Sunday, April 12, 2009

Who needs characters when you've got costumes?

Comic publishers have put a lot of effort into building a strong fan base for their comics. With team books, they rotate the cast until they can find the combination of characters the largest number of fans want to see. With single title characters, they ramp up the challenges to tell more compelling stories and they also do crossovers with more popular titles to try and entice the readers into becoming fans of other characters beyond the books they usually read. The one constant in all of these ventures is the characters. If they don’t have the right characters in a team book, it loses readers. If they don’t tell compelling stories that make the reader care about the characters, those readers drift away. They use more popular characters (via crossovers) to get readers to buy titles of less popular characters in hopes of increasing the readership. It revolves around the characters.

Historically, publishers have tried to increase interest in their properties by updating them, presumably for a newer (and probably younger) audience. DC is probably more known for this than other publishers, but it stands to reason that a company that has one of the lengthiest histories would have more opportunity and need to makeover those properties. DC has at various times changed the characters wearing the costumes of a number of their properties, but generally those changes have been short lived. Batman was replaced by Jean-Paul Valley for a period time after his back was broken by Bane. Superman was briefly replaced by four characters after ‘dying’ following a battle against Doomsday. Wally West replaced Barry Allen as the Flash following Barry’s death in Crisis on Infinite Earths. Kyle Rayner replaced Hal Jordan as Green Lantern. Of course, the most notable character changes came about when DC launched the Silver Age versions of established characters. Hal Jordan replaced Alan Scott as Green Lantern. Katar Hol replaced Carter Hall as Hawkman. Barry Allen replaced Jay Garrick as the Flash. Of course, DC was able to have their cake and eat it too by introducing Earth-Two, a parallel world in the DC multiverse that was home to the Golden Age versions of their heroes. DC’s chief rival has had their own share of character changes. At least four different characters have operated in the guise of Captain America. Ben Reilly briefly took up the mantle of Spider-Man.

In a majority of these cases involving a replacement hero, the original character eventually returns to reclaim their name and position (it could even be said this is true of the Golden Age DC heroes as they retained their name and standing through the introduction of Earth-Two). There are a number of reasons surrounding the return of those characters, some of which involve marketing and keeping trademarks active, but the primary reason is the popularity of the characters. Fans like them. Fans want to read adventures involving those characters.

Yet even as history has proven (outside of the Silver Age revamps) that replacement heroes seldom achieve and maintain the same level of success as the original characters, publishers continue to play that card. Just within the past few years there have been a number of characters who have been removed from the equation and replaced by new versions. Ted Kord was killed during Countdown to Infinite Crisis and replaced as the Blue Bettle by a younger, hipper character. Steve Rogers was killed following the events of Civil War and replaced by his original partner, recently returned from the ‘dead’, Bucky Barnes. Vic Sage died of lung cancer in 52 and was replaced by ex-Gotham police officer Renee Montoya. Bruce Wayne appeared to die during Final Crisis and is being replaced by an as yet not revealed character (it seems Bruce Wayne isn’t necessarily dead, but he isn’t present in the current timeline and thus has been presumed dead by most). And the most recent addition to the corps of replaced characters is Carol Danvers. Carol apparently died in the most recent issue of Ms. Marvel (issue 37) and will be replaced by Moonstone.

It is the death of the original Ms. Marvel that inspired this piece. I read Ms. Marvel starting with issue 9 (of the current series) through issue 18 (or perhaps it was 19, I forget which of the two I ended with). I actually stopped reading the title a number of months before I quit reading everything from that publisher. My reason for stepping away from Ms. Marvel is I didn’t care for the direction being taken. The writer, Brian Reed, explained his focus with the character was defining her as trying to be the very best hero she could be. Yet, during Civil War, she sided with Tony Stark against Steve Rogers, someone she had a longer working relationship (and friendship) with and whose ideals I always thought she respected. It just seemed very out of character for someone supposedly trying to be the best hero she could be. I couldn’t buy into Brian Reed’s vision at that point (whether he had any say in terms of which side Ms. Marvel took in that conflict didn’t really matter – the point is the so-called brain-trust put her on that side so what was done was done).

Regardless of my reasons for quitting the title, I know Brian Reed put a lot of work into the character trying to make her someone fans would really care about and to improve the standing of the character. Which is why I can’t understand why the decision was made to kill Carol Danvers. After putting in all the effort to craft compelling stories to strengthen readers’ connections to the character and elevating her status as a key player in that universe, it just doesn’t make any sense to kill Carol and replace her with a character nobody really gives a damn about. It makes even less sense in terms of marketability. You always hear companies tout certain issues as great jumping on points for new readers. And the next issue of Ms. Marvel (issue 38) could certainly fit that bill as a new character is stepping in to take over the role and the overall direction of the title is likely changing. More importantly however, issue 37 provides a perfect stepping off point for current readers. And I would have to imagine there is a higher likelihood of more readers jumping ship than new readers coming onboard.
I really can’t understand the logic. Brian Reed has done a good job of building the readership of this title and establishing sales numbers that are consistently in the high 20K to low 30K range. You can throw all of that out the window now. There is no way they can rely on the consistency of those numbers in coming months. After spending thirty-seven issues convincing comic fans that Carol Danvers is a compelling character, they just did an about face and said it isn’t the character that matters, only the costume. So as long as SOMEONE is wearing the costume, the rest is academic. It isn’t the person inside that matters, only the outfit they are sporting.

Is that really all that matters to you as a comic fan? Are they to convince us that it is the costume that makes the hero and not the other way around? Anyone who puts on Captain America’s colors is Captain America? Anyone who hides their face beneath the mask of the Question is the Question? They are the very spirit of the hero?

I say no. I don’t show up every month to read about a green and black spandex outfit with a lantern on the front of it. I don’t read for the blond wig, leather jacket, and fishnets. I’m there for characters who just happen to have worn them. Whether they are wearing those particular costumes or some every day outfit like a blouse and skirt or a t-shirt and jeans doesn’t matter. I want to read about the characters that actually made the costumes stand for something. Because it isn’t the costumes that are the heroes. It is the CHARACTERS!