Yeah, I ran a chronological “Best Comics of the Decade” post already, and tons of bloggers have done a decade retrospective, but I haven’t seen one that focuses exclusively on Marvel. Marvel is the most important comic book publisher out there, and not just because it controls the market share. When it comes to superhero books, they have consistently proven that they can tell (and sell) stories to the mainstream that don’t (always) offend their base. And the last decade showed a company willing to take risks as well. Here begins the decade retrospective, to help you figure out what trades you want to run out and buy (hint: PunisherMax by Warren Ellis and the Ultimates hardcover omnibus by Millar and Finch are great places to start). I decided also to do this in order of what I think the impact of these events were. Sure, some items may be interchangeable, but generally I think I’ve ranked ‘em correctly.
As always, praise and bellyaching is welcome in the comments section.
25. THE RISE OF THE MINOR CHARACTER. Between Brubaker/Fraction/Aja’s work on Iron Fist, Bucky becoming Captain America, the inclusion of Luke Cage and Spider-Woman in New Avengers, the reinvention of folks like Captain Britain, She-Hulk, Punisher, Moon Knight, and Ghost Rider, and the explosion of Deadpool, Marvel has done a great job at keeping its minor characters in the forefront this decade. And with such a rich cast of supporting players, this is a welcome addition. They’ve even done a great job at establishing some new characters, such as the afore-mentioned Young Avengers, The Sentry, and The Immortal Weapons.
24. JLA/AVENGERS. All right, this may not have been that important, but come on. You know you wanted it. But don’t buy it for the story—it’s one of those cosmic space epics that doesn’t make a lot of sense. George Perez is the master of large group shots—he’s not an intimate artist, he’s a “stand back and watch the widescreen” type—and that’s exactly what this book needed.
23. KICK-ASS. Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr.’s creation on Marvel’s Icon imprint was the first comic to sell movie rights—and get the movie made, to boot–before finishing its first story arc. Marvel deserves kudos for supporting these creators in their vision.
22. THE ADVENT OF THE YOUNG AVENGERS. Why is this on my list of decade-defining events? Because it is almost impossible to get people to spend money on new characters. Think about it. How many new hero books get launched and last more than a year? Almost none. And those that do, are usually independent. Here, Marvel took a pretty dumb idea (baby Cap! baby Vision!) and turned it into something pretty cool. The creative team, Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung, deserved their Harvey award for best new series by creating characters who modeled themselves after Marvel’s JLA but who were individuals—nothing like the persons they based themselves on. Not to mention, they won an award from GLAAD for portraying a gay character in a positive, well-balanced way (I won’t give away who it is) and formed the basis (kind of) for a surprisingly good Marvel all-ages DVD (“Avengers Next”). The book lasted only 12 issues, but four miniserieses later,
there are hints that the group will return. Let’s hope it does. I mean comics are about icons, but Marvel’s icons are, well, old. It’s great to have a book about kids again.
21. PRESIDENT OBAMA APPEARS IN AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. First of all, to have a world leader admit that he enjoys reading comic books was a truly amazing event. But Spider-Man’s team up with the POTUS ended up being the best-selling comic of the entire decade. Not to mention the great hype Marvel generated behind the cross-over. Their publicists deserve a standing ovation for this, along with their promotion of the Death of Captain America, The Spider-Man/Colbert team-up, and all the creepy posters they used as the “Secret Invasion” campaign.
20. PAGE ONE RECAPS. Another editorial decision that has made comics more readable and accessible is the one-page recap, which Marvel now does for nearly all its titles and, at least in the Deadpool and Spider-Man books, inserts creativity as well, making the recap a must-read even for regular subscribers.
19. ROBERT KIRKMAN’S “THE WALKING DEAD.” No, that’s not a misprint. Without Kirkman’s indie title, there would have been no Marvel Zombies, which served as the jump-off for several horror-fusion titles and characters, from Zombie Headpool to Frankencastle and the revival of the Legion of Monsters. And probably Marvel Apes, too. A lot of campy fun!
18. MARVEL DIGITAL COMICS UNLIMITED. Perhaps this is more likely to be an important event for the 2010s than it was for the 2000s, but Marvel’s attempt to provide on-line back-issues and some new content deserves a mention not because it successfully changed the game, but because it showed how the game might change in the near future.
17. THE RISE OF TRADE PAPERBACKS. Along the same line as “growing the hell up,” Marvel in 2002 launched an aggressive trade paperback program that today has all but superseded the monthly serialized format. In some ways, this is sad. It’s led to comic books being worthless as collector’s items, killed the back-issue industry, and led to markedly decreased monthly sales. On the other hand, the trade books put comics into bookstores and made them viable in online markets like Amazon. In short, the trade format may have saved the industry by killing it.
16. GROWING THE HELL UP . . . By 2000, everyone pretty much knew that kids weren’t the main readers of comics any more. But in 2001, Joe Quesada took official notice by launching the MAX line and dumping the outdated and condescending Comics Code Authority, which was designed originally to establish that comics were okay for little ones to read. The first action allowed Marvel to take in the team responsible for the indie book “Preacher”– Ennis and Dillon—who made The Punisher into a character worth reading about for the first time since . . . Well, ever. He was no longer a lame Batman ripoff, and although the stories Ennis told were generally straightforward violent crime sagas, they had the kind of grit that made them cinematic. Dropping the Comics Code was a signal to the world that comic books were now grown up, and could be seen as legitimate literature—not as pulp to occupy the kids. I’d argue that this trend really began way back
with Frank Miller’s Daredevil, but it wasn’t until Quesada had the vision to transform not just individual series but the entire Marvel Universe that it really took hold. This change in perspective made just about everything else on this list possible.
15. . . . BUT STAYING YOUNG AT HEART! Yeah, Millar and Bendis are serious cookies with an eye for bleakness and major change. But at the same time, Joe Quesada gave Chris Eliopoulos a license to make us laugh with his charming “Franklin Richards: Son of a Genius” series. The books get a little stale after a while, but there’s at least seven issues of wonderful reading here. Add to the mix the rebirth of Power Pack in a series of kid-friendly mini-series, the Marvel Adventures line, Mini Marvels (brilliant!), the Super Hero Squad, and X-Men and Wolverine First Class, and you’ve got some solid books for all ages that don’t dumb down the Marvel Universe.
14. GRANT MORRISON AND FRANK QUIETLY TAKE OVER THE X-MEN. Many credit Morrison’s “New X-Men” run as a game-changer. I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of the series, but I recognize that he was able to make manageable the convoluted, unwieldy, ridiculous and boring X-Universe, and completely reorganize it—just like Chris Claremont did in Giant-Size X-Men #1. What did Morrison do? He turned the Sentinels into something savage and uncontrolled; hooked up Cyclops and Emma Frost; killed thousands of mutants in one fell swoop and one single issue while at the same time reversing the polarity of the North and South poles; and made the first Shi’ar space saga worth reading since Claremont introduced them all back in the ‘80s. One more thing: nobody interprets Morrison better than Frank Quietly, whose crisp art often adds clarity to Morrison’s more obtuse tendencies. He was the perfect artist for this series.
13. MARVEL ULTIMATE ALLIANCE. Marvel makes the first super-hero video game that doesn’t suck, and Deadpool’s popularity quadruples.
12. DISNEY. The possible implications of the Disney/Marvel merger are alternately fabulous (more movies and cartoons, and maybe even more kid-friendly superheroes!) or terrifying (the House of Mouse were key members of the anti-Communist censorship movement in the 1950s). But right now, it’s hard to tell whether it will affect the Marvel Universe at all—or even whether it will pan out for stockholders—but the fact that a company like this could ever buy a company like that . . . Was surprising to all.
11. SPIDER-MAN: BRAND NEW DAY AND THE SPIDER SUMMIT. In 2007, Marvel took an action that many considered brutal and awful: They ended Peter and Mary Jane’s marriage not by divorce but by deus ex machina as Mephisto erased much of Straczynski’s generally celebrated run on the series. The story itself, though, was unimportant. The critical part of Brand New Day was that Joe Quesada was right: Spider-Man had become too dark, and too married. He needed to be a young, single, geek-about-town, and this was the way to do it. Regardless of what you think of brand new day, it’s impossible not to notice that The Amazing Spider-Man, as a thrice-monthly title, is worlds better now than it was in 2006. Or 2005. Or pretty much any time since the Roger Stern era. It also marked the first time Marvel went three-times-a-month with a book, rotating the creative team under one editorial board and holding regular “summits” about the character. This has
worked much better than having several different Spidey titles coming out each month, each with their own continuing storyline. In fact, I think they should do this other over-exposed characters like Wolverine and Deadpool.
