On Tuesday, comicdom learned that Marvel’s All-New Guardians of the Galaxy comic is slated to be cancelled at issue #150, or #16, however the heck we’re counting the numbering now. Guardians has, of course, been running at Marvel for several years, freshly relaunched as part of the late 2000s “Annihilation” crossover and then again under Brian Michael Bendis to tie in with 2014’s breakout movie. Guardians led to several spinoff books and miniseries, and was relaunched again in May with a new #1, along with a Free Comic Book Day push issue, to tie in again with this summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 film.
And: poof. Gone. The sales declined over the book’s run, and now it’s axed. Presumably, it will be relaunched again, because Guardians is too good of a film franchise to ignore (they’re appearing again in Infinity War). But for the immediate future, it couldn’t hack it.
To quote from William Hurt in A History of Violence: “How do you **** that up? How do you **** that up?!?”
(Well, it may not be entirely bleeped up. Writer Gerry Duggan says on Twitter that the book is ending to make way for something bigger which will be announced soon enough. Still, as I said, the reported sales on the book weren’t positive and declined over the existing life of the title. All-New Guardians of the Galaxy opened strong with 85,000 units in May; by October, the book hovered around the 20,000 unit mark and suffered a serious drop in the rankings.)
Confession: I bought every issue of Duggan’s run. Second confession: I’ve barely been reading it. This isn’t intended as a knock against Mr. Duggan or his co-creators on the book: I just literally haven’t been reading the title, or not paying attention to it, and I’ve only continued to pick it up because it’s on my pull list, and because I like the Guardians and told myself I’d get around to it. But here it is, December, and I really haven’t given the issues a hard read (I just flipped through all of them), much less started on the “Legacy” relaunch which is going to get cancelled anyway.
Sales should have soared on this book. The “main” chunks of All-New Guardians appeared to be fine, with Gerry Duggan having a handle on the characters, weaving in both modern and older elements (including some 1990s Infinity Gauntlet references which made me smile). Aaron Kuder’s art was clean, crisp, and appropriate to the tone of the book. It even opened with a mystery over why Groot was stuck in sapling form, which alone should have kept our interest. So, what’s the problem?
I’m going to suggest that, at least for me, the problem is that Marvel decided to go with a bi-weekly schedule on this book and run alternating fill-in issues to sustain the schedule without impacting Kuder’s ability to keep drawing it. As published, even-numbered issues concerned the main plot about a quest to find the Infinity Gems, while odd-numbered ones had side stories with a fill-in artist which supplemented the main story. I’m pretty sure this is what backfired.
I get the concept behind this: it’s near-impossible for any comic artist these days to sustain a monthly drawing schedule, much less double-monthly. The level of detail applied to comics these days means that we don’t have Jack Kirby or John Byrne-like situations where an artist could put out two or three full-page comics a month on an ongoning basis. They need breaks, so publishers have to either spread out their work or get it all completed in advance to have publication ready to go. This is kind of what screwed up 2015’s Secret Wars, where Esaud Ribic just wasn’t able to get the full series completed on time for a monthly release. Poor planning on Marvel’s part, and while we got a quality product in the end, it really messed with readers who had to witness the aftermath of the book before the real thing was even published.
In the case of All-New Guardians, every other issue was a distraction from the main story, as well as a complete change in art (and it wasn’t even the same fill-in artist on each issue). In trade, these can be separated out: All-New Guardians vol. 1 is only going to have the main story, and Vol. 2 will have the fill-ins. That’s fine in the long-term, but in the short term, it didn’t sustain my interest to have every other chapter be a completely different story from what I’d read two weeks earlier. In a serialized format, this just didn’t work. So every time I brought home a new issue of All-New Guardians, it tended to go into my “to read” pile because too often, it was a fill-in issue. Somehow over six months, I’d managed to rack up over ten issues which I hadn’t read.
As a reader, I acknowledge that publishers have to make a cost-benefit analysis as to how to sustain a monthly title which doesn’t alienate the readers. This is hard, and I’ve seen Marvel struggle with this in the past where multiple artists end up completing a single five-issue arc, or even contribute a single issue. This looks bad, both in the single issue and in the final trade. Comic storytelling is very dependent on art, and a change in art can have a dramatic impact on the tone.
I’ll suggest two models which have worked for me in the past. One: a publisher should try to pair a duo of artists whose style at least somewhat resembles each other. In 2012, Marvel ran a 12-part series called Fear Itself: The Fearless which alternated chunks of story between Mark Bagley and Paul Petellier. Although Bagley and Petellier have distinct styles, their work complimented each other enough that the tonal shift between them was hardly noticeable. The book sustained its twice-monthly schedule and, at least to me, was a pretty good read.
The other is for the publisher to maintain a main artist at all times for complete arcs, but bring in reserve artists to provide one- or two-issue fill-in stories to give the first person a break. Dark Horse did this on several of its Star Wars titles, such as Legacy. Jan Duursema typically did a four- to six-issue arc which was punctuated by a brief hiatus and fill-in. All-New Guardians tried to do something like this, except it put all the fill-ins between the main story instead of at the end of it. Which, again, lost my interest.
I don’t doubt other All-New Guardians readers are going to chime in with their own ideas and criticisms of why the book tanked. Some of you may even shoot down the tanking at all, pointing to the book’s inevitable relaunch. That’s cool. But to me, the critical failure of this book was always in the pacing and structure, and I hope some lessons are taken from this so that it can come back in a more sustainable form someday.