How to fix Marvel Comics

I’ve been reading comics since I was about ten years old, and I’ve seen the ups and downs as the industry has struggled through numerous crises. I was there in the ’90s during the speculator boom and bust. I watched as Marvel Comics attempted to become a multimedia conglomerate and see it explode in their faces, ultimately resulting in Diamond forming a near total monopoly in comics distribution as a result, and Marvel being bought by Disney. I saw the mixed success of DC’s New 52, and Image Comics go from a collection of delusional artists who thought they could write, to a viable company now publishing one of the most successful horror comics ever. I was there when Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson got married and I was there when it was undone.

I’ve seen the industry’s highs and lows, so when I hear doom and gloom about what’s going on at Marvel, I take it with a grain of salt. That being said, I’ve seen the sales figures, watched YouTube reviews of current Marvel comics, and read a few of the current crop of periodicals myself, and I’m very concerned. This latest article about IDW’s sales and their claims that “industry leaders” being responsible for the sad state of affairs is also very telling.

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What would the comic book industry be without Marvel? You might think that sounds like a silly concept, what with Disney’s money propping it up and all those movies currently in the works. But really, Disney was more concerned about owning the rights to the characters than the comics themselves; if the comics were really that important, would they have let what’s been going on get so bad?

And what’s so bad, you might ask? Okay, I’ll try to remain objective. Marvel has been taken over by a cabal of Socio-Communists hell bent on eroding our American way of life by introducing a group of characters who have replaced our beloved white male heroes with a bunch of posers who are used as tools to promote an insidious progressive agenda.

Hmm, that might not have come out quite as objectively as I had intended…

Seriously, these days it does seem that the men in charge, editor-in-chief Axel Alonso and senior editor/vice president Tom Brevoort, have a real agenda. If you look at comics like Ms. Marvel, America, Black Panther & the Crew (fortunately canceled), as well as Iceman, as well as the replacement of established white male heroes with female and/or non-white characters, then it does feel like they’re pushing a specific social message, or at the very least providing a platform for different writers to present theirs. The problem is that this policy hasn’t exactly been a successful one regarding sales. There are other issues going on at Marvel that I think are contributing to the company’s overall decline, and I thought I would address them here, and discuss how I would fix things if by some miracle I was put in charge.

Step 1: Get control of the editors and writers.

Right now, some members of the Marvel staff are spending an inordinate amount of time on Twitter either 1) defending their work, or 2) arguing with fans regarding said work. Nick Spencer has been especially busy lately. Why, you may ask? Because Nick Spencer is the guy responsible for turning Captain America into an agent of Hydra, and he also wrote the underwhelming Secret Empire event comic that didn’t exactly set the world on fire. In some circles, Nick Spencer is being called “Thick Spencer” due to the size of the stacks of unsold Secret Empire issues at comic book stores nationwide.

The comic nobody asked for.

Twitter is a useful tool to touch base with fans, but it can also bite you in the ass. Look at some of the stupid things Donald Trump has said over the past few months. Remember Gilbert Gottfried, the actor who used to be the voice of the Aflac goose? This is what he tweeted after the tsunami that devastated Japan back in 2011:

Japan called me. They said “maybe those jokes are a hit in the U.S., but over here, they’re all sinking.”

I was talking to my Japanese real estate agent. I said “is there a school in this area.” She said “not now, but just wait.”

Gottfried got fired from his Aflac job because he came across as being just a tiny bit insensitive to the human misery going on. What a shock that a company wouldn’t want a man like that representing them. Elsewhere, more recently, writer Aubrey Sitterson, who’s been penning IDW’s GI Joe comic, had this to say about 9/11:

After some pushback, he followed that up with this:

This guy is writing some of comics’ most patriotic characters after Captain America and Superman, so you’d think he’d tone down the rhetoric. Marvel writers and editors don’t use this sort of language, but the confrontational tone many take aren’t too far removed from this tweet. Free speech is important, but these men and women represent both Marvel Comics and Disney, and they’re getting into debates with the consumers, who are the people who want to buy the comics but don’t like the current product. Worse, they’re now giving real weight to some of their critics by acknowledging them and dismissing them at the same time.

One YouTuber posted a video about one of Nick Spencer’s Secret Empire issues, and a little while later, Spencer himself tweeted that people shouldn’t listen to “YouTube idiots”. Some of those “YouTube idiots” have thousands of followers and those followers buy comic books, so assuming their videos have less impact than, say, a Bleeding Cool article is dangerous. What these Marvel writers and editors need to start doing is maybe, juuust maybe, listen to the fans’ concerns and figure out why their comics aren’t selling.

Now, why aren’t they selling? Let’s talk about that.

Step 2: Fix the quality of the writing and the art.

Here’s a piece of sample art and writing from one comic, The Unstoppable Wasp (which was stopped, as it was recently canceled).

The brunette in the pantsuit is supposed to be Janet Van Dyne, one of the most beautiful women in Marvel Comics. Now here’s a page from The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.

Somebody got paid to draw that. Worse, how about a page from America #5:

Now you might be saying, “Tom, maybe that’s taken out of context or something.” It’s not. Writer Gabby Rivera is a Hispanic lesbian who writes a comic about an interdimensional alien who looks Hispanic and is a lesbian. G. Willow Wilson is a Muslim woman who writes Ms. Marvel, a comic about a young Muslim girl.

Oh look, white men wearing primary color baseball hats are threatening a Pakistani Muslim. G. Willow Wilson’s subtlety is a thing of beauty. Then there’s novelist Ta Nahesi Coates, who was given the green light to write Black Panther & the Crew.

The plot of this (cancelled) series was essentially that gentrification of Harlem is evil, and it takes an all non-white team to fight it. And let’s not forget Occupy Avengers, presumably named after the Occupy Wall Street movement from some years ago. Just look at this group:

I haven’t seen a team this diverse since Extreme Ghostbusters. This series was cancelled because, like Occupy Wall Street, nobody cared and it accomplished nothing. By the way, the African American with the yellow gun is a woman. If you weren’t sure, don’t feel bad, because there seems to be a campaign at Marvel to desexualize women, as seen below:

Carol Danvers, before and after her makeover.

Do people really want to read stories like this, and to look at this art? Do they want to be preached to and repeatedly hammered with socio-political messages? Is Marvel really expecting white straight men to shell out four bucks an issue to be repeatedly told they’re bad people because they live in a country where Trump is President? Sales suggest otherwise.

It’s got to stop. Marvel needs to tone down the political commentary, and they need to focus on what people read comics for, and that’s heroics, action, romance, and escapism. Marvel has gone from being the House of Ideas to the House of Ideologues, and frankly it’s tiresome. They need to step up in terms of the quality of the art and the writing and do something that might actually shock people: listen to the fans.

Step 3: Ease off on the events

It used to be events were a rarity in comics, but now Marvel relies on them to boost sales every year. Since 2005, we’ve seen House of M, Civil War I, World War Hulk, Secret Invasion, Siege, Chaos War, Fear Itself, Avengers vs. X-Men, Age of Ultron, Infinity, Original Sin, Secret Wars, Civil War II, Inhumans vs. X-Men, Monsters Unleashed, and Secret Empire. This doesn’t count the crossovers that happen within families of titles, such as X-Men or Avengers. Imagine how hard it is to be a writer at Marvel when you’re told to drop everything because you’ve got an event tie-in to write for your comic. Whenever I see a crossover banner on a comic I’m subscribed to, I just skip that issue, and I’ve known many comic readers who do the same thing. People are tired of events and Secret Wars’ lackluster sales prove it. Secret Wars should have been a clean slate for Marvel in this regard, but it’s only gotten worse, as the last four events have all happened in the last two years.

Oh, did I forget to mention the upcoming Venomverse Event? My bad.

If I were Marvel’s editor-in-chief, I would call for a several-year moratorium on events, giving writers room to breathe. Let there be crossovers, but allow them to feel organic and not forced.

Step 4: Bring back the heroes people care about.

You might remember how I used this picture in my article about the new Doctor Who:

That’s X-23 as Wolverine and Jane Foster as Thor. And judging by the sales of their comics, people would rather have their male counterparts return. And this is Riri Williams:

If you buy the Iron Man title, you won’t be getting Tony Stark; you’ll be getting a Tony Stark hologram (because Real Tony was beaten nearly to death by Captain Marvel in Civil War II. Our heroes, ladies and gentlemen) and his protégé, a fifteen year old girl who calls herself Ironheart. Three guesses how well this comic is selling.

When the average person thinks of Marvel, they imagine the characters they see in the movies. How can you garner casual fans and make them passionate ones when you give them lesser replacements? And how is this promoting diversity when instead of creating unique heroes, you make the females copies of males? Hell, X-23 had her own following garnered by years of appearing in X-Men comics, and her comic’s sales were doing okay before they made her into what amounts to a Wolverine cosplayer.

You know what they could have done with Riri? Not create Riri. There was another character already in existence that was perfect for the role: Lila Rhodes.

Lila is James “War Machine” Rhodes’ niece, and after his death in Civil War II, one could have easily seen her take on the mantle of War Machine. And if Brian Michael Bendis had really wanted Riri around, he could have formed a new comic involving an “Iron Legion” (or how about “Iron Maidens”? Or is that my internalized misogyny coming to the fore?) consisting of Riri “Ironheart” Williams as the junior member, and Pepper Potts as Rescue…

…along with Lila as the new War Machine, and USAvengers’ Dr. Toni Ho (daughter of Ho Yinsen, the man who saved Tony Stark’s life) as the Iron Patriot.

Four women in armor kicking ass. You don’t even need Stark around as a principle character, as three of these women have the technical know-how. X-23 didn’t make it in her own comic at first, and neither did Wolverine; these characters accrued a fan following in team titles. So if you want to introduce new characters, or give more exposure to established ones who might not have a strong fanbase, this is the way you do it.

So yes, you can have your cake and eat it too; bring back the originals, and give the new characters a different venue in which to shine.

Step 5: Undo “One More Day”

For those of you who aren’t aware of what “One More Day” is, it’s a storyline taking place in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man that deals with the fallout of the first Civil War series. At Tony Stark’s urging, Peter Parker reveals his secret identity to the public at large.

It was one of the absolute dumbest decisions Parker could have possibly made. One of the reasons why Spider-Man has a secret identity in the first place is so his enemies didn’t harm him his loved ones. Once his identity was public knowledge, Aunt May was shot and ended up at death’s door. Peter ran around desperate to find a way to save her and found none, until Mephisto, the head of Marvel’s Hell showed up.

Mephisto offered the Parkers a deal; he would save Aunt May, but only if Peter’s marriage to Mary Jane was undone. He didn’t just mean a divorce; he meant the marriage would never have happened in the first place. The Parkers agreed and made a deal with Marvel’s Satan to save a woman who’s been almost dead numerous times already (in fact, she was once truly dead, and then retconned back to life. Comics). So the Parkers never wedded, and what felt like decades of character development for both characters got flushed. The decision was made to cancel the other two Spider-Man titles and publish Amazing Spider-Man three times a month.

The legacy of this decision is Spider-Man has never been the same in regards to sales; before “One More Day”, sales were around 100,000. Afterwards, sales of some 60,000 were normal. Sure, Spider-Man #700 sold in great numbers, and there have been sales spikes before and after, but today, Spider-Man’s sales hover around 60,000 (the latest issue sold less than 55,000). A shakeup needs to happen. Writer Dan Slott has been writing Spider-Man for years, and he needs to move on. And the new writer, whomever he may be, needs to take Peter back to a place in time when people actually liked him. Marvel needs to undo “One More Day”. Have Aunt May discover what Peter did and she somehow contrives a way to undo the undoing. Have her sacrifice her life to give Peter and Mary Jane the chance to be together again. Granted, maybe that’s not the best idea; Renew Your Vows is a comic about Peter and Mary Jane still being together, with a daughter, and its sales are a very modest 23,000 or so.

So maybe I’m misjudging things when I think people want Peter and Mary Jane back together. But the buzz certainly would cause people to gravitate back to Spider-Man and at least give it another chance.

I don’t think I’m being unreasonable here; all I want is to read fun comics again. I don’t deny that yes, a little socio-political commentary is a good thing. But it really has to be handled with a modicum of restraint so that it doesn’t feel like readers are being preached to. And the art needs to improve, because people who are shelling out four dollars a comic (five dollars in the case of event comics and annuals) deserve value for their money. I want Marvel to achieve greatness again, both for the sake of the fans and the industry as a whole. Is that too much to ask?

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  • I think the art angle is flawed because you phrase it as if people are being “tricked.” The thing about comic books is you can flip through it and see if you like the art or not. Considering Unbeatable Squirrel Girl has a decent-sized (for comics that is) following and has won an Eisner for Best Teen Series, it may just be that the art style isn’t for you. And it doesn’t have to be. But it seems really weird to disparage all variations from a unified style, especially since everyone was complaining about DC’s “House Style” a few years ago.

