Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Why No New Heroes?

A few days ago I pointed out most of the Marvel comics being published today date back to the early 1960s. This was not the case in the 1970s through the 1990s. What happened?

I think that there are three main factors. The first is that comics have been in a slump for years. They are now aimed at an 18+ year old audience. This group is more comfortable with established titles.

Second, there is a lot more editorial control than there used to be. The impulse is to mitigate risk. Instead of launching a new title, they prefer to bring back old titles or to rework existing titles. The big things at Marvel right now are the Ultimates and the House of M. Both feature familiar heroes in different situations and both are retreads of earlier works.

Finally, the writers and artists are reluctant to give away their new characters. Marv Wolfman and Len Wein, creators of Blade, Swamp Thing, and the New X-Men (including Wolverine and Storm) had to sue to get any royalties from the movies based on their works. In contrast, the creators of Spawn and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are rich. The creator of the Tick managed to get work producing TV shows (he was co-producer on Angel).

Given the number of movies based on comic books, even obscure ones, the odds of hitting the jackpot from an independent production are pretty good compared with the odds of getting anything for creating a new character for Marvel.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The More Things Change

I started buying Marvel comics in late Spring/early Summer of 1964 (I remember the comic and I looked up the cover date). At that time, Marvel's line of superhero comics consisted of:

  • The Fantastic Four
  • The Avengers
  • Spider-Man
  • Thor (and Tales of Asgard)
  • Iron Man (Tales of Suspense 1st feature)
  • Captain America (Tales of Suspense 2nd feature)
  • Giant Man (Tales to Astonish 1st feature)
  • The Hulk (Tales to Astonish 2nd feature)
  • Human Torch and the Thing (Strange Tales 1st feature)
  • Dr. Strange (Strange Tales 2nd feature)
  • The X-Men (bi-monthy)
  • Daredevil (bi-monthly)

plus Sgt. Fury & the Howling Commandos, three Western comics, and Millie the Model.

Here's how Marvel's web site describes their current line-up:

  • Avengers
  • Black Panther
  • Captain America
  • Daredevil
  • Doctor Strange
  • Fantastic Four
  • Ghost Rider
  • Hulk
  • Iron Man
  • Punisher
  • Spider-man
  • Squadron Supreme
  • Thor
  • Wolverine
  • X-force
  • X-men
Not a lot of change there. Even less when you realize that the Squadron Supreme are an Avengers spin-off first created in the 1960s (as the Squadron Sinister). The Punisher is a 1970s Spider-Man character. Wolverine started as a 1970s Hulk opponent and was developed in the late 1970s in the X-Men, volume 2. X-Force is the newest thing on the list but the link does not show any current titles.

Things get a little better when you look at individual titles. There is a Cable/Gambit limited series. Both of these characters are from the 1990s. The current Thor title stars Beta Ray Bill who was introduced in 1983.

The current X-Men are almost all from the 1960s-1980s. The newest character in the "New Avengers" is Spider-Woman and she is from the late 1970s as is Wolverine. Cage is from around 1970. Daredevil was also in for a short time.

The one new character is the Sentry who was originally created as a retro-Stan Lee character.

So, where are the new characters? In the 1970s Marvel was taken over by martial arts and supernatural characters (Shang-Chi, Iron Fist, Dracula, Werewolf By Night, Morbius the living vampire, Ghost Rider, Man Thing, the Living Mummy, and the Zombie) plus Conan and Red Sonya. In the 1980s they added a few new heroes like Power Pack. In the late 1980s and early 1990s they added a half dozen mutant titles.

So, where is the current creativity going? Where are the new characters?

I'll tell you what I think has happened in my next post.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Batman and Robin

I recently watched a Batman and Robin serial from 1949. I had heard of it years ago but this was the first time I have seen it. I had heard that the serial was very popular and had influenced the comic book. What I didn't realize was that it also influenced the TV show. The cliff-hangers that the Wednesday night segment ended with must have been inspired by the serial. The comic book didn't go in for escapes very often.

A lot of the elements that we think of for the character are in the serial. These include:
  • Alfred the butler.
  • Commissioner Gordon.
  • The Batsignal
  • The Batcave (complete with shadows of bats in the background)
  • Using a grandfather clock to get to the Batcave
  • Vicky Vale (a clone of Lois Lane)
  • Batman's utility belt

I know that at least some elements like Vicky Vale were added to the comic book after originating in the serial.

Now, understand that the production values of the serial were low. Very few sets were built for it. Most, maybe all, were reused from other locations. The same is true for the location shots. Western were common and many of the locations look it.

The serial revolves around a masked villain called the Wizard. He steals a remote control machine that lets him control any vehicles within miles. It can also cause fires in cars. Typical for serials, the plot takes a number of twists. The machine burns out diamond bearings and needs replacements. The Wizard also tries to gain control of a new explosive which can also be used as a power source. The builder of the machine also built a machine to jam it but using the two machines together along with an ugly pendant will turn someone invisible.

A few observations:

Batman/Bruce Wayne drives a new Mercury convertible. When he is Wayne the top is down. When he is Batman the top is up. He and Robin hide their costumes in the roof when it is down.

Shock absorbers might not be known yet. Batman's car bounces a lot when he brakes.

Batman has the only modern car in the serial. Everyone else drives an older model.

Gothan City must be pretty small. Chases always lead to the country. There are only a few tall buildings.

Bruce Wayne is supposed to be rich but he lives in a large house, not a mansion. The inventor gets the mansion.

Batman doesn't try very hard to hide his identity. In addition to driving the same car as Bruce Wayne (Vicky notices) he and Robin pull into Wayne's driveway and runs into the house while in full costume.

The Batcave doesn't have much furniture. Batman and Robin keep their costumes in a filing cabinet in the middle drawer (under "C" for costume?).

The Wizard is able to control vehicles using his remote control machine but there is no sign of a steering wheel or other directional control. He seems to do everything with switches.

The Wizard and his men use some sort of viewer that can see through doors. No indication how this works.

Batman's utility belt has whatever he needs. If he needs a cutting torch then sure enough, he has a big one tucked into his belt. There is no indication where the tanks to feed the torch are. Under his cape?

Batman and Robin use some sort of long glass tube as a gas mask. This only appears on their utility belts when they are about to get gassed.

Batman and Robin are lousy fighters. They are regularly overpowered.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Crisis in cross-title stories

I don't read a lot of comic these days. I mainly select a few based on the writer. One I do read is The Hulk because I like Peter David's writing. I got a new issue a couple of days ago and found that the title has been taken over by the House of M plotline. The Scarlet Witch went crazy and reformed the world with mutants in charge and humans being hunted.

I don't care for these cross-title plotlines for several reasons. One is that this is a blatantly commercial attempt to get me to buy other titles. Plotlines dictated by commercial concerns are rarely readable.

Another reason is that variations of this plotline have been used before. Don't keep regurgitating the same stories.

Finally, I know that everything will be put back the way that it was in a month or so. That's how these alternate reality plotlines work. This is a commercial reality. You cannot suddenly redo all of your successful titles without losing most of your audience.

This is why I liked Babylon 5 and lost interest in the Star Trek clones. In Babylon 5, if something happened, it really happened. No one waved a magic wand and reset reality. In Deep Space 9 and the others, you knew that the really big changes were in an alternate reality/dream/etc. By the closing credits, everything would be set right again (moderate changes happened but only during sweeps month).

All of this was started by Jim Shooter, editor in chief of Marvel in the 1980s. Shooter came up with the "Secret Wars". Most of the "big" heroes and villains were transported to a distant world to fight for the education of an extra-dimensional being called the Beyonder. The Secret Wars had its own 12 issue limited series. It also worked into the continuity of the other titles. Each one had a page with the hero investigating an object in the Sheep Meadow in Central Park and vanishing. Each title had an issue without the hero, and each one had a major change when the heroes returned.

In some cases, the change was something that was already in the works that came to a head around the Secret Wars. Tony Stark who had been a homeless alcoholic went on the wagon. The Hulk who had Bruce Banner's intellect went sub-human.

In other titles, a change was introduced. Storm lost her powers. The Thing stayed behind on Battleworld and She-Hulk joined the FF. Spider-Man got a new costume which turned out to be alive and eventually became Venom.

In all, it was an interesting and fairly successful experiment.

DC got wind of it and launched their own cross-title book, Super Powers. It was written and drawn by Jack Kirby who was way past his prime and showing it. It was about as engaging as an episode of Super-Friends.

Marvel followed up the Secret Wars with a sequel. This time the Beyonder came to earth. This time they only had a few issues of Secret Wars II. The rest of the action took place in individual titles. This was the model for the current cross-title plots.

One or more writers plots out the main action. Either certain actions are to happen during the cross-over or something big will be happening that the heroes have to react to. The results are usually rough and uneven as multiple creative teams put their own stamp on the storyline.

The biggest of these was Crisis on Multiple Earths. DC decided to clear away nearly a half century of spotty continuity. An evil alien called the Anti-Monitor was destroying alternate universes (called "earths" in a fit of anthrocentrism). Eventually he was planning to become god, ruling over the remaining universe. By the end, the Anti-Monitor was defeated but only the simple "earth" remained. Through some mysterious process, the people who should continue to exist did and those who should not did not.

While they were at it, DC recreated Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, and Robin, making them more Marvel-style.

It took years to smooth things over after the mess this caused. Since then, no cross-title plotline has tried to affect things on this scale.

Which is why I know that by the next issue of the Hulk everything will be back to normal.