Sometimes I sit and ponder why I still reminisce about the comics I read as a youth. Strip away all the fluff from that statement, such as the romanticism of looking back at your younger self, the blissful ignorance of a 10-year old’s opinion, or the comradery felt from reading comics with your friends, and I’m still adamant that things were better 30 years ago.
The paradox of this is that comics are better today. The amount of imaginative, creator-owned material has only increased with multiple publishers thriving in what was once a niche market. The ongoing success of Image, Humanoids, Fantagraphics, Top Shelf, and others has made the comic book as an art form more accessible. In catering to a wider audience and reaching readers in locations outside of the direct market, the industry has blossomed to a point where the independent market is a significant force.
However, when one mentions comic books to the general American public, it is the superhero genre that comes to mind. Thus, superhero comics are a sort of litmus test for the direct market. That market, beyond the comic book crash of the late 1990’s, has remained fairly stable for the past 20 years, yet there is a void that exists within me in regards to superhero comics. While the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has injected freshly needed attention to the industry, that fever pitch to consume single issues has waned, mostly due to the difficulties in introducing new readers to the superhero genre.
Let’s Talk About Character Niches
Character niches have been a part of comics since their roots, even before comics were comic books. From the first comic strips featuring The Phantom to the introduction of Miles Morales in “Ultimate Spider-Man,” the mechanism has always existed for new and different characters to assume an established mantle and fill a specific niche. Both DC and Marvel have similar designations. The superhero team, the anti-hero team, the solo anti-hero, the magician, the solo teenager, the supernatural hero, etc…
There are natural pathways for characters to interact within their universe and amongst each other. Thus, there can be no gaps in this matrix, and the opportunity always exists for a new character to take the place of an established one. Whether it be as simple as a former sidekick growing up and rebranding himself as his own individual, such as Nightwing. Or a friend taking up the mantle of a fallen hero, such as The Winter Soldier. The need to maintain a lineage, or at least a path, to further the tales of a superhero has always been evident. This new character doesn’t have to be related, or even known to the former, they simply need to fill the market niche that the prior character occupied.
On the surface it would seem that the major publishers have done an admirable job of creating and nurturing a stable of replacement characters. X-23, the Young Avengers, Teen Titans, New Mutants, the various Flash and Green Lanterns, as well as the aforementioned Miles Morales are perfect examples. Plus, one could argue that the entire concept of the ’90s and ’00s X-men comics was to create new mutant heroes, as their roster grew exponentially. Unfortunately, the creation of heroes is only one side of the coin.
Who is the Perfect Niche Character?
If you have any love for comic books, someone at some point, will ask you who your favorite character is. People love to know what you hold in esteem. I’ve always assumed that the genesis of the question is half intrigue, and half self-confirmation. Maybe they learn about something they never heard of before. Or, if per chance you say a character that they like. Maybe you have a new best friend. It’s an innocent and to-the-point question.
Whenever somebody asks me who my favorite character is I instantly rattle off what I feel is the greatest representation of a niche character in comics. Starman.
“Starman.” A beloved, award winning comic, and in my heart the greatest self-contained run ever released by DC or Marvel. No tie-ins, no marketing gimmicks, you don’t even need to reference a Wikipedia page. It is an 82-issue love letter than can be read by anyone. Introduced nearly 25 years ago, the Jack Knight Starman run took a known concept, that of a forgotten or overlooked son coming to terms with his legacy and proving his father proud, and interweaved it across the threads of the DC Universe.Continued below
What makes Starman the perfect niche character is that, unlike the examples mentioned above, it flips the coin. It draws a line in the sand, which can be fuzzy at times in all honesty, and sticks to it. The original Starman, Ted Knight, was a Golden Age hero of modest popularity. His sons, particularly Jack Knight, took on the mantle and then passed it off to Courtney Whitmore, Stargirl. In each of these transitionary periods, while the previous Starman would maintain a presence in the universe and have their own adventures, their period of significance came to a defined end. Whether the character is killed or retired, the important thing is that the new character has a clean slate to work in. With minimal chaff and residue to pollute the storyline.
The Importance of Flipping the Coin
So what happens when a new character makes the jump to become a prominent intellectual property within their niche and the prior character is not allowed to relinquish the mantle? You have the proliferation of comics and storylines, without any of the necessary culling to streamline the universe. Let’s pick on the X-Men again. (For what it’s worth, I was a diehard X-fan for over 20 years.) You have the original X-Men team, and the subsequent new X-Men team’s story told in the pages of “Uncanny X-Men,” this eventually spread to “New Mutants,” and “X-Factor.” This created some overlap of characters, but still very manageable. This then grew to include “New X-Men,” “X-Men,” “Extreme X-Men,” “X-Force,” “Astonishing X-Men,” “Cable,” “Wolverine,” “Generation X,” etc., etc. As multiple layers of characters and storylines are added to the universe, the barriers to entry increase exponentially.
