It’s the end of the year, but that never stops The Marvel Rundown! This week we’re pausing to take a look back at the year that was for The House of Ideas. We’ve got thoughts on how 2018’s Fresh Start lived up to expectations—or didn’t—and what we’re hoping to see in the coming year. Plus, Ben Grimm and Alicia Masters are tying the knot this week, and you better believe we have something to say about it. Welcome to The Marvel Rundown!
Marvel’s 2018 Year in Review!
Alexander Jones: AJ, Joe, Marvel’s 2018 is almost in the books! With such a stacked year of comics and relaunches, what were some of the titles that stood out among the pack this year? I know, like always, there are lots of great titles standing on the fringes that don’t get the attention they deserve in ‘Best Of’ lists. I found that Immortal Hulk was the big Marvel title getting the noteworthy mentions. Do you agree with that sentiment?
Joe Grunenwald: I’d say Immortal Hulk is definitely one of the best books to come out of Marvel this year. Overall I’d say it was a pretty good year for new takes on old properties. You had books like Immortal Hulk pushing that character in more of a horror-infused direction; Black Panther has basically been a straight sci-fi comic, which I never would’ve expected for T’Challa; plus some interesting takes on sort of oddball characters like Multiple Man and The Sentry. It seemed like Marvel was at least slightly willing to experiment this year, and I appreciated that.
AJ Frost: This was certainly a transitional year for Marvel. There were a lot of interesting pieces being put together for bigger runs but also a lot of stumbles that just did not work out creatively. On the other hand, there were many individual books from this year that marked this company is still bringing a lot of interesting ideas to the comics world, even if everything does not hit 100% of the time. For me, the Marvel Rising initiative should have been the shining jewel of the year; instead, it was a bit myopic and did not achieve what it set out to, though there might still be redemption for a future arc at some point.
Grunenwald: I agree 100% on Marvel Rising being a misfire, at least as far as the comics went. Every issue of the miniseries being a #1 was one of the oddest choices of the year. Hopefully, the miniseries that’s due out next year can course-correct there. I do really like what Marvel has done as far as reaching out to an all-ages audience, whether it’s Marvel Rising or the licensing of their characters to IDW, which might be the smartest thing they did all year.
Jones: This biggest disappointment for me was how many of my favorite titles were prematurely canceled this year right when they were about to find an audience. X-Men Red was unceremoniously canceled last week because Marvel is getting ready for yet another X-Men relaunch. The same goes for Astonishing X-Men, which switched creative teams and the cast really abruptly. There were all kinds of tweaks to stories this year because titles weren’t selling very well. I wish Marvel would realize that shifting directions so frequently can compromise the overall direction and vision of the line.
Grunenwald: That trend of ‘if it doesn’t find a huge audience immediately, it’s canceled’ is definitely not a good look. Some books just take time for people to find them. There were also a few instances this year where books were solicited as ongoings and then changed to miniseries before release. I’m thinking of Winter Soldier and The Unstoppable Wasp. I’m sure, to a certain degree, retailers are wary of investing dollars in new ongoing books they know Marvel’s just going to cancel.
Jones: I wish I could say this is a brand new criticism that we have never experienced before but this has been a problem for years on end for Marvel. DC is still publishing a few titles from 2016’s Rebirth, and the line as a whole feels more cohesive than Marvel. That being said, lots of my favorite titles this year were Marvel comics. There are also some upcoming launches for next year that look intriguing. There are still a couple writers having long runs on characters but most of those titles have relaunched. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Thor, and Ms. Marvel have all had some really long runs.
Frost: As I said, this was a transitional year and we’ve seen a lot of turnover in the creative teams. I think this is a good step forward though I’m a little hesitant because some of the new stuff I’ve been seeing hasn’t stepped up in any way that’s unique or groundbreaking. For example, the Saladin Ahmed Miles Morales book should have been a slam dunk, but instead it was a yawn. That’s just a more recent example but I hope that that was just growing pains. For me personally, it was sad to see Erica Henderson leave The Unbeatable Squirrel but I get that she wants to move on to more creator-owned work. At the same time, I can see why G. Willow Wilson would want to leave Ms. Marvel because of her growing workload at DC and Dark Horse, as well as the need for a fresh set of eyes to take the character to new heights.
Grunenwald: ‘Transitional’ is a great way to describe the year, what with Bendis’s departure for DC, and Dan Slott ending his years-long run on Amazing Spider-Man. It’s been nice to see some new voices on characters like Jessica Jones, Riri Williams, and Miles, even if their initial launches weren’t the knockouts I would’ve wanted them to be (though I loved Kelly Thompson and Mattia de Iulis’s first arc on Jessica Jones).
Jones: Bendis’s final books at Marvel were among his worst. I’m happy to see him switch over to DC and get some new creative energy going. I have to say I agree with AJ in how the younger writers taking on the characters haven’t given the titles the energy I thought they needed. So many titles published by Marvel have little energy or a strong antagonist or direction. I’m starting to wonder if editorial is the reason why the books look and feel the way they do. In 2019 I really want to see some creators taking some more chances with the books. Also, Joe, Kelly Thompson’s Jessica Jones book was great and Marvel not publishing the comic in a proper ongoing is hurting the visibility of that title.
Frost: I wasn’t one for the crossovers this year, so I’m afraid I don’t much to say on that front. There were so many, and many of them were a bit too convoluted for casual fans to just pick up and enjoy. The Infinity Wars lines, the X-Men color lines… all of them were intimidating and not user-friendly. I’m not saying that they were inherently bad stories. Just difficult. What did y’all think of the bigger company events from this past year?
Jones: Infinity Wars won me over towards the end. At its worst, I felt like the event was an amusing and bombastic mess. Author Gerry Duggan found some new things to say about familiar characters and the state of the publisher in general. It’s too bad the rest of the industry doesn’t seem as interested. This year was all about the rise of writers Donny Cates, Kelly Thompson, and Matthew Rosenberg, plus new writers like Saladin Ahmed and Ed Brisson. It is good to see Marvel pushing some newer blood.
Grunenwald: The X-Men line was absolutely intimidating for a while. Streamlining down to just one title has helped make it easier to jump back into that world of characters. As for the events, I think the way Marvel has presented those has been interesting. One of the principal complaints that I’ve always seen about events is how they interrupt the storylines that are going on in other books with tie-ins, but events like Infinity Countdown/Wars and Spider-Geddon have by and large not done that. There’ve been a ton of tie-ins, but they’ve all been in standalone miniseries. On the one hand, that’s an interesting way to tell the story without screwing up what’s already going on in your monthly books; on the other hand, it’s a lot of miniseries to follow along with in addition to said monthlies.
Frost: This was definitely Donny Cates’s year though. Venom was all the rage!
Grunenwald: Marvel has developed a solid slate of writers over the past year or so. What do you guys think about their stable of artists? Any standouts for you?
Frost: Joe Bennett’s work on Immortal Hulk has been stellar, and Nic Klein’s art on Skottie Young’s Deadpool has been really memorable for me. Jesus Saiz’s art on the Mark Waid run of Doctor Strange also sticks out, as does Daniel Acuña’s Afro-Futuristic contributions on Black Panther.
Grunenwald: Acuña’s a standout for me this year as well. Black Panther is so visually interesting.
Jones: Pepe Larraz turned in some really great work on Avengers: No Surrender. Geoff Shaw’s contributions to Thanos were pretty great. Carmen Carnero is now a Marvel exclusive artist and incredibly talented. We also lost Marvel regulars Jim Cheung and Chris Samnee.
Grunenwald: Leonardo Romero has stepped into the Samnee space nicely, which I think we talked about during our Shuri discussion. I’d also put up Javier Rodriguez’s work on Exiles as some of Marvel’s best this year.
Frost: Oh man… if only that Shuri book had lived up to the hype!
Grunenwald: Aside from that handful of artists I’m honestly having trouble identifying in my mind who drew what this year. There’s a sort of Stuart Immonen-lite look that feels like it’s become the Marvel house style over the past year, which is fine—it makes the books feel more cohesive when there are fill-in artists (and there are, frequently)—but it’s ultimately not anything that has stood out to me from a visual storytelling perspective.
Frost: That’s the problem with a house style in general: it gets bland quick. That’s why the quirkier stuff, like West Coast Avengers, really piqued my interest this year.
Jones: In the vein of offbeat books, Nick Spencer, Ryan Ottley and Humberto Ramos have done a tremendous job telling a Spider-Man story that I want to read on a frequent basis. Amazing Spider-Man has taken some of the inherent kitsch factor that a Spider-Man story could have and dispersed it really evenly throughout the past couple issues. The ongoing has the tone and vibe that the best issues of Chip Zdarsky’s Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man had on a good day. When are we going to talk about the greatness that is Fantastic Four?
Grunenwald: I’m still a little sad that Marvel Two-in-One is over now that the FF are back, but it’s a testament to Zdarsky’s ability that he took what was essentially a filler series and made it a monthly favorite. That said, while I didn’t care for the first issue of Fantastic Four, the ensuing issues have been, forgive the pun, fantastic.
Frost: Zdarsky’s taking the lead at making the Marvel Universe fun again rather than reveling in the grimdark fantastic of the distinguished competition.
Jones: The biggest title that we have not mentioned for me is X-23. That series has not skipped a beat since the harrowing debut, and has showed a more nuanced and lighter tone in recent issues. I’m really excited to see where the book is heading next year. Are there any other odds and ends that haven’t been mentioned?
Grunenwald: While I’ve enjoyed the general direction of Marvel’s storytelling this year, they’ve still made some questionable decisions outside of the books. They continue to pump out variant covers like it’s the early ’90s, which must be working for them or they wouldn’t keep doing it. And then there’s the unceremonious canceling of Chelsea Cain’s Vision series, and the canning of Chuck Wendig from his recently-announced Star Wars work because of his social media activity. Not good looks all-around.
Frost: The Star Wars books, holistically, were not that great. The Star Wars: Lando—Double or Nothing book had some fun moments, but the mainline stuff was all pretty dull. I really just do not dig Salvador Larroca’s continuing presence on art. He’s great at big action pieces but the obvious tracing for the faces really bothers me.
Jones: The Star Wars titles are definitely outside of my wheelhouse but obviously need a fresh start. I have also been disappointed to see how Ta-Nehisi Coates and Leinil Yu’s Captain America series has been a bit dull. I had high hopes for that title. The book that has consistently surprised me this year is Marvel Knights. That comic has grown exponentially in the subsequent issues and transformed into a really tremendous comic with a wild personality. At the end of the day, I still feel like there are lots of really good comics at The House of Ideas. It is hard to have any discussion about Marvel in 2018 without mentioning the passing of Marvel architect Stan Lee, whose contributions to popular culture in the modern world cannot be overstated.
Grunenwald: Love him or hate him, Lee was an unstoppable force. We’ll be analyzing and reckoning with his legacy for decades to come.
Frost: Yes, thanks for bringing that up, because not only did we lose Stan Lee, but we also lost Steve Ditko. It’s weirdly apropos that we should lose these two giants of the medium when their creation, Spider-Man, has had an absolutely incredible year. From video games to movies, the work of these two creators was unavoidable. I guess I had the fortune to see Stan Lee all the way back in January at ACE Comic Con here in Glendale, AZ, where he was being interviewed by Todd McFarlane. In some ways, it was comforting to see ol’ Stan yukking it up and sharing his tidbits of wisdom. But it was also extremely sad to see an obviously frail older gentleman being exploited by money-grubbing opportunists. What I’m trying to articulate here, inelegantly, is that this was a year of highs and lows. Let’s remember the glory of the highs without succumbing to the cynicism of the lows.
Jones: I hope Lee will be able to rest easy. Despite this being a year full of transitions at Marvel, I genuinely do think a lot of the changes made were for the good of the publisher overall. I hope next year will be the year The House of Ideas really starts to focus on comics that don’t reboot so quickly. Marvel has a good thing going, I’m just not convinced they have a plan strong enough to push such a huge line forward. DC still seems to have a better grasp on their full publishing line.
Frost: The change in editorial is finally calming things down and some interesting projects are on the horizon. 2019 should be MARVEL-ous year for fans!
Grunenwald: I’m hoping 2019 continues the trend of putting new voices on existing titles, with the addition of a bit more experimentation on the art front. Marvel seems willing to take some risks from a storytelling perspective, so let’s see some diversity in the art department as well.
Frost: Hear, hear!
Fantastic Four #5
Written by Dan Slott
Illustrated by Michael Allred, Adam Hughes and Aaron Kuder
Colored by Laura Allred, Marte Gracia and Erick Arciniega
Lettered by VC’s Joe Caramagna
Reviewed by Alexander Jones
Above all else, Fantastic Four #5 strives to achieve an emotional truth for the core protagonists. Dan Slott pens an issue full of soberingly honest portrayals of the Richards family. Slott makes the effort to analyze the history of the cast members to say interesting new sentiments about the relationships they have with each other. For anyone that has even a slight investment in the Fantastic Four, this installment qualifies the book in the can’t-miss category thanks to the marriage ceremony. Slott is paired up with creators who draw the history and relationships of the characters incredibly well. Mike Allred’s story entitled ‘Change Partners’ is one of the most poignant reflections on the heroes from the past couple of years. Slott and Allred have a fantastic collaboration thanks to the time the duo spent working on Silver Surfer. Adam Hughes also does a great job capturing the stoic nature of Ben Grimm at his bachelor party in ‘Guys’ Night Out.’ The Aaron Kuder-drawn lead feature, ‘4-Minute Warning.’ story also hits a really poignant emotional moment at its climax.
The relationship between Alicia Masters and Ben Grimm accelerated as a plot point rapidly in the first couple issues of Fantastic Four. Readers weren’t able to discover some of the more important emotional beats in their relationship until Slott was able to get the chance to really dissect the characters in this new issue. The content in the story does a great job justifying and giving more context to the wedding. Slott keeps the usual witty banter between the cast members in the core series. There are a couple reveals and exciting plot beats that should even keep readers interested in opening up the next issue immediately.
Slott is a student of Marvel Universe history which really pays off in the title’s strongest story, ‘Change Partners.’ The origin of the Fantastic Four is played out, but the average reader wouldn’t have the slightest idea about the origin of Alicia Masters and Ben Grimm’s romance. Also, Slott nicely captures the recent characterization of Johnny Storm in ‘Guys’ Night Out’ while honoring the history of the character. The framing device is a heart-warming wedding sequence, before the issue closes out with an important plot reveal.
The issue at large circles on themes from other stories and coalesces into a great wedding special to honor the characters. This entry into the series has an incredibly charming demeanor and serves to advance the overall plot of the Marvel Universe. Structurally Slott’s script is a little different than the average anniversary story. The script features a framing device and a few other stories that tie into the overall narrative of the comic.
Each artist contributing to the issue adds something to the overall package. Aaron Kuder’s anatomy and simplistic figures can detract from the storytelling. Kuder still has great page layouts and kinetically paced action. Kuder’s backgrounds can range from stark-to-lavish. There is a double-page spread of a castle that is incredibly detailed. It is amusing to watch Adam Hughes lend his art to a story as wacky as Ben Grimm’s bachelor party. The pencils are beautiful and fit the tone of the story incredibly well. Hughes has strong comedic timing with some of Slott’s humor. Allred captures the tone of the era beautifully in his contributions to the issue. Allred’s Ben Grimm is wonderfully strange and endearing at all times. The artist executes the emotional beats with perfect timing. Slott’s melancholy narrative is realized with Allred’s style impressively well.
Fantastic Four #5 is shockingly great and a truly can’t-miss installment for anyone who is interested in these characters. The artistic contributions from Kuder, Allred and Hughes are all strong and bring out a different tone for the various aspects of the story. Slott’s script captures a feeling of nostalgia and excitement missing from previous runs.
Final Verdict: BUY. Fantastic Four #5 is everything you wanted it to be and more thanks to the stellar artwork and scripting.
Happy New Year, everyone! Join us next week as Conan the Barbarian makes his Marvel return!