Sunday, 28 October 2012

On Hopeful Signs At The House Of Ideas

It seems to me that it's simply a question of good manners. I've been more than mildly critical about certain aspects of Marvel's output over the past few years, and yet I haven't always taken the time to tip my hat when things have changed for the better. I know that I ought to have done so, though that's not because anyone cares about the things which I have and haven't written here. (Why ever should they?) It's just that I do feel just a touch uncomfortable when I realise there's nothing here on TooBusyThinking which recognises how once-slated books and situations can now be seen in a more positive light.

From AVX: Consequences #1, by Gillen, Raney et al
But offering three cheers for those new directions which have been taken is an oddly difficult business to pull off. I certainly don't want to give the impression that I believe the following changes were inspired by concerns similar to those that I've previously expressed. I might express an appreciation of how a book's shifted course, but I'm not trying to suggest that the reason for that has anything in common with my own beliefs of the problems which might have one existed. (In one example it's hard to believe that a certain degree of similarity didn't exist, but it's generally quite impossible to say.) Yet it is to state that, speaking as a punter from the back row of the cheap seats, certain key aspects of Marvel's comics appear far more worth applauding than they did even a year or two back.

Some of what follows touches on major developments which have occurred in the relatively recent past, while other points reflect relatively minor if hopeful signs of what might yet be to come. But on a wet, cold winter's afternoon in which the blogger's preoccupied with several pressing deadlines, a brief moment taken to salute changes great and small seems like a good and sensible thing to do to recharge a somewhat weary mind. 
From Journey Into Mystery #642, by Gillen, Fraction, Giandomenico et al
1. The J Michael Straczynski reboot of Thor was a despicably sexist business which somehow went generally uncommented upon. (See Here from 2010) Thankfully, the years since his departure from the title have seen a quiet, thorough revolution in the approach to sex, sexuality and gender in both Thor and its spin-off book Journey Into Mystery. Gone are the effectively naked porn-models competing for the attentions of Asgard's manly, powerful males. Gone are the corridors empty of women and jammed full with what appeared to be a predominantly male population of Gods. Gone is the almost-total absence of female deities in positions of power and influence. Instead, the worlds of Asgard now feature a not-inconsiderable cast of substantial, individual, and interesting women who are central to events without ever functioning as bloke-thrilling cheesecake. The change has been so complete that it's impossible not to believe that the editors and creators associated with the Thor books deliberately set out to excise the misogyny of the JMS-era from the book. No doubt I've missed the hats that have been hurled in the air in praise of this transformation in the blogosphere. Mea culpa. The JMS years were stomach-turning in their chauvinism. Thankfully, there's nothing of that uber-blokeishness left to be seen in the pages of either the Matt Fraction-scripted Thor or Kieron Gillen's Journey Into Mystery today.

2. After quite literally decades of ever bleaker bloke-noir, Mark Waid seized the opportunity to recast Daredevil as an existentially born-again superhero. Put simply, Waid's Daredevil simply decided that he was going to define his own personality rather than being driven into despair by every substantial challenge which came his way. It's proven no easy task for the Man Without Fear, of course, but it has established Matt Murdock once again as a character who's inspiring as well as fascinating. For all that the post-Miller Daredevil has been used to tell some particularly fine stories, the constant grind of ever-intensifying schlock-misery had resulted in a book that was practically unreadable. (Here from 2010) In rejecting the taken-for-granted assumptions which limited Daredevil's adventures to a narrow range of profoundly miserable cliches, Waid's struck a serious blow for variety and innovation, two qualities which the sub-genre's seen all too little of in recent years.

From Spider-Men #5, by Bendis & Pichelli
3.  It's a preference rather than a criticism, but I've always been convinced that Spider-Man works best when the costumed identity functions as a metaphor for adolescence. With even the Ultimate Universe's Peter Parker moving further and further away from the hormone-saturated confusions and contradictions of his mid-teens, the various Spider-Men in print in 2010 seemed to be ill-suited to the properties' fundamental strengths. (Here) For those of us who believe that the very idea of an adult Spider-Man is better suited to an issue of What-If rather than a continuing series, the arrival of Black American teen Miles Morales as the new Ultimate Spider-Man has been both a relief and a fascination.

