How MARVEL KNIGHTS Changed the Face and Fate of Marvel Comics

The age old adage “Bam! Pow! Comics Aren’t Just For Kids Anymore!” has long been thrown around, and though comics are often seen as something for children, the reality since the late ’80s is the Big Two publishers have been more interested in courting the wallets of middle-aged men than their offspring. Now, one of these publishers is revisiting the line that reversed its downward trajectory with a curated collection of Marvel Knights reprints. Both DC and Marvel have for decades been attempting to create mature comics that challenge the way readers view classic characters. For DC, it was their Vertigo imprint. And almost a decade later, a young editor and artist at Marvel came up with a way of shifting the company’s sinking fortunes.

It might be hard to imagine, but the ’90s were a rough time for Marvel. The first half of the decade saw a huge boom where titles were regularly selling millions of copies, but the later years coincided with a huge bust where the speculation trend–people buying extra copies of comics simply to sell them later on–drove the industry into the ground. That was combined with a few very bad business deals that left the “House of Ideas” struggling to stay afloat. As power battles tore Marvel apart behind the scenes, their comics were barely selling and their stocks were dropping. But a pair of young editors named Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti had an idea, one that would revitalize the Marvel brand and change the face of the company forever.

Marvel was fighting a losing struggling to stay relevant in the years after the Distinguished Competition launched Vertigo, in the wake of popular books like Sandman and Watchmen. These dark, gritty stories were critically acclaimed and lauded, and though Marvel had some success with Frank Miller’s brutal take on Daredevil, they had long been looking for a new direction. Editors and illustrators Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti took advantage of this vacuum in 1998 to launch a new line that focused on the violent, less fantastical elements of some of Marvel’s most iconic characters with Marvel Knights. The line was seen as such a huge success that Quesada would soon be named Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief.

The imprint’s four flagship titles were Black Panther, Daredevil, The Punisher, and The Inhumans, all of which would go on to be seen as seminal runs for the characters. Black Panther‘s current bestselling writer Ta-Nehisi Coates cited Christopher Priest’s work as “the classic Black Panther run” and it was for many readers their first introduction to the King of Wakanda. Daredevil was Kevin Smith’s inaugural Big Two comic, which would later see the now-iconic team of writer Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev. Marvel Knights’ The Punisher is easily one of the company’s most beloved and critically acclaimed books, as it saw the Preacher creative team of Steve Dillon and Garth Ennis head over from DC to create a bleak and brutal vision for Frank Castle.

As you’ve probably noticed, many of the creators introduced during the flagship arcs of Marvel Knights would become stalwarts at Marvel. Some like Inhumans‘ artist Jae Lee, Bendis, Maleev, Ennis, Dillon, Palmiotti, and Quesada himself became some of the biggest names in comics. That continued across the line, with many of the books introducing creators who would go on to change the face of the medium like current Chief Creative Officer of Archie Comics and Riverdale showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa who made his name with Marvel Knights 4, alongside then little-known artist Steve McNiven. It wasn’t just that the stories were shaping the future of the Marvel Universe, but the arrival of these creators was too.

Aesthetically and tonally, Marvel Knights was mostly a grim and gritty line which focused on the more realistic elements of the characters whilst amping up the violence and trauma they faced. It was a clear attempt to attract the readership of Vertigo books like Lucifer, Preacher, Sandman, and Animal Man. If the tone wasn’t enough to spell out Marvel’s intentions, the fact that they courted creators like Animal Man‘s Grant Morrison and Preacher‘s Dillon and Ennis was proof positive that the company was focused on a growing market for mature readers books. This would lead Marvel to abandon the Comics Code Authority in 2001 and create their own explicit MAX imprint to continually feed the direct market’s hunger for edgy superheroes.

As the ’00s went on, the Marvel Knights line became less distinct and ultimately watered down, with many of the original runs coming to an end and those characters relaunched without the Knights branding. Marvel experimented with branding a few of their film, TV, and direct-to-video efforts with the Knights banner to mixed success. Though Marvel Knights might seem like a distant memory, the Marvel Netflix shows are heavily influenced by the visual style and tough storytelling of the line. Many fans have even wondered whether Disney will reignite the Marvel Knights brand to create a line of R-rated movies that could include the recently returned Blade and Ghost Rider franchises…

What do you think of Marvel Knights? Can’t wait to read these dark delights? Just want to see Blade in the MCU? Let us know!

Images: Marvel Comics

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