10. DAREDEVIL. Beginning with Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev’s run and all the way to the end of the decade with Brubaker, no other character left the 2000s so much better than he’d come in—and this was a decade marked by radical reinvention and reinterpretation. After Frank Miller essentially defined Daredevil as Marvel’s darkest street avenger, nobody seemed to be able to step in and tell a good DD story. Bendis’ work on Daredevil showed that old, stale characters could become rich despite the baggage they carried around. This is another example of a reboot, in amy ways, but the themes Bendis played with (and Brubaker built on later) became the ones that helped shape the decade: The purpose, value, and function of a secret identity; the thin line between hero and villain; the inability to escape inner demons; and difficulty of being heroic in a violent, desperate world.
9. DARK REIGN. Norman Osborn saved the world and became the new face of S..H.I.E.L.D., reworking the secret agent agency in his own image. This made the MU a sad and depressing place, but it also made possible so many big changes in tone, and allowed younger creators to reshape old heroes like Iron Man and the cast of all of the Avengers books into newer, more modern versions. Yeah, it was hard to let go of the past, but Bendis and Millar had been bracing us for this ever since the Civil War. This was just the next logical step. It was hard to pick between this and “House of M,” but since Grant Morrison already killed a ton of muties in New X-Men, I knocked M off the slot here. But M did prove that big events could be self-contained, and it was the first event that Marvel handled really, really well with regards to creativity and maintaining the integrity of the affected characters.
8. SPIDER-MAN: THE MOVIES. Sam Raimi is the one to credit with finally delivering a live-action Spider-Man worth watching, and with making superhero films for all ages that are not at the same time infantile. Eschewing the “adult” orientation introduced by Tim Burton’s Batman and avoiding the cartoonish pitfalls of Clooney’s Dark Knight, Raimi did for superhero movies what Stan Lee did for superhero comics: He made a film that could speak to young(ish) kids and (not overly serious) adults at the same time. It also established that superheroes could still bring in dollars without sacrificing their nerd integrity. I’d put X-Men (the 2000 movie) here, too, because it made tremendous amounts of money and showed that team-live-action is feasible, but it was really Spidey who broke down barriers.
7. JOSS WHEDON ON ASTONISHING X-MEN. Why is this 2004 series important? Because it was one of the early examples of Hollywood coming to Marvel, rather than the other way around. Celebrated T.V. and film writer Joss Whedon teamed up with artist John Cassaday to expand upon Grant Morrison’s work on the New X-Men and create 24 of the best comic books of all time. It gave comics a little more legitimacy—they could be works of art on their own, not just serve as inspiration for popcorn flicks. Plus, it was funny. Funny X-Men. Think of it!
6. AVENGERS DISSEMBLED/NEW AVENGERS/MIGHTY AVENGERS/DARK AVENGERS. During the 1990s there were some decent Avengers stories, but the book wasn’t the flagship title it was always intended to be. When Brian Michael Bendis took a hold of it, he killed off several characters that he didn’t want to play with (including fan—and person—favorite Hawkeye) and reintroduced the team with a cast that, while it included the biggest names in Marvel, also included some seemingly mismatched and/or minor characters. But the book has become the most important book at Marvel in terms of both continuity and sales statistics. More importantly, New Avengers became one of the most fun superbooks on the market. And the Marvel Universe showed that it was so big, it took several books to really tell the story (although Might A is pretty dispensible).
