The Definitive Works
I read What Savage Beast, the Incredible Hulk novel by Peter David, last week. It was a fantastic read, and it got me to dig out some of my other Hulk back issues and start thinking about filling in the holes that developed toward the end of the run when I got fed up with Liam Sharp's art (and the loss of the Pantheon) and left, only returning when Adam Kubert showed up. I also started thinking about how many great stories we lost because Peter David left the title, and how, despite his talent and standing in the industry, Peter David hasn't done that much creator owned work.
Really, think about it. He's done some fairly low-profile work, like the ongoing Soulsearchers and Company from Claypool Comics and Sachs and Violens from Epic, but the work he's known for is almost entirely on Marvel or DC characters. And I think the important part of that sentence is "known for." Peter David puts the same depth and identity into most of his work-for-hire that most creators put into creator owned work. He writes, in short, the definitive version of these characters. I wish Paul Jenkins all the luck in the world, because he'll need it to overcome the considerable identification the Hulk has with Peter David. For that matter, David took Aquaman and, with the help of the Atlantis Chronicles, branded his mark pretty clearly onto him as well.
It's not the kind of thing that the big companies (especially work-for-hire veterans like Marvel and DC) want to encourage. While it certainly makes their characters better to allow a creator to do such personal work on the character, and to make them so clearly different and able to change, it makes it exceptionally hard to maintain their ownership of the character. Not in a legal sense, but an emotional sense. It emphasizes the importance of creators over characters, and when that happens, companies like Image Comics and Gorilla Comics can happen. Suddenly it doesn't matter if you have a library that includes The Hulk, Spider-Man and Daredevil, because you don't have Peter David or Kurt Busiek or Frank Miller to make them come to life. And the readers begin to realize that following those creators to their next project is going to be more fun than watching an assistant editor write their favorite character. (See also: Marvel's harsh lessons learned in the early 90s.)
It creates an atmosphere, where if you remove that writer (or drive them off with simple-minded editorial dictates, not that such a thing would ever happen in this industry), you've basically killed interest in the character for a good while. Really, the Hulk is pretty much un-writable until the effectiveness of David's run wears off in a good portion of the fans' minds, and even then, every single writer that comes afterward will be compared to that run.
It's something I think of as the "definitive version" of the character. While Stan Lee and Jack Kirby may have created the Hulk, for me he didn't become a character until Peter David wrote him for a decade. The same thing has happened with plenty of other DC and Marvel characters. Not because Lee, Kirby, Schwartz, and whoever else weren't talented when they created these characters, but because they were writing in a different time, and, for the most part, for a different audience. Readers today expect far more depth to the characters beyond a differentiation in powers and some kind of easy to grasp thematic "hook." Don't get me wrong here...the genius of Lee, and Kirby, and others, was their ability to mold characters around dramatic themes so powerful that they still resonate today. Very few characters created since the early days of the Silver Age have shown the ability to stand that test of time.
When you say Thor, many modern fans will think not of Stan Lee, but of Walt Simonson, who blended the long Marvel history of the character with his even more ancient Norse mythic roots to create a run of comics that was visually and narratively superior to every other Thor storyline before it. If you ask most fans who they dream of seeing on Daredevil again, the answer will be Frank Miller, because he took a Spider-Man clone and gave him depth, tragedy and an identity that writers today still play off of. You'll note that both of these examples are writer/artists. While some writers can certainly create the definitive version (Peter David comes to mind), because comics are a visual medium, there must be an equally strong artistic component, so it's far easier for writer/artists to do this sort of thing. Of course, it's harder because writer/artists who are equally talented in both areas are a rarity.
It's easier to do with single characters, because a team requires so many personalities that even the best writer will have to take shortcuts (and hence, have less depth). But identification will happen even there. Ask any X-Men fan what they think about Claremont and Byrne's run on the books. Or ask any Legion fan about Paul Levitz.
One thing I think we're seeing now, and the reason creator owned work is becoming more prevalent, is that fans are realizing that these definitive runs are the reason to read comics. While fans may hang on because of nostalgia, remembering their first childhood encounter with Spider-Man, the reason they stick around is because they feel the money spent is worth it in entertainment value. And fans are starting to realize that the definitive run is easier to create, rather than harder, if a creator owns the work. While it may take longer to build an attachment to the character, because you don't have the nostalgic attachment, the result will much more likely be a definitive run, because the creator won't be forced off to make way for a corporate change of focus.
Of course, there is a way to get the best of both worlds, and that's to play off of the established characters in a creator-owned work, as has been done with everything from Big Bang Comics to Planetary to most of Moore's recent work. But that gets into a whole area of archetypes vs. outright plagiarism, and there's a whole other column in that.