As Mack, Oeming and Bendis make the jump to Marvel's newest imprint, DC WildStorm pulls the plug on two titles, and Erik Larsen takes over at Image, Andrew Wheeler takes a reading of the current state of the major superhero publishers.
16 April 2004

The mainstream is making a comeback.

OK, so the mainstream, by definition, never got to go anywhere. But for a while there, it looked like the market was evolving. Now it seems to be beating a retreat.

In comics, rather uniquely, 'the mainstream' refers to superheroes. And not just any superheroes. There are conventions to the comics mainstream. There are ways to be popular, and there are comics people turn out for in droves, and those are the comics we're referring to when we say 'mainstream'.

Books like PROMETHEA, POWERS and PLANETARY are all superhero titles, but they don't fit the same profile as books like AVENGERS or JLA. They use superheroes to tell a different kind of story, whereas AVENGERS and JLA just use superheroes to tell a superhero story.

The only way to get a slightly unconventional superhero comic into the top of the sales chart is by stealth, slipping it in under an established brand like X-MEN or DAREDEVIL. To earn the chance to try something like that, you have to be in high favour with the editors at the companies with the big name characters. You have to be someone like Grant Morrison or Brian Michael Bendis. And, come to think of it, you have to be working at Marvel, because DC doesn't take a lot of risks. And you have to have done it two or three years ago, because nowadays, Marvel doesn't take a lot of risks either.

'It looked like the market was evolving. Now it's beating a retreat.' 'Play it safe' seems to be the mantra for all the major publishers now, and there's no clearer sign of this than the removal of Jim Valentino from the publisher's chair at Image. Valentino had done a remarkable job of changing the perception of Image from a bratty upstart superhero publisher to a home for diverse talents and new voices. Unfortunately, he also presided over a recent drop in the company's market share, which saw it lose the number three slot to Dark Horse earlier this year.

Valentino's replacement is Erik Larsen, perhaps best known for SAVAGE DRAGON, a series that bears the hallmarks of a one-man-band rendition of a conventional superhero universe, rich with convoluted continuity and its own extensive mythology. By his own word, Larsen is a mainstream guy, and his stated role as publisher is to push the company back towards superheroics.

Image publishes a few superhero books already, of course, like the family soap opera NOBLE CAUSES, and the teen comedy INVINCIBLE. Neither of these books sells inside the top 150, and I'd be surprised if Larsen is looking to create more of the same. I think what he wants is something more akin to a Marvel or DC universe, complete with all the usual marketable superhero stereotypes.

Image has had a universe before, of course. It was home to the likes of GEN 13, WILDCATS and STORMWATCH. But that universe belonged to Jim Lee, and he took it with him when his WildStorm imprint spun off on its own... and later spun right into DC.

When Marvel acquired Malibu Comics, it merged that company's universe with its own, with the end result that Malibu's weak genes were wholly dominated by thirty-odd years of Marvel continuity. DC presumably learnt from that lesson. It kept the WildStorm universe separate, and tried to cultivate for itself a second DC superhero universe. Another of Marvel's many failed experiments, the New Universe, stands as an historic testament to just how great a challenge that can be.

'Larsen's stated role as publisher is to push Image back towards superheroics.' When DC acquired WildStorm, it probably looked like quite the attractive prospect. It brought with it the Homage line, with titles like ASTRO CITY and LEAVE IT TO CHANCE, Alan Moore's vaunted ABC line, and a superhero universe that, while rather slender in its output, had received first-rate renovation from Warren Ellis. With STORMWATCH, DV8, THE AUTHORITY and PLANETARY, Ellis had breathed new life into the WildStorm universe and made it the season's must-have spandex milieu.

THE AUTHORITY in particular had a huge impact, its success leading other publishers to make response in books like JLA and FANTASTIC FOUR, and leading DC looking for ways to capitalise (even as its own worst conservative impulses gutted the franchise). First DC WildStorm tried to fool readers with bad tribute acts like THE MONARCHY and THE ESTABLISHMENT, and when that inevitably failed, the company launched the mature readers Eye Of The Storm line, which saw young creators releasing their 'edgy' reinterpretations of THE AUTHORITY, STORMWATCH and WILDCATS.

And when that didn't set the sales charts alight, DC WildStorm just kept on flogging Ellis's dead horse, imposing a line-wide AUTHORITY-led crossover event of the sort that even Marvel balks at these days.

This week it was announced that Joe Casey's WILDCATS and Micah Ian Wright's STORMWATCH are both being cancelled. So evidently the crossover didn't work either. According to Casey, there won't be any further trades of his run on WILDCATS, which suggests that in addition to cancelling the book, the publisher has decided not to support the backlist on the bookstore market - no one will buy the early volumes if the run is unresolved. If DC doesn't have faith in the bookstore market, the future for the rest of the mature readers Eye of the Storm line seems shaky at best.

With ABC basically adrift post-Moore, and with Homage hardly prolific, even by Homage standards, DC is left with an imprint that has only one strong asset, the WildStorm universe, and another string of relaunches and creator reshuffles seems inevitable. In the circumstances, we shouldn't be too surprised if DC chooses to play safe. It's what DC does, after all. (After tying many of the industry's biggest talents to exclusive contracts over the past year, it's yet to show any sign of knowing what to do with them.)

'The future for the Eye of the Storm line at DC WildStorm seems shaky at best.' It's doubtful that WildStorm could have fared any better if it had stayed at Image, of course, and if Image does intend to launch its own superhero universe, the prognosis is bad. It's hard to avoid the feeling that every new universe is, well, the New Universe. If Image and WildStorm want to place their faith in the comics mainstream, they'll find the dominance of the Marvel and DC universes hard to break. I'm far from convinced that setting up stall in their shadows is the secret to success that they're hoping for.

I'm not the only one demonstrating a lack of faith in Image's proposed change of direction, either. The MOB crew - David Mack, Michael Avon Oeming and Brian Michael Bendis - have jumped ship, taking their books, KABUKI and POWERS, to Marvel, in what is perhaps not the fairest swap for Mike Sangiacomo's PHANTOM JACK.

Marvel has welcomed them by setting up a new creator-owned imprint for them, Icon, which I'm hoping will have a big 'i' as its logo. After Max, Knights, Ultimate, Tsunami, Epic and Age, Marvel has become an old hand at this imprint-churning business. Next week, they're launching new Spider-Man, X-Men and Fantastic Four books under the title 'Marvel Glut'.

The move to Marvel is a smart one for Mack, Oeming and Bendis, who will doubtless benefit from Marvel's market presence. It's also smart for Marvel to keep investing in Bendis, who has become their golden boy, and their best hope for credibility. With SECRET WAR, AVENGERS, and the forthcoming revamp of the Marvel Heroes line, Bendis and his Amazing Friends have been given license to reinvent the Marvel universe in a way not seen since Ellis tilled the dry-baked earth of the WildStorm universe. Of course, it also means that all of these creators are going to be tying themselves up in work-for-hire properties.

In fact, with NOWHERESVILLE creator Mark Ricketts on IRON MAN and INVICIBLE author Robert Kirkman on CAPTAIN AMERICA, the Bendis-fronted 'Avengers Disassembled' event looks distinctly like an Image alumni takeover of the pillars of Marvel's universe. It's almost a reverse of the exodus that created Image in the first place.

Image is returning to its superhero roots. Image's old universe is edging away from invention towards convention at DC. And all of Jim Valentino's cutting edge discoveries are going to Marvel to write about Avengers.

The mainstream is making a comeback.

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