Here on What Were They Thinking? (the place where we look at the stupidest, most ill-advised things in comic book history), we tend to look at individual storylines. We have, in the past, looked at the effects of long term business practices, such as the turmoil caused by DC's New 52 or the battle for control over Archie Comics, but we hardly ever focus on how the creative directions of these companies affect not only their overall output, but their overall perception by the end consumer, i.e. you and I. Both of the Big 2, Marvel and DC have developed unfortunate crutches that they lean heavily on and have leaned on to such an extend over the last 20 years that they're starting to crack. This week we're looking at the Marvel Cycle (DC will come next week).
So, as I'm sure everyone is aware, almost the entire Marvel Universe is currently building towards the crossover event "Secret Empire", where Captain America's alleginace to his arch-nemesis, the terrorist organization HYDRA, will be revealled to the world and HYDRA will try to take over the world. It will be the fourth crossover Marvel have published this year (if we include the tail end of the Inhumans vs. X-Men crossover from last year) with another 4 scheduled for later this year. But we're not talking about the build to the Secret Empire this week. That may come another week, depending on the final outcome of the series and the quality of its story (safe to say I'm not hopefull). No. This week we're here to talk about something much bigger and more troublesome.
Since 2010 there have been 37 crossovers published by Marvel, 18 of which have been multi-title crossovers (so involving 2 or more of Spider-Man, The X-Men, The Avengers (and their members solo titles), Fantastic Four, Hulk and/or another lesser hero), with the other 19 being single character focused crossovers (for example; Spider-Verse, which ran through all Spider-Man titles). If we look at the numbers since 2000, you have 20 more to add to that number, including a non-cannon Marvel/ DC Avengers vs. JLA crossover. But more importantly, that list of 20 includes includes 6 years of interconnected crossover events, starting with 2004's Avengers Dissassembled and ending with 2010's Seige.
This era in Marvel history started out very inoccuously, Avengers Dissassembled, Nick Fury's Secret War and House of M were pretty much stand alone, each successive crossover refering back to the previous but managing to remain self contained enough that they didn't engulf the entire Marvel universe in between. And then Civil War happened. Every single Earth-bound Marvel hero was involved and all of their titles tied back into the event. Logically, this makes sense. However, it did put extra pressure on the reader to buy more titles to understand what was going on. Spider-Man's role in Civil War was a perfect example of this. If you only read the Civil War mini series then you didn't get the whole picture, Spider-Man unmasks for no apparent reason and then switches sides for no apparent reason. If you read the Spider-Man series but not the mini series, you understand why Spidey did these things, but you miss out on the consequences of his actions (outside of Aunt May being shot) and the major action of the event, which is rather helpfully refered to A LOT. Oh and there's also tie-ins with Daredevil's series to explain Kingpin's motivations too. So you have to buy both series to see the full picture, but you're still not getting it all because you've still got Iron Man's unique point of veiw, and Captain America, why did The Thing react in the way he did? It's a sound marketing strategy by Marvel, selling more by making everything interconnected.
However, this becomes problematic once we get past Secret Invasion, which followed World War Hulk and both were in direct response to things that happened in the build up to and during Civil War. Because Civil War's ending was inconclusive the major plot line, heroes being divided, carried on for another year. Then Secret Invasion happened and launched Dark Reign, which continued the same plot point, but put a villain in-charge meaning all heroes were now hunted, persecuted and made outlaws. And this launched a whole slew of other title specific crossovers, meaning that by 2010, if you wanted to know why Seige was happening you needed to read all of the crossover mini-series since 2004 (Avengers Dissassembled) to understand why Norman Osbourne was incahrge of Sheild, why the Avengers no longer existed, why Asgard was on Earth, what happened to Iron Man, where were all the Mutants. It's basically a cluster-****, a microcosm of collective comic book history, if you want to understand what's going on, you have to start from the beginning because there are no easy access points along the way. Oh and this is all within 6 years in the mid to late 2000's, Marvel have been doing huge, universe redefining events since the 80's, even the 70's (with The Kree-Skrull War, Secret Wars, Fall of Mutants, The Infinity Gauntlet, Infinity War, Age of Apocalypse, The Clone Saga, Onslaught Saga, Operation Zero Tolerance and the DC vs. Marvel/ Amalgam Comics events all happening prior to the year 2000 and that's just 10 out of 45 that you might have heard of).
