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Saturday, February 11, 2017

The New Character Problem - Comic Book Spotlight

            A few months back, Nerd Hub editor and founder Jack Flowers asked me to do a Comic Book Spotlight post on a recent book known as Mosaic.  From what I gather the book was something of a big deal when it was first released, focusing on a wholly original superhero who happened to be an African-American in a year where racial tensions and the attention put on the entertainment industry in its portrayal of minority cultures were insanely high.  Unfortunately, I had a few too many articles that I had committed myself to, (some of which I failed to finish in time), and to be honest the premise wasn’t one that I found that appealing.  Because of this, it was a series that I opted to skip and considering the fact that I don’t hear anything about the book these days it seems like I wasn’t missing out on much.  However, it did get me thinking about new characters in general and just how difficult it is to make an original character stick or even get one made at all and I decided to do a bit of digging into why this is. In the process, I discovered that, in reality, this new character problem has always been an issue for the industry.
            To truly discover as to why this is, you need to go all the way back to the origins of the industry and how it pertains to superheroes.  You see, in the early day's comics weren’t as utterly dominated by superhero stories as they are today.  During the Golden Age it was a medium that experimented in multiple genres such as westerns, detective stories, fantasy and sports yarns.  All of this, however, changed on April 18th, 1938 with the introduction of Superman.  Creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster tried for years to get the character published as part of newspaper strip without success until National Allied Publications picked the story up for their new comic book Action Comics and made it one of its featured stories.  Ironically, publisher Harry Donenfeld found the original story ridiculous and ordered that the Superman character never to be featured on the cover of the book again.  However, research on the sales of the book revealed that Superman was the cause of its high sales and made the character a permanent part of the book by the 19th issue.
Unknowingly, they had also created the main way superheroes would be introduced to the public for many decades to come.  Within a few months of discovering just how popular Superman was with their readership, National Allied Publications began greenlighting a number of other superhero themed stories in similar anthology books.  Batman would be introduced in Detective Comics, The Flash in Flash Comics, Green Lantern in All-American Comics and so on.  Thus, was the main format by which superhero comics were published.  That is until a certain young Jewish kid from Lower East Side Manhattan helped shake things up.
There is an argument to be made that Jack Kirby is the man who made Marvel Comics what it is today and there is an ongoing discussion as to how much of Stan Lee’s writing actually contributed to the final products that are now so iconic.  What cannot be argued, however, is that Jack Kirby’s artwork was the face of Marvel Comics throughout the Silver Age and undoubtedly had as much to do with the company’s early success as the writing, regardless of who was doing said writing.  In both the Gold and Silver Age of comics original characters he had hands in creating often received their own title series upon their first appearance; something that was unheard of in the Golden Age and something that was still frowned upon well into the Silver Age.  However, the Lee/Kirby era was one that saw several books get this treatment.  Captain America, for example, received his first appearance in his own book Captain America Comics back in 1941.  Over twenty years later The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, and The X-Men would all receive similar treatments and have all been longtime staples of the company.  Unfortunately, while the longevity of those books proved that one could create an original character within his or her own title series and make it successful it was still not the go-to way to create new characters and series.  Many other characters would be created by Lee, Kirby and Steve Ditko but the vast majority of them would have their first appearance in anthology books in the way the Golden Age characters were usually introduced.  But by giving these characters their own books from the start, it was showing that the old ways were coming to an end. 
As more and more time went on, the anthology format began to die out and the best way to introduce new characters came in two different ways.  The first was to bring a new character on as a supporting character and/or villain for a particular arc.  If the character proved popular enough the publisher just might feature him or her in different stories across that universe and maybe even give the character their own book.  This, for example, is how characters like Wolverine, The Punisher, and Elektra all came into existence; initially throw away characters only meant for a story arc or two whose popularity quickly outgrew their original function.  These days, Wolverine is one of the biggest faces of Marvel, the Punisher is an icon in his own right, (for some reason), and Electra tends to be the go-to love interest character for Daredevil and they all started out as supporting characters in someone else’s book.

The era was also one that saw creator driven series with original characters first appear and is a tradition that has continued on to this day.  For example, after a falling out with Marvel, Jack Kirby went over to DC Comics where he created The New Gods as well as Etrigan the Demon.  Both creations ultimately got their own series in their first appearances seemingly through the weight of Kirby’s name alone.  Throughout the years, many other writers and artists would emulate this, using the weight of their name as well as whatever pull they had with their publishers to get books they wanted out there while creating new characters and series.  Guys like Chris Claremont did this with Captain Britain, Frank Miller with Sin City and the entirety of Image Comics and their original series were founded on the names of the creative teams alone, becoming the main way many new characters and heroes would be introduced to the public for a time. 
The problem with this, however, was that many of these characters only came into existence to feed the Speculator Bubble and proved to have very little longevity after it burst.  What is the Speculator Bubble you ask?  Well, in the late 80s and early 90s comics became a much bigger industry than it ever had been and the Speculator Bubble was a big part of this.  While hearing stories of older comics selling for thousands of dollars today is no big deal, back in the late 80s and early 90s it was a legitimately mind-blowing thing.  People then got the idea to buy seemingly worthless comics and hold on to them as investments, mistakenly thinking that the books would be worth more in the future.  And one of the main things these speculators went after were books that contained the first appearances of new characters and whatever original story series they were headlining.  Because of this, the industry pumped out more new series with more original characters than it ever had before.  Sadly, the bubble eventually burst and the industry nearly caved in on itself.  It then turned out very few of these characters actually had any long-term viability and undoubtedly contributed to today’s comic environment where new, wholly original characters are hard to come by.  These days the publishers at Marvel seem content to simply give the title, costume, and powers of a character to different people, (usually of a different gender or race but more on that later), while DC seems to have given up on new, long-lasting characters altogether.  Ironically enough, Marvel’s current character problem is actually something that started over at DC comics all the way back in the Silver Age.

By the time the 60s rolled around the vast majority of DC’s now iconic characters had long since turned into fixtures of popular culture or faded into obscurity.  Because of this and standards of the time, DC could easily get away reintroducing the characters with identical power sets but give the title to a new character in order to advertise it as something new as well as fix perceived mistakes of the past.  For example, this is how the Barry Allan Flash was originally introduced and replaced the original Flash, Jay Garrick without ceremony as was Hal Jordan Green Lantern with Alan Scott.   While this was certainly no big deal at the time it inadvertently started a new way of introducing new heroes that has unfortunately become something of a problem for the industry in more recent years.  As the years went on, this would be a practice that DC would employ rather frequently.  Sometimes they would use it for a status quo shaking, replacement hero story arc such as Batman: Knightfall or Reign of the Supermen.  Other times it would be used to permanently replace characters who had grown unlikeable like…well Hal Jordan and Barry Allen ironically enough.  And these days Marvel has taken this idea and ran with it in a big way and depending on your point of view it’s either the best thing that could happen to the industry or the worst.


All of this seems started back early 2015/late 2014 with the mainstream promotion of characters like the new Pakistani Miss Marvel and the Spider-Gwen character who spun off, (no pun intended), from the Spider-Verse event.  But then the Secret Wars reboot happened in late 2015 and Marvel decided to take this idea of gender/racially swapping characters and start promoting it in a big way.  We now have Miles Morales in the main Marvel Universe, X-23 donning the mantle of Wolverine, Sam Wilson donning the title of Captain America, a Korean kid as the new Hulk, a 15-year-old African American girl as the new Iron Man and several more that I am probably forgetting.  The problem with this, however, is that in spite of Marvel’s obvious good intentions these characters are never going to escape the stigma of being the racially/gender-swapped versions of these characters.  The Mighty Thor book with Jane Foster Thor just might be one of the best series that Marvel Comics is currently producing but the character is never going to escape the stigma of being the female version of Thor as opposed to being just Thor.  This is made even more problematic when you consider the fact that real Thor is still running around the Marvel Universe calling himself Odinson with his own ongoing series.  You see a similar problem with the current Wolverine series.  It’s a decent enough book but it can easily be dismissed as a series featuring Wolverine’s daughter/clone dressing up as him and taking his name just because it would boost sales.  And like Thor, it’s a bit of a tough sell when you have Old Man Logan running around effectively picking up where the original 616 Wolverine left off.  The same thing can be applied to Miles Moral with Spider-Man, Iron Heart with Iron Man or the Sam Wilson Captain America.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing that they have been given these titles but it’s highly doubtful that they will ever escape the cultural stigma of being the racially/gender-swapped version of these characters.
Now the question you should be asking, (and I’m hoping you’re asking), is why is this a problem for original characters in the industry?  Well, let’s go back to the Marvel characters for our answer.  Take a look at the character currently called Miss Marvel and ask yourself this: what does she actually have in common with Captain Marvel outside of her name?  The answer is nothing.  Her power sets are completely different and she got them in a completely different way.  So why not call her something different?  Why not give the character a completely original name so that she wouldn’t forever be loaded with the stigma of being the Muslim Miss Marvel?  Honestly, I don’t know beyond the obvious financial reasons but as of right now, this seems to be the biggest threat to wholly new, original characters.  Now do not misunderstand me.  I am not criticizing Marvel’s attempts to diversify its headlining characters.  But I can’t help but feel that with Marvel giving the superhero titles over to other characters it may just be undercutting its own well-meaning intentions as well as stifling the potential of actual original characters.
The whole thing becomes even more problematic when you consider the mainstream public’s perception of many of these characters and how the changing of these characters may turn off potential new customers from the medium as a result.  Let’s say, for example, that you’re a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and you really want to get into the comics.  You decide that you want to read the Hulk comics.  But to your surprise, you find out that Bruce Banner Hulk was killed during Civil War II and that the current Hulk is some kid who is barely anything like the Hulk that you are used to in the MCU.  What will you do?  Well, more than likely you probably won’t be picking that book up.  Not because of any racial prejudice but simply because this character isn’t the Hulk character you knew and grew up with.  The same thing can once again be said about Iron Man, Thor, and Wolverine.  To the public at large, Iron Man is a gracefully aging, middle-aged man with charisma and arrogance in equal measures and not a teenage girl.  Thor is an overly masculine, blustery god and not a skinny woman from Earth and so on.  Regardless of how you feel about Marvel’s current diverse lineup, you have to admit that a lot of these characters won’t be an easy sell to an entire generation that grew up with these versions of the characters.

