Friday, May 22, 2009

70 years of Marvel comics

This year marks the anniversary of the superhero giant's publishing line, thus making it interesting to take a closer look at the two of it's best-selling titles. Both "the Hulk" and "Captain America" are due for a renumbering next month, taking all of their history in print into account, yet there is much more that connects these two seemingly unrelated titles.

From the most cursory look, it's evident that even with the decades-old and world renowned characters, Marvel is forced to put all of their marketing savvy to ensure their continued existence. "Captain America" has just reached it's 50th issue, a round number guaranteeing extra sales, while "the Hulk" has, albeit belatedly, finished it's first year of publication with #12. To ensure sustained profit, Marvel has not only resorted to renumbering these two titles, so that they proudly sport #600 with the next issue, but they have already made plans to launch two mini-events on the back of it, with the long-term goal of putting out a pair of new monthly series starring related characters. Of course, it remains to be seen hos much "Reborn" and "Planet Skaar" have to do with Captain America and Hulk, respectively, yet the "New Hulk" spin-off has already been announced, with the "Captain America" franchise being a logical contender for extension, following the recently announced mini-series.

Putting aside the business concerns for the moment, and getting into the latest stories featuring the characters, reveals a lot of superficial differences. "the Hulk"'s latest adventure was featured as a three-part story-arc, while "Captain America" was presented with a one shot tale. "the Defenders-Offenders war" places Hulk amidst a complicated setup, to explain how multiple characters wound up pairing off against one another. Seeing as to how the heroes Hulk teams up with are his former "the Defenders" team mates, the lack of real depth makes a possible reiteration of the long-troubled franchise seem highly unlikely. Still, Marvel was successful at introducing Red Hulk as a new face in their superhero universe, resulting in him once again stealing the spotlight. Presented as extremely aggressive, Red Hulk seemed a natural choice for dominating most of the battles, but even so, the fights are presented as crass, short, and underdeveloped. 

On the other hand, "Days gone by" presents the reader with a much more somber experience, with most of the action devoted to framing around a different sort of story. Thus, the "Captain America" narrative consists of Bucky's introspection, as he flashes back to three different times in his life, intended to place his current situation in perspective. Bucky is of course, once again, center-stage, even though his fallen mentor's spirit continues dominating the book. By nature, the new Captain America is a violent man, with this story centering on the psychological effect the high stakes have played in his life, as opposed to the mundane birthday tradition, that many of his civilian peers spend with their closest friends. The high-speed present-day action sequences never really dovetail with his narrative, and seem mostly used to ground the book in the now, where where once long-forgotten sidekick struggled to walk in Captain America's footsteps.

Taking all of each respective title's runs so far into the context, the book appear even more different. Believing that "Hulk" should be a predictably action-oriented juvenile book, Marvel paired writer Jeph ("Batman: Long Halloween", "Superman for all seasons") Loeb with the fan-favorite artist Ed ("Superman", "Deadpool") McGuinness. Taking the editorial mandate for a new Hulk book, Loeb has decided on using the approach to pit all of the Marvel Universe against the Red Hulk, but not without setting up clues to the long-running mystery of the character's identity, in the vein of his work on Batman: Hush. Plotting to McGuinness' strengths, the writer famous for his ability to communicate with some of the most popular artists, has once again brought fourth the best of his collaborator, making the book a showcase for McGuinness' bold, cartoony drawings. Yet, for all the fun in pairing of Marvel Universe characters, the book has failed to connect with readers wanting more than a drawn-out, teasing affair.

