John Gholson is a life-long Avengers fanboy who has previously covered all manner of superhero news at AOL. After dabbling with comic book self-publishing in the '90s, John moved on to study sequential art at the Savannah College of Art & Design, and currently produces a regular web comic, ‘Appetite for Destruction,’ for Tapsauce.com. He’ll also buy any comic with Hawkeye on the cover. You can read his AvengersCountdown here at Movies.com once a month.
“A decade ago, Marvel were going bankrupt and asked me to reboot characters people weren’t interested in anymore, like Captain America, Thor and Iron Man,” comic writer Mark Millar told the Daily Record back in February. “You couldn’t give the stuff away. The company was in the toilet. Because they had nothing to lose, I was given a free hand. Avengers caught on big and that led to the Marvel movies like Iron Man, building up to the Avengers movie based on what I did for them 10 years ago.”
Millar is talking about The Ultimates, a 2002 mini-series that allowed the long-standing Marvel team to be reinvented with edgier personas (and a Nick Fury that happened to look just like a certain Samuel L. Jackson), outside of the confines of standard Marvel Universe issue-to-issue continuity. It was popular, and it did influence the films, but is Mark Millar’s work the single reason we’re seeing The Avengers on the big screen? Of course not.
Aside from the fact that he didn’t actually create The Avengers, let’s take a quick look at the hard facts behind his claim that “you couldn’t give the stuff away.” Marvel declared bankruptcy in 1997, a full five years before Millar wrote The Ultimates, and 2001 saw the publisher on a much-needed financial upswing. Marvel had 27 of the Top 30 comic books in 2001, and in 2002, the year The Ultimates was published, when Millar claims “the company was in the toilet,” Marvel made $2 billion from licensed consumer products (due in large part to Sony’s Spider-Man film).
The truth is that Millar’s contribution was just one step from Marvel in a steadfast dedication to restoring The Avengers from sales oblivion into one of their flagship titles. So, how did we get to where we are today?
1963 - Three years after DC introduces Justice League of America, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby put some of Marvel’s flagship heroes together into one team. By the time the fourth issue comes around, the title has already found a mix of three characters that would define the team for all-time -- Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor.
1996 - Jump ahead to the mid-90s, where The Avengers have spent the first half of that decade buried under the spotlight of Marvel’s insanely popular X-Men titles. By the time 1996 rolls around, the team are sporting X-Men-style bomber jackets, the Wasp has been mutated into an actual insect-woman, and teen Tony Stark is fighting an evil adult Tony Stark. Avengers like Black Knight, Sersi, and Hercules may be worthwhile characters, but the book is sorely missing a roster that lends it any importance in the grand scheme of the Marvel U. In 1995, not a single issue of Avengers cracks the Top 300 on the sales charts for that year. Something has to be done.
That something is “Heroes Reborn,” a shrewd editorial decision that separates four titles from the Marvel Universe with a clean break and all-new first issues, under the guidance of two hugely influential artists (Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld) who had left the company years before to start Marvel’s competitor Image Comics. Lee oversees Fantastic Four and Iron Man, while Rob Liefeld takes on Captain America and Avengers. Liefeld, notorious for his short attention span, leaves before the experiment is over, and Lee ends up guiding all four books to their “big event” ending, two years later.
1998 - “Heroes Return” is the big event, and Marvel celebrates as if these characters had actually been missing from the Marvel Universe (and in the “Heroes Reborn” storyline, they were). All four of the titles are revitalized (again) with all new #1 issues (again), featuring dependable artists and respected writers who are noticeably energized to get their hands on these characters.
It pays off. Eleven of these new Avengers issues, under the pen of Kurt Busiek and the art of veteran George Perez, crack the Top 100 in comic sales for 1998.
2002 - The Ultimates debuts and is the number one best-selling comic of 2002. Marvel started a “side” universe of titles in 2000, so that new readers could come aboard unfettered by continuity, and had already seen success with Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimate X-Men. Hot writer Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch create a best-selling title with visually recognizable heroes who don’t really act quite like their standard Marvel Universe counterparts.
Sony’s Spider-Man also hits theaters this year, to the tune of $821 million worldwide. Realizing the potential gold mine they’re sitting on, Marvel wants in the movie business, now more than ever. The company becomes much more pro-active in cultivating the properties they still have control over for film (which excludes Spider-Man, X-Men, and a few others), and this decision to will pay off in spades in 2008.
2005 - Part creative inspiration, part sales booster, The Avengers gets a little more like Justice League of America under the hand of writer Brian Michael Bendis. Not content to coast along with just Cap, Iron Man, and Thor as the faces of the team and with sales in a dip, Bendis adds two of Marvel’s most popular characters, Wolverine and Spider-Man, to an all-new regular roster. The move is a controversial one, but calculated -- Bendis isn’t done with Avengers yet.
All 13 issues of New Avengers that are published in 2005 make the Top 40 sales for the year.
2007 - Bendis brings back a more traditional Avengers team flavor with The Mighty Avengers, another best-seller, and continues to orchestrate the team as the lynchpin of the Marvel Universe, by placing them at the heart of each of the company’s yearly cross-over events (which he continues to do today). In the comics world, Avengers are once again one of Marvel’s flagship titles.
Even more notably, Kevin Feige is promoted to President of Production at Marvel Studios. The studio realizes the unique position they’re in with their own properties -- they can mix and match the characters as they please, essentially creating a Marvel Universe for film. Feige proves to be the perfect person to bring this vision to life, by displaying a genuine affection for superheroes and a knowledge of the legacy he’s now safeguarding to film.
2008 - Iron Man, considered by box office pundits to be a C-level Marvel character, defies the odds and rakes in $585 million worldwide. Marvel plans ahead by placing a post-credits sting that hints at a future Avengers movie. To show their hand even further, they also place a bit at the tail-end of The Incredible Hulk, making it evident that they’re planning something huge.
The same month Iron Man opens, Marvel announces their production slate for the next few years -- Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America, and The Avengers.
While I may have just hit on the highs and lows of The Avengers’ past fifteen years, it’s still plainly evident that no one man can take credit for the fact that The Avengers now exists as an actual movie. If anyone should take credit, it should be movie fans, for turning out in droves to see the first Iron Man, and thus ensuring that Marvel’s big idea become a reality. As an Avengers fan, I have to say thanks.
The Avengers, a Joss Whedon film, stars Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and Chris Hemsworth. There are 17 days until release.