5. THE IRON MAN MOVIE. Everyone knew Spider-Man with Tobey McGuire would be a hit. It was a no-brainer. But this is the movie that made Marvel attractive to Disney. If they could do this for one B-Lister, then why can’t they do it for their whole stable? To be clear: I liked X-Men, X2, and Spider-Man a lot more than I liked Iron Man, but there were several things that made Iron Man special. First, it was made by Marvel. Sony proved long ago that it could make a blockbuster, but with this film Marvel Studios established that it could attract top talent and sell a movie to the public that would be enjoyed by fanboys, critics, and even (gasp) ladies! Second, it wasn’t about Spider-Man. Most of America didn’t know Tony Stark from Tony the Tiger, and if they’d heard of Iron Man they probably thought he was the dude from the Black Sabbath song. Finally, although Tobey McGuire was somewhat of a name before he became Peter Parker, the Iron Man
crew were really out there. Jon Favreau was an indie director with no action cred and Robert Downey, Jr., was best known for getting wasted and dressing up as Wonder Woman.
4. BRIAN MICHAEL BENDIS INTRODUCES ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN AND THE ULTIMATE UNIVERSE IS BORN. In 2000, one of Joe Quesada’s first (and most important) acts was to hire Brian Michael Bendis and unleash the first “Ultimate” book. Ultimate Spider-Man may have been more “realistic” or “modern” than the initial Lee/Ditko take on Spidey, but it was still light fun, as Spider-Man needs to be (and hadn’t been, arguably, since Clone Wars). In this way, it’s quite distinguishable from Millar’s Ultimate universe, a categorically dismal and menacing world. Bendis also introduced a different way of telling stories: One that focused on intimate close-ups rather than pan-shots and widescreen action. As a reboot, this book (and, obviously, Bendis) was one of the most game-changing plays of the last fifty years. Where previous reboots (D.C. has retold Superman’s origin how many times?) ignored aspects of a hero’s history to suit a creative
vision, Bendis took Spidey into a new universe all together—without relying on Uatu. This became a pattern for Marvel in double-O decade, and many of the decade’s most interesting books are examples of that (e.g., Neil Gaiman’s brilliant 1602). In fact, I bet D.C.’s acclaimed All Star Batman/Superman books wouldn’t have come to pass without it.
3. CIVIL WAR. With The Ultimates, Mark Millar had established himself as a man with a decidedly dark vision and a willingness to take beloved characters and make them, well, assholes. In Civil War, it was Iron Man’s Millar moment. Unlike similar “events” that preceded it, Civil War not only incorporated every single hero in the MU, it changed them, fundamentally. It’s a testament to the editorial coordination in Marvel that this thing worked at all. Many have complained that the ending was weak—that Cap should have died here, not in his own book—but I dispute that notion. Yeah, ending a war with a surrender is a little anticlimactic, and it certainly made me stand up and shout angrily when I read it. But looking back, Civil War paved the way for the rise and fall of Iron Man (the most compelling take on the character since the 1980s), turned the New Avengers into antiheroes (a status far more normal and acceptable for members like
Spider-Man, Cage, and Spider Woman), and for Dark Reign—certainly an important storyline in its own right. You can’t say Civil War ended with issue 8—the series, in retrospect, was actually a prequel to Siege.
2. JOE QUESADA ASCENDS TO EDITOR IN CHIEF. Far and away the most important Marvel staffing event of the decade happened at the beginning. In 2000, Joe Quesada took over as EiC of Marvel Comics, after starting the “Marvel Knights” line, a moderately successful “reboot” franchise, in the 1990s. Unlike many EiCs (in fact, unlike all since Jim Shooter, I believe), Quesada was a creator first, executive second, so he understood the connection artists have to their work. His reign has been characterized by hiring bold talent and allowing them to completely dismantle all of Marvel’s conventions. And remember, the company had declared bankruptcy and was all but dead in the 1990s.
1. THE DEATH OF CAPTAIN AMERICA. Can there really be any question here? Cap was always important to fans of Marvel, but he was hardly as iconic as Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Superman, Batman (or pretty much any JLAer).. Yet his death was front page news (at least in New York) and got mentions in every form of media—including extended segments on The Colbert Report. It made Cap a bestselling series (and it had deserved to be one already, if only for the 25 issues Brubaker and Epting did prior to killing Steve Rogers). It also brought back many people who’d stopped reading comics because they’d gotten stale and boring. It was proof that anything can happen. Even more tremendous were that the news didn’t leak—the event was a true shock to the world, just like a real assassination—and the fact that later issues proved that the series was even better without its title character. It was one of the few comic books that almost made me