All-New, All-Different, All Marvelous

Marvel logo.  (PRNewsFoto/Netflix, Inc.)

One of the great traditions of superhero comics has been the Event Crossover, where a massive story is told over multiple series that eventually has major repercussions across the entire self-contained universe. These have become a yearly occurrence over at Marvel Comics, and some truly exciting stories have been told through such events; one of them forms the basis of next summer’s Captain America: Civil War, while another leant its title to Avengers: Age of Ultron. While these events can sometimes represent the both the pinnacle of serialized comic book storytelling and the nadir of impenetrable continuity apocrypha, they often birth tons of great storytelling opportunities for the daringly creative. To me, this summer’s Secret Wars — and the All-New, All-Different Marvel relaunch that will follow it — represents the absolute best of what shared universe storytelling can be, and how in the right hands it can transcend the corporate mandates to become truly impactful mythmaking.

“Shared universe” has become a major buzzphrase in Hollywood since Marvel Studios blew the doors off the competition with The Avengers, and among the more elitist cinemagoers it’s a phrase that is now synonymous with the sort of profit-driven industry bloat that kills real creativity. However, I think that if you look to the comic book universe that serves as Marvel Studios’ template you will see exactly how wrong that association can be. In particular, if you look ahead to Marvel’s new post-Secret Wars status quo you can see several major recurring threads running throughout the entire publishing lineup, threads that benefit enormously from having a decades-old universe to draw on for depth and impact.

The Legacy Heroes

Collage1While the primary focus of my DC Comics post yesterday was their increased emphasis on diversity, don’t think that Marvel is slouching in that department. In the past year-plus they have made some major shifts in status quo, headlined by Sam Wilson (formerly Falcon) taking on the mantle of Captain America and Jane Foster (the physicist played by Natalie Portman in the MCU) picking up the hammer of Thor. These are longtime supporting players with deep historic ties to their predecessors and their mantles, which makes their transition into those same mantles all the more resonant. Both Sam and Jane bring new perspectives and values to their new roles, which is something to be explored both in their own series (Sam Wilson, Captain America and The Mighty Thor respectively) and in their working together (in All-New, All-Different Avengers). And while some question whether the best solution to geekdom’s diversity problem is to hand over the most iconic costumes to female/minority characters, I can’t think of a more emphatic and powerful way to make a point than by building on decades of history with this new status quo.

Collage2The concept of legacy heroes extends far beyond Cap and Thor though. Another strong example is the literal Marvel mantle, personified by Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers) and Ms Marvel (Kamala Khan). And in each of their respective adventures so far, each has attempted to find the best heroic path for them while trying to honor the example set by their predecessors. For Carol, it means pushing herself to be the best and most powerful she can be, to serve the same mission that killed the previous Captain. As for Kamala, her predecessor was Carol herself, and Kamala has set out to be a hero in her own way and on her own terms, while proudly bearing the sigil of her favorite hero. These are characters that are tied not just to each other but to various other heroes and teams, and the balance between trying to serve the expectations of their peers and predecessors with trying to establish their own heroism is a major part of both of their stories. The result is a strong and respectful heroic tradition, built on years of stories and prepared to support many more to come.

Beyond Avenging

Collage3The Avengers are more or less on top of the superhero world right now, what with their movies currently dominating the cape-and-cowl landscape. But while the cinema world is still basking in the straightforward, heroes-team-up-to-fight-common-enemies style of Avengers stories, the comics world is expanding and deepening the definition of what these sorts of heroic teams can be and accomplish, built in no small part on the equally deep and expansive world that Marvel has accumulated over the decades. Both New Avengers and Ultimates feature very disparate collections of heroes, seemingly united against threats that go beyond the To-Be-Punched variety. These teams are think-tanks, groups prepared to face more unpredictable and cosmic threats than the usual Avengers rosters. And furthermore, each team plays on established monikers and past character interactions; New Avengers sees its team forming a new A.I.M. (in this case standing for Avengers Idea Mechanics), while Ultimates calls back to the now-defunct Ultimate Marvel universe, not to mention Black Panther’s recent behind-the-curtain efforts to curtail the collapse of the multiverse. It’s the sort of storytelling that is best accomplished in the shadows of a massive, well-known world, something that Marvel has provided very nicely.

Collage4Additionally, in the aftermath of the reality-shattering-then-reshaping Secret Wars event, there seem to be certain dangling existential threads. Characters from realities beyond the standard Marvel Universe now find themselves here on “our” Earth, and other characters who had been bound together on Secret Wars’ “Battleworld” seem to have been drawn back together here as well. The former presents itself in Squadron Supreme, an analogue to the Justice League made up of individual Squadron members from numerous different realities. The latter presents itself in A-Force, an all-female Avengers squadron that reunites heroes that fought alongside each other on Battleworld. These are the sorts of stories that (potentially) are built on both subversion of classic genre tropes and an in-depth combing of Marvel continuities. These are tales of characters that, despite many of them existing for decades, have never interacted in this particular way, and that sort of vast history provides a fertile ground for deep and rewarding storytelling. These are characters that you know, but you’ve never known them like this, and that added context is a major benefit of an ongoing universe like this.

More Than Human

Collage5Since the beginning of the Marvel world, the X-men have been the hated and feared minority, a metaphor for bigotry of every creed and color. They have been one of the marquee franchises of the Marvel publishing line, at some points even being bigger than the Avengers. And while their status as societal outsiders hasn’t abated, they now have to share the spotlight with the increasingly common Inhumans. And the inherent conflict of this — two similarly-afflicted and similarly-scorned races jockeying for their place at humanity’s table — is exacerbated in the near future by some grand genetic influence, as the Terrigen Mists that give Inhumans their powers begin to have unforeseen effects on mutants. The two new marquee series for each side, Extraordinary X-men and Uncanny Inhumans, seem to deal with the fallout of this conflict, even seeing original X-man Beast working with the Inhumans. While each series would be compelling and exciting all their own, having both sides sharing a world and affecting each other’s place within it is nothing but a boon to the storytellers behind these series. The possibilities this synergy brings are yet another tool in the writers’ arsenals to explore and emphasize the emotions and themes that drive these stories, and wouldn’t be possible if they weren’t playing off each other in the first place.

These series — and the thematic throughlines that bind them all together — are really just the tip of the iceberg, but they exemplify just what I love about the idea of shared universe storytelling. When you can emphasize a message with repurposed iconography, when you can subvert familiar mythology with new and competing perspectives, when important relationships and world-shaking crises can be felt from multiple fully-defined perspectives at once, it makes everything seem more REAL. And when stories like this are able to reach that place of tangibility and resonance it makes the emotions and lessons at their heart more tangible as well. That is the true power of these stories, told in this expanded fashion: they reflect our world and our lives back onto us, to hopefully help us grow just as our favorite characters do. What more could you ask of your art than that?

Note: Thanks to the always-awesome Shiran for helping putting the image collages together!


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