Ask Chris #18: Character Revivals and Why Comics Are Marginalized
Here at ComicsAlliance, we value our readership and are always open to what the masses of Internet readers have to say. That’s why we’ve given Senior Writer Chris Sims the
punishment pleasure of stepping into the grand tradition of the Answer Man as he responds to your reader questions!
Q: What one character from each decade (’70s, ’80s, ’90s, ’00s – 4 in total) deserves a reboot/resurgence and who’d you task to handle it? — neuroticmonkey
A: There are a ton of characters that I’d love to make more prominent (and a handful that I’d like to do away with forever), so the difficulty here isn’t coming up with them, it’s narrowing them down to one. For the ’70s, though, it’s easy: ROM: Spaceknight.
He barely makes the cutoff for the ’70s (the first issue of “ROM” is cover dated December 1979), but if anyone in comics needs a comeback, it’s him. I’ve been saying so for years, if only because ROM is way, way better than he ever had to be.
For those of you who don’t know, “ROM” was one of Marvel’s earliest attempts to cash in with a toy tie-in comic, something that they’d have plenty of success with in the mid-’80s with their G.I. Joe and Transformers titles. ROM, though, managed to not only outlast the toy it was named for (the ROM line had exactly one figure and was pretty short-lived), but virtually everything about it was created by writer Bill Mantlo and woven into the Marvel Universe.
Unlike “G.I. Joe” and “Transformers” (but much like Mantlo’s other toy tie-in, “Micronauts”), “ROM” was a Marvel Universe book through and through. He hung out with the X-Men, faced off against Power Man and Iron Fist and guest-starred with the Thing in an issue of “Marvel Two-In-One” that involved fire-ghosts and space witches. Heck, Rick Jones was even his sidekick for a while, and when you get right down to it, there’s nothing more Marvel Comics than that.
It’s very much a Marvel book in its premise, too: A man gives up his humanity to become a fighting machine that can stand against a secret invasion of Earth by sinister shape-shifting aliens (sound familiar?), with circumstances (blasting Dire Wraiths with his neutralizer while they’re still in human form) making it look like he’s the bad guy.
Unfortunately, despite how well he was woven into the universe, Marvel actually doesn’t own ROM, and copyright issues have kept any of his adventures from being reprinted — they even had to leave “Power Man and Iron Fist” #73 out of the Essential when it came out — although they do own the word “Spaceknight” and everything else Mantlo brought to the table. In my hypothetical world where I could cut through the red tape with no trouble, however, I’d pick Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning to helm a ROM resurgance, as they’ve pretty much cornered the market on telling awesome cosmic-flavored Marvel stories already.For the ’80s, it’s a little trickier, but I’m going to go with U.S. 1, and if that sounds crazy, it’s because you’ve never actually read “U.S. 1.”
And that’s okay: I’m pretty sure that there are only about three people on the face of the Earth who have, and that includes me and series writer Al Milgrom. It ran for twelve issues and focused on one Ulysses Solomon Archer, a truck driver who could mentally control his big rig due to a metal plate in his head and put these abilities to good use battling evil truckers, obstacle course-building aliens, a guy with a blimp painted to look like a shark, and a super-villain named Midnight (and her HYPNO-WHIP!) who was actually the split personality of a sweet-natured fry cook, all while romancing a lady trucker named Taryn “Down The Highway” O’Connell.
If it sounds stupid, that’s because it is, but what nobody gets is that it’s all intentional. In his twelve issues, Milgrom and the artists who worked on it (including Herb Trimpe and Michael Golden) created a masterpiece of over-the-top silliness that’s easily one of the most underrated comedies in comics. And not in a “so bad it’s hilarious” way either; it’s actually great. I mean, there’s an issue that is narrated by the truck itself, and one where the aliens who make U.S. 1 race through a gigantic maze that contains a tornado and a volcano learn English from CB transmissions and thus speak in “Breaker Breaker” trucker lingo. It’s fantastic.
As for who should revive it, I’d go with Jason Aaron, who — judging by his use of U.S. 1’s arch-enemy The Highwayman in the pages of “Ghost Rider” — is the third guy to ever read it.
For the ’90s, there’s no question who I’d bring back:
ADAM X: THE X-TREME!!
Nah, just kidding. I’d bring back Aztek!
Imagine if you will a time when a book co-written by Grant Morrison and Mark Millar was canceled due to low sales in less than a year. It sounds crazy, but that’s exactly what happened here.
And it’s a shame, too: From reading through the first issues (which are, as you might expect, awesome), it had the potential to be Morrison’s version of what James Robinson was doing with “Starman.” Both books introduced entirely new characters and settings that were constructed with an ingrained character from the start, but while “Starman” and Opal City drew upon the past and reflected the greatness of the Golden Age, “Aztek” and Vanity were very much rooted in being a commentary on the now. Or at least, the “now” of 1996, right down to brutal parodies of Liefeldian heroes and the engrimmening of lighthearted super-heroes, which still goes on today.
Aztek did get an ending in the pages of “JLA” where the title character sacrificed himself to help stop Mageddon the Anti-Sun, but most of the potential that was built into the series itself was left unrealized. Morrison and Millar even went so far as to tease a handful of plots that they would’ve done in future issues on the last page of the last issue — including a super-hero groupie setting her sights on Aztek to add him to her collection of caped conquests — as a look at what might’ve been.
As to who could bring it back, well, Millar seems like he’s moved on, but I don’t see why Grant Morrison himself couldn’t helm a relaunch, other than the fact that, you know, he’s the dude who killed him off.
And that brings us to the past ten years, and honestly, this was the toughest one. There are plenty of franchises I would’ve loved to see continue past the points where they ended, like Matt Fraction and Barry Kitson’s “The Order,” Paul Cornell and Leonard Kirk’s “Captain Britain and MI:13,” Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen’s “Nextwave,” and Cassandra Cain (who got her own ongoing series in 2000) still hasn’t come back from walking off-panel in “Batgirl” to make way for a plucky blonde who already had a secret identity, and pretty much anyone from “Seven Soldiers,” from Frankenstein to the Manhattan Guardian could use another shot.
If I could only pick one character, though, then I know exactly who it would be: The Sentry. No, not the one who hung out with the Avengers and apparently had sex with Rogue. I mean this guy:
The “Silver Age” version of the Sentry that Jeff Parker, Paul Tobin, Nick Dragotta, Ramon Rosanas and Colleen Coover used in the truly incredible “Age of the Sentry” mini-series. The stories were meant to evoke the feel of Silver Age Superman (the Sentry himself being based entirely on the question “what if Superman was a Marvel character?”), and like those books, they manage to capture that sense of boundless, no-limits creativity. I’ve referred to the series as “the apex of the artform” (a quote that landed on the cover of #6), and while that’s a slight example of hyperbole, it still ranks as one of the most enjoyable comics I’ve ever read, for the sheer amount of fun that comes through on every page.
Also, considering that Marvel never really had a “Silver Age” in the way that DC did, it was interesting to see Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s characters and elements crop up in a world of Otto Binder and Kurt Schaffenberger style “imaginary stories,” especially as it led to Truman Capote working for the Daily Bugle, Cranio: The Man With The Tri-Level Mind, the Continuiteens and, of course, Harrison Oogar: The Caveman of Wall Street. It totally embraces the Silver Age style, and since I can’t see Superman himself doing anything remotely like this these days, the Sentry makes a handy substitute.
If I had my way, this thing would still be coming out monthly by those same creators. I mean, we never even got to see X-Rex.
Q: Why are comic books so marginalized? What happened between the 1930s and now? Why does readership seem to be at an all time low? — Soranomaru
A: The short answer to this one is easy: I honestly don’t know. If I knew what was keeping comics from having readership in the millions, I probably wouldn’t be here answering questions. But if I was asked to speculate — which is, in fact, exactly what you’ve asked me to do — I’d probably say that one of the big keys to the answer is right there in your question. What happened between the ’30s and today? In a word, television.
I haven’t done as much research on the subject as I probably should before tackling this, but it seems to me that the Golden Age of Comics came at a very unique time, in that they filled a void for visual entertainment that other things didn’t quite capture. When “Action Comics” #1 hit stands, the average price of a movie ticket was around a quarter. For that price, a kid looking for an adventure story could get a cartoon, a newsreel and Errol Flynn’s “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” two solid hours of entertainment, albeit with a feature in black and white.
Comics, on the other hand, were 64 pages with multiple strips and text pieces that were — as the old saying goes — all in color for a dime, and it was yours. If you wanted to experience “Robin Hood” again, you had to drop another quarter, but if you wanted to read about Superman lifting a car over his head and smashing it — something that nobody had ever seen before — it was right there waiting for you, in bright, vivid color.
But times changed, and as television became more popular, it removed the need for an an alternative to movies, supplanting comics as the primary source of visual entertainment and radio as the electronic device people gathered around at the end of the day. They still persisted, of course, because they offer a unique experience that can’t be duplicated in other media (and one that I obviously think is pretty top notch), but they were no longer the only game in town, especially once color TV rose to prominence.
As to why they were marginalized, I have to imagine that that they were a victim of their own popularity, especially among children. Whether they get them from TV, movies or comics, kids love super-heroes, and since Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby had hit it big with super-heroes and everyone else had bum-rushed the show in an attempt to follow their success, American comics became a super-hero-dominated medium from the start. And thus, since kids like super-heroes and comics had super-heroes, comics became something for children.
