Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Modern Marvel

Comic publisher reinvents its universe with new costumes, new identities and old X-Men

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Iron Man and the Avengers both turn 50 years old next year -- a landmark reached this year by Spider-Man and the Hulk and in 2011 by the Fantastic Four.

Captain America? He's 71. And in the world of Marvel Comics superheroes, Wolverine is a veritable whippersnapper at 37.

With characters that have been around that long, a renewal is needed from time to time, from generation to generation. But Marvel NOW!, the publisher's latest initiative, is arguably its biggest sea change ever, with a relaunch or launch of more than 20 books, new costumes, new identities, new digital experiences for readers and a shifting of Marvel's top writing and art talent among the titles.

"The thing that keeps them contemporary and modern and of the moment is new people, new creators, come in and come on board and reinvent and make relevant once again the stories these characters are involved in," says Tom Brevoort, Marvel's executive editor. "This is the ongoing process that is the engine that drives the Marvel Universe."

There's never been an instant with such critical mass and everything happening at once, though. Most of the launches will spin out of Marvel's current event series, Avengers vs. X-Men, and occur between October and February, with three major books beginning with new No. 1 issues before the end of the year:

-- Uncanny Avengers (October), by writer Rick Remender and artist John Cassaday, will bring together a new team of X-Men and Avengers featuring Captain America and Wolverine for new world-saving missions. First up: Stopping the Red Skull, who is aiming to eradicate the mutant race.

-- All New X-Men (November), by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Stuart Immonen, features the original five X-Men who have found their way from the past to the present -- including the long-dead Jean Grey.

-- Avengers (December), by writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Jerome Opena, stars a large group that encompasses popular Avengers over the years plus other Marvel fan favourites. And this'll be a squad that won't just be Earth's mightiest heroes -- if there's trouble in the galaxy, they'll be called into duty.

Marvel NOW! all started due to happenstance more than anything else, according to Brevoort. Bendis realized he was reaching the natural end of his run writing The Avengers, which he started in 2004, and wanted to move on to a new challenge. The X-Men made sense for him, and the musical chairs began there, with Hickman moving from Fantastic Four to Avengers.

"Hopefully that's exciting to people, that you're going to get to see and hear and experience a new voice and a new perspective on all the Marvel Universe characters," Brevoort says.

"That first issue is going to be their first issue as well as the reader's first issue. It will be as easy an entry point as you can get for the Marvel Universe as a whole for all our various titles."

It also means excitement and nervousness for the writers themselves, including Bendis.

"I know I am going to miss (Avengers) and I know it's going to be crazy weird," he says. "I've had a similar experience. It still feels like Mark Waid's making out with my girlfriend Daredevil in front of me: 'Well, that's weird.'"

Some of the more recent new and relaunched titles, such as Kelly Sue DeConnick's Captain Marvel (out in two weeks) and Waid's Daredevil, don't need the same creative shakeup, so those will stick with their status quo in Marvel NOW! There will be new titles la Uncanny Avengers, books like All New X-Men that succeed an existing title (in its case, Uncanny X-Men), and the creative relaunches of Avengers, Captain America, Fantastic Four and more.

There will be closer ties to the Marvel Studios movies, too -- the new African-American Nick Fury will play a significant role in a new book, Brevoort says, matching Samuel L. Jackson's cinematic super-spy look -- and "a concerted effort to unify all houses." That means the X-Men, who have tended to operate as a separate line since the 1990s, will be more woven into the Marvel Universe tapestry, as will Rocket Raccoon, the furry member of the Guardians of the Galaxy, and other cosmic characters.

"Everything's going to be one nice melting pot of Marvel Universe goodness," says Brevoort, who insists that Marvel NOW! is not a reboot. "This is the same Marvel Universe you were reading about the month before and the same characters. They haven't gone back to square one -- all of that history isn't out the window."

One twist is interesting for those familiar with Marvel history: the return of Jean Grey, who first perished after turning into the Dark Phoenix and has gone through multiple lives and deaths ever since. But the Marvel Girl in All New X-Men will come from a time before all that.

She's been gone off the shelves of Acme Comics in Greensboro, N.C., for a while, says store manager Jermaine Exum, "and the comic-book world kept turning without her. There were no stories that could not be told because, oh, Jean Grey's not there."

However, he remembers that when he first became interested in comics, Norman Osborn's Green Goblin had been dead for years, and the villain has since come back to be one of the Avengers' best in recent memory.

"There are some readers who have never seen Jean Grey in an active comic book before," Exum adds. "While you do want death to be meaningful, at the same time you hate to penalize readers for when they choose to start reading or that they were born at the wrong time."

The box-office success of The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man (which set a Tuesday opening-day record last week) potentially leads to readers wanting more superhero action and digging into comics, and Marvel is using its Augmented Reality apps -- launched as part of the company's "ReVolution" initiative this year at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, with Marvel NOW! books to better reach those newbies.

All will have some sort of functionality, including a feature where people can hold up their smartphone or handheld device to a cover and get a recap on what has come before in the comic.

That innovative entry point is a solution to something that has stumped Marvel's brain trust, according to Brevoort.

"We hear from a lot of civilians who come out of the movies or see the cartoons, and walk into a comic shop and they're just overwhelmed: 'Where do I start?' This is part of our solution for that," he says.

"If there's something that looks interesting among this stuff, hold up your device and you'll get a little video and a recap telling you what this book is about that hopefully makes you go, 'Ah, that's the one I want. And that one and that one and that one...'"

Brevoort admits that any time a company makes a big change, there's a chance some might stop reading, although he doesn't think a wide swath of the Marvel faithful will leave the fold.

"If you tell fascinating, compelling stories, almost whether the readers like it or not, they'll feel compelled to come back next month to see what happens next because they're engaged and involved in the lives of these characters," he says. "They're invested and have been for so very long."

-- USA Today

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 12, 2012 e8

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