The current landscape in the comic world is, as always, dominated by DC and Marvel. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Both brands have been pushing the creative limits and allowing creators to try new and different things. We have seen unparallelled crossover between the world of comics and Hollywood. That is no small thing, as recently as the 1990s comics were desperately trying to survive and prove that the industry have cultural relevance.
However, there is a current risk that comics are going to fall into the same trap Hollywood is. Damon Lindelof had a great piece of commentary (somewhat ironic, since he’s been such a huge part of the current trend) explaining how heroic storytelling in Hollywood has continually raised the stakes. Thus, we have Captain Kirk fighting Khan in a starship crashing into San Francisco and the Avengers fighting an alien invasion in New York City. My personal bias is to embrace large, grand, sweeping and immense cosmic story-lines so I would theorize if I am beginning to find these story-lines too much, the industry might be due for a corrective.
Briefly looking at the two dominant story-lines in DC and Marvel does nothing to alleviate my concern about this trend infecting comics. Marvel is currently running at storyline named “Infinity” with Jonathan Hickman at the helm. Hickman is a writer to watch. He has fascinating ideas and done an excellent job recasting the creation story (as almost every legend and lore must do) in the lead-up to “Infinity.” While his back-story is a bit derivative of the ‘alien engineer’ myth made popular by the “Alien” film franchise, he adds enough unique twists to definitively put his on stamp on it. “Infinity” also marks the return of Thanos (a villain any comic fan between the ages of 25-35 cannot forget) as well as the infinity gems. Both of these harken back to the “Infinity Gauntlet” arc that marked many a nerds childhood. And my instinct is to love it. Nerds love nostalgia. There’s even a full hour documentary on Street Fight II.
But the stakes are impossibly high. Hickman has the entire Marvel universe fighting countless god-like engineers. So not only the super powered heroes from Earth, but every planet in the wider Marvel Universe. This would not be so overwhelming, except that it is the latest in planet/universe wide events. In the past 10-15 years, we have seen a hero Civil War, a galaxy wide war against Annihlus, a Skrull invasion of Earth, the return of the galaxy destroying phoenix force, a war between the Avengers and X-Men, a battle between Earth, Asgard and evil Norse Deities that had imbued several villains with god-like powers, another Thanos galactic war, a galaxy wide war involving the Phalanx (Borg rip-off) and a war between Hulk and Earth.
DC doesn’t fare much better. The current universe-wide arc builds off of the Trinity War in which the three Justice Leagues fight amongst themselves only to unwittingly allow an invasion from another, completely evil, universe. Geoff Johns is writing this story. Full disclosure, I’m a huge Geoff Johns fan. His work on Green Lantern for a decade was simply outstanding and I enjoyed Trinity War, but both were conflict on a universe and even universe vs universe scale. At some point, it becomes redundant or meaningless or both.
In my opinion, both of these story-lines are solid, entertaining and enjoyable. My point is not that these huge story arcs have jumped the shark with these stories, but rather that DC and Marvel are risking audience fatigue of these larger stories by continuing to trot them out semi-annually. The similarly scaled superhero movies aren’t helping either.
So what’s missing? Gritty character development. For example, Wolverine is a hugely popular character, but he’s overexposed. He is in every universe-wide conflict and typically playing Cyclops or Captain America’s assassin. Sometimes, Brian Bendis writes him cracking joke. This isn’t true to his character. When Wolverine really took shape in the 90s, we found him in the pits of Madripool dealing with killers, thieves and bad men. We found him going alone into the wilderness to deal with his demons. We found him fighting Sabertooth in bloody, visceral and violent scraps in Canada. We need more of that. Ed Brubaker did an exemplorary job of this in his Captain America run. Brubaker explored Captain America’s history and teased out what it would mean for him to redeem the Winter Soldier, his former partner turned assassin. Matt Fraction did a similarly excellent job on his run with Iron Fist. He took a somewhat laughable hero inspired by Kung Fu movies and gave him some gravitas while still giving a nod to the characters roots. This is what we need.
So here are some characters that could really use some development lately.
- Wonder Woman: It’s insane to me that one of the most powerful heroes in the DC universe is now basically Superman’s girlfriend.
- Wolverine: Take him back to his roots, whether it be protecting young innocent women from harm or dealing death to those that deserve it most.
- Green Arrow: There’s been no new spin on him in years.
- Gambit: They’ve tried to give him a series, but it didn’t catch on. He’s been under-utilized since the 90s.
- Nova: It’s time to bring back Richard Ryder, this new kid who is basically Spiderman redone in the 2010s is killing me.
So DC and Marvel, it’s time to cool it with the macro and come in close for some micro storytelling before your audience gets sick of it.