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Retro Debate: Was Killing Wonder Man the Best Solution?

by  in Comic News Comment
Retro Debate: Was Killing Wonder Man the Best Solution?

So, Tom Brevoort stopped by this week’s Comic Book Legends Revealed to say that the character Mark Gruenwald was talking about Marvel killing in October 1993 (as related in this week’s column) was Wonder Man.

So I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the arguments in favor of killing Wonder Man back then and see whether they’re convincing (the conceit of this piece, by the way, is Gruenwald is approached by two men who want him to whack a comic character for them).

Let’s begin!

The guy’s backstory has gotten way too complicated, he’s been handled by a succession of writers who took the character this way and that, his sales are now in the toilet, and – to make a long story short – our employer thinks the only thing good about the character is his name. So he wants to kill the current guy so he can turn around and recycle the name with a new character.

I don’t even get part of this, by the way, as I don’t recall Marvel ever having intentions to do a new Wonder Man.

Otherwise, I definitely can see the whole “different writers having different takes on Wonder Man,” as Gerry Jones’ Wonder Man was a LOT different than Steve Englehart’s Wonder Man or John Byrne’s Wonder Man, who in turn were different than earlier takes on Wonder Man.

Plus, his back story WAS sort of convoluted.

The sales, well, that is believable. Wonder Man was unlikely to ever be a sales juggernaut.

That’s when Gruenwald puts forth his argument for how you could revamp a character rather than kill him/her…

I couldn’t condemn such a guy to death just because he had the misfortune of having some writers make him complicated instead of interesting. So I told the artist, how about if we just ignore all the stuff that makes Sam’s backstory so unsavory – not negate it, mind you, just never refer to it again – and work on updating him for the ’90s instead?

Then the rest is basically the rest of the column

“That may work with a supporting character, Mr. Gruenwald. But we’re talking about a headliner here -”

The smaller guy elbowed the big one in the ribs, afraid, I guess, that he was going to reveal too much.

“Well, with a headliner, it’s possible to do the same. You can just have the writer and editor hereby vow to ignore all the bad stuff and concentrate on the good, and eventually the fans will stop remembering that the bad stuff was even there.”

“That won’t work, Mr. Gruenwald,” the smaller lug said. “We’re talking about a book which is hemorrhaging from low sales. It’s necessary to do something big and something quick to save it.”

“To Save You, Why Must I Kill You?” I murmured.

“What was that?”

“Oh, I was just quoting my all-time favorite Stan Lee title. Your solution to save the title is to kill it, right?”

“Yeah, but then revive it.”

“Look, one of my most-quoted axioms about the comics biz is that there are three things you can do to make an immediate sales difference on a super hero title: One, guest star somebody big, like Wolverine or Venom. Two, change a guy’s costume in a big way. Or three, kill him off and/or replace him. You seem dead-set – pardon the pun – on the last of these. Have you considered the first two?”

“Considered?” said the bigger guy. “We did ’em! Even threw in number four to add to your list – did a gimmick cover. Didn’t work. Soon as the guest stars left and the cover was back to normal, sales slacked back, new costume be darned.”

Here are the attempts for one…

And here is the attempt for two (and also four, as this cover was an embossed cover, which in turn was part four of a quadtych set of covers)…

“I see…well, might I suggest then retiring the character without killing him? Maybe the book’s just a little anemic right now, or there’s a lot of stiff competition out there, or the direction’s just never clicked, and all you need is a few years of downtime so you can try again with the exact same guy. I mean, the Hulk, Silver Surfer, the Guardians of the Galaxy – none of these could sustain a series for very long when they first came out in the ’60s and ’70s, but after being relaunched some time later – success! Could happen with your guy.”

“But what about Ghost Rider, Deathlok, and Spider-Woman?” asked the smaller one. “They were revived with new guys taking the place of the originals. They might not’ve done so well with originals just dusted off and put back in print.”

“Mmm, yes,” I said, “but for every Ghost Rider or Deathlok or Spider-Woman, you have at least two Iron Fists or Morbiuses or Hellstorms or Warlocks who are the same old characters dusted off and done better than in their previous incarnations. What I think you have to do is determine what is at the core of a given character’s concept. If it is that a specific person just has to be a certain character to retain its uniqueness and primacy, or if the concept is bigger than who happened to be the first to embody it. For example, you could do another guy who got Morbius’s blood formula and turned into a living vampire, but it wouldn’t be Morbius. On the other hand, you could do another guy with a fiery skull riding a motorcycle – it doesn’t have to be Johnny – excuse me, John – Blaze.”

The two lughs both stared at their knees for a moment, apparently thinking about what I’d just said. “So have your employer ask himself if the concept of the character he wants to bump off requires that the original person embody that concept to make it work – replacing Sam Wilson with another Falcon would rob the Marvel Universe forever of its first African-American hero – or if it’s a non-specific, inheritable concept – any woman with spidery powers could be a female Spider-Man, not just the first. Does that make sense?”

At this point, the “men” moved on and found a different writer to do it.

What I’m curious about is, WAS there a plan to introduce a brand new Wonder Man?

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