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From heroes to zeroes: An autopsy of Marvel's failed 'Champions' relaunch

Comic Books

From heroes to zeroes: An autopsy of Marvel’s failed ‘Champions’ relaunch

Are poor sales and piracy to blame? Or was this series doomed from the start?

Just over a year ago, Marvel announced that Champions, their team title featuring their youngest generation of characters, would be relaunching under the pen of Jim Zub. Having previously helmed Thunderbolts and Uncanny Avengers, Zub had taken over the Champions title from Mark Waid earlier that year, breathing new life into an otherwise struggling book. This relaunch was advertised as a massive growth of the Champions, increasing the roster size by several magnitudes to more resemble the Legion of Superheroes rather than the Teen Titans. This roster was incredibly diverse, featuring dozens of underutilized younger characters, including Power Man and Dust, and promised to expand the Champions into a global phenomenon.

On paper, and from how Zub advertised the series, this relaunch should seemingly have been able to last for several arcs. Yet by the end of the first arc of the series, Zub was talking about the book’s low sales and pointing at piracy as a major reason for the decline. Then, just a few months later, the series was cancelled outright. The series’ poor performance clearly has more factors affecting it than just piracy, as that’s a persistent thorn for nearly all comics released digitally. The relaunch’s lukewarm reception and poor sales is far more likely due to problems within the book, from its inaccessibility to new and old readers alike to the lack of a cohesive direction the book had.

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The entire premise of the relaunch centered on Champions: Disassembled, similar to Brian Michael Bendis’s debut on the Avengers franchise. But where this story arc failed in comparison to Avengers: Disassembled is that the Avengers had had 500 issues of content, and had existed for decades before Bendis tore it all apart. The Avengers’ dynamic was established and understood by readers, so breaking them apart was impactful, even to newer readers hopping on for the first time. The Champions started less than 3 years before the relaunch, and the new dynamic of the expanded team had existed for literally less than one issue before the status quo was upended. This disassembly felt nearly meaningless to new readers unfamiliar with any of the character dynamics, and also felt far less impactful for longtime fans who hadn’t had nearly enough time to get used to the new roster and dynamic before it fell apart.

From heroes to zeroes: An autopsy of Marvel's failed 'Champions' relaunch

The very first issue of this run started with a massive shakeup in the status quo for the Champions, turning them from the club of friends from the previous volume into a giant global network, responding to crises and tackling threats around the world. Yet this expansion is never depicted or detailed beyond a few lines mentioning that they used teenage superhero forums to recruit. For fans of the original Champions run starting this new relaunch, such a sharp upheaval would be an interesting new direction, but its execution leaves it feeling unearned. And without properly establishing this status quo as something comfortable and familiar, Zub immediately turns the entire premise on its head halfway through the first issue — when the Champions’ first mission goes horribly wrong.

This subversion of the premise reveals itself as Miles having made a deal with Mephisto — a clear reference to the infamous Spider-Man storyline One More Day. But rather than keep readers engaged and curious about what the reasoning behind Miles’ dealing with Mephisto, this move instead soured a large portion of the reader base due to One More Day‘s connotations among the fanbase. As a story for more longtime fans, this was an immediate turn off — no one wants to see this idealistic hero make a deal with the literal Devil. And for new readers, this story hook does a terrible job selling them on the Champions as a team — their very first mission goes so wrong, Spider-Man has to make a deal with the Devil? As the arc progresses, it reveals the obvious twist — in making this deal, Miles sacrificed an innocent life, sending him into a spiral of despair that leads him to quit the Champions.

This deal that Miles makes, and all of his emotions surrounding it, also come across as the definition of fridging. Kamala and Viv — the two women on the mission — are both killed, leading Miles to feel so terrible about letting these women die in the line of fire that he chooses to make a deal with Mephisto. When Miles chooses to make the deal, an innocent gets killed in their stead, a random girl who Miles had saved the first time. This girl — Faridah — is essentially a prop designed for Miles to feel sad, not even named until the issue after her death. Miles spends the majority of his time in the book being angry or sad about having made this decision, and it gets to the point where he visits Faridah’s grave and her mother forgives Miles. In a medium where women are constantly killed in service of narratives about men, this one feels tired and trite — Faridah is only ever brought up to depict Miles’ sadness and guilt and to propel his own story forward.

Miles is not the only founding Champion to quit the team during the story. As the first arc progresses, Amadeus quits over his guilt in letting Miles make his deal (and also because of War of the Realms). Nova leaves the team because of his struggle with not having powers, something that doesn’t get resolved for longer than was comfortable for fans. And at the end of the first trade, after a harrowing 6 issues (which included 2 tie-ins to War of the Realms), Ms. Marvel quits the team, leaving just Viv Vision as the sole founding Champion.

From heroes to zeroes: An autopsy of Marvel's failed 'Champions' relaunch

Yet despite the old guard leaving, the series never focuses on the newer cast in a meaningful way. The issue immediately after Kamala leaves would have been a perfect opportunity to allow the newer team members — Pinpoint, Red Locust, Bombshell, or Power Man — to step up and take a more active role on the team. But instead, it focuses on Nova off in space trying to get his helmet back, before sending him back to Earth and bringing the entire core cast back together. While the book was advertised as a massive upgrade in characters for the team, everyone on the team, beyond the core 6, received almost no development throughout the span of the run. Beyond their existence, there is nothing within the book to sell readers on the new members of the team.

This lack of focus or development on the newer additions to the cast becomes incredibly prominent during the second and final arc of the series. The arc is basically about Blackheart manipulating the remaining Champions against each other, using their own resentment and negative feelings to goad them into fighting. Yet aside from Ironheart’s anger at Viv Vision for something that happened in the prior run of Champions, none of the non-founding members are given a reason to be angry based on something in the text. They all just fight because the plot demands it, not because of any development they’ve received.

Even Riri’s anger comes across as forced, and beyond an awkward relationship with Viv she had very little by way of character development through these 10 issues as the story was too busy focusing on the primary founding cast. For readers who picked up the book because of characters like Dust or Power Man have made the team, this was a massive disappointment, and the lack of development for characters beyond the founding members was noticeable even to readers who read the book for the original Champions.

Ultimately, Champions‘ poor reception and eventual cancellation has to do with its failure to deliver on the promises advertised by the relaunch. The promise of an expanded, incredibly diverse cast was met on paper, but in actuality, the book had the same cast with different window dressing. The promise of a triumphant growth of the Champions as a team and as a brand was wholly ignored, as even within the first issue any sense of triumph or positivity was washed away with the appearance of Mephisto.

The promise that relaunches offer as a fresh jumping on point was missed entirely as the very first arc involved breaking a dynamic that both old and new readers would be entirely unfamiliar with. While the book is by no means bad, as a relaunch for a struggling franchise, it missed nearly everything necessary to keep fans reading.

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