House of Ideas, No More?

The biggest direct market publisher feels adrift. What's bringing them down?

Steve Anderson owns Third Eye Comics, a collective of seven comic shops in Maryland and Virginia. He’s one of the smartest and most successful retailers you can find in the industry. A couple years back, he told me something that’s always stuck with me. He was describing the “rough spot” DC’s main line continuity was in at his shop, and how “that’s the way these things go” with the Big Two.

“It’s a cycle,” he said, and one the two leading direct market publishers endlessly swing back and forth in.

It’s not that DC and Marvel are lunar objects orbiting the direct market, with one destined to be in a fallow period while the other thrives, always existing in opposition. Instead, it’s like any creative medium: sometimes these machines are firing on all cylinders; others, they can’t seem to get out of their own way. It’s a binary, on/off situation, and one that’s perpetually in motion from one position to another. At that point – very early in 2020 – it was DC’s time in the dumps, a position from which they’ve since escaped. 1

Now, it’s Marvel’s, as the vaunted House of Ideas feels bereft of the ammunition that earned them that very nickname. It isn’t just ideas, though. There’s a wayward feeling to the publisher, from a shared universe that lacks cohesion and an overall line that is adrift to the listlessness of core titles and the limitless, uninspired tactics they deploy to fuel orders. There are still Marvel comics, of course. But it’s almost like they are Marvel comics without an essential aspect of their very identity.

This isn’t new either. It has been percolating in the background for months, in varying conversations with people from across the comic space. It started with asides, little nods in their direction that emphasized, “Something seems off.” Since, it has evolved to more despite the hard work by all involved and varying degrees of surface level success. There’s just something missing, an intangible juice to the line that captures both the attention and imagination of its readers. It’s not that anything at Marvel right now is bad, per se; it’s that most of it is generating little more than a shrug from readers and retailers alike. And for a giant storytelling concern like Marvel, indifference might be the greatest enemy of them all.

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  1. Although even that is debatable.