Marvel and DC Then

Today’s news that May’s Green Lantern 20 will be Geoff Johns’s last issue on the title I think marks the end of an era of comics that has run since 2004 or so. The late 90s/early 00s saw Grant Morrison’s JLA and Warren Ellis’s Stormwatch/Authority define the widescreen era of comics and the rise of comics into pop culture. Hit movies like X-Men and Spider-Man gave way to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight and Whedon’s Avengers. Comics figured out how to sell big events to their existing fan bases, and a few writers sculpted the Marvel and DC universes. Suddenly in the first half of 2012, several writers who’d worked on the same books since 2004 or so have all let their runs come to (mostly) natural endpoints. We’ve seen:

  • Geoff Johns reignited Green Lantern, starting with “Green Lantern: Rebirth” in December 2004 and then taking over the main GL title which ran for 67 issues in volume three, 20 more in volume four, with a dozen or so more tie-ins and event issues, not counting all the Green Lantern Corps. and other series’ books that he helped co-write or cooperate in during events like the Sinestro Corps War, “War of the Green Lanterns, etc. On the strength of Johns’s work, “Green Lantern” is now a franchise which comprises four different titles: Green Lantern, Green Lantern Corps, Green Lantern: New Guardians, and Red Lanterns. Sure, that’s two GL books too many, but it’s incredibly impressive that this is all due to the groundwork Johns laid.

  • Ed Brubaker started on Captain America volume 5 in January 2005, which he wrote for over a hundred issues (counting the renumbering for vol. 6, the “Reborn” mini-series, “Super Soldier”, Winter Soldier, and a few specials). That run saw the resurrection of Bucky Barnes as the Winter Soldier, the death of Steve Rogers, and the resurrection of Steve Rogers. And he did all of this while avoiding most crossovers, able to tell his own story on his own terms, excepting that his exit was a little bit rushed and his last few issues had to be co-written because Marvel insisted on an accelerated publishing schedule Brubaker couldn’t meet.

  • Brian Michael Bendis wrote the “Avengers Disassembled” storyline in 2004 along with Secret War, and then went on to write nearly 300 issues of Avengers comics, spread across New, Mighty, and Dark-flavored teams along with crossovers that shaped the direction of the entire Marvel universe. Bendis oversaw a major change of direction in the X-Men corner of the Marvel Universe with “House of M”, he presided over the post- Civil War “Initiative” storyline, which came to a close with his “Secret Invasion”, which gave way to “Dark Reign”, which he closed with “Siege”, which begat the Heroic Age, which led into “Avengers vs. X-Men”-all of which Bendis had a hand in.

  • Grant Morrison started on Batman 655 in July 2006. His work on Batman spilled over into Final Crisis, gave way to Batman and Robin, which led into “The Return of Bruce Wayne, which begat Batman, Inc.. When the second volume of that title wraps later this year he’ll have written about 100 issues of Batman comics, many of which set the direction of the Batman books in the time that he was writing them.

Also in that time Greg Rucka carved out his own place in the DC universe, first in Detective Comics, then into Gotham Central (with Brubaker) and Checkmate and Batwoman and Renee Montoya, all adding up to well over a hundred issues. Gail Simone wrote Birds of Prey and Secret Six for quite some time. Matt Fraction’s Invincible Iron Man run added up to 60 issues or so. Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four and FF: 70.

I think what I see in all of these titles are cases where writers were generally allowed to set the direction of their own books, those books were good, they sold well, and the rest of the shared universe titles had to fall in line behind. This as opposed to many other cases (the X-Men books, much of the DC universe) where “Editorial” decided on a story and told the writers what to write.

Does that fact that all of these runs happened to be going on at the same time and are all ending signify a change in the mainstream comics landscape? I’m not sure. All of those guys are still working in comics. Bendis is still at Marvel, Johns is still at DC, and both are still world-building on other books they’ve been doing all along. But Brubaker, Rucka, and Morrison are all doing indie books at Image and stepping back some from standard cape stuff.

I wonder, too, to what degree having a long-running stint by one creative team might become a hinderance to new readers. Knowing that you’re jumping onto Green Lantern 100 issues into a writer’s tenure might make you think you need to go all the way back to the start to jump in. And I think that sort of is the case. What ties all of these runs together I think is their writers’ mastery of long form storytelling. While told in individual story arcs, all of these books have really been working on and building up a small set of characters over the years.