It's hardly news, of course. But I ought to have mentioned it.

4. One of the least convincing aspects of the X-Men's sojourn on Utopia was the fact that the other superheroes of the Marvel Universe were largely content to let the persecution of mutants continue without their doing anything about it. The idea that the likes of the Avengers and the Fantastic Four wouldn't be actively and continually campaigning for mutant rights while standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Cyclops and the people he claimed to represent was at heart a repellent one. How was it that the paragons of the MU were so disinterested in the freedoms and security of super-people who'd fought beside them time and time again? The very idea carries the spectre of an unacceptable apathy if not bigotry itself, given that the needs of mutants were so very clear and obvious. (Here, again from 2010) What a relief to find Rick Remender has had Captain America admit to Havoc in Ultimate Avengers #1 that he paid far too little attention to his mutant brethren. Similarly, Kieron Gillen's script for AvX: Consequences #1 has Steve Rogers expressing the belief that he intends to ensure that "mutants and humans" should "stand shoulder to shoulder". These are surely words which indicate that Marvel will be paying more and more attention to the way in which their characters are shown engaging - or not - in everyday political affairs. It really is regrettable that pretty much everyone in a costume not carrying an X-Gene came out so badly from the Utopia era simply through the fact of their repeated silence and inactivity. Hopefully the basic metaphor for social and political rights that's Marvel's mutants will be used in a consistently more sensitive and inspiring fashion from now on. Some creators have never lost sight of how the symbol of mutantkind functions politically. Why not a few more?

5. Finally, after years in which it seemed that pretty much every book which Marvel produced was designed to function as part as part of the great bureaucratic mosaic of Event Marketing, the past year and a half has seen the release of a series of books which function more-or-less independently of the wider scheme of things. Ms Marvel, Hawkeye, Gambit and - despite a couple of small-scale crossovers - Daredevil are all capable of being followed and enjoyed without the reader having to immerse themselves in any broader continuity. That each book has its own distinctly individual character is a further sign that we may be easing into a far more interesting and reader-friendly future where Marvel's books are concerned.

I'd like to think so.

Hopefully, to be continued at a later date .....


  1. I've been pretty cranky about Marvel for quite a while now,so it's been rather nice to be able to read some of their books without going into a rage.

    I have been loving the heck out of Thor and Journey Into Mystery, with Sif no longer just being a sex-kitten, and having the trinity of Gaia/Jord, Freyja and Idunn running the place, and heck, having Volstagg's wife be so fabulous.

    That's also a rather nice new costume for Capt. Marvel.

    1. Hello Sally:- Though the above's hardly any kind of coherent analysis of change on Marvel's part, I do think that there are more and more positive signs from the company - or should that be "corporation"? What I've mentioned above includes a wide range of often barely connected matters. Yet over the past few years, there's more and more green shoots appearing. And it doesn't take too many more than a few good books to help make a month's purchases all the more worthwhile.

      The truth is, I just wanted to add a few footnotes of recognition to pieces I'd posted a good while ago. And as you say, there are positive notes to add where just the Asgard books are concerned :)

  2. It seems like Marvel might be drawing a line between their character driven titles and the sprawling mass of Avengers or X branded comics. One one side of the line the character comics stay focused on telling their own stories, on the other side the brand comics can handle the major continuity events. If that's true (and I sincerely hope it is) we can look forward to a range of comics which appeal to the event-fatigued as well as the usual provision of material for the event followers.

    Diversity of content, in both style and structure, is the way forward. If Marvel tries to cater for a greater variety of tastes they will surely produce more worthwhile stories than DC's New-52 narrowly targeted approach has in the last year.

    My main problem with the NOW strategy is the decision to have so many of their comics released fortnightly. It's a double-weapon: wring twice as much money out of some readers every month and also to simply crowd out the monthly budget of many of their fans and thereby attempt to beat back the growing competition from small to medium-size publishers.

