutant dominance, but its really not enough of a hook to get me excited at this point. The art by Manuel Garcia is pretty good though.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Marvel acquires Marvelman: Has anything like this ever worked out well before? Part 1

Here's my take on this: no, nothing like this has ever really worked out perfectly in the past. There is a long history of the two biggest comics publishers acquiring the rights to other company's characters and failing to fully exploit the potential of those properties. Once acquired, the characters never manage to regain the heights of popularity they enjoyed at the peak of their success at other publishers.

The one possible exception I can think of is the 1944 merger of Detective Comics and All-American Publications which united Detective's characters like Batman and Superman with All-American's properties such as Green Lantern, Flash and Wonder Woman to form National Comics (which eventually changed its name to DC). That merger has obviously been an unqualified success for both companies' characters. I'm not sure that it really qualifies for what I'm talking about here though, as it wasn't technically an acquisition and both companies had never really been separate entities anyway.

Probably the biggest and most successful acquisition of the type I'm talking about has been the sale of the Fawcett Comics library (basically the "Captain Marvel/Shazam" characters) to DC Comics. DC has probably made their initial investment back many times over since they bought those characters in the 1970s. There have been numerous comic series, a TV show, an animated series and even plans for a big screen movie featuring the characters.

However, whatever success the property has had at DC pales in comparison to the popularity that the various Captain Marvel series enjoyed in their heyday in the 1940s, when the character was the most popular superhero in America, outselling even Superman, who was also at his peak at the time. At DC, Captain Marvel has never been more than a mediocre success, a property given a third rate priority by the company.

Since then DC has acquired lots of other libraries of characters including the Quality, Charlton and Wildstorm Comics heroes. Though these concepts have had periodic upsurges in visibility, all these acquisitions have followed the same pattern of fading popularity post-sale, as DC focuses its resources on promoting the Detective/All-American stable of characters.

Marvel has been down the same road, buying Malibu Comics in 1994 and then being so derelict in managing their "Ultraverse" characters that they are now unusable, victims of arcane rights issues that were triggered by Marvel's negligence in not producing new material featuring the concepts.

So if never works out, why do comics companies keep doing it? what are DC thinking in acquiring the rights to the MLJ, Milestone and THUNDER Agents characters - all in the space of the last year? and why do I think that Marvelman could be an exception to all this?

In the next few days I hope to post part two where I explain some of my theories!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Capsule Reviews For Last Week's Comics

In the future I hope to do these earlier in the week, but anyway...

Marvel Zombies 4 #4
The series ends on somewhat of a whimper, as the zombie virus is defeated too quickly and easily for my tastes. I really enjoyed the series overall though, and Van Lente did a great job using some obscure characters and making them seem pretty cool (the Piranha Men in #1 were a highlight for me). I guess I would definitely read a Midnight Sons series by this team.

New Avengers #55
Yeaaaah Immonen!!! Ive been a fan of this guy since he started out ages ago on Legion of Super-Heroes and he is just what this series needed. Clear, fluid and attractive storytelling with each character in the large cast looking different and dynamic. The trouble within the Hood's crew is a good hook and a long overdue development given some of the guys involved. I like the fact that the fallout from Clint's media war with Osborn continues to boil over, but I have to say that the character's murderous intentions are pretty out of sync with past depictions.

Justice Society of America #29
A pretty standard set-up issue. I love Fables so I'm hoping that this new team are a success, but going on this issue alone I'm not hugely confident that the book will take off. It just needs something extra, a bit more pizazz and a little less exposition.

Thunderbolts #134
I have been pretty disappointed in Diggle's stint on this book. I had high expectations due to his work on The Losers, and while it started promisingly, this run was derailed by the awful Deadpool crossover and hasn't been able to recover since. This issue is okay, but nothing spectacular. Here's hoping that Remender is Diggle's replacement. I have been very impressed with his work on Punisher, which has some similar themes to this book.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Newly released document illuminates Marvel’s 2004 shift in focus to the Avengers

Marvel editor Tom Brevoort recently released a “publishing strategy memo” he wrote for the Marvel Universe line (basically the various Avengers and Fantastic Four titles) in late-2003. The main body of the memo outlines his specific month-by-month plans and ideas for 2004 and is in itself pretty standard and unremarkable stuff.

However, the preamble that Brevoort attached to that information appears to be pretty significant when considered in light of the massive shift that has occurred at Marvel in the interim since the memo was written. The memo was written at the request of Marvel’s new management and Brevoort makes a bold appeal to them that they focus their resources and promotion on his books:

The mainline Marvel U imprint is, I feel, the toughest to manage at this point. There's a specific cache, both in sales and prestige, that comes with the Ultimate or Marvel Knights labels. And X-Men is just X-Men, a sales juggernaut for thirty years. But the mainstream Marvel books, while they form the core of our business, have ended up by virtue of these other initiatives over the past few years as the vanilla of our line. As such, they're at a promotional disadvantage to everything else--Ultimate Hawkeye or Marvel Knights Hawkeye is almost certain to open better than plain old Hawkeye.

Atop that, we've tended to make this a self-fulfilling prophesy in terms of our allocation of talent and resources over the past few years. We've positioned most of our key creators elsewhere, trusting to these books to somewhat take care of themselves. And then, as the sales decay curve increased, there developed a resistance to allocating too much A & E against these titles…

I think that the message that we need to send this year both through content and through our promotional efforts is that the MU is The Real Deal. It's Coke Classic. It's the characters our competitors wish they owned in the shared universe they endlessly try to emulate, done by the best guys in the business. It's not old, it's not irrelevant, it's not tarnished--it's as vibrant and involving a place to immerse yourself as its ever been. This is the backbone of our publishing program, the standard bearer that you skew away from to get an edgy Marvel Knights book or a modernized Ultimate title. Because the Marvel Universe isn't an imprint--it's the whole ball of wax.

At the time that this memo was written the Marvel Universe line, and the Avengers books in particular, were probably going through their most difficult period since they were relaunched in 1997 following the “Heroes Reborn” fiasco. The period in question was certainly the nadir of Brevoort's career as a major group-editor.

The sales and creative situation on just about every book was pretty bad. Kurt Busiek's stint as Avengers writer was long over by this point and Geoff Johns’ run, which Brevoort had personally promoted heavily, had just been severely curtailed by Johns’ exclusive contract with DC. Chuck Austen was the title's next scheduled writer and the fan reaction to his appointment had ranged from apathy to extreme hostility.

The Thor title was in the last gasps of Dan Jurgens’ long run and the acclaim and fan attention was long gone by that point. Captain America had recently been removed from the line and relaunched as a Marvel Knights series, with Brevoort's office launching a secondary Cap title – Captain America and the Falcon by Christopher Priest and Bart Sears - that was a sales disaster from the outset. Iron Man too was in the doldrums creatively and commercially.

Fantastic Four had just emerged from a traumatic period during which Brevoort’s preferred creative team (Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo) had been fired and then rehired by upper management. The battle involved had been a difficult one, played out in public in the comics press and the fallout from it probably contributed to Marvel publisher Bill Jemas' departure from the company. The whole debacle clearly left no-one unscarred and Waid and Wieringo's return was a shortlived one.

The specifics of Brevoort’s planning memo give further detail as to how desperate the situation was in this corner of Marvel’s publishing line at that time. Any plans involving newly launched titles include provisos acknowledging the possibility of imminent cancellation. Indeed only one of Brevoort’s titles from that period survives today in the incarnation it was in then (Fantastic Four) – and only four of the fourteen other ongoing books listed have direct analogues being published today (Avengers, Thor, Iron Man and Spectacular Spider-Man).

However, shortly after this document was written a massive shift occurred. Marvel assigned its highest profile creator – Brian Bendis – to write Avengers and relentlessly promoted his “Avengers Disassembled” arc. All the major Avengers titles were then relaunched with high-calibre creative teams – Brubaker and Epting on Captain America, Ellis and Granov on Iron Man and Bendis and Finch on New Avengers.

The shift of focus is most clearly represented in the line-up that was made available to Bendis on New Avengers, which included for the first time both Spider-Man and Wolverine, the company’s most popular characters. These characters were also the main attractions of the company’s two other, previously more successful, lines of comics set in the Marvel Universe: the X-Men and Spider-Man imprints. The regular inclusion of these characters in New Avengers may have cost those books some of their unique drawing power, but clearly the decision was made that the new title’s success was more important than such concerns.

Obviously, other factors beyond the advocacy of this document may have factored into Marvel's decision to shift their focus so dramatically. Marvel's plans to develop their own movie properties also began to gather pace around 2004. With the X-Men, Spider-Man and FF movie rights controlled by other studios, the company naturally began to focus their internal resources on promoting those properties whose exploitation they stood to benefit the most from.

But, if nothing else this document highlights Brevoort’s key role in managing this shift in focus successfully. The strategy he outlined – focusing talent and promotion on these previously neglected books even if it came at the expense of other, previously more popular lines – has led the various Avengers titles to become industry bestsellers and to other major successes such as Civil War, The Death of Captain America and Dark Reign.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Some quick hits

I don't have time to do a proper post today so here are a few short items:
  • Rich Johnston does an update on the Marvelman situation, and what the positions of the various rights holders may be.
  • Commenter TJ Burns at the Avengers board points out that in addition to the character's appearance as "Miracleman" in Captain Britain, Marvelman was mentioned by name in Warren Ellis' Druid miniseries in the early 90s.
  • In the comments of my post calling for Con webcasts, Chip pointed out that DC Comics has posted several long audio recordings of their panels at their website (you have to scroll down to the podcast section to find them though).
  • And finally, just because I am in love with new Daft Punk track playing in the background, here is the big Tron: Legacy Lightcycle reveal, also from Comic Con: