The opposite of marvelous

I agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates that Jonathan Hickman’s series Secret Wars was a high point for Marvel Comics — it was the culmination of a time in which Marvel seemed to be doing new things with its superhero comics, exploring old concepts with fresh eyes. At roughly this time last year, Marvel Comics felt as though it was humming with possibility; as Marvel's films came to dominate the blockbuster box office, the comics division seemed ready to move forward into a new age.

One year later, Marvel Comics seems to be almost as creatively bankrupt as they were in the dreaded late 90’s, when the company hovered near bankruptcy. What happened? Specifically, their crossover series Civil War II stopped the entire line dead. The series, written by the ubiquitous Brian Michael Bendis, re-examines the same premise as the 2006 Mark Millar/Steve McNiven series Civil War: superheroes fight over a philosophical dispute. The original Civil War has not aged well — the moronic way the comics mirrored the Bush administration’s civil rights violations is painful to read now, and Millar’s dialogue is as thick as day-old oatmeal — and the new one is stale right out of the box.

Part of the problem is that Civil War II’s premise makes no sense. Supposedly, the superheroes get in a fight over a new hero who can predict the future. Some of the heroes want to preemptorily catch bad guys before they commit crimes, others say that’s a violation of free will and civil liberties. But Marvel Comics has always had plenty of superheroes with precognitive powers; why is this one any different? It’s unclear.

In any case, the superheroes all make a bunch of speeches about profiling and saving lives and duty and liberty and it’s all about as subtle as dental surgery performed with a chainsaw. Then they fight. (Superheroes spend a lot of time fighting each other these days, and very little time fighting villains; I’m not clear why that is, though “bad writing” is maybe the most obvious answer.) And the fight sprawls across all Marvel’s comics, killing any forward momentum the line may have had. (Of the crossover series I’ve read, only G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel series has actually incorporated the Civil War storyline into its own to advance the narrative it was already telling; Wilson is getting to be an old hand at advancing her protagonist’s plot even in the face of corporate-mandated blockbuster event storytelling.)

Marvel’s sales have been hurting since Civil War II began, and upcoming crossovers — including another fight between superheroes and Spider-Man story about clones another reprisal of an earlier awful Marvel story — indicate that Civil War II was not a fluke. So far as Marvel Comics is concerned, everything is awful, and only getting worse.

This is a problem of serial storytelling. Sometimes — especially after a particularly high point — everything seems to break down all at once. This happens with long-running TV shows, and with serialized fiction. Marvel Comics needs a top-down shakeup in order to throw off this institutional case of the blahs that has seized the company. The year-long deceleration that has sapped the line of its vitality and creativity threatens to undo everything that Hickman had built.