    Personally I refuse to buy any comic that's double-shipped in this way. In terms of content, it ruins the aesthetic and it frequently leads to unsatisfying and/or unnecessarily decompressed stories. In terms of value it simply means I'm getting less novelty every month for my hard earned cash.

    Fortunately it looks like there's another split in Marvel's content - the most interesting comics (conceptually and aesthetically) will ship monthly, with the brand comics on a fortnightly basis.

    1. Hello Ed:- It may also be that the Now! titles will end up being better than the "sprawling mass" of books you quite rightly refer to. I've certainly faith that FF and Young Avengers will be fine. But I'm certainly with you where it comes to the relief of event fatigue. Few books can prosper as JIM did when it was constantly being involved in different crossovers. By which I don't mean to suggest that all or anyone involved with JIM didn't want to be involved in the broader picture, but just that it did manage to prosper regardless.

      "Diversity of content, in both style and structure, is the way forward. If Marvel tries to cater for a greater variety of tastes they will surely produce more worthwhile stories than DC's New-52 narrowly targeted approach has in the last year."

      Hear hear!

      I'm not a Marvel or a DC Fan, and the vast majority of my reading isn't in the super-book at all. So when I say that I do see good things that have gradually happened at Marvel over the past few years, I'm trying to be partisan. I just think that there has been progress, and I wanted to have that on record, for what lil'that's worth.

      I hadn't realised, however, that the Now! material was twice-monthly. That'll certainly eat into the range of books which many will be able to afford. That's ... something to think about, I must say.

      I hope that the monthly/twice-monthly split doesn't occur in the way you suggest. Yet the picture you present is convincing. Oh, dear .... Still, at least there will be a reservoir of books which, as you say, will be there for those who don't want to, or simply can't, buy into the Big Books twice a month.

    2. If I recall correctly - the twice-monthly titles include: All New X-Men, Iron Man, Thor, X-Men: Legacy, Deadpool, Superior Spidey, Thunderbolts, Cable & X-Force, Avengers Arena, and remarkably Hickman's Avengers is either thrice or FOUR TIMES-monthly if you include the New Avengers title (which you should, since it's so closely interrelated).

      Outside of the twice monthly schedule (as far as I'm aware) we have: Hawkeye, F4, FF, Captain Marvel, Journey into Mystery, Young Avengers and a few others.

      To me this all looks like a worryingly short-termist approach to boosting sales. If anything I can see it driving the rump (well, those amongst them with even moderately restricted budgets) away from the fringe Marvel titles in favour of the brand comics and more Wolverine. I have no idea how Marvel hopes to sustain interest in some of those double-shipped comics.

      On the other hand, I still maintain my high hopes for FF and YA. Daredevil and JitM both showed that quality and word of mouth can drive a comic from low initial sales to commercial and critical success.

    3. Hello Ed:- Fair dues, that does seem like a misguided schedule. Yet I assume that the various financial powers who determine what Marvel invest in must see that as a sensible way of generating revenue. (Ultimate Avengers is already delayed, I'm told, which doesn't bode well for the future.)Those books will surely - as you say - soak up the cash which might otherwise be spent on the more peripheral comics. And yet, how might even an editor that worried about this scheduling argue against it? Marvel is a business, and it's the profit which can be best secured which counts. In that context, it's terrific that we're still getting the peripherial titles, for all that it's hard to see how they can compete.

      I suppose that we're in for what might be called 'interesting times'. But then, it's always a crisis where the superhero comic is concerned, isn't it? The Now! campaign certainly seems far more professional, creative and diverse than the New 52. But it still doesn't look like all's rosy in the garden, as it were ....

    4. In fairness, I think some of those, such as Thor, are once-monthly titles that are double-shipping on their debut.

      But yes, the double-shipping, coupled with the extra 70p, is something that's regrettably put most of Marvel's output on my "wait for the trade" list. God bless Captain Marvel in all her single-shipping, £2.20 glory...

