The Marvel Decade: A Writer’s World
It would be absurd of me to posit that Marvel valued their writers over their artists. One of the best things about Marvel since the turn of the century is that the artists hired finally broke free of the house style that helped ruin Nineties Mainstream Comics for me. If I knew more about art, I’d probably write about that, but I know writing, so that’s where this screed is heading.
I was a Marvel Baby who grew into a Marvel Zombie. Since I first started reading comics, back in the early-to-mid Seventies (yes, I cracked 40 years old a couple of years ago), Marvel was where found the most joy with The Avengers, Captain America, and Uncanny X-Men. But in the mid-Eighties I started writing stories of my own and realized that my interest was no longer captured by the illustrations, or even by the characters themselves. I started developing a taste for particular writers.
Which, in 1986-87, meant leaving mainstream comics behind for publishers and imprints like First Comics, Epic, and Vertigo. The last Marvel comic I bought in the Eighties was the final issue of Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz’s Elektra: Assassin, which could only barely be considered mainstream, I guess. I quit on Byrne’s Fantastic Four and Hulk and Frank Miller’s return to Daredevil just on principle once Secret Wars II started and ruined it all for me.
It wasn’t until late 1998 through 1999 that I even looked at another Marvel comic, when I read Paul Jenkins and Jae Lee’s Inhumans, Kevin Smith and Joe Quesada’s Daredevil, Volume 2, and Busiek and Pacheco’s Avengers Forever. Note that two of those were in the new Marvel Knights imprint and the third was a special limited series that revisited some of my favorite comics of the Seventies.
Once the year 2000 dawned, Marvel really began embracing the best writers in the business, both those who had been around for a while and those who were still up-and-comers. Having spent the previous decade obsessing on everything Grant Morrison and Garth Ennis over at Vertigo, I was shocked and thrilled when Marvel brought both writers on-board in 2000.
The Preacher team of Ennis and Steve Dillon launched The Punisher, Volume 5 under the Marvel Knights imprint, immediately changing the tone of the character for the next 10 years. Punisher had been in a sorry state in the Nineties but Ennis dismissed all of the crap that had come before with a simple comment and moved on to make Frank Castle’s return one of the most violent, and entertaining, comics on the market with his opening storyline, “Welcome Back, Frank.” The limited series ran for 12 issues before launching as an ongoing series in 2001 which ran for another 37 issues and remains the definitive Marvel Universe Punisher characterization.
Grant Morrison, meanwhile, stepped into the Marvel spotlight with a 6-issue remix of all thing Marvel, Marvel Boy. In one fell swoop, Morrison gave us an anti-hero in the mode of the classic Sub-Mariner; a Kree soldier from an alternate reality with cockroach DNA spliced into his own. Noh-Varr declared a Cosmic Jihad on earth and vowed to conquer it with the help of his new-found love, Oubliette, a dominatrix-costumed psychopath in her own right. I fell in love with this comic from the moment Marvel Boy spelled out “Fuck You” in the devastation of New York as a message to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s spy satellites.
At around the same time, another young writer I’d stumbled across at other companies, Warren Ellis, returned to Marvel as the co-writer of X-Force, Generation X, and X-Man, taking all three titles off into darker, edgier areas than they’d been before. And before the year was out, the Ultimate Universe would launch with a young Brian Michael Bendis stepping up from the Indies to write the consistently enjoyable Ultimate Spider-Man for 133 issues straight.
And all of that was just in the first year of the new Marvel Decade. Over the course of 12 months, Marvel threw down the gauntlet and didn’t hesitate to start tinkering with their properties. 2001 would see three definitive runs on comics that are still seen as high points.
The first, I’ve already mentioned. Ennis’ Punisher, Volume 6 was at times like reading a Warner Bros. cartoon brought to the page. Only with lots of blood and guts. Morrison, fresh from Marvel Boy, then stepped up and brought us New X-Men, which revitalized a dying franchise by recapturing the vitality and imagination of the classic Claremont/Byrne era, but with a Postmodern sense of experimentation that makes it my favorite X-Men title ever.
