What Can Be Learned From Marvel's Comic Book Relaunch

Marvel Now Divided H 2016
Mike Deodato/Marvel Entertainment
Why is Marvel bringing on the bad guys this fall?

Things are about to get pretty dark in Marvel's comic book universe.

As part of Marvel's upcoming Marvel NOW! publishing relaunch — which begins in October and repositions the superhero comic book universe after the conclusion of the current Civil War II storyline — the company is adding a number of new series to its roster in addition to relaunching existing titles. There is, however, a twist: Many of the new series don't feature out-and-out good guys.

There are 22 new comic book series announced as part of the promotion that aren't direct or indirect relaunches of existing titles. Within that number, many are limited-run spinoffs of existing titles or storylines, such as The Clone Conspiracy and Death of X, which are Amazing Spider-Man and X-Men storylines refashioned into new series. Of the remaining newcomers, the running theme is a particular moral murk.

Whether it's seeing straight-up supervillains get their own series based on TV or movie success — Bullseye, Kingpin and Thanos all return to leading-man status (Netflix's Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist all get spotlight comics as well, with Jessica Jones, Cage! and Iron Fists, while the Gamora series announced in 2014 finally gets scheduled in time for next year's Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) — or a preponderance of antiheroes in titles like Foolkiller, Infamous Iron Man, Mosaic, Slapstick, Solo or even The Unstoppable Wasp and The Unworthy Thor, both of whom are ostensibly good guys with questionable motives, there's a notable emphasis on characters who aren't exactly as morally upstanding as, say, Captain America, at least Captain America before he was rewritten to be a Hydra agent.

This seeming shift toward the dark side brings with it a couple of interesting echoes from Marvel's recent past. Firstly, the publisher tends to transform its upright icons into bad guys, from the current Captain America: Steve Rogers storyline through Superior Iron Man and Superior Spider-Man titles from 2014 and 2012, respectively. But even before that, Marvel was interested in moral ambiguity in a big way.

The Dark Reign era of Marvel's comic book line, which launched off the back of the 2007 Secret Invasion storyline, saw Norman Osborn and his fellow villains rise to positions of power, forcing the heroes underground to avoid being arrested. An inversion of the norm, it transformed the Marvel comic book universe into a dystopian fantasy at exactly the point when mainstream America was becoming awash with optimism in the wake of the success of Barack Obama's 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, which promised "Hope" and "Change." 

Marvel is fond of using its characters to comment on wider society and contemporary issues. The current Civil War II storyline is being seen by many as meta-commentary on police brutality and racial profiling, an analogy that feels timely and well meaning, if flawed. (It fails in the same way that the metaphor that mutants stand for persecuted minorities in the real world does. Namely, suspecting the Hulk, or one of the X-Men, of being dangerous is something that only makes sense when you take into account the power they hold and more than five decades' worth of stories in which they do prove to be very dangerous to property and people around them.)

That the Marvel NOW! move toward antiheroes and outright villainy occurs during an election year is a strange coincidence; perhaps the company doesn't deal well with the prospect of regime change in the White House. The question is whether the upcoming relaunch, which begins just one month before the U.S. elections, will end up embodying the national sentiment at the time it appears or once again be out of step with the choice the country has made. The promotional image for the relaunch reads."Divided We Stand." What if the U.S. decides to unite instead?