Crime and horror comics made a good run at superseding the popularity of the cape-and-tights set, but by the ’50s, the popularity of super-heroes among kids had already classified them as an entire medium strictly for kids. Nobody was worried about the impact that seeing Johnny Craig draw a severed head would have on an adult comics fan; it was the first in a long line of “Think of the Children!” logic that would go on to plague virtually every other form of entertainment, but especially cartoons and video games.
That in turn started up a cycle: Because comics were seen as being for children, comics became things for children, when just a few years earlier, they had been seen as just another form of mass communication. The content had been confused with the medium, which still happens today — how many times have you heard people say “comics” when they mean “super-hero comics?” There were certainly comics that weren’t for kids; future “Doom Patrol” writer Arnold Drake, Leslie Waller and former “Phantom Lady” artist Matt Baker put “It Rhymes With Lust” out in 1949, and it’s a sharp, stylish 125-page graphic novel that owes more to Raymond Chandler than it does to Jack Kirby. The fact remains, though, that for all its quality (and it is an absolutely fantastic piece of work), “It Rhymes WIth Lust” didn’t sell well and is little more than a footnote in the history of sequential art. The market had already spoken.
There were other events that changed things up: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were both veterans of the Golden Age, but in 1961 they essentially created the first ever “new reader friendly” comics and changed the landscape of the industry with stories that were aimed at the teenage market rather than just kids. They found success along with the rise of counterculture, but the popular notion of comics was still that they had no value as art. Look at Roy Lichtenstein, the pop artist famous for doing large-scale panel reproductions, like his version of this scene from “All-American Men of War”:
The significance of Lichtenstein’s art isn’t necessarily the art itself, but rather that it’s a transformative act, like Warhol’s famous painting of the soup can: It makes art out of something artless, and the starting point of that is that comics are intrinsically without artistic merit.
There was an eventual backlash of “comics are too art!”, but the cycle continued: Because comics had already become marginalized, they became more insular. The second generation of comics creators were people like Roy Thomas, who had grown up as comics fans. Thus, they were able to learn not just from the things that influenced their predecessors, but from their predecessors themselves. That’s how the language of comics, the meaning of panel shapes and lettering and visual cues and thought balloons and everything else that Scott McCloud likes to talk about came about. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing — as I’ve mentioned before, it’s allowed comics to hold onto the anything-goes ideas of experimentation that it started with, and it’s something that sets comics apart as a medium where pretty much everyone involved actually cares deeply about what they’re doing.
Well, until everyone who can’t sell their screenplay decides to turn it into a comic, because, psh, they’re just comics and it’s not like they actually matter, like movies and TV.
And now, a few quick hits:
Q: Who would be the better frontman for a black metal band, Angar The Screamer or Banshee? — rockstep
A: There’s not even a question here: Angar’s first name is Angar and he has never worn a shirt.
Q: What are the best video game adaptations of comic books? — chrisloxley
A: As you might expect, I’m partial to “Batman: Arkham Asylum” as it allows you to just straight up wreck dudes in slow motion and hang them from indoor gargoyles, which have no reason to exist.
Q: What is your least favorite media adaption (movies, videogames, etc.) of Batman? — colinmcgonnigal
A: The 1989 Tim Burton “Batman” film. I know it’s not an especially popular opinion, but that flick gets it just about as wrong as it can.
Q: Something I don’t hear people ever talk about – Do you listen to music while you read? Or is that too distracting? — deebeemonster
A: I didn’t use to, but these days I’ve got music on when I’m doing just about anything. For reading, I prefer to have stuff without words — I found that the first track of the Justice album “†” synced up pretty well with “Batman” #701 this week.
Q: How did you get into mashups, and what are your particular favourites? — likeanaddict
A: I like mashups for the same reason I like a lot of comics: They take two disparate ideas and make something new, whether it’s gorillas and jetpacks or Miley Cyrus and Notorious B.I.G. There’s something about that that just appeals to me, and that I think appeals to a lot of people who have aspirations of writing super-hero comics: You can take existing elements and combine them in new ways.
I can’t remember which was the first one I ever got into, but it was either DJ Dangermouse’s “The Grey Album,” which mashed up the Beatles’ White Album with Jay-Z’s Black Album, or the Kleptones’ “A Night at the Hip-Hopera,” which mashed up Queen with a everything from the Beastie Boys to Electric Six to Morris Day and the Time. As for all-time favorites The Hood Internet did a track on their Chicago-based album that combined Kanye West with the Chicago Bears’ “Superbowl Shuffle” (which I could listen to all day) and Jaguar Skills did a 60-minute history of hip-hop from 1979 to 2009 that I actually have listened to all day.