History of Heroes Reborn #1: Unfinished Business
Back in 1996, Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld returned to Marvel comics to revamp the slugging Avengers and Fantastic Four families of comics. This event was known as Heroes Reborn. For one year, the duo were set to create a fresh and new version of Captain America, Iron Man, Fantastic Four, and the Avengers. Heroes Reborn is often derided as 90’s excess taken to the extreme. Looking back it is often viewed as a blunder and critical failure. The truth is more than that. Few perceived blunders are as critical to the comics industry as Heroes Reborn.
Why Heroes Reborn?
I have been wanting to look at Heroes Reborn’s development for some time, but many articles on the matter are just hearsay and speculation. I want to settle this with actual evidence or at least as much evidence that survives nearly 30 years later. So, let’s take a look at this relic of a time gone by.
Let’s explore its history of development and impact. Let’s look at the story of Heroes Reborn. Let’s look at what happened behind the scenes that lead to this unorthodox yet highly influential event. In this series of columns I want to provide context for actions and events that transpired. To do this I scoured the internet for dozens of Wizards Magazines and Marvel Vision comics from 1994-1997 along with searching for interviews and podcasts from the creators involved.
The story behind Heroes Reborn is one full of Capitalistic follies, bold direction, and bitter ends. Today we will take a look at the journey leading up to the release of Heroes Reborn. To understand Heroes Reborn, you need to know what Marvel was like at the time.
State of Marvel in the 90’s
The good times rolled for Marvel in the late-80’s and early-90’s. Powered by the rise of the direct market and the growing speculator bubble; Marvel reached mammoth sales figures. They own claim to THREE of the highest selling comics of all time during this era with X-men Vol.2 #1, Spider-man #1, and X-force #1. All three comics with millions in comic sales. The 90’s also featured Marvel licensing out their properties to cartoons, toys, trading cards, and more.
The era was so good to Marvel that they were listed on the New York Stock Exchange (This will come to bite them later). In the 90’s Comics Industry was at its peak with new series launching left and right, and Marvel was the top dog.
This massive flow of income to Marvel led to a growing disillusionment between talent and the company, though. The creators noticed that while the company was raking in millions off their work and creations, they would only receive a fraction of the money. This disparate gap reached its zenith with the departure of notable artists to form Image Comics.
The group of artists were some of the highest selling of the time with Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri, Jim Valentino, and Erik Larsen. All seven of them told Marvel and DC they were going to launch their own comics company. They were done working for the corporate comic scene. The news was earth shaking to Marvel and the industry as a whole.
Marvel didn’t stop with its antics, though. It was a successful company, and they were going to keep it going as long as they could. The investors and Board demanded it. It got to the point where Marvel decided to buy companies instead of just licensing out. In 1992 Marvel bought two trading card companies Fleer and Skybox to produce comic related cards in addition to taking advantage of the simultaneous sports card boom.
In 1994, Marvel purchased comic distributor Heroes World to control its own distribution and nearly kill the diversity of the comic distribution market. In 1994, Marvel entered into a partnership with action figure company Toy Biz, that gave Marvel 46% equity in Toy Biz. This deal would create weird situation in the near future once things went south for Marvel. The glut of debt will be an albatross around the neck of Marvel by the mid-90’s.
Before Heroes Reborn: Fallen Avengers
Despite the mammoth sales and popularity of superheroes, those sales were mainly contained to X-men related titles (X-books) and Spider-man family of titles. The “Main-line” of Marvel— Avengers, Fantastic Four, Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man—were slumping. Reasons for the slump in sales isn’t clear cut, but ultimately fans just weren’t interested in the comics.
For context here is where most of the characters were around the time Heroes Reborn launched:
Captain America was losing steam after a long run by Gruenwald—not unusual in comics. DeFalco’s Fantastic Four left fans angry with questionable stories and just poor direction. Avengers was just a mess of leather jackets and a bunch of rejects that couldn’t hold down their own titles. Which to be fair, is the normal status quo for the Avengers (Leather jackets, withstanding).
Iron Man, well, Iron Man took the Avengers through the Crossing. The controversial story-line where Tony Stark was corrupted and a secret agent for Immortus/Kang. Stark was so evil that the Avengers went and got a Teenage Tony Stark to defeat the evil one. It was very dumb.
Marvel Mainline books were in a collective malaise with each title selling only around 20,000-30,00 issues a month at a time when top ten comics were regularly selling 100,000 to 200,000 a month (Liefeld, 2020).
So, Marvel set out to end the slump. Of course, they did this without a real plan. As that was the style at the time. With corporate ownership and editorial going on completely different directions, Marvel was chaotic mess. In 1994, Marvel was running with 5 Editors-in-Chief. Essentially creating 5 micro-companies in the same publisher. Each EIC was competing with the other for talent, budgets, and more. It created a toxic environment. This chaos is what leads to these two diverging paths.
Path One- Corporate
Marvel had a line of books that weren’t selling, and their debts were mounting. Corporate wasn’t patient for editorial to work it all in time. Corporate wanted results immediately. So, Marvel President at the time, a man by the name of Jerry Calabrese, cooked up a plan. Why not ask the hottest talent to work for Marvel to come back and do for these struggling books what they managed to do for the X-books? This of course meant contacting Image Comics and asking the disgruntled artist to come back (Wizards #55, Marvel Vision #4, Rob Liefeld, 2020)
From all accounts discussions to bring back the Image Founders back to Marvel occurred in the early months of ’95 (Liefeld states late ’94). What Marvel discovered was that most of the Image Founders said no. Except for Rob Liefeld, who was extremely interested and wanted to work on Captain America and Jim Lee. Lee was skeptical but with some convincing he was brought in to help foster in this new era.
Negotiations on the terms of the deal would take nearly a year to complete, as Liefeld and Lee wanted to make the project worth their time and effort. Remember, the two were running the largest studios at Image at the time with both of them being responsible for large portions of the company’s monthly output. For them to take such a challenge on at the same time had to be worthwhile. These negotiations were not kept that secret from editorial either.
Given the nature of the plans discussed between Marvel and Lee and Liefeld, Editorial was against the plan. Hence, their efforts to fix the lines before Lee and Liefeld would take over.
Path Two- Editorial
This brings us to an interesting event that was documented in the pages of Wizard Magazine #51. This issue documents the Late July of 1995 Avengers writing retreat where the various editors, writers, and artist hashed out the Avengers plans for the next year and more following the events of the Crossing. The plans were decent for the most part. A lot of talk about revamping the lineup of titles and adding companion series to help flesh out everything.
The most notable part of this meeting, as presented in the write up, was Mark Waid taking over Captain America. Waid was one of the hottest up-and-coming writers at the time with a run on The Flash. Mark Waid was going to be the crown jewel of this era and it showed here. With the editors pushing hard for Waid to be the star. In an August 2020 episode of Rob Liefeld’s podcast, Robservations, Rob states that Mark Waid and Ron Garney were installed on Captain America in an effort to show that Marvel’s In-house editorial knew what they were doing and could raise sales on the struggling title.
One funny thing of note was that the staff ruled out new #1’s for the event. Instead, they opted to continue the traditional numbering especially since Avengers was nearing a major milestone number with #400.
In December of 1995, Marvel called a press conference to announce the deal for Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee to return to Marvel. The duo would be given 4 books between them to do what they want. This was covered in Wizards #55 (that’s right just 4 months after printing of the Avengers retreat).
The deal became clear shortly after the press conference, Rob Liefeld and his studio, Extreme Comics, would be taking over Captain America and the Avengers. Jim Lee and his studio, Wildstorm, would be taking over Iron Man and the Fantastic Four (Wizards #55, Marvel Vision #4).:
This deal was touted as Unfinished Business alluding to the duos return being some sort of hero’s welcome to conquer the only thing they didn’t manage to do at Marvel before leaving. Lee and Liefeld would get autonomous control over their books and get a decent profit-sharing deal. This meant no editorial oversight from Marvel. Extreme and Wildstorm Studios could do what they pleased with the titles.
They had free reign to hire and fire staff, they were given budgets and were treated as business partners. Heck, Lee and Liefeld each got a 3 million Dollars signing bonus in addition to the terms of the deal. 3 MILLION. At the end of the day, Marvel effectively Outsourced FOUR of their comics to their competitor (Liefeld, 2020).
The deal was for at least 6 months of work with 12 months planned. As for the actual story? That wasn’t covered in any of the press at the time. What was known was that the relaunched titles would be coming out in the fall of 1996. Marvel still had 6-7 months before it would launch the Unfinished Business books. All Marvel knew was that it was going to be with new #1’s and have that Image comics shine.
The Comic Universe Responds to Heroes Reborn
Marvel’s plans were met with mixed reactions. Fans seemed to be interested but various creators were skeptical. Todd McFarlane and John Byrne found it to be good business, though question their attention to Image Comics. Meanwhile, Erik Larsen rather they worked on Image comics. Dan Jurgens found it showed that Marvel had no faith in its own creators and editorial.
This echoes a lot of the sentiment Jurgens had at the time for Marvel. Just months earlier he left a Spider-man book because he found the editorial environment to be a complete mess. Frank Miller had the most negative response that I found with him saying Image comics seemed like a negotiation ploy all along.
Needless to say, it was a shock to see two successful independent creators come back to work for the company they scorned. Image Comics was not just small arthouse publisher. They created comics to directly challenge Marvel and DC. Todd McFarlane viewed Marvel as the enemy, after all. Nowadays, this is normal.
The press wasn’t quiet sure what to make of the move at the time, at least from what could be gleamed from Wizards magazines of the period. It didn’t fit the outsider narrative the Image founders created. It set a trend that would be followed from this point throughout. Numerous creators will hop between Image Comics, Marvel, DC and even the smaller publishers.
As Lee and Liefeld’s crews worked away on the directions they wanted to head, there was a lot of debate on what exactly they would be doing.
Planning for Heroes Reborn
Roughly the same time of the Lee and Liefeld announcement, Bob Harras took the reins as Marvel’s sole Editor-in-chief, finishing off the 5 EIC era. In one of his first interviews with Wizards (Issue #60), Harras spoke on a wide array of topics. One of which was the alienation of fans. It has already been said what was going on with the Avengers family of titles at Marvel, but that has nothing on the tire fire that engulfed Spider-Man with the Clone Saga debacle by revealing the Peter Parker readers were following since the 70’s was actually the clone and Ben Reily was the real deal.
This caused fans to leave the book in droves and cratered one of the crown jewels of Marvel. Harras and Marvel admitted they screwed up on that one and set out to fix the mess.
It was during this moment that Harras set out to set the record straight on the Unfinished Business books and them being reboots. He stated that they were not a Man of Steel type events, referring to the John Byrne reboot of Superman for DC roughly a decade prior. This wasn’t a clean reboot. It was a pocket universe
Captain America went from a man frozen in time to being a literal sleeper agent that works for SHIELD. Avengers were a branch of SHIELD, as well. Fantastic Four got modern updates to their origin by ditching the Space Race component. Iron Man was, well different. Hulk became involved in his origin event and there was no war to his story.
With Lee and Liefeld getting full control and only depending on Marvel’s to print the comics, the duo went out to create fresh and exciting renditions of characters. The Image creators had full power to hire any writer or artist they wanted for the project (though it appears it was expected for Jim Lee to do the art for at least one of his series). They went to their respective studios for talent with Liefeld bringing in the folks that worked with him at Extreme Studios and Lee bringing in Wildstorm.
The rumors were that they were designing more film friendly origins to drum up studio interest in the lower tiered characters. While that was debatable, you can’t help but feel they were polishing up these characters for something beyond drawing new eyes to the product. Movies were gaining steam behind the scenes and movie rights would help handle the growing debt Marvel is accruing.
Rob sought to reinvent Captain America and give the Avengers a better purpose. Meanwhile Jim set out to refine and update Fantastic Four and Iron Man with sleek modern origins and flashy designs. All four designs felt modern for the time and favored science fiction elements that was found in all sorts of media. These heroes were not only to be reborn. They were to be marketed.
How to Reboot A Classic
The problem facing Marvel was how to combine these new directions with their current story arcs. Additionally, how do you go about rebooting a good chunk of the Marvel Universe without any other characters getting rebooted? This was going to be a large problem for the company. They did have a brilliant idea though.
Slap it all onto the upcoming major X-men event: Onslaught (Wizard #60)
Onslaught- The Key to Heroes Reborn
Onslaught was the big X-men event years in the making (well more like fumbling around) and Marvel decided to give the Avengers a rub from that event. It was decided that the Marvel Mainline heroes would sacrifice themselves to stop Onslaught. In doing so Franklin Richards creates a pocket dimension for the heroes to inhabit. The sacrifice also fed into the whole Operation Zero Tolerance and World without Heroes angle that Marvel was setting up
Either way this gives Marvel an out. If the titles struggle after the year is over, Marvel can pull the plug and bring the heroes back into the pocket universe. Yet, if it proves to be a hit, Marvel can easily begin producing more comics in this universe and grow it beyond just 1 year. What’s wild is that talks were in place about a Year 2 but things would change fast as Marvel approached bankruptcy in 1996.
Next time in this series, we will begin to take a look at the different series and their development. Bankruptcies, corporate intrigue, and pettiness are covered next time in History of Heroes Reborn #2- The Bourne Captain America Identity
Wizards Magazines #51, #55, #57, #60-62, #70, and #71
Marvel Visions (1995) #4, #6, and #8
Robservations as a whole https://podcast.robliefeldcreations.com/
Robservations Heroes Reborn #1-https://podcast.robliefeldcreations.com/heroes-reborn-part-1/
Robservations Heroes Reborn #2- https://podcast.robliefeldcreations.com/heroes-reborn-part-2/
Robservations Heroes Reborn #3- https://podcast.robliefeldcreations.com/heroes-reborn-part-3-marvel-bankruptcy/
Robservations Heroes Reborn #4- https://podcast.robliefeldcreations.com/heroes-reborn-part-4-fallout/
Special Thanks to Shane M. Bailey for helping me locate Marvel Vision and Wizards Magazines.