May 2018 will see the release of Invincible Iron Man #600, the final Marvel comic to be written by Brian Bendis before he takes up a new role helming DC Comics' Superman. Since his first Marvel work was published with the release of Ultimate Spider-Man #1 in 2000, Bendis has been at the heart of Marvel. Writing almost every major character, he helped shape the Ultimate Universe, redefined the Avengers and has been the guiding hand behind numerous line-wide crossovers.
Yet the departure of Bendis is about more than the legacy of one man; it signifies the end of an era for Marvel, one that saw familiar concepts upended, often drastic changes to the comics, and the emergence of the crossover as King. Three of the four architects behind this Marvel revolution - Mark Millar, Axel Alonso and Bill Jemas - have left the company (Joe Quesada remains on, and is taking an active role in the current 'fresh start' initiative), with the departure of Bendis seemingly marking the end of this eventful chapter in Marvel's history. Yet the decisions of these men helped shape the Marvel that fans know today, both for better and for worse, with Bendis and Millar being key players in this transformation.
With the Marvel of 2018 firmly established as a multimedia colossus, it's sometimes hard to remember that only twenty years ago, things were very different. The Marvel of the late '90s may have seen the release of some great comics but behind the scenes the company faced editorial and executive conflict, with investors fighting over the company and the threat of bankruptcy in the air. On the comic side of things, the Heroes Reborn experiment of 1996-1997 saw Marvel outsource many of its classic heroes to the care of Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld, but neither sales nor critical acclaim were what Marvel had hoped for.
A more successful endeavor - certainly in the creative sense - was the launch of the 'Marvel Knights' line in 1998. Learning from its mistakes, Marvel again placed key titles under the direction of new creators (in this case Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti), but this time kept the characters within the body of the Marvel universe. The resulting comics were a great success, praised for both their impressive sales figures and the caliber of their creators. Kevin Smith writing Daredevil captured mainstream attention, while both Black Panther and Inhumans were praised for their quality.
Quesada's subsequent elevation to Marvel's Editor-In-Chief saw him form a close partnership with Marvel's vice-president, the outspoken Bill Jemas. Together the two men had a good cop-bad cop relationship that often saw them thinking outside the box and challenging comic book orthodoxy. One of their most significant moves was the establishment of the Ultimate Marvel line. For generations of fans, the involved continuity of Marvel's heroes was part of their charm, but new readers could find themselves confused by complex backstories and tangled relationships.
The Ultimate line was different. Aimed at new readers, the titles were designed to be accessible and remove the fear-factor of decades of complex continuity. They would feature recognizable characters and concepts, but reimagined for a new reader and - hopefully - a wider readership. It was therefore fitting that the task of launching the first Ultimate titles, Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimate X-Men, went not to established Marvel writers but to two left-field choices: Brian Bendis and Mark Millar.