Alongside that, another of my favorite Vertigo writers, Peter Milligan took over X-Force with issue 116 and created an overnight sensation treating an all-new line-up of Marvel’s mutants as celebrities rather than as outcasts. With Mike Allred on art, X-Force ran until issue 129 before warping into its own distinctive title, X-Statix, which then ran for another 26 glorious issues.
But this was also Bendis’ breakout year. While continuing Ultimate Spider-Man, he also launched the Marvel MAX imprint with his original series, Alias. Alias followed the “adventures” of a retired super heroine, Jessica Jones, who was now a foul-mouthed private eye. While some readers found it to be too much, I thought Bendis used “fuck” like an artist and created one of the most interesting and believable characters of the decade.
And if that weren’t enough, Bendis also took over Daredevil with issue 26 (after a six-issue run earlier in the series), and crafted what is, in my opinion, the greatest run on Daredevil ever, taking all the things that were great about Frank Miller’s classic runs, but presenting them to adult readers without dumbing down the material or worrying about things like Comics Codes or whether or not children were reading. Along with Punisher, New X-Men, and X-Force/X-Statix, Bendis’ Daredevil work is also definitive.
Meanwhile, Morrison also brought us Fantastic Four: 1234, a mini-series that explored a much darker take on the First Family of Marvel than had been seen before, and Ennis brought us Fury, a MAX version of Nick Fury that horrified and offended most of the people who read it. It was glorious.
Also, someone named Mark Millar added his contribution to the Ultimate Universe with the launch of Ultimate X-Men. He wouldn’t be the only writer for this series over its 100 issues, but he would be the writer most identified with the title.
Over in the mainstream Marvel Universe, the creator of the classic Science Fiction television show, Babylon 5, J. Michael Straczynski (hereafter referred to as JMS) would begin a very strong run on Amazing Spider-Man that had the potential to be another definitive work, but ultimately collapsed in on itself in a combination of editorial tampering and artistic hubris. But that would only be after nearly seven years on the title and ending with the “One More Day” fiasco, which I’ll mention in more detail later.
2002 was another banner year for writers, but aside from the already mentioned X-Statix and Mark Millar’s newest Ultimate title, The Ultimates, most of the books and storylines that launched this year have been overlooked or left behind. This was the year that Bruce Jones took over The Incredible Hulk to much fanfare before eventually petering out. John Ney Rieber relaunched Captain America, but wasn’t kept on-board for very long and the title quickly spiraled into a directionless mess over its 32 issue run. Mark Waid and the late Mike Wieringo took over Fantastic Four with issue 60 (in the renumbering), but like so many others, failed to really take the title anywhere new or interesting, even though the team did meat God at one point, and He looked like Jack Kirby.
Two other titles, however, really delivered with the freedom and experimental nature that Marvel’s writers were being allowed at this time. Steve Gerber returned to Marvel and to the character that made him famous, Howard the Duck in a 6-issue MAX mini-series that found the Duck trapped in the body of a rat, while Gerber took the piss out of nearly every modern comic convention and cliché.
At the same time, Dan Jurgens quietly began writing a Thor arc that would prove to be one of the best, and least known, stories in the history of the character. Jurgens had been writing Thor since its 1998 “Heroes Reborn” relaunch, but as 2001 ended he began laying the groundwork for an epic story as Odin died and Thor became the ruler of Asgard. Over the next two years, Thor had to deal not only with monsters and gods, but with Jurgens’ exploration of what having a living deity would mean in the Marvel Universe. As churches to Thor began springing up across the landscape and Thor began responding to their prayers and devotions, the character went on a spiritual and intellectual journey unmatched in the title’s history.
Nobody seems to remember this mammoth run anymore, but I’d definitely say it was the definitive Thor story from start to finish. At least until we see what Matt Fraction does with the character next year.
