During the early ‘90s, the comic book industry looked unstoppable. Nearly every month there was a new issue on the shelf of the local shop that broke sales records and made writers, editors, artists, and executives across the industry much, much paper. Thing is, this also coincided with some of the worst storytelling and art the industry has ever seen. Publicity stunts, expensive variant covers, and the pitiful collectors market created an extremely profitable business for a few years, but in 1996 the bubble burst and Marvel filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Years of style over substance had turned off legions of hardcore fans and, soon after, the collectors abandoned the medium once they realized the comics they had been hoping to resell at a huge profit were basically worthless.
As the folks at Marvel worked through this bleak, meager time, the company's direction began to change. In late 1998, the company rebooted Daredevil with Hollywood cult icon Kevin Smith as the writer and Joe Quesada on the art duties. Unlike most ‘90s books, this series focused on character and drama, rather than sales gimmicks and garish illustrations. The opening story arc, titled “Guardian Devil,” brought a sophisticated view to Daredevil’s world that older, more discerning fans could get behind. It was an instant hit.
From there, the series became one of the company’s highlights, especially when writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Alex Maleev came on to the book a few years later. Together they transformed the title from typical superhero fare into a gritty, urban crime tale that read like a cross between The Wire and Sin City. Bendis wasn’t done, though, and in 2001, he was behind the launch of Alias over at MAX, an imprint of Marvel's targeted directly at mature fans.
Alias starred Jessica Jones, a former superhero turned private investigator in a world of crime and murder. Unlike most superhero comics that focused on action and soap opera drama, both Alias and Daredevil unfolded like small one-act plays and were openly influenced by the work of David Fincher and David Mamet.
Both series broke with the conventions of mainstream comics by putting drug abuse, graphic violence, and, in the case of Alias, sex, under the microscope. In fact, during the very first issue of the series, fans everywhere were treated to a controversial interracial sex between Jones and Luke Cage that had certain printers refusing to even print the issue.
This focus on smarter stories and mature themes built up buzz around the company for the first time in years. Sales reflected the buzz, and began to catch up with the hype. But more importantly, the longtime fans that the company lost in the '90s returned. This direction for Daredevil and Alias was soon echoed in higher profile books like Captain America, Iron Man, and Wolverine, all of which sold issues by the ton and led to an increased interest in superheroes across Hollywood. Now, the heavy hitters may get all the glory, but smaller books like Daredevil and Alias got the momentum going.
Cut to 2013 and Marvel is a subsidiary of Disney and one of the most powerful media companies in the world. Yesterday it was announced that both Daredevil and Jessica Jones, along with Luke Cage and Iron Fist, would hit the small screen in a partnership with Netflix. As the Marvel movies become increasingly safer and more formulaic, perhaps these characters (and a partnership with a company willing to take risks) can again give Marvel the creative jolt it needs. Or maybe all these shows will ironically usher in another decline of the superhero trend due to oversaturation.
The possibilities are endless, but then again so are the possible consequences of their failure. Either way, I’m willing to give Jessica Jones and Daredevil a shot on TV; they're the reason why Marvel is still in business, after all.
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