The word "franchise" is thrown around a lot in comic books, but if there's one property over the last 20 years that has evolved in a way that has earned the "franchise" label, it's The Avengers.
In December 2004, Marvel launched a complete overhaul of the existing Avengers comic book series, giving the title to the writer who had launched the publisher's Ultimate universe four years earlier, Brian Michael Bendis.
"That was a major turning point in not just Avengers history, but Marvel Comics history," said long-time Marvel writer Dan Slott, who wrote both Mighty Avengers and Avengers: The Initiative. "The team that took the name Avengers [in 2004], with Wolverine and Spider-Man and the biggest guns and Brian's favorite characters – that became the flagship book not just for Marvel, but that became the flagship book for comics. And it stayed there for so long. That speaks to the genius behind that move."
As controversial as the Avengers relaunch was at the time, Slott isn't the only one who recognizes its success. At one point there were four different Avengers comic book series hitting shelves each month, with one or two usually among the top-sellers like clockwork. Marvel is currently on the precipice of expanding the Avengers franchise once again, with the new multiversal Avengers Forever launching on December 22.
And since the 2004 revamp of the franchise, the Avengers titles have played a central role almost every one of the publisher's major events - from Civil War to the recent 'Heroes Reborn, and undoubtedly whatever Marvel has planned for 2022.
Although it may be considered a no-brainer these does, it wasn't until the 2004 relaunch that an Avengers title routinely made the top-10 sales charts. But with 'Avengers Dissassembled' and into New Avengers, it became a staple.
"Once that happened, and once the word 'franchise' started getting bandied around in meetings, I knew it was only a matter of time before there were other teams and spin-offs," said Bendis in 2009. "We just had to make sure we didn't move too fast and that we continued to treat the Avengers franchise like the A-list team I always imagined it should be."
What makes the Avengers unique?
"You know, I think about it an awful lot, about what makes the Avengers unique among all the other superhero teams," Bendis said. "Fantastic Four is a family, and the X-Men are all related by a similar cause. But the Avengers are there because they all believe in the same thing."
That belief, Bendis said, is that there needs to be a group that stands together to fight the foes the members can't fight individually.
"Captain America believes in the idea in the Avengers. Tony Stark believes in it so much that he's willing to pay for it. Thor believes in it so much that he's willing to hang out with these guys," he said.
"When I sit down and write them, I just remember the initial pitch: Heroes banded together to fight foes they couldn't fight on their own. And you don't get any more complicated than that," Bendis said. "And I think the writers who have stuck to that have created some really unique Marvel stories."
Bendis, who is currently writing DC's Justice League ongoing series, said that it's an honor to be asked to be a part of the Justice League or Avengers rosters - as a team member, but also as a writer or artist.
"It's much like when ballplayers get asked to be in the Yankees," he said. "Or I know a lot of my friends, when they're asked to write for DC or Marvel Comics, they feel like an honor's been bestowed upon them and they have to deliver. I see people like Clint Barton respond to the Avengers like that."
Avengers ≠ Justice League
However, there are a few differences between the Justice League and the Avengers, including what former Avengers writer Kurt Busiek calls the distinction between the word "league" and the word "team."
"Classically, at least, the Justice League of America was a league and the Avengers was a team," Busiek said, "by which I mean that the Justice League of America was an alliance of solo heroes who came together as needed, but whose first priority was their solo responsibilities, the various cities they protected in the ordinary course of their careers. And the Avengers was a team, one that focused primarily on working together (and often living together) with a few members who had solo responsibilities, but not the bulk of the team."
Marvel Comics' executive editor/senior VP of publishing Tom Brevoort agreed, adding that the Justice League's focus is getting the job done while the Avengers comics tend to focus on the group's relationship as a team.
"Typically, there's a crisis in the world, the Justice League comes together in the (pick one) satellite, moon base, cave in Rhode Island, then they deal with the mission, pat each other on the back and go home, whereas the Avengers tend to all stay more or less together," said Brevoort, who has overseen the Avengers titles for over 20 years.
"There are guys that come and go – Cap's not there all the time, and Iron Man usually isn't there all the time – but they tend to congregate in one place, whether that's a mansion or a tower or an apartment in Brooklyn. It seems to be a lot more about the personal interplay and the relationships between those characters than it is simply the big mission of the day.
"The Avengers somehow, in some intangible way, is closer to a sports team in that sort of way. They live together, they work together, they fight together," Brevoort said. "This is just my opinion, but the Justice League is sort of more like a lodge where once a week they get together and have a meeting and eat some ribs and punch the Injustice Gang out. On its most basic level, it's the same kind of concept. It's all your big characters together in one comic or on one team."
Slott, who currently writes Marvel's Fantastic Four team, said what really makes the Avengers unique is what makes the Marvel Universe itself unique.
"Marvel books have a certain feel to them. It's the magic of Stan and Jack," he said, referring to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. "If you look at Justice League, you get this feeling like, if suddenly someone turned out the lights, if the characters didn't say something like 'Great Krypton' or 'Great Hera' you wouldn't know who was speaking, because they're all these perfect icons. Each person is a very quintessential hero. In the Marvel universe, they aren't untouchable icons. These guys have more flavor and feel more familiar and down-to-earth.
"Also, Rick Jones could kick Snapper Carr's ass," he laughed.
Brevoort, who has been working for Marvel since 1989, says that in many ways it comes down to how an all-star superhero team is approached as a writer and artist. Although best known for his work at Marvel, Brevoort is a long-time DC fan as well.
"I think the difference is in approach more than anything," Brevoort added. "The Marvel style is that it's the guys in the costumes rather than the costumes and the powers that's important; the classic DC style was always that it's the costumes and the powers that are important."
Bendis, who is best known for his Avengers run at Marvel but is currently writing DC's Justice League, says the two teams do have similarities, which is why he's drawn to them.
"It just seems to be a never-ending amount of different types of stories you can tell from that simple idea of banding these heroes together," said Bendis.
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