And as I mentioned in passing, Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s Ultimate version of The Avengers, Ultimates, crafted an impressive modern updating of one of my favorite teams ever, eventually ending up with a 13-issue adventure that re-imagined a Skrull Invasion in a manner geared for adults, with a healthy dose of questionable morality and contemporary flair. Traditionalists weren’t thrilled, but this wasn’t for them. This was The Avengers for the new century.
2003 should be remembered as the year Marvel’s mini-series really exploded. Garth Ennis wrote an ultra-violent MAX Thor adventure called Thor: Vikings and also crafted the brilliant “origin” of Frank Castle, Born, positing that it wasn’t the murder of his family that made Frank become The Punisher, but that the darkness had been inside him all along and was brought to the forefront during Frank’s final tour in Vietnam. Again, just brilliant.
This year also saw Robert Morales and Kyle Baker tell the secret history of the Super Soldier Program in Truth: Red, White, and Black. Neil Gaiman debuted with Marvel, telling the story of Marvel’s characters manifesting in 1602, rather than 1962. The much-maligned Chuck Austen gave us the very nicely done MAX mini, The Eternal, which re-imagined Kirby’s classic Eternals. James Sturm and Guy Davis produced the notoriously overlooked Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules which purported to be the story of the real-life people that Stan and Jack based the Fantastic Four on all those years ago.
And if that weren’t enough for you, Marvel and DC finally got their acts together and released Busiek and Perez’ JLA/Avengers to the squealing joy of fanboys across the planet.
This was also the year that Greg Rucka relaunched a more measured and mature take on Logan in Wolverine, with Darick Robertson on art. Christopher Priest launched the sadly short-lived The Crew, picking up on characters and ideas from Truth. Brian K. Vaughan created Runaways, one of the most successful groups of original characters to enter the Marvel Universe in ages. Stacy Weiss and Dan Chariton presented another tragically under-appreciated series, Silver Surfer, that proved that all the good writing in the world didn’t matter if the fans couldn’t get past their own storytelling biases.
My favorite work of the year, though, was JMS’ MAX re-imagining of the Squadron Supreme in Supreme Power. This was a book that really established the potential for MAX comics to move beyond the supposed limitations of the medium and tell a fantastic story for adults, where adult didn’t mean obligatory cursing and sex. Oh sure, there was nudity and lots of mature themes, but it was never crass or exploitative. I was terribly sad when Marvel decided to move it to the Marvel Knights imprint after 18 issues, in an attempt to boost sales. All it did was hamper the storytelling and it, like other JMS works, would eventually just stutter and stall until it just dropped off the schedule mid-story in 2006.
2003 was also the year that Christopher Priest finally gave up trying to make people appreciate Black Panther. He’d been working steadily on the title since 1998 and crafted another definitive run on a Marvel character, but nothing seemed to go his way and both Black Panther and The Crew came to unnecessary ends. The Crew would just be forgotten, but Black Panther would relaunch with a new creative team in 2005. It wasn’t the same, though. This was one time when Marvel just didn’t take care of one of its best working writers.
As if there was something in the air, 2004 would be a rough year for some, but would also be a transitional year for others. Jurgen’s Thor ended. Captain America ended. Morrison’s New X-Men ended (and he left the company in a cloud of bad feelings and controversy). Milligan’s X-Statix ended.
In their place, Ennis took Frank to the MAX imprint and continued what he’d started with Born, giving us the most consistently great Marvel comic of the decade with Punisher. Gone were the costumed super heroes and the mean humor. Instead, we got a Frank Castle who had been in Vietnam. He was old and massive and as brutal as they come. Ennis gave us more formulaic stories, but every one of them was gold and he did it for 65 straight issues. This was the best of the best, month in and out.
The Ultimate universe expanded a little bit with the okay, but never really living up to its potential new title, Ultimate Fantastic Four. The highlight of this book was Warren Ellis’ return to Marvel comics, as he stepped in for a 12-issue run. This would be the format the Ellis chose to work in for Marvel over the back half of the decade and was very successful in providing concentrated bursts of exceptional narrative before moving on to other projects. When it wasn’t a 12-issue stretch, he would focus on minis, like the first of his Ultimate Galactus Trilogy, Ultimate Nightmare. Aside from The Ultimates, and maybe Ultimate Spider-Man, Ellis’ work was probably the most suited to the new universe than anyone else.
In the mainstream Marvel Universe, Dan Slott began a celebrated run on She-Hulk combining wit and style to again forge the definitive representation of the character. At the same time, TV’s Joss Whedon debuted the showcase title, Astonishing X-Men with superstar artist John Cassaday, and while it continuously slipped further and further down the release schedule, and in the end wasn’t as satisfying as it could have been, it was still 24 issues of impressive X-Men storytelling and one of the only X-Titles since Morrison left to really accept and expand on the things he did.
At the end of the year, Brian Michael Bendis was handed the keys to The Avengers kingdom and began his extremely controversial version of cleaning house in the Avengers Disassembled storyline. Wanda went crazy and started killing all of her friends with powers that really didn’t correspond to how she’d always been portrayed. It was jarring and ugly and was the beginning of the end of Bendis’ critical acclaim, but was replaced with enormous financial rewards.
2005 was another strange year for writers. There was a lot of good stuff going on, like Ellis’ 6-issue stint on Iron Man, which gave the character a new power set and made him interesting for the first time in years. Millar and Hitch launched Ultimates 2 which would be every bit as good and exciting as the first volume. Dan Slott would begin a 21-issue run on She-Hulk after his initial 12 issues wrapped, continuing the quality and fun right up until the end. Ellis debuted the second chapter of his Ultimate Galactus Trilogy with Ultimate Secret. We were also treated to the classic creative team responsible for DC’s Justice League International, Giffen, DeMatteis, and Maguire, taking on a humorous and extremely well done version of The Defenders in a 5-issue mini-series.
Ennis would bring Ghost Rider back, but would be a rare misstep for the writer. Bendis would also misfire with Secret War and with his launch of New Avengers, which while popular, would never really garner the critical acclaim of his earlier work. Bendis also carried on his dismantling of everything good about The Scarlet Witch with the imaginative, but ultimately horribly flawed, House of M. JMS would also take the reins of Fantastic Four in what seemed like a perfect pairing, but as with his other work around this time, it never really seemed to take off.
So while there were maybe a few more high-profile flubs this year, it would be hard to say that the writers weren’t being given nearly free reign. In some cases, they were given enough rope with which to hang themselves.
But out of the entire 2005 crop, there was one book that hit the ground running and still hasn’t stopped cranking out the highest quality writing every month. Ed Brubaker opened his new Captain America with the assassination of the Red Skull, which turned out to be not quite as fatal as it seemed, and then began churning out the best sci-fi espionage superheroics in the whole Marvel line. Then, as if to prove just how good he is, Brubaker did the unthinkable and brought Bucky back.
And he didn’t just bring him back, he made it work, and now, almost 5 years later Bucky is carrying the shield and running around as Cap. But more on that later.
The next four years of the decade are pretty densely packed as Marvel began doing more and more to push everyone else out of the marketplace and maintain its amazing market dominance. This was mostly done in the same way they built up that dominance: by letting the writers write. Oh, and by establishing the company-wide crossover event, of course.
House of M had really started something, combining both high concept and crossovers with a solid financial payoff. This year Mark Millar and Steve McNiven took it to its logical next step with Civil War. Although critics complained about the characterizations being off, about the heavy-handed real-world symbolism that didn’t really work in the genre, and about the seeming disrespect to characters and continuity, none of it mattered. Millar did what Bendis had just started pulling off the year prior: He’d had an idea that was much better than the execution, and while devastating to traditionalists, the stories ended up making the Marvel Universe open for much more interesting work than had come before. For the most part.