    5. Hello Neil:- I'd not even thought to factor in the extra 70p we Brits pay. That really is putting a high price on relatively thin entertainment.

      Mind you, while I understand the waiting-for-trade strategy, it seems to me that trades are getting both thinner and more expensive at the same time.

      But to agree on a more positive front, yes, bless Captain Marvel, as well as Hawkeye, and Daredevil et al. I hope their like lasts, I wish there was a great deal of them.

    6. Hello Neil, and hello again Colin - I'll freely admit I might have got some of that list wrong. It's not easy to find a concise list of how Marvel's scheduling these titles so I'm going on word-of-blogs I'm afraid.

      Generally I'm quite pleased with the way that the NOW project is shaping up. Exciting upcoming writers have been given prominent comics alongside Marvel's usual glut of brilliant artists. There seems to be a conscious effort to improve the diversity of their characters, with a number of notable female leading characters at the forefront of Marvel's comics.

      The double-shipping is a big turn-off for me, given my budgetary constraints, and as such I simply won't buy the comics which are published to that schedule.

      "Mind you, while I understand the waiting-for-trade strategy, it seems to me that trades are getting both thinner and more expensive at the same time."

      Aren't they just? They seem to have taken their cue from the monthlies in that regard. At least they don't contain adverts and are printed on decent paper.

      Marvel will always be my first love in comics, giving me an emotional investment that often leads me to be harsher on them than perhaps I should be. I care nothing for DC except when it's supplying me with stories I want to read, but with Marvel (due largely to the 90s being that formative time whence I grew from barely sentient rug-rat into moody teenager) I feel like I have a stake, however minuscule it may be now that I only follow a couple of their comics, in the outcome.

    7. Hello Ed:- It's been slim pickings from Marvel from where I'm sitting since around 2003, and I'm far too old and wizened to hold out hope that any of the Big Two are about to truly the corner and start off on a new golden age. BUT, as I was suggesting in the above, there are for all of that some optimistic signs. For all that I'd need to see far more evidence of minority representation in the books to cheer me up, and yet, there are some real steps forward. Young Avengers on its own seems to promise a great deal there.

      But that double-shipping .... after hearing about it yesterday, I've become more and more convinced that it's a bad idea, and for the reasons you mention. And yet, if it works on the balance book, it will be the way of things. I've just finished reading Howe's Marvel Comics The Untold Story and that seems to be the way of things.

      There's no getting rid of those childhood affections. You're in it for life to a lesser or greater degree, aren't you? I hope what you find what you're looking for. The same decade that snared you was a wasteland for my own taste. Although I like to think that the super-book is something I can live without, I did miss having more than just a tiny number of good books from Marvel that I really wanted to read.

    8. Oh yeah, retrospectively the 90s Marvel comics were (for the most part) dire - but many fans my age were hooked in by the early-90s Spider-man and X-Men cartoons and as a consequence of those, I (and plenty of other British youths) subscribed to some of Panini's Marvel reprint magazines at some point in the middle of that decade. Those reprints were so strangely compiled I remember they even included Todd McFarlane's Spidey and the Jim Lee X-stuff long after their Image exodus. A continuity-follower's nightmare.

      Like you say, there really is no way to completely dispose of those affections - even when the characters have be altered almost beyond recognition.

    9. Hello Ed:- If it was your golden age, then it WAS a golden age. The blog has been really good for me where hearing from folks who cut their teeth on cartoons and Clone Sagas is concerned. It all got you into the medium and set you on the path to enjoying - as I know you do - a wide range of material. So no matter how "objectively" dire much of the 90s were, they were also the best of times for those getting their first fix of the cape'n'chest-insignia stuff.

      There were the same continuity-follower's confusion in the Marvel weekly books of twenty years later, which I bought enthusiastically into. It never really mattered, did it?

