Thursday, June 27, 2013

Not Leading Man Material

Karen: Not too long ago, in our discussion of the Silver Surfer, some mention was made in the comments about whether or not the Surfer really worked all that well as a lead character as opposed to being a team member or guest star.  There are a number of characters that have had their own titles that we could also throw into this category and discuss the merits of whether they truly deserved or could carry their own book. I would actually say that two of the Surfer's fellow early Defenders -- Sub-Mariner and Dr. Strange -- also may work better as supporting characters. (Regular poster William also had the same idea in our comments over at the Surfer post!). Neither have been able to maintain their own titles for long periods of time. With Sub-Mariner, I think there are certain factors that go against him: his anti-hero, mercurial nature, and the whole 'ocean kingdom' motif, which seems to be a hard sell. Dr. Strange is a bit harder to explain; in the hands of certain writers and artists, he's been an interesting character, but all too often he's been in less than inspiring stories. Being a magical character, he also has the problem of poorly defined powers, which enables him to overcome situations a little too easily at times. However this same attribute often works well for pulling other characters' fat out of the fire.

Doug:  I'll confess to never having read more than a handful of Silver- or Bronze Age books with Namor or Dr. Strange as the headliner.  I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I have read the Surfer's 18-issue run, and enjoyed his revival as a solo star under Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers (later Ron Lim).  It benefited, though, from numerous cosmic guest stars and the breaking of the Galactus-installed barrier.  But as you allude to above, I enjoyed all three of them in those early issues of the Defenders.

Karen: In fact, at times I have even questioned whether or not the Hulk is a good lead character! I think  that title has often depended on the quality of the supporting characters in it to carry it. The Hulk himself, particularly in his childlike version, has just not had enough depth to carry a title by himself most of the time. You have to have an interesting group of characters around him, or guest stars at least, to keep things going in that case.

Doug:  Well, I'll also confess to only having read a handful of Hulk comics!  You hit the nail on the head as far as I was concerned -- I just didn't find the character interesting solo, but again was wonderful with the Defenders.  Naturally, it was a gas whenever he showed up in an Fantastic Four story, too.  Your comment about solo books needing significant supporting cast members is spot on -- Spider-Man, anyone?  I'll even go so far as to suggest that my interest in Captain America waxed and waned over time.

Karen:  I'm not as familiar with DC but I would wager that Aquaman, in his many incarnations, might fall into this category. What about Wonder Woman? She's had trouble supporting her own title. I thought she was interesting when George Perez came in and built up the mythological angle but it was still the infrastructure around her that became interesting, not the character herself so much.

Doug:  I can't comment on Aquaman, other than to wonder why he'd fare any differently than Namor (who I find to be a lot more interesting).  What about J'onn J'onzz?  I think he's a great JLAer -- very cool (and cool-looking) character.  But I don't know that he could really swing a solo book.  Perhaps in that regard he's like the Vision.  As you said, I did like Wonder Woman under Perez's handling, but couldn't get into any stories written prior to the Crisis.  Is that just a WW thing, or is that my greater prejudice (with some exceptions, certainly) to Silver-and Bronze Age DCs?

Karen: Time to add your candidates to the list: who are the heroes who really should be staying off center stage?


Rip Jagger said...

Marvel's Captain Marvel comes to mind.

Despite my affection for the character he's not been terribly successful on his own. It seems every dozen issues of so of any run he has a major revamp of his premise, or in some cases his very identity.

Marvel keeps trotting him or someone with the monicker out every couple of years or so to keep the brand alive, but it almost never results in a durable series.

Hawkeye is another Marvel character who doesn't work solo for me. He's fantastic in a team setting, but isolated his fundamental grouchiness makes him tiresome. I always wanted to see a lengthy run with him as Captain America's partner. His latest series seems to be getting critical appreciation, but like most new comics leaves me cold.

At DC, I likewise have a hard time taking Nightwing seriously as a solo star. He's a sidekick, grown up perhaps, but that's how I always think of him. Being a bat-book, he does well in sales I guess, but I never really think of his title as a top tier affair.

The oddest one is the Human Torch. A major star for Golden Age Timely, he was among the first they rebooted and tried to launch alongside Spider-Man. But Johnny Storm has never been anything but an team player. His solo efforts are almost always less interesting.

Ben Grimm is somewhat better, but he was ideally used as a team up partner in the vintage Marvel Two-In-One, an inspired decision.

Rip Off

Edo Bosnar said...

Rip beat me to the punch on Captain Marvel - he came to mind immediately as I'm just now finishing up Essential CM vol. 2. Even though once the series was resumed in 1972 it had a respectable 40 issue run, he never seemed top-tier, despite some really awesome stories appearing along the way (naturally, the Thanos war you guys just reviewed; I'm also partial to the Moench/Broderick run just before the title was cancelled, which continued into Marvel Spotlight - those were my first CM stories). Also agree with Rip's point about the general lack of durability of any Marvel character named, ironically enough, Captain Marvel.

I don't necessarily agree about the Hulk, nor Dr. Strange for that matter. Despite the inherent problems involved with a character like the Hulk, he has been quite successful as one of Marvel's headliners. While never my favorite title, I followed it quite regularly from the late '70s to almost the mid-'80s, during Bill Mantlo's run.
Dr. Strange may have a series of eventually cancelled titles under this mystical sash, but that series of 80+ issues from the early '70s to early '80s shows that he has staying power when handled by top-notch writers like Englehart or Stern.

Since you mentined Aquaman and Martian Manhunter, I have to say that DC seems to have a ton of characters who generally work well in team books but never seem to be able to sustain a solo title for very long: Hawkman, Atom, Green Arrow, Firestorm, Black Lightning, later Dr. Fate, Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Huntress... Even Green Lantern sort of falls into this category.

And sadly, your points about Wonder Woman apply to pretty much any and all super-heroines: none have ever been able to sustain a solo title for more than a few years, and WW herself was often on life support and subjected to various revamps (sometimes drastic, like the 'mod' era) just to generate reader interest.

Doug said...

Ghost Rider would seem to be a character that a writer of the chops of a Neil Gaiman could have made interesting. Certainly there should have been a lot to explore, and tying in Daimon Hellstrom would have made it even more interesting.

Plucked out of time -- Neil Gaiman and Bernie Wrightson on a feature like that... There could be potential.


Edo Bosnar said...

Actually, Doug, I'm thinking Gaiman and Wrightson would be pretty good on a Dr. Strange feature, too...

William said...

Something dawned on me about the main characters we mention as not being "leading men" material. Sub-Mariner, Doc Strange, Silver Surfer, all have one thing in common. None of them have a secret (or alternate) identity. They stay in their superhero personas pretty much all the time. I think this is a big reason they can't maintain an audience. Not having some kind of civilian life makes them less relatable to the audience, IMO. I mean what if Spider-Man was Spider-Man all the time and never became Peter Parker? Or, how successful would Superman have been without Clark Kent? It would become tedious pretty quick. The civilian identity lets the hero to take a break from crime-fighting and develop "normal" human relationships, which allows for personal interaction and character building. This is something that the Silver Surfer could never do.

The exception to this is team books like the Fantastic Four. Books with multiple superheroes don't need to focus on secret I.D.'s because the heroes can interact with one another to add exposition and drama. Plus, the threats in these books are usually bigger (and longer) thus there really isn't room to explore each heroe's civilian life in any meaningful way. I believe that is why characters like Namor, Dr. Strange, and Silver Surfer work better in a team situation than they do in their own solo books. This same thing applies to "Team-Up" books as well, which is why we rarely saw Peter Parker make an appearance in Marvel Team-Up.

To illustrate my point, the only time that a Sub-Mariner solo book really worked for me was when John Byrne was writing and drawing "Namor". He wisely gave Namor a (sort of) civilian identity. In case no one remembers, Byrne made him the CEO of the Oracle Corp., and we quite often saw Namor wearing a suit and tie instead of a speedo. (In fact, the corner trademark picture on the cover even had him wearing a black suit instead of his sporting traditional shirtless look). This added to the drama, because now whenever a super-menace would threaten the city, the not so mild-mannered Prince Namor (Oracle CEO) would shed his business attire and become "The Sub-Mariner" who would then fly off the face the danger.

Anonymous said...

I have another spin on a point you guys alluded to with Spiderman and having an interesting suporting cast - I'd go so far as to say that characters being able to support their own solo titles and be really successful is the exception and not the rule. Even characters that have had long running solo titles, like the Avengers Big 3 of Thor, Iron Man and Cap, probably would not have maintained their solo books without that association to a team. Remember when Spiderman would have NEVER been on a team? That was one of his great appeals - he was a loner. Now just about everybody has been on a team, or multiple teams, or teams have merged (Uncanny Avengers?).

So I guess my point is that one of the reasons a lot of the characters that everyone has already mentioned have never taken off as solos is that there was never any real effort on the part of the comic companies to develop them that way. Much more effort went into making new teams. Why make a Hawkeye series when you can start West Coast Avengers? Why push Hercules or Black Widow? Throw them Ghost Rider and ex-X-Men together and call them the Champions. And I don't have a problem with these groups. I just don't think developing solo titles for superheroes with prior associations was a point of emphasis. I agree with Rip - 2 in 1 was an inspired decision.


Doug said...

Excellent points above. Kudos to all.

One might even argue that the Torch's run in Strange Tales was the original Marvel Two-In-One, as Ben was often featured alongside Johnny.

Spinning off of that comment somewhat tangentially -- yet this is in regard to solo heroes getting together: how did our readers like Marvel Team-Up when Spider-Man was not the lead? There were several issues over the first few years when the Torch would be the lead.


Garett said...

I like William's point about the heroes having alternate identities, and was getting a chuckle out of imagining Namor putting on glasses to work at the Daily Planet! Or the Surfer with glasses? : )

Ooh, Bernie Wrightson on Dr. Strange, yes yes!

Humanbelly said...

Didn't like it (Torch's appearance every third month in MTU) too much at the time. . . appreciated it more upon last year's read-through of the series. The Torch/Iceman team-up (1st appearance of the woeful Basilisk) was particularly good, and I think I recall a Torch/Hulk team-up that was nice, too. Johnny was written pretty well in that book, and came off as a young man who could do worse than get out from under the yoke of the team that defined him.

A bit later on, there were a few issues where they used the Hulk as the Team-Up masthead substitute, obviously in an effort to cash in on his huge appeal because of the TV show.


david_b said...

HB, I believe the Torch/Iceman team-up introduced Equinox, not Basilisk (he was introduced in ish 16 with Spidey/MarVell).

I liked the idea of Spidey trading off with Torchie, but 'cept for the Equinox story, most of his stories weren't all that memorable. It was definitely Spidey's home.

As for leading man guys, I found most of the solo DC and Marvel try-outs in the '80s just didn't have any memorable writing; nothing to really hook you in.

I'm always a believer in strong writing and supporting characters. Think Spidey, and more importantly, the rise of CA&F in the '70s from dismal near-cancellation to at one point become one of Marvel's best flagship sellers, thanks to Steve and Sal.

Doug said...

David B. --

Mickey could use a little gel to tone down that 'do of his!


david_b said...

Ahhhh, c'mon now Doug, don'cha be dissin' the doo.

It was perfection...

Most geezers our age WISH they had the hair to do this.

MattComix said...

I think that are a lot of superheroes that are good characters but they aren't strong enough to hold their own titles and that's ok because they don't NEED to. For example, I like Robin and I like Catwoman but neither needs their own book.

Their appeal is in relationship to and interaction with Batman. I think the idea that any character the audience builds an affection towards must also get their own solo title is a hold over from the 40's. It's especially silly in an economy when even books featuring Superman and Batman struggle for sales.

The inability of these characters to hold their own book doesn't make them bad it's just sometimes a character is better as part of a larger cast especially in the case of a character like Robin who was designed to be a supporting player in the first place. Sometimes a supporting character should just support.

J.A. Morris said...

Here's a character I like, but never liked as a "solo" hero:

While I think the 1982 limited series is great, Logan's solo series have never seemed very interesting. I bought a few issues of Marvel Comics Presents and Wolverine back in the 80s and found him boring without Cyclops to argue with or Nightcrawler to share a beer. He's just some guy with weaponized hands.

I read lots of Hulk solo stories, but I was mainly in it for the cool fights drawn by Sal Buscema. And I wasn't a fan of the "psychological" explanation behind Banner's transformation, but that's another story.

Anonymous said...

Technically, Wonder Woman had a couple of