Tuesday, 12 June 2018

HEROES REBORN: Marvel Comics Failed Reboot

When it comes to current day Marvel Comics, one of the biggest complaints I often hear is that after decades upon decades of deep, ingrown continuity, the universe needs to be rebooted. And while Marvel have regularly attempted to freshen up their comic book universe on a yearly basis with their ‘Marvel NOW!’, ‘All-New, All-Different’ and ‘Fresh Start’ initiatives, they seem to quickly find themselves stuck in the same position. Where as DC Comics is no stranger to rebooting their universe (for better or for worse), Marvel has always sought to maintain their longstanding canon, with everything from the Captain America comics of the 1940’s, the first appearance of the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, The Avengers and the X-Men throughout the 1960’s, all the way to present day wrapped in one single continuity.

However, it’s interesting to note that during the 1990’s, Marvel Comics actually entertained the idea of relaunching and rebooting part of their universe, attempting to turn poorly-selling titles over to superstar writer/artists to reinvigorate in fresh new ways, while still maintaining the legacy of their more popular books. This is the story of Marvel’s Heroes Reborn.

The 1990’s was an interesting decade for the comic book industry, one defined by historic highs and tremendous lows. While the early years of the decade saw comic book sales reach never before seen heights (partly due to the rise of speculators looking to find the new $1,000,000 comic book, much like Action Comics #1 or Detective Comics #27 in decades prior), the market saw a remarkable downturn in the subsequent years.

Notably, in 1992, Marvel lost several of its high profile writers and artists (such as Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee and Erik Larsen), who left the publishing company to form Image Comics, a venture which allowed comics creators to publish original material while maintaining the copyright to their creations (in contrast to the ‘work-for-hire’ system which dominated both Marvel and DC).

The founders of Image Comics

The news of Marvel’s biggest creators hit the company hard, with Marvel's stock falling by $3.25/share when this news became public. Meanwhile, Image became an immediate success almost overnight. Titles such as Todd McFarlane's Spawn and Erik Larsen's The Savage Dragon became smash hits, rivalling the sales of the Big Two’s most popular books. By the mid 1990's, this trend continued while Marvel saw their sales stagnate and their stories fail to garner the same critical acclaim as years prior.

By 1996, Marvel Comics was in dire straits. The company had saw its finances diminish after the burst of the speculator bubble, coupled with a series of bad investments (notably the distribution company Heroes World), and Marvel quickly found themselves only a few months away from filing for bankruptcy. They needed a big success, something to bring back the many readers who had flocked over to rival publishers, so what did they do? Well, (if you pardon the pun), they decided their characters needed to update their image.

Captain America, as depicted in Heroes Reborn

Marvel struck a deal with two of the main figures who had left to form Image Comics, Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld, which would farm out several of Marvel’s poorly-selling titles, and allow the pair to reinvent the titles in their own design. These titles included the likes of The Avengers (both as a team-book and as individual titles, with both Captain America and Iron Man given solo series) and the Fantastic Four. Jim Lee's subsidiary Wildstorm Productions handled Fantastic Four and Iron Man, while Rob Liefeld's Extreme Studios took over Captain America and The Avengers.

In an idea similar to the X-Men relaunch Age of Apocalypse, which had just recently concluded, Marvel, Lee and Liefeld saw this as an opportunity to refresh some of these older characters, who in the decade that very much belonged to X-Men, Spider-Man and X-Force, found themselves floundering. But how would these writers be able to hit the reset on these characters while still existing in a universe layered with continuity? Enter, Onslaught.

Yes, that's Onslaught (not Magneto after hitting the gym)

Onslaught (created by Scott Lobdell, Mark Waid and Andy Kubert)  created in June 1996, as an evil entity formed from the consciousness Professor Charles Xavier and Magneto. Lobdell described the character’s inception was a way to reverse-engineer this editorial mandate, stating that “When word comes down that Marvel was shipping off those characters to another universe, me and [Editor in Chief] Bob Harras are sitting around trying to come up with a story that makes sense for the X-Men to stay where they are, but those other characters to go... the question became, ‘Who has that power?’ And I said, well, ‘Onslaught can do it.’ So we started to figure out why the X-Men would be involved too. But it was really once there was the need for Heroes Reborn, that we reverse-engineered the creation of Onslaught.”

In the story which led up to Heroes Reborn, Onslaught sought to absorb the powers of mutants Franklin Richards and ‘X-Man’ Nate Gray, in order  to destroy all mutants and humans alive. As a result, the X-Men teamed up with The Avengers, the Fantastic Four and even Doctor Doom to battle the villain, with all-but the mutant heroes ultimately falling in the climactic battle.

Following the apparent deaths of the aforementioned characters, it was revealed that Franklin Richards had actually transported them all to a pocket universe (dubbed ‘Counter Earth’) to save them. This in turn allowed for Liefeld and Lee to retell the origins of the Avengers and the Fantastic Four in a more modern context, without the shackles of canon and established continuity. For instance, while the origins of characters such as Captain America largely remained the same, others such as the Fantastic Four saw drastic changes (now it was revealed that Ben Grimm had served as a pilot in the Gulf War not the Second World War, and Susan and Johnny had been financial backers for Reed Richards' rocket to Mars).

These ain't your parents' Fantastic Four

Even in the immediate announcement of Marvel’s plans, sceptics were high both in audience and from within the industry. For example, writer Kurt Busiek stated that “the Marvel reader is essentially being told that Marvel’s long-term history is more or less irrelevant. It’s secondary to what will make the characters more popular and what will make the company more money.” And while this relaunch caused an initial rise in sales for these titles, much of the success was brief, with questionable creative directions plaguing the relaunch from the very beginning.

For example, after only 6-issues into his 12-issue contract, Rob Liefeld was relieved of his duties as writer/artist of Captain America and The Avengers, due to declining sales on the titles. Walt Simonson was brought on to finish The Avengers run, while Lee took over Captain America. In particular, the declining sales of Captain America epitomise much of the failure of Heroes Reborn. Prior to the relaunch, the Captain America had been taken over by Mark Waid and Ron Garney, whos run was garnering a lot of praise and rising sales figures.

Waid recalled his displeasure when finding out about the plans to relaunch Cap under Liefeld, stating “Rob faxed me his 22 pages of that first issue to ask if I wanted to dialogue it, to keep part of the continuity of the creators. I looked at it, and I said, ‘no thank you.’ It just wasn’t for me, this big, giant barrel-chested Captain America and the teenage sidekick. I just didn’t feel good about it.”

"Barrel chested." It's fair to say Waid got that one right...

Additionally, it seemed like the factors which caused Heroes Reborn to fail had been there since the very beginning. Scott Lobdell noted that “almost everyone at Marvel was upset when they found out… from the top down, the company had grown so frustrated with editorial’s efforts to jump-start sales that they were going to turn to outside vendors to re-imagine those properties.”

It’s particularly important to note the desperation attached to Heroes Reborn on behalf of Marvel, particularly in their financial problems under the leadership of Ron Perelman, being little more than months away from bankruptcy. As Tom Brevoort described, “Heroes Reborn was announced, and three-to-four weeks later, they had a massive bloodletting here. They let an enormous number of people go from every strata of Marvel.” Heroes Reborn was Marvel’s last ditch attempt to jump-start some life in a decaying body, a final attempt to salvage its legacy while staring extinction in the face.

This chaotic state at Marvel was coupled with the sudden death of editor Mark Gruenwald on August 12 1996, Brevoort recalls that “between the last ‘regular’ Captain America issues being finished and before the first Heroes Reborn issues, Mark had died. I know logically one has nothing to do with the other, but it seemed scary. It seemed like destiny saying, ‘Yeah, this is the end of an era.’”

If only the name 'Cable' wasn't already taken...

It’s an understatement to say the behind the scenes at Marvel was chaotic at this time, and the botched relaunch of their lukewarm titles under Heroes Reborn did little to remove any strain. This, alongside a significant downturn in sales (suggesting that the initial surge when the relaunch happened was largely due to the alteration of the status-quo, not intrigue into the new stories), saw Marvel cancel Heroes Reborn almost a year after its inception.

According to Stan Lee, Marvel had proposed continuing the universe indefinitely, but only under the condition that Lee would oversee one of the titles, which he refused. As a result, after 13 issues for each title, Heroes Reborn came to a conclusion in December 1997’s Heroes Reborn: The Return. Franklin Richards brought these heroes back from the pocket dimension, and their status quo were largely returned to normal, and Marvel’s attempted reboot was rarely talked about thereafter (besides from a 10 year anniversary story where the Exiles visited the Heroes Reborn universe in Exiles #81-82).

Like all things in comics, it did go back to normal (eventually...)

In many ways, Heroes Reborn encapsulates 90’s comics to a tee. It attempted to be more extreme, louder, and amend the status quo in ways not necessarily needed. While the idea behind the series was solid (to offer up some of the company’s struggling titles to superstar writers and artists to reinvent), almost everything done by Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld (even in his cut-short run) demonstrated a lot of the flaws of that decade’s style of storytelling. The most famous image of the entire run comes from Liefeld’s rendition of Captain America (as shown prior): it’s in-your-face, excessive and somewhat garish, and this speaks true for both the series and the era as a whole.

I liken Marvel’s attempts here to Coca Cola’s botched ‘New Coke’ relaunch, and they seemed to have a similar effect; Coke, when faced with declining sales and losing the Cola Wars to Pepsi, decided to reinvent their formula and create a new Coke for the new generation. This backfired, as people failed to warm to New Coke, and yet… it could be seen as a brilliant strategy, as it caused people to miss the old Coke. And this analogy also stands true for Marvel.
(Please indulge me on this giant tangent)

While Heroes Reborn failed to breathe new life into these characters, these warped, extreme versions of Marvel’s classic heroes made people reminisce about what they used to be, and made their return to the main Marvel universe, and return to their classic status quo, a triumphant moment. Heroes Reborn may not have exactly been the shot-in-the-arm that Marvel expected, but it may have been what it needed. 

Heroes Reborn was Marvel, embroiled in the most 1990’s a comic could be, facing itself in a mirror, and wondering where the good old days went, and reminded both the company and the fans what Iron Man, Captain America, The Avengers and the Fantastic Four could be. And when you think about it like that, Heroes Reborn might have been a necessary evil, because without it, we may not have gotten the incredible stories within the Marvel Universe that we love so much today.

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