And while Civil War was huge, there were still piles of stories being told across the various Marvel Universes where someone could find something to love. If Civil War wasn’t your thing, Marvel also had Annihilation going on, where a series of minis led up to a cosmic epic that had nothing at all to do with what was going on back on Earth. Greg Pak took The Hulk to another world for the year-long “Planet Hulk” storyline, where Hulk went from being a gladiator/slave to the leader of a rebellion, and finally to the ruler of the entire planet in a sword-and-sorcery style tale that really put Incredible Hulk back on the map. If it wasn’t a definitive treatment of the character, it’s easily the best run since Peter David’s time on the book in the Eighties and Nineties.
Ed Brubaker also took to the skies, writing the X-Men: Deadly Genesis miniseries and introducing the long-lost third Summers brother to Marvel once and for all. At the end of this story, Vulcan (the missing Summers brother) takes to space for revenge against the Shi’ar Empire. And in order to tell this story, Brubaker was handed the reins of Uncanny X-Men, starting with issue 475. And if that weren’t enough added to his plate, Brubaker also took over writing Daredevil with issue 82, once Bendis wrapped up his definitive run.
This is all in addition to his creator-owned title, Criminal, published through Marvel’s Icon imprint. Amazing.
Meanwhile, in the rest of Marvel’s publishing world, Ellis completed his Ultimate Galactus Trilogy with Ultimate Extinction, and launched what may well be the best thing he’s done that wasn’t creator-owned: Nextwave. If you didn’t read Nextwave, then shame on you. You helped kill it after only 12 issues. In a Marvel Universe that was continually growing darker and more violent, Nextwave was a hilarious breath of fresh air and one of the greatest books of the decade, regardless of publishers. This is a book everyone needs to read. Still.
In the category of Overlooked Quality Titles, 2006 brought us Neil Gaiman’s Eternals, Mark Guggenheim’s Blade, Paul Cornell’s Wisdom, Matt Fraction’s Punisher: War Journal, and the most tragic of all, Daniel and Charles Knauf’s Iron Man. Brian Reed also began what would become a 50 issue run on Ms. Marvel this year.
The Knaufs started writing Iron Man with issue 7, after the conclusion of Ellis’ “Extremis” arc, and thanks to the agonizing delays due to the beautiful, photo-realistic art of those first 6 issues, had a hard time making itself relevant as Civil War hit and cast Iron Man as the supporter of the State Run Super Human Registration Act. In fan quarters, Iron Man became Iron Douche or Iron Fascist, and readers never gave the Knaufs’ excellent series a chance. Up until the relaunch of the title in 2008, I would have called this the definitive Iron Man run. Instead, it becomes the runner-up. But through no fault of its own.
Civil War also contributed to JMS leaving Fantastic Four at the end of this year, in the same month that Squadron Supreme mysteriously fell off the schedule. Hmmm.
Two other minis really grabbed everyone’s attention this year: Marvel Zombies and Agents of Atlas. Marvel Zombies was written by Robert Kirkman and did things that no one ever imagined they’d see done with Marvel’s properties. The zombies were the brainstorm of Mark Millar over in Ultimate Fantastic Four, but it was Kirkman who made them a cultural touchstone. Zombie Spider-Man ate Mary Jane. Zombie Hulk ate anyone and everyone, and then when he changed back into Zombie Banner, the body parts burst out of his stomach while he complained about it. Zombie Everybody ate Galactus.
It was amazing.
Meanwhile in Agents of Atlas, Jeff Parker took a team of characters who had appeared in What If? #9, back in 1978 and made it work. Although the What If? story had never been in continuity, Busiek included them briefly in 1998-99’s Avengers Forever and served as an inspiration to bring them back. Not only did Parker bring back these mostly forgotten Fifties characters, he also re-introduced S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Jimmy Woo and the evil Yellow Claw. And if that weren’t enough, Woo inherited the Yellow Claw’s criminal organization and vowed to do some good with it.
