Does Avengers vs. X-Men #9 spell the beginning of the end of the Marvel Universe?
Question: how do you complety destroy a superhero franchise that has been a staple of comics for 50 years, supports multiple monthly ongoing titles, and has legions of fans that have followed the characters for most of their lives?
The answer lies in Avengers vs. X-Men, the latest super-mega-blockbuster-crossover event from Marvel Comics. This time around, Marvel has taken the X-Men, their second most popular group of characters (and at various points in history, their most popular), and turned them into fanatical villains. The answer leaves this reporter asking another question: why would anyone want to do that?
That answer is a bit more complicated.
Part of it is due to management run amuck. When the creative process is decided by editorial mandate, rather than assisted by it, stories suffer. Marvel has a talented stable of creators who are capable of weaving stories in the books they are writing, but instead of just letting that happen and crafting it together into a shared universe, it seems they often set a direction for the universe first, and shape the books to fit within that vision. These directions are constantly leading up to, taking part in, or dealing with the aftermath of a "blockbuster" event, at least one of which happens every year. For this to work, the events require a "big idea," the kind of profound concept that may only come once in a lifetime for even the most brilliant creator, but due to a publishing schedule that is preordained to suit this format, the ideas are required on a schedule. Sometimes they're great ideas, like Dark Reign. Sometimes they lack the kind of substance upon which an entire years worth of stories in an entire publishing line of books should be built, like Fear Itself. But good or bad, the show must go on, and when the direction of the entire Marvel Universe is built on budget projections instead of inspiration, everyone suffers.
Can this cycle ever be broken? It's possible that it cannot, for yet another contributing factor is at play: the stagnation of leadership. Joe Quesada has the longest tenure as the creative head of Marvel Comics since Stan Lee. Lee himself, though Editor in Chief from 1945 to 1972, only headed up the Marvel Universe as we know it for 11 years. Since then, no Editor in Chief has had a tenure longer than ten years. Roy Thomas reigned for two. Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, and Gerry Conway lasted less than one. Archie Goodwin ruled for two years. Jim Shooter for ten. Tom DeFalco had eight. Bob Harras ran Marvel for five, following a period where no Editor in Chief ruled at all. Joe Quesada was Editor in Chief of Marvel from 2000 to 2011 - eleven years - and when his time, in any past era, would have come to an end, instead of riding off into the sunset and handing the reigns to another person with fresh ideas, he was promoted to Chief Creative Officer, creating a new position of power higher than the EIC. Axel Alonso became the Editor in Chief, but is the EIC really the person who "runs" Marvel anymore? I think not.
Chances are, we're heading for another decade of Quesada steering the ship, which is not a terrible thing. Make no mistake about it - Quesada's leadership has produced a successful period in Marvel's history. Along with Bill Jemas, Quesada brought Marvel back from the brink of bankruptcy and made the House of Ideas more creatively relevent than ever before. Regardless of anyone's personal opinions of events like Civil War, or editorial decisions like the one that produced Amazing Spider-Man's One More Day, Quesada's vision changed the comics industry and ushered in the event cycle discussed above. But without new blood and a fresh perspective, we are stuck in that cycle of event after event after event. After all, as I said above, great ideas sometimes come just once in a lifetime, and this great idea, once innovative, is now tired. That's why a creative company like Marvel needs to switch things up at least once a decade.
But that may not be possible. When Marvel became a publicly traded company in 1991, they became beholden to shareholders. When they became a subsidiary of Disney in 2009, they became beholden to Disney's shareholders. The primary responsibility of a corporation is to return a profit for its shareholders, and they have to return that profit every year, or perhaps even every quarter. That means that Marvel needs to maximize sales right now, not build readership or inspirational collateral for later. Marvel can't take risks. They can't look toward the future. If Quesada had the kind of revolutionary ideas he had ten years ago to transform Marvel, he might not even be able to enact them.
Quesada and the faceless Disney executives aren't the only ones to blame, though. We, the fans, deserve some too. Comic book fans notoriously resist change. In general, most of us want the same old stories with the same old heroes fighting the same old villains, over and over again. We're not reading for new material. We're reading to relive the feelings we experienced when we discovered these characters as children. Marvel has made an effort to introduce new characters over the past ten years. Gravity, the Young Avengers, multiple crops of New X-Men, all the teams in Avengers: the Initiative, the Secret Warriors, the students of Avengers Academy... the list goes on. Marvel creates them, but it's more books starring Wolverine that fans will pay for. So Marvel makes them.
When the same stories are rehashed year after, they lose any urgency. When the same threats and villains are defeated time and again, they become ineffective. It works under a law of dimishing returns, like super hot rebooted #1 issues or cocaine. And if rehashed stories no longer hold interest, and tired old villains no longer pose a threat, then who do your heroes fight? Well, the X-Men make some shocking and effective villains, don't they? No one would ever expect that.
And that brings us back to Avengers vs. X-Men #9. The worst part about it is that it's a damn good comic.
The art is great, and why shouldn't it be? Adam Kubert is a master. His fight scene between Spider-Man, Colossus, and Magik is a thing of beauty, if a bloody beating can be called such a thing. Jason Aaron delivers a great Avengers story here, from the despair that comes across at the beginning - "We lost him. We lost Thor." - to Spider-Man's realization that, as he had been telling Hope, his time had come to step up as an Avenger, resulting in one of the best Spider-Man moments in a over a decade. This is quality work from talented creators, and it might have been a classic story under different circumstances. But what price is paid? The X-Men must be sacrificed to achieve this effect. Events, mandates, controlling characters and stories, instead of the other way around.
At San Diego Comic Con last month, a room full of fans cheered when it was hinted that Cyclops, a nearly fifty-year old hero who many comics fans have grown up with, might meet his demise in the event. Marvel seemed puzzled, but it's not puzzling to me because I've seen this hatred growing on the net for months. Marvel has made Cyclops and the X-Men who stand with him into more potent villains than the Marvel Universe has seen in a long time, and I'm not sure the team can recover from that. Marvel will try. Some of the X-Men are already turning on their leaders. The Great One Brian Bendis himself plans to bring the original X-Men back to the future in his attempt. But it might be too little, too late.
In order to feed the event cycle, Marvel has cannibalized the lead character from one of it's top franchises. And for what? For a status quo that will need to be "changed forever" at the next creative summit, set up to plan the next big blockbuster event.
Break the cycle, Marvel. Before it's too late.
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