Marvel Comics publishes a lot of comic books. In March 2020, Marvel published at least 80 new single-issue comics, the majority of which were set within the Marvel Superhero Universe. If a reader wanted to keep up with the Marvel Universe as a whole that month, they would have had to read 60+ books and spend $240+ to do so.
I’m certain that few (if any) readers did that. And anecdotally, retailers have been asking Marvel to reduce the number of books they publish for years now. 60+ superhero books is (and likely always has been) too many to ask readers and retailers to care about each month. Releasing that many titles that regularly oversaturates the market, cannibalizes sales, and perhaps most importantly, keeps readers from being able to access and understand the Marvel Universe as a whole.
Meanwhile, the Marvel Cinematic Universe releases roughly two new movies and a new TV show each year, and audiences eat them up. They do so because each new MCU installment feels accessible, digestible, and important. Because just two Marvel superhero movies release each year, each remains an event to behold. Because roughly 15 to 20 Marvel superhero comics release each week, each has to fight and scrap (or do something exceptional) to get noticed.
Retailers and readers like myself felt this way before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Now, it seems Marvel may agree with us. In early May, Marvel announced that seven of its current monthly titles (and one one-shot) would switch to releasing digitally first, before later being collected in print. (This is a bummer, by the way, for the creators who were excited for these books to release in print, the readers who were excited to read them in print, and the comic shops that will miss out on selling physical copies of these books.) Marvel’s print publishing line is now shrinking – so the question now becomes, how much further could it go?
What does the most condensed yet complete yet accessible version of the Marvel Universe look like? I’d argue that it should look like this:
The 12 Foundations of the Marvel Superhero Universe
- Amazing Spider-Man
- Uncanny X-Men
- Captain America
- Captain Marvel
- StarkForce Starring Iron Man
- Marvel Monsters Featuring Hulk
- Thor and Loki
- Guardians of the Galaxy
- Black Panther and the Fantastic Four
- Jessica Jones and the Defenders
- Astonishing Tales
Why These Books
As most any self-respecting nerd would, I laid out a set of criteria to satisfy as I pared Marvel’s superhero comics line down as far as I considered possible:
- Does my reduced line reflect the make-up of the current Marvel Comics Universe? (I want to reduce the line’s heft and complexity while also maintaining access to every corner of the Marvel Universe.)
- Does my reduced line reflect the make-up of the current Marvel Cinematic Universe? (In my ideal world, single-issue Marvel comics would again feature in grocery and bookstore magazine sections. I want the comics sitting in those sections to appeal to MCU fans.)
- Does my reduced line include a significant number of female characters and characters of color? (All readers should see themselves reflected in the Marvel Universe.)
- Does my reduced line allow creators to innovate and iterate upon the Marvel Universe? (That is, is there enough space for new characters, ideas, and concepts to debut and flourish?)
- Could I be talked into buying EVERY book in my reduced line? (There’s no way I’m ever spending more than $50 – $60 on Marvel comics each month. So the entire line has to cost $60 per month or less – the price of roughly 12 to 15 books.)
To satisfy those criteria, I produced a list of 12 titles that I think could act as the entire Marvel Comics Universe if needed. However, to satisfy every criterion, I had to fudge things a little.
As you might’ve already guessed, and as I’ll explain when I break down my reduced line below, nearly half the titles above are anthologies. They’d collect the stories of anywhere from two to four separate Marvel properties, allowing more than 12 stories to exist within just 12 books.
Why do this (other than just to make the math work)? Well, because I think the anthology format is underused, and more readers would buy anthologies if more good anthologies existed. The fact that DC’s Wal-Mart Giants are still going strong (and have been picked up by comic stores) speaks to the format’s unique strengths. Anthologies allow readers to read more stories at lower prices. In this scenario, they also allow more Marvel characters to exist within a streamlined slate of books.
(Quick aside: I understand that some readers don’t love paying extra money to read additional stories they aren’t interested in. I’ve thought of a couple ways to solve that problem – and if you want to read them now, skip to the section titled Digital and Trade Releases.)
Below, I’ll break down what each of my 12 books’ concepts would be – as well as the rationale for including them.
To me, Amazing Spider-Man is and always will be Marvel’s flagship book. As goes Spider-Man, so goes Marvel Comics. So Spidey gets to keep his own book – though his title could include back-up stories featuring Miles Morales, Spider-Gwen (let’s all refuse to call her Ghost-Spider), Silk, Spider-Woman, or any of the rest of the Spider-Friends.
If Amazing became an anthology title, I imagine it would feature a 16-page Spidey story followed by one to two rotating back-ups. That’s roughly 32 pages of comics, which I’d try to price at $5 or below (and less, obviously, if Amazing did not become an anthology).