Even for someone with decades of X-Men knowledge, the task of maintaining and chronicling these adventures can be daunting. When I read my first X-Men comic in 1988 (“Uncanny X-Men” #239!) I had 200-300 issues of backstory to comprehend. It wasn’t required reading, and to this day I feel that publishers do an admirable job of not making past issues required, but without the backstory you do a disservice to the current storyline. If I were to walk into a shop today and pick up a copy of “X-Men: Blue,” the sheer weight of prior X-Men volumes would be crushing. Imagine a young fan having just seen Logan. That fan walks out thinking Wolverine was the coolest thing they’ve ever seen. There is a small window here where this potential fan is open to buying a Wolverine comic. Which one though? With hundreds of issues of his own title, and hundreds of appearances going back to “Hulk” #181, there are thousands of instances that encompass the whole of Wolverine. It is a monumental task which can easily sour any potential fan.
Even within this example, Wolverine stands as an outlier. With only one or two comics chronicling his adventures at any one time. But, as new characters have come in to fill his niche, whether it be X-23, Old Man Logan, or another anti-establishment character, Wolverine has continued. Further still, imagine Batman, who can have an entire family of books dedicated to him, as well as multiple universe wide reboots. The speed in which this problem has been exacerbated has only increased over the past 15 years. Company-wide crossovers have become the norm, thus, so has the quantity of stories involving the company’s major heroes.
Without establishing a proper turnover rate, each subsequent issue that a publisher releases only increases the barriers to entry. This makes acquiring new readers nearly impossible. With this issue firmly entrenched in the industry, how can we utilize legacy or niche characters, and the template presented in “Starman,” as a solution?
The Starman Solution?
Realize that my choice in using “Starman” for this example is unique. Few characters throughout the past 25 years that have had a successful run, and then had the benefit to be left alone. That, in and of itself, is his charm. He has a beginning, a middle and an end. This doesn’t mean you can’t revisit the character, nor does it mean that you cannot add more stories to the character, but the delineation of where his particular story is at any one time is clear.Continued below
In contrast, Spider-Man would represent the exact opposite. Peter Parker has a clearly defined beginning, plus a middle that has seen great success. However, whenever the genesis of a potential end arises, the storyline is squashed to reset him to the middle of his arc. He’s happily married? Nope, reset it. He dies? Nope, reset it. He has a daughter? Nope! Reset it. Because of his popularity no true evolution of his character is ever allowed to mature. Luckily for potential Spider-Man fans, the “Ultimate Spider-Man” run exists, offering new readers a concise and complete storyline.
So what would be the ideal situation for Spider-Man in my reality? As the character evolved to include Mayday Parker, Spider-Gwen, and Miles Morales, Peter Parker’s story would be scaled back. Clearly publishers fear this as the thought of scaling back your main characters could present a backlash from your current fans. But, it would at least give you the possibility of bringing in new fans. Instead, you are continually catering to a decreasing fan base, while alienating your future fan base.
How can the Industry React?
How has Marvel and DC reacted to this conundrum? By performing a series of soft-and-hard reboots. These reboots, unfortunately, never draw a line in the sand. They are always all encompassing, trying to reset or reintroduce characters so that they are accessible to a new audience, while maintaining the canon for current fans. By trying to placate everyone, you’re doing a disservice to the industry and its fans.
The only true outlier to this trend would be the Marvel Ultimate Universe, which saw significant and sustained sales for an extended number of years. They achieved this by creating a completely distinct, and unattached universe from the general Marvel timeline. Thus, even though you were using the same character names, they were distinct versions of them unencumbered by their thousands of back issues. Even there though, the most important characters were not allowed to see an end, and as sales dwindled they were simply transplanted to the 616 Timeline.
I myself, was hopeful when DC introduced the New 52. It would have been courageous of them as a company to pull off a hard reboot, and let the new continuity grow and mature organically. Unfortunately, what they delivered was a hodgepodge where some characters were rebooted, other characters retained their history, and there was a race to reintroduce any character of relevance. Then, as soon as the boat started to rock, they pulled the whole thing back. I don’t even know what continuity they are on anymore…
So that is the current situation of the industry. Luckily, the incredible popularity of superhero movies has afforded comic books with an extended opportunity to continue publishing. However, if and when the superhero movie bubble bursts, what will happen to our superheroes? Will Disney and Warner Brothers, without the financial incentive to maintain their comic publishing arms, maintain them strictly to create and nurture current and future intellectual properties? Or will the industry finally take drastic steps to confront a potentially declining readership base.
Regardless of the outcome, at least I have my 82 issue run of “Starman” to give to my kids. I’d prefer though, to be reading about the seventh generation “Starman.” Hopefully, somebody out there will have the chance to write it.