This week on “Previously On,” I take stock of “Fresh Start’s” one year birthday, and try to share a little more love to comics creators!
Feature Of the Week –
Annual Review – One Year of Marvel Fresh Start
It’s been a full year now since Marvel Fresh Start launched a new linewide era in May 2018, so it’s time to consider the success or failures of the era, as well as the biggest developments.
Heading in to “Fresh Start” Marvel Comics was inarguably struggling, with a scattershot lack of cohesion that resulted in the “All-New All-Different,” “Marvel NOW 2.0,” and “Marvel Legacy” eras within the span of 2015 to 2017. While there are good comics during this time, and Marvel Comics remained at the top of the market share charts in direct market comics sales, the broader perception was consistently that the publisher was rudderless.
The general malaise led to the ousting of Axel Alonso as editor-in-chief, and Marvel’s in-house hiring of their previous talent scout, CB Cebulski (who comes with baffling transgressions of his own). It’s some comically on-the-nose naming, but Marvel was indeed in need of a “Fresh Start.”
Big picture, “Fresh Start” picks up on a handful of shared universe storylines, most notably 2017’s Secret Empire and (oddly) the Marvel Legacy #1 one-shot written by current Avengers, Thor, and War of the Realms scribe Jason Aaron.
As this suggests, these connections mean that “Fresh Start” is not a reboot of the Marvel Universe. These stories are still very much in the modern continuation of a continuity that is most easily traced back to 1998 and the rise of “Marvel Knights.”
Related Reading Order:
Marvel Fresh Start’s Strategy
Cebulski and the Marvel editorial crew executed a clear approach to “Fresh Start” behind two definable tenets:
1) New creative teams & voices behind most major series
While some longer running writers & artists stayed on series they’ve been crafting over time (for example, Jason Aaron on Thor and Ta-Nehesi Coates on Black Panther), most books launched anew with a fresh team of creators. A vast majority of well-known Marvel properties relaunched behind new issue number ones, including:
- Avengers (Jason Aaron, Ed McGuinness)
- Amazing Spider-Man (Nick Spencer, Ryan Ottley)
- Black Panther (Ta-Nehesi Coates, Daniel Acuna)
- Captain America (Ta-Nehesi Coates, Leinil Francis Yu)
- Immortal Hulk (Al Ewing, Joe Bennett)
- Captain Marvel (Kelly Thompson, et al)
- Doctor Strange (Mark Waid, Jesus Saiz)
- Iron Man (Dan Slott, et al)
- Thor (Jason Aaron, Mike Del Mundo)
- Venom (Donny Cates, Ryan Stegman)
- … the list goes on
2) Back to Basics
The notion of Marvel going back to their roots is very much at the core of “Fresh Start.” Given that this was also the promised foundation of the very short-lived Marvel Legacy, it would be easy to question whether this was just a Marvel talking point.
Avengers #1 focuses on bringing the “Big 3” (Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, and Thor) getting the band back together after a stretch that found Cap working for Hydra, Tony in a coma, and Thor unworthy. Meanwhile, the first arc of Amazing Spider-Man is literally called “Back to Basics,” with Spencer and Ottley returning Peter Parker to his down-on-his-luck average joe sized problems, and returning some familiar romance to his life.
A handful of series relaunches very much play into this idea as well, with Marvel relaunching Fantastic Four and Uncanny X-Men with new #1 issues after both series ran into 2015’s Secret Wars. The addition of both series back to the Marvel landscape does help to create a stronger sense of a “whole” shared universe.
Importantly, the “back to basics” approach is generally not just replaying Marvel’s greatest hits. Creators are still finding ways to add to the tapestry and develop their own voices, such as Jason Aaron’s Avengers including Black Panther as the team leader, Robbie Reyes Ghost Rider as the team’s Kitty Pryde, and the Agents of Wakanda as amazing left-field wild cards.
The Events of Fresh Start
Lest you think this “Fresh Start” would mean fewer events for Marvel Comics, the publisher is still very committed to the event-centric model of superhero comics. The list has one event I’d actively recommend (the ongoing War of the Realms), one that’s fascinating as hell if not actively good (Age of X-Man), one that has a horse wearing a Spider-Man mask (Spider-Geddon), and a remainder of passable slogs.
Including the ongoing events means we’ve had the following since launch:
+ Infinity Countdown, Infinity Wars (ended December 2018)
Launching a crossover event sharing a name with the biggest movie in MCU history (at the time) sure feels like a cash-grab. Like nearly all seemingly forgettable events, though, Infinity Wars has instant ramifications. The Cates and Shaw Guardians of the Galaxy (which is off to a very strong start) is distinctly connected, as is the “I guess Marvel discovered mash-up radio in 2019?” launch of an Infinity Warps series later this year.
Likewise, Infinity Wars sets the stage for the five issue Wolverine and the Infinity Watch series by event writer Gerry Duggan. Speaking of which…
+ Hunt for Wolverine and Return of Wolverine (ended February 2019)
In one of their absolute stranger moves, Marvel delivered the return of Wolverine (he died in 2014’s “Death of Wolverine”) in October 2017 (during Marvel Legacy #1), only to spend the next year and a half in lead-up series called Hunt for Wolverine and the Return of Wolverine.
It’s very bad planning, but at the end of the day, Wolverine is generally back. Kind of. Sort of. Maybe?
