Welcome to part two of Comicscape’s “State of the Union” of the Marvel and DC Universes. Last week, we took a look at the brighter days that are allegedly taking place in the DCU and this week we’ll check out the Marvel side of things.
Comics have been plastering slogans like “Everything changes here!” and “Nothing will ever be the same!” on their covers for a long time, but in reality, very little ever actually changes. A few of the players get shifted around the game board but status quo always rules and sooner or later, everything goes back to normal. To a certain extent, this is a necessary evil: if you wanna sell pajamas and bedsheets, you can’t have Spidey lose an arm or a new character under Captain America’s mask.
Or can you? Obviously, there’s a different Cap slinging the shield right now (though we all know Steve Rogers will be back in time for the movie), but this isn’t the only change that’s managed to stick. Superman has gotten married and if you ask any kid under 12 who Green Lantern is, odds are they’ll say John Stewart, not Hal Jordan – no matter what DC says about Hal being the icon. It is possible to introduce change to the traditional superhero universes and have it become part of the accepted status quo. With that in mind, we’re taking a look at the direction Marvel is taking post-Siege.
Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat – there was a Golden Age, a Silver Age, a Bronze Age and a Modern Age, as well as whatever age we’re currently in. We’ll even go so far as to say that somewhere in the midst of the Silver and Bronze Ages, there was a very special event taking place known as the Marvel Age, during which the rules were rewritten and comic books went in some pretty amazing new directions. But no matter how Marvel’s marketing department wants to spin it, this “Heroic Age” isn’t going to go down in history as one of the great ages of comic book history.
If anything, it would seem that Marvel is following in DC’s footsteps with a return to Silver Age notions of superheroics. Siege was labled as “an event seven years in the making” and now that it’s all said and done, what are we left with? In some ways, it’s a Marvel Universe not unlike the Marvel of the 1960’s – having stood on opposing sides during the Civil War, the comraderie and friendships that have been cemented over the past few decades are on shakier ground these days. Thor may have shaken Tony Stark’s hand and offered his friendship last time they met, but by no means did he give him a “get out of jail free” card. Steve Rogers and Logan might be able to work together on a team despite their differences, but Bucky Barnes and the Ol’ Canucklehead are constantly at each other’s throats. The Heroic Age might be a brighter, shinier era just as it was in the 1960’s, but it’s also got all of those same blemishes that made Marvel so popular in the first place.
Yup, the old Avengers are back and Marvel’s Trinity of Captain America, Thor and Iron Man are once again the cornerstones of the Avengers team. The only difference being that Captain America is now Bucky and Steve Rogers is leading a team of black ops Avengers. Just a few years ago, it was outlandish to think that Spider-Man and Wolverine would be Avengers –these days, that’s the status quo. Not only is it perfectly acceptable, it would actually seem kind of odd to not have them on the team.
While it’s true that both Marvel and DC are, in many ways, just rehashing previous eras in comic book history, there are a lot of differences in the way it’s being done. Over on the DC side of things, Geoff Johns is plastering his love of the Silver Age all over everything he touches. Barry Allen is back and he’s brought his rogues gallery with him. Hal Jordan and Carol Ferris have reignited the flames of love and anybody who’s ever appeared in a 60’s DC comic is back.
Marvel? Well, they’re doing the same thing, only they’ve gone 10 or 15 years into the future. Brian Bendis has never made his love of the Bronze Age a secret and we’ve seen Power Man and Iron Fist play important roles in recent events, as well as other ‘70s characters like Nova and even Howard the Duck. While DC is reestablishing their cornerstones, guys like Bendis or the team of Abnett and Lanning are taking second-generation concepts and finally allowing them to get the credit they deserve. Remember last week when we suggested that a Geoff Johns-penned Bart Allen Flash could’ve been a hit or that Grant Morrison on Firestorm or JMS on Atom (Ryan Choi) might’ve allowed those characters the chance to grow? Marvel is actually doing it with their 1970’s-era characters.
But the growth isn’t just limited to the little guys or to the people behind the masks. Writers like Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction and Jonathan Hickman are taking classic Marvel concepts and updating them for modern audiences, never losing sight of what made these characters so beloved in the first place while turning them on their ears.
How about Reed Richards? Recent writers have spent more time focusing on his arrogance, but in the hands of Jonathan Hickman, Mr. Fantastic (as well as the rest of the team) has undergone a renaissance of sorts, with more emphasis on his dream of exploration and the betterment of humankind. And we’re not seeing Dr. Doom or the Sub Mariner for the 400th time; new characters and new civilizations are being introduced. Matt Fraction has given Tony Stark a new purpose, using repulsor technology as an alternative energy source and in an era when most comic reflect their big screen counterparts, Iron Man’s new armor looks throroughly modern, as though Tony bought it at the Apple store. Meanwhile, Ed Brubaker has done the unthinkable: he’s actually replaced an icon and not only has he made it work, he’s made it better. The stories he’s telling with Bucky Barnes are classically-styled Cap tales, but with the twist of seeing them through a new perspective.
And then there’s Frank Castle. Long thought to be the most paper-thin, one-dimensional character, Frank has experienced more definition and growth in the past 5 years than he has in his entire career. Oh yeah… and now he’s a FRANKENSTEIN MONSTER on top of all of it.
Marvel has long made a practice of giving the illusion of change while not actually changing anything. In many ways, that’s still going on right now. The Fantastic Four is still the same old FF; they just feel brand new because we haven’t seen them portrayed this way in so long. Captain America is still a man out of time carrying the hopes and dreams of a nation on his shoulders; he’s just a different man now. Same weight, new shoulders. And no matter what kind of financial crisis or change of heart he goes through, Tony Stark is always going to be bangin’ hot chicks and creating sweet new technology.
It’s true that Marvel may just be pulling the wool over our eyes with their recent changes. Just as DC is doing, they’re giving us Classic Coke, harkening back to a bygone era and playing on our sense of nostalgia. But unlike their distinguished competition, who seem to be taking two steps forward in terms of storytelling skill and grace while taking two steps back in terms of actual progress, Marvel is actually making at least a half-step forward. While DC injects personality into Hal Jordan and Barry Allen for the first time in history as a way to remind us that they are the foundation upon which the DCU was founded (and either kills off any fresh blood or relegates it to a team book), Marvel is keeping the spirit of Marvel alive by adding layers to their legends and introducing new players to the game.
Time will tell if any of it stands the test of time, and we know a good portion of it is smoke and mirrors (and one hell of a marketing department) but they at least seem to be on a path toward the future that honors the past instead of just looking backwards.