Through the Ages: Transition in Comics – Part Four
Through the Ages: Transition in Comics – Part Four by Jerry Whitworth
While Grant Morrison and Alex Ross helped nudge a new direction in the comics industry, they certainly didn’t get there alone. Two men who helped push this new direction to what it is today are Geoff Johns and Dan DiDio. Johns was an up-and-comer in the film industry mentored by legendary director Richard Donner (Superman, Lethal Weapon series) when he met DC Comics editor Eddie Berganza who offered Johns the opportunity to pitch ideas. One of those ideas reached fruition with Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E., an update on the DC property Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy. However, his next two projects at the publisher would provide much more fanfare. The Flash, coming off a longtime critically-received run under scribe Mark Waid, needed a fill-in team to cover the book while an ongoing team could be established. Johns came aboard with the storyline Wonderland and fans enjoyed it so much, DC found their new ongoing writer. When James Robinson moved on to work on projects in Hollywood, Johns would replace his position as co-writer on JSA with David S. Goyer and he struck gold again. Meanwhile, Dan DiDio, who was a writer and story editor for Mainframe Entertainment (ReBoot, Beast Wars: Transformers), was hired as an administrator at DC, first as vice president of editorial in 2002 and two years later as executive editor for the DC Universe. It was around this time DC Comics vigorously pursued exclusive contracts for work at the publisher, including luring talent from Marvel.
Some notable talent DC were able to sign included Geoff Johns, Jeph Loeb, Judd Winick, Greg Rucka, Gail Simone, Mark Waid, Darwyn Cooke, the Kubert brothers (sons of the legendary Joe Kubert), Jim Lee, George Perez, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, J.G. Jones, and Grant Morrison (who spearheaded a new direction for the X-Men only to receive a much more lucrative contract to return to DC, reportedly leading to being verbally assaulted by then-Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada at San Diego Comic-Con, the nation’s biggest comic convention). Struggling titles Titans and Young Justice were turned into successful titles Teen Titans and Outsiders, World’s Finest Comics was brought back as Superman/Batman, writer/director Kevin Smith brought Green Arrow back to life in the wildly successful story Quiver, Greg Rucka gave Wonder Woman a much-needed shot in the arm, Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee collaborated for a hugely successful run on the Batman family titles called Hush, Gail Simone had praised runs on Birds of Prey and Secret Six, novelist Brad Meltzer and artist Rags Morales crafted a hugely-successful murder mystery featuring the satellite years Justice League in Identity Crisis, Darwyn Cooke penned and drew a critically-acclaimed examination of the Silver Age if it was set in the real world during the years it premiered in DC: The New Frontier, and Geoff Johns and Ethan Van Sciver brought Hal Jordan back to life in the monster-hit Green Lantern: Rebirth.
DC also entered new creative ventures like Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers featuring seven separate mini-series interconnected for a larger story by seven of the newest, hottest artists in the industry and 52, a weekly maxi-series set in real time to span a year written television series style by the company’s hottest writers in Johns, Rucka, Morrison, and Waid with layouts by the legendary Keith Giffen. The resolution of 52 reinstated part of the multiverse with the title referencing how many Earths existed as part of this. DC Comics rebooted their line in 1985 with Crisis on Infinite Earths and semi-rebooted in 1994 with Zero Hour and 2005 with Infinite Crisis and completely rebooted again in 2011 with Flashpoint (their latest attempt with some early success). In 2009, Paul Levitz stepped down as DC Comics publisher as the company became DC Entertainment under Diane Nelson (who oversaw Warner Bros’ license of the Harry Potter franchise including the blockbuster film series) with Jim Lee and Dan DiDio as the new co-publishers and Geoff Johns as Chief Creative Officer. The company is in the process of producing a Watchmen series of prequels, against Alan Moore’s wishes.
For Marvel, Bill Jemas was elected publisher of the company in 2000 where he became a controversial figure with his penchant for micromanagement and how he mistreated staff, retailers, and fans. He was also infamous for publicity stunts, such as “leaking” a false page of Astonishing X-Men heralding the return of the Phoenix (to cover up the return of Colossus), falsely claiming new character Sentry was co-created by Stan Lee prior to his creation of the Fantastic Four discovered in the affects of recently deceased Artie Rosen (a made-up artist for the purposes of the con), and U-Decide, where two new series were introduced (Ultimate Adventures and the Jemas-penned Smallville parody Marville) and Peter David’s Captain Marvel series was reset to issue one and fans decided which they wanted to keep with the loser to take a pie to the face for charity. David’s title would survive as the other two titles were canceled while the whole U-Decide stunt was dropped without a resolution. Another infamous story of Jemas’ character included firing Mark Waid off an acclaimed run on Fantastic Four with Mike Wieringo when the writer refused to change his stories to meet a new direction the publisher wanted to force on him. The event led to a huge fan backlash and letter writing campaign that re-instated Waid on the title. Jemas claimed to have wrote for issues of Namor and Wolverine: The Origin only for Gail Simone to later admit at-times ghost writing for him (but did not specify on what save it was not for Marville). Jemas would step down from his position in 2003 (though still had creative involvement up to a year later).
