Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The problem with Secret Empire is Civil War II

I was reminded today of not only the existence of Marvel's next big status quo-shaking, line-wide crossover event series Secret Empire, but also that it kinda sorta starts with a #0 issue this week, from a rather unlikely source of superhero comic news: Tom Spurgeon's Comics Reporter.

Marvel's last big status quo-shaking, line-wide crossover event series was last year's Civil War II, which is of a recent enough vintage that I had just read the collection of it within the last few weeks, and haven't yet gotten around to reviewing it yet (Between the two, Marvel also published a rather heavily hyped event entitled Monsters Unleashed, but somehow most of the market seems to have intuited that it wasn't a real event series, but a minor event series; I think maybe the number of tie-ins is how one determines whether a Marvel event series is an Event-with-a-capital-"E" or an event-with-a-lower-case-"e").

In the past few weeks I've observed a conversation about Marvel's apparently slumping periodic sales, and a Marvel suit's ill-advised statement that it likely has something to do with the market rejecting the current diversity of their super-characters, with many, many more female heroes and heroes of color starring in their own titles.

I almost jumped into the conversation at various points, but kept talking myself out of bothering, as the facts more-or-less speak for themselves, and I don't know that I had anything to say that someone else hadn't already said better than I'd be able to say it.

(But I'll babble parenthetically for a paragraph or so here anyway, I guess! I was mostly just perplexed by the sentiment, as it's not like Marvel has replaced white heroes with black or female heroes, they've just added them to their formerly mostly white and male line-up of title characters. I mean, there are two Captain America titles, one featuring Steve Rogers and the other Sam Wilson; there are two Spider-Man titles, one featuring Peter Parker and the other Miles Morales. Both the new female Thor and the old, male Thor are both still around, both the male and female Hawkeyes are in their own books, and so on. Does that cannibalize readers, so that instead of all the potential Captain America readers reading Captain America, some of them read Captain America: Steve Rogers while others read Captain America: Sam Wilson...? Maybe, but then, that's not about diversity so much as Marvel publishing too many goddam comics in general, as they have too-often done. It's the same calculation they have to make whenever they think about doing yet another Deadpool miniseries; just how hard and how fast to milk a particular cash cow? Like, in addition to Amazing Spider-Man starring Peter Parker and Spider-Man starring Miles Morales, they're also publishing three books starring female Spider-ladies--Spider-Woman, Spider-Gwen and Silk, plus they're in the process of launching new Venom and Scarlet Spider books, and also there's that one set in an alternate timeline where Peter and MJ are still married? And I'm missing one or two other Spider-books, I know. They're offering more and more choices to fans of each franchise, as they've always done, but what's different now is that the goddam things cost like $4 a pop, and they are no longer offering the digital copies as incentive to spend the extra dollar and then there's the thing I actually meant for this post to be about).

While there are a lot of reasons to explain an alleged slump in Marvel comics sales, diversity of characters doesn't even seem to be one of the top ten likely suspects--price, the perceived drop in value, the constant renumberings and retitling and relaunching of books, the fact that film and television now provide an option for interacting with these characters, the increasing number of other comics from other publishers providing greater competition than ever before--and, even if Too Much Diversity were the source of poorer-than-desired sales, there's not really a way for Marvel to address the problem. That's basically just saying "Our audience, racists and chauvinists, don't like people who aren't white dudes. So we've decided to stop making comics that aren't about white dudes, in order to appeal to that audience which, as we just said, are a bunch of racists and chauvinists. Don't worry, though! We'll still publish Black Panther, and the X-Men will have lots of girl heroes and other minorities in them, as per usual!"

One reason I overheard while half-observing this discussion on Twitter and elsewhere had to do with the in-universe creative direction of the character Steve Rogers, which will of course culminate in the Secret Empire event. (Here's a summary of some of the attendant controversies and plot points, if you're interested).

Without discussing the merits of that particular storyline, of which I am pretty much completely ignorant, I have an alternate theory as to why Marvel sales might be falling, or why the publisher and/or the retailers who sell their wares are noticing a lack of enthusiasm: Civil War II.

Whatever one might say about Secret Empire, the fact remains that it is being written by Nick Spencer, who has been writing Captain America comics since 2015, and this upcoming event series is the culmination of all that writing, including the previous lower-case-"e" event "Standoff," which involved the Captain America and Avengers-related books. In other words, there's a plan of some sort here, and the series should provide a climax, or at least some form of punctuation, to Spencer's time with the franchise.

In that regard, the event is somewhat parallel to Secret Wars, the big Event-with-a-capital-"E" series that Jonathan Hickman wrote, capping his years-long run on Avengers and New Avengers. That particular series is another potential source for sales strife and waning enthusiasm for the publisher. As good as the series was, and as strong as Hickman's overall multi-year, multi-book narrative arc was, the publisher essentially canceled all of their books for months and months, replacing them all with alternate universe, What If...?/Elseworlds style miniseries which, regardless of their relative quality, were very, very easy to ignore if you weren't interested in the work of the creators making them. Secret War and its many, many tie-ins represented a long, forced vacation from the Marvel Universe, that anyone looking for any reason to stop reading Marvel comics could capitalize on as the push they needed.

I know the point has been made over and over and over online, but if anyone at Marvel is thinking "Hey, maybe we don't publish enough comics starring white, straight guys?", then it probably bears repeating. Every potential jumping-on point, be it a new creative team, a new direction, a new #1 or a new title and a new #1, is also a potential jumping-off point.

Which is why I bring up Civil War II. If Secret Wars and Secret Empire were extensions of ongoing storylines, the same can't be said of Civil War II, which basically came out of nowhere, and was a particularly naked attempt to capitalize on the strong sales of the original Civil War (which it wasn't a real sequel to, and had little if anything to do with) and the marketing of the Captain America: Civil War movie (ditto).

It was presented as another Event series, it sucked up (and dragged down) pretty much every comic book Marvel published, and it radically altered the status quo of many characters, leading to another round of relaunches and changes in various status quos for some of those characters, but there was no narrative build-up in any title. It was an event for an event's sake, and that's the kind of event that leads to event exhaustion.

So imagine if there was no Civil War II. Or, for that matter, Monsters Unleashed. That would mean that the last major event storyline would have been Secret Wars, which began in 2015 and wrapped up in 2016 and, when it was over, lead to the relaunching of all of Marvel's books with new #1s; the one that were around long enough are just now publishing their third collections worth of material. Secret Empire which, again, begins in earnest this week, would have thus been the first major Marvel crossover to launch in two years. While that's still pretty close on the heels of Secret Wars, at least the series wouldn't be blurring into one another, as they do when you include Civil War II, which filled up most of Marvel's 2016 publishing schedule. The further apart "events" are from one another, then the more like "events" they might feel like.

But because of Civil War II--which, and I can't over-stress this, was not part of any long-term creative strategy on the part of a writer, but an event-for-an-event's-sake--Marvel has been in a state of constant major, status quo-altering event stories for about two years straight now.

Of course readers are going to be sick of it, whether it's about Captain America being in-story retconned into a crypto-Nazi by a deus ex machina cube or not.

Anyway, that's my two cents on that.


Bram said...

A lot of good points — most to agree with, some to disagree — but just so's you know, from a comic shop's perspective: yes, you've got it, mainstream superhero monthlies is basically a zero-sum game. More of the same does not grow readership, it just divides the existing pool. And, as you note, yes, even the best fans are looking for reasons not to read books.

Scott Beattie said...

As good as the series was, and as strong as Hickman's overall multi-year, multi-book narrative arc was, the publisher essentially canceled all of their books for months and months, replacing them all with alternate universe, What If...?/Elseworlds style miniseries which, regardless of their relative quality, were very, very easy to ignore if you weren't interested in the work of the creators making them. Secret War and its many, many tie-ins represented a long, forced vacation from the Marvel Universe, that anyone looking for any reason to stop reading Marvel comics could capitalize on as the push they needed.

I remember reading about this problem in Brian Hibbs' Tilting At Windmills column; whether it's because his shops are located in San Francisco or whether it's a national trend, he said that he actually did have the mythical new readers coming into his shop and reading books like Ms. Marvel, the female Thor, and hipster Batgirl. The problem is that because they're new readers, they don't understand things like pausing for Secret Wars and renumbering, and so post-Secret Wars (And post-Convergence for DC) sales on those new reader titles fell off a cliff.

In another column, he also made a similar argument to you in regards to multiple titles devoted to the same character simply cannibalizing each other.

The thing that frustrated me the most when reading all of the reports about the Marvel Retail Summit was that they were finally acknowledging several of these problems, but they simply blamed it on external factors (i.e. The readers and DC) rather than taking responsibility or trying something new.

The thing is, I own a business myself, and as such, I don't begrudge Marvel's attempts to maximize their profits, but at some point, you have to try to improve things on your end. When you lose a few customers, you can shrug it off, but when you're in the midst of a sales slump for several months, maybe the problem is you. David Gabriel did apparently promise that they didn't have any events scheduled for 2 years after Secret Empire and Generations, but in terms of things like publishing fewer titles or lowering prices, they seem to be opposed to it.

Bram said...

Oh, yeah — that new generation of readers that some of these high-profile launches and crossovers bring in, they have no patience for those kinds of hijinks.

Evan Dawson-Baglien said...

I really think you've hit on something about the nature of Event Comics. It does seem that more often than not, the best event comics are those that are the culmination of a large number of plot threads that the Event authors had going in their normal monthly comics. It's better for an event to grow organically from what's already going on in the comic universe, instead of coming out of nowhere.

Sinestro Corps War, Blackest Night, Infinite Crisis, Hickman's Secret Wars, Infinity Gauntlet, pretty much all my favorite Event Comics are of that variety. I'm not nearly as big a fan of the ones that come out of nowhere, with little to no buildup, although of course there are exceptions. That's why I'm pretty excited for Secret Empire, thought Inhumans vs. X-Men was okay, but didn't much care for Civil War II and Monsters Unleashed.