Few would argue that Marvel Comics didn’t have a rough go in 2017. The ambitious Secret Empire crossover courted plenty of controversy but failed to translate that into steady sales. And while the Marvel Legacy relaunch promised a nostalgic return to the Marvel of old, it’s been pretty much a case of business as usual for the company in recent months. Despite this, there’s reason to be optimistic for Marvel’s future. And it’s all thanks to the most unlikely of alliances – Captain America and Thanos.
Legacy underwhelmed largely because so little about Marvel’s comic book lineup seemed to truly change. Beneath the renumbered covers, most Legacy books featured the same creative teams working with the same characters as before. The ongoing Captain America and Thanos titles are two notable exceptions. With Captain America, writer Mark Waid and artist Chris Samnee came on board to give readers a “back to basics” story about Cap getting back in touch with the people of America following the events of Secret Empire. With Thanos, God Country creative team Donny Cates and Geoff Shaw took the reins of the series to tell a story about the Mad Titan confronting his own future self.
On the surface, these two books might not seem like they have much in common. One stars a bright and shining hero, while the other one of Marvel’s most fearsome villains. One features a well-established creative team, and the other a pair of relative newcomers. But both books have quickly become two of Marvel’s best during Legacy, and largely for the same reasons.
Both the Waid/Samnee Captain America and Cates/Shaw Thanos runs succeed because they focus on telling clean, accessible and self-contained stories. Captain America may spring out of the events of Secret Empire, but it really just uses that event as a starting point to explore Steve Rogers’ strange road trip across America. Thanos, meanwhile, downplays continuity to the point where it could be taking place at any point in the modern Marvel timeline. Both creative teams are bucking the trend by telling short, six-issue-long stories. Rather than trying to build multi-year runs on these titles, the two creative teams have simply focused on telling one ambitious and very enjoyable story.
Frankly, Marvel could use more books like this. As I’ve explored in the past, Marvel doesn’t put a lot of emphasis on self-contained, standalone comics. Where DC has books like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen – books that remain perennial bestsellers year after year and are perfect for new readers who have no interest in grappling with complicated continuity – Marvel tends to emphasize ongoing series. The best Spider-Man comics aren’t singular graphic novels, but lengthy runs from creators like Stan Lee and Dan Slott. The focus is always on stories building over time and leading into new stories and forever expanding on the struggles of these iconic heroes. That approach certainly has it merits, but it doesn’t do much for readers who just want to read one good comic with a definitive end point.
With Captain America and Thanos, however, Marvel has exactly that sort of book. Both of these series tell epic, engaging stories with a clear beginning, middle and end. They’re streamlined enough that they’re accessible to readers with little or no familiarity with the Marvel Universe. And because they maintain a distance from the goings-on of the current Marvel Universe, they’re able to veer in some pretty wild and unpredictable directions. Cosmic Ghost Rider, anyone?
Many have questioned why the massive success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn’t translated into higher comic book sales. That’s a complicated issue, but it certainly doesn’t help that it can be so hard for new readers to find a good jumping-on point for most franchises. With Cates and Shaw’s Thanos, Marvel finally has the perfect book for anyone curious about the main villain of Avengers: Infinity War. You can hand the “Thanos Wins” trade paperback to someone who’s never read a Marvel book before in their life and they’ll know everything they need to about the character while also enjoying one heck of a cosmic adventure.
My hope is that Marvel is looking at the critical and commercial success of these two series and working to replicate it in their upcoming Fresh Start relaunch. Sure, it’s been great fun watching Jason Aaron and his artistic partners build a truly epic run on Thor, but not every comic needs to go down that road. Not every series needs to devote years to weaving a complex superhero saga. Not every creative team needs to stick around for the long haul. There’s a lot to be said for books like Captain America and Thanos where creators swing for the fences and then get out while the getting is good. One great superhero adventure is always preferable to several mediocre ones. That sort of “quality over quantity” approach is exactly what we need to be seeing from Marvel’s impending “Fresh Start” relaunch.
“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly column from Jesse Schedeen that focuses on the world of comics. You can see more of his thoughts on comics and pop culture by following @jschedeen on Twitter, or Kicksplode on MyIGN.