  3. Maybe I'm a incorrigible optimist... maybe it's because I've learned to read during the 90's¹... But I really think Marvel is taking a very interesting road... Many of their writers have now a established career with independent projects and despite many problems... some very interesting tales are being made at the House of Ideas. Most of all... Marvel seems to be able to touch us and enchant us. Daredevil 17 has brought me to tears. Journey into Mystery was so incredibly good that I think I will need some months to understand the meaning of something like that happening at the shared Marvel Universe. And that Ant-Man piece in Point One? I've cried like a baby with that first page. Fraction/Allred have done an amazing job in that story... touching, engaging, smart... The sensitive way in which ant-Man deals with vengeance in that tale is so more 'heroic' in its silliness than most of revenge tales told in any media...

    I'm really hoping for good things to happen at Marvel.

    1. Hello Thomaz:- I am, I fear, anything but an incurable optimist, and with all that's wonderful in today's comics market as a whole, I feel that the pleasures of reading graphic fiction will roll on regardless of what Marvel does. And yet, for all that I love Goliath & Nao Of Brown & Building Stories and so on, I am more than partial to a good superbook. If Marvel really do continue to produce more and more books than the less committed reader can buy into, I'll be very pleased indeed. Even 6 or 7 reliably good books a month would be a pleasure. So far this year, we've had, as you say, JIM, Daredevil, with some promising other titles such as Hawkeye finding their feet. Yes, I think I could happily buy into a few more Marvel books.

      It's heartening to hear how much you've been enjoying some of your more recent reading. Huzzah!

    2. Hy, Colin.

      Maybe i shouldn't have said it out loud and risk my good luck saying some things are getting better... But, well i'm a huge Marvete - that's how we used to call a marvel fan here in Brazil =p. I can't help but be all emotional about it.
      It is a pity, though, that 616 spider man doesn't seem to join this group of heroes changing for the best. Even being optimistic i know we will never have everything perfect but I really hope someday they give up Irresponsible Spider Man and bring the 'friendly neighborhood' back...

    3. Hello Thomaz:- A "Marvete", ah? That's a charming term. I believe Brazil has had a long if intermittent association with Marvel's strips, and that that stretches back even to the Timely heroes. It makes sense that there should a homegrown sense of identity on the part of fans of the company's product. There's a book to be written about the way in the superhero comic has become part of cultures from beyond America's borders.

      I'm sure you know that I share your concern with the 616 Spidey. It's something which we've discussed before. I'd like to see that friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man returning, and with some kind of twist added to his backstory to explain away the acid-boarding incident. Stranger things have happened in the superhero comic. One day ...

    4. Hy Colin,

      =), about the 'marvete' term:
      Shamefully, i don't know much of the History of comics here in Brazil. But i remember that when I started buying comics, lots of stories were never published, or only published for abusive prices. Many comics were condensed in one edition in a smaller and sometimes thicker format than the original. As editors focused (even more here) in the best selling comics it was hard to find some comics that didn't sale so well( sadly, most of the comics you mentioned here - - can be included in the pack of comics really hard to find at the time). It was even worse for people like me who didn't live in a major city without many comic fans.
      But the main point is: Comics here were made as a pack, and during 90's, for some time Spider man comics had also Fantastic four stories or New warriors, X-Men condensed all mutant titles, Iron Man never had his own comic at the time, so he appeared at Hulk's comics...Since the same editor published Marvel comics and DC comics here, a similar proccess hapenned with DC heroes.
      So i guess that since the packs could change a lot we were stimulated to choose between the Marvel mix and the DC mix they offered, since we almost never had comics with only one hero or one team... So, people who preferred Marvel comics were called by the very editors who sold the comics Marvetes, and Dc fans were called DCnauts...

      and, about spider-man: yeah, we can only hope that the piece of Dan Slott that wrote Spider-man & Human Torch win the final battle for his soul. Dan can recover Spider if he wishes to do it. (I would even accept if he'd say that spider were under control of Mephisto due to their pact. Spider man could be Mephisto's mole inside avengers and fantastic four without knowing it. Everything now makes sense =D!)

