Interesting article...what do you think?

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This seems too simplistic an answer to me, and I don't much agree with it anyway. If you put a gun to my head and asked why a great many characters don't stick, I'd say it's because they're just variations of other, already successful characters. The ones that aren't, either in concept or execution, are the ones that find a fan base, like The Punisher and Wolverine. They did things no existing character was doing.

Callahan points to Gravity as a "solid" character that got not traction, and my response is "your definition of solid is my definition of derivative." There was nothing new about Gravity; we'd seen his powers or variations of it elsewhere, and the coming-of-age superhero story has been done to death. And most of those stories are just variations of Spider-Man anyway. (See: Nova, Sleepwalker, Darkhawk, Danny Ketch Ghost Rider, Kyle Rayner, Speedball, ad nauseum.) I read Gravity, and I was simply bored.

I mentioned Nova above, and that character helps illustrate my point. When Richard Ryder was just another Spider-Man wannabe, even down the alliterative name and high-school setting, his series failed. We already have Amazing Spider-Man, what do we need with pale imitation? But now it's doing well -- and I would argue that it's because the new Nova series is NOT aping Amazing Spider-Man any more. As a space cop, Richard Ryder fills a void in the Marvel U no other character fills. Now he's different.

Why did Punisher and Wolverine succeed? I think it's because they filled a niche. The Marvel U was angsty but not deadly; even the Hulk had never killed anyone at that time. Wolvie and Punisher were lethal, which not only made sense (surely SOME vigilantes must be unhinged, when you have hundreds) but it was NEW. And "new" sells.

So I'll entertain the lofty conversation about "universe narratives" and corporate business practices.. But I don't believe it. I think there's an easier answer: Fill a niche, and you'll sell. Xerox what already exists, and people say "Meh."
I was listening to the Tom vs the JLA podcast this afternoon, and another example of a "sticky" concept struck me -- and seeing how its a concept very few people like, it really surprised me.

The Detroit JLA is surprisingly sticky.

Granted, they only lasted 3 years of publishing. And two of the three characters introduced for the team died when it closed up shop. But as a piece of history, it's surprisingly sticky, in part because it was so distinct.

We see a reunion of the various members of the team on a fairly regular basis -- including now, during the JLA's Blackest Night crossover. The first one I recall was the JLI/Suicide Squad crossover, where, in the middle of the battle, Martian Manhunter takes Vixen (then on the Squad) aside and gives her a big hug. The relationships between the Detroit members have a different texture to them than the longtime-teammate vibe we get from say, Barry Allen and Ray Palmer. These people went through a transition together.

Other things that stuck around from Detroit JLA:

Gypsy: She showed up in JL Taskforce, and keeps coming back for the reunions. She's a much more durable character than her Cyndi-Lauper-wannabe roots would have led me to expect.

Vixen. She's shown up on the cartoon, and in the regular books. Meltzer put her on his reformed team, but she showed up as a Leaguer here first. (And up until that point, she'd had, what? Two appearances?)

Martian Manhunter:
He was introduced long before, but he was brought back to be on the Detroit team (in the story right before the original league broke up). His steady presence in the Detroit league led to his portrayal as the heart and soul of the JLA. Also, the Martian religious fear of fire (and the fire/death god, H'ron'meer) was introduced by J.M. DeMatteis toward the end of the series -- a martian mythology that only grew in subsequent years.

Vibe & Steel: The JLA never really had dead members before, since the membership was generally the big guns. The fallen members of the League club starts with them, I think.

Despero. Formerly a clever alien who liked chessboard themed deathtraps, JL Detroit turned him into a hulking alien warlord.

Sure, there are elements that didn't stick around -- the Detroit locale was gone after a year or so, and tech-savvy love god Dale Gun along with it -- but even though the group didn't last long, it's a regularly acknowledged part of the JLA's history. And considering how much of history and continuity DC sweeps under the rug, either intentionally or unintentionally, I think it's quite an accomplishment for this group of heroes no one liked.
Perhaps this is how it works.

Let’s suppose you were creating a superhero in the 60s, and looking for an origin. If your character had impossible superpowers, as most do, you wouldn’t be able to supply a completely plausible origin. So what criteria would you use to judge whether an origin were satisfactory? The answers are probably: whether the children who made up the audience were likely to accept it, and whether it was likely to catch their imaginations.

When I was a kid I bought the Silver Age Flash’s origin: not because I thought about it and concluded it was plausible, but because I wasn’t scientifically sophisticated enough when I first encountered it to question it. As an adult I can still accept it, not because I don’t know, intellectually, that it’s impossible, but because I can suspend my disbelief in it.

Today’s comics are written for older readers than Silver Age comics, but superhero comics are heavily reliant on conventions established in Golden and Silver Age stories. In the real world, adopting a costume and sobriquet and becoming a vigilante wouldn’t be a terribly effective way to fight crime even if you did have superpowers. Radiation doesn’t give people superpowers or transform them into super-strong monsters.

That doesn’t prevent creators writing sophisticated stories about characters who are in some way naively founded, such as the Hulk. (Where does the Hulk’s extra mass come from? Why does Banner’s hairstyle change when he transforms - and back again when he transform back?) But it means that any story about such characters will have a naive stratum.

Creators can push the envelope with regard to superhero conventions, but if they push the envelope too much, it ceases to be the case that they’re doing superheroes any longer. Using long-running characters they can provide us with sophisticated takes on their naive premises. But to create great new characters while working within the superhero genre they have to be simultaneously naive and push the envelope, and that’s difficult to do.

Hence the tendency of modern creators to create pastiche/homage characters. It's a strategy that allows them to be sophisticated and naive at the same time.
I dunno Luke.

By your argument, new characters should go down better in modern comics than old characters.

That someone gets their powers from the far future/from the other side of the galaxy/by magic (all of which are used for modern heroes) is much more plausible to modern comics readers than spilling random chemicals and being hit by lightning, or being caught in a gamma explosion. We can't say what is or isn't possible to civilisations more advanced (or magically proficient!) than ours.

I think the 'realism' argument isn't so crucial here. Yes, we believe Superman can fly, because that's one of the long-held conventions of the genre. But comics have a magic working for them that other art forms generally don't. We see him flying with our own eyes and that's that. He can fly!

If I was to write a prose novel about people who could suddenly fly, I'd have a lot of explaining to do, but we're used to believing what we see.

Readers are buying into a magic realism approach when they read superhero comics, whether they know it or not.

I think Callahan is definitely on to something with the 'grand narrative' thing. I don't watch a lot of TV, but my favourite shows of the last few years have been The Sopranos, Deadwood and The Wire. In all of them, to some extent, their innovation is that we become sympathetic to and become obsorbed in the lives of those that would normally be villains. In each case, the shows had the benefit of starting their 'universes' from scratch. We had to slowly learn the villains place in the greater scheme of things.

In the MU or DCU, they'd be on the opposite side as Superman or Captain America and out the window goes any juicy ambiguity or sympathy.

I haven't read it yet, and probably should, but Waid's Irredeemable might be a similarly exciting new approach to superhero comics. However, he had to start its own universe for it to work effectively.

And the comic is creator owned. That's a very important consideration.

(Bendis et al's Hood character is just a weasel!)

Leaving aside the villains, look at shows like Lost and Fast Forward. The whole point of them is that we have to work out week by week, what the status quo is in those worlds. Working within a known universe or 'grand narrative', innovative storytelling projects like these aren't really an option.
See, I'd always just thought of it as being Darwinian - survival of the fittest, and all that. Go back and read the collections of the Golden Age DC and Marvel, or some issues of Men of Mystery - every decade has had dozens of forgotten characters - characters that don't even make the grade to show up in crowd scenes in stuff like The Twelve or All-Star Squadron.

Of course, it's a funny thing - I've been reading DC and Marvel since, oh...1974, or thereabouts. Say, 35 years. A while. Not so long as the Skipper or the Commander or Uncle Eric, but, maybe so, longer than some of the younger members of the board have been alive. I still think of Firestorm (Ronnie Raymond) as a "new" character. But he's been around for 31 years. (Heck, he's already been replaced!) But back in '74, the Jay Garrick Flash had only been around for 34 years, but to me, he was already a "forever" character.

Anyway, to wander back towards the topic a little - I'm not too up on my early Marvel history, but didn't characters like the Hulk, Daredevil and the X-Men have a few false starts before they caught it on big? If you had said to somebody in 1970, "Someday they will make big budget movies about the X-Men starring big name actors and they will make a ton of money", would they have believed you? I guess what I am trying to say - in my own cement-headed way - is that sometimes it can take a new character decades to hit it big.
The Baron said:
I still think of Firestorm (Ronnie Raymond) as a "new" character. But he's been around for 31 years. (Heck, he's already been replaced!)

Spawn turns twenty years old in two and a half years.
I think the grand narrative idea has merit, too. These universes were founded on the characters who were there at the beginning. From there, things built outward. And once the foundation layer started to cool and solidify, it became harder and harder to change that core -- because so many things were built around it.

With Man of Steel, Byrne changed a number of things about Superman -- but the most significant change to the character himself (as opposed to his villains, his supporting cast, or his homeworld -- each one step removed from Superman) was that he was never Superboy. The change had shockwaves, crippling the Legion for decades as writers have struggled with Superboy's absence (and later with flagging sales, as retcon after retcon saddled the legion with a "too confusing" label). Finally, Suberboy has been restored to Clark's past, and the Legion is beginning to build its popularity again. Because as much as *I* might enjoy the Legion without Superboy, he's the foundation the book was built on, and without him, the problem isn't so much the specific details that are in flux, so much as they send the signal that *anything* could be in flux. If you can't trust Adventure 247, what can you trust?
I think that Kurt Busiek had a much more interesting explanation in the article that inspired this one. Busiek talked about it in terms of a theatre metaphor. He noted that at the big companies another character has already claimed the spotlight. So, by necessity, a creator is introducing characters on the side rather on center stage. But at a new company or in a creator owned series, the center stage spotlight is available. So you can introduce a Samaritan as his world's most popular hero. That role hasn't been filled by a Superman or a Spider-Man already so the fans aren't going to contradict you. That doesn't mean that you can't create great new characters at one of the big companies. But you have to find a role or a niche that hasn't been filled- the children of villains trying to make it on their own (Runaways) or former villains trying to go straight (Thunderbolts). That's one of the reasons why I loved Busiek's Skyrocket so much when he introduced her in Power Company. DC didn't have a great patriotic hero. There had been a few attempts like Agent Liberty and characters brought in from other companies like Uncle Sam but for the most part, it was an available role and Skyrocket filled it brilliantly.
Luke Blanchard said:
Ms. Marvel is Marvel's Wonder Woman: but there's not that much interest out there in Ms. Marvel.

There isn't much interest in Wonder Woman either, and there really hasn't been for decades. DC has tried to push their concept of "The Big Three" for a long time, but it's really been "The Big Two" the whole time. Wonder Woman fits much better into tier 2 of the DC character list, along with Flash, Green Lantern, and Aquaman.

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I don't think that stands up as stated, Chris. Thor is the most Superman-like of Marvel's Silver Age characters, but he isn't to Marvel what Superman is to DC: Spider-Man is. Wolverine may have debuted in 1974, but he only became a first-rank Marvel character in the 80s, after his powers and personality had been tweaked.

Superman isn't the greatest of the Superman-type characters because he's the character who hews most closely to the Platonic archetype of the Superman-type character. He's the character who defines the type. If the reverse were the case, it would be possible to create a superheroine greater than Wonder Woman by copying Wonder Woman and dumping what's eccentric about her. In fact, what the procedure would produce is a blander character.

Great characters have an extra spark. I don't think Superman outlasted his Golden Age imitators, such as Captain Future, merely because he was first. His series was probably better written than Captain Future’s, but he also has an extra something. Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson worked on many other strips than Batman's, but it was Batman who had that star quality.

Ms. Marvel is Marvel's Wonder Woman: but there's not that much interest out there in Ms. Marvel. If someone could come up with a more popular heroine, capable of sustaining her own title, she'd take over the niche of "Marvel's leading superheroine". But it’s just not that easy to create a great character. And current readers apparently prefer stories about long-established characters they already have some interest in.

Other DC patriotic heroes are Mr. America/Americommando, Liberty Belle, Star-Spangled Kid, [Commander] Steel, General Glory, Commando Yank (presumably: originally Fawcett), Minute Man (ditto), and Miss America (Quality). Captain America still has a series, while they don’t, partly because he’s simply a better character. He also has more of a fanbase because he has more continually appeared in print. But he has more continually appeared in print partly because he’s the better character.

