Marvel is the biggest pop cultural force of the 21st century, dethroning past champs like Game Of Thrones and Harry Potter. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a huge part of this, but it also had the benefit of a six-decade headstart for Marvel as a whole. Since the Silver Age of comics, which began in the late ’50s, Marvel has been a dominant presence, creating the mainstage for characters like Spider-Man, Wolverine, the Hulk, and the X-Men.

Marvel has long been the best-selling superhero comic publisher in the market, holding the vast majority of the top spots on the sales charts for decades. For years, Marvel was the must-read comic company, but that might be changing. While DC Comics and independents like Image, BOOM!, AWA, and Dark Horse all ride waves of critical acclaim and consumer success, Marvel has basically repeated the same formulas that worked for the last few decades. Marvel is treading water, but that’s not the way it has to be. Marvel has problems, but none of them are actually insurmountable.

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The Strange Present Of The Marvel Universe

Marvel is definitely in a bizarre place right now. The publisher is massively successful, but the cracks in its facade have been showing for a long time, since its last editor-in-chief Axel Alonso’s tenure. The best way to illustrate this is the hubbub around The Amazing Spider-Man. The Amazing Spider-Man is often the bestselling superhero comic on the charts. When it’s not number one, that spot is taken by Batman, or some other big comic, often an event book but usually still Marvel. It would be easy to imagine that The Amazing Spider-Man, then, is the most popular comic, dripping with praise and high critical esteem. However, the current run of The Amazing Spider-Man has received a very negative reaction from Marvel’s fans. The critical reception for the book is fair to middling. If it’s Marvel’s best-seller, The Amazing Spider-Man should be beloved, not panned.

There are multiple factors behind Amazing Spider-Man‘s struggles, like the recent death of Ms. Marvel, but this isn’t just an Amazing Spider-Man problem. In 2018, Marvel made a big deal when it relaunched The Avengers with superstar writer Jason Aaron and a corps of brilliant artists led by Ed McGuinness. This sort of thing was a recipe for success for years in the ’00s and ’10s when it came to The Avengers, but the 2018 series never got there. There was nothing wrong with the book; it had excellent threats, a great roster, and despite some missteps, it was exactly the kind of big-stakes superhero book that The Avengers should be. However, no one was excited about the book. Even putting a more MCU-friendly roster on the book didn’t help; in fact, it feels like it hindered the book, as Marvel’s comic fans are rebelling against the MCU-ification of the Marvel Universe. The Avengers tried to be a big concept superhero blockbuster, but it never got the blockbuster part right, despite having all the correct ingredients. This reflects Marvel’s bigger problems.

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Wolverine is yet another mystifying property at Marvel. Wolverine’s death in 2014 was massive and Marvel kept him off its pages for four years. His return in 2018 should have been huge. However, the quality of The Return Of Wolverine was a problem for many fans, and it contradicted everything that fans thought they knew about the Wolverine’s return. That story began in Marvel Legacy #1, which kicked off a “Where’s Wolverine?” micro event, where Wolverine appeared in short stories at the end of many books. The Return Of Wolverine revealed that those appearances weren’t actually starring a resurrected Wolverine, making “Where’s Wolverine?” appear like a cynical marketing strategy to get Wolverine fans to buy books.

The Return Of Wolverine had four miniseries that led up to it, few of which actually had anything to do with the upcoming book. It was a fiasco. Wolverine is a Marvel legend; he’s a crossover star of the highest order. Everyone, from comic fans to movie fans, knows Wolverine. However, on top of all The Return Of Wolverine shenanigans, Marvel didn’t even give Wolverine a solo book for two years, mostly relegating him to secondary titles from 2018 to 2020. It’s such a weird misstep for a company that has spent the better part of the last few decades putting Wolverine front and center every chance they get.

Even the return of the Ultimate Universe feels like a weird move for the publisher. The Ultimate Universe was molten hot at the beginning of the ’00s, but that changed quickly. By 2005, the Ultimate Universe’s vaunted simple continuity fell apart and suddenly it had the same problem as the 616 universe. From 2005 to 2015, the Ultimate Universe slowly died, becoming more and more irrelevant. It was definitely a smash hit for a few years, and many older fans have some fond memories of it, but by the time it ended, no one cared. Ultimate Invasion is stacked with talent. Writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Bryan Hitch are helming the book but it’s hard to decide who the book’s actual audience is. It’s a comic that seems like fans are buying it out of habit more than anything else, which feels like Marvel’s main marketing strategy. The company is depending on the past and fans who try to fill complete runs instead of storytelling.

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Bright Lights In A Universe Of Diminished Stars

While Marvel is doing some things wrong, they aren’t completely beaten. Blade #1 was a huge hit, which was unprecedented in Blade’s long Marvel history. The horror side of the Marvel Universe has long been underserved, and Blade‘s success shows that fans want more. Writer Jed MacKay has become Marvel’s hottest new writer, working on B-list books like Strange, Black Cat, and Moon Knight. He got to write the two Kang Timeless one-shots, the second of which led to him getting tapped for The Avengers. The X-Men books have been the only part of Marvel’s entire line with any heat since 2019, and Summer Of Symbiotes has expanded one of the more popular corners of the Marvel Universe. Captain Marvel just finished up an amazing run.

Guardians Of The Galaxy was relaunched by the Hivemind, writers Jackson Lanzing and Collin Kelly, who have also been putting out two excellent Captain America comics. Fantastic Four is more beloved than it’s been in decades. The Incredible Hulk has impressed readers with its first two issues, and everyone is looking forward to Immortal Thor. There is a lot to love in the current Marvel Universe, but many of the best titles are off the beaten path. Fans know what to look for, and they buy in large enough quantities to keep Marvel at the top of the food chain, but even these great comics can’t really penetrate the general miasma around Marvel right now.

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The New Hotness Becoming The Old Guard Always Backfires Eventually

Editors are extremely important to comics in general, but Marvel has always been heavily driven by their editorial side. Stan Lee, who gets most of his plaudits for his writing, should actually be praised more for his editorial skills. Since Lee, Marvel’s editors-in-chief have been powerful forces in the company. Sometimes, like during the Jim Shooter years, this works for sales and fan esteem. Other times, like the reigns of Tom DeFalco and Bob Harras, the editors aren’t able to adapt to the shifting realities of the comic industry and fandom, and the company suffers. Joe Quesada becoming editor-in-chief in 2000 was a huge turning point for Marvel. Quesada, and the editors he hired, were able to right the course of Marvel’s ship. They were the new hotness, but that was twenty years ago. Things change.

Marvel’s biggest problem right now is a leadership problem. Marvel’s editors are often openly hostile to the fans and what they want. Quesada pioneered the company’s “outrage=sales” approach, and the current editors all came to power under him. There’s a reason why Marvel pushed things like one-note, depressing X-Men stories for years or made sure to double down on keeping Spider-Man and Mary Jane apart. Marvel’s publishing strategies for many of its biggest characters and titles basically exist to make fans miserable and keep stringing them along with the hope that things will change. Marvel has amazing creators at their disposal, as well as legendary, recognizable characters. However, there’s nothing truly exciting in the works for Marvel fans and when there is, Marvel doesn’t take advantage of it. This problem can’t be laid on the creators and the comics. Even the worst Marvel comics are still pretty good compared to comics of the past. If there’s a problem, it’s coming from the company’s executive decisions.

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Marvel Needs A Shake-Up At The Top

Marvel is on top of the world when it comes to sales, but it’s hard to say they’re the company people are the most excited about. DC’s Dawn Of DC has driven reader interest to new levels, as the company puts out books that fans are loving pretty much across the board. The indies are brimming with talent and exciting stories, and while their sales aren’t as high as the Big Two, they create an energy and excitement that is palpable. DC and the indies have made huge strides in 2022 and 2023. It’s paid off in sales and awards. The same thing can’t be said for Marvel; Marvel may have the highest market share, but other than Fall Of X recently, Marvel isn’t generating much excitement. The sad thing is that when Marvel is getting a lot of attention it’s often quite negative.

Marvel employs many brilliant creators, and they have some very good books. While the company could make changes in its line, they aren’t going to solve Marvel’s current problems. Much like in the doldrums of the ’90s, Marvel needs to bring in a new, fresh leadership that actually has a vision. Quesada became a beloved EIC because he had goals for Marvel and the company exceeded them, but those goals also coincided with what readers wanted.

Quesada’s handpicked editors have been in charge since he left and the company has suffered setbacks that wouldn’t have been thought possible during Quesada’s tenure. Instead of going in new directions, they’ve just kept the ship moving on the course Quesada laid out twenty-three years ago. Looking at Marvel’s history, the best editors-in-chief have always been former creators. Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Jim Shooter, and Joe Quesada were all comic creators before they took over and Marvel flourished under their guidance. Even Tom DeFalco was a writer once, and he did a pretty good job until the changing realities of the ’90s caught him flatfooted. Marvel needs to shake up things at the top of its editorial team. New blood brings excitement, and Marvel doesn’t need EICs who stay the course like Alonso and Cebulski have since 2011. It needs someone who is wheeling to break the wheel, like Quesada, or be hated for constantly demanding the best, like Shooter, rather than more of the same.

 Marvel Comics is still a force in pop culture but DC and indie titles are actually exciting fans. What is Marvel’s juggernaut missing?  Read More