However, we then have a new problem arising. Despite all of these monumental changes, comics publishers are very scared of changing the status quo. Because of how copyright law works (and copyright law is broken in many other worse ways besides this, by the way, especially in America) if a publisher doesn't use a character for a certain length of time, that character becomes Public Domain, meaning anyone could use them. To give a fairly out there example, if Marvel had just abandoned Captain America during the 50's and not revived him for use in the Avengers during the 60's, he would be in the public domain in the year 2050, 95 years after his last published work. That means that anyone in the year 2051 could write a Captain America story and Marvel couldn't stop them, because they would no-longer have the copyright on the character. However, that is because his last Golden Age story was printed before 1978, when copyright law in America was changed. If Marvel created a character in 1979 and only used them once, that character would be in public domain a year prior to the Cap example (2049) because copyright now only lasts 70 years. Therefore, comics publishers can't allow characters to sit unused for too long (hence why Barner Barton was brought back from the dead after being forgotten about for 45 years, because, as we all know, there's money to be made there).
And there in lies to biggest problem, Marvel have all these grandstanding events that are meant to change the way the Marvel Universe works forever, but nothing changes. The 6 years we talked about earlier started with the Avengers being destroyed, Thor, Hawkeye, Vision all being killed off. Over the course of the next 6 years, Scarlet Witch would go mad, Quicksilver would lose his speed and become a villain and Captain America would be killed. Norman Osbourne would take control of Shield and replace it with Hammer and Spider-Man's secret identity would become public knowledge. All of these are major changes that would undoubtedly have a huge long term effect on the Marvel Universe, except all of them were undone by the time Seige ended (or at least by the time Avengers vs. X-Men happened). The Avengers were back together with practically the same line up, Thor, Hawkeye, Vision and Cap were all back from the dead, Spidey made a deal with the devil to hide his identity again and Norman got humiliated on public TV after trying to invade Asgard. And it's all back to the status quo from 6 years prior with only minor changes and even then the most major one of those (Spider-Man no longer being married) was reverting to an even older status quo. And that is the Marvel cycle. Massive Event-> New Satus Quo-> Massive Event-> Return To Old Status Quo. And repeat.
And that is the problem with the Marvel cycle. It's an endless loop. Things change, then they change back. The reaction I've seen most frequently to Captain America being revealed as a Hydra Agent is people saying they can't wait until Marvel changes him back. How are you meant to tell an effective story when people already know the ending, because I'll be damned if Marvel don't change Cap back to his old heroic self again, if not at the end of Secret Empire then within the next 2 years. Superior Spider-Man (not sorry I always come back to this on, I hate it) was terrible idea, lasted for just over a year then went back to the previous staus quo, rendering it an even more terrible idea because it accomplished nothing. The Marvel cycle is the definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting something different to happen, only it's hard to tell who is expecting the difference, Marvel or the audience, or what differenc they're expecting. The cycle repeats and repeats with seemingly no idea why it is continuing. Each new crossover spikes sales for the first issue then drops sales each subsequent issue until numerous collected edition graphic novels are published and Marvel final gets the return they were expecting. They also have a fondness for doing these events to capitalise on their films (see Civil War 2 released to coinside with Captain America: Civil War), not really seeming to understand that any casual fans that they draw in from the films aren't going to understand half of what's going on because they've linked together thier universe so effectively that any first time readers are missing at least 75% of the information, background and back-story to all of the characters and events that are involved and referenced in these cross-overs.
So, I will now repeat my preivous statement, how do you tell an effective story when in the end nothing changes. The simple answer is, you don't.
But, there is one positive to this whole thing. At least Marvel aren't DC, because ho-boy is the DC cycle so, so much worse.
But that's a story for another week.
And with that