I’ve been putting out vinyl since ’93 and never looked back once
And y’all trying to chase me
You don’t innovate because you can’t innovate
It’s not a choice despite what you might tell your boys
Keep your identity crisis under the table
I always knew who I was and I’ll always be more famous
-El-P, “We’re Famous”
“What the fuck is DC anyway?” Mr. Quesada said, stoking the fires. “They’d be better off calling it AOL Comics. At least people know what AOL is. I mean, they have Batman and Superman, and they don’t know what to do with them. That’s like being a porn star with the biggest dick and you can’t get it up. What the fuck?” (Paul Levitz, DC’s president and publisher, declined to comment for this story through a spokesperson.)
–The Observer, 04/28/02
Joe Quesada, EiC of Marvel Comics, gets a lot of crap.
To be honest, a lot of it is deserved. Marvel has done some bone-headed stuff under his rule. Losing Grant Morrison, the Heroes for Hire thing, giving Greg Land work, almost firing Mark Waid, and so on. I’m sure you have a laundry list of reasons to dislike the dude. He’s got a big mouth, too, and doesn’t hesitate to open it.
But, and here is the rub– it’s his fault that comics are so good right now. Let me explain.
There is a philosophy that a president, I think it was President Rickard, used to have. Okay, it was Truman and I was reaching way too hard for the Prez Rickard joke. Anyway, it’s “The buck stops here.” In other words, if you’re the boss, all the bad crap that happens is your fault, whether you had a direct hand in it or not. It’s a way of taking responsibility for things that your organization does. It’s also a way of blaming the head guy in charge for everything and anything.
Turn that around, though. Doesn’t the head guy in charge deserve some credit for the good things, too? I think so.
Joey da Q is not the best guy around, I won’t deny that. Marvel is hardly perfect. But, he’s trying, and I can respect that. Obviously, the credit for these decisions should be shared with his editors, the creators, Bill Jemas, and Dan Buckley, but Joe Q should get a slice of that, as well.
This is pretty long, and I cover a lot of stuff, from comics to sex to race to dissing the competition, so click through.
Let’s start early on, okay? This isn’t the first move, but it’s close. It’s the year 2000 and the world, miraculously, didn’t explode. This is back in the Quesada/Jemas era, roundabouts. Marvel is in crap shape and needs a leg up. Amazing Spidey and Peter Parker are floundering hard under Howard Mackie’s pen.
Creative team change ahoy. August 2000, cover-date, at least, Paul Jenkins and Mark Buckingham (among other artists) take over Peter Parker, Spider-Man. They produce a well-regarded run that focuses on the small moments between Peter Parker and his supporting cast. The stories are smaller in scale, generally, and tend to pack some kind of emotional punch.
Jun 2001 (again, cover-date). J. Michael Stracsynski and John Romita, Jr take over Amazing Spider-Man and produce one of my personal favorite runs on a comic ever. Despite all the talk about spider-totems and all, JMS and JRjr did wonderful work and brought Spidey back to where he should be: the center of attention. They fixed the Peter/MJ marriage and made us believe in it again. They revealed Spidey’s identity to Aunt May in a story that was handled with a deft touch, and gave us a brand new dynamic amongst Pete’s supporting cast: they both know his secret, so the lies are gone. Granted, JMS really only worked with MJ and May, and Detective Lamont, but the stories were good and the character moments were better.
The end result? Spider-Man is a name again, and not just a book that people buy for completion purposes.
Fixing the X-Men
I’ve got six words for you that mean comic book magic: Grant Morrison. Frank Quitely. New X-Men.
And so, the newest chapter in the X-Men soap opera began with a bang and led to a 40-odd issue run of good to excellent quality. Morrison brought a new sensibility to the X-Men, even as he revamped old stories for a new generation. A renewed focus on the X-Mansion as school and the X-Men as the forefront of mutant cool was put into place. He turned Emma Frost into an even cooler character (“What makes you such a bitch, Emma?” “Breeding, darling.”), made Cyclops and Jean’s relationship interesting and realistic, and hit us with a gang of new characters. Fantomex is the sensational character find of the 2000s, and I’m both disappointed and happy that Marvel have dropped him. Not to mention the Cuckoos, Beak, Dust, Xorn… poor, poor Xorn.