Ah, the X-Men. The Marvel property that’s always most at risk of deluging itself under the weight of too many books. My line would pare the X-titles back to just Uncanny X-Men, though this book would of course be an anthology. I recognize that there are a ton of stories to tell in the X-Men’s corner of the Marvel Universe, so in addition to following a core team of X-Men, this book would be able to focus in on individual mutants as well as sub-teams like X-Force or the Marauders. The only catch is that each of those smaller stories would likely rotate in and out of the book as needed.
Uncanny X-Men seems like an easy sell at $6 and 40 pages of story. X-fans pay far more than that to keep up with their favorites these days, and streamlining the line would ensure each X-story always feels special.
In addition to featuring team-up stories, Avengers could include rotating back-ups starring heroes who now have their own series’ intermittently – making room for Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, Spider-Woman, and the like to star in solo adventures. Or, Avengers could just continue doing what it does now – providing readers with a place to see all their favorite Marvel heroes in action together.
Cap could easily support a $3 – $4 solo book, or his title could expand to include S.H.I.E.L.D., Falcon, and/or Winter Soldier stories. However, it’s important to give readers who DON’T want to purchase an anthology somewhere to spend their money …
… which is why I’d also consider leaving Captain Marvel to herself. As Marvel’s most popular and powerful female character, though, the good captain definitely deserves to headline a book.
StarkForce Starring Iron Man
Now, my line starts getting a bit more unconventional. Iron Man’s corner of the Marvel Universe includes many characters who could arguably star in their own series or mini-series (War Machine, Rescue, Ironheart, and Maria Hill come to mind). Rather than splinter those characters into their own titles, I’d pitch an “Iron Man Inc.” style book that stars all of them – featuring Tony Stark in its main story and the others in rotating back-ups that sometimes interconnect.
Marvel Monsters Featuring Hulk
The horror corner of the Marvel Universe needs to live somewhere. This book would star everyone’s favorite Jade Giant (who is already leaning pretty far into horror these days) while reserving space for other, darker Marvel characters. To start with, I’d fill this book out with two back-ups, one starring Ghost Rider and one starring Venom (because people really seem to love Venom for some reason).
Thor and Loki
A Thor book needs to exist, and not attempting to capitalize on Loki’s MCU popularity is a mistake. By tying the two together, a Thor and Loki book would attract fans of both characters. Each would feature in separate (though sometimes interconnecting) stories, making this a two-story anthology title.
Guardians of the Galaxy
The cosmic corner of the Marvel Universe also needs to live somewhere (outside just Captain Marvel). Guardians would star the titular team, but could also expand to include back-ups for Thanos, Nebula, Nova, or any other Marvel cosmic character. Still, I’d never expand this book past a 16 page main feature and two eight page back-ups, as I’d want it to cost $5 or less.
Black Panther and the Fantastic Four
This book is pretty straightforward. It would feature a Black Panther story and a Fantastic Four story each month, serving as another two-title anthology. Because Black Panther is now the more popular and recognizable of these two properties (and Fantastic Four and the Black Panther is an awkward title anyhow), Panther should headline.
Jessica Jones and the Defenders
The most recognizable Defender headlines Marvel’s street-level book, which would also star Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Moon Knight, and others in rotating (and sometimes interconnected) back-up features.
And finally, my wild card book. Astonishing Tales would make room for any character or concept that does not fit into the titles above, by featuring four rotating stories in one anthology. To start, I’d set this book up with Wolverine (the big draw), Ms. Marvel (one of Marvel’s best young characters), Doctor Strange (dude’s got a movie coming up), and Black Widow (also has a movie coming up).
For awhile, I considered replacing this title with a Marvel Rising book, focused entirely on young characters and readers. You could convince me that book’s actually the right call, but I like having a title that allows access to LITERALLY ANYTHING the Marvel Universe has to offer as needed.
How Monthly Print Releases and Big Events Would Work in This Line
After reducing Marvel’s monthly superhero line to these books, I would continue monthly print releases fairly straightforwardly. Each of these titles would release once per month, allowing readers to buy every monthly Marvel superhero comic for $60 or less (assuming my math works out, which it most certainly might not). If you figure every monthly Marvel book currently costs $4, that’s a roughly $180 price decrease to keep up with the entire line.
Of course, this line could expand and contract as needed (and even if you separated each of my anthologies into separate titles, you’d be publishing only about 36 books – less than 2/3 of Marvel’s current superhero slate). But I a) would not expand this line very far and b) would NEVER publish a separate crossover event miniseries. Instead, I would confine big, universe-wide crossover events to these existing monthly titles, and I would publish the event in its entirety within the span of a single month. (This solves the “event fatigue” problem readers and retailers have faced for awhile now. A summer event would truly be a summer event, because it would start and end in the span of just one month. Events would also, by design, draw readers into pre-existing and ongoing books, rather than create a glut of spin-offs.)
