I was in the supermarket check-out line the other day, and nestled among the tabloids and the inadequacy mags, what did I see?
Why, it’s the mighty Avengers! Into my cart they went.
I’ve been curious about the Archie Comics Marvel Digest program since it was announced earlier this year. This partnership seems promising. I’ve long wondered why Marvel doesn’t try to better leverage its vast content library in digest form, and with Archie already owning the checkout line thanks to their own long-running digest publications, Marvel couldn’t ask for a better supermarket distributor.
The cover design is clever. At a glance, I was convinced I was buying the very first Marvel Digest, but reading the indicia revealed this was the second issue. (I missed the Spider-Man digest when it streeted two months ago).
The spine design makes clear that this is Marvel Comics Digest #2.
I suppose this is mildly deceptive, but I think it is smart. Technically, this is a first issue, as it is the first time the Avengers have led Marvel Digest, and this volume does reprint Avengers #1. That lets them splash a “#1” on the cover, which can’t hurt sales. Meanwhile, the Digest numbering goes on the spine, where a non-#1 won’t turn off an impulse buy, but collectors will still wish to fill in every number, assuming they store their books spine-out on the shelf.
Less prominent on the cover is the price, which is also wise. At $8.99 Canadian, I thought this was a little expensive. Not because of content — in the weird world of comics, getting 220-odd pages of (mostly) comics for that price is just fine. But out here in the real world, where People Magazine costs about half so much, I imagine Supermarket Mom wincing a little when she sees this little digest rung up. She might not be so quick to reach for Marvel Digest the next time around.
So what do you get in Avengers Digest?
You get a lot of Avengers, from across the ages. The book leads off with Avengers #1-2, and I suppose you kind of have to lead with the origin issues, though I’ve never felt the early Avengers were Stan & Jack’s best work. (Donning my monocle and affecting an Alastair Cooke accent, I’d opine that Avengers doesn’t really find its footing until Hawkeye joins the team in issue #16). As the book launched with golden armor Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man, Wasp, and Hulk as charter members, this line-up will also prove a little confusing for any kids coming here directly from the movies, but hey, you get the Hulk in clown makeup juggling circus animals, and I find it hard to hate on that.
Next up is a reprint of Avengers #235-237, where the lineup is no less obscure (featuring Star Fox and She Hulk, among others) … but so what, really? She-Hulk is fun.
These are perfectly-serviceable, mid-80s Avengers stories, neither very good nor very bad. I would have reprinted something from the George Perez era, but that’s just me. There’s plenty of action and a whole whack of super-villains, so you get your money’s worth. There’s also a guest turn by Spider-Man, and I expect a bit of Spider-Man is wise for any Marvel Digest.
We also get a reminder that this was the Jim Shooter era, meaning that every issue needed to assume a reader was reading Marvel Comics for the very first time. No Reader Left Behind … even if it meant a ridiculously wordy series of expositional thought balloons …
The Digest rounds out with young reader-specific fare from Marvel Adventures The Avengers #9, #16, Marvel Universe Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (2012) #6, and Marvel Universe Avengers Assemble #1-2. I didn’t read these, but was pleased to see M.O.D.O.K., even if he was saddled with some crappy non-canonical name.
The rest of the book is cover reproductions and ads, both for Archie comics (such as this back cover) …
… and for Marvel books, such as this subscription ad for the Champions. (Curious choice, the Champions, unless Marvel thinks there is some youth appeal here? Dunno).
What I found more interesting was what was not included.
For instance, there’s no editorial material. No letters columns or “Stan’s Soapbox” — nothing that speaks directly to the reader. Marvel’s editorial “voice” was critical to winning me over as a kid — all those editorial pages and letters column replies made me feel like I was being invited into some cool, exclusive club. There aren’t even any calls to action for the weak sauce 21st century equivalent of editorial outreach (social media hooks) in any of the Marvel material, although the Archie house ads all include website URLs and Facebook & Twitter handles.
There also isn’t any contextual information. There’s no attempt to fit stories into specific eras, or as the work of individual creators. There are no summaries of what came before, or what was going on for the Avengers at this time, or why the roster looks the way it does at any given time. This all strikes me as a missed opportunity, particularly for appealing to new (younger) readers, who in my experience are mad for every detail of their new-found enthusiasms.
But maybe this is good enough. Maybe just putting old stories out there will be enough to entertain readers, new and old. Comics are pretty ubiquitous, now — they have their own section in the bookstores, and they are easy enough to find at Amazon, or on-line. If readers want more, comics aren’t hard to find. Maybe having the Avengers unexpectedly tumbling out of the grocery bag is enough to recruit new readers to whatever passes for today’s Merry Marvel Marching Society. Maybe these Digests are even enormously profitable for Archie, and for Marvel …
… and if that is the case, then maybe Marvel needs to take a look in the mirror. If comic sales really are in a death spiral, and if Archie can provide an outlet for decades of Marvel’s legacy material, then maybe Disney would be well-advised to pull the plug entirely on publishing comics in-house. Even if Disney wants to keep publishing new material, why not shop it out to a Dark Horse or an IDW? I don’t see where telling Marvel stories is inherently tougher than publishing Star Trek or Transformers comics. And even without new material, there’s no shortage of legacy stories for Marvel’s movie divisions to mine for years to come … with the added benefit of not having to sweat it out that Marvel editorial is going to poison the brand with some dumbass stunt that turns Captain America into a Nazi, or something.
Time will tell.
In the meantime, I will toss this digest in the corner someplace, and look forward to discovering it again a time or two. I probably won’t reach for another digest in the checkout line — there’s just not enough here for long-time fans to enjoy — but I applaud this effort, and I am keenly interested to see what publications like Marvel Comics Digest portend for the comics business as we know it today.
What do you think? Is this a tombstone for Marvel, or no big deal? Let me know your thoughts in the comments, below!