At the turn of the century, Marvel was in a far different place than it is now. On the verge of bankruptcy, with a disorganized editorial structure and no creative vision for the company as a whole. When Joe Quesada and Bill Jemas took over, they quickly brought new initiatives into place like the Marvel Knights line, the Ultimates line, and heavy recruitment of risky newcomers. And now look at them, it worked out pretty well. One of the other things launched and flourished during the early years of the 21st century was the ‘adults only’ MAX line. But now it’s a shadow of its former self, with its lone ongoing title Punisher MAX reaching its end earlier this year and a uncertain future ahead. But things could change.
Back when Marvel’s MAX line begain, the publisher explained in a press release from back in 2001 that books with the MAX label would be “what you’d experience in an R rated movie,” noting potential “harsh language, intense violence, perhaps even some partial nudity.” Sold strictly to comic shops in its serial format and not to general public newstands, it wouldn’t carry a Marvel logo at all. It launched in 2001 with standouts like Alias and Fury, and followed up with what would become the line’s landmark title: Garth Ennis’ Punisher. In the intervening eleven years, it’s done on average five titles per year; mostly limited series, with a few one-shots and stray short-term ongoings like Punisher and Alias. This month the MAX line has no titles, neither ongoing or limited. The lone spark for the imprint is Garth Ennis’ return with a new FuryMAX series which is planned for later this year, but face it tiger: there could be more. And here’s some unsolicited advice for the gang at the House of Ideas for how they could turn the ship around.
#1 A Strong (& Different) Editorial Voice: Charting out the successful moments of the Marvel MAX line, I’ve found it tends to happen when there’s a editor with only minimal times to the mainstream 616 Marvel continuity. They’re generally wanting to show off their skills, and the unique parameters of the MAX line allows them to do that. Quesada did it early on before he was pulled away to other corners of the Marvel U, and likewise Axel Alonso’s been pulled away from focusing on the MAX line for dealing with the juicy center of the Marvel comics line. Some might argue to bring in an outside voice like Vertigo Senior Editor Will Dennis, but for my money I’d opt for Marvel’s Jeanine Schaefer. She seems to be finely attuned to top-notch creators and really seems to be able grasp all sorts of situations.
#2 Think Disney frowns on ‘adult’ stories? Think again: Although Disney might be best known for its kid-friendly fare, the company has no qualms with more adult-oriented stories if done right. It’s subsidary Touchstone Pictures has released rated R pictures like Fright Night, Apocalypto and The Royal Tenenbaums. The MAX line may not be able to veer too “adult,” but there’s a lot of room there to go without going too far.
#3 Make MAX Titles A Premium In Cover, Content & Cost: It’s important to make these books feel special, both in story but also in format. A different design aesthetic is needed for the outside, and on the inside I’d consider borrowing a page (or three) from how some if the Icon books like Criminal and Powers treat the single issues with supplementary material. Make the argument why these books should be priced at $3.99, with interesting creators doing interesting things with supplementary material.
#4 Reuniting the Preacher duo for Punisher was great; Consider more: The initial PunisherMAX series had many reasons for being as popular as it did, and I’d argue one of those was because not only the creators, Garth Ennis & Steve Dillon, being inspired choices to do the book but also that they had a history together. Imagine if Marvel put some thought into it and attempted to reconvene some great team-ups from adult-oriented books of the past in a new MAX title. What would Transmetropolitan‘s Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson do when given free reign on a Marvel character in the MAX line? What about Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith of 30 Days Of Night fame coming back together for one last run? Andy Diggle and Jock, given the keys to say, Ghost Rider? One last one… Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan do Wolverine. It’s about unique creators doing unique books, but seeing two familiar creators reunite can make it one better.
#5 The MAX Line As An Incubator For Would-Be Marvel Talent: My previous point talked about bringing in veterans, but the MAX line would also be the ideal spot for Marvel to recruit promising creators for their first major Marvel work. There’s a enormous number of talented writers that Marvel could try out in these outside continuity books, with the added benefit of that the sizzle of “adults only” could bring. Imagine them bringing in Phil Hester, Ivan Brandon or Nathan Edmondson, or even some outside comics transplants like World War Z‘s Max Brooks. Also, it could be a line to let some of your best storytelling artists get a chance to write in a controlled, small setting.
What do you think Marvel could do to revitalize the MAX line without getting dirty looks from the Mouse upstairs?