Comics Disassembled: Ten Things of Note from the Past Week in Comics, Led by Marvel Being…a Bit Mixed?

Those crazy kids at Marvel. Just when I think I know what they’re doing, they do something like this. Let’s get into that and more in Comics Disassembled, a look at ten things I liked or didn’t like from the week of comics, led by the House of Ideas doing its thing…I guess!

1. Marvel, Good!

This news dropped right as I was wrapping up the last edition of this column, so this is pushing the boundaries of what should even hit here. But whatever! We’re covering it all the same!

The news brings a typical flavor of late, as 2023’s Hellfire Gala arrives in July with yet another one-shot that doubles as a vaunted “red” issue – meaning it’s rather important to the larger X-Narrative – with writing from the typical Hellfire Gala guy Gerry Duggan and art from Kris Anka, Russell Dauterman, Pepe Larraz, and more. This is the officially official (or at least the officially unofficial) launch to the upcoming Fall of X storyline, so expect major tidings and things both good and bad hit the fine folks of Krakoa.

And the Hellfire Gala will have an unexpected prelude, as the upcoming Free Comic Book Day release from Marvel is actually a sneaky launch point for a new volume of Uncanny Avengers from Duggan and artist Javier Garron. It features what has to be the single weirdest lineup ever, as this “Unity Squad” of Avengers and X-Men features Captain America with Rogue, Quicksilver, Psylocke, Penance, and Deadpool as their first mission finds them tracking down a new version of Captain Krakoa who is pinning the mutants with a series of nasty, murder-y deeds. This team is positively unhinged, and I’m not going to lie, its deeply perplexing nature makes me want to read this series just to see how they rationalize it coming together. I’m just trying to imagine Captain America being like, “We need you, Deadpool” given the circumstances. It’s very wild.

Anyways, that series gets its first taste on FCBD in May before launching officially in August. I am intrigued by its deep weirdness.

2. Marvel, Less Good!

I love What If…?

It’s one of my favorite ideas in comics, a simple concept that just works and works well. Its simplicity is actually one of its best features, because it just takes a situation that did happen in Marvel’s history and asks…what if it didn’t happen that way? It’s so easy, and it just works! I’m an easy sell on the What If…? front for those reasons.

Which is why, in this very difficult time and thanks to a recent announcement, I regret to inform everyone that Marvel found a way to make me dislike What If…? Please meet “What If…? Dark,” a title that I hate because it just sounds ridiculous and because What If…? is already historically one of the darkest titles from Marvel’s extensive repertoire. The secret of What If…? has always been that each entry is effectively propaganda for Marvel’s main line, because almost every story is “You thought things were bad given how they went…well, they could have been so much worse!” Adding “Dark” to “What If…?” is completely superfluous, like saying, “I want a good Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup” or “That’s a good drawing by Daniel Warren Johnson.” Its existence proves the modifier.

The first story is “What If…? Dark: Spider-Gwen,” and it’s effectively What If…? Vol. 1 #24 except dark, as instead of just finding out what happens if Gwen Stacy died when she fell off that fateful bridge but Spider-Man did not. Which in a way is basically just Spider-Gwen’s story already, given that part of her whole story is that her version of Peter Parker died (as the Lizard), which in part is the reason she’s a hero. So, basically, this is telling a story that’s already been told, but dark and different. It’s very silly. It just feels like an unnecessary What If…?, which is saying something, because the concept is by nature not necessary. But I typically love it!

Also, what in the holy SEO is that exclusive announcement over at ComicBook dot com. This piece is seven paragraphs long and three of them are completely inexplicably about Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, factoring in quotes from producer Amy Pascal (who is miscredited as Sony Pictures’ current boss) about the movie and discussing characters and ideas that have nothing to do with the comic. I presume this is all about traffic generation thanks to the SEO gods, but that has to be one of the oddest announcement articles I’ve ever seen.

3. Batgirls and Robin, On the Way Out

It seems as if the current Tim Drake: Robin and Batgirls titles will be ending with issues #10 and #19 respectively in June. The surprising part of this news isn’t that each is ending, it’s the realization that this is the first time in recent memory that two ostensible ongoings ended before a planned, defined ending. This news felt positively old school, because this is typically just how comics work. Publishers announce a comic, it runs until it proves it doesn’t have enough support within the direct market, and it stops because of that. It’s an imperfect meritocracy, but it’s about as close as things get. But in this finite era, I sort of forgot that this was how things worked. This news generated a little upsettedness, but that weirdly feels reassuring too: it’s a return to how things typically work!

It was interesting to see some of the response, especially with retailer Ryan Higgins – typically the biggest DC advocate there is – speaking to how that Robin book in specific just never connected with fans of Tim Drake, and how sometimes creative teams just don’t agree with characters and their fans. While Higgins’ take isn’t representative of everyone by any means, it’s always interesting to get retailer perspectives on news like this, especially when they’re such hardcore DC supporters. It underlines that for whatever merits there are for certain titles, something about them just didn’t work. And that’s fine! That stuff happens. It’s the nature of the intersection of art and commerce, where some things pop and others don’t.

4. Kodansha, Getting an App

It seems manga publisher Kodansha is rolling out an app for its releases. Called K Manga, this platform seems to reside somewhere in the Venn diagram of Shonen Jump, Webtoon, Comixology, and Marvel Unlimited, in that it seems like some of it will be free to read, it will be readable by chapter, it might be a la carte, but it also might be subscription based? Details are sketchy to start with, but given that Kodansha is the publisher behind giant hits like Attack on Titan and Tokyo Revengers, it’s clear that this both app-based and web-based experience has a high chance of popularity…

…If you’re in the United States.

It turns out this app will only be available in the U.S., at least for now, with possible expansion certainly being available but not clearly in the plans. That part is a bit surprising and most of this is incredibly vague – K Manga’s teaser site does not do much to illuminate the subject either – but it’s still interesting news, especially given the prospect of some of its material being free. This is one to watch as we get closer to its launch in May.

5. Spy Superb is…Interesting at Variants!

I’m late to this one, because I missed the first two of these, but the “Most Inventive Variant” award has to go to Matt Kindt for his series of paper bag variants for Spy Superb. I first noticed it when I went into my shop to get comics last Friday, because – to be honest – I thought someone accidentally left a Costco bag on the shelf of comics. But when I looked closer, I realized that it was in fact Spy Superb #3, with the look and design of Costco’s bags being incorporated into this variant in a narrative way (i.e. Spy Superb but at what cost?). I later learned that Kindt did the same thing with previous issues, using a Trader Joe’s bag and a Safeway bag to pull off a similar stunt.

This is incredibly inventive. I’m not going to say for sure that I believe it’s the best idea, as, again, I thought someone had accidentally left a grocery bag on the comic stand at first. More than that, it’s not immediately clear how much the comic is or what issue number you’re looking at. But it did get me to examine the comic, and it’s a super fun idea that I presume ties into the series somehow. Leave it to Kindt to go extremely outside the box with something like this, though. It’s a fun one, even if it mostly makes me curious of Costco and Safeway and Trader Joe’s know he did this.

6. Victoria Alonso, Headed Out

Marvel Studios’ president, physical and postproduction, visual effects and animation production Victoria Alonso, someone who has been with the company since before Iron Man launched the empire and someone who has executive produced the Marvel Cinematic Universe since the first Avengers movie, has departed the company. At first, reasons were unclear, and it seemed possible that this situation was one where the long-time exec was just looking for something new. But per a Variety article that recently arrived, Alonso was apparently fired. The reasons are unknown, but that Variety piece and logic itself connects Alonso’s departure to the surfeit of troubles Alonso’s domain of visual effects has been through in the face of its Disney+ enhanced release schedule.

Now, of course, it can be incredibly difficult to differentiate “actual problem” from “scapegoat” as outsiders, because the line between those two is difficult and likely one of opinion to some degree. But Alonso’s departure definitely feels like a crack in the once impenetrable facade Marvel Studios showcased, as box office numbers dipped and critical (and fan) appreciation waned. As a viewer of the varying shows and movies, my take is that Marvel’s issues are far greater than just visual effects, and that something is clearly wrong with their process given how many dull, ineffective releases their playbook has resulted in of late. The only person over there I fully trust at this point is casting director Sarah Halley Finn, whose resume is a non-stop lineup of A+ moves (she isn’t just the MCU either, she was the casting director of Everything Everywhere All At Once!). It feels like Marvel is fully in its trouble phase. We’ll see if it gets out of it, but the whole thing feels dicey right now.

7. Cuckoo, 2023’s First Great Comic?

I’ll be talking to cartoonist Joe Sparrow very soon for Off Panel, and I’m excited to do so for a number of reasons, the biggest of which is simple: Sparrow’s recently released ShortBox graphic novel Cuckoo is the first truly great comic I’ve read all year. Sparrow making good comics is unsurprising, as his previous ShortBox works Homunculus and Harvest were both excellent reads, with Homunculus even being an Eisner-nominated one. But Cuckoo is a heck of an achievement, something that blends coming-of-age with superpowers and questions of identity and a whole lot more, and somehow comes out the other end as something both coherent and deeply meaningful.

That it’s also spectacularly drawn, inventive in its page design, thoughtful in its approach to storytelling, and a whole lot more, makes it all the more exceptional. Fundamentally, this story is about a 19-year old art student named Dorothy Weaver whose world is changed forever when she realizes she is developing superpowers, which sends her down a path of confronting the past and considering the present throughout the rest of the book. I’m being purposefully vague, because one of the things I enjoyed most about it is how it starts as one thing and just continues to evolve and grow and change in exciting ways throughout the read. It’s better to go into this as cold as possible, but let me just say this: I highly recommend reading it nonetheless, because it’s a genuinely great comic book.

8. DC Layoffs, Not Really Being a Thing?

In what had to be the strangest story of the week, word came out that DC Comics was restructuring as part of the continuing shift after the birth of Warner Bros. Discovery, with multiple sites reporting “layoffs” as part of this move. It seems as if this was a thing that happened, but also, it doesn’t seems as if it was really “layoffs” as much as “layoff,” and even then, it was more of a well-deserved retirement towards the end of a career at a company. That was Senior Vice President of Manufacturing & Operations Alison Gill, with her retirement set to come later this year.

I don’t even know what to make of this! If others were laid off, nothing came from it, and it was said that there were no losses on the editorial side for sure. So…it seems like a situation where there were fears of significant cuts, but it ultimately proved to be much ado about…a little something. Not quite nothing, but pretty close to it. And this wasn’t even the biggest story involving handwringing surrounding DC Comics related news items – hello, endless hypothesizing about why Shazam: Fury of the Gods, a middling movie that had so little marketing I didn’t even learn of its release date until two days before it arrived, performed poorly in the box office – or the fate of laid off DC employees (that’d be Bob Harras ending up at something called Immortal Studios as its Editor-at-Large).

Weird week!

Happy trails to Gill, though, and I hope retirement treats her well when it arrives!

9. W0rldtr33, Being Loved and Hated

I read W0rldtr33 #1 this week, and let me tell you this: I haven’t read a single issue like James Tynion IV, Fernando Blanco, Jordie Bellaire, and Aditya Bidikar’s upcoming Image debut in a while. In fact, I’d say it’s on my shortlist for the best debut of a single issue series since…Immortal X-Men #1? The Nice House on the Lake #1? Probably one of those two, but it’s genuinely an astonishing read, from the core concept to Tynion’s character work to Blanco and Blanco’s remarkable collaboration to Bidikar’s letters. It’s everyone at the peak of their powers, and it all adds up to something more than the sum of their parts.

It’s also one of the most upsetting comics I’ve read in a long time. It’s both upsettingly good and just straight upsetting. This is a brutal comic. It’s gruesome and devastating and intriguing and thoughtful and smart and evil and a million other things at once, and the first issue sets the stage for a lot of good and a lot of pain to come. It feels like the possibilities are endless, but to get there, you’ll need to stomach a lot of ugly behavior (certainly not art!) in the process. I’m all the way in on it. It’s the most excited I’ve been about a new series in a while, and I’ll be honest: I had very little anticipation for it going in. But this is Apex Tynion, with an art team that outperforms his explosive contributions. So, you know, keep an eye out for this one. It’s worth a read for sure.

10. The Energy, Being Absent

In this week’s podcast with retailer Steve Anderson, we talked about whether trade waiting is rising through the prism of my own increasing lean in that direction. While both Steve and I know I’m not representative of the larger whole of comic fans, Anderson still considered my situation to the absolute max, and in the process may have unlocked what’s been going on with me as a reader of late. His ultimate position on why I’ve been shifting more and more towards trade waiting was this: “What you just described is the result of too much content but not enough killer content.” It’s an interesting point, because of late, I’ve just felt like there’s a certain lack of energy in comics, in which there is plenty to choose from but not a whole lot I’m feeling hyped about (save for the aforementioned two titles in this column).

That really struck me this week when I was in the comic shop on Wednesday. I ended up walking out with quite a few comics – double digits for the first time in a bit, I believe – but I found myself flipping through several releases and working overtime to talk myself into actually spending the money on them rather than just feeling excited about the experience. I would look at pages and panels, and consider my massive collection at home, and consider the idea of waiting for trade, and consider the idea of just not reading them at all, and it was just…a lot. What used to be an experience I’d be excited about and have an instinctual, immediate awareness of what I want became laborious and…not that fun, to be honest.

If it wasn’t abundantly clear, I ended up on the side of buying a lot. But it took a lot of mental push from myself to get there. I just wasn’t that jazzed about most anything, almost as if I was going through the motions rather than having an exciting Wednesday at the comic shop. Very little stood out. To paraphrase Steve, there were a lot of options, but I just didn’t feel excited about much of it. The only easy, easy buys were Storm & the Brotherhood of Mutants #2 and DCeased: War of the Undead Gods #7, both minis, so there isn’t even a lot of rhyme or reason behind where my apathy is coming from save for I’m just not feeling a lot of books right now.

I’ve been struggling of late to diagnose whether this is a “me” thing or a “current state of comics” thing. Those are obviously dramatically different concepts, and it’s rather consequential if it’s the latter rather than a more isolated situation. But I find myself lacking interest in a lot of what’s being released right now, and the arguments for many titles are becoming increasingly difficult to make in the face of the endless waves of releases that just don’t pop for me. It’s a weird time, and one I’m struggling to figure it out. It feels like something more than just me going through a slump with comics, even if I know it’s irresponsible to make take away too much from my own buying habits.