Ladies and Gentlemen, Sleepwalker #457
Last week, I talked about the respect I had for the creators of the Golden and Silver Age, for their ability to create characters around such powerful themes that they still resonate today. Where have those abilities gone? Has anyone created a character that resonates as strongly as Spider-Man or Superman in the last 20 years? These days, it's next to impossible to launch a new series unless it's tied in to an existing property. Is that changing fan tastes or is it just that nobody has hit on the right theme yet that grabs someone and makes them want to know more?
I think it's a little of both, but I'd put most of the onus on the creators. Comics has always been an incestuous industry, feeding off the ideas of the guy across the street or down the block, and that hasn't changed much over the years. When Superman was a hit, suddenly there were all kinds of fast, strong tough heroes, all carrying bits and pieces of what made the character successful. When Spider-Man took off, feet of clay began to develop in just about all the other heroes. Marvel and DC went back and forth for a while switching out their icons when it was proven to work, replacing the Flash, Captain America, Green Lantern and Spider-Man to name a few.
The result of this is that a lot of creators, and more importantly, the editors driving them to come up with the next big thing, aren't asking for something wholly new. They're asking for the familiar, something with a new twist, but something that's based firmly in the super-heroic conventions of the day. The themes are almost always the same, a slight variation on "with great power comes great responsibility" or "truth, justice and the American way." Really, the only great stride we've made forward is variations on "I'm the best I am at what I do," and that particular theme was beaten to death in the speculator frenzy of the 90s.
For as long as we're fixated on what's already working, we're never going to get a lasting character. We're never going to get something that grabs the mainstream, something that gets put on stamps after 50 years, something that almost seems real to people. When you say "Superman" people don't think of comic-books, they think of Superman. As if he were an actual person, with an identity. Which he is, in a way, because some of the elements of his being have so pervaded people's consciousness.
You know the only character created in the last 20 years that has that kind of widespread appeal? Spawn. And that's not because the theme is powerful, it's because of genius-level marketing and solid talent behind every aspect of the character. Say what you will about McFarlane, he is the perfect example of how to build an empire in comics. The comics are solid, the action figures have redefined the world of toys and the animated series was good enough to stand among HBO's stable of original programming, which also includes such gems as Oz and The Larry Sanders Show.
All of this is not to downplay the fact that the theme of Spawn is at least a little different. It's a little bit "power and responsibility" but more so it's about dealing with your mistakes, a theme that resonates pretty effectively, whether your mistakes are as mundane as lying to your wife or, like Al Simmons, killing for the government or throwing in with the devil for your own selfish purposes.
What I see in comics that aren't dwelling in nostalgia is a tendency to try and copy a hot trend, not a theme. How many characters or universes have you heard lately that are featuring characters using the Internet? Stan Lee's company jumps right to mind. Granted, the Internet is a huge deal in today's society, and there could certainly be themes around it that are powerful, but most of the creators are using it as a buzzword, not a jumping off point. I can practically guarantee you that the new characters from Lee will be tied to the Internet, but will revolve around the same old themes of "power and responsibility." And since that theme has already been tackled effectively by Spider-Man, you can't build a legacy around it.
In my opinion, when creating new characters, creators should be looking much harder at what the central theme of those characters is going to be. If it can't be summed up in one sentence that makes you feel something, it's probably not strong enough to survive. Sure, it may have a nice long career in the increasingly niche field of comics, but it won't ever catch on with a wider audience, and it won't be a legacy. And, in my opinion, the lack of that wider audience, that "legacy" factor, is what's slowly strangling the market as much as poor distribution options and high prices are.
As I watch the life being drained out of long-standing characters like the Hulk, Spider-Man or Superman, I start wishing we could give those characters a nice sendoff and replace them with something new. Something that, rather than being weighted down with 50 years worth of stories, meaning that every conceivable story featuring them has probably been done before, would have deeper potential. I haven't seen the character yet, but with every creation, I keep hoping.