    5. Hello Thomaz:- Strangely enough, it was the opposite for me when I growing up in Britain. The best-selling American comics by Marvel were often deliberately not imported into the country. That sounds odd, but there was a reason why we only tended to get the less popular titles. Marvel had a line of b'n'w reprint titles designed for the British market which featured characters such as Spider-Man and the Avengers. Since the Brit reprints were weekly, they were burning through material. In order not to hit their sales as well as making sure that the comics buyers of the UK hadn't seen the more modern tales, Marvel didn't let the most popular books in. There were long months when nothing came over at all. Then longer ones in which the likes of Amazing Spider-Man was hardly seen at all. I didn't see a copy of Spidey in a Brit newsagent that wasn't a b'n'w reprint for almost 3 years in the early-to-mid 70s. It was very frustrating, but it did add a magic to the comics which could be found.

      DCnauts? I do find that charming.

      And I'd accept that Mephisto back-door too, though I'm sure Mr Slott never wants to hear the character's name in connection to the Spidey book again.

  4. Hi Colin, excellent list - the only thing I'd quibble with is the idea that Marvel showing mutants and Avengers standing side by side is a sign of anything other than a marketing-led story gimmick.

    Which isn't to say it won't lead to some good stories, of course!

    1. Hello Martin:- Wasn't it you who suggested to me that the apparent marketing ploy of the first Young Avengers series was worth my reading?

      Having said that, Ultimate Avengers isn't a very good comic by my admittedly askew standards.

      Fingers crossed that the wallet-thinning Avengers/X-Men era actually does have some good stories in it :)

    2. 'Wasn't it you who suggested to me that the apparent marketing ploy of the first Young Avengers series was worth my reading?'

      Did I put it like that? I'm sooooo cynical! ;)

    3. Hello Martin:- I don't recall how you put it in any precise fashion, but it's certainly your fault that I read Young Avengers.

      I can't say that I didn't enjoy it either, despite the continuity-a-go-go it expressed.

  5. So basically, you win this round! ;)

    - Charles RB

    1. Hello Charles:- That way fan-madness lies, I fear .... :)

  6. Since I don't read DC anymore at all, for several reasons

    -- Revulsion at Azzarello's Wonder Woman makes the whole new continuity triggerish; I always used to avoid Vertigo and Wildstorm anyways. --

    I must admit that I've been reading a lot more Marvel, and have liked what I saw recently. I actually enjoyed AvX, largely because it didn't seem to be taking itself extremely seriously, and at least at the beginning was just a rather hokey excuse for a big superhero brawl. DeKonnick's (sp?) Captain Marvel came at exactly the right time, with a female-centric cast and a cool, confident, and powerful heroine with a distinctive voice.

    Liked Fantastic Four. Liking Journey into Mystery. Looking forward to FF. On the fence about Red She-Hulk, but enjoying Pagulayan's (sp?) art.

    Used to be that DC was the bright and sunny superhero universe, while Marvel was more gore, angst, and gloom. So long as the roles stay reversed, make mine Marvel.

    1. Hello ihcoyc:- I too share your disappointment at the New 52. It seems to me that DC have so focused their attention on one specific blokeish niche that they've pushed away a whole other series of readers. New audiences could've been won without doing that. It was a daft business. Worse than daft, it did result in those stupid, offensive Wonder Woman issues ...

      Marvel has indeed turned something of a corner in the past six or seven months. I didn't enjoy AvX at all - though I certainly wouldn't begrudge you that! - but I did like Consequences, and that's especially so where the conclusion is concerned. And I'd add Hawkeye and Wolverine & The X-Men to your list of good titles too.

      I'm of course happy to find that Marvel's producing more books that I can enjoy. I do wish DC could produce books that weren't so often Jim Lee/Geoff-Johns' light. If 'light' can be used to describe books that are so typically bleak. (Of course, there are exceptions. But not too many ...)

  7. I didn't read superhero comics for a long time, until I heard about Mark Waid's Daredevil. The cover was what really caught my eye. It's not so often that you see a superhero really smiling! Thank you for this nice list. I might try reading some of the others on it.

    1. Hello There:- thank you for popping and saying so :)