Making A Marvel Out Of A Molehill.
Marvel has announced its bold plan to conquer webcomics for the third time, and amazingly, people are wondering if This Will Change Everything.
If I needed an argument that the world needs a history of webcomics, I'd have none better than this bald retcon. This is not a "launch." It is at best a relaunch, if not just a renaming. The timeline, in brief:
Marvel joins the Web in late 1996, first with a secret investors-only site, but soon enough with onslaught.com and then with Marvelonline.com. Its early site hawks "cool animation" (check the "alt" tags) and its "Marvel CyberComics" achieve a certain degree of distinction, at least theoretically, by using limited animation and sound. This is enough to attract a license from another website you've probably never even heard of [scroll to fifth item], which gets bought out less than a year later.
Webcomics readers completely ignore Cybercomics. They offer attractive bells and whistles, but the stories read like "Marvel Generica #1-12." Marvel doesn't see fit to pay much to produce the work, nor does it offer much creative latitude, so... Guess what? Spidey's life is tough, and the Hulk is misunderstood!
After the dot-com crash, Marvel starts putting out an all-new "dot-comics" lineup of repurposed comic books. This is hardly the bold new frontier that Cybercomics represented, but it certainly could work if done in crushing volume. Marvel has a huge back-issue archive and it's been proven that presenting comics online, done right, can actually encourage people to buy them offline.
Yet in a surprising reversal of traditional online publishing, Marvel's offerings actually seem to get *fewer* as time goes on. A 2002 review mentions 21 comics available for a single series. But in 2004, the dotcomics section offers "just a few" comics, in fact just exactly a dozen.
And today it has four.
This week, Marvel "launched" its Digital Comics section (though its homepage announces it as a "rebirth," so apparently even MARVEL doesn't completely believe that Digital Comics are qualitatively different from Dotcomics. Also, Marvel still has a "dotcomics" link at the bottom of the site, which redirects to the new section).
Marvel promises that the paucity of material on the new site is a temporary situation. If so, it's a temporary situation three years in the making. They say they're going to get production up till there's a new comic almost every day. I'll believe it when I see it.
Okay, so we've gone down from 21+ to 12 to 4. But what about the quality?
The selection is... not bad. Not the best items Marvel's published, and only one that even resembles a completed story, but if you like superheroes and their universes they're pretty decent offerings...
...wrapped in an interface that simulates the experience of reading comic books, assuming you read comic books by either holding them at fully extended arm's length, or repeatedly slapping yourself in the face with them. And assuming that the comics' art is highly pixelated while the text is clear.
Marvel has the intellectual property and the talent base to well and truly change the face of webcomics. And print comics for that matter. What it doesn't have is the culture.
Infinite canvas could give Spider-Man more room to swing, leap, and kick. The team behind Runaways could pen a magnificent strip in the Questionable Content vein. Marvel could open up a vast database of characters a la its old Marvel Universe and use hyperlinks to clarify its labrynthine continuity. The new genres and styles and ideas of webcomics and the well-established, much-loved creations of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (and their acolytes) could interact in ways that tickled the brain and stirred the heart.
But none of that will happen until Marvel, Inc. sees money in it. And Marvel has a 45-year-old tradition of celebrating its past. It's not so good with the future.
Its own online past is proof of that.