(Time once again for ROBOT 6 contributors Tom Bondurant and Carla Hoffman to email each other about the year in DC and Marvel superhero comics. This year’s exchange took place between DEc. 26 and Dec. 30. And be sure to check out Part 1 of the conversation.)
Tom Bondurant: One of the more pleasant surprises this year was the extent to which the Big Two started going after a different audience. New books like Ms. Marvel and Gotham Academy, and makeovers for Batgirl and Catwoman, have found success with distinctive, unconventional approaches. How long can they keep this up? Will digital distribution help these books, if it’s not doing so already? Are the Big Two really committed to branching out?
Carla Hoffman: Branching out is such a double-edged sword. It sounds weird to say that, because diversity is so championed online, but when a book can alienate old readers, you really have to draw in a lot of new readers to make up for it. Believe it or not, there were some who complained that Kamala Khan took the Ms. Marvel name rather than getting her own moniker. The good news is that Ms. Marvel is such a quality book and so important to the next generation of comic readers, not to mention Marvel Comics itself, I couldn't care less if a (pardon my use) grumpy old fan can’t change with the times. Marvel published about 40 new titles this year -- everything from Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu to Rocket Raccoon. Not all of the titles stuck (R.I.P. She-Hulk, try again later), but that’s still a lot of new stuff to try that isn’t just another variation of a Wolverine comic.
I doubt they think of it as branching out and getting more diversity of characters and stories on the shelves to attract new readers as much as just seeing what will make them enough money. I mean, I’d like a more altruistic motive when it comes to this kind of thing, but it’s always going to come down to the dollar, especially with larger companies breathing down their necks.
Digital distribution really has done a lot for comics this year, that’s for sure. While, as a retail monkey for my local comic shop, I cringe at the idea that people wouldn’t want to come into a friendly neighborhood comic shop for their books, I can’t help by be proud that a newer generation of fans is looking to comiXology to keep up with titles that might not get that much attention in a more traditional shop. Hopefully being bought up by Amazon will go a little smoother for the company in the new year than it did in 2014.
Do we want to get into the big events from this year? On the Marvel side of the fence, I can say that everything since Age of Ultron has merely felt like setup for a bigger stage. Actually, I can go back even further and say that Jonathan Hickman has been building this feeling of impending doom since he started on the Avengers. AXIS, while an interesting exercise in morality and character development, didn’t really have a distinct return to normal as they closed the toybox with a bunch of toys left outside. Whatever Secret Wars is going to be -- reboot, restructure, refresh, Riunite on Ice -- it has to pay off in a big, big way.
Tom: I’m glad you mentioned Age of Ultron, because it seems like a big buildup (“time is broken”) to ... what? Neil Gaiman’s Angela?
Carla: I know, right? What it’s really meant is that storylines are getting really far out there and dealing with more time/reality/alternate universe plots. All-New X-Men hangs out with Ultimate Spidey! The Fantastic Four are dabbling in the Heroes Reborn characters! It’s starting to become a little bit of a mess, and I’m ready for Secret Wars to be an actual payoff for this scope of storytelling.
Tom: Pay off how, though? I’m only a casual Marvel fan, and more a fan of the old stuff than the new. I understand “massaging” the timeline in order to keep everyone at particular hazily defined ages. Franklin Richards will never be a teenager, Peter Parker will never turn 40, Steve Rogers will always be a child of the Depression, etc. Even so, I can’t imagine a rebooted Marvel Universe where all the supposedly nonsensical stuff gets pruned away and everyone’s history is polished to a high gloss.
Carla: Might I again direct you to the Ultimate Universe? Mind you, that devolved into a murky, awkward mess by now and is no longer the "Marvel Universe in a Modern Style" it used to be ...
Tom: DC can do it because its own publishing history is more about acquisition and interpretation than the various products of a dedicated Bullpen. Only twice in the past 30 years -- after Crisis on Infinite Earths and at the start of the New 52 -- has DC said “We’re officially starting over,” and not even at those times did it start everything over.
Carla: One of DC’s greatest strengths, to me, is its enduring quality of “legacy.” The mantles of a superhero give added weight to fascinating characters, no matter the origin. Did readers really care that Hitman came from the Bloodlines event? Nah, they were into a new story and a new guy. Superman can Elseworlds himself into any genre he pleases and we’ll always be fascinated by the ensuing stories. So yeah, DC can “start over” because its characters are archetypes of what superhero comics represent.
Tom: Marvel’s shared universe has the advantage of clear starting points, whether they involve the original Human Torch or the Fantastic Four. In other words, Marvel has been telling its shared universe’s story at least since 1961. I can’t tell you exactly when the story of DC’s shared universe starts, because it depends on which version of the universe you want.
Carla: And that’s because Marvel falls more into the “legend” style of heroes. There was never a book called “Clark Kent, Superman,” [Actually, there was a backup series called “The Private Life of Clark Kent” -- TB] [Showoff. -- CH] but “Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man” made it clear whose book you were reading. The mask is only an extension of the hero behind it; cleaning up origins actually changes the person that hero becomes, so you can’t really “start over” without repeating yourself. Ultimate Spider-Man got away with it at first because the book was about a modern Peter Parker going through the motions of the original, just with the internet and honestly more time to develop and incorporate details of his background and history gained since 1962. We know those details and we like them enough that when you change one (say, being married to Mary Jane), you start fanbase riots.
I don’t think we’re staring down the barrel of a reboot. Marvel doesn’t need to take that risk.