In the comics industry, the death and resurrection of characters is a fairly common occurrence. Marvel killed Wolverine a few months ago and ended Fantastic Four as an ongoing series a couple months later. DC recently killed Robin and we’re now in his rebirth phase. The death of characters is an accepted element of post-industrial mythology and the business of creativity. Every so often, something has to be taken away so it can come back with renewed energy.
Killing a comic character is common, but Marvel is doing something a bit more daring with today’s announcement of Secret Wars (See The Marvel Universe is Ending). In essence, Marvel is dismantling all of its various continuities to create a single overarching narrative. This event appears to be in the same creative vein as other universe destroying events like Crisis on Infinite Earths, Heroes Reborn and the New 52. Rather than shake things up with a reimagined world like the Ultimate Universe I saw launch when I was at Marvel, the stakes are being raised, or at least the goal posts are being moved.
But how much of this is the product of business as opposed to art? There’s already been plenty of speculation about the impact Marvel’s recent creative moves in comics will have on the superhero movie industry. Marvel has poured more creative and marketing energy towards the movie properties it owns (Avengers, Guardians, etc.) and has downplayed, muddled or destroyed properties licensed out to other studios (X-Men, Spider-Man, Punisher). Conspiracy theorists suggest Marvel of using the tail to help wag the dog.
If the comics are the root of the money making movie tree, killing the root might weaken the tree. When any licensed product becomes more trouble than its worth, a movie studio might decide they’re better off giving up the rights. When Marvel reacquired the movie rights to titles like Daredevil and Hulk, the conspiracy theorists saw this as a Marvel’s success. The recent rumors of Spider-Man appearing in the Civil War film also fuels the conspiracy fire. The death of Wolverine and the cancelation of Fantastic Four could be considered a more aggressive move, designed to lower the potential success of the upcoming films, assuming other factors remain constant.
So what will the industry impact be of reconfiguring the entire Marvel mythology? It could be nothing or it may be everything. It all depends on which titles and characters emerge from Secret Wars. If most (or none) of the Fox or Sony characters survive the slaughter, I’d say there was a strong case for the conspiracy theory. But I doubt Marvel will be so blatant. A lot of factors go into the success or failure of a film franchise. Killing off a character in the comics isn’t a magic bullet, Kryptonite or a mystic hammer, but it can provide insight into the mind of the character’s owner.
The insight independent creators should have for their own characters is the same no matter how Secret Wars plays out. You need to treat your characters and stories as business assets. Make your decisions and focus your energy on the properties that work for you. If they don’t, consider shaking things up, even if some of your babies have to die. (See Treat Your Art Like an Investment)