Thursday, July 21, 2005

You Know You Act All Roman, man, When You're In Rome

I’ll be honest; the news that Joe Quesada has signed a new “multi-year” contract that not only keeps him as Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief, but also the Chief Creative Officer of Publishing, saddens me. And not, really, because of any personal reason – It’s not as if I am so upset that Daredevil: Father is running late that I feel as if he should lose his job, as some do. No, my sadness comes from a much more pathetic place. The fact that Quesada is staying on ruins my romantic ideal that his would be a classic Rise And Fall Of story.

Tom Spurgeon, the internet’s Comics Reporter, commented on the reasons why the move by Marvel was a wise one:

“For my part, I'll tell you I think it's a good idea and the announcement at a good time. Marvel is being hit by the first wave in what should be a sustained assault of 24-36 months on its traditional direct market dominance by rival DC Comics; it makes sense for the top spot to be secure in order to better negotiate choppy waters ahead, and I've never sensed that the mainstream creative community has lost any desire to work with Quesada.”

All of that is well and good… and perhaps more importantly, probably true. But nonetheless, where does it leave my idea that, were Quesada to have left Marvel next month, five years after he took the position of EiC in the first place, then he would be leaving the publisher in the same place in many ways as he’d found it? Some people are so insensitive to my greatest ideas, I’m telling you.

Of course, Marvel today is in many ways different from the Marvel of early 2000. It’s probably much healthier, creatively – definitely financially, which is more than likely the main reason why Quesada was offered the new, long term, contract – but nonetheless, I get the strangest sense of déjà vu. Marvel today seems overly reliant on “events”, crossover books inclusive of the majority of their line (which is not to say that DC aren’t, before anyone complains; interestingly enough, I’ve noticed that that’s many Marvel fans’ reaction to the suggestion that Marvel’s move back towards tight cross-continuity and crossovers is a bad thing: “DC are just as bad!” Well, yes, but I’m not sure whether that actually means anything, in the long run). Their hit books are becoming more reliant on variant covers – New Avengers having had one for each issue of its run so far, and House of M having one for the entirety of its run – despite the Editor in Chief repeatedly complaining that he doesn’t like them but what can he do (If you’re in charge of the biggest publisher in the industry and you can’t use that power with retailer, distributors and fans to try and effect some change, then we really might be in some trouble. But that’s just my take on the situation). And, and this is perhaps the most important factor in my “it’s 1999 all over again” feeling, Marvel has lost the buzz. Despite all manner of desperate attempts to try and get people excited about their books – something that might break the internet in half, after all – there’s been a noticeable shift in fan favoritism towards DC in the last year or so, something that’s now beginning to show up in shifting market share. The fans – not the hardcore Marvel Zombies, but the larger, more picky fanbase – seem to be slowly deciding that Marvel is growing more and more dull, and maybe it’s time to look at what this whole Infinite Crisis thing is about.

That said, there is an argument to support the idea that Marvel is growing more and more dull. Or, at least, that Marvel has lost its nerve. These days, it feels as if the publisher is trying to court their core fanbase more than anything – the zeitgeist within the superhero books has been to move back to the familiar, whether it be the X-Men being put back into superhero costumes, bringing back long-dead fan favorite characters (this year, we’ll have seen Colossus, Bucky, Uncle Ben, Gwen Stacy and Hawkeye all back in one form or other) or going over old storylines and themes all over again. The creative talent pool at the publisher seems stagnant, reliant on the same people over and over again (Hello Brian, JMS and Mark!). The number of new book launches that aren’t derivative of existing characters or concepts is next to zero.

Compare this to the Marvel that took shape just after Joe Quesada took over. Admittedly, he was partnered by Bill Jemas, who seemed too intent on shaking things up sometimes, but still. Marvel back then took risks, perhaps because they didn’t have any other alternative to bring the company back into profit; they hired creators who weren’t known for their Marvel work – in some cases, who weren’t known for their superhero work at all, having never done any – and gave them freedom to recreate their characters as they wanted. New imprints, like Max, Tsunami, even Epic, appeared to try and broaden their market as well as the types of books that they’d publish. The Ultimate line went out of its way to hire “edgy” writers to shape a line for new readers.

That that Marvel is, in many ways, gone is a story in itself. It’s not a new one; the alternative became the mainstream, in large part because of Marvel’s efforts to make it so. “Nu Marvel,” as it was once called, became so successful that those behind it got overconfident and lazy, and started believing their own hype too much, and started suffocating whatever fresh air had been let into the company when Quesada arrived. The edgy creators – Quesada, Bendis, Millar – became the old guard, and something to react against, instead of be excited by and follow. Losing buzz but too surrounded by their own self-confidence and fanbase (each of the three creators mentioned above have their own message boards where they interact with their fans, which gives a fascinatingly skewed idea of how the larger fanbase might perceive their ideas), they started resorting to the very tactics they’d previously complained about and tried to replace – crossovers, variant covers – to shore up their falling levels of success.

Like I said, it’s not a new story. And, if Quesada had had the good grace to quit while he was behind, it would have been the classic Rise And Fall Of story – someone goes from rebel to being swallowed by the establishment without realizing it until it’s too late – but sadly, it was not to be. Instead, we’re left with an ongoing story that, for all we know, might evolve into a stirring comeback late in the game.

Be interesting to watch, though.