So that’s how I’d pare down Marvel’s monthly print superhero comic releases, and solve the oversaturation problem readers and retailers have faced for years. Depending on how big a fan you are of larger, anthology-style releases, this plan may or may not work for you.
But that’s okay – because it’s not the only change I’d make to the way Marvel publishes superhero comics.
Digital and Trade Releases (Or, How to Have Your Cake and Eat It Too)
Some readers have no interest in anthologies and back-up stories. For example, I hopped off buying single issues of Ed Brubaker’s Captain America when it added a Rikki Barnes back-up in 2004. However, I continued buying Captain America in trades, because that allowed me to read the story I wanted to read without paying for content I didn’t want.
Recently, Marvel has experimented with releasing certain stories digitally before eventually releasing them in trades and (if popular enough) as print single issues as well. And now (as mentioned above), they’re continuing some current monthly releases as digital-only, before eventually printing those issues as part of collections.
My anthology-based line would borrow some of these tactics. For example, the week after an issue of StarkForce Starring Iron Man releases in comic shops (and digitally), the corresponding chapters of Iron Man, Rescue, and Ironheart would release separately online. This system would still give comic shops a competitive advantage when selling against digital (they’d be carrying the stories first), while providing a unique (and potentially lower-barrier) product for digital readers.
Each of the anthologies’ stories would also be collected in their own print and digital trades, allowing readers to follow just the characters they care about if that’s what they prefer. Under this system, Marvel’s total superhero release schedule would look something like this:
- 12 monthly print titles (some anthologies, some solo books – mirrored by digital releases).
- Up to 32 additional monthly digital releases (breaking the anthologies out into separate digital series for readers who want to follow just their favorite characters – and don’t mind waiting a week to do so).
- Print and digital trades collecting each separate monthly story (for example, Thor and Loki would usually produce a Thor trade and a Loki trade each six months, barring a Night of the Monster Men situation in which the two stories become interconnected for a period of time).
That setup might sound wild, but I’d argue it’s no harder to understand than the current state of Marvel’s superhero line. And that it actually streamlines things quite a bit for most readers and retailers.
For example, print X-Men fans would be able to buy just Uncanny X-Men, and maybe Astonishing Tales if it stars Wolverine or Storm that month. People who are just fans of Wolverine would be able to buy Astonishing Tales (if they can be convinced to read about Ms. Marvel or Doctor Strange, too), the digital-only version of Astonishing‘s Wolverine chapter, or the eventual Wolverine trade that would result from Astonishing.
In this way, Marvel could potentially draw more readers into less monthly print comics, while also publishing enough unique stories to satisfy every reader’s desires. As a ride-or-die fan of Iron Fist and Kate Bishop, I want those characters’ stories (and others like them) to continue somewhere. I’m just not sure separate, monthly print single-issue series are the best way to give those characters their due. Those sorts of series nearly always end quickly – and maybe now’s the time to try something else.
The Really Awesome Idea: Marvel Universe Monthly
If you thought the ideas above were wild, well, welcome to the main event. With Marvel’s superhero line reduced to roughly 400 pages per month, I’d also begin printing a Shonen Jump-style magazine that collects every single one of the previous month’s print comics and reprints them in black and white. This book, titled Marvel Universe Monthly, would be targeted at readers who do want to read every Marvel series – allowing them to read every monthly Marvel superhero story for roughly $30 or less (assuming that price point or a lower one could be reached).
Now this idea might sound like it’s actually insane and impossible to execute, but a) Shonen Jump has been producing books of this size at this frequency for forever and b) Marvel has already begun dipping its toes into producing multi-title collections like this. The Dawn of X collections have applied this concept to the X-Men line. I’d simply apply it to the Marvel Universe as a whole (and look for ways to bring the overall price down – think print quality akin to the Marvel Essentials line or Shonen Jump itself).
And That’s the New, Streamlined Marvel Universe
So, in the wake of both the pandemic’s effect on the comic industry and retailers’ pre-pandemic concerns, the above is how I’d streamline Marvel’s superhero release schedule – as well as experiment with new formats designed to give readers additional, price-conscious access points. The proposal is bold, but if it succeeded, it would absolutely pay dividends for readers, retailers, and the state of superhero comics as a whole. And if ever there was a time to be bold, and to consider reconfiguring the entirety of Marvel Comics’ publishing line, now is it.
So what do you think? Could a Marvel Superhero Universe like this succeed? Or would we simply be trading one complicated, overwhelming mess for another? I don’t think we would, but if you disagree, feel free to drop me a line in the comments below. I’d love to hear what your ideal Marvel publishing line would look like (as well as why).