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Tuesday’s announcement that Marvel Entertainment’s comic book line is getting a “Fresh Start” in May, with a linewide relaunch scheduled to roll out that month, might sound familiar to anyone who remembers the similar Marvel Legacy relaunch last year. For those who have been paying attention to Marvel’s comic book output over the past few years, this is just the latest incarnation of a now annual promise of a new status quo.
Marvel has, in fact, been undergoing yearly relaunches since 2012, when the conclusion of its successful Avengers vs. X-Men series led directly into Marvel NOW! — yes, the all-upper case “NOW” and exclamation point were intentional — which was described at the time by then-editor-in-chief Axel Alonso as “a new beginning” for the publisher. Rolling out across a number of months, Marvel NOW! saw almost every series in the line relaunched with a new creative team and new mission statement for the immediate future, whether it was Avengers being transformed into a massive international army of superheroes or Peter Parker replaced as Spider-Man, albeit temporarily, by Doctor Octopus.
Marvel NOW! was prompted by two separate events. Firstly, it simply seemed like the right time for such a shift across the entire line, which had a number of creators wrapping up their runs on titles simultaneously or coming to natural break points that could lead to relaunches and/or changes in direction. Secondly, and — although those at Marvel would reject this publicly — more pointedly, it was a reaction to DC Entertainment’s The New 52 reboot, which had happened the previous year and saw the company briefly eclipse Marvel in terms of attention and, more importantly, sales. With DC scoring attention and praise for the makeover, it was no surprise to see Marvel wanting to do something similar.
It worked, leading to a second wave of new releases in early 2013, and then a third wave later that year, under the title All-New Marvel NOW!. All-New Marvel NOW! was less far-reaching than its predecessor, offering fewer new series and creative team switches while the majority of comics simply got new brand logos and a brief nod on covers. Nonetheless, the resultant sales bump was enough for Marvel to go back to the well one more time, and late 2014 saw the announcement of Avengers NOW!, technically a fourth wave of Marvel NOW!, with a small number of new titles that centered on makeovers for Captain America, Iron Man and Thor, alongside a small number of additional launches.
If each of these relaunches saw a declining amount of attention and increased sales, 2015 offered Marvel a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: Its Secret Wars storyline, an outgrowth of the Avengers series that launched with the original Marvel NOW! promotion, was being sold as ending the Marvel Comic Book Universe, not to mention more than 30 series as a result. Whatever followed would be the ultimate chance to start over, and catch the attention of new and lapsed readers.
The name of the subsequent relaunch, at least, promised much: Announced in summer 2015, All-New, All-Different Marvel — named after the 1970s relaunch of the X-Men franchise that turned it into a sales juggernaut — restarted every single series from No. 1, and added titles to the line, including Old Man Logan, The Vision and A-Force. In terms of creative scope, however, the line was limited: Many writers and artists stayed with the series they had been working on before Secret Wars, and despite the fictional conceit of the universe ending and restarting, storylines continued from previous runs essentially unaffected.
Although the prospect of four relaunches in four years — including two linewide relaunches during that period — didn’t appear to have exhausted Marvel, it certainly started to have an effect on readers; initial high sales of the All-New, All-Different Marvel launches quickly gave way to perilous drops across the line. The publisher responded in the only way it knew how: announcing Marvel NOW! 2.0 in summer 2016, for a launch in the fall of that year. Similar to All-New Marvel NOW! in 2013, it added branding linewide, but didn’t see every series relaunched and renumbered; it also notably didn’t improve Marvel’s sales, which led to last year’s Marvel Legacy, a relaunch that saw more than 50 titles continue, with numbering artficially increased to suggest continuous publication since initial launch.
Marvel Legacy debuted with a one-off special issue of the same name in September; just two months later, Marvel announced a new editor-in-chief, and two months after that, a new publisher, as well. Now, the company is promising a “Fresh Start”, albeit with little information outside of a promotional video and image that seem very similar to those advertising the last six relaunches. It’s the latest sign that the company wants to put a very bad 2017 behind it, but without actually demonstrating that it’s done much to change just yet. (Despite the promise of “new talent,” the first two announced relaunches from “Fresh Start” feature existing Marvel creators.)
Could this, finally, be the relaunch that sticks? It’s unclear, and likely to stay that way for some time. Perhaps it’d be better to ask again this time next year, around the time that Marvel teases the arrival of Marvel NOW! 3D.
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