The question to ask is whether the hypothetical character who might more successfully fill DC’s “patriotic hero” niche would likely be more like Captain America than they are, or less. I think the answer is the latter: a character less like Captain America would be more likely to have its own distinctive inspiration and life. Arguably, the most successful patriotically-themed DC(1) superhero of the Silver Age was Wonder Woman.(2)

One might argue that Batman fitted an existing niche, the costumed urban vigilante.(3) But I'm inclined to think most great features break new ground. There were monster protagonists before the Hulk, but no character quite like him.

(1) I should note that in the earlier forties two outfits used the DC label. Wonder Woman came from the All American stable. Mr. America, Star-Spangled Kid and Liberty Belle from National/Detective.
(2) Wonder Woman lacks a flag-waving name, but her costume is patriotically-themed, and she was originally strongly involved with the war effort. I think Superman’s costume gives him a subtle patriotic character, and this is part of his appeal.
(3) But Batman was one of the first comics characters of this type. His predecessors in comics that I’m aware of are the Phantom (from newspapers; his strips were being reprinted in comics before Batman appeared, but I think newspaper strips should count anyway), the Clock (from Centaur, then Quality), and the Crimson Avenger (who beat him into Detective Comics). Although he beat Batman into print, the Crimson Avenger didn’t originally fight crime in a skin-tight costume. (Initially he used a gas gun, like the radio character the Green Hornet.) Batman’s combination of a skin-tight costume and fast-moving fighting style recall the Phantom, but he developed into a more acrobatic character than the Phantom, and he has a dark quality that the Phantom lacks (but not, I think, the Clock; Batman partly owes this to the Shadow).

(altered and re-altered)
Sorry Dagwan, I reposted my post without seeing yours. I agree with you about Wonder Woman, but she still sells generally better than any other superheroine.

Edit: Not true! Power Girl and Supergirl outsold her in October. I expect Power Girl won't continue doing so for long, but Supergirl might.
Edit: And Spider-Woman and Batgirl did even better.
Luke, I don't think you understood what I was saying (or more accurately, the way I was summarizing Kurt Busiek's theory).

I didn't compare Superman to Thor as strongman to strongman. That's entirely your invention. I compared him to Spider-Man as star to star, exactly as you suggested I should.

I should probably take some of the blame. Maybe I was conflating two ideas- the star and the type. Superman is DC's star as a strongman. Spider-Man is Marvel's star as an everyman. They're both stars, even though they fill different types. In the same way, Arnold Swartzeneggar and Adam Sandler are stars, though they fill different types.

The truth is that the big companies already have both their stars and their types. And that doesn't leave a lot of room for new characters, either as stars or as supporting characters of a different type. It's hard for DC to break out a new star because their focus and the focus of the fans will be on the stars they already have- Batman and Superman. The same thing for Marvel. That's not to say that it will never happen. Wolverine has become a star for Marvel, and is arguably their second most popular character behind Spider-Man. Deadpool could be on his way to stardom as well- he's currently starring in three comic books while a movie is in the works. But those examples are naturally few and far between.

The same is true for supporting characters of different types, though for different reasons. Your counter-argument to my Skyrocket example demonstrates this. Even though DC doesn't have a patriotic star, they have so many patriotic supporting characters that it's difficult for a newer character to gain any traction even in that role. That doesn't mean that the older patriotic heroes are necessarily better than the newer one. I happen to think that Skyrocket is a much better character than Mr. America or Agent Liberty or Liberty Belle. It's just that those other characters already fill the niche of that particular role, adding another barrier to r a new character Skyrocket getting attention and gaining acceptance.

I think it would be easier for Skyrocket to become a star at DC because she's only facing one challenge (pre-existing characters of the same type) rather than two obstacles (same type of character already occupying a starring role).

However, I could be wrong about that. Perhaps it's easier for a company to create new stars who share roles with existing stars. Marvel has specialized in the everyman and the anti-hero from the inception of the Silver Age (Spider-Man and the Hulk) yet they keep coming up with more stars in the same vein (Wolverine, Punisher, Deadpool). And DC's more successful characters, if not stars, are usually those who tie in to their pre-existing stars and roles (Nightwing, Steel).

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