by Jeffrey O. Gustafson
The on-again off-again imprint Marvel Knights played a very important role in the current Marvel Entertainment empire. Started in the late 1990s as an outlet for telling edgier, more creator-focused stories within the larger Marvel Universe, the line proved to be the high-water mark of innovation and creativity in an otherwise terrible decade. Featuring cutting edge work by the likes of Garth Ennis on Punisher and Brian Michael Bendis on Daredevil (plus a dozen mini-series and parts of larger runs), the imprint was produced with a great deal of editorial independence by Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti with Quesada quickly rising to Editor in Chief of Marvel in 2000. It was the Marvel Knights crew that initiated the Nu-Marvel of the 2000s that saw the company reach the creative heights and sales success that would redefine the company and even mainstream superhero comics. It’s very difficult to imagine where mainstream comics and Marvel in particular would be today without Marvel Knights and the creators and executives who worked their way up through the line.
But Marvel just doesn’t handle their imprints very well. They seem to exist entirely as good ideas that are put out as perfunctory exercises in publishing diversity. After Marvel Knights lifted up the rest of the company, Marvel initiated several bold if slightly redundant imprints that used to fill the role Epic Comics once had (see below). The mature readers imprint MAX Comics and the creator-owned boutique line Icon were started around the same time as vehicles for Marvel Knight’s (and by this time Marvel proper’s) biggest star, Brian Michael Bendis. In the 2000s MAX and Icon would give us some of Marvel’s best comics of that decade, but today stand as pale shells of their prior glories: Most of Icon’s best titles (including works by Matt Fraction, J. Michael Straczynski and Ed Brubaker) are shifting over to Image thanks largely to the end of the Creator Exclusivity Wars that initiated the line in the first place, and MAX Comics sees only sporadic and middling releases of perplexing, low-quality, low-selling mini-series. Marvel has long since doubled down on focusing on mainstream material to feed Disney’s Intellectual Property Mill, although that material – so much of it creator-driven – is pretty damned entertaining and the most consistent in terms of quality that the company has produced since Jack Kirby made pretty much everything. But that leaves Icon and MAX as the forgotten step-children. With Image leading the vanguard of the creator-owned renaissance there is no real reason for Marvel to put any effort behind Icon, and MAX continues to be distressingly mishandled by Marvel since the end of the line’s Ennis/Parlov and Aaron/Dillon Punisher series.
Superhero limited series can be a tough sell in the Direct Market. Marvel’s top editors Axel Alonso and Tom Brevoort are usually quick to point out that mini-series have verifiably smaller audiences largely driven by the perception by much of fandom that limited series aren’t as “important” continuity-wise as the ongoings. The only (superhero) limited series that seem to do well in the current market are those centered around the Big Two’s nigh-annual Event Things. To what point the mini-series, then? If any expectation of fitting into the larger puzzle of overall continuity is tossed aside, as often seems to be the case, then a good mini-series will allow unique creators to tell engaging stories. But there doesn’t seem to be much clamoring for these types of series by fandom, which is a shame as some of these can be truly superb. I’d love to see more works like Omega the Unknown by Jonathan Lethem & Farel Dalrymple or (especially) Unstable Molecules by James Sturm & Guy Davis, stunning mini-series that represent some of the finest comics the company has yet produced. (Hell, I’d like to see both actually back in print, but that’s a whole ‘nuther issue.) Sadly, whenever Marvel does try to experiment with distinct creative voices in limited series, the books tend to flop. Is this because of a lack of desire of creative diversity within the direct market customer base or a failure of promotion on Marvel’s part? Perhaps it’s a mix of the two.
Against this backdrop of tepid reception and mediocre execution of limited series comes the revival of Marvel Knights with three limited series and an apparent promise for more. Ostensibly the very vehicle of distinct creative voices working in the Marvel Universe that I want, the actual execution of the new line is a solid dud. Outside the nifty trade dress, there is no unifying aesthetic like the one the brief Marvel Noir line had. It feels like Marvel opened up the Drawer Of Unpublished Minis, slapped the Marvel Knights logo on them and dumped them onto the market with little promotion.