Around the time Bill Jemas was brought on as Marvel’s publisher, the company had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, fired editor-in-chief Bob Harras, and hired Joe Quesada in his stead, the first time an artist worked as its EIC. Quesada was editor for a new, highly-successful imprint for the company prior to becoming EIC in Marvel Knights, part of an effort by the company to keep Marvel’s general line for preteens and Knights for teens. Marvel would take this one step further with the creation of the imprint MAX, which featured content directed towards adults with notable titles Alias by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos, Punisher by Garth Ennis, Supreme Power (re-imagining of Squadron Supreme) by J. Michael Straczynski and Gary Frank, and Rawhide Kid, written by Ron Zimmerman and re-imagining the character as homosexual. Shortly into the Jemas/Quesada regime, Marvel created another imprint called Ultimate which featured the retelling of origins on Marvel properties in a modern time with creative changes aimed at teenagers. The new line proved to be extremely popular and featured Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley on Ultimate Spider-Man, Mark Millar and the Kubert brothers on Ultimate X-Men, Millar and Bryan Hitch on The Ultimates (variation of the Avengers), and Bendis, Millar, Grant Morrison, and Adam Kubert on Ultimate Fantastic Four (Morrison, who previous to this assignment reinvented the company’s X-Men, was set to write the series but left Marvel for an exclusive contract at DC Comics). The success of the Ultimate line would influence the growing field of live action films Marvel was producing from their properties.
J. Michael Straczynski and John Romita Jr. re-imagined Spider-Man from his Science Fiction roots to more mystical ones to much success with JMS penning the hero for a seven year run. Though critically-acclaimed, this run was also wrought with controversy including revealing an affair between Gwen Stacy and Norman Osborn, Spider-Man unveiling his secret identity to the world, and Spider-Man making a deal with the devil Mephisto where his marriage to Mary Jane Watson never existed to save the life of his aunt May in the One More Day storyline. Afterward, when One More Day was generally panned by fans, JMS admitted he didn’t support the concept but was forced to run with it by editorial, including Joe Quesada who provided art for the story. Brian Michael Bendis would take on Daredevil for a critically-received four-year run with Alex Maleev having the hero meet and eventually marry Milla Donovan, the Kingpin return, and Daredevil’s identity made public. Mark Waid would take on writing duties for Fantastic Four returning the group to its roots as explorers to much fanfare until being fired by Marvel publisher Bill Jemas only to be rehired after a fan backlash.
In 2004, there was a creative shake-up for the Avengers, Spider-Man, and the Fantastic Four as part of a movement called Disassembled (a play on Avengers Assemble). For the Avengers, Scarlet Witch was driven insane and staged assaults on her former teammates resulting in the deaths of longtime characters Vision and Hawkeye leading to the company wide event House of M. When the Avengers reformed, Spider-Man and Wolverine were added to provide a more Justice League of America feel to the group capitalizing on the biggest stars in one book (though, writer Brian Michael Bendis opted to drop Thor, as he found difficulty writing his traditional Shakespearean dialogue, and Hank Pym who watched over Wasp, made comatose during the event). This change would be shortlived, however, when the event Civil War pitted America’s heroes against each other as part of a plot point to force all superheroes register with the United States government and lead to two Avengers teams in New Avengers and Mighty Avengers. Civil War would prove to be an event leading into the event Secret Invasion as Skrulls infiltrated and divided the heroes.
During these shake-ups, Joss Whedon (the mind behind the Buffy the Vampire Slayer franchise) with John Cassaday began a new, successful ongoing X-Men series named Astonishing X-Men picking up from Grant Morrison’s New X-Men in a critically-acclaimed two-year run that saw Colossus brought back to life and Professor Xavier enslave a sentient artificial intelligence to maintain his Danger Room. This portrayal of Xavier as a villain coincided with a re-imagining of the events of Len Wein and Dave Cockrum’s reinvention of the X-Men in Ed Brubaker’s Deadly Genesis where Xavier was secretly preparing a second group of young people as X-Men when his original students were captured. Sending this second team, which included Cyclops and Havok’s brother Vulcan, the group failed and forced Xavier to make his international group of X-Men for a second rescue mission and erased the memory of Vulcan’s X-Men from the minds of all involved (as they were abandoned for dead). Following the events of House of M, the X-Men were also shook up when Scarlet Witch used her powers to eliminate the mutations of all but some 198 mutants as part of the Decimation storyline. For Civil War, the X-Men opposed the U.S. government as it heralded back to the Mutant Control Act.
