2000 was an odd year for Marvel Comics. The ’90s was a rough time for the company, as they failed to connect with older fans by taking their properties into dark territory, which lead to a brief bankruptcy. Trying to regain lost ground to DC Comics (publisher of Batman and Superman), Marvel merged with Toy Biz and began licensing their properties for movies – Men in Black and Blade being the first.
While Marvel’s movie project was untested at the time, they tried out new gimmicks to attract readers. One infamous project was the Marvel Mangaverse.
The late ’90s to early 2000s saw anime and manga enter mainstream American pop culture. Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, and Gundam Wing were playing on TVs during thanks to Toonami. TokyoPop also rose as a publishing powerhouse, with manga titles like Fruits Basket, Rave Master, and Ai Yori Aoshi.
Marvel saw the success of manga, and decided to craft their own manga influenced project. They hired Ben Dunn, creator of Ninja High School, to lead the project since he was one of the few successful American artists to be inspired by manga.
Marvel Mangaverse was set to be an alternate universe that imaged popular Marvel characters in the style of manga, with stories following a single narrative across titles.
A Short-Lived Run
Marvel was banking on tapping into the manga market due to a fresh coat of paint and bizarre storylines. Spider-man was now a ninja, seeking to avenge the death of Sensei Ben. The Avengers was a Power Rangers team that piloted a giant mecha Iron Man. The Punshier was a geisha dominatrix whose arch-villain was named “Skang Kee Ho.”
The framework of the universe was Tony Stark (Iron Man) died in an accident, leaving Stark Industries to his sister Antoinette Stark. She calls together other heroes to help create an energy well that taps into other dimensions to create free energy (kind of like Dimension W). This would lead to The Hulk becoming a Godzilla type monster, and things just get crazier from there.
It was a bizarre time, and the universe lasted two full years. Classic Marvel fans were not happy about the re-imagining of popular characters, while manga fans turned away due to the art style and weird stories.
Marvel decided to cut its losses and withdraw from the idea…but sometimes bad ideas don’t die easily.
Marvel attempted to give The Mangaverse one more chance, and rebooted the idea as New Mangaverse: The Rings of Fate.
The new-new project cribbed a lot of design and story ideas from Neon Genesis Evangelion. The Human Torch was modeled after Asuka Soryu, The Black Cat looked like Rei Ayanami, and depression played a large role in the over-arcing story. Oh, and there was a lot of death. One controversial scene involved Daredevil being decapitated by his lover Electra, who would quickly be sliced in half.
Other new characters included a lazor-clawed Wolverine and a magical girl Phoenix.
Marvel had no idea where to take The Mangaverse. The story tried so hard to mimic dark seinen manga, like Berserk, with the amount of death and despair. But that was jarring with all of the sexual fanservice thrown in the faces of readers. New Mangaverse didn’t even last a full year – it ran between late 2005 to early 2006.
The Mangaverse was a spectacular failure, but Marvel Comics did learn a few things from the process. They studio has done a good job publishing graphic novels of their properties that feature single narratives, much like manga. Art styles have become more diverse, with artists experiments with coloring, character designs, and paneling. In fact, Marvel has been using more spread pages, much like manga, instead of blocky panels.
Marvel has also cultivated relationships with various manga artists. Instead of mimicking manga with Wolverine: Snikt!, Marvel hired an accomplished mangaka in Tsutomu Nihei (Blame! and Knights of Sidonia) and gave him control over the mini-series. The acclaimed series was praised for blending the unique elements of manga and comics.
Manga artists also draw variant collectible covers for series like X-Men, Ms. Marvel, and Squirrel Girl. It might be small roles, but some of these covers become coveted collector’s items.
While The Mangaverse fell flat on its face with terrible art and embarrassing stories, Marvel walked away a better publisher for it.