I'm hard pressed to think of a more unexpected development in superhero comics over the past half-decade or so than this: Somehow, the Avengers and Green Lantern have become the genre's biggest franchises. On a one level it's not much more complicated to explain than "Brian Bendis and Geoff Johns are very good at writing superhero comics people want to read, and their editors are very good at recognizing this and structuring their lines to support those comics." Both writers reimagined these perpetual also-ran concepts -- Bendis broke the team up, reassembled it with a mixture of Marvel superstars and personal favorites, and placed it at the center of years' worth of shadowy conspiracy storylines; Johns revived the character at the core of the concept as we know it, then cracked that concept open to reveal a sprawling sub-universe of heroes and villains that arose from the original concept in a totally intuitive way; both of their publishers crafted multiple major event comics in which these freshly popular properties took center stage.
But in Marvel's case, the newfound primacy of the Avengers was startling in that the franchise appeared to eclipse the properties that used to be Marvel's bread and butter, the X-Men and Spider-Man. Sure, Wolverine and Spidey are members of the Earth's Mightiest Heroes, and adding them to the team likely gave it that initial push to the top, but it's really the "Big Three" of Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America who've driven the Marvel Universe's meta-plot for years now. It doesn't take an omega-level intelligence to notice that these characters, and the team they've historically led, fall under the Marvel Studios movie-rights umbrella, while the Web-Slinger, the Ol' Canucklehead and company belong elsewhere.
Which leads to one of my favorite comic-book conspiracy theories: Marvel deliberately pushed the Avengers in order to boost their future movie projects, while relegating the X-Men and Spider-Man to the back seat since their movie money goes to Fox or Sony rather than the House of Ideas. It's a theory I've put before Marvel honcho Tom Brevoort myself; his response was that the franchise's success was simply the result of the company trying to get the "Marvel heroes" area of their line firing on all cylinders the way they'd previously done with their other properties. After all, while Grant Morrison and J. Michael Straczynski were jolting the X-Men and Spider-Men, and Brian Bendis and Mark Millar were taking the Ultimate line to the top, those non-mutant, non-spider, non-Ultimate characters were keeping a relatively low profile. It just so happened, goes this line of reasoning, that when Marvel did decide to get the Avengers characters up and running -- in no small part by taking Bendis' Ultimate-line heat and transferring it to the Marvel Universe proper -- they ended up being really, really good at it.
That's an eminently reasonable and plausible response, as is Brevoort's accurate contention elsewhere that they've published plenty of high-profile Spider-Man and X-Men comics since the Avengers blew up, thank you very much. But in a recent "Talk to the Hat" interview with CBR's Kiel Phegley, Brevoort goes further than I've ever seen in confirming a relationship between Marvel Studios' rights to the Avengers franchise and the concurrent rise of that franchise to the top of the sales charts. It's just not quite the nefarious, Illuminati-style relationship you might have imagined...
[Kiel Phegley: I get the feeling that those of you in the office are a bit more connected to the Marvel Studios films not just because creatively Marvel has more of an impact on them than, say, the "Spider-Man" or "X-Men" movies, but I also feel that the in house movies have seen their characters benefit from an extra spotlight in Marvel publishing the past few years. Have you guys internally said, "Since our eggs are in the Iron Man/Cap/Thor basket, let's try and ramp up those properties"?
Brevoort: Well, I don't think it's quite as simple as that. Certainly we publish a lot of X-Men comics and a lot of Spider-Man comics. The difference is that – at least in publishing – on a day-to-day basis we're not even aware of what's going on with the film production on both of those characters. I've seen the "X-Men: First Class" trailers, and I know exactly as much about it as you do. Where as with the Marvel Studios films that we're doing ourselves, we're much more actively involved on a regular basis, and so there's a little more opportunity for cross-platforming and cross-integration. A lot of that also has to do with the fact that the Marvel Creative Committee – which includes Dan [Buckley] and Joe [Quesada] and a few other folks – are involved in giving notes and feedback to Kevin Feige and his guys. So there's a more direct pipeline. Every once in a while, Brian Bendis will start talking about something in regards to an "Avengers" script, and it'll take me a few seconds to realize "Oh! He's had some previous conversation with someone who's involved with one of the films, and he's put forth an idea there that he also wants to explore in 'Avengers.'"
The immediacy of the interaction is such that it's more natural that those characters are going to come to the fore. I think regardless, if you're doing a big film with any of the characters, they're going to become bigger. And if you have a successful film as we did with "Iron Man," well then Iron Man is almost immediately going to become a much more important, much more prominent Marvel character. That's true regardless of what we do in Publishing, though I think we should certainly take advantage of that in Publishing and steer into that. As Marvel Studios gears up towards a major film, we're going to know about it, and if we're not doing a lot of stuff with the characters involved yet – though it's not like we were ever not doing stuff with Iron Man, Thor or Captain America – it's easier when we know what things are coming up to direct our efforts on them. We aim for the movie release time and make sure there's an accessible, mainstream-friendly story that's in a collection on bookstore shelves. And we make sure there's enough exposure for those characters, to help prime the pump for the film release.
So I don't think there’s any greater emphasis on the Marvel Studios characters than the ones optioned by other studios. If you look at our "Previews" catalogue, it's not like we've taken our foot off the gas on X-Men or Spider-Man. We still publish plenty of both, and we still put the same kind of resources against those books as we do Iron Man or Thor. Those characters matter to us. It's just a little easier to get behind Iron Man or Cap or the Avengers because we know more about what's going on on the film side. More of us have read the script or seen the production designs, and that tends to get people excited about the possibilities.
As you can see, Brevoort characterizes the link between the fortunes of the Avengers film franchise(s) and their comic-book counterparts as one of convenience rather than conscious effort: Many of the same people are involved in both mediums via the Creative Committee, so there's a free flow of ideas and information there that simply doesn't exist between, say, the X-office and the producers of First Class, a flow that naturally creates a "rising tide lifts all boats" scenario between film and funnybook.
Brevoort goes on to note several complicating factors. For one thing, Marvel's ability to make superstars out of its C-listers remains untested: Thor and Iron Man may not be Wolverine and Spider-Man, but nor are they Ant-Man or Cloak & Dagger. For another, Marvel Studios may not control the movie rights to Spidey and the X-Men, but their animation wing is working with these characters, and similar cross-pollination is going on there. And in his latest "Talk to the Hat," Brevoort says that the publisher's Spider-Man-centric Free Comic Book Day offering was done in part to prime the pump for Sony's upcoming Spidey reboot, showing that the publisher still cares enough about other studios' productions to craft product with them in mind. But it does seem as though Cap, Thor, and Tony will remain Marvel's marquee players as long as they're on actual marquees.