Sunday, September 26, 2010

Crazy Enough To Work?

You're lying to yourself if you weren't excited by the prospect of Marvel's New Universe in 1986. Go ahead and fool yourself if it helps you sleep at night, but I know better. That lighting banner was exciting shit, made all the more exciting by the fact that there was no internet and no Previews solicitation copy spoiling everything. Marvel was fully dominant, often grabbing 75% share, and it looked like they were about to change everything.

Urban legends rage about what exactly the New Universe was supposed to be and how much change was actually on the table. Doug Moench and a lot of the Old Guard swear that Jim Shooter's plan for Marvel's 25th anniversary was to scrap everything and run with new characters. Spider-Man, Hulk, Fantastic Four, Avengers? All gone. Everything concluded, with an assload of new #1s with new characters the next month. That would have taken balls so large they would maintain their own gravity.

There's some circumstantial evidence for this. Jim Shooter lost his editor-in-chief position because a good chunk of the veteran editorial leadership conducted a palace coup and said "The man is crazy, and either he goes or we all go." Shooter soon went. Only a few principal folks really know what was said in that meeting with the Marvel top brass. But if Shooter really was planning on chucking 25 years of history and running with a catalog of unknown'd think that would get somebody's attention.

Jim Shooter claims he never planned anything of the sort. His official position on the subject is that he proposed two game plans for the 25th anniversary. A) Re-boot all the existing characters, and begin with new # 1s, sort of like a line-wide move to an Ultimates format. Some say that the idea gained traction because of the 1976 copyright changes, and that Marvel was fearful of losing everything that Kirby/Lee created. Nobody seems to know for sure. B) Continue publishing the existing titles as-is, but introduce a new universe with new characters as well.

If you ask Mr. Shooter why the New Universe failed, and it most certainly failed miserably, he mainly points to the budget. The story goes that he was given $120,000 in seed money for the project, which he handed to Tom DeFalco. As Shooter tells the story, DeFalco sat on the idea and had nothing to show a year later other than a handful of concept sketches for characters that everybody seemed to agree were lame.

And then Marvel's ownership structure changed. Suddenly that 120,000 turned into $80,000, which turned into $40,000. And then Shooter gets a phone call asking how much has been spent on the New Universe project, and Shooter says $20,000, at which point he is told not to spend a nickel more. So Marvel's most gigantic game-changing event of all time had no money behind it. Shooter had $20,000 to develop an 8 title brand. Ouch.

There's plenty of evidence to support that idea if you look at the creative teams involved. The only book that launched with anything resembling a name-brand cast was Star Brand, with Shooter writing and Romita pencilling. Oh, there were some young names involved that seem like marquee talent now - Peter David launched Mark Hazzard: Merc and took on Justice later in it's run. Spitfire & The Troubleshooters even had a kid named Todd McFarlane on pencils for issue # 4!

But if you look at it closely, where was the talent? Where was Chris Claremont, John Byrne (who did get some work on Star Brand after the line was already in the toilet), Frank Miller? They didn't want anything to do with it - they weren't paying any money. What they were offering was work-made-for-hire contracts for new characters that the creators would never see a piece of, and bottom barrel wages. The only talent they could attract to the New Universe were a handful of old school creators doing favors for Jim Shooter and guys who just couldn't get work anywhere else.

And it showed. The books were terrible. I couldn't afford the whole line, but I eagerly snapped up Psi-Force, Nightmask, and Mark Hazzard. Rubbish, rubbish, and rubbish. Gruenwald did some very solid work on DP7, and Star Brand got some love as well. Nothing lasted more than 32 issues, and most of the line was dragged kicking and screaming for only 12 issues before getting mercifully euthanized.

It was one of the greatest failures in the history of comics...and I think it's exactly what we need right now.

I can feel your resistance right now, and that's healthy and natural. But if you think about it, when Shooter got another chance to do this right with Valiant, he pretty much did. Again, without a budget. It wasn't the creative side that killed those books, it was the business side interfering with the creative side. Left to his own devices, I don't think Shooter cannibalizes Valiant's success with a glut of chromium covers slapped on far too many sub-par comics. He was building toward a dynasty that was threatening The Big Two.

Some will disagree, but it seems clear to me that Malibu had some traction and died for the same pathetic and greedy reasons, and I think CrossGen was viable as well before management ground it into a pulp. Listen, people are interested in new, quality properties.

In fact, I think they're dying for it. To my mind the biggest obstacles to growing the comics market are:

1) Nobody wants to dive into these books because there's a gajillion years of backstory. I don't really want to try and parse out what's necessary to figure out Uncanny X-Men, and I've been in that game for years. A rookie? Forget about it.

2) The racks are so crowded with garbage that even if you did want to brave the continuity baggage, you couldn't possibly know where to go to leverage your interest. Imagine being a civilian wanting to read Batman right now. There is no obvious place to do that. There's about 20 books this month to choose from, and which ones? Should I read the oldest, Detective Comics? Oh wait, that's actually a lesbian Batwoman now. Oh wait, that's done, I think it's Batman again. Oh, who's Dick Grayson? Yeah, it's not the old guy right now, see he got hit with an Omega Sanction and there this other series going on and - hey wait! Where are you going! They don't want to deal with that bullshit. They just want to go to the rack, find the Batman book, and bring it home.

3) Most people still don't even know that comics really exist or that they are completely awesome. People need to be told about them via avenues outside of comics themselves.

So here's my idea. Marvel has their own goddamn movie studio now. At their next writer's retreat, they need to get the top minds in industry involved and say:

"Look, we're looking for pitches on a new universe. Superheroes are fine, but not obligatory. What we want is a compelling world with compelling stories that could support a line of say 8 titles. What were looking to do is make a big budget motion picture kick-starting that universe, it will act as a kind of "0 issue" for the comics line launched as the film hits. Now go to work."

And that's it. You take your success with Iron Man and Thor and Captain America and you ought to have enough cache to get people to see a quality action pick with top flight talent. Some of you are screaming in your heads right now that nobody will see a Marvel movie without a previously established character.

This is complete bullshit. It was a good place to start, but I think we're past that now. There's only about 7 of us left actually reading comics any way, so you really don't need to worry about that. You need to get civilians excited about something.

A new Marvel film introducing never before seen characters would be HUGE buzz-generating news, provided the names involved were sufficiently large. Do you think that San Diego ComicCon would run with that at all? I think we've established now that Marvel Studios can attract big name talent and put out a high quality product.

Then you do something really revolutionary - you advertise your comics with the fucking film. You let the audience know before the credits even roll that what they are about to see is an unprecedented and exciting new chapter of comic books. They are about to see new characters, and that those character's adventures are going to continue at their local comic shop.

And if that film is good, you are going to see something really amazing happen. New goddamn people wandering into the old LCS. They are going to want the first issues of that movie property, and if the comics are've got them. And you've probably got their kids, too.

I know it sounds crazy. A new line sounds insane, and a feature film built on unknown commodities sounds counter-intuitive. Listen, THAT'S WHERE WE ARE. The history of the comics medium is one where quantum leaps of excellence occur when slacking sales invite the unthinkable. Shooter let Frank Miller run wild on Daredevil because the sales really couldn't get worse. (relatively speaking, of course, any comic in 2010 would KILL for Daredevil's sales around issue 167) Claremont got to invent soap-operatic superhero comics because nobody wanted to touch the X-Men with a 30 foot pole.

Folks, the ship is sinking. It's time to put our fate into the hands of our best creators and do something really crazy. Let Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Brian K Vaughan, Brian Bendis, Jeph Loeb run wild and build the best concepts they can unrestrained by the past. Let them fight for the gig and try to one-up each other for the best hook ever. Give them cart blanche to do what they do best and create a damn good stories.

Put those ideas on film, which Marvel surely knows how to do at this point, and use it as an introductory issue for a new line of comics that anybody and everybody can jump on at the ground floor. Get the best and brightest talent on those books as well, now is not the time to get frugal. This is our future we're talking about here.

And you know what? If it doesn't work, I'm an asshole, and Marvel can continue to go deeper down the well of mediocrity and make that Ant Man movie they always wanted to. Good luck with that. And they can continue to pump out 7 new Wolverine mini-series that will make about $50 for them. They can still do that.

But isn't it about time to find out if my idea is crazy enough to work?

- Ryan


Irish Mike said...

Did you fucking say JEPH LOEB?!

Chronic Insomnia said...

Of course I said goddamn Jeph Loeb! Don't you remember how good the first season of Heroes was? Loeb's got limitations, everybody does. I don't think he's a good closer. But as a guy coming up with a good concept, a good launching point? Jeph Loeb absolutely has the goods!

Irish Mike said...

You lost all credibility with the Jeph Loeb reference. I'm glad I didn't read this before we did the article for BC. I woulda yanked that harder than a Shake Weight.

Jeph Fucking Loeb.