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. 16

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.

  2. I wrote about this title in depth last year. My opinion has not changed.

  3. For comparison, the previous iteration (mostly) maintained its top ten status into its final issue.

  4. Especially these days, too, as two top performers in Donny Cates and Ryan Stegman’s Venom and Al Ewing and Joe Bennett’s Immortal Hulk recently concluded.

  5. Those were Jason Aaron, Brian Michael Bendis, Ed Brubaker, Jonathan Hickman and Matt Fraction.

  6. Marvel NOW!, All-New All-Different Marvel, Marvel Now 2.0, Marvel Legacy, and Fresh Start, for those counting at home.

  7. Taken from Comichron, the finest purveyor of direct market order data on all of the internets. This is also exclusively Top 300.

  8. By the way, the fact that both Unit and Dollar percentage is 39.81% in 2021 isn’t a mistake in the data. It’s just weirdly what it is!

  9. The reasons are actually known. Two popular ideas together means higher orders, at least in theory. Spider-Gwen + X-Men = Profit?

  10. When I saw Jorge Fornes’ initial window shade cover for Amazing Spider-Man #82, I loved it. That’s because it was unique. It happening as a theme destroys the whole thing.

  11. Let me tell you, 1996 makes 2021 look like 1986 comparatively, which is a lot of years quickly, but if you know, you know.

  12. You could argue that period really started with the rise of the Ultimate Universe and Marvel Knights, but Bendis’ taking over the Avengers feels like the moment.

  13. That was Joe Bennett, who was pulled from the title after varying controversies surrounding his art.

  14. They also tend to feel like the tail wagging the dog, as Timeless in particular is seemingly overdosing on attempts to get Marvel Cinematic Universe crossover appeal.

  15. i.e. In a way designed to maximize readership, not one built to get as much as possible out of a narrow group of customers.

  16. Although even that is debatable.