    Personally I’d rather have a diverse art selection when it’s appropriate, like in a goofy comedy series like Squirrel Girl. I have no real comment on your other art critiques (as I’m not familiar with the Wasp series enough to judge if it was also meant to be comedic and thus more “cartoony” with the art), but I feel you are confusing your personal preference with “good art.” I personally don’t care for the watercolor/sketches style that Old Man Logan usually uses, but I can realize it’s appropriate for the comic it’s in. And since I don’t like it, I don’t buy it, but I don’t feel as if I have to say the comic is bad because my personal preference doesn’t align with the art choice. No one’s tricked me into buying this book and then suddenly the art is bad by my own taste.

    Which if you wanted to complain about art, maybe you could’ve made a point about how Marvel is shipping so fast to try to max quantity over quality that multiple books have multiple pencillers on a single issue, leading to a complete mishmash of art styles and tone? I’m kind of surprised that one got by you since you put a lot of effort into addressing other known issues/complaints by fans these days.

    But I’m 100% on board with fixing One More Day and stopping events. Ain’t nobody got time for 50 events in one year.

    • illuminarch

      “Considering Unbeatable Squirrel Girl has a decent-sized (for comics that is) following…”

      According to Comichron, Marvel shipped 10,281 copies of Unbeatable Squirrel Girl to comic shops. This is not sales, by the way, just what Marvel shipped. That’s good for 199th on a list of 443 comics distributed by Diamond.

      That doesn’t look like a decent-sized following to me, not even in current comic book market terms. And if that did constitute a decent-sized following, all it would demonstrate is that the comic market was moribund unto the edge of death.

      It was not that long ago when Marvel canceled titles as soon as they hit below 50,000 monthly sales. A book that has ships (again, these are just shipments, not even sales) five times less than that should not continue to be published by an industry leader.

      If you wonder what I mean when I say “shipped” instead of “sold”, the gist is this: Diamond reports distribution, not customer sales, which are only known by the individual comic shops. What Marvel has been doing lately is shipping lots of extra books that no one ordered, and these are weighing down comic shop racks all across the country. Marvel is now at the point where it can’t give their books away.

    • Thomas Stockel

      First of all, illuminarch is right when it comes to sales. Squirrel Girl’s aren’t very good at all. I think if it had not won that Eisner that it would have been canceled by now. As for the Eisner, I don’t pay a lot of attention to awards.

      I had a lot of points to make and I was trying to keep the article to a reasonable size. You do raise a good point about the poor decisions Marvel is making regarding using multiple artists on single projects. I remember when DC released JLA vs Suicide Squad they released six issues in six weeks, using different artists for each issue and delivering not only on time but with consistently good art. Look at Secret Empire and how inconsistent the art is over ten issues.

      I never said people were being “tricked”, I simply criticized the art and how low the standards have become at Marvel, due in part to them publishing ninety titles a month. This was the company where the likes of John Byrne, George Perez, Dave Cockrum did awesome work. It’s where Erik Larson and Todd McFarlane became legends. It seems that all the best artists now work at DC, like Ethan Van Sciver.

    • Ummm

      ‘Tricked’ is probably referring entirely to the quality…excuse me, QUALITY of the art–at $4 an issue, I expect decent quality art & writing.

      I’m not quite sure if you’ve spent enough time around artists and art, but the examples all had things that just…made me wince, from an art and composition standpoint. It’s not good quality art, and none of it’s in a style where this might be deliberate a la Sweet Jeff and Hella Bro. This is only compounded by the inking and color (hatchet) jobs–there’s some pretty nice examples out there of what a comic page looks like at various stages and with some artists you can really see just how much their work owes to those people handling the ink and color work. (Somewhere out there you may be able to find an example of the same pencils being handed to different inkers. They have a lot more of a say in the art than you seem to think, and it really shows when you can compare what different ones will do to the same pencils.)

      This is probably even more a part of what you get when you max quantity over quality–when you can’t manage to pull off having the same person doing all of your pencils (and inks and color, as that can cover/cause a LOT here) then you probably also can’t hold out for people who have the necessary sense to compose a page well, never mind the required grasp of anatomy. End result? Your style is “Sucks.” It can range from laaaaazy to possible abuse of Poser somewhere, but at the end of the day, it sucks.

      And yes, composition and anatomy matter even with ‘cartoony’ styles. Check an art book covering them.