While Civil War messed up Iron Man and Fantastic Four (and did considerable damage to Amazing Spider-Man), it also rejuvenated other titles and inspired some of the best writing of 2007, with the continuation of Fraction’s Punisher: War Journal and The Order, Fraction and Brubaker’s Immortal Iron Fist, Bendis’ Mighty Avengers, Dan Slott’s run on Avengers: The Initiative, and Ellis’ 12-issue run on Thunderbolts (#110-121), which, I might add, presented what has become the definitive Norman Osborn.
No one writes megalomaniacal insanity like Warren Ellis. And to this day, everyone who writes the character wishes they could capture the magic that Ellis did in those 12 issues.
Ellis also re-imagined the New Universe concepts of the late Eighties with newuniversal, which provided a very nice beginning to what was to be a series of minis, but due to technological problems ended up being put on hold after the start of the second series in 2008.
Cosmic action returned with Annihilation: Conquest, a popular, but critically hamstrung sequel to the previous year’s success. This time around, the writing team of Abnet and Lanning not only orchestrated nearly the entire project, they also had been writing Nova since the first Annihilation ended, and launched a new version of Guardians of the Galaxy from the ashes of this event.
In other cosmic news, The Hulk returned to take revenge on the heroes who launched him into space in World War Hulk, another event comic, but much more restrained than Civil War.
JMS began a critically-acclaimed, if glacially-paced, run bringing Thor back, but ended up leaving The Amazing Spider-Man before the year was out, after the horrendously received “One More Day” story. According to all sources, there was a lot of editorial interference on the title for a while, even before Civil War began upsetting things, but the hostility toward this story, which not only had Mephisto appear and magically erase the fact that Peter Parker had revealed his identity to the world, but also erased his marriage to Mary Jane, was intense.
And with that, JMS was left only writing Thor by the start of 2008.
I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t mention one of the most impressive creative experiments with Marvel characters since Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules in 2003. Jonathan Letham, a writer known primarily for writing somewhat avant garde science fiction with Chandleresque detective elements, as well as more mainstream detective flavored literary fiction, re-imagined a classic story and character created by Steve Gerber back in 1987: Omega the Unknown. This 10-issue series was one of the most amazing, and most difficult, series I’ve read in years. It was, I think, one of the best written comics of the decade, regardless of publisher.
2008 also saw the end of Ennis’ Punisher and the Knaufs’ Iron Man, but the beginning of Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente’s near-perfect Incredible Hercules, which took over The Incredible Hulk’s numbering and proceeded to become the quintessential Marvel Hercules story.
Jason Aaron debuted his version of Ghost Rider this year, and within pages became the definitive version of this character as well. At around the same time, Aaron demonstrated that he had a firm handle on Wolverine, too, with the 4-issue arc, “Get Mystique,” in Wolverine 62-65. And if that weren’t enough, he also penned what may be the best Black Panther arc since Priest left the title, called “See Wakanda and Die” (#39-41).
This was in the middle of the next big event, Bendis’ Secret Invasion, which desperately tried to do something new and exciting with the idea of a Skrull Invasion, but after a promising start, ended up collapsing before limping across the finish line. On the plus side, we did get Paul Cornell’s Captain Britain and MI:13 out of it, even if you people didn’t appreciate it, causing it to wrap up after 14 issues.
The end of Secret Invasion, which found Norman Osborn saving the Earth and becoming a national hero (???), coincided with the relaunch of Invincible Iron Man under the steady hand of Matt Fraction. Fraction’s previous work on Immortal Iron Fist was simply a joy to read month after month and he brought the same wit and imagination to Iron Man. And now that I think about it, those two titles are also definitive versions of the characters. I don’t think anyone can top what Fraction (along with Brubaker) did with Iron Fist, and, twenty issues into Iron Man it looks like the best run ever with the character. All you readers who abandoned Iron Man when he went Pro-Registration should really take a look at this series and see how Fraction has torn down and then proceeded to rebuild the character. This just keeps getting better and better.
And did I mention that Fraction has now taken over Uncanny X-Men? No? Well, he has, and while it’s still a little early to judge where the series stands in relation to the history of the title, it’s been pretty interesting so far. And while JMS’ Thor floundered around, missing deadline after deadline, Fraction wrote a series of Thor One-Shots that were the best work with the character since Simonson finished his classic run in the Eighties. And now that JMS is done with Thor, guess who’s about to take the controls? Oh yes. Thor is looking good in 2010.
And speaking of Brubaker (I was, just a minute ago), he spent 2008 continuing to make Captain America one of the consistently great books being published anywhere. Which is amazing considering that at the end of Civil War, Captain America, who was Anti-Registration, was arrested and then assassinated on the courthouse steps as he was being taken to trial. That was in issue #25, and now, 27 issues and the miniseries Reborn (2009-10) later, Steve Rogers is only just about to be brought back. Go on. You knew he’d be back.
What nobody knew, however, was that Bucky would take on the mantle of Captain America and the book would never miss a beat. If anything, I’d say Captain America even got better after Steve was killed. This is a book about friendships and adult relationships (mature, not dirty) that continues to be the best sci-fi espionage super hero comic on the market.
Elsewhere around the Marvel Universe, once “One More Day” reset Spidey’s continuity, the comic suddenly jump-started into telling fresh, exciting, and damned entertaining stories again with a rotating slate of writers including Dan Slott, Marc Guggenheim, Bob Gale, Zeb Wells, and Fred Van Lente and possibly others. I lost track along the way. By rotating the writing team, Marvel has not only kept the comic on its three-times-a-month schedule, but also allowed for more variety in storytelling styles, all while keeping a sense of newness about the venture.
When it came to miniseries, there was a lot to look forward to, from the launch (and eventual petering out of) JMS’ The Twelve, a horrifically depressing examination of 12 heroes from the Forties awakened from suspended animation in the post-Civil War Marvel Universe, to Fred Van Lente’s fresh and exciting Marvel Zombies 3. I didn’t mention Marvel Zombies 2 for a reason. But 3 was a wildly impressive take on the concept that, in my humble opinion, outdid the original series in terms of sheer adventure.
We also saw Peter Milligan return to Marvel with the amazing painted art of Esad Ribic to tell the alternate world tale of Sub-Mariner: The Depths; Ennis and Dillon returned to the Marvel Knights version of Frank Castle for Punisher: War Zone; Ellis dipped back into the Ultimate pool for Ultimate Human, a team-up of sorts between Ultimate Iron Man and Ultimate Hulk. Ellis was also handed the Astonishing X-Men baton and continues to run with it now. Mark Millar released the mini-series 1985, took over Fantastic Four with his Ultimates partner, Bryan Hitch, did an 8-issue alternate future story in Wolverine called “Old Man Logan,” and released a creator-owned project through Marvel’s Icon imprint called Kick-Ass. You might have seen the trailer for the movie recently.
Speaking of creator-owned work, Brubaker and Sean Phllips released both Criminal 2 and Incognito this year, both to critical acclaim.
Which brings us up to this past year. If you’re still with me, I appreciate it. Marvel didn’t slow down in 2009, when it came to bringing in new writing talent to help invigorate the entire line while also bringing writers who’d been on the back-burner, if you will, to the forefront. Jeff Parker launched Agents of Atlas, maintaining the creative quality of his mini-series. Sure, the series has been put on hold while the Agents themselves are now backing up Incredible Hercules, but they’re still going and they’re still going strong. And Van Lente had a fourth Marvel Zombies series this year, and helped launch a line of Marvel Noir titles with the very nicely done X Men Noir.
