Flame On

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"The brutal truth is that it's not as if I saw a ton of evidence that Marvel would be able to achieve what it has under Joe and Bill," Alonso says. "It came down to the fact that I really felt that there were resources the company had that weren't being used, like these wonderful characters."

For the first time in a decade, Marvel's books feel fresh and relevant--smart and sardonic enough for adults who swore off the novelties of youth, capricious and cool enough for kids who think them literature for dorks. Quesada and Jemas have done the impossible, rendering hip a torpid medium that all but destroyed itself pandering to the hard-core hero-worshippers without considering there might be new readers out there disinterested in things like continuity and costumes. That's one reason Marvel's bosses rounded up underground comics creators to reinvent their musty mainstream heroes, chief among them Brian Michael Bendis, known in indie circles for his wry crime stories. Bendis writes a handful of titles, including Ultimate Spider-Man, a smart and profitable retelling of Peter Parker's early days as the web-slinging, wall-climbing hero.

But no less important are writers such as Azzarello, Ennis, Milligan, Grant Morrison and John Ney Rieber, men responsible for giving Marvel makeovers to the likes of the Hulk, Captain America, the Avengers (now The Ultimates in a book that shipped last week to gigantic numbers), Nick Fury, Luke Cage and Wolverine, whose never-before-revealed Origin is currently a best-selling title. In a few months, no less an underground icon than Peter Bagge (Hate) will write and illustrate his own Spider-Man story--which is the comic-book equivalent of letting a mental patient baby-sit your kid.

"I always said, 'Why don't DC and Marvel try harder?'" says Bendis, who's also writing Daredevil, Ultimate Team-Up and Alias, a female private-dick tale for the new adult-aimed MAX line. "No one was paying attention. All my friends in independent comics--all of whom are working at Marvel today--we all ripped up pages and went nuts because no one's paying attention. I wondered why the mainstream comics didn't go bananas, and now they are, and we're going, 'That's right!' When Howard Stern was talking about Daredevil this morning for an hour, you know you're onto something."

In recent years, DC Comics--or "AOL Comics," as Jemas refers to the competition--has lived for the Big Event: the return of Frank Miller on The Dark Knight Strikes Again, say, or the hiring of ex-Marvel honcho Stan Lee to "imagine" DC's icons in his own (stale) image. But DC need not make a splash in the kiddie pool to stay afloat; it has a multinational corporation footing the bill, and its iconic characters sell well no matter who's writing and drawing the stories. Not that DC hasn't tried to counter Marvel's push back into the marketplace: Last month, it released a 10-cent Batman comic, which has sold nearly 700,000 copies. The book was the ultimate marketing tool, an incomplete story concluded in almost a dozen other lesser DC titles, all of which sell for more than two bucks. In the spring, Marvel will counter with a self-contained nine-cent Fantastic Four story.

And where DC remains unable to get another Superman or Batman movie off the ground, Marvel is, quite literally, swinging from the Hollywood sign. On May 3, Sony Pictures will release Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, which will be followed in coming months by a second Blade film; a Hulk adaptation from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's Ang Lee; Daredevil, starring Ben Affleck as the blind superhero; and a second X-Men, due next summer. In the fall, MTV will premiere an animated Spider-Man series, which continues the movie's storyline. After failing to capitalize on the success of the 2000 X-Men film, which grossed $158 million at the box office alone but didn't lead to an expected boost in comic-book sales, Marvel execs insist they're now prepared to offer curious moviegoers "a boatload" of accessible Spider-Man product.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky