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.


  1. Well, I guess that makes sense. It certainly tracks that there was a major effort to refocus the entire line to balance along the Avengers axis rather than the X-books or Spiderman. Certainly, at one point, the Avengers was a flagship book for Marvel, but that had faded during the 1990s. Of course, part of the reason for that Heroes Reborn removed several of the Avengers key players.

    For a long time, the Avengers was a team book made up of characters strong enough to support their own titles (Cap, Iron Man, Thor) and supporting characters who got renewed vigor on the team (the Beast, Wonder Man, Hawkeye, etc.). The Avengers was the linchpin of the entire Marvel line. But over the years, the X-books titled the scales away from them...and individual titles dwarfed them.

    So it doesn't surprise me that a post-bankruptcy Marvel was looking to releverage their core title back into the mainstream, especially on the success of Spiderman and X2. I'm just not sure I think they did that great of a job...but sales disagree with my assessment.

  2. I'm not sure that its correct to view all this through the prism of Heroes Reborn or the Marvel bankruptcy, which after all both ended in the late-90s. The Avengers books did not become Marvel's most successful line until at least 2004.

    Marvel did put renewed resources behind the Avengers titles after HR, but they were never really consistent bestsellers for the company, as the X-Men and Ultimate books eventually were. I think Brevoort's memo highlights the fact that by early 2004 the prominence these books had regained post-Heroes Reborn had largely faded.