Ed Brubaker would pen a critical-received run on Captain America, seeing his former sidekick Bucky Barnes brought back to life, the death of Steve Rogers, Bucky taking the Captain’s role, and the return of Steve to life where Brubaker currently continues to write the series going on seven years now. In 2010, Marvel subscribed their line to a branding called the “Heroic Age” repealing the laws enacted during Civil War that forces heroes to register and returned heroes back to their more familiar roles (though, their current event heralds back to Civil War having the Avengers and X-Men franchises battle it out in Avengers vs. X-Men). In 2004, Marvel launched a creator-owned line named Icon that features titles like Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Criminal and Incognito, Mark Millar and John Romita Jr’s Kick-Ass, and Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s Nemesis as well as picking up David Mack’s Kabuki and Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming’s Powers. Marvel would acquire the rights to Mick Anglo’s Marvelman in 2009. That same year, the Walt Disney Company bought Marvel Comics.
A new publisher emerged in 1998 called CrossGen under entrepreneur Mark Alessi who wanted a varied line of comics representing different genres but were nonetheless connected. Alessi’s style with treating talent has been criticized, alleged to have screamed at artists and had employees stand in the corner if they displeased him. Despite this, he assembled top talent including Mark Waid, Barbara Kesel, Ron Marz, Chuck Dixon, Brandon Peterson, Joshua Middleton, Steve McNiven, Steve Epting, Greg Land, and Tony Bedard to work on titles like Sigil, Mystic, Meridian, Scion, First, Crux, Sojourn, Ruse, Negation, and Way of the Rat. In 2003, CrossGen went bankrupt despite its initial success and was purchased by the Walt Disney Company the following year. In 2011, CrossGen returned as a new imprint at Marvel Comics. Several publishers that arose in recent history include IDW Publishing, Devil’s Due Publishing, Dynamite Entertainment, Oni Press, Archaia Studios, Boom! Studios, Zenescope Entertainment, Viper Comics, Virgin Comics, Radical Comics, Bluewater Productions, Platinum Studios, and Arcana Studio. Some well-known recent indie comics include Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim, David Petersen’s Mouse Guard, Tim Seeley’s Hack/Slash, Craig Thompson’s Blankets, Josh Howard’s Dead@17, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Mark Waid’s Irredeemable and Incorruptible, Jim Krueger and Alex Ross’ Project Superpowers, Andy Runton’s Owly, Greg Rucka’s Queen & Country, Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith’s 30 Days of Night, Mario Gully’s Ant, Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele’s Surrogates, Platinum Studios’ Cowboys & Aliens, Zenescope’s Grimm Fairy Tales, Avatar Press’ Crossed, Darren G. Davis’ Tenth Muse, D. J. Coffman’s Hero by Night, and Javier Grillo-Marxuach’s Middleman. Despite early examples in the 1980s and 1990s, webcomics have gained prominence in the Modern Age (DC Comics taking advantage with their webcomic imprint Zuda) with some notable series including PvP, 8-Bit Theater, Perry Bible Fellowship, Ctrl+Alt+Del, Cyanide & Happiness, Sinfest, Penny Arcade, Adventures of Dr. McNinja, Axe Cop, Shortpacked!, xkcd, Homestuck, Hero Business, VG Cats, Dinosaur Comics, and Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.
When Image Comics first appeared, it threatened to turn the rivalry between DC and Marvel Comics into a three-way struggle. But, while it continued to turn out work that’s both commercially successful and critically-received, they largely fell into a third place category. However, a new face has emerged that has slowly begun to help Image take more of the industry’s notice. Robert Kirkman self-published the series Battle Pope before coming to Image to create works like Tech Jacket, Capes, and Brit. However, his next two works would prove to be wildly-popular: Invincible and Walking Dead. Invincible takes elements of stories like Superman/Superboy, Dragon Ball Z, Spider-Man, and Marvelman/Kid Marvelman mashing the Silver Age together with modern elements in comic book writing for a compelling modern mythology. Walking Dead, on the other hand, is a homage to the re-emerging zombie genre that has proved to be wildly-popular, spawning a television series adaptation that has also been a hit. Moving on to create new works like Astonishing Wolf-Man, Guardians of the Globe, and Super Dinosaur, Kirkman became the first exclusively-writer partner in Image Comics and his own imprint Skybound. Despite this success, Kirkman has been involved in a recent controversy where creative partner Tony Moore has taken him to court for cheating Moore out of his rights for Walking Dead. Some of Image’s other recent popular titles include Jimmie Robinson’s Bomb Queen (under ShadowLine), Jay Faerber’s Noble Causes and Dynamo 5, Bryan J. L. Glass’ Mice Templar, Nick Spencer’s Morning Glories, Tyrese Gibson’s Mayhem!, Mike Bullock’s Lions, Tigers and Bears, Mark Millar and J. G. Jones’ Wanted (under Top Cow), Phil Hester and Andy Kuhn’s Firebreather, the Luna brothers’ Ultra, Girls, and Sword, Milo Ventimiglia’s Berserker (under Top Cow), Paul Grist’s Jack Staff, Garth Ennis and Amanda Conner’s Pro, and Todd Nauck’s WildGuard. In 2012, the founders of Image (minus Jim Lee) and Kirkman have been seen working more closely together and attending conventions together showing a new level of solidarity not seen since their initial formation.