There is a somewhat modern mantra in comic journalism/fandom, most certainly a product of constant creative shifts, reboots, relaunches, renumberings, and general editorial jackassery in the industry: “I follow creators, not characters.”
The idea is a sound one: by buying books from creators that you personally enjoy, you have a better shot at getting material that meets your standards, as well as a better chance of supporting the people that bring you enjoyment through their art. It is a bit of a “fuck you” to the traditional mindset of comics fans who love a character such as Superman, and so they buy every Superman book on the market, whether it is good (like Paul Cornell’s 2010/11 “Action Comics” run) or not (like the current “Superman” title). By vowing to follow creators instead of characters, you’re saying that you won’t be duped by whatever stupid scheme the latest hack writer/artist has dreamed up, and that you’ll be taking your time, money and enthusiasm elsewhere.
In theory, I agree with this idea – no one likes to read bad comics, and by being more discerning about what you read, you eliminate many of the bad reads. But to say that I follow this idea would make me a liar.
Hi, my name is Brian, and I follow characters.
Let me start off by saying that yes, I realize that this isn’t the ideal scenario. I wish I had the cold calculation of being able to look at everything I do and discern what is worth continuing and what isn’t. But, as I’m writing this, I’m eating a Yodel in a shirt with a stain on it at work. I’m clearly not very self aware in regards to what is good for me or not.
To illustrate why I do this, I’ve been trying to come up with an analogue in other media. I started thinking about Weezer, the most important “modern” band of my adolescence. From 7th grade through sophomore year in college, Weezer was just about my favorite band, and a band that really spoke to me personally. They sang about awkwardness in many forms and I was, and am, awkward in many ways. Their first two albums (especially their second, Pinkerton) are some of the most important pieces of media consumed in my life. Pinkerton was released just a few weeks into my high school career, and the record about disillusionment with being a rock star seemed to be a nice corollary to my miserableness during “the best years of your life.”
After a lengthy sabbatical, Weezer returned at the tail end of my freshmen year in college with their third album, simply called Weezer, but commonly referred to as “the Green Album.” Although I tried to be optimistic about it at the time, it was pretty lame. Lamer still was the follow up, Maladroit. Lamest of all – so lame I didn’t even buy it – was 2005’s Make Believe. Maladroit was the last Weezer album I bought, not counting reissued deluxe editions of their first two albums, and although I haven’t bought an album since, I still take a listen whenever a new album comes out, and hold onto hope that one day a Weezer album might again inspire awe in me.
You see, this is how I should be with comics, too. I am currently buying “Red Hood and the Outlaws,” mostly due to the presence of Roy Harper, aka Speedy, Arsenal or Red Arrow. For reasons truly unknown to me, I became a pretty hardcore Speedy fan in my early comics days, despite not really caring for Green Arrow. I became a Speedy fan at exactly the right time, where he transitioned into being Arsenal; I got to see what so many fans never get to see – real growth from one of their favorite characters. Over the next two decades, Harper became a father, suffered losses, embraced his legacy by going by “Red Arrow,” joined the Justice League, became a trusted contemporary of the people who helped raise him, and generally grew up.
And then, through a series of events too long and nerdy to get into here (“something something dead cat”), the character was written into really terrible stories, both for the fictional character and for the very real reader. Then came the New 52 and most of the growth that Roy had gone through was erased, and now he is playing second banana to Jason Todd, a character he had very little history with.Continued below
If following the established Weezer logic, I should simply not read his current adventures until somebody does something worthwhile with him. And yet, month after month, I pluck down nearly 32 bits for a book that, mostly, just makes me shake my head and wax nostalgic for times before a baseball cap was part of the Arsenal costume.
What it comes down to, I believe, is that certain characters are important to me, for a variety of reasons. Kyle Rayner, DC’s main Green Lantern for a decade, remains one of my favorite comics characters of all time. Part of this is due to the great stories that Ron Marz told during his run on “Green Lantern,” and part of it is due to being in the right point in my life to really appreciate Rayner. Much like Weezer, 1994 was the year that Kyle made his debut, and as an insecure middle schooler, seeing an insecure artist with the most powerful weapon on his finger made me feel better about my lot in life. For an unathletic kid without much real talent, the idea of having a tool that could help me achieve my wildest fantasies through sheer willpower was certainly attractive (spoiler alert: it still is).
Rayner has had some real shitty books centered around him since then, but I’ve never stopped buying them. Whenever I read him (even when he’s drawn with a weird grey sheen on his hair by Tyler Kirkham), a little part of 12-year old Brian pops up inside of me and gets to see that, despite being supplanted as the main Green Lantern, Kyle is still an important character in the DC Universe, unlike so many others I loved long ago. As cheesy and stupid as it sounds, the character means something to me.