Marvel Knights: Spider-Man was written by Matt Kindt, whose full-cartooning creator-owned work I adore. Sadly I cannot say the same thing about any of Kindt’s work-for-hire material, and whatever benefit having Kindt on the book is made meaningless by Marco Rudy’s incomprehensible art. Rudy’s work here feels too disjointed and ramshackle, a bizarre mix of J. H. Williams shattered-layout flare with none of his nuance and mechanics, thrown in a blender with Brendan McCarthy. It’s pretty to look at at first but nearly impossible to actually read. (In contrast, Brendan McCarthy’s wonderfully bizarre Spider-Man: Fever worked not because it was a Spider-Man series but because it was actually a Doctor Strange series that also had Spidey in it.) Marvel was going for something very different with Marvel Knights: Spider-Man, which is to be applauded. It just isn’t any good.
Marvel Knights: Hulk and Marvel Knights: X-Men both do simple back-to-basics tales and are entertaining enough, if not really daring. In Hulk, writer Joe Keatinge puts an amnesiac Bruce Banner in Paris as illustrated by Piotr Kowalski. I’m really digging Kowalski on the compelling Sex with Joe Casey, so it comes as no surprise that he turns in solid work in the two issues released so far. And in X-Men, cartoonist Brahm Revel competently tells a fairly standard X-tale – find the new mutant, deal with bigotry, rinse, lather, repeat. I like Revel’s style, but it almost seems wasted on such standard fare. (That said, if you are looking for the quintessential X-Men story, this covers it.) Both Marvel Knights Hulk and X-Men are as rote as Spider-Man is not, none of the three any special.
Marvel’s seeming inability to handle their imprints with any consistency hasn’t always been the case: it is impossible to overstate the influence and importance of Marvel’s Epic line from the 1980s. Epic, which started off as a cutting edge anthology, became one of the most important mainstream outlets for publishing remarkable creator-owned work, international reprints, and mature-audience Marvel Universe material. But the promise of Epic would only be fully realized by the Distinguished Competition with Vertigo at the end of the decade. The tides of the two companies would switch at this point (for this and scores of other reasons): Marvel falling into a decade of creative stagnation and bankruptcy, DC and Vertigo thriving. (It seems those fortunes have since flipped again, with a now-thriving Marvel and moribund DC and Vertigo.) Looking at what became of Marvel and DC, it’s frankly hard to imagine that Marvel was an early innovator of original graphic novels, reprints from the European and Japanese masters, mature-audience superhero work, and creator owned comics. But the House of Ideas nearly crumbled into ash in the 1990s taking it’s diversity of publishing and nearly the entire Direct Market with it.
The new Marvel Knights may be a dud, MAX Comics may never live up to the immense promise of its premise and earlier works, and Icon will never be more than what it is right now, but the Nu Nu Marvel of the 2010s certainly shines. As I write this, I seem to find myself making the argument against using self-contained limited series as a vehicle for distinct creative voices to play in the larger sandbox of the shared superhero universe. Perhaps the better approach would be to let these same creators loose on the universe-proper rather than under the seemingly limiting label of the limited series. To Marvel’s credit, they have recently signed up creators who have made a name for themselves in indie comics like Ales Kot (Zero), Nathan Edmonson & Mitch Gerards (The Activity), and Michel Fiffe (Copra), all to produce material within larger, more “accepted” ongoings. And I’d love to see more of Revel cartooning pretty much anything at Marvel. Of course, that’s if creators even necessarily want to. In the golden age of creator ownership, with the added risk comes the added potential reward and the guarantee of complete creative freedom. But Marvel – in stark contrast to DC of late – continues to show themselves to be a publisher willing to take creative risks, supportive of creatorial versus editorial mandate. It just seems unlikely that such material will come from any of their imprints any time soon.