A recent strip from Let’s Be Friends Again by Chris Haley and Curt Franklin perfectly sums up how I feel about Marvel and DC Comics. Basically, I think that the two major purveyors of sequential art are in a creative malaise largely of their own making.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about an exercise - the Superhero Originality Game – that highlights that stagnation. The rules are explained at length in my previous post but, in short, the idea is to try and think of completely original characters that were created in the past thirty years that could (or have) carried their own monthly titles for Marvel or DC Comics.
I had gotten the ball rolling with a list of 10 characters who met the criteria:
6.Venom (Eddie Brock or Angelo Fortunato but not Mac Gargan)
I had invited my readers to try and add to the list, and they came up with an additional 14 characters:
12. Night Thrasher (Dwayne Taylor, not his brother Donyell Taylor, aka Bandit)
13. Amadeus Cho
14. War Machine
18. Beta Ray Bill
20. Cloak and Dagger *
24. Silver Sable
The point of the game was to try and highlight the fact that, to a large extent, the Big Two comic book publishers have produced less than one new marketable character per year. It’s not just that they’re no longer creating new series, there aren’t many original characters being created, period.
Instead, comic book fans are being treated to Spider-Man fighting the Vulture. Again. Or another Teen Titan dying. Rehashing and re-telling seems to be the name of the game.
It’s a disappointing trend.
Imagine if two major television networks like ABC and NBC only introduced a total of 24 new television shows over the course of three decades? Advertising revenue would quickly dry up and they’d be out of business. The stagnation would have killed them.
One thing I’ll say about these 24 characters is that they are an impressively diverse group. Six and a half (Cloak being one half of an entry)are visible minorities. Five and a half are women. One is a space horse.
They also have diverse origins and motivations, with at least 12 of them being spanning from “morally ambiguous” to “ethically reprehensible”. Whether they are mercenaries, assassins, exceptionally greedy or intelligence operatives for the government, they’re a surprisingly complex group of protagonists.
Unfortunately, only five are currently starring in a book, either in a solo title (Booster Gold, War Machine, Amadeus Cho, Deadpool) or a team book (the Sentry). Even in that group, War Machine’s book is being cancelled and there are rumours that the Sentry is going to be killed as part of the Siege.
This lack of creativity is particularly stunning when you think of all the characters that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created for both companies between 1960 and 1975. Together and separately they produced dozens of enduring characters. Why can’t their success be replicated even a little?
I think the big problem is that Marvel and DC Comics are incredibly risk averse and reluctant to try anything new. Instead, they’d rather play it safe and go back to the well time and time again, appeasing a hardcore group of fans rather than reach out and try out new characters that could appeal to a broader base of readers.
It’s a crying shame that in the long run will hurt the comics business.
*I looked into Cloak and Dagger and it’s kind of up in the air as to whether or not they’re mutants. They’ve been described as having powers that were activated by the experiments they were subjected to. To keep it simple, we’ll just assume that they’re not mutants.
It’s funny how everyone has a guilty pleasure - a band, movie or book that we love but was hardly a critical or commercial success. Comic book fans are no different. They always have at least a couple of characters that they hold dear to their heart.
I know that I’ve got a few. There’s one name that’s always at top of mind for me though: Booster Gold.
Never heard of him? That’s cool, most people haven’t. Indeed, it’s a running joke on an episode of Justice League Unlimited that everyone thinks that he’s Green Lantern and they’re disappointed when they find out that it’s Booster Gold.
Booster Gold is Michael Jon Carter, a collegiate football star from the far-flung future of the 25th century. He started placing bets on his own games and then threw them for profit. Disgraced, he became a night watchman at a museum that housed artefacts from the so-called Age of Heroes – our modern heroes like Superman and Batman.
With the help of a floating security robot named Skeets, Booster stole equipment and weapons from the displays, and used Rip Hunter’s time machine to travel to the 20th century. When he arrived in the 1980s he used his limited knowledge of historical events to position himself in the right place at the right time and become a superhero brand that would save lives as well as turn a healthy profit.
With Skeets acting as a roving encyclopedia, Booster blunders from heroic episode to heroic episode, often doing more harm than good while trying to create a public image that he can gain from financially. Recently (and somewhat improbably) he's become the guardian of the time stream, trying to maintain order and balance in the universe.
There are two things that appeal to me about Booster: his origin and how well he reflects the zeitgeist of the 1980s.
I think that the best fictional characters, superheroes and otherwise, have origins that explain their motivation for the rest of their existence. Sticking to comic books, some Batman, Spider-Man and the Punisher are popular because they are driven by a combination of guilt and anger over the death of their beloved family members.
All three of those creation stories make sense. To an extent, the reader can understand why these guys are dressing in spandex and putting their lives in danger. Their behaviour is clearly motivated by the tragedy in their origins.
Booster Gold’s driving force is simple: he’s greedy. He covers his uniform with corporate logos, puts money on the stock exchange before big bumps and is generally a glory hog. Or that time he married a sexagenarian for her money. It's not an altruistic reason for becoming a superhero, but it has an inherent logic. You can get what he’s about.
Just as Captain America was ideally suited to the surge of patriotism in the lead up to World War 2 or Marvel heroes like Iron Man and Nick Fury fit the Cold War era, Booster Gold’s 1986 debut was perfectly timed. He was just right for the greed is good, egotistical 80s. He developed as a character into the 1990s, just as corporate monopolies disguised as “synergy” and mass sponsorship became the norm in North America.
Booster Gold is often under-utilized but instantly appealing to anyone who grew up in the 1980s. He’s greedy, funny, a little bit cynical and surprisingly heroic. More than just about any other big name comic book character he fits into our contemporary worldview and, most importantly, he’s believable. The reader can understand why he does the things he does. He’s as real as a man from the future can be, and although he’s a guilty pleasure of mine, I rarely regret it.
When I worked at the World’s Biggest Bookstore we used to come up with little games to help us kill time. The Movie Game, the Hand-Loop Game, The Game, and, in a horrifying combination of nerdiness and creativity: the Super-Hero Originality game.
The premise is simple; name a Marvel Comics or DC Comics character that you believe can carry their own monthly title. Providing evidence is crucial – if they have had their own series, or currently have a monthly title, then your case is made. Otherwise, you have to come up with a pitch of your own to convince your peers that this protagonist can carry a monthly book.
As an added challenge there are a few guidelines to guarantee that the character is truly original:
- The character must be from the mainstream DC or Marvel Universe. Sorry, no Ultimates or New Universe or 2099 or Wildstorm or anything like that. Core Universe!
- Their first appearance has a cover date of January 1980 or later. That doesn’t sound tough, but there really aren’t that many characters under 30 years old.
- They can’t be a mutant. Not to hate on the X-Men, but in the late 80s and early 90s “(s)he is a mutant with a murky past!” became the de facto Marvel Comics origin, and it doesn’t strike me as a particularly creative background for a character. It doesn’t provide motivation or any kind of character depth.
- No legacy characters. I love Jamie Reyes, but, again, he’s a character who is the latest in a long line of similarly named and costumed heroes. That is, by definition, not original.
- No derivatives. Sorry She-Hulk, Red Hulk and Blue Hulk. Don’t waste our time, Conner Kent. Like legacy characters, the idea is to avoid protagonists clearly based on well-established characters.
One slow Sunday at the store my co-worker Jared and I put together a short list that met all these criteria, while remaining viable choices for ongoing series. Please, comment and see if you can add to it:
- Booster Gold
- The Sentry
- Wild Dog
- Venom (Eddie Brock or Angelo Fortunato but not Mac Gargan)
- Amanda Waller
- Terror Inc.
Can anyone add to this list? There must be more characters that can fill it out. If your hero has not had a monthly series before (or currently) please make sure to explain why you think they can carry their own book.
*Deadpool is a pretty contentious choice. He’s not a mutant, but he is definitely a part of the X-Men mythos. Also his powers are literally a derivative of Wolverine’s healing factor. Still, he’s not an obvious rip-off of Wolverine. He’s definitely a borderline choice.
Hello and welcome to John Chidley Hill.com!
As you can see in several other places on this website, I’m a sports journalist living in Toronto, Ontario and I love reading, writing, and basically everything else that pop culture has to offer. I'll be using this blog to write about all those things, particularly sports.
But why spend time every weekday to write 400+ words? Check the bullet points:
- First of all, it’s important to write every day. Just like a baseball player getting in batting practice, it’s good for me to work on my swing, whether it’s laying down bunts or jacking dingers. It keeps my work sharp and will make me a better writer.
- Also, there are many, many things that I’d like to write about that really aren’t saleable. Either their relevance is too fleeting, I’m not experienced enough to handle such a large story, or it’s something that only interests me. Trust me, no one wants to buy a 600-word feature story on why I love Booster Gold. (And if you do, you can contact me at jhm [dot] chidley [dot] hill [at] gmail.com!)
- Finally, this will be my home base as my career develops. As my portfolio grows, I’ll provide links or other information on where my writing can be found.
Anyway, enough of this introduction. Time to get down to business.
I hope you enjoy this site. I know I will.