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All Killer, No Filler (Unfortunately)

Comics, FYI
All Killer, No Filler (Unfortunately)
By Graeme McMillan • Issue #25 • View online
Where are the Marvel comics that just don’t fit in?

Looking at Marvel’s June solicitations, a handful of things struck me. First of all, I can’t quite believe that there’s actually going to be a comic titled Deadly Neighborhood Spider-Man. (It’s launching in the same month as the final issue of Savage Spider-Man, although it’s not a replacement title; nonetheless, I’ll never manage to understand the impulse behind wanting to make Spider-Man more edgy. It’s like wanting an edgy Captain Carrot, to me.) Secondly, it’s stunning and impressive to me that seemingly everything feels as if it’s being turned into a multi-title franchise, even if there may not be a market for it – there are, amazingly, three different Fantastic Four-related titles solicited for July. Three. Was the property even that popular in the 1990s?
Most importantly, I realized that – despite the number of titles that Marvel publishes these days (83 single issues are solicited for June currently; there’re 80 individual titles once you eliminate books shipping more than once that month) – there’s a distinct lack of variety in terms of superhero comic books from Marvel these days.
I’m not talking about the hyper-extension of franchises to breaking point and arguably beyond, when I say that, despite my FF-related point above. Sure, there are 19 different X-Men books in June* – that’s one more than DC’s Batman franchise for the month, for those complaining about how many of those there are these days – and 13 different Spider-Man-related books**, and yes, somehow even the Hulk and Captain America have become mini-franchises, which I’m not even sure they managed in the 1990s, but I feel as if that’s something that we’ve all just come to expect these days. Hell, the June solicits also have a spin-off title from the just-launched Jason Aaron-written Punisher reboot, Punisher War Journal: Blitz. Everything is a franchise these days; it’s just the reality of the business, for better or worse.
Instead, what I’m talking about is… there’s a homogeneity in Marvel’s superhero comics, for the most part. (Well, two homogeneities, but we’ll get to that in a second.)
Whether accidental or intentional, Marvel’s superhero line of comics has established a specific voice of sorts over the past, say, decade or so. Arguably, this has always been the case to some degree or another, all the way back to when Stan Lee was scripting the majority of titles and every other writer was expected to fit their own stylistic tics to match; there’s a strong argument to be made that this approach is what sold the “shared universe” setting and established Marvel as a company in the first place.
Today’s Marvel superhero comic voice isn’t Lee’s, though; it’s not even Jim Shooter’s, or the befuddled and breathless attempts to mine Chris Claremont’s soap operatic tics and asides for profit that filled the line in the 1990s. Instead, it’s a self-conscious mix of slickness, snark and self-referentiality that comes as much from the ubiquitous influence of Warren Ellis as it does the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Even as each writer brings their own talents to the project in question, with so many of the company’s writers sharing the same influences and core reading while staying entirely aware of just what they’re trying to accomplish, and for what ends, the output remains impressively consistent***.
A significant variation to this is the current X-line, which post-House of X and Powers of X relaunch in 2019, have been in their own voice, which takes its lead from architect Jonathan Hickman – although no-one else can capture his unusual way of adding emphasis to things by mixing bold type and italics seemingly at random. With roughly a quarter of Marvel’s monthly output devoted to this subculture, it deserves to be called out in its own right; it’s not a million miles away from the current incarnation of the Marvel superhero comic voice, but it has enough of its own cadence and idiosyncrasies to stand alone, to some degree.
Furthering the feeling of a homogeneity across Marvel’s superhero books is the fact that artists are often treated as interchangeable across the entire line – so many artists are shifted from the X-Books to Fantastic Four or Avengers or wherever at a moment’s notice, as if every book has the same demands and expectations upon their talents, underserving both the artists and the work they’re delivering, and underscoring the idea that these individual titles are as much generic product as anything else. As a result, few books are able to build a visual identity or language of their own, because so many share the same creators and stylizations.
Your mileage may vary on all of the above, of course.
None of this is to necessarily suggest that anyone involved is making a bad choice, at least in the short term. Consider Marvel’s continued sales dominance in the Direct Market (or, for that matter, in the multiplex) as proof that everything is working out just fine, in fact; after all, if a lot of people want to buy Product A or close variations thereof, then multiple variations of Product A is likely to make a lot of people happy.
Similarly, all of this shouldn’t be taken to mean that I’m not enjoying any Marvel titles right now, because that’s not true in the slightest; off the top of my head, I’m enjoying Gene Yang and Marcus To’s Shang-Chi (about to be relaunched, with a new number one and a new, more MCU-friendly title, as Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings), Kieron Gillen and Esad Ribic’s Eternals, Chip Zdarsky and Marco Checchetto’s Daredevil****, and almost everything that Al Ewing has touched in the last few years; I’m behind on Fantastic Four, but my affection for Ben Grimm and his family remains undimmed, and I think Jed MacKay’s a fun writer who reminds me of early Gerry Duggan. 
