Friday, May 1, 2009

What I Think Marvel is Doing Wrong - The Events

Welcome to the final installment of What I Think Marvel is Doing Wrong. I have already asked you what you thought Marvel was doing wrong, and I have made my first two points, which were about Marvel's imprints and Marvel's business practices. Please do go back and read those previous entries, or you are going to feel like you just walked in the middle of the movie. For the final entry, I will discuss what was by far the most common complaint from the readers, the events. Additionally, I share my final thoughts on this whole series, so hit the jump for more!

The Events

Point -
Marvel floods the markets with event tie-ins

We've all seen how much worse comics like X-Factor have gotten when forced to have event tie-ins.
- Klep 

During Secret Invasion, almost every single ongoing title felt the repercussions of the Skrull invasion, in addition to the numerous of miniseries and one-shots associated with the event. Once the dust had settled, Marvel ended up releasing more than one hundred tie-in issues. Civil War and House of M also received a huge amount of tie-ins, as did World War Hulk. This is especially baneful for the more completist readers and collectors, both of which wish get the full story and will quickly find themselves in financial dire straits.

Aside from the financial repercussions, we have seen how a line-wide event can affect the long term plans of a title. One example of this is X-Factor, a poster child for such editorial mandates and something I have already written about on my old blog. If a reader is just following some fringe titles and not the summer events, their title will be suddenly invaded by something they do not care about or particularly want to be involved with.

Point -
Overexposure of characters

That makes characters not acting like themselves. [...] Inconsistent portrayals along with all these events [...] is a trainwreck waiting to happen. They can't even get a grip on just what the SHRA calls for from the superhero community.
- ShadowWing Tronix 

Another aspect of the summer events, and the fallout of such events, is the overexposure of certain characters. During the days of Civil War, it seemed like every title had a guest appearance by Captain America and/or Iron Man. During World War Hulk, the titular green giant and his alien allies were also appearing heavily on a lot of titles and, for the duration of Secret Invasion, Skrulls appeared in almost every comic on the stands.

One of the main problems with this is that it leads to a "multiple personality disorder" where characters act in different ways when used by different writers.

For example, the Skrulls were sometimes seen as a peaceful transition force with no desire to kill humans. Other times, they were a group of soldiers that were simply doing a job that they were not particularly pleased about and, other times still, as a ruthless force of religious zealots.

Another such example was the handling of Iron Man during Civil War and the Initiative status quo. He was a hero that made the right decision despite everything going wrong and riddled with guilt in one book while a political strawman for Katrina, the war in Iraq and other such things in another book while simultaneously being hailed as the next Dr Doom or Red Skull and used as the mustache twirling villain in other books.

When handling a huge number of appearances that span an entire line of comics for months on end, it becomes obvious not even the best of editors and writers will be able to keep the vision of certain characters consistent and this leads to some very different handlings of the same characters across the board.

Counterpoint -
True repercussions

There weren't this many minis back in the day. There was no equivalent for Dark Reign: Elektra. There wasn't a Volcana mini-series that picked up after Secret Wars to show what happened afterwards.
- Anonymous 

Despite my, and other reader's, reservations about the ridiculous number of tie-ins, specials, miniseries and one-shots, it does create the illusion that there really is an event going on in the Marvel Universe. The repercussions are felt everywhere and the big players are seen around the universe interacting with everyone and doing their best to stem the tide of whatever threat is affecting them for that given event.

DC's Final Crisis actually did the opposite of Marvel's strategy, going with a handful of tie-ins, and felt the negative criticism of their event not "meaning anything" or "being reflected in other books" and, thus, giving off a general feeling that the event didn't even happen or have any impact.

These specials, miniseries and one-shots show the effects that these events have on everyone around the shared universe. Dark Reign, for example, is providing plenty of tie-ins for less popular or lesser known characters, like Elektra, Young Avengers, Venom, War Machine and so on, ensuring that there truly is something for everyone and showing the impact of the Dark Cabal's rise to power. This is also a great way for Marvel to test the waters for new series that readers might be interested in. The problem arises when the shear number of these tie-ins exceeds the output of actual ongoing titles...

Point -
The Marvel Universe is in a constant state of flux

With Marvel there are too many changes, so that when something "big" happens, the gravity of it doesn't sink in.
- The Dangster  

It seems that ever since the events of Avengers Dissasembled, in the early-to-mid-00's, the Marvel universe has been in a constant state of flux, going from one event to the other with little time spent actually dealing with or reflecting the events that occurred. The heroes of Marvel must constantly learn to deal with the new status quo that comes with the aftermath of these events.

The problem arises from the fact that the constant changes that the heroes and the readers must endure lessens the impact of the next one and the next one and so on. Additionally, because of the fact that these events happen with an increased frequency, not enough time is given to the aftermath and, consequently, the changes are not taken seriously by readers because they know that, once the next event rolls up, the status quo is going to change yet again.

The prime example I point to for this is the current state of the Spider-Man titles. Hands up, how many people remember or care about what happened to Spider-Man in House of M? There was an incredible amount of potential with his knowledge of his 'perfect life' with Gwen from that alternate reality and him destroying the table in Avengers Tower is a powerful scene reflecting that. Aside from one great scene in Son of M, it was never mentioned again and they moved on to The Other, where he 'died' and received new powers, which were then forgotten in favour of a new Iron Spider-Man costume, which was then ditched and forgotten for the unmasking, which, again, was forgotten for the Back in Black/One More Day fiasco. Not a single one of these changes were explored or touched upon after numerous promises of how each was story driven and how the writers were going to touch on all the questions readers had concerning each "major" change.

Counterpoint -
Opportunities for new stories

I was going to complain about the constant events, but Dark Reign really isn't an event. It's a status quo, and its been a really fun one.
- Jeremy 

The summer events do provide a new playground for characters to interact in, which is one of the strongest aspects of Marvel's events. Despite the short length of their aftermaths, there's usually a clearly defined new status quo after them that Marvel always does an excellent job out of the gate on, but seems to falter with when it comes time to promote the Next Big Event.

The recent Dark Reign status quo is an excellent example of this. It has opened up whole new aspects of the Marvel universe, for writers and characters alike, that, while not particularly original (people have compared it to DC's President Luthor storyline), gives the line of comics a breath of fresh air and writers the ability to explore a world with the villains in charge, show how the public and our heroes react and so on.

Since the beginning of Dark Reign we have seen new teams, such as Dark Avengers and Secret Warriors, and new characters and old favourites get the limelight, such as Moonstone and Dakken. Despite what my, or any reader's, personal feelings about those characters is, it is always a good thing to spotlight new or lesser known characters as it helps create and flesh out a more encompassing universe.

Point -
Event fatigue

While these events certainly drive sales in the short term, it reduces the ability of writers for individual comics to develop their characters and write issues speaking to the characters' defining traits.
- Klep 

Events take up a good portion of every yearly calendar for comics and, therefore, also command a good portion of the attention of Marvel's editors, writers, artists and other talents. Instead of focusing on long, creator driven runs for individual titles, each title's big stories are upgraded to events and published as separate titles.

Case in point, Secret Invasion started as a self-contained New and Mighty Avengers crossover that Marvel ballooned out to a line wide, 100+ book event and it shows in the strength of the writing. It reminded me of Young Avengers' New Skrull/Kree War that capped off their first series. A simple story like that, if it had been in New Avengers or another popular title, would be ballooned up into a line wide event, despite not having the strength to sustain such an endeavour.

As these stories start in other titles and get thrust into an event book, many people find themselves "forced" to buy these big events in order to follow what your favorite character or team or comic is doing to continue the story you've already invested yourself in. Consumers don't like this and one really bad event is all it will take in order to turn off a whole chunk of Marvel's readers (see: DC's Amazons Attack or Countdown) from buying what are supposed to be your best stories and your biggest draws.

Counterpoint -
Sales numbers

Marvel will continue to point to numbers as their reasons for continuing with events and the constant linewide changes.
- Kirk Warren  

Despite reader complaints, events still dominate in terms of sales and in public awareness when it comes to comics, as well as experiencing stronger trade paperback life and sales.

Events provide instant gratification and are a great way to lure in new readers and Marvel knows this. Despite the aforementioned tie-ins, most Marvel events (I'm talking about the main series) can be read from beginning to end and you will get a complete story out of it. There are obvious hints of more happenings before, during, and after the events, which is meant to get people interested in and reading other titles or trades, but that is also the business appeal of events. Until the numbers no longer support this model, Marvel has a justified reason to keep feeding the market what it wants.