For once, the X-Men were new. Marvel put a rock star on New X-Men and it came off pretty well. I’ve got three handsome hardcovers on my shelf, and the X-Men are relevant once again.
X-Statix probably deserves a mention here, as well, as it gave us another angle on the X-Men universe.
Here’s what you do: take a more or less unknown writer/artist out of Image Comics, give him a much-hyped book with a good artist, and see what happens.
Brian Michael Bendis, meet Marvel Comics. Ultimate Spider-Man, Ultimate Marvel Team-Up.
Here’s another idea: take a controversial writer who is screaming hot off The Authority, and give him a couple books, too. Toss in Bryan Hitch, a Kubert or two, and stir. Ultimates and Ultimate X-Men.
Putting Brian Bendis on Marvel has led to, what, 110 issues of Ultimate Spidey in around seven years. The majority of that run, I’d say, has been good, with it faltering around the Deadpool arc. Bendis has reimagined Spidey’s universe, and the Marvel U itself, and turned it into something that still feels new. He took Marvel’s second worst crossover and made a good story out of it. He turned Doc Ock into a credible threat, made Venom not annoying, wrote a quality teenage relationship, and churned out like eight hardcovers, or seventeen trades, of new user friendly Spider-Man material. Sales? Sales are good.
Mark Millar, my feelings on his body of work aside, is a Name. Ultimates with Hitch is a beautiful book and it sold bunches. It was a blockbuster, pretty much in every sense of the word.
Daredevil is a much-loved character with kind of a checkered past. He’s defined by his writer more than probably any other character, and each of those writers are compared to Frank Miller. There is pre-Miller DD, Miller’s DD, Nocenti’s DD, Chichester’s DD, Weird ’90s Armor DD, Kevin Smith DD, and Bendis’s DD. The latter two are salient here.
Kevin Smith on Daredevil was probably the start of the “big name from out of comics on a comic” trend, and he was pretty freaking successful. That’s cool, but we’re here to talk about Bendis.
Brian Bendis was joined by Alex Maleev for all but, what, six issues of his DD run? They crafted a story that took Matt Murdock from rock bottom to a peak and back down to rock bottom again. They revealed his identity to the Marvel U at large and actually dealt with the consequences of that. He got a new girlfriend, the blind Milla Donovan, and eventually married her. Later, it was revealed that he was in the middle of a tremendous nervous breakdown, casting doubt on his actions.
Bendis/Maleev on Daredevil is better than or equal to Frank Miller or Nocenti’s DD. They brought the book to a grimy crime level and kept it there. It was grounded and realistic– actions have consequences and Murdock gets to pay all of them. Bullseye was turned into a non-spandexed threat, Murdock’s relationship with Elektra was explored, and Matt gained a supporting cast. Bendis re-established his relationship with Luke Cage and Iron Fist.
Your opinion of Brian Bendis aside, you can’t deny that he’s done some excellent books for Marvel and really raised the bar for storytelling over there.
Joe Q Let Bendis Write Cage
This one isn’t too long. Luke Cage became awesome under Joe Q’s tenure, from MAX to mainline Marvel U. Why? Because Joe Q let Bendis write Luke Cage into Daredevil and Alias over and over.
Luke Cage is awesome.
Bye bye comics code, hello MAX Comics!
Marvel’s mature readers line opened with Alias, a book that rivals the best stuff out of Vertigo. Brian Bendis and Michael Gaydos told the tale of hero turned private investigator Jessica Jones. She quit being a hero under tagic circumstances, and is content to spiral further into self-destruction.
Alias is about a woman coming to terms with herself. It was a 28 (I believe, I’m working from memory) issue ride that ends in a happy place. It deals with the consequences of heroing, what happens to heroes in the Marvel U, the trials and tribulations of life in the Marvel U, and showed us a few heroes from back in the day, including poor, unloved Speedball. It was a street level book and stayed that way, even when it dipped into fourth-wall breaking Hannibal Lecterism. It was always about Jessica, from first page to last.
The MAX line did its share of juvenile books, yeah, and a few of them were from Garth Ennis. Don’t front like Vertigo didn’t ever publish Vamps or Codename Knockout, though, okay? MAX also gave us Apache Skies, a John Ostrander/Leo Manco western about Apache Kid, his wife (the new Apache Kid, IIRC), and Johnny Bart, the Rawhide Kid.
Garth Ennis did Fury, which was a thoroughly Ennisian book (facial deformities, sex jokes, exploded guts), but he’s also done Punisher. Punisher MAX, with the arguable exception of Barracuda (I don’t agree) hasn’t had a bad story arc yet. No joke– from Born to The Tyger to the main series, Punisher MAX has been Marvel’s single most consistent comic. Yes, it’s Ennis, yes it’s violent, yes it’s about the Punisher– but the story arcs have been excellent and really fleshed Frank out.
Frank isn’t a cipher, but he is kind of our window into his world. The book is, on one level at least, a voyeuristic revenge book. Frank is killing the people that we hate and fear. Mobsters, gangsters, thugs, soldiers, corrupt businessmen, and white slavers. All of them are in his sights. The Wu-Tang Clan used to call their style “the CNN of the streets.” In a way, Punisher MAX is the same thing. He is our window in a world we really only want to see in comics, you know? It’s Rambo, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon in comic form.
I mean, a Punisher comic would be the last place I’d expect to see a responsible story about the effects of white slavery, but Punisher: The Slavers did it, albeit from Frank’s POV. We still manage to get a non-Frank POV through a few very sympathetic main characters. There’s a line in there, after Frank has already started in on wrecking the slaver crew. Keep in mind that this comes after 25+ issues of Frank killing the crap out of hundreds of people. “It was in that moment that I realized something. A dull, blurred feeling I’d had since this whole mess began, all of a sudden crystal clear. It had been a long, long time since I hated anyone the way I hated them.”
Punisher MAX is Ennis’s best work since Hitman.
(I’ll stop gushing now, but I really like that book.)
Joe Q’s Marvel has been, with short stretches of exceptions, very friendly to non-mainstream and new (to Marvel) creators. There’s a new indie anthology on the line for Marvel, but the list of people who worked for Marvel is nuts.
Paul Pope, Darwyn Cooke, Jim Mahfood, Ted McKeever, Brian Azzarello, Eduardo Risso, Peter Milligan, Jon Totleben, Chynna Clugston, Tom Beland, Dean Haspiel… and that’s just from Spider-Man: Tangled Web, save for Pete Milligan. Marvel has aggressively pushed for new artists and writers. They broke Jason (Other Side, Scalped) Aaron, gave Sean McKeever a higher profile, pushed Bendis hard, and so on. Marvel isn’t afraid to give creators a chance. We got Matt Fraction out of that push, along with Charlie Huston and a bunch of others.
Jacking 4 Beats
On the same note, Marvel will steal your creators out from under you. Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Peter Milligan, Paul Jenkins, Ed Brubaker, Jeph Loeb (despite working at Marvel years ago), Sean Phillips, Mike Carey, Frazer Irving, Simone Bianchi, Pascual Ferry, Yanick Paquette, Garth Ennis, Joe Casey, and others all got their start, or were best known at, DC Comics. This is just the short list, too, right off the top of the head.
Marvel bit off four of the Seven Soldiers artists before DC put a stop to it. They aren’t afraid to take your people and use them to make their books better. DC was wasting Brubaker on the Bat-crossovers, so Marvel gives him Cap, Uncanny, and Iron Fist, two of which are excellent and the third is good.
City Name Sports Team
Joe Q brought back the Marvel/DC rivalry with a modern-day twist. He dissed DC multiple times and very frankly, but also with a point. The quote up top about DC Comics is vulgar, but true– how can you not sell Batman and Superman comics? They are the heroes, and having their line falter? Garbage.
Joe Q’s rabble rousing was just what the comics industry needed. People love drama and hate to see their brand dissed. Brand loyalty means that you get to keep a few fans, you know? It gets the juices flowing on the fan side and pisses off your competition at the same time. Now, the competition has to prove you wrong, hopefully by making better books.
You could argue that Identity Crisis was the renaissance moment for DC Comics. They suddenly became relevant again, after War Games and World at Wars and other impotent crossovers. Since then, they’ve been pushing for the top spot and nipping at Marvel’s heels. Identity Crisis was followed by Infinite Crisis, which led into 52, which led into Countdown, and we’ve got another Crisis on the way. DC kind of squandered the relevancy with continuity porn, but what can you do?
Joe Q got the Marvel U into shape and they started flogging DC in sales and interviews. DC had to answer back somehow, and we’ve been in a game of “Can You Top This?” ever since.
While DC has been canceling the good Wonder Woman comic and replacing it with a floundering, drowning mess, Marvel has pushed Storm to the forefront and made her a major player in the political scene of the Marvel U.
While DC has been struggling to keep Manhunter from getting canceled (what’s the word on that, anyway?), Marvel gave Jessica Jones two series, turned her into a big name, and kept her in view in New Avengers.
While DC has been giving us a fun angsty written-by-Jeph-Loeb Supergirl, us Marvel fans have been enjoying the Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane series.
While DC has been keeping Green Lantern John Stewart undercover and in the background and canceling Firestorm, Marvel has Luke Cage leading the New Avengers and Falcon playing an important role in Captain America.
I guess Marvel and DC have done all right by gay characters, what with Manhunter, Runaways, Young Avengers, and like that.
These are obviously slanted in favor of the point of this post, but I’m having trouble thinking of quality “diversity initiatives” (to borrow a buzzword) out of DC, save for Blue Beetle and… I guess Catwoman? 52 was pretty decent with John Henry, Natasha, and Montoya, I must say.
I guess my point is that Marvel is really pretty progressive, and a lot of it has happened under Joe Q’s watch.
The New Danger
I like a lot of DC Comics. Most of them come out of Vertigo or Wildstorm, granted, but Blue Beetle, Catwoman, and Robin are quite enjoyable. But, in general, I feel like Marvel is much more willing to push the boundaries. Marvel is willing and able to alter their entire universe over the course of a story, like in Civil War or House of M/Decimation.
DC’s Infinite Crisis changed everything… and it still seems like the same place, but now Krypton is crystal or there wasn’t a Superboy or some other inconsequential crap like that. The universe doesn’t feel that different, you know?
The DCU doesn’t feel anywhere near as dangerous or unpredictable as the Marvel Universe does right now. Sure, there are rogue monitors shooting characters full of holes, but who actually cares about Duela Dent or Jason Todd?
Meanwhile, over in Marvel, Bendis is kicking over the Monopoly board (again), Carey and Brubaker are taking the X-Men someplace new, Greg Pak has made the Hulk into a threat and a villain, and these are just the big events!
Like I said, Marvel isn’t perfect, and they’ve made more than a few crap moves. I try to call them on those things whenever I can, because I’d like to see Marvel grow into a company I can be proud of. But, while calling them out, it’s very easy to lose sight of the good that’s going on. Marvel has a Throw Anything At The Wall mentality that ends up giving out a lot of good. They’ll try anything once, and they aren’t afraid to keep those changes. White Tiger, the new Scorpion, Araña, Hulk in Space, Annihilation, and so on.
Calling out the bad things publishers do is only part of the solution. Call those things out, keep at it, but address the good, as well. No company is wholly good or bad. Every company does stupid things, but every company is trying to do better. Support the good, ignore the bad. Don’t pay for it.
Put your respect where it is due.
To Joe Q, thanks.
Now hook us up with a better Heroes for Hire cover, okay? And let Endangered Species be the last event for at least a year.