Events are a very special thing in comic books. Or at least they should be. From the Secret Wars, to Crisis on Infinite Earths, to... The other Secret Wars and half a dozen other "Crises," events are usually designed to change the balance of power in Marvel and DC's shared universes. Superman might become less super, or The Fantastic Four could be whittled down to just three. That gives B-list heroes and villains more room to shine as well as comics creators new restrictions and inspiration to work between.
So what happens if these sea changes occur entirely too often? What if one new world order barely has time to settle before the next one completely undercuts it? The answer is: not a whole lot, actually. The short version is that few of the non-event books have the time or attention to tell a decent story in each new status quo before the next one goes around.
This is exactly what's been going on in Marvel for a good, long while now. Perhaps due to the success of 2006's Civil War -- as well as its direct follow-ups: Secret Invasion, Dark Reign, and Siege -- Marvel has caught event book fever. And it hasn't shown any signs of stopping since the company's soft, not-really-a-reboot-but-kind-of-a-reboot-but-don't-call-it-a-reboot, Secret Wars, in 2015 and 2016.
In fact, it's only been ramping up. After Secret Wars (the pseudo-reboot one, not the 1980s one) readers were met with Avengers: Standoff! Which led directly into Civil War II. Which has led into the tonally very different Monsters Unleashed. Which will lead into Secret Empire. Which will lead into... Something else, presumably. Meanwhile, smaller events are happening in more specific corners of the Marvel U. -- like the X-Men's Death of X and (the actually better than anyone expected) Inhumans vs. X-Men.
Even when the events themselves are good, such as IvX, they're exhausting to keep up with. Not to mention expensive, since reading the events means buying extra books you weren't already interested in reading. Not to mention that event issues oftentimes cost more than Marvel's usual $3.99 cover price. Of course, you could just skip the events, but that means losing sight of the inter-book connectivity. One of the most entertaining things about reading superhero books instead of just indies is seeing how your favorite characters impact and interact with the world they're a part of.
Admittedly, it's a tough row to hoe for Marvel, too. One advantage to "soft reboots" is that they let the company renumber series starting with issue one to match those new, aforementioned status quos (statuses quo?). Readers get a fresh, easily interpreted jumping-on point, and Marvel gets the influx of paying customers first issues usually bring. It's a bad game for long-time fans, and potential long-time fans, though. The stories and characters suffer for a lack of stability, and readers jump ship. Maybe permanently. So, in trying to correct one problem Marvel has just created another. And right now it's not clear where the sweet spot lays.
For the last half-decade and change, Marvel has done a pretty neat thing. With a few exceptions, all of the company's books that cost $3.99 and up have included an itty bitty sticker tucked between their pages. Removing these revealed not a scratch-and-sniff square formulated to smell like Hulk sweat, as we all originally assumed, but a redemption code good for one digital copy of the book in hand.
Since the codes only came with Marvel's $4+ books -- which at the time put them one dollar ahead of DC Comics' then-standard $2.99 offerings -- it wasn't hard to connect the dots. These were a gimme meant to massage that price difference.
And, as far as naked ploys to make people care less about the inflating costs of comics go, they were a pretty good gimme. Even if people didn't use them, purchasers were essentially being given the best of all worlds for the same price as just skipping the drive to a local shop and buying digitally. Buying in-store would give you a physical copy for the ol' collection (or to sell for store credit down the line), a digital copy for easy access and tracking, and supported local retailers in the process. The only real risk was inhaling a cloud of hand-pulled stickers every Wednesday after plucking out your codes.
Apparently, the program was much too much of a good thing. Starting in February of 2017, Marvel ended the program in favor of... Advertising.
Instead of providing free digital copies of the books readers proved they actually wanted by purchasing the comics in the first place, the publisher moved to a weekly, rotating pittance of free books. The first of which included Civil War II #0, the then-most-recent Captain Marvel #1, and Wolverine #66, a.k.a. the start of the famous Old Man Logan story arc. You might notice that's only three books, which is significantly less than very nearly every comic on store shelves, like in the previous programs. You might also know that most of those books are fairly old (the appropriately titled Old Man Logan issue came out in 2008).
The fact that the codes are only for first issues of their respective stories hints that they're meant to be teasers for readers. In other words, they're advertising for stories Marvel would like you to buy, instead of useful bonuses for the ones you're already going to read. Perhaps in response to this reduction in value, DC Comics has announced that they're going to start giving out free digital copies of issues, picking up where their competitor left off. It's enough to make you wonder what that extra dollar Marvel readers have been spending for the last few years is meant to represent now.
That's grim with one "M," mind you. We will never, ever turn away extra helpings of Aunt Petunia's favorite nephew, Benjamin J. Grimm of Yancy Street. Now that that's clear, we'd also like to add that this is one bit of beef we never thought we'd have to leverage at Marvel of all companies.
Marvel is the fun one. Traditionally, DC Comics has been your go-to purveyor of all things dark, gritty, and joyless. Whenever DC reminds us, once again, that Batman's parents are dead, Marvel is supposed to counter with an alternative caped crusader who hits things with a hammer and loves to drink. Yet in recent months, DC has rediscovered its sense of joy while most Marvel heroes have fallen into infighting, scheming, and political maneuvering. It's as if there's a limited amount of joy in comic books, and no two publishers shall share it.
The Avengers have gone to war over a (kinda bad) allegory for racial profiling in Civil War II. One of the Spider-Men is pretty sure he's destined to kill one of the Captains America (who is secretly evil). Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, one of Marvel's only existing power couples, have split. Daredevil is so guilty and depressed again that he's ditched his classic red costume for an all-black ensemble. Subtle.
Thor might have the worst of it; not only is he now unworthy of his hammer Mjolnir, but he's had an arm chopped off and is now racked with self-doubt.
On their own, some of these stories -- even most of them -- are pretty dang entertaining. Actually watching Thor claw his way back towards self-confidence without a tangible symbol of his "worthiness" to lean on is something else. As a whole, though, it's just not fun to read Marvel Comics the same way it is to watch a Marvel movie. Chock it up to Netflix's grimdark tone seeping into the not-so-funny books, or just our seemingly hopeless reality pressing down on writers everywhere.
Whatever the reason, the overriding hopelessness of Marvel's reality isn't consistent with what's made the its movies into an institution. Some series -- like Silver Surfer and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl -- are colorful, lighthearted exceptions. Yet the timbre of Marvel's mountain of event books is definitely a gloomy one that, so far, hasn't really had a heroic moment of triumph to break through the clouds.
We're not asking Marvel to stop tackling the personal and often global despair of the real world. The Unworthy Thor, Ms. Marvel, and (usually) Captain America use those problems to great effect. We just hope that this dreary chapter in the Marvel U. will end with a definitive win for the goodies. It's what most of us signed up for.
Speaking of that age-old conflict between Marvel and DC, here's a really awkward example of Marvel covering up its slipping standings. In December of 2016, the company reignited the sporadic practice of "over-shipping." Basically, Marvel sent out more copies of several of its series' issues than retailers actually ordered. Inhumans vs. X-Men #0, for instance, added a whopping 50 perfect bump in books to everyone's orders, ostensibly for free.
The immediate downside is that these "free" books actually do affect the shipping costs retailers pay to get them in stores in the first place. While that's a drop in the bucket compared to what the extra books themselves would cost, finding out you're paying even a nominal sum for something you didn't request is lame. Imagine if you ordered a set of new... Electric... Nose trimmer blades, or something, only to find out you'd gotten twice as many as you needed to trim your nose (seriously, it's just an example), but still paid double the shipping.
There are other complaints, too -- shelf space being one of them. Brick and mortar retailers are just that. They're enclosed spaces with finite places to put up product. Even if those shops that received extra copies were certain they could sell the "over-ship," they'd still need to find places to put them in the meantime. Maybe you've never worked at a comic book shop, but if you have, you likely know that clutter is unavoidable and infuriating. Adding to that with bonus books is like getting self-help DVDs for Christmas. Sure, you got a present, but it might as well be a paperweight that doesn't hold down paper very well.
Even this isn't quite the slap in the face some retailers made it out to be. If space is the biggest issue, you can always give the books away for free. A lot of shops did. The worst thing that can happen then is somebody just maybe, possibly, perchance realizes they want to buy books from a series they otherwise wouldn't have given a second thought. Remember that Inhumans vs. X-men was one of the over-shipped books in December, and that turned out better than it had any right to be.
No. The most awkward result of all this is that it makes Marvel books look more popular than they really are. See, comic book sales to retailers are tracked by Diamond Comic Distributors -- the only comic book distributor in the United States. Diamond's monopoly means that the market and dollar shares for comics they track is pretty much accurate. Although that depends on which statistic you're tracking.
We'll skip over the specifics (we read books with pictures to avoid those kinds of details). Suffice it to say that Marvel over-shipping books makes those series rank higher on month-to-month market share than they probably should. That looks great for Marvel on paper, especially since they certainly don't want to be seen as lagging behind DC for the first time in years. Yet it doesn't actually fix any of the company's inherent problems. If anything, it makes us worry that Marvel is less interested in fixing those problems in the first place, and more concerned keeping up appearances.
This problem is a bit less universal than some of the others on this list, and admittedly probably won't affect readers as much as retailers. Yet it's a pretty good indicator of a much larger problem running through Marvel Comics these days.
In late 2016, the publisher solicited a $35 comic collection. That in and on itself is the most normal thing in the world -- hardly a week goes by that DC and Marvel don't have some kind of pricey collection of old or new stories hitting stores. What made this one special wasn't its existence or asking price. It was its title, description, and details. Namely, there weren't any.
The mysteriously named "Classified Prelude" featured zero cover art, information on a creative team, or even a teaser about what it might be about. It was just, y'know, important in some vague and unknowable way. This is a great way to piss off comic book stores that are in theory being asked to buy these books.
And, fair enough, it was eventually revealed as a prelude to Marvel's Secret Empire -- the latest in a long line of announced event books that, quality aside, would probably be a key component of the company's overarching fiction. Equally fair: later details on Secret Empire itself showed it was a culmination of an evil Steve Rogers' (a.k.a. Captain America's) plan to overthrow the United States government. It's the climax to a controversial, yet admittedly pretty good story running through two Captain America titles. Even if the guy writing them is a hugely engorged dingus sometimes.
That doesn't change that the "classified" collection was an incredibly arrogant move from Marvel. It's a perfect example of the company carrying itself like Wakandan royalty, despite it no longer being the number one player in a two-player game. If you ignore some... Creative number nudging (we'll get back to that) DC's sales have been trouncing Marvel's ever since the former's successful "Rebirth" campaign.
Besides the obvious problems with soliciting an expensive mystery collection -- that is to say, forcing shops to take a gamble on books they don't know they can sell -- the secretive Secret Empire books shows that Marvel isn't will not be humbled. Even faced with declining market share and a general malaise around the Marvel U., the company continues to act as though people are champing at the bit for its products. Hopefully that overconfidence is just temporary, and Marvel will finally give itself the kick in the tights DC once needed to find its footing again.