Looking at the June solicitations, though, it felt as if there was a distinct lack of outliers in the current Marvel publishing line – titles that may be set in the Marvel Universe, but feel, in terms of tone, execution, or even simply aesthetic, entirely the result of the creators involved rather than an attempt to fit into a consistent brand. Because, while Marvel has always had a consistency across its publishing line, it’s also traditionally had outliers that just didn’t fit in, and became more significant in retrospect for sticking to their creative guns and being themselves.*****
I feel as if what’s been shown to be most valuable to Marvel and Disney in terms of comic book output in the last, say, 20 years are the outliers. Fraction, Aja and Wu’s Hawkeye, for example, led to last year’s Disney+ show; the upcoming Ms. Marvel series comes from the G. Willow Wilson/Adrian Alphona/Sana Amanat series that, again, was doing its own thing even if it ostensibly tied into the Inhumans-ization of the moment. It’s the books that are off doing their own thing that are more likely to catch fans’ – and more importantly for Disney’s bottom line, other creators’ – attention, allowing them life beyond simply those readers already in the bag for a particular character or concept. 
Looking at the June solicits, the closest thing I can see to those types of projects for the most part are either licensed titles, outright nostalgia books (Wolverine: Patch, Genis-Vell: Captain Marvel, The X-Cellent, X-Men ‘92: House of XCII, New Fantastic Four, Venom: Lethal Protector, Maestro: World War M, X-Men Legends, Gambit), or tie-ins to movies or TV shows (Captain Carter, Miles Morales and Moon Girl). That’s almost certainly underselling some books – both of the June-debuting Al Ewing titles are almost guaranteed to be unexpected and interesting in some form, if nothing else – but, still: I feel as if there’s a significant lack of titles inside Marvel’s core publishing line that feel as if they’re doing something new and unexpected right now.
With titles selling as well as they are, and the pre-existing fanbases having needs met to such a degree that they’re satisfied with what they’re getting every month, that’s perhaps not much of a problem right now. But what happens five or ten years from now, when Marvel Studios is looking through this period of time for inspiration?
Perhaps Marvel Studios will end up looking elsewhere for inspiration. As what might be described as a mainstream-ization of Marvel’s comic book output continues – something that, perhaps, might be traced back to C.B. Cebulski taking on the editor-in-chief role back in November 2017, even if the timing doesn’t necessarily work out in that regard – it’s worth noting that Marvel has increasingly outsourced everything that isn’t its primary superhero and mainstream property licensed comics: Classic reprints have gone to Taschen and Penguin; original graphic novels for adults are at Abrams ComicArts, while those aimed at kids are at Scholastic.
What I’m calling “outliers,” meanwhile, might also have a new home at Marvel: digital publishing. One of my favorite Marvel titles in recent years came from the Infinity Comics line introduced last September, in the form of Kelly Thompson and Gurihiru’s It’s Jeff. Digital is also where things like Hulkling and Wiccan get published first these days.
Admittedly, it’s still in its early days and being used primarily as a place for media tie-in projects and reprints aimed at a wider readership than the rest of Marvel’s line, but that only makes it a more natural place to experiment and try something new. Perhaps it’ll end up flooded with reformatted reprints of existing material, but if there’s one place that feels primed to house the new at Marvel right now, it’s digital… at least until the main line feels safe enough to experiment again.
* They are, for the curious, The X-Cellent, X-Force, X-Men, Sabretooth, Wolverine: Patch, Wolverine, X-Men ‘92: House of XCII, Gambit, Knights of X, Marauders, X-Men Unlimited: X-Men Green, X-Men: Red, AXE: Eve of Judgment, Immortal X-Men, Legion of X, New Mutants, Deadpool, X-Men Legends, and X-Men: Hellfire Gala. I’m not including either Fortnite X Marvel: Zero War or Marvel’s Voices: Pride, both of which include X-Men characters, nor New Fantastic Four, which features Wolverine, mind you. Oh, and Storm’s in The Marvels, isn’t she? Wait, does that mean there are 24 X-Men related books out of 80 Marvel titles in June? That’s… stunning. And expensive, if there are any completionists out there. 
** Deep breath: Deadly Neighborhood Spider-Man, Miles Morales and Moon Girl, Spider-Man 2099: Exodus (which gets three issues in June alone!), Venom, What If…? Miles Morales, Amazing Spider-Man, Iron Cat, Carnage, Miles Morales: Spider-Man, Spider-Punk, Venom: Lethal Protector, Savage Spider-Man, and Spider-Gwen: Gweniverse. Again, I’m not counting Marvel’s Voices: Pride, which might include a Spider-Man character for all I know…? 
*** A strange example of this is in the first issue of the current Black Panther series, where John Ridley writes a conversation between T'Challa, Captain America, and the other Avengers that reads as if it could have been written by… well, any other writer at Marvel. It’s at once an impressive piece of in-character writing, and a demonstration of the oddly generic collective voice of Marvel’s superhero writers.
**** Without realizing it, I feel like I’m choosing some of the few books where artists have managed to stick around for more than a story arc. While unintentional, I don’t think this is entirely a coincidence.
***** Think of, say, Steve Gerber and Gene Colan’s Howard the Duck or Frank Miller’s Daredevil; Walt Simonson’s Thor, or even Peter David’s extended run on The Incredible Hulk. Or, more recently, the Ryan North/Erica Henderson Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, which remains much missed in this parish.
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Graeme McMillan

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