I am in awe—literal, no-lie awe—of the wild disparity between Marvel Studios and Marvel Comics. While Marvel Comics flails around and tries one desperate rebooting after another so that a hypothetical new reader won’t be “lost” or have to know a bunch of convoluted continuity, the movie side of the house basically says “Screw you, if you want to fully enjoy this year’s summer tentpole you have to have watched—and paid attention to—eighteen previous movies that would take up nearly two full days of your life. And while Marvel Comics continues to shrivel up into itself, Marvel Studios turned a nearly three-hour movie starring nineteen major movie stars WITHOUT AN ENDING into one of the biggest films of all time.
It’s become clear that, every step of the way, the comics side of the house CANNOT figure out what makes the movies successful, and it’s become equally clear that they’re gonna keep trying. Case(s) in point: this year’s two main Free Comic Book Day offerings. (SPOILERS for both books follow after the jump.)
The AVENGERS: FREE COMIC BOOK DAY issue shouldn’t irritate me as much as it does. I generally like Jason Aaron’s writing, as well as his willingness to go ultra-bonkers with the Marvel Universe-ness of it all. I enjoy Sara Pichelli’s art, and Justin Ponsor’s colors are reliably good. The story itself might even be okay, in that bonkers Jason Aaron-y way: Odin reveals to Black Panther that he was part of an ur-Avengers team a literal million years ago, and he (along with previous versions of Black Panther, Phoenix, Ghost Rider, Iron Fist, and Dr. Strange) killed a Celestial, and now that Celestial is back. (Back through Loki’s machinations, of course, because you can’t launch an Avengers team without it being Loki’s fault.)
But I can’t get past the self-consciously regressive nature of bringing back the Cap/Iron Man/Thor trio, in their original white male forms, as the only heroes who can save us all. It would be easy to say that commerce is at the core of this, bringing the comics more in line with the movies, but … I mean, is anyone REALLY sure that we’re gonna have original Cap, Iron Man, and Thor after the next Avengers movie?
If I’m being fully honest, it’s not the story, which is fine for what it is. (Where “what it is” is a thin prologue-to-a-prologue in a promotional free comic, albeit by a good creative team.) Here, look:
I mean, sure, it’s our beloved old-school heroes, returning yet again. But look at the optics on this thing: it’s two white guys and one guy who is completely covered up (but who is known to moviegoers around the world as a snarky super-rich white guy) standing godlike in the middle, while the Latino guy, the African king, two powerful women, and (to be fair) yet another super-snarky white guy all gaze up at them from below.
It looks, at best, like modern Marvel worshipfully welcoming the return of the white-guy status quo, and at worst like … well, like something even less good. The whole thing just left a bad taste in my mouth, probably compounded by the AMAZING SPIDER-MAN: FREE COMIC BOOK DAY book.
Because at least the Avengers had Aaron’s fondness for the weirder nooks and crannies of Marvel publishing, and the promise of some large-than-life cosmic fooferaw. The Spider-Man book, written by Nick Spencer with art from Ryan Ottley, Cliff Rathburn, and Laura Martin, promises, basically, two things: (1) If you liked Spencer’s acclaimed Superior Foes of Spider-Man series (which, it should be noted, stopped publishing four years ago), you will be happy; or, (2) If you enjoyed Spider-Man comics in the mid-to-late eighties, you will be … well, theoretically happy. You will be familiar with the situations, anyway.
Basically, this book feels like nothing so much as someone dusting off the old standards and playing them with absolutely no enthusiasm or innovation whatsoever.
This sounds hyperbolic, and I suppose it is, so instead of making sweeping statements like that, I’m gonna go through page by page and detail what I found painfully regressive on each one.
- Page 1: I’ll forgive the recap of the origin, because every issue could be someone’s first and blah blah blah. Fine. But immediately we settle in to … Peter apartment hunting, without much money…
- Page 2: …But with a new roomate who has ties to other supporting characters in the book! Yes, it’s the triumphant return of Randy Robertson, which … well, points for finding some non-white supporting characters to focus on, but, really, Randy Robertson???? But that’s not all: this page ALSO features a direct mention of “wheatcakes,” along with a snarky in-story takedown of the very concept of wheatcakes. All of which is … I mean, dog-whistling has a bit of an extreme connotation these days, but that’s what this amounts to. It’s a tiny easter egg that, when cracked open, says “I AM PAYING ATTENTION TO YOU, PEOPLE WHO HAVE BEEN READING SPIDER-MAN COMICS FOR 50+ YEARS.” It sucks. “Wheatcakes” should never be mentioned in a Spider-Man comic again.
