It’s no great exaggeration to say that the late ’90s/early 2000s Marvel Knights imprint masterminded by Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti may have saved Marvel Comics in general. Sure, there were less visible backroom dealings that helped keep the creditors away (the most infamous of them entrenching the movie rights to certain characters at unfriendly film studios), but the books themselves were floundering, too. Excess had taken over, and once you’ve had too much, you can never get enough.
That’s why Marvel Knights dialed things back a notch, telling character-driven stories that were still being daring and forward-thinking. New takes on Daredevil, the Fantastic Four and yes, The Punisher, hearkened back to older, smaller storytelling with modern flair, clearing the path for the more cinematic style of comic books that grew in the new millennium.
So it’s kind of hard to believe that it took the exuberant prodding of new superstar writer Donny Cates to create a project to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the beginning of Marvel Knights. Marvel Knights 20th is a six-issue mini-series “curated” by Cates and highlighting new creators and their takes on the characters that defined the era.
At least, that’s how it was billed at first. In reality, it’s one story that continually hits the same beats in each issue, until a tepid conclusion that doesn’t really convince the reader of its questionable moral.
Marvel Knights 20th begins interestingly enough, with Matt Murdock — what else? — crying in a graveyard and wondering why he likes the pain. This is a nice commentary on what we love about Daredevil, and how it endures. Then police officer Frank Castle shows up to let us know that the world has changed somehow, and no one remembers who they really are.
It’s a solid premise that Cates tees up, helping to plot each issue and writing the first and the last himself. The second and third issues are scripted by Matthew Rosenberg and newly-exclusive Tini Howard, respectively, and while the mystery is elaborated on a little bit, it’s a lot of “Oh no, what’s going on?” for the entire first half of the book. And what’s with the character choices? Was Hulk a big part of the original Marvel Knights line?
Vita Ayala has an entire issue to examine T’Challa, but the flashbacks are hard to follow. Then T’Challa confronts the rest of the Knights for their role in this whole thing, the unconvincing climax hits, and we’re left with a set-up that almost assuredly will never be picked up on again.
The writing between issues is pretty remarkably consistent, though, aside form a little overly-forced humor from Howard. The art is similarly solid, despite drawing from disparate creators Travel Foreman, Niko Henrichon, Damian Couceiro, Joshua Cassara, Kim Jacinto and Richard Friend. It’s all appropriately gritty, while still being artful, thanks in part to the muted colors of Matt Milla and Laurent Grossat.
Instead of celebrating what makes these characters special, Marvel Knights 20th puts them in a fog for almost the entire story. You could argue that this is the kind of self-contained tale that made the line impactful to begin with, but with something that’s deliberately referential, you’d expect something a little more, well, expected. The story itself is not terrible (though maybe two issues too long), but it simply does not evoke the feelings it intends to.