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.
According to the American Film Institute, Citizen Kane is the greatest movie ever made, but when was the last time you saw it on TV? Only high-brow movie channels like Turner Classic Movies or maybe Bravo! will show it, and likely not very often. You’ll never see it as a Fox Saturday matinee or as part of Peachtree’s weekend movie marathon.
Why is that? It’s indisputably great, having influenced just about every film made after it and changing the way people saw cinema. But plunk your average movie-goer down in front of Orson Welles’ opus, they’ll likely fall asleep or try switching the channel.
This is what I like to call Citizen Kane Syndrome.
CKS afflicts many movies, but Citizen Kane has all the symptoms: an older, influential work that has become a fixture in culture. It lost its lustre because of its cultural significance.
Contemporary viewers don’t enjoy it because they’re already familiar with many of the artistic touches that made the film brilliant.
Most people don’t realize it but Citizen Kane was the first film to show the ceiling in a room. It’s true. Cameras had never been canted to such a degree that the roof was visible – until 1941 when Citizen Kane came out. It was the first movie to use deep focus throughout. It was pioneered special effects make-up. And on and on.
At the time, these were exciting new narrative techniques. Today? Mehn.
There are countless other aspects of the film that, at the time, were revolutionary, but today are taken for granted.
And, really, how thrilling can a plot twist be when Rosebud’s identity is revealed in a spoof on Tiny Toons?
It happens in every corner of pop culture too.
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s incredible run on Fantastic Four launched the Marvel Age. But some of its magic has been lost as the medium and craft have built upon that foundation.
The Beatles were once bigger than Jesus, but now fans of rock music expect faster beats, more complex chords and higher production values.
In Cold Blood remains a chilling look at two murderers, but its impact as creative non-fiction is not what it once was, since the New Journalists (and the New New Journalists, for that matter) have followed Truman Capote’s lead.
CKS forces media consumers into the tricky position of having to consider the historical context of the art not just politically or economically, but creatively as well. This can be a taxing requirement, and it only takes away from the viewing experience.
At the same time, there are some films, books and bands which remain timeless. Shakespeare is the easy example, but the Wizard of Oz (the movie, not the novel) also comes to mind.