Rather than putting all their eggs in one basket (see the competition's Final Crisis), Marvel announced a whole bunch of potential free-standing sales juggernauts at the recent major conventions. Warren Ellis and Simone Bianchi doing Astonishing X-Men: Second Stage certainly fits that bill. Although it likely won't be up there with the Whedon/Cassaday run commercially, I wouldn't underestimate Ellis' appeal. The British author is currently seeing something of a second spring, with a slew of critically acclaimed projects like Fell, Nextwave and Thunderbolts under his belt, most of which are also selling respectably, and a well-received novel out. Coupled with up-and-coming newcomer Bianchi, who knows, maybe it's just the right mix to get people excited. Creatively, Ellis tends to be hit and miss with existing work-for-hire concepts; we could end up with another Thunderbolts, or we could end up with another Iron Man.
In other news, Marvel are revamping their Spider-Man line. Both Sensational Spider-Man and Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man will be canceled later this year, while Amazing Spider-Man will start coming out three times a month to pick up the slack. The new writers for the book are Bob Gale, Dan Slott, Marc Guggenheim and Zeb Wells - quite the appealing mix of fresh voices, which is just what the franchise needs right now. Slott and Wells have proven more than capable of understanding and handling the character in the past, in limited capacities, and Gale and Guggenheim seem like good choices as well. The four writers are plotting the series together, similarly to how TV shows tend to be created, before splitting the stories into separate arcs that dovetail each other.
The crew's mantra is "back to basics" - after years of having a Peter Parker married to a super model, living in an ivory tower and wearing fancy high-tech suits that enable him to scratch his back without putting his hands there, it seems we're heading back to the more lighthearted, down to earth stories that made the character popular. While that's all good and well, though, massively ramping up the book's output rate clearly doesn't come without risks, and none of the writers can be considered much of a sales draw in their own right. Marvel seem to be aware of that problem, though. If the book's creative and literal change of pace alone don't generate enough interest among fans and retailers, the addition of high-profile artists Steve McNiven, Chris Bachalo, Phil Jimenez and Salvador Larroca probably won't hurt. It's an interesting experiment, all told, and Marvel are probably viewing it as a trial run for other franchises.
Marvel's third major announcement was writer Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch's next project after the recent completion of Ultimates 2. As it turns out, it's Fantastic Four, after all, despite Hitch's denial of the possibility a few months back. The creative team's plan is, over the course of twelve monthly issues, to introduce a new supporting cast and largely focus on the creation of new concepts and ideas, in the spirit of the book's acclaimed Stan Lee/Jack Kirby and John Byrne runs. It's a laudable goal, certainly, and, who knows, maybe they're the right creators to finally reimbue the series with the sense of wonder, adventure and invention that's largely been missing in its more recent incarnations, apart from the occasional blip. And, yes, they really do want to do it monthly this time, and it seems they've already got four issues completed. Then again, I recall similar displays of confidence when Ultimates 2 was coming up, and we know how that turned out.
Those were the three major announcements made by Marvel, but even some of the less prominent ones have a commercial potential that DC would kill for. Take Avengers/Invaders, for example, a new twelve-issue maxiseries by co-writers Alex Ross and Jim Krueger and artist Stephen Sadowski: Ross and Krueger's last project, the recently completed Justice, was one of DC's best and most consistent sellers over the past year. Jeph Loeb, meanwhile, another high-profile creator who made the switch from DC to Marvel not too long ago, has apparently been tasked with restoring Marvel's Ultimate line to full steam; he's not only the writer of Ultimates 3 (with artist Joe Madureira) and Ultimates 4 (drawn by Ed McGuinness), but he's also writing "Ultimatum," a six-part crossover running through the waning Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four titles, and drawn by David Finch. (Personally, I'm intrigued to hear that Paul Cornell, the writer of the praised Wisdom miniseries, is taking over New Excalibur. It's hardly going to be a big seller, but I'm certainly looking forward to it.)
On balance, it's obvious that neither of the two North American comics publishers is bidding farewell to the trends of recent years. The crucial difference between Marvel and DC, I think, is that Marvel are finding the right balance between the sprawling events and titles which are free-standing and attractive.