In other words, it was not embraced by fans of "Captain America", a more mature and sensible exploration of the superhero conventions. Ironically, Ed ("Daredevil", "Criminal") Brubaker has spent years using the book to telling a single, well-thought out story, filled with over the top action in a spy/superhero hybrid. The art is depicted primarily by a striking classical action artist Steve ("El Cazador") Epting, with editorial managing to find suitable replacements, such as Luke ("Samurai: Heaven & Earth", "Jonah Hex") Ross that currently works on the book. The creative-team's unrelenting professionalism yielded a book that is consistent in all the best aspects, charged with a unique goal of fading Captain America out of the spotlight, for his former sidekick to step up. The authors are to be commanded for managing to concentrate on storytelling despite the sensationalism brought on by demise of Bucky's mentor. The Marvel superheroes reaction to the plot was actually hauled over to "the Hulk"'s Jeph Loeb himself, contained in a separate mini-series pencilled by today's most sought-out superhero artists.

The difference between "Hulk" and "Captain America" is most apparent in the way they treat the action sequences. "the Hulk" revolves more or less around the face-offs of it's various guest-starring characters, where "Captain America" includes the fight scenes almost as an after-thought, to fulfill the genre-requirements. Taking a closer look at the traditional superhero aspects of both books, finally reveals the most apparent symmetry - both of them follow firmly the Silver Age model.

In "the Hulk"'s case, it seems unnecessary to look for further depth, as "Defenders-Offenders war" is a throwback to the similar setups that forced groups of characters to fight one another for the most implausible reasons, such as in 1982's "Contest of champions". Yet, while that mini-series worked outside the context of the regular titles, seeing cosmic characters in "the Hulk", makes the reader try to appreciate the tale from the perspective of the Defenders. And yet, with such a strong focus on Red Hulk's atrocities, the whole story arc seems merely updated with a quicker pacing, and more adolescent sensationalism, when compared to it's decades-old inspirations.

Taking "Captain America" into account, the intent doesn't seem to be in doing a direct homage to a particular Silver Age story. Still, a stable of convention rears it's head even there, with the story feeling like a fill-in anniversary one shot of no particular significance on it's own. Despite the previous issue being a much needed look into a supporting cast member's fractured psyche, #50 features a familiar reflection told with the addition of unneeded action elements. After four years of developing Bucky as a hero in his own right, and a recent story arc devoted entirely on his coming to terms with his past, it seems superfluous. Unlike Red Hulk, the new Captain America has been given a lot of focus for some time now, and the only reason publishing a recapping issue like this makes is to try to present the new readers with the hero's new status quo.

Marvel seem to be doing their best to get new readers to sample the renumbered titles, ensuring them that they feature new characters. Taking the publisher's commitment into account, Bucky and Red Hulk might very well be prime examples of building up the interest in their new solo titles, once the original incarnations of Captain America and Hulk return to the forefront. Yet, despite all the differences, both are tied in so closely with Steve Rogers and the original Hulk, that by the nature of creating a family of titles, they don't actually feature new characters per se. Which is to be expected, as Marvel acts to further exploit their existing copyrights, instead of being forced to deal with the creator issues that come with completely new characters. They are, after all, a very successful company, devoted almost solely to updating their Silver Age superheroes to keep up with the market.

With the reality of the ever-shrinking audience, the publisher is thus forced to market their comics as aggressively as they can. And that means using "Captain America"#50 as an excuse to exploit the collector's interest by prizing the issue at 4$. The increase was justified with a text-story included in the back of the issue, illustrated by Marcos ("Doctor Strange: the Oath", "the Breach") Martin, designed to recap the title's history. More blatantly, "the Hulk", costing 4$ since the beginning of the storyline, has had a variant cover for each issue. Thousands of readers continually justify this kind of a publishing move by buying two copies of the same issue, for the sake of the different illustration on the book's front page. Still, despite the recap pages and promotions, the books attract next to no new readers, as defined by the today's young adults' almost complete lack of interest in superhero comics and the specialty shops they are sold in. The publisher is thus forced to rely on the existing clientele, hoping to entice them continue buying, and give spin-offs a chance. These would be the same readers, that have spent decades reading the titles, and are already familiar with multiple interpretations of familiar franchises. And this is how Marvel celebrates it's 70th anniversary, by retelling decades-old superhero stories, slightly updated, while hoping to launch spin-off books on the slight variations.

No comments: