Today's news that Tom Hardy will play Venom as part of the lamely branded "Sony's Marvel Universe" reminded me, in a very roundabout way, of the moment I checked out of Stan Lee's superhero stable for good: Summer 1990, the day the first issue of Todd McFarlane's new Spider-Man arrived at my Philadelphia-area comic book store.
By that point, I was eight years into a mostly satisfying, Marvel-mad spree that included such titles as The Amazing Spider-Man, Wolverine, The Punisher, Daredevil, The Uncanny X-Men, X-Factor, Fantastic Four, and She-Hulk. I blew my allowance on graphic novels even the most hard-core Marvel Bullpen booster would be hard-pressed to remember today (Wolfpack, come out and play-yay!) and ordered years-long subscriptions to less-cool entries like Power *Pack—*an ostensibly for-the-kiddos comic that took place in the crack-ridden, murderous streets of 1980s New York City. I had a few go-to DC obsessions, of course, including Miller and Moore's Batmans, Byrne's Superman, and, uh, Wild Dog. But for better part of the decade, I made mine Marvel.
By the time McFarlane's Spider-Man arrived, though, the publishing giant's strategy had become exasperating, cynical, and more craven than Kraven himself. The late '80s had seen the comics industry make a high-profile push into the mainstream, thanks to "adult" tales like Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Return; movies like Tim Burton's Batman; superstar creators such as McFarlane; and the rise of the collector's market. Magazines like Amazing Heroes or Comics Buyers Guide swelled with features and classified ads, and the once-deserted comic book stores I visited suddenly had…lines.
Marvel's response was unchecked, unwise expansion. A years-long series of stunts and special events began with 1984's Secret Wars, a convoluted-but-still-goofily-fun miniseries that stranded about 5,373 Marvel characters on a distant planet, surrounded on all sides by dangers (as well as ads for Secret Wars toys). The first Wars was a fine-enough cash-in, but it was followed by the joyless, jheri-curled Secret Wars II—the second-worst sequel of the '80s, after George H.W. Bush—as well as New Universe, a multi-title attempt at a separate, Spidey-free comics universe that included Kickers, Inc., about super-powered football players (because that's exactly what we outcasty weiners wanted to see in our comic books: more deification of jocks!)
Equally troubling was the publisher's penchant for trying to goose sales of its lesser-known books by inserting over-hyped cameos from its A-list heroes (you could always tell when your favorite Marvel title was in trouble when you saw the following words on the cover: Featuring special guest star…WOLVERINE!) Soon enough, the constant cross-pollination became a drag, one that tested the patience of the readers and the restraints of the writers. By the time ROM officiated the wedding between Kitty Pryde and Peter Porker—something I could swear actually happened in 1989? Maybe?—even an oblivious eighth-grader such as myself could sense Marvel's desperation.
Yet it wasn't until the new Spider-Man title arrived in 1990 that I found myself—to put it in the parlance of my time—going "hmmmm…" Why did we need yet another Spider-Man comic, when there were at least three already on the stands? How, exactly, could Marvel justify the jacked-up $2 price for a "special edition" whose big selling point was that in came in a plastic bag? And why was it being marketed with the same level of aggression and gotta-get-it-now anxiousness of a summer movie? The allure of comics, especially Marvel Comics, was quickly digestible, pass-the-issue-to-your-pals fun. But both the company and the world it had created had become too crowded, too complicated, and too far-removed from its original mission of easy-to-catch-up-on escapism. Still, the Spider-Man ploy worked, at least for some people: By the time I got to my comic shop, the debut issue was already sold out, no doubt gobbled up by investor-collectors who ran home to put it under glass. I walked out, and didn't go back into a comic shop for years.
Which is why I got a bit unnerved by the Venom news. Only a fool would object to allowing Tom Hardy—a man who can make byzantine English concrete laws the stuff of high drama—to do whatever he bloody well wants. But in theaters, we now have a Marvel-empire that's nearly as complex as the one that existed on newsstands in the '80s. Beyond Disney's enormous Marvel Cinematic Universe (Iron Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers, etc.), there's also Fox's X-verse (the X-Men films, Wolverine spinoffs like Logan, and Deadpool), and now, apparently, the "Sony Marvel Universe" (the Spider-Man films past and MCU-partnered present, Venom, a potential Silver Sable/Black Cat movie). These worlds can sometimes merge—Sony and Marvel Studios brokered a deal that allowed Spider-Man into the MCU (and Tony Stark in this summer's Spider-Man: Homecoming) for next year's prattle-royale, Avengers: Infinity War—but for now, they're largely cordoned off from one another. Yet that hasn't stopped some of these series from becoming subject to the kinds of narrative muddles that helped drag down Marvel by the end of the '80s: Overly elaborate multi-episode story arcs; show-stealing, momentum-stalling cameos; constant reboots and reinventions.
I've loved a lot of these 21st-century Marvel movies (Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Solider, and Logan would all earn on a spot on my year-end best-of lists), but with each new character-stuffed, Infinity-stoned, this-is-the-mega-event-you-gotta-see release, I find myself wondering if these films are ever going to slow down or streamline at some point. (That may be one of Logan's biggest rewards: it pretty much always focuses on Logan, even when he's not in the frame.) Three active Marvel movie-worlds can make for an awful lot of sprawl—something that's tripped the company up in the past. I have no pre-emptive venom for Venom, but I hope Hardy's character is given the chance to stand out, and stand alone. At the very least, we need a movie or two before he faces off against the Spectacular Spider-Ham.