+ eXtermination (ended Dec 2018)
Setting the stage for the relaunch of Uncanny X-Men, this X-event also finally puts a cap on the Marvel NOW! Era All-new X-Men written by Brian Michael Bendis. It was a necessary end of an era, and allows the X-Men to move on in step with the “back to basics” theme of the era.
+ Spider-Geddon (ended Dec 2018)
The sequel to 2014’s Spider-Verse and another clear round of corporate synergy following the rise of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Not particularly important for our Amazing Spider-Man (Peter Parker), but pretty relevant for the cavalcade of alternate universe Spiders (Spider-Gwen, Spider-Man Noir, Superior Spider-Man, etc).
+ Age of X-Man (ongoing)
You can either look at Age of X-Man purely as a compelling alternate reality in which the merry Marvel mutants inhabit a Utopia with a classic dark secret, or cynically as the event stop-gap just running out the clock until Jonathan Hickman begins writing the X-Men this summer.
Three issues in to each tie-in series, I’m feeling a little bit of both. On one hand, books like The eXtremists have found surprisingly gorgeous resonance in an alternate reality blob. On the other hand, Marvelous X-Men just had Magneto and Storm spend an entire issue thinking “Hey, I think maybe we come from another reality,” which is all too well worn territory.
All in all, I don’t think Age of X-Man is going to go down as a surprising diamond in the rough, but I’m finding some worthwhile moments.
+ War of the Realms (ongoing)
The culmination of Jason Aaron’s now seven year run on Thor comics, War of the Realms is only one month in, and promises to really operate as the event kicking off “Fresh Start” year two. This is easily my favorite event because of the strength of the build to this point, and the creative team of Jason Aaron, Russell Dautermann, and Matt Wilson.
Is It Working? Is Fresh Start… Good?
For my money, “Fresh Start” is more consistent than the 2015-2017 eras that preceded it, with Jason Aaron’s build to War of the Realms providing a clearer universe-wide throughline.
I would also argue, though, that the highs are not as high. For example, compare “Fresh Start’s” must-read books to the absolute best of “All-New All-Different” Marvel’s first year:
Marvel Fresh Start Must Reads:
- Immortal Hulk
- The Coates suite
- Thor & War of the Realms (but only taken as a piece of the whole run)
All-New All-Different Must Reads:
- Mighty Thor
- All-New Wolverine
- Coates’ Black Panther
I’d argue only Immortal Hulk is truly in the conversation with either Ultimates (another Al Ewing comic!) or Vision, and from there it’s a very comparable slate.
The biggest difference to me is that Marvel’s core titles are much healthier in “Fresh Start” than during this same comparison period to “All-New All-Different.” When the Avengers, Spider-Man, and X-Men are at least consistently enjoyable, Marvel’s simply in a better place, allowing room for some of the lower tier properties (like Venom, Runaways, or the truly Unbeatable Squirrel Girl) to truly shine.
“Fresh Start” has also been smart about 5 issue miniseries that allow creators to tell a full story without pretense about length. Rising star Donny Cates (writer on Venom, and the relaunched Guardians of the Galaxy) has taken particular advantage of this formula, contributing Cosmic Ghost Rider, Death of The Inhumans, and (in part) Marvel Knights (20 year anniversary).
I don’t think it’s yet at 2012 “Marvel NOW” levels of quality, but “Fresh Start” does feel like the most consistently solid lineup of comics Marvel has published since 2015.
What’s Next For Fresh Start Year Two?
Here’s what we know is on the horizon for “Fresh Start” year two, and how excited I am for each upcoming development:
1) War of the Realms concludes
Excitement Scale: 4.5 Mjolnirs / 5 Mjolnirs
2) Valkyrie by Jason Aaron and Al Ewing
Excitement Scale: 4.3 Pegasus / 5 Pegasus
3) Hickman on X-Men
eXcitement Scale: 5 x / 5 x
4) Absolute Carnage
Excitement Scale: 3.8 90’s nostalgias / 5 90’s nostalgias
5) Acts of Evil
Excitement Scale: 1 why? / 5 why?
6) Dave’s theory that Marvel relaunches the Ultimate Universe in 2020 for the 20th anniversary
Excitement Scale: 3 don’t get your hopes up / 10 don’t get your hopes up
LOVE OF THE WEEK
The trials and tribulations of creator access on social media are well documented, but it’s worth noting how exciting it can be to engage with comics writers and artists you love.
Part of investing so much of my time and energy into writing, talking, and obsessing about comics means I often hold creators up to near mythical status. These are my celebrities in many ways, so there’s an admitted awe-factor. I talk about Hickman like the majority of the world talks about The Rock.
I wrote a lot about the anxiety I felt approaching creators at C2E2 this year, only to discover that 1) turns out they’re frequently nice people and 2) I’m totally capable of talking comics with just about anyone!
As I get over some of this self-imposed intimidation, one thing I’m trying to do more often is consciously tell creators when I enjoy their work. I share a gazillion comics I like every day, but I’ve always felt a bit awkward looping in the actual creators into these conversations.
Admittedly, there’s a self-serving component of this behavior, in that it’s obviously a good thing for Comic Book Herald if a writer like Tom King or Scott Snyder signal boost my brand. Nonetheless, I think there’s a natural way to simply remain visibly positive about good comics and those who make them.
Which brings me, finally, to my love of the week: Runaways writer Rainbow Rowell taking the extra step to reply to my tweet about her amazing Doombot writing. It’s not expected, just exciting, and not life-changing, just cool to see.