Jim McCann helped jump-start Marvel’s espionage genre with the compelling and very exciting New Avengers: Reunion, which had Hawkeye and a newly returned Mockingbird fighting agents of A.I.M. Jason Aaron is wrapping up his run on Ghost Rider with a summation mini-series called Ghost Riders: Heaven’s on Fire, while at the same time writing Marvel’s flagship Wolverine series, Wolverine: Weapon X and restarting the MAX Punisher with the new Punishermax title. Dan Slott took over Mighty Avengers with issue 21 and has returned to the classic Avengers feel, while Bendis launched Dark Avengers to tell the tale of super-villains recruited by Norman Osborn to replace The Avengers.
The less said about that, the better, really. The poor man’s Ellis’ Thunderbolts is all I’m gonna say. Although Bendis’ Spider-Woman isn’t bad so far, it has still failed to capture the quality of his earlier, pre-Avengers Disassembled period.
Howard Chaykin returned with the MAX version of his classic character Dominic Fortune and Ellis returned to the Ultimate Universe once again with Ultimate Comics Armor Wars. I’m beginning to think that there’s nothing writers like Chaykin and Ellis can do wrong. I know plenty of people disagree, but they are both writers of the highest quality and have been doing it consistently for years.
As for new voices,
this year saw the Marvel debuts of Rick Remender on the mainstream MU Punisher, as well as on the launch of Doctor Voodoo: Avenger of the Supernatural. Both titles are off to very good starts, with Punisher taking what may be the strangest, and, at the same time, most satisfying twists in Punisher history, as Frank is killed, chopped up into little pieces, then rebuilt as “Frankencastle” to help protect Marvel’s monsters from approaching Monster Hunters. The story has only just begun, but I’m loving every minute of it. And Doctor Voodoo has taken the classic Seventies character, Brother Voodoo, and made him the Sorcerer Supreme of the Marvel Universe. It’s about damn time.
Jonathan Hickman also premiered as a Marvel writer this year with the mini, Dark Reign: Fantastic Four and Secret Warriors, before taking over Fantastic Four when Millar and Hitch moved on. And again, it’s very early, probably too early to tell, but so far, Secret Warriors is shaping up to be the definitive Nick Fury story, and Fantastic Four is the best it’s been in years; maybe since Byrne was on the title in the Eighties.
And lastly, Ed Brubaker continues to be maybe the most consistent and talented writer working today, even if Reborn isn’t wowing the readers. The storytelling is still solid, and once he gets back to Captain America, I’m sure everything will be forgiven. Because, come on! He’s also writing The Marvel’s Project, telling the definitive version of the origins of the Marvel Universe, from the first appearance of Namor and the Human Torch, through the Super Soldier Project and the appearance of Captain America. It’s material that’s not exactly new, but he’s putting it all together in a package that is tightly paced and exciting, even for readers who’re familiar with their Marvel history. And to cap it all off, he’s writing a third Criminal series and every issue of that gets better and better.
I sometimes hear people say that there aren’t any good comics being made anymore. That they’re giving up comics because they’re no fun anymore or that they can’t find anything interesting anymore.
Well, those people don’t know what they’re talking about. If the last ten years of comics have proven anything, it’s that there’s something for everybody on the market these days. I’d say we’re living in a Golden Age of comics, where not only are there comics about just about anything you could want to read, but the overall quality of the writing and art have never been better. Sure, there were great comics all though history, but never this many at once. And I’m not even talking only about Marvel right now.
The one thing that surprised me the most when I started researching to write this column was just how many good writers had written good stories for Marvel since 2000. Even more amazing is just how many of those stories are turning out to be the best stories ever told with the characters. Nearly every year, we’ve had someone take a character and find something new and amazing to say with them, or introduce a new character who just explodes with possibility, and I know I’ve forgotten many of them, so I apologize for that.
Another amazing thing about the last 10 years of Marvel, is that while there have been failings along the way, and some writers who started the decade off strong but lost their way over the past few years, even those writers helped to situate the Marvel Universe in a way that allowed other writers to do groundbreaking work.
And things are only looking better as 2010 gets off to a start.