RECOIL: OR, WHEN CHARACTERS DON’T STICK
I’d heard about this new Marvel policy where they ask their writers — past and present — to submit a list of characters they created or co-created, presumably so the legal situation can be ironed out before the Disney deal becomes final. I don’t care about the specifics of the situation, or, rather, I don’t know enough about it to realize how much it may or may not matter. Is this a way to give creators some kind of token credit in exchange for Disney’s ownership of the characters in perpetuity? Or is it simply a way to catalog who gets credit, and partial ownership, when the characters burst forth into new media?
We’ll see how it plays out, I suppose, but what struck me last week was the list of characters Kurt Busiek posted on his blog, in response to Marvel’s request for the names of characters he created for them. As he says in the post, even Busiek was surprised by the amount of characters he should get credit for creating for the company. Dozens of characters and “multi-character concepts” (a.k.a. mostly super-teams), and if you look at the massive list, you’ll probably think something similar to what I thought: All these characters, and basically none of them stuck.
Sure, Busiek gave us the Thunderbolts, but the comic that’s published now really has very little, if anything, to do with the concept of the team he originally created. The other characters? The Bluebirds, the Decays, the Golden Gators, the Papa Haggs of the world? They haven’t made much of an impact. They have slipped off the face of the Marvel U like so many discarded crumbs.
Okay, Triathalon may still be kicking around, but when was the last time he had enough mojo to headline a series all by himself? About never ago, right?
And Busiek has been around a long time, and he’s done some very good work for Marvel and elsewhere, and he, above all, is keyed into the Marvel zeitgeist. If anyone from the past twenty years might have created a Marvel character who made a lasting impact, it might as well have been Busiek. He’s had the opportunity to work with a lot of characters in a lot of different places.
But none of his characters have stuck, not really.
And the same is true for almost every comic book creator working in mainstream comics. The new characters just don’t stick. Grant Morrison creates a dozen new characters every time he writes a series. Even in an event book, normally the place for all the old standards to convene to fight the big bad, he created a bunch of new superheroes in the Super Young Team. Brian Michael Bendis has been writing about Ultimate Peter Parker for ten years, and in all that time, how many original characters has he created that have stuck around? How about Ed Brubaker? What’s his legacy for new characters introduced and then used widely in the Marvel Universe? What about Geoff Johns over at DC? A few colorful lanterns are kicking around right now, but other than a few new Flash rogues, what has he added to the landscape of the DC multiverse? What has stuck, even for him?
Of course, the answer to all of these questions are “nothing” or “not much at all.”
And, as any self-respecting comic book fan knows, the problem goes back even farther than that. New characters introduced into Marvel and DC just don’t stick. They don’t have staying power. Not enough to hang around with the big guns of each company at least. At DC, if a character wasn’t introduced in 1930s, 40s, or 60s, odds are that the character rarely matters in the grand scheme of comic book things. At Marvel, the same rule applies, though characters created in the 1970s have a better chance of sticking around at that company. The Punisher and Wolverine seem to do pretty well for themselves.
So why is it that so many old characters matter so much, and so many new characters just slide away, never to be heard from again? Even when it’s a solid new character, like Sean McKeever and Mike Norton’s Gravity, the character doesn’t seem to stand a chance. He or she might end up with a short-lived series, then some guest spots, and maybe a role in a team book. But that’s about the best that can be hoped for. Why is that?
Maybe it could be easily explained by saying, “fans don’t like new things.” Readers want the stuff they grew up with, and the biggest knock against someone like Gravity is that he’s not Wolverine, he’s not Spider-Man. Magog’s no Green Lantern.
But I think there’s a deeper reason, and it has to do with the way these comic book universes are structured. I’ve spoken before about the Grand Corporate Narratives (a term I first saw used by Douglas Wolk), and the notion that the Marvel Universe is a single story that’s been going on since at least the 1940s. The DC story is even older. And each new comic, each new series, even, isn’t something “new” at all, it’s just a continuation of that much older, much longer story.
If you think of the stories with that long-term perspective, and that’s really how they demand to be looked at, with their constant allusions to the company’s past and the continuity that has come before, then introducing a new character — even a great new character — in a comic book published in, say, 2004, is the equivalent of a new character popping into a movie about 10 minutes before the closing credits. The character’s just too late to make much of an impact.
And maybe it also has to do with what the Greeks thought of as “recoil.” The idea that the world is supposed to be a certain way — their drama explored this — and when something gets out of whack (like say, Oedipus scoring with his mom), the universe has an obligation to snap back into shape. And the aberrations to the norm pay some kind of price. (Like self-inflicted blindess, and a loss of power, in the case of Oedipus.) At some point, both the Marvel and DC universes hardened into their current state. Maybe it was within a few years of the major characters first being created, maybe it was once readers began having regular access to comics for more than a few random months at a time, but at some point, the world of those superhero universes became firm. And any change to that status quo demanded recoil.
Even the aberration of “Crisis on Infinite Earths” has undone itself by now. Recoil has returned the DCU to its natural multiversality.
And that’s why some seemingly major new character could be introduced, and that character would have to overcome the inevitable force of recoil to even stand a chance of making a difference in the long run. Faced with such an ancient concept, how could Busiek’s Golden Gator really have lived up to his potential? I mean, even Oedipus got the short end of the recoil stick, and he was a king.
Does that mean that characters can never stick again? New characters never have a chance to make it to the top tier?
Not exactly, because sometimes the Grand Corporate Narrative of Marvel and DC softens a bit, even though it’s fully formed. It happened in the 1970s when Kirby left Marvel and caused a softening in both companies that let some new characters — the New Gods, surely, but even characters Kirby had nothing to do with, like the Punisher and Wolverine and Ghost Rider — solidify into the new status quo.
It happened again in the 1980s, post-Alan Moore, as Neil Gaiman was able to get the Endless into the reformed DCU, though the characters would have become even more integral if he didn’t have a bit of the ownership himself.
And it happened again right before and during the Image explosion, when characters like Venom and Cable and Deadpool made their presence known. The firmament softened in that brief era, and some characters became part of the hard substance that became the 1990s Marvel Universe.
But it seems to take Grand Corporate Narrative-shaking event to make that possible. The long-running stories don’t just let anyone in. The ground has to be softened first. Change has to occur to the company, somehow. Then, a new character has a chance to stick. Until then, it’s just Geldof and Most Excellent Superbat and Gravity. And no one really cares.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” (which explores “Zenith” in great detail) and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon