10.7.16

The Physicist Has No Purple Pants: Marvel's Hulk-Sized Problems (2 of 2)

(Updated thanks to an eagle-eyed Facebook friend. Thanks, GG!)

When last we left our intrepid blogger, I was constructing a narrative by which I proved that there's a great, big target on the Hulk's green butt, put there by Marvel's powers-that-be and set to have the bull's-eye hit on Wednesday, July 13th, only 3 short days from now, in the pages of Marvel's Civil War II #3. Now, get ready to go beyond the actual event, into what the Hulk's death means for the world of Marvel Comics and its creators, for you the fans, and for the entire doomed comics industry.

(Whoops. Did I just say "doomed"? Heh-heh.)

While I've been taking the time to write these new chapters, I hope you've familiarized yourself with Totally Awesome Hulk #7-8, both now on sale, the latter of them since I published part one. As writer Greg Pak stated himself, the books mark his return to writing Bruce Banner. What he didn't say--but which is patently obvious from reading the eighth issue in particular--is that these stories are intended as a final look back at our favorite physicist, since his next appearance in Civil War II will end with an arrow through his [insert whatever part of Banner's anatomy you want].


Indeed, while the seventh issue gives us an out-of-character, reckless Banner who's practically daring himself to change--it seems every time he's "cured" he does something different and unexpected, like trying to kill the Hulk (Incredible Hulk #317) or taming his son (Incredible Hulk #601)--the eighth gives us a contemplative, more familiar Banner who's carefully assessed his successor, Cho, and gives him his blessing. Interestingly, he does so while bringing up the very same points I raised in the last entry regarding the Hulk "running the math" and saving lives, even as he lays out the basis for his own murder:
When I was four, I saw my father kill my mother. And years later, I killed him. I didn't mean to. But I did it. I've got that kind of anger inside. That kind of capacity. But you...you have your own problems. And your Hulk's gonna have his own problems as a result. And you may not love everything you learn about yourself. But you're not a...you're not a monster. You're not me, Amadeus. You're not me.
Basically, he lays it out in black and white: he, and by extension his Hulk, is capable of murder; Cho's isn't. (I may disagree on principle with the Hulk killing people, but since Peter David put it out there in 1997, like it or not, Pak--and by extension, Bendis--can use it to justify what's about to go down.)

Along the way, Pak brings into the narrative Banner's cousin, the sensational She-Hulk (in an appearance preceding her fate in Civil War II #1) and his closest friend, Rick Jones. Their appearance is a double-edged sword, as it does give the series a much-needed dose of familiarity while at the same time sounding a faint and obvious funeral dirge: "Something bad is going to happen."

The only question I have right now about the event in question is whether or not Banner's actually going to be able to become the Hulk at the time Hawkeye the perpetrator kills him. Is there a real battle between the Banner-Hulk and the heroes, or does the death follow from mere conjecture based on Ulysses' vision of the horrific act? Slippery slopes, ahoy...

What I can't stop laughing about in Totally Awesome Hulk #8 has nothing to do with the plot and everything to do with its title: "Peace in Our Time" was also the title of the storyline immediately preceding Pak's inaugural "Planet Hulk" tale. You know, the one where Marvel's best and brightest exiled the Hulk deep into space...? I'm finding it difficult to believe that's a coincidence.


* * * * * * * *

What we Hulk fans are seeing with Civil War II #3 and the death of the Hulk is nothing new to the industry--it's just the latest in a long line of symptoms that the portion of the industry populated by "The Big Two" (Marvel and DC) is caught in--you'll pardon the pun--a death spiral. And I use that term in multiple ways.

Back in the early days of Marvel Comics, death was used sparingly and had a sting when it was employed. Ben Parker's death at the hands of an unnamed burglar led his nephew Peter to use his newfound powers responsibly as Spider-Man. Ten years later, Peter lost his girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, during a battle with the villainous Green Goblin, who accidentally died impaled on his own glider in the very next story. A few years later still, editor-in-chief Jim Shooter decreed that Jean Grey, one of the original X-Men, would die after her possession by the Dark Phoenix led her to slaughter an entire world's population. Some time after that, the alien hero Captain Mar-Vell succumbed to cancer surrounded by the heroes of Earth, praised by enemies and condemned by his own people.

While all of the above instances used death as a plot point, they did so respectfully, not gratuitously; they were either consequences for offenses, or incentive for heroic action. But did they cause a big splash in the news media? Not a blip.

It only took a slow news day to change all that. That day? November 17, 1992. The event? The death of Superman.


Nobody really knew what impact killing Superman would have on the comics industry or on the relationship between the "Big Two" and the press. The event itself was a bit of a fluke; lightning in a bottle, a happy accident, concocted as a way to stave off the marriage of the recently-engaged Clark Kent and Lois Lane, allowing them to remain single in both the comics and the then-in-development TV series, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.

Since relaunching the character in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1986, the staff responsible for Superman's multiple series had performed their share of homages to classic storylines, and "The Death of Superman" was just one more. Although the details were certainly different, the idea of killing Superman had its roots in a storyline that--remarkably--hit the same month as Fantastic Four #1! Superman #149, by Superman's co-creator Jerry Siegel and artist Curt Swan, had his longtime enemy Lex Luthor responsible for the heinous act. Of course, the story was an "imaginary tale," taking place outside the series' normal continuity. (Another noteworthy homage to earlier tales--although vastly less successful--came a few years later, when Superman split into two beings comprised of pure energy, "Superman Red and Superman Blue," based on Superman #162 dated 1963.)

With Superman's death, it's important to remember that it was just the beginning of an elaborate storyline DC's writers, artists and editors had decided to tell. They'd always planned to bring him back. However, the general public obliviously believed Superman was gone forever, leading to the aforementioned press coverage and instant sellouts on release day, which led in turn to multiple printings of every issue involved in the story, as well as high prices for all issues as demand outstripped supply. For them, Superman's death was real and a way to make an investment in their children's futures, as they believed the books' values would soar.  (Today, Superman #75, the actual death issue, fetches $10-$20.) For DC, the death was just a way to drum up interest in a character whose sales in recent years had been steady but unremarkable. And it worked in spades, reflecting comics' speculator boom of the early 1990s wherein "investors" artificially inflated sales figures into the millions.

The comics "event" soon became just another tool in companies' arsenals, supplementing and almost supplanting the launches of Todd McFarlane's Spider-Man and Spawn, Jim Lee's X-Men and WildC.A.T.s, and Rob Liefeld's X-Force and Youngblood, among countless others. DC tried to emulate their success by breaking the Batman's back (in "Knightfall"), turning Green Lantern evil and replacing him with a young artist ("Emerald Twilight"), and more. The craze spread to Marvel when they replaced Spider-Man with his own clone ("The Spider-Clone Saga") and the X-Men lost to Apocalypse, resulting in a twisted new timeline ("Age of Apocalypse"). But then the speculator bubble soon burst, owing to upstart publisher Image Comics' lengthy delays in publishing various books, including its portion of the cross-company event, Deathmate. With so many small comic shops' capital tied up in pre-orders for books that ran several months late, appetites soured and stores soon closed by the hundreds. The bust was so enormous that it took several distributors along with it, leaving Diamond the last one standing. (You've seen me rail on Diamond's near-monopoly in my articles spinning off from DC's New 52, here and here.)


Marvel Comics declared bankruptcy in 1996, laying off key personnel, and it's no exaggeration that the entire industry nearly crumbled right then. The event comic was, quite simply, killing them. The company had grown too big for its britches and broken up into editorial fiefdoms like the Spider-Man group, the X-Men group & the Blue Man Group. (Only kidding about that last one, but it helps you understand how ridiculous the new structure was.)

In the middle of the tumult came the "Onslaught" crossover--another in a seemingly endless line of events that all but required fans to buy various books they didn't ordinarily follow in order to understand the massive storyline being told. And out the other end, Marvel farmed out production of some of their line to Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld, two of the same creators who'd abandoned them to form Image Comics a few years earlier. (And whom, it should be noted, were responsible for said Deathmate fiasco.) The grand experiment, called "Heroes Reborn"--which nearly saw the Hulk's own series canceled but for Peter David's insistence otherwise--failed abysmally despite high initial orders. Both creators had trouble honoring their commitments, to the point that Liefeld was outright replaced for the back half of both his series while Lee's participation was severely limited.

Marvel began to coalesce under one editor-in-chief, Bob Harras, around the same time as the bankruptcy occurred. David was rewarded for sticking with the Hulk by being asked to write Heroes Reborn: The Return, another event which brought all of those heroes back in-house henceforth. Luckily, the 1997 event was relatively self-contained, aside from a few moments in David's own Incredible Hulk series. Still, sales were down compared to the highs of 1994.

Enter a different kind of "Event" to save Marvel--Event Comics, that was.


Having worked well together at Valiant Comics, artists Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti broke free and created their own comics company, Event Comics, in 1994. They made minor waves and survived the industry's implosion before being contracted by Marvel to launch a special sub-brand, "Marvel Knights," whose focus would be on edgier characters and storylines. To that end, Daredevil was canceled with its 380th issue and relaunched with a new #1 under the MK banner with popular film writer/director Kevin Smith as writer and Quesada & Palmiotti as artists. Other series, like Inhumans, Black Panther and Punisher followed. They succeeded where Lee and Liefeld had failed, to the extent that Quesada, who started as the Marvel Knights editor, ascended to the role of editor-in-chief for all of Marvel in 2000.

As Marvel's editor-in-chief (or EEK! as he often referred to himself, emphasizing his surprise at being given the keys to the castle), Quesada clearly had his work cut out for him. The "House of Ideas" was left in disarray after the creative and editorial mismanagement of the prior decade. To right the ship, he employed many of the same ideas as when he chaired the Knights brand. He ushered in talent using his many contacts in the independent comics movement, matching unusual and high-profile creators with Marvel's characters to considerable effect. He ramped up Marvel's trade paperback department into the strongest presence it had ever been, keeping the newest storylines in-print and available on the shelves of stores like Barnes & Noble. And perhaps most importantly, he shied away from editorially-driven crossover events for the first few years of his tenure, allowing creators to shape characters in their own series.

There's no real way I can overstate the importance of his last action. Before Quesada became editor-in-chief, crossovers and big events were the order of the day. Marvel had thrived on the concept of the crossover, from the Hulk and the Fantastic Four's first guest-appearances in Fantastic Four #12 and The Amazing Spider-Man #1, respectively. However, since 1984's Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars the crossovers just kept getting bigger and more elaborate, with the sequel, 1985's Secret Wars II crossing into nearly every series (even a few of their licensed properties). Bob Harras even had another event, Maximum Security, planned that was released just as Quesada took control in 2000.

As fun as Marvel's events could be, it was their "collect 'em all" nature that made non-readers standoffish toward jumping in. Quesada, along with newly-hired editors like Axel Alonso, seemed to understand this concern, and so the years 2001-2005 saw the company encase nearly every series in a kind of fishbowl where they rarely interacted with each other. Without the interconnectedness, series succeeded or failed mainly on their own merits. Creators were also given free rein to experiment in areas they hadn't dared for commercial reasons: Thor began an extended story where he became Lord of Asgard upon the death of Odin; Hulk became an outright horror comic; the X-Men became as outrageous as ever, courtesy writer Grant Morrison; Spider-Man learned he received his powers from a mystical spider-totem (or did he?); and so on.

Then in 2005 came House of M, the first company crossover since Maximum Security. And minor ripples were made. It was a success, naturally, coming hot on the heels of writer Brian Michael Bendis' work on the "Avengers Disassembled" mini-event. But it was only paved the way for the next Event That Would Change Everything: Civil War.


Civil War is the bridge that connects the event culture with the media culture, and since its conclusion, Marvel, under the leadership of Quesada and Alonso, has never looked back. Two events occurred in the storyline which each led to massive media coverage. First, Spider-Man revealed his secret identity to the world in the series' second issue; then, in the series' aftermath, Captain America was killed. It was a one-two punch igniting a dual media firestorm. In that moment, Marvel got the same taste of the power of the press as DC had 15 years previous, and it was intoxicating. And like an addict getting his first hit, they needed more. And more. And more.

Captain America's death hit with catastrophic effect throughout the press. Unlike the death of Superman in 1992, this time the death of a major comics character occurred in the age of the internet, and the news spread like wildfire. However, unlike Superman's death, Captain America was quite mortal; hence, there would be no "easy" mechanism of bringing him back like Kryptonian resurrection equipment. Bucky Barnes, Cap's wartime companion, assumed the role of his mentor well enough, but Cap's return--courtesy the Red Skull and a time travel story too labyrinthine for all but the geekiest of fans--left much to be desired. For all the realism that writer Ed Brubaker had built over the rest of his tenure, it felt as though he threw it all away for a ham-handed resurrection story. Whereas Superman's death and resurrection had been meticulously planned with a definite beginning, middle and end, Marvel allowed the middle of their event to bloat considerably, obscuring the tale's original focus and making it that much harder to see the roots of the comeback in what came before.


And now, where have we gone--where has Marvel gone--since Civil War ended in 2007? After producing their own movies starting in 2008's Iron Man, they were purchased by Disney in 2010. Disney, in turn, has begun harvesting their intellectual property for considerable profit; at present, four Marvel Studios films rank among the top 10 opening weekend grosses of all time. Meanwhile, the comics have ramped up with event after event, becoming more and more like the Marvel of the days before their big bankruptcy. The difference today is, of course, that the Marvel brand is in no immediate financial danger courtesy their relationship with Disney and their movie studio. But does that mean Marvel, the comics publisher, is in good shape?

"Event fatigue" is painfully real, and one need look no further than every crossover Marvel's had since Civil War to see why: half or more of the Marvel line of books gets wrapped up in each subsequent event, derailing ongoing character development in favor of service to the larger line-wide arc. And with the proliferation of the multi-part storyline as the de facto house style, each story in each series has become an event unto itself; seven-part storylines like Civil War aren't that important or powerful anymore because nearly every story in each of Marvel's series are nearly as long or longer. There's no longer a long string of self-contained stories between the bigger events to give readers a respite, because writers and editors are constantly working to fit groups of issues in collected editions they can sell indefinitely.

More recently, Marvel has learned the tool of using their events as springboards from which to launch a host of new series, or to relaunch existing series with new or previous creative personnel. Emblematic of this shift is the "Marvel NOW!" campaign that began in 2012 in the aftermath of the Avengers Vs. X-Men event and has continued annually with 2013's "All-New Marvel NOW!", 2014's "Ultimate Marvel NOW!" and "Avengers NOW!" and 2015's "All-New All-Different Marvel NOW!", and will continue with a new round after the current Civil War II series finishes. While editor-in-chief Axel Alonso stresses his belief that the publisher is only moving in the direction dictated by the market--a version of the seasonal model employed by television--it's important to note that they're really the only publisher employing such a model on a regular basis to begin with.

The relaunches cleverly conceal the problem Marvel has created and allows to fester within the industry. First issues and events cannot sustain long-term sales, only short-term bubbles. What Marvel has done is set up a series of short-term bubbles as substitute for long-term investment in its characters. Events lead to first issues, which lead to events, which lead to relaunches of the books with characters they can't bear to let lapse out of monthly publication (e.g. Hulk, Daredevil, Thor) and new launches for characters they wish to publicize toward their appearances in other media (e.g. Dr. Strange, The Inhumans, Captain Marvel). Also, they deprecate the characters that have been farmed out to rival studios (e.g. the Fantastic Four & X-Men). Along the way, they pass characters from creative team to creative team for the sake of seeing their "takes" on the popular characters, often of very short duration. The events, written by the same committee year over year and planned well in advance, display the same tropes and beats, the same threats of death and agonies of rebirth. And increasingly frequently, Marvel replaces longstanding popular characters with new versions of varied gender (i.e. Thor and Wolverine) and/or ethnicity (i.e. Hulk) and/or age (i.e. Hulk and Wolverine).

Why do they play musical secret identities with the characters? Because creators are increasingly reluctant to create completely new characters when there are better, creator-owned avenues that exist. Some outliers exist, sure; however, it's easier to regurgitate old ideas in a new context (e.g. Jane Foster as Thor, General Ross and Amadeus Cho as Hulks, Betty Ross as She-Hulk) than to come up with new ideas these creators won't own outright. With Image Comics as popular as it is, there's less incentive for creators to set up their original creations at Marvel, and that attitude not only shows, it's very, very hard to break without some huge concessions towards creators' rights on the publisher's part. (And that's a whole other article.)

Just look at the characters among the recently-departed and their replacements: Wolverine (replaced by his teenage clone and his elderly future self from an alternate timeline); Captain America (replaced by Bucky, then advanced to old age and replaced by Sam Wilson, and now he's a Hydra agent); Spider-Man (mind-swapped with Doctor Octopus, then swapped back again); Professor X; Cyclops (replaced by his past self transported to the current era); Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner; the Watcher (replaced by...Nick Fury?); and Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman and their children are pretty much "in heaven" until, I'm sure, some deal gets struck with 20th Century Fox to put them in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

It's one thing to use death as a major plot point, as instrument of change; after all, you can cite examples throughout all of literature (Christ parallels, anyone?). It's quite different to transform death into the ultimate revolving-door. And killing so many major characters on such a regular basis? Not only does it show a demonstrable lack of creativity, that much preoccupation with death is, frankly, unhealthy--especially considering how superheroes have historically catered to children and teens.

The point I'm trying to reach is that with the interminable event culture added to the necessity of "leaving one's mark" on the characters they work on, Marvel's heroes are perpetually in flux and have no status quo. What's happening today is often undone tomorrow, and with precious little follow through based on the simple fact that the subsequent writer just doesn't want to deal with what any of the previous one did. As my good friend Ben Handelman wrote me on Facebook, "[W]e can't possibly take any of the changes they introduce [seriously] because more changes are already being queued up to overwrite the current ones."

Compare the comics of the 1960s, 1970s, and even the 1980s and you'll see it's absolutely true: those characters had lives between the major events and storylines, and writers played the hand they were dealt when they assumed control of a book from another writer. Writers believed in the illusion of change more than the actual thing; the characters remained relatively static, and that was good enough. Not so today; hell, even single writers change the status quo for their own characters on a nearly annual basis. Whereas Peter Parker was a photographer since nearly his first appearance, he recently left that job to work for Horizon Labs, then he swapped minds with Dr. Octopus, who founded Parker Labs, which Peter then controlled once they swapped minds again; now, his company is international and he's become like Tony Stark. (And all these changes have happened since 2010, under one writer, Dan Slott!)


Ultimately, the reasons for today's problems have their roots in the changes that occurred in 2000. Many of the changes instituted by Quesada, Alonso and Brian Michael Bendis--from the multi-part storylines taking over series, to the "write-for-the-trade" mentality--have contributed to the eclipsing of the smaller moments so prevalent in pre-1990 Marvel. Everyone wants to do something different than what happened before, which leads creators to stray far from the aspects that defined these characters for prior generations. The illusion of change--something in which Stan Lee and other writers excelled--has fallen by the wayside in favor of change so drastic and so quick that characters can't really be said to have a status quo at all. There are no "traditional" Hulk stories anymore because everyone's working at cross purposes to tell "their" version of such a tale instead of upholding the brand.

Last time the comics industry faced this kind of event-related peril, it was Quesada, Alonso & Bendis who pulled Marvel out of the rut they were in, retrofitting the company with all manner of changes meant to stabilize the House of Ideas, to help it grow and gain new readers. Now, it appears the power they gained has corrupted them, for they create endless cycles of events. And if they stop, then the bubble bursts and catastrophe occurs. (I thought said bubble would be Secret Wars, for reasons I discussed previously here.)

The death of the Hulk, set to occur this Wednesday, is at the center of the bubble we call Civil War II. And maybe I'm only looking at all of the above in context because this time, the death hits as close to home as it ever has. Sure, I know that Bruce Banner will rise again one day. And there'll be a new series starring him, and it'll arrive to considerable fanfare. But has that fanfare been earned? It'll be just another storyline from a company notorious for doubling down on the wrong creative decisions. And they make those decisions because making the right ones would be company suicide. And that, I worry about, because whither Marvel goes, so goes the industry...

While I've been talking about Marvel this entire article, don't think DC has a totally spotless record. You can see a few of my blog posts (here, here and here) for my views on the New 52, its failure, and their effort to turn the ship around with DC Universe Rebirth. Say what you will, but at least they seem to understand they veered disastrously off-course at some point and they're working to correct the situation.

With all the above, you might be expecting me to conclude that, effective this Wednesday, I'm no longer buying Marvel Comics. While that would be a terrific change to make, the truth is that I'm only greatly shortening my pull list. I'm following the creators I enjoy, because Marvel doesn't seem to give a damn about the characters anymore. That and, well, I still buy my books from Discount Comic Book Service (free plug!), so I've still got a few more months pre-ordered.

What I wouldn't give for just some solid, new stories featuring the "classic" versions of the characters I grew up reading. No chronic status quo changes, no overlong events, no buying 6 issues just to get one complete story.

I just want good comics; is that so hard to understand?


Rest in peace, Hulk.

~G.


3 comments:

  1. Amadeus cho changes into a green monster, but it's not the Hulk. Bruce banner is the Hulk! Jane foster changes into some type of norse thunder God, but she isn't thor, thor is thor! And on it goes (female iron Man anyone?) marvel has ruined Bruce Banner/hulks character over the years it's been painful watching my favourite character's deterioration. Misunderstood monster? Yes, by the editors and writers, with very few exceptions. At least we know Bruce/hulk will be back for thor ragnorok , maybe he'll get some respect then, but I doubt it.

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