And part of caring about the character means that I take a perverse joy in reading when they’re done wrong, too. “Hate Reading” is something I sadly do on occasion; in a perfect world, all comics are great, and this doesn’t exist, but I think all fans know what I mean by this. We all have that one book we pick up mainly because it gives us a chance to violently glare at characters drawn without feet, or to see what our favorite team book would be like if all the characters were lobotomized. For me, I only Hate Read books that feature characters I really love; I would never Hate Read a Wolverine title, because he’s not very interesting to me. Hence, why I buy “Red Hood and the Outlaws” – because lame Roy Harper is better than no Roy Harper at all.
In 2009, in a case of creator and character coming together, my favorite writer, James Robinson, was launching a new Justice League miniseries, “Cry for Justice,” with a shockingly high number of my personal favorites involved: Freddy Freeman, Starman, Hal Jordan, Batwoman, Ray Palmer and Roy Harper. The book wound up being quite controversial because of what happened to Roy; he lost his arm in a fight with Prometheus, and his daughter was killed when Star City was destroyed. While I didn’t love either of these decisions, it seemed to me like Roy doing what he had been for the past four decades: evolving. From sidekick to addict, Arsenal to Red Arrow, playboy to father, Checkmate agent to Justice Leaguer, happy to mourning. Good stories could have come out of these developments.
But, they didn’t and, as has been established over and over again, I stuck around. Like a chump.
As much as there are books I buy because of the art, and books I buy because of the writing, the reason I buy books at all is the characters. Challenge of the Superfriends and Christopher Reeve and the Kenner “Super Powers” line of toys are what got me to take notice of superheroes. Those are the reasons that I started buying comics, and those are the reasons I fell in love with the medium. 25 years later, I’m still reading comics, and while I am a more educated person with more discerning taste, I still remember what brought me to the store in the first place. And I have a really hard time walking down the wall of new releases and not feeling something when I see “Green Lantern: New Guardians” on the shelf. I want to see what those characters are up to, even if I know it will not be what I want.Continued below
This fall, many of us are going to be in the throws of this debate when Marvel NOW! launches. The Marvel NOW! initiative presents an interesting scenario for me, as my two favorite Marvel books are getting dramatically over-hauled. “Journey Into Mystery,” the Loki-centric book penned by Kieron Gillen, and “FF,” the adventures of the Future Foundation written by Jonathan Hickman, are both undergoing dramatic facelifts. “JiM” is becoming focused on Sif (written by Kathryn Immonen), where “FF” is becoming the temporary Fantastic Four’s home while the real deal are on a trip through time and space (written by Matt Fraction). This is a case of not having to pick creator or character, as neither book will feature the characters nor the creators that are the reasons I currently buy the books!
Hickman is the reason that I’m reading “FF” – he is one of my favorite creators working today, and his world building/epic storytelling on both “FF” and “Fantastic Four” have featured some of the best moments of mainstream comics in the past 5 years. I followed him, as a creator, over to these books and have been heartily rewarded. However, I have also developed an affinity for these characters that I didn’t always have, and so I want to keep reading them, too. So, while I was buying two books to get my Hickman/F4 fix, now I must buy four, as “Fantastic Four” and “FF” by Matt Fraction will be dealing with the characters, and Hickman will be writing “Avengers” and “New Avengers,” books I was not currently reading, for Marvel NOW!. Now, I think Hickman on Avengers books could be pretty great; what if he was taking over “Wolverine” or “Hulk”?
This is, essentially, the same discussion that we were having a year ago, when the New 52 was the going concern, and people were trying to figure out what books were worth a read and which weren’t. And then, just like now, loyalty to an idea was pitted against loyalty to creators. The New 52’s supposed lack of past continuity meant that every book was, in theory, a new place to start, and so I was willing to try things I wouldn’t normally go for, like “All-Star Western” or “Legion Lost,” both of which aren’t in my pull anymore, as well as “I, Vampire” and “Wonder Woman,” which are. In the case of the latter two, it was because of the strength of the creative teams that sold me on the books, and I honestly don’t think I’d follow those characters if inferior creative teams were put on the books. I would give them a chance, as I did all of the New 52 books, and as I will for many of the Marvel NOW! books, but ultimately, those characters in the wrong hands don’t bum me out the way that a bad creator working on a good character does.
And so while I know that it doesn’t exactly make sense to collect something I don’t really like, I know I’ll probably keep buying “Red Hood and the Outlaws” and “Green Lantern: New Guardians,” because every now and then even Scott Lobdell manages to do something with Roy that makes me smile. And maybe if enough dumbasses like me keep buying, Roy won’t be seen as a character without much to do, and will be given better stories and better opportunities. For me, it is enough that I can sit here and listen to Pinkerton 16 years after its release and enjoy it every bit as much as I did when I was 14, but I can’t feel that same way about these characters that continue to adapt and grow in the same way Weezer has (well, devolved and limped along in Weezer’s case). It isn’t enough to dig out my “Titans” run; I want to be able to read Roy and Dick Grayson and Wally West still being relevant today.
And, call me names if you like, I will follow them wherever they wind up, just in case they wind up coming home.