Solution -
Give it a rest

I have no problem with events in principle and I've actually liked all the recent Marvel events [...], but I'm burnt out. Events are like climactic moments in movies. After the climax, you need to come down - be allowed to rest and recover
- Aaron Kimmel 

As mentioned before, the Marvel universe is in the middle of the Dark Reign status quo and should stay as that for at least the next year. Marvel should let the aftermath of events truly sink in and explore every possibility of it before moving on to the Next Big Event. It is important for writers to be able to develop whichever characters or storylines they are working on without the concern of a big event striking down their plans midstride.

I know this is probably setting the bar a little too high, but Marvel should look at Ed Brubaker's Captain America title as inspiration. It is a title that has only been involved in one event (Civil War), but has been, for the most part, self-contained and has managed to be both a critical and commercial success. Other titles that have been successful off in their own little bubble continuity include Immortal Iron Fist, Daredevil and, despite popular opinion online, Amazing Spider-Man.

Of coure, I am not saying that Marvel should stop doing events either, but they should, instead, spread them out more and concentrate on making them more memorable while exploring the new story telling opportunities they always truppet as reasons for the changes. World War Hulk was two years ago, and it is barely remembered outside of people that read the Hulk, who only look to it for a time before Loeb took the title in a completely different direction that ignored everything that came before.

I believe that one Civil War or Secret Invasion-like event every two or three years is a happy medium that most fans will agree with yet still frequent enough to drive in new readers and reinvigorate certain titles when needed. In between these events, Marvel can still have "mini-events" between two or three titles, such as upcoming Dark Avengers/Uncanny X-Men crossover or what they are doing with Messiah War over in Cable and X-Force.


There were many comments that I did not get to use for the article, but it was overwhelmingly obvious that events were the main issue that people have with Marvel presently. I know some people dismiss the "event fatigue" as something not to take seriously, but what I saw while preparing this article goes against any such dismissal. Marvel should definitely dial down the events or risk losing readers in the long term.

What Is Marvel Doing Wrong?

One of the most common comments that I got when I posed the question, "What do you think Marvel is doing wrong?", was that being a business and their sales numbers was no excuse for some of Marvel's actions, and I would have to respectfully disagree. I am not saying that anything that sells well is good, but it is in everyone's nature to complain about something that they have bought and do not like.

Something that we should always keep in mind, however, is that we may no longer be the target demographic of certain comics: I, for example, have stopped buying Spider-Man comics because I recognize that that particular comic is not aimed at me anymore. Additionally, most online complaints seem to be aimed at popular, high selling titles, creators or characters, which I find to be rather interesting.

The reason I specifically asked to keep in mind the business aspect of Marvel is because that was what I wanted to focus on, much like Kirk's What Is DC Doing Wrong? series of posts. My concerns (and those of readers) wass for that of Marvel's future despite their current success. Some of Marvel's practices, whether it is the lack of imprints, their big events, or certain business methods, could potentially cause them harm in the long run, both to themselves and to the industry in general. That is what I wanted to highlight and to open a discussion about because, despite whatever personal feeling you have about Marvel or their comics and whether or not you read a whole lot of Marvel comics, I think we can all agree that no one wishes Marvel to collapse in on itself like it almost did in the mid-to-late 90's.

Despite some of my concerns, I still think Marvel is doing great and I read more Marvel titles than anything else. For all that I have written about and discussed about what I think Marvel is doing wrong, there's no denying that they are doing a great deal of things right that I feel are worth mentioning again: Marvel fosters more new talent, Marvel is more visible and reader-friendly to new customers, Marvel uses new technology to their fullest, and Marvel produces some great comics that will definitely be remembered for years to come.

It was refreshing to hear that some people share my concerns and I hope that I have provided enough constructive criticism to avoid coming off as just a raving fanboy crying out at a company. I hope to hear if you, the readers, agree with what I think Marvel is doing wrong. And if you disagree, I still want to hear all about it is you think I missed or got wrong, so feel free to comment below.

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Steven R. Stahl said...

Some quick reactions:

Perhaps the biggest problem with events is that they’re plot-driven. Marvel tries to hook readers by touting the immensity and intensity of what’s going on; the writer of a title, under pressure to do a tie-in, has to have his characters react to the event, even if it’s irrelevant. The results can be disastrous. Carey’s “X-Men” tie-in had the Beasts studying a Skrull and concluding that they were loaded with X-genes, while Bendis’s NEW AVENGERS had Skrulls studying mutants and learning how to duplicate the X-gene, which they supposedly already had. SECRET INVASION apparently was conceived with people thinking that the impersonated heroes would be sleeper agents, as was the case with Spider-Woman, but that part of the premise was abandoned, apparently, when they had to generate ideas for NEW AVENGERS and MIGHTY AVENGERS tie-ins.

In a good series, one will find character-driven stories, and such stories should be the norm, but events will invariably conflict with that approach.

Sales aren’t everything, and they can’t be everything. I cite, again, respectability. When it’s obvious to observers that Marvel is putting out more titles than they can edit properly, and coming up with ideas for stories that are worthless, simply because they need tie-ins, then it’s also obvious that they’re trying to make quotas for the number of units produced and sales figures that have nothing to do with quality. Marvel isn’t producing screws or plywood sheets. They’re producing entertainment, and the quality of that entertainment matters.


Eric Rupe said...

"They’re producing entertainment, and the quality of that entertainment matters." - SRSWell, they seem to be able to produce enough entertainment that enough people deem to have a good enough quality to make them the number one publisher in the Direct Market.

Just because you don't like it doesn't mean everyone does. Marvel is producing quality entertainment for someone, their target demographic, and you are not in it so of course you are not going to like it. Quality is personal, you can't quantify it.

Steven R. Stahl said...

"Quality is personal, you can't quantify it."

I've seen variations of that argument many, many times, generally made by people who enjoy reading what others call "junk," but who can't bear to admit that publicly -- so they try to dismiss the criticism by claiming that each person's opinion is valid only for his own tastes.

That is absolutely wrong. A plot can have holes or other mistakes that are screamingly obvious. The result is a defective plot, regardless of one's tastes. Mischaracterization, giving a continuing character a background or personality traits she doesn't have elsewhere, is objectively wrong. Factual mistakes, representing actual things incorrectly, are obvious mistakes.

It's nice to imagine that each person's opinion is as valid as everyone else's, but that's not the case. Such a situation makes everyone an uninformed fool.


Christine said...

"Quality is personal, you can't quantify it."

While I agree with this sentiment, there is one aspect of what constitutes quality that I think it would benefit Marvel to pay more attention to. It's been touched on by Matt here, and by many people who've commented: consistency and a general sense of cohesiveness (as in how characters and events are portrayed across titles). All other things being equal, the people who don't care about this aren't going to mind Marvel raising the bar here, but the people who do might feel much more enthusiastic about actually getting on board with these events. I'm not talking about writers having to keep in mind every little piece of Marvel continuity, but there's a certain amount of unnecessary sloppiness in not asking the question "does this fit with the larger picture?" Of course, for that to work someone needs to have actually thought about the larger picture.

Eric Rupe said...

Steven - You are confusing technical quality, which you can measure, with entertainment quality, which is personal and can't be measure from person to person.

A story can be excellent from a technical perspective and still suck while another book can be bad from a technical perspective and still be entertaining.

How much enjoyment someone gets out a story is not always based on its technical quality.

Eric Rupe said...

Christine - I agree with you but I don't think its something Marvel and DC worry that much about because I don't think most fans don't buy enough books for them to notice or care.

Plus, it doesn't always fit into the larger picture. Try putting together a narrative for Batman RIP, Superman New Krypton, Wonder Woman Rise of the Olympian and JSA Thy Kingdom Come. You can't really. I think Marvel and DC are too big really to do a cohesive shared universe correctly.

Christine said...

@Eric Rupe
Doesn't that sort of defy the whole point of doing universe wide events? Otherwise they should just call it a "theme" or something. Then again, I might be asking for too much logic here, I know.

Anonymous said...

Should Marvel and DC have cohesive and completely shared universes? I think that this sounds great in theory, and some books (JLA, Avengers) lend themselves well for this. They contain characters that usually have their own on-going series, so having the feel of a shared universe naturally happens. However, there is much to be gained by having a character or team inhabit a special niche in the universe. They don't have to be beholden to "big events," and they can develop at their own pace. It's sad that neither company, though, has a business practice that supports regonalism in books.

Eric Rupe said...

Christine - Yeah, I've stopped trying to make sense of Marvel and DC's shared universes a long time ago because, at this point, I don't think it.

Anonymous - For regional books, Marvel has the X-Men and it looks like DC is doing that with their Batman and Superman books.

ShadowWing Tronix said...

The biggest problem with the events, beyond the overload vs. time for the aftermath to sink in (I wouldn't mind if the events were seasonal, something extra to keep the reader's attention during the otherwise slower months), is the lack of cohesion between the titles. Perhaps if the writers/group editors all got together (whether physically, confernece call, or virtually through Second Life or something--works for universities), came up with a plan and some kind of "bible" for the writers to follow, you'd have the characters a bit more in tune with themselves in other titles.

Also, let the event take place in one title (rather than 5 different spin-off titles, and major plot points happening in the regular titles), and simply let the individual titles react to it. That's worked well in the past. Some titles pretty much stayed out of the main action, but did acknowledge what was happening, and letting those events affect the characters in that manner.

Klep said...

You've already used my points, so I don't really have anything to add. Nice work.

Steven R. Stahl said...

"Steven - You are confusing technical quality, which you can measure, with entertainment quality, which is personal and can't be measure from person to person."

I'm pretty sure you didn't intend to be insulting -- but writing "You are confusing. . ." is patronizing at best and generally is insulting, because the writer usually doesn't know what knowledge base the target is using.

And, in the case of Marvel, technical quality is the paramount issue. "Avengers Disassembled" was rife with technical errors, the flagrant mischaracterizations of Wanda and Dr. Strange chief among them. Since that event laid the foundation for the subsequent events, the current Marvel universe can be dismissed as an incoherent, invalid mess.

Bendis's "Illuminati" concept can be dismissed because the participation of the various heroes violated characterizations, Dr. Strange's in particular, and because their principal mission, going to the Skrull home world, constituted an idiot plot.

“Secret Invasion” was rife with plotting errors as well. If Dr. Strange had used the Eye of Agamotto to do what it was intended to do -- identify imposters -- the event never would have happened. Bendis’s inadequate knowledge of computer and DNA technologies resulted in wildly unrealistic use of computer (StarkTech) technology and DNA technology, as implemented by Skrulls and humans, that was inferior to real-world technology.

For the purposes of reviewing an individual issue, one can minimize the continuing problems with the premises of Marvel’s events -- he practically has to, or nearly every issue would receive a failing grade -- but the enjoyment of the stories is greatly impacted, as it should be, if a reader cares at all about techniques and craftsmanship. Reading a comic book isn’t nearly like watching a video, in which excellent special effects, cinematography, acting, etc., can compensate somewhat for weak plotting and formulaic characterization. If a story is based on an idiot plot and/or plot holes and/or mischaracterization, it’s irretrievably junk. The artwork exists only to serve the plot, not to be gazed at wonderingly as if a comic book was a gallery. Technical quality cannot be separated from entertainment quality on the basis of the artwork

There is, actually, a basis for retconning the Marvel Universe back to the pre-”Avengers Disassembled” state: Assume that Ikonn, the “God of Illusions,” is controlling the universe via Wanda and that everything that has happened since then is a mixture of reality and illusion. There’s no way for Marvel to eliminate that concept as the basis for a “reset” unless they address it directly and correctly.

BTW, the demographics of the readership don’t affect technical quality concerns. The readership is overwhelmingly adult, and unless they consider comics something to be read while on the toilet or waiting for a bus, and thrown away afterward, they should be offended by low technical quality.


Anonymous said...

Consider this - in the recent Hulk issue where "Rulk" kicks the crap out of Thor in outer space, that issue may have been entertaining for some, or even most judging by the title's ridiculously inflated monthly sales, but it was "irretrievable junk." I am not interested in reading such drivel no matter how popular.

Jack Norris said...

My take (which I outlined in more detail in a previous comment) wasn't so much that being a business was "no excuse for some of Marvel's actions" but that Marvel's business needs weren't really the fan's problem when complaining about something they don't like.
There's a subtle difference there.
As long as you don't go on about what Marvel "owes" you, or try to petition the government to interfere in their practises for you, what obligation do you really have to take the whole "it's a business" point into consideration when expressing your reaction to the product?
Unless you actually work for Marvel, none at all.

Jack Norris said...

Also, I think that the "constant state of flux" pretty much wipes out its "new story opportunities" counterpoint due to the fact that the windows for those opportunities are just so super-short lately.
Each of the half-dozen created-then-plowed-over-for-the-next-one status quos that we've seen over the past few years have been rich with story possibilities that have been left unrealized due to the haste to leap to the next event with it's corresponding changed playing field.

(I feel this problem is much more prevalent at Marvel than DC BTW.)

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