When I picked up my comics this week, they came wrapped in a "Special Dark Reign Edition" of Marvel Previews. It's a 30-page pamphlet that "reveals" the hitherto "classified" solicitation text and images for all the books connected to Marvel's "Dark Reign" from December through February. Newsarama has an online version for your perusal.
The thrust of it is that, in the wake of Secret Invasion, Iron Man loses his position as the head supervisor and administrator of the United States' now strictly regulated superhuman population. The job is then handed to somewhat reformed arch-fiend Norman Osborn, formerly known as the Green Goblin, who's been in charge of the Thunderbolts since Civil War.
As they've done with past crossovers, Marvel are using "Dark Reign" to launch a whole slew of new titles. In theory, that seems like a smart approach, since it grants the new launches more exposure than they could otherwise expect. But in practice, the good sales never stick for more than a few issues.
For one thing, that's because there are already many more superhero books by Marvel and DC out there than the market can support, so I doubt that adding ten more to them - not counting all the "Dark Reign" one-shots, more on which later - will increase the chance to really gain traction for any of them.
Somewhere in limbo, Heroes for Hire, The Order and New Warriors are agreeing with me. More recent crossover launches like Skaar, X-Force, Cable, Young X-Men and Captain Britain aren't setting the charts on fire, either.
Marvel are also evidently looking to tie their line of books more closely together, which is puzzling. If there's one thing they've done much better than DC over the past eight years, it's that they've been taking care to keep their books self-contained and accessible. With "Dark Reign," though, that seems to be changing, and I don't think it's a very smart idea at all.
Don't get me wrong: They've got a lot of promising new titles coming up - I absolutely applaud Marvel for hiring fresh voices like Jonathan Hickman, Andy Diggle, Jeff Parker and Matt Fraction. But then again, I'm not very interested in reading material from them that plays a supporting role to what feels like the nineteenth monthly Avengers title cooked up by Brian Michael Bendis - especially a Brian Michael Bendis whose creative faculties seem to be in a recession so deep as to rival that of Iceland.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's tackle the "Dark Reign" launches and makeovers one by one.
o Dark Avengers, by Brian Michael Bendis and Mike Deodato Jr. This is the big one, obviously: the flagship book for the Avengers line, and of the whole "Dark Reign" event. And, well, it's a little disappointing, isn't it? "Dark Avengers"? Is that the best they could come up with - another Avengers book by Bendis, only now it's "dark"? Wow. They could at least have bothered giving it a proper title - what's wrong with "Avengers: Dark Reign" or just plain "Dark Reign," for instance?
Conceptually, this seems to be the Thunderbolts, with some new characters like Daken (over from Daniel Way's Wolverine: Origins) and Noh'Varr (from Grant Morrison's Marvel Boy) thrown in for good measure. If it were by someone who can write more than one type of character, I might even have been interested.
Also, Dark Avengers is evidently Marvel's first high-profile mainstream series with a regular cover price of $ 3.99. So far, when using the price point, they've always tried to justify it with more content or, at least, like in the case of Secret Invasion, with slightly higher production values, such as cardstock covers. But this time around, it's just a plain old 32-page package (including ten pages of adverts, presumably) for four bucks, with no apologies. I'm interested to see how it goes.
Personally, I have no intention of ever buying a standard-sized 22-page comic for that kind of money - unless it's written by Grant Morrison, perhaps, although I should point out that Morrison's Final Crisis has been clocking in at a very fair 30 pages of content each for its $ 3.99 tag. If 22 pages of content for $ 3.99 becomes the new standard format, however, I guess I'll find myself with a pretty manageable set of periodicals by 2010.
o New Avengers, by Brian Michael Bendis and Billy Tan. The solicitation copy promises that issue #49 brings "the first major roster change since the very first issue!!" I guess the one where Doctor Strange and Iron Fist joined didn't count. I've been following the book out of curiosity, but after eight dreary and mostly pointless Secret Invasion tie-ins, I'm not really interested anymore. Bendis is horribly miscast on this franchise, and Billy Tan's bland and frequently poor artwork doesn't help.
o Mighty Avengers, by Dan Slott and Khoi Pham. Slott is hit and miss, and it looks like the book will mainly serve as a counterpoint to the two Bendis titles, so: not really interested. If the reviews tell me that it's good and works on its own merits, I might buy a collection.
o Thunderbolts, by Andy Diggle and Roberto De La Torre. Contrary to some other folks, I don't really consider Diggle's The Losers a classic - it was a fun action book most of the time. Nor, for that matter, did I read any of his DC Universe books. Still, judging from The Losers, he seems like an intriguing choice for Thunderbolts, and I've read good things about De La Torre's art. I'll watch out for the reviews on this one.
o War Machine, by Greg Pak and Leonardo Manco. I haven't been impressed by anything Pak has written, but then I haven't read a lot of things he's done except that god-awful X-Men miniseries drawn by Greg Land a few years back. And the notion of Leonardo Manco drawing a big shiny battle armor armed to its teeth with things blowing up left and right is tremendously appealing to me, I admit. Another one to keep in mind until the collections start coming out, then.
o Invincible Iron Man, by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca. Yeah, I know. It's not Casanova, unsurprisingly. It's not even The Order, in fact, in terms of being innovative. Still, I've enjoyed Fraction's take on Tony Stark so far - he seems to be the only writer besides Joe Casey who ever got the character, and he knows how to build a good spy-tech thriller around that. My only reservation right now is that it seems like the "Dark Reign" nonsense is cutting the book and its set-up off at the knees. In any case, I give Fraction the benefit of the doubt. I'll be sticking around.
o Punisher, by Rick Remender and Jerome Opeña. I don't have much of an opinion on Remender's writing - it seemed serviceable on the two Fear Agent issues I checked out, and awful on the one issue of The All-New Atom I read. The Punisher War Journal series launched after Civil War had two major problems, at any rate. One was that Matt Fraction didn't get the Punisher, at least in the first five issues before I dropped the book.
The other, though, was that pitching the Punisher against super-villains comes with a whole range of conceptual problems. So relaunching the book with what looks like the exact same premise seems questionable - I mean, it's not like the Punisher is ever going to kill Doctor Doom, Norman Osborn or the Sentry, as the previews of the first two issues are teasing, or is he? So why not use a set-up that allows the writer to build, you know, tension instead?
o Deadpool, by Daniel Way and Paco Medina. The reviews on this one have been surprisingly positive so far, but it's going to take a lot more than that to make me consider picking up a Daniel Way comic. Maybe he's gotten better in the last few years, but everything I've seen from him so far suggests this guy wouldn't know a story if it bit him in the nuts.
o Black Panther, by Reginald Hudlin and Ken Lashley. More dumb and clumsy attempts at being provocative, I presume, only now the title character is a girl. I'm not sure what Marvel see in Hudlin, to be honest. Okay, Bendis can't write, either, granted - but at least his name sells comics. What's Hudlin's excuse? And what is Christopher Priest doing these days, anyway?
o Secret Warriors, by Brian Michael Bendis, Jonathan Hickman and Stefano Caselli. A Nick Fury series by Jonathan Hickman sounds fantastic, in principle, but Secret Warriors has three strikes against it: (1) Superheroes, (2) Secret Invasion, and (3) Brian Michael Bendis.
I'm also skeptical whether Stefano Caselli's style particularly lends itself to what I presume is going to be some gritty espionage series or other, although I concede that this apprehension may turn out to be entirely unfounded. Overall, though, I'm afraid I'd rather not bother, at this stage - I'm open to be surprised by reviews telling me Secret Warriors is the greatest thing since sliced bread, in which case I'll line up to buy a paperback collection, post-haste.
o Agents of Atlas, by Jeff Parker, Carlos Pagulayan and Benton Jew. This is the one I'm most curious about, really. I liked last year's Agents of Atlas miniseries by Parker and artist Leonard Kirk, a delightful pulp story starring a secret agent, a spaceman, a mythical heroine, a mute robot and a talking gorilla, but since it didn't sell at all, I understand why Marvel decided to plug the concept into "Dark Reign," to a degree.
Although, at a second glance, while the story apparently uses the Marvel Universe's new status quo as a launch pad, the solicitation copy actually name-checks neither "Dark Reign" nor Secret Invasion. To be perfectly honest, I don't have much faith in the book's long-term health, but I think I'll consider reading it, at least.
o Ms. Marvel, Avengers: The Initiative, Wolverine: Origins, by various. These may be perfectly decent genre serials, for all I know, but I've got no interest in, or opinion on, any of them, really.
o Robin & Mockingbird and Skrull Kill Krew, by who knows. Oh, no, wait: That's "Ronin & Mockingbird," actually; was caught up in the bird theme, for a moment. Which is not only a much crappier title than "Hawkeye & Mockingbird" would have been, come to think of it, but also makes me wonder whether Marvel have jumped the shark, big time. Do we really need their version of, um, Green Arrow/Black Canary? A rhetorical question, if there ever was one.
I can see the appeal of a Skrull Kill Krew book, though, if they let someone like Fred van Lente, Matt Fraction or Jason Aaron run batshit crazy with it. Neither series has been solicited yet, though - they're just mentioned in the solicitation copy for Dark Reign: New Nation. Speaking of which.
o Secret Invasion: Requiem, Secret Invasion: Dark Reign, Dark Reign: New Nation, Marvel Spotlight: Dark Reign and Dark Reign Files, by various. How many variations and combinations of "Secret Invasion" and "Dark Reign" can you come up with? Well, five, evidently.
The five one-shots are celebrating the transition between the two events, if you're so inclined. I'm not, since I read a few of the similar specials they released after Civil War and they weren't worth the paper they were printed on - not to mention that Civil War itself, for all its faults, is actually a proper story, which Secret Invasion is not. The cake for the most egregious cash-grab among the bunch goes to Secret Invasion: Requiem, by the way. It's eight pages of new material stuffed out with two reprints, for $ 3.99.
So, all told, things are looking rather bleak for Marvel, particularly considering the appalling quality of Secret Invasion proper. It seems they're putting too many eggs in one basket, not unlike DC did with Infinite Crisis and Final Crisis.
(Of course, even if "Dark Reign" should turn out to be a commercial dud, Marvel will still be better off, because they still have the Spider-Man and X-Men franchises.)