Sunday, April 28, 2013

Would Limited Series Have Been a Better Vehicle for Short-Lived Bronze Age Series?

Doug:  At times we've talked about the parameters of the Bronze Age.  Sometimes we wonder if the advent of the direct market signaled the end, or perhaps the roughly-coinciding invention of the limited series (both the mini- and maxi- varieties) was the "death knell", so to speak.  I want to delve further into the notion of limited series today by asking you sort of a "what if?" question.  Today let's wonder aloud if the concept of the limited series had come alive a decade earlier, would certain short-lived series released in the 1970's have been better served?

Doug:  I'd like you to expound on several series, both from Marvel and DC (and other publishers if you are so inclined), and give an opinion on the life they knew and whether or not you feel those series would have been better served if reimagined.  For example, Claws of the Cat comes up around here from time to time.  One of the knocks on the series is the shift of the creative teams throughout the series; we could add the lack of the creation of a dedicated rogues gallery as another pitfall.  The series lasted a mere four issues.  Do you think that a pre-arranged life of six issues, with a consistent writer/artist collaboration and a storyline involving an appropriately devilish villain(ess) would have made for a more pleasurable experience, and even perhaps extended the life of the character as originally conceived?  Of course we can ask the same question about Black Goliath, Omega the Unknown, and certain series that ran in the rotating titles such as Marvel Spotlight.  I guess what I'm asking concerns true storylines with a beginning, middle, and end -- rather than something rushed to be tied up before the axe fell or even left completely unresolved.  Even a title like the Inhumans, which lasted 12 issues, might have been different had that parameter been pre-ordained.  As to DC, I'll leave that to our readers more inclined toward the Distinguished Competition.

24 comments:

humanbelly said...

Well, I wonder if structured Limited Series' mightn't have been a result (at least in part) of the problem of launching too many new titles like THE CAT, OMEGA, SKULL THE SLAYER, INHUMANS, etc, and then seeing them fail because of creator-abdication and/or unstable sales. It really is the perfect try-out vehicle-- and hence we get a West Coast Avengers title, a Hawkeye title, and a Wolverine title at some point after they've all had shots at a limited series. So yep, those books clearly would have fared better even if they hadn't had any longer runs. . . because they would have existed as a single, beginning-to-end project, and made a stronger & more favorable impression on the grand tapestry of Marvel Continuity.

HB

Anonymous said...

I agree with HB. In the 70s it seemed like if Marvel had a character they found interesting they put out a comic book and waited to see what happened. Some lasted (Power Man, Shang Chi) but most didn't. In the 80s Marvel's mini-series seemed to focus on characters who were interesting but not enough to sustain their own series (Falcon, Nightcrawler, Gargoyle, Hercules, etc.)

As for DC, they did have a few cool mini-series (Deadman comes to mind), but DC had room for lots of shorter stories in comics like Detective or World's Finest, so they didn't need mini-series to give a character a storyline of their own...they could just stick the story in another comic as a backup like they did with Green Arrow, Martian Manhunter, Supergirl and so on.

Mike W.

david_b said...

In my opinion, DC's brief 'Joker' title had 'limited series' written all over it. It sure would have saved the companies much face over titles that kinda had that dark cloud over them from the start.

Excellent comments.

Doug said...

Mike --

You raise an excellent point on DC's back-ups, and I sure don't mind if that becomes a tangential part of today's discussion.

Even before DC went to the 60c format, later the Dollar Comics, they were running a 15-16 page main story and then a 6-8 page back-up feature. While the reader got less of Batman (for example), they did get more total pages in their comic and two features. DC's back-up features actually gave readers more bang for their buck than had Marvel's Silver Age split books. So if I'm hearing you correctly, you're suggesting that the back-ups in the DC mags gave creators/editorial the opportunity to try things out, sustain copyrights, etc. without making the big marketing commitments to lesser characters as we were seeing over at the House of Ideas.

Veee-ry intevesting...

Doug

Rip Jagger said...

If the many titles which failed during the Bronze Age had been conceived of as limited series, I'd think we'd have seen a stronger impetus to have kept the same creative teams on them. A lot of series in the time had ever shifting creative talent, so much so (such as Skull, Cat, Deathlok, etc.) that it hurt the overall effort.

It's been mentioned, but many of the series which were offered and failed would've been dandy back ups in earlier decades. Holding a lead on the stands was and increasingly is difficult.

Rip Off

Garett said...

Would've been nice to see Howard Chaykin's Scorpion as a limited series, instead of him leaving after a couple issues.

david_b said...

Another good question to augment this with would be which artists/writers would have benefitted most from having Limited Series back in the 70s..?

Kirby would top that list, perhaps Gerber's ideas would have been better served as well.

Edo Bosnar said...

Totally agree with Mike W's point about the back-up features; the same thing occurred to me as I was reading the original post.
Even so, DC also had quite a few ill-fated titles that got the axe (Ragman, Starfire, Star Hunters, Kobra...), which would have probably been better served by some sort of open and shut mini-series.

As for Omega, I always regretted that Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes never had the chance to wrap up the series like they wanted. The conclusion that appeared in the Defenders later was quite unsatisfying. However, when Omega finally did get maxi-series treatment more recently, it was not only unsatisfying but also, I thought, laughably pretentious.
Rip's comment has me wondering if characters like Nova and Ms. Marvel may have fared better if they started out as 4 to 6 issue minis with firm creative teams on a trial run basis, like (as HB noted) the West Coast Avengers or Wolverine did later.
And Garett, since we're talking about Chaykin could-have-been projects, how about a Monark Starstalker limited series? By the way, I love those two issues of Scorpion he did; they're arguably the finest comics produced by Atlas-Seaboard.

david_b said...

Actually, speaking of Atlas, not sure if it was by design or not, but their offerings sure seemed like 'limited series' to me. Most titles only lasted 3-4 issues it seems. I picked up 'Planet of the Vampires' issue's 2&3, VERY against my nature to grab a mag with either post-apocalyptic stories or vampires, but I enjoyed it. Great Broderick-Adams covers.

mr. oyola said...

This is a little off topic, but I think limited series may be the answer to the problems with comics period.

I would love to see all the ongoing series trashed and replaced with various short series, that way we can ignore the troublesome burden of continuity and just have different series of 4 to 12 issues (or more) that focus on a different "version" of Batman or Spider-Man or Supes or Wolverine.

The characters would still be on-going, and you could even have parallel titles with the same characters, the stories would be self-contained and not necessarily connected to each other.

This would also allow for writers/artists to be a little more daring and experimental.

That being said, I think the obvious answer to the question asked is YES. Limited series would have definitely helped develop better characters and stories and later longer stories for a whole assortment of characters, from Black Goliath to the Cat to Machine Man.

Matt Celis said...

I think every new title would be better off starting as a miniseries. It forces the creative team to figure out the character and atory they want to tell. It can always be extended a la Transformera if it is a big hit.

I love it when the ill-fated Atlas/Seaboard line gets some love. I have almost half of their output and a lot of it compares favorably with Marvel & D.C.'s concurrent comics. It's just a shame the creative end was hamstrung by the publisher and then the rug got pulled out from under the whole thing.

Garett said...

For sure, Edo, Monark Starstalker as well. I just pulled them out to admire, and Scorpion and Monark were only done a year apart, '75 and '76. There's something really appealing about Chaykin's work then, a rough kind of energy.

jim kosmicki said...

First, it is very important to remember that throughout the 70's almost every title began as bi-monthly. You had to EARN monthly status through sales (and even long-term books like Daredevil would have their publication status fluctuate at various times in their publishing history). It took approximately 6 - 9 months to get final sales figures from newsstands, so any title that lasted more than 5 issues or so had some sales behind it. The Joker only lasted 9 issues, but that's a year and a half. Given how badly all comic sales were tanking at that time, I'm sure DC saw this as more of a success than a failure.

My understanding, from decades of reading interviews and such, is that the printing contracts were such that companies like Marvel and DC were obligated to print X number of total copies per month. And remember that with newsstand distribution at this time, they were sending out 2-3 copies for every 1 that actually sold. So if they needed to print 2 million copies in a given month, but sales were slipping a bit on Fantastic Four and Incredible Hulk, they could keep printing more copies of the current books that would for sure not sell, or they could allocate a portion of that printrun to a new title that might actually catch on. As an earlier commentor stated, with titles like Master of Kung Fu and Hero for Hire/Powerman, it actually worked. For most of the titles, it didn't. But you cast your net wide in hopes of catching a new idea.

I was there in those pre-direct market days - a new title making it past issue 6 was considered a success, at least partially.

The Inhumans are a great example, actually. The fact that Marvel kept trying to give them a series indicates that when they guest-starred, sales probably went up. I doubt that letters alone would prompt more than a Marvel Premiere or Spotlight issue. A series of a previously seen character usually indicated some sort of contract (like with 2001 or Micronauts) with a guaranteed time frame/issue count or some sort of actual sales data to support the risk.

jim kosmicki said...

As for the mini-series concept - this is a very good mind exercise. Most of the short-run series (and I've been a long-time fan of short-run series) would have been much better if conceived as a miniseries first, except that comic publishers simply didn't conceive of such things at that time. They had difficulty supporting continued stories, much less a series that would automatically end regardless of sales!!

There's lots of support from various interviews over the years that Kirby saw the 4th world books as the equivalent of limited series. He saw a very specific ending to the stories being told - he also wanted them published in some sort of collected album format. the various attempts to continue the 4th world characters support the point that these are characters with a very specific conclusion written into their storytelling DNA.

jim kosmicki said...

I remember when Atlas came around - it was so exciting at the time. With no real Comics Press (and definitely no Internet), it seemed like this big, exciting new publisher just appeared out of nowhere all at once. But I disagree that the concepts were designed or intended to be miniseries - there was just a poor, poor business plan put into place at a time when the newsstand comics market was entering its death spiral. This article http://atlasarchives.com/articles/history.html does a good job of explaining everything they tried to do right, and everything that went so very, very wrong.

david_b said...

Agreed on Atlas's history, I read the same history actually before posting my comments above. I was conveying that it 'seemed' as they were all limited series due to the low issue count (sadly), and I read a few of the titles like the Vampire one mentioned. The writing and art were quite good.

Fred W. Hill said...

Seems for whatever reason that publishers had to at least pretend, with few exceptions, that any new title was expected to last infinitely even if they figured at the onset that it might be lucky to make it to issue 10. Many of Marvel's shortlived titles would have been better served if conceived and executed as mini-series with a team committed to complete the entire run and telling a complete story rather than ending on a cliff-hanger to never be adequately resolved, as in the case of Omega the Unknown. It is rather strange to consider that to my knowledge not one entirely new character & series that started in the '70s survived to the end of the '80s. X-Men doesn't count because that was a continuation/revisioning of a concept/title started in the '60s. PowerMan apparently did the best, despite 2 major changes in the title of the series, the last with the additon of Iron Fist. And even of Marvel's Silver Agers, the last entirely new one to remain continuously in print well past the Bronze Age was Daredevil from 1964 (I would count Iron Man as continuing from his intro in Tales of Suspense in 1963 rather than from 1968 when he got his own title).
Regarding the Atlas titles, obviously Goodman hoped they would become lasting successes in the manner of Superman and Spider-Man, etc., but none of them even made it to issue 5. I perused them when I went into the Navy Exchange or wherever I got my comics in 1975 and some of them looked intriguing. Bottom line, however, was I didn't have enough money to even get all the Marvel Comics I wanted, never mind get into the fare of another company. Thus Atlas never got any part of my allowance. About 7 years later, though, I did break out of my Marvels-only habit to sample output from other companies.

Anonymous said...

It does seem that certain titles like the Cat, Omega and Skull the Slayer would have fared better as limited series. Usually the changing roster of creative talent makes a title uneven in terms of character development and of course artwork, the end result being fewer readers, thus lower sales and ultimately cancellation.

- Mike 'they remade Omega? Wow I've been out of the loop.' from Trinidad & Tobago.

Inkstained Wretch said...

I would have loved it if the original Ragman series had been, say, a six-issue mini-series with all Joe Kubert art. (And tweaked the sillier parts of his origin...) That would have established him as a classic character.


William said...

I don't know how I fall on this one. On the one hand, it seems strange to give an untried character his/her own monthly ongoing right off the bat, but on the other hand, if it only comes out as a mini-series, it's like setting it up to fail from the start.

I never really got into the mini-series format all that much myself. I think it carries a bit of a stigma by saying to potential readers, "Yeah, we know this idea isn't good enough to give it a real book, so we're pulling the plug in advance by making it a finite story." With a few notable exceptions, the limited series format always said to me that this was something I could safely skip.

fantastic four fan forever said...

A lot of the limited series, especially Omega the Unknown, were best in the hands of the original writers. I consider it very ironic that Steve Gerber became story editor and or writer of the G.I. Joe cartoon series in the early 80’s. His stories are all about the disenfranchised. Today, with more people out of work and especially educated people, like myself in under-employment or unemployment, his work is more relevant than ever. I loved Steve’s original Howard the Duck. All his other characters that were seen as “losers” by society, when in fact they were ordinary people with extraordinary problems. I remember one poignant Howard the Duck story where he purchases a television for a single mother, so her child can enjoy cartoons again. It was a very heartfelt and slice of life story. It’s moments like those that made Howard memorable.

It would be better for Marvel to give it’s surviving creators a chance to update classic stories and give them something they never had in the past. Royalties and or profit sharing! It’s unconscionable that Marvel never gave it’s founding creators, like Kirby and Ditko, stock options or some type of compensation to share in the success of their creations. New creators being hired by Marvel today enjoy better compensation for characters they never created than the actual creators have.

david_b said...

fantastic, thanks for mentioning Howard. I just bought nearly the entire run, but haven't read through 'em all. Which issue was the TV gift done in..?

I was still hung over the remarkable ish 16 and the months of hateful fan mail which followed afterwards ~ Personally, I loved it.

William, I can see your point on the stigma, and it was partially Marvel's fault for giving them such forgettable stories. A great win-win potential there, but except for WCA and (possibly) Hawkeye's limited series, there wasn't much to get excited about.

Fred W. Hill said...

Hi, David B -- the story with the tv was #5, "I Want Mo-o-o-oney!" Great story in which Howard & Bev are short on dough and Howard makes several attempts to earn a living, including stumbling into a very brief stint as fallguy for a children's show clown -- which ends after he responds to having a pie shoved into his face by shoving his fist into the clown's nose! Then he's hired as a debt collector for a tv shop which lasts until his first housecall when he gives up his first day's earnings so that the financially strapped family can keep the tv.
Although Howard the Duck didn't last all that long, it had a decent run and is one of my favorite Marvel titles.

david_b said...

Ah, bless you, Fred, will check whether I have it in a few.. I've mentioned Howard several times here in the past, perhaps some BAB love will shine his way.

It was one of Gerber's finest hours; when Gerber was replaced, Howard was pretty much over..

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