      Some of this is simply “$4 is overcharging”–the Squirrel Girl page’s problems are things I’d give a pass for in a webcomic, if the writing was good enough to carry the story and I was seeing signs that we’re going to eventually figure out these esoteric skills known as ‘page composition,’ ‘anatomy,’ and perhaps even ‘backgrounds.’

      (That said, I can go with Captain Marvel having the female soldier look–from what I know of her personality, it fits her a lot better than Blond Wonder Woman, and some of us think that look’s got its own sexiness. The page shown for it looks like it’d fit right at a gallery focusing on Nazi and Stalin-era Soviet poster art, though.)

  • MichaelANovelli

    I would think “Renew Your Vows” went over poorly because Marvel basically said, “You want this so bad? Well, it would lead to the apocalypse! Bet you feel like shit now, eh? Fuck you!”

    • Thomas Stockel

      It’s hard to say why it isn’t more successful. Archie Goodwin is a competent writer these days and the art is nice. I guess maybe part of it is it isn’t taking place in the mainstream MU so it doesn’t feel like it matters. I don’t know, to be honest.

      • GreenLuthor

        Er… I’m not sure who you meant to say there, but Archie Goodwin really isn’t doing much writing these days, seeing as he died in 1998…

        • Thomas Stockel

          Yup, you’re right. Gerry Conway is writing RYV. Now in the old days you’d get a no-prize. But if an editor at Marvel had made that error today and you noted it chances are you’d be called a neo-fascist or something. ;p

    • Michael Smith

      I tend to agree here, Renew Your Vows felt like a slap in the face of those who wanted One More Day to go away. It was totally a SEE SEE SEE what happens when Mary Jane and Peter stay together? End of the world!

  • Kradeiz

    It is nice to see someone question Marvel’s tackling of social issues that doesn’t amount to “Feminists and SJWs ruined Marvel!” and actually places the blame with the writers and editors. And I am 100 percent onboard with having stories that deal with real-life issues and problems, but many of these nowadays seem pretty heavy-handed, especially since (as you pointed out) they’re not what people primarily read comics for, and even people who agree with the messages being sent will probably be turned off.

  • Chris Hedrick

    For the record, I like Carol’s new costume. I’d prefer the longer hair, but her black number – while cool in its own right – would look a little awkward in her new status quo, where she’s addressing a committee of government overseers in suits.

    Though in fairness, it could be because the balance of colors look more aesthetically pleasing on her than it does Superman.

    • Thomas Stockel

      I see your point. But I can also see her wearing her Air Force uniform, or one nice thing they had in issue #0 she had a Captain Marvel casual swearter or hoodie. I could see her addressing authority figures in an official capacity in a black pantsuit, wearing her star symbol in a lapel. I just dislike this whole desexualization of women, like we didn’t take these characters seriously if they appeared to be feminine.

  • Clockwork

    Any time you replace a beloved character that everyone is used to, even if it was the same race/gender, people loose interest. Think recasting of the Duke Boys, Fake Diesel/Fake Razor Ramon, Jason Newstead, a new actor playing Bo, etc. It just comes off as a knock-off and in the case of race/gender swapping, it just adds another layer of “replacementism”. There’s nothing wrong with adding diversity…but they just need to make new characters. Shit, my new favorite villain is a darned cat (Dex-Starr the Red Lantern) and he replaced no one! Had they made Catwoman change into Dex-Starr I wouldn’t be so fond.

  • Nick Minecci

    Re: point 2 – I am a white man in my mid 40s, I still collect and read comics. My favorite title currently is “Hawkeye” because I absolutely love how Kelly Thompson writes Kate Bishop. The other title I was enjoying was “Champions” because it was fun, had good humor in it and it was interesting to see the young heroes. Then we get to issue 5 I believe, where, they go to a small town that is experiencing a wave of hate
    crimes. Gwenpool shows up to help and they figure out that the town sheriff is responsible for the spread of the hate crimes. Of course he’s white and a bully.
    I was really sad by this turn….take the easy “white man in power is evil” trope and beat it over our heads. I would have gone with something possibly more edgy, like having the “hate crimes” turn out to be a local person of color or from another country fabricating the “crimes” and them justifying it with the “I was only trying to bring awareness” excuse…kind of like the Air Force Academy scandal and others that have happened. Then the Champions can address that yes, there are people OF ALL ethnic backgrounds, color, religion, etc. that are phobic, but creating a false crime and whipping up emotions by blaming people that have done nothing is the wrong way to go. But instead they go the cliche route and it just ended up offending a lot of people I know.