It’s also made a bit depressing when you realize that most of these versions of these characters probably won’t last or remain as the only version of those characters for long if they already aren’t.  For example, the Sam Wilson version of Captain America was barely around for a year before Marvel introduced the Captain America: Steve Rogers series into the universe, effectively taking away all the importance of giving Sam Wilson the title.  You also know that it won’t be long before they find some way to resurrect Bruce Banner and promote a new series around the idea of the “Return of the Original Hulk” regardless of what the status of the new Hulk is.  Why?  Well, for the same reason they gave the titles to these new characters to begin with; money.  It’s kind of hard for a publisher to say no to an idea that, while not the most creatively innovative, would undoubtedly make a killing for the company and probably put a nice little bonus in their checks.  And unfortunately, money is what it always comes down to.
When it comes down to it the new character problem has less to do with creative stagnation as it does greed.  When all is said and done, a company is a business and a business’s primary objective is to make money for the people who own it.  Often this means avoiding risks and betting on a sure thing and for the entertainment industry, a new IP is often considered to be the biggest risk of all.  Sure, they could have given the new Miss Marvel a new title other than Miss Marvel but the book would have been guaranteed not to sell as many copies if it didn’t have that title and it’s kind of hard to argue with that logic.
As it turns out, the ultimate barrier to new ideas and new characters is risk adverse businessmen and when you look back on the entire history of comic book characters you realize that this has always been the case.  It’s just that the ways said businessmen have gone about minimalizing said risks have simply changed since Action Comics #1 debuted nearly eighty years ago.  Originally, they introduced these characters into anthology comics where it could be easily discarded as a failure of an issue if the public decided they wanted none of it.  In later years, their ideas of risk aversion came in the form of introducing new characters as supporting characters in other books before possibly giving them their own series.  Around the same time, a form of risk aversion was allowing a well-known writer/artist do a series that he/she wanted to do because his/her name alone was almost guaranteed to turn a profit regardless of how good the book was.  And today it seems that the executive’s version of risk aversion regarding new characters is to give them the title of a preexisting character and see how it goes, all the while guaranteeing big profits for the initial idea.
In the end, do I have any solutions for any of this?  In all honesty, not really.  The current problems that the industry is experiencing were set in stone a long time ago.  The only thing it can really do at this point is to explore new ways to introduce new characters and that’s not likely going to happen anytime soon.  The only thing I can think of is this; support new creations.  Look for them.  Find them on the internet.  Dig through Marvel’s and DC’s catalogs for newer creations.  Make it clear that you want to see original works with original characters in them.  Tell the creators how much you love them.  Push the editors and publishers to support new IPs and perhaps one day we may get a new era where the industry will see a flux of new, wholly original characters that the industry will not only support but will last in the long run.  In other words, it is up to you, the consumer, to decide where the industry will go. 

And those are my thoughts on what I perceive to be The New Character Problem.  I want to thank all of you who have stuck around with this article as it is easily the longest article that I have written on either Trey’s Take On…and The Nerd Hub.  It was also the hardest article that I have ever written and it went through many revisions and rewrites before I finally felt that it came out in a satisfying way so it means all the more to me that you would stick around to read this entire article.  We have a lot more planned for Comic Book Spotlight as well as a revival of Trey’s Take On…and I hope you will continue to read our articles and support our websites.
            So until next time, please Like the Nerd Hub Facebook Page, check out The Nerd Hub Facebook groupFollow us on Twitter and be sure to check out my own personal blog, Trey’s Take On…as well as giving my Facebook Page a Like and checking me out on Twitter.  Until then, let's all hope that the industry's best days aren't behind them.


Written and Edited by: Trey Griffith. Co-Edited by: Jack Flowers. Published by: The Nerd Hub

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