- Page 3: A classic “I’ve gotta go chase those super-villains … to take pictures!” duck-away by Peter. I didn’t love Parker’s stint as a tech behemoth, but at least it was something different. (Also, this page introduces the triumphant tie-back-in to Superior Foes. Yayyyy.)
- Page 4: This is a tough one to explain, because Spider-Man is by nature an intrinsically quippy character. It’s an integral part of his whole schtick. But all the jokes on this page (which is mostly in-fight banter) just felt so … very … tired. Or maybe tired isn’t the right word, exactly. They felt, to borrow a term from the guys on the Blank Check podcast, “sweaty,” like you could feel the self-conscious effort just OOZING out of them. I don’t have high standards for Spider-Man jokes, but I do know that if they remind me of “comedy” that Tom DeFalco would’ve written, they are probably not nearly funny enough.
- Page 5: Nothing specifically egregious on this page, but it does kinda call attention to the fact that Spider-Man is fighting the Rhino AGAIN, just like he’s been doing for FIFTY-TWO YEARS. Guys, there is literally nothing about the Rhino that merits a half-century of scrutiny and contemplation, especially when 80% of his appearances (including this one) are just as “thug running from a crime he committed.”
- Page 6: After two pages of glib banter, it is time to grind gears into drama, and have Spidey desperately exert himself to save bystanders. His internal monologue even shifts tone to be full of sub-Frank-Miller hard-boiled determination, just like it would’ve been in the eighties! (This page also features possibly the sweatiest Spidey-joke in the whole book, which manages to snark on such targets as “arugula” and “overpriced restaurants” and “tourists” all while making Spider-Man sound ever-so-slightly sociopathic.)
- Page 7: The Bruce-Wayne-crashing-his-racecar monologue continues. On the positive side, this page features Ottley’s best artistic moment, a very cool use of perspective and the panel borders to give a POV on a Spider-Man save that I don’t think I’ve seen before.
- Page 8: In which a plotline from another comic wanders in, complete with an asterisked editor’s note letting us know where this falls in continuity. This is exactly the kind of thing that old people (like me!) generally say we miss from the comics of our youth, but when it actually happens it just feels … limply derivative. (It doesn’t help that the action and pacing on this page feel ineffably dated. The speed with which the reversals happen and their repeated failure to land give this whole wrap-up the feel of a fill-in inventory story from 1984.) The sweaty jokes continue here, too: I bumped notably on the “I voted for Batman” line, and then again one caption later where Peter makes a meta reference to losing Kingpin as his “archnemesis” because “stupid Daredevil stole him.” Which, seriously, means that: (1) Spidey has returned to an Acts of Vengeance level attitude toward the villains of the Marvel Universe, and, (2) even if we accept that “archnemesis” is an unstupid thing, Spidey is pining for a bad guy switch that happened THIRTY-SEVEN YEARS (and 430+ issues of Daredevil!!!!) ago.
- Page 9: More fill-in-level pacing fun during which one villain escapes and Spider-Man just kinda nonchalantly leaves, leading to a rushed-feeling mid-page scene transition.
- Page 10: And now, the shocking last-page reveal, setting up the series for the immediate future: Spider-Man and his pal have a new roommate … and it’s a BAD GUY!!!!!!! This shiny new status quo is unlike anything we’ve seen in a Spider-Man book! (As long as you don’t count Vin Gonzales, Peter’s Spider-Man-hating roommate from a decade ago. Or eventual Green Goblin Harry Osborn, who was Peter’s roommate back in the 1970s. Or anyone else that I’m forgetting.)
This is Marvel Comics now: actively seeking to recreate a past that’s much better in hindsight that it was to actually live through, in service to the whims of white guys who are terrified of anything changing out from under them. It’s ten pages that assert that familiar mediocrity is more saleable than even the slightest hint of novelty. It seems like Marvel Comics looked at the movie side and said, “Hey, people like this Spider-Man because he’s just like he was when they were kids!” instead of “Hey, people like this Spider-Man because he captures the spirit of the character while inhabiting a more modern world!”
In the end reading these stories basically gives me the weird, paradoxical feeling that by desperately trying to recreate the comics of my childhood, Marvel has somehow abandoned everything that interested me in their books. (On the other hand, the Invader Zim Free Comic Book Day story was spectacularly. It made me laugh and reminded me what I always liked about Jhonen Vasquez’s work without needing to feel like it was slavishly pandering to my nostalgia. You should all totally read that one if you haven’t already.)
(And also so I don’t go out on a totally negative note, here’s that panel with the webbing trick that I liked.)