Occasionally, a cover comes along that just perfectly summarizes the direction the comic market is going oh so perfectly.
Case in point, Marvel and this week’s cover to West Coast Avengers #1.
Let’s look at the characters on that scooter, real quick:
Hawkeye (Kate Bishop) = Solo Title – Cancelled – Last Issue 3/7/18
Gwenpool = Solo Title – Cancelled – Last Issue 2/28/18
America Chavez = Solo Title – Cancelled – Last Issue 2/28/18
Quentin Quire = Team Series (Generation X) – Cancelled – Last issue 2/21/18
Fuse = Brand new to the series, was also in Kate Bishop’s solo series (?)
So, aside from Clint Barton, what we have are a lot of new(ish) characters that over the last two years or so were given solo titles (or in the case of Quentin, involvement in a more unique team) as an attempt to provide more diversity in the roster. This move was definitely not without its controversy, many people claiming Marvel was just pandering and not giving readers what they actually wanted, while others lamented that the diverse characters weren’t original as much as they were copies of male/white characters. Honestly, the debate still rages on today, even with Marvel’s new strategy, which, as I said, is perfectly summarized by that cover: Pack them all together somewhere so we can still used them, but get them out of the way for all the old characters people are shouting about.
The point is, 2018 has seen some harsh falls from stardom for the various gender-swapped/ age reduced/ racially re-positioned characters Marvel had put into play. Some of these moves were handled pretty well, one of my favorites being the return of normal Steve Rogers Captain America being written by Ta-Nehisi Coates. However, most of them just feel like quick flex-tape style fixes to get old characters back in the limelight. Jane Foster is no longer Thor, Laura Kinney is no longer the Wolverine, Amadeus Cho is no longer the Hulk. All of these characters have instead either stepped down “permanently” or simply adopted another title, all in the name of returning characters that either died, were depowered, or simply left the scene. They then either fade these people into obscurity (Jane), let them continue a solo title with a new name (X-23) or leave them on a team roster (Amadeus Cho and the folks above) so that they can use them at some point later when the market shifts.
And honestly…. it’s NOT a bad idea.
The reality is, nobody really truly stays dead in comics (unless of course you’re Mar-Vell). Call it story-telling or magical realism, whatever, the reason characters die and come back is summed up in one word: money. Death issues bring the sales, and resurrection issues keep the sales. There will ALWAYS be fans patiently awaiting the return of a character that’s been killed off or somehow replaced. And, to be fair, it’s not always a good idea. The death and resurrection of Superman was a damn shit show back in the 90s, and the white-bagged resurrection issue is easily one of the most overprinted comics of all time. So what exactly is marvel doing?
Well, honestly looking at something a little smaller in scope helps to clarify the strategy, so let’s look at the two recent weddings to happen in comics. Kitty Pryde was set to marry Colossus while over at DC Catwoman and Batman were finally gonna get hitched. I’ve already adequately bitched about the nonsense these two issues ended up being, but more to the point is that both these weddings were HEAVILY marketed. There was a ton of build-up spanning dozens of issues and drumming up as many sales as they could. Both wedding issues arrive, both weddings don’t happen. The reality is a single and emotionally damaged character can develop a lot more narrative than a single, settled down and happy character. It’s why the recent resurrection of Jessica Jones’s solo series had her being at odds and fighting with Luke Cage: Relationship tension drives stories. This is probably THE one thing that drives me absolutely bonkers about TV, in that stories are often drafted around splitting up otherwise happy couples just to drive tension in the fans that liked seeing them together (shout out to Wash and Zoe for breaking the mold). Essentially, both companies used romantic plots developed in the stories to heavily market one particular issue that was months away, drumming up sales in all the preparatory issues and the issue itself. The company then doesn’t commit to marriage to a) create more narrative tension and b) keep the characters true to form for the fans that prefer them that way.
Deaths in comics work much the same way. Kill a character off to drum up sales for a book or various books. Keep them dead just long enough that people begin to demand them back. Once sales start to dip, announce a resurrection in order to again build a ton of hype. Character comes back, sales of the issues are decent, and now you can take stock of what to do next.
The main issue for Marvel was that they used various deaths and depowerings as a way to approach what was at that point a concern of theirs: diversity. They wanted more female, minority and young characters to try and appeal to a wider audience. This is totally a noble course of action to take, and one that makes sense financially what with a new generation of readers coming into shops. However, as I said, this decision was not without its critics, and outcry was enough that a Marvel executive actually blamed the dip in sales in 2016 on attempts at diversity (a comment he later regretted, of course). The real reason all these new characters are an issue for Marvel is that now they are in the way as the time approaches for the old characters to return. Thus, Marvel needs to get rid of them in some regard to make room for old characters reclaiming their title. I know what you’re thinking, “why not just give the old characters a different title?” Well, because marketing and visibility will be tougher. Take the Hulk, for example. Bruce Banner came back from the dead and reclaimed a solo series called “Immortal Hulk.” Amadeus Cho was the Hulk at the time, and his series was called “Incredible Hulk” at the point of Banner’s return (blah blah Legacy), but it had previously been called “Totally Awesome Hulk.” Amadeus Cho is currently only found in The Champions, another team of young/minority/female characters who once had solo titles, and the only hulk book on the shelves is Immortal Hulk. They even moved She-Hulk out of her own solo title and onto the Avengers team. Now, when someone comes to a shop, they see one Hulk only and Marvel can ensure Banner gets sales. Same story with changing Laura Kinney’s title from “All-New Wolverine” to “X-23.” When people come into the shops looking for the word “wolverine” there will be one book to grab their attention.
At this point Marvel has two options: Eliminate the newbies or set them aside. The former seems to be the angle they’re taking in regards to the X-Men, in an aptly named crossover event called Extermination that seems like will culminate in the 5 original X-Men being either sent back to their timeline or eliminated from existence (which makes room for a resurrected Jean Grey, a no-longer-a-pariah Beast and an in control of his monstrous side Angel to return to the limelight a bit more). With all the others, the latter seems to be the direction and honestly, it’s a smart choice. Marvel wants to have their cake and eat it too. If they keep these characters popping up in team books and assisting superheroes here and there, they can keep them relevant and continue to build a fan base so that they may one day regain their solo series. However, they also get out of the way so old characters can return, and the fans that are (for whatever reason) screaming for a return of the 90s can see their characters back in action. It’s a smarter choice than a reboot or a complete washing of the past few years of story (cough rebirth). Frankly, it’s a tough market. You have readers who have been reading since the 60s or 70s, but you also have young, brand new readers who want to get into the books thanks to the movies. Both parties need to feel at home in the comics, and keeping the younger characters in their back pocket is a bright choice. However, it goes without saying that this could also be extremely terrible for the market. Returning a ton of characters (which Marvel is all about this year), undoing a bunch of stories and shifting around a ton of dynamics could have the adverse effect of scaring readers away. It’s up to Marvel to handle things well and balance their use of characters both new and old to make sure the market doesn’t get far too saturated, which honestly we are already teetering on that precipice. The hope is that Marvel will be patient and not just shift their focus every two years.
Otherwise we might get more of the 90s than people bargained for…
(comics did not have a good time in the 90s, for those unaware)