Nor is the Tin Avenger the only titular character going through a change recently. In the last few years we’ve seen:
- a new Thor (fourth after two guys and a robot)
- a new Wolverine (his fourth or fifth, depending on how you count)
- a new Spider-Man (the sixth major incarnation, including the awful clone saga and his possession)
- two new Marvels (Ms. and Captain)
- a new Batman (fifth one)
- possibly a new superman? (which would make the fifth one)
But do you know what we haven’t seen much of from the big two? Actual new characters.
Now before you go blaming the shadowy cabal of hyper-liberal feminists that are responsible for the systematic destruction of the memories of every straight white male in America, I’d like to say this one isn’t on them. As with all things comics, this problem is infinitely stupider, started before they were born, and it revolves around Alan Moore… perhaps the one guy who didn’t write Iron Man.
“As I see it, part of the art of being a hero is knowing when you don’t need to be one anymore, realizing that the game has changed and that the stakes are different and that there isn’t necessarily a place for you in this strange new pantheon of extraordinary people.”
Quite a lot of people have made the argument about the importance or non-importance of Watchmen in literary terms. I’ll leave the qualifying of the series to those other articles and instead state something vastly more obvious: Watchmen was popular. Insanely popular. It was one of those early works that people considered adult. The goddamn New York Times wrote about it.
And as such, Moore and Gibbons were rightly proud. They had, in their understanding, created a work themselves. They had fought against a “work for hire” clause, a long problem in the industry, and had successfully won a reversion clause in their contract. The idea was, as Alan claims to have understood it, that the contract agreed that once the characters had outlived their usefulness and gone out of print, the rights would revert back to himself and Gibbons. Only DC never allowed that opportunity to happen; Watchmen was the golden egg. So DC made the business decision that owning a lauded intellectual property was more important than a healthy relationship with the creator. And so out went the goose.
This was hardly DC’s first time. The estates of Shuster and Siegel have sued DC comics numerous times over the rights to Superman, his origins and likeness. Some like Bill Finger (creator of Batman), Marv Wolfman (Blade) and Joe Simon (Captain America) sued to raise themselves out of poverty and obscurity even as their creations were on the silver screen. Even names like Jack Kirby and Stan Lee have been fighting for the rights they feel were taken from them.
“Everything is preordained. Even my responses.”
But as monstrous, terrible and tragic as it is to see a company abuse the trust and talent of its workers, there is a cruel logic to it. Any company will tell you that profits cannot and should not be shared equally. For every Watchmen that gets published there are a few dozen also-rans. For every run of Thor that’s as successful as Godkiller, there decades of lost runs where nothing much happens. So for us to have new works, we have to exploit old ones and their creators… Or at least, that’s the pitch.
The simpler fact of the matter is that these characters have 70+ years of backstory and locked-in fans. They are generational, with parents bringing kids in to see The Avengers or to buy Justice League comics. And just as those teams had a rotating cast, it doesn’t really matter in a marketing sense just who’s in the spandex so long as you can scrape together enough honest to put the right masthead on the book or marquee.
And the big two really need this. Iron Man and co. have proved they can sell not just books, but movies, toys, backpacks, various junk food, and more. Yet there’s a limited amount of “classic content” the size of Civil War and Extremis, so Marvel needs to shake things up fast. DC has the Batman juggernaut, the single biggest IP in comic books at the moment, but Superman is failing and they’ve done about all they can with Clark Kent (what with marrying him off, killing him, bringing him back, making him the new head of a planet, and so forth). Both companies are struggling as the market places change and open up to new readers who look a whole lot different than yesterday’s standards. And there are so few characters to appeal to appeal (especially since someone took away Storm’s badass mohawk, goddammit).
Worst of all, new content isn’t coming.
On the 23rd of May, 2016, Jonathan Hickman tweeted the following: “Marvel and DC basically have static IP because none of us are stupid enough to create new IP. Until the deal changes, it is what it is.” That’s the man behind FF, Secret Wars and the criminally under-read Nightly News. One of Marvel’s best writers, calling new IP under a work-for-hire contract “stupid” just before leaving the publishing company.
Why ‘Iron Man’ at all?
Comic books have backed themselves into a corner and brought with them movies, television and collectibles. They’re trapped in in some America-gone-by, forcing relevance on characters that were created to address different issues. Even if they wanted to make new properties, it’s unlikely they could convince creators to ignore decades of nasty legal precedent and offer of new golden eggs.
This is bad for fans of any stripe.
Old characters are predominantly:
- Constantly being tortured into relevance with huge swings of character
- The center of every major “event” because they’re known sellers and touch-stones
- Prevented from having private arcs outside of events
- They never get a moment’s rest, not even in death
New characters are predominantly:
- Living in the shadows of their name sake
- Forced into existing relationships (such as new Thor having to be instantly accepted by the Avengers)
- Their stakes are artificially inflated to “get them up to speed” with the old favorite, removing much of fan’s ‘getting to know you” time
- They have to stay with the business status quo. The “main” hero must return, and without a strong identity to fall back on, the “new” hero will just fade into the d-list
It’s true that independent comics like Image, Dark Horse and Lion Forge continue to put out exemplary work. Strange stories like Sex Criminals, interest pieces like the Andre the Giant biography, and television spawned from The Walking Dead. But there is the ironic problem that none of those titles are as big as the Avengers. It’s unfair to say that since most aren’t even designed to be that big. We fans still want new characters to love. And as the comic book community grows in diversity, it’s expected that they’ll want characters to reflect that. But while virtually everyone wants a new character with the importance, impact and narrative fun of Iron Man, very few people really want said character to just be a new person in an updated Iron Man suit.
Spiderman is a perfect example of what can happen when a character gets stretched too thin by editors. No one wants to put yet another character into that meat grinder.
How do we fix it?
Once upon a time, publishers tried harder at new characters. DC had events like Zero Hour, Marvel had the first Secret Wars and Infinity Wars. Marvel used to book guest appearance after featuring slot for people… that did great for Ghost Rider, Punisher and Wolverine.
Unfortunately, making new characters stand on their own merit yields a high likelihood of failure. Both in terms of fan numbers and sales numbers. New characters just don’t have the same draw as the established roster… and that’s okay! Plenty of comic books had growing pains in their first few years; that’s no reason not to try. On the other hand, the big two are in a unique position in that they’ve figured out how to sell movies and event books, meaning they have a financial base to start from that wasn’t there in the 30s or 40s when all this began. They can use this cash to bolster themselves while chasing after the template proved by their competitors. Best of all, comic books are at an all time high in terms of talent and cultural importance. This is the time to try exploring new IPs!
Or the Big Two can keep making comic covers where a brand new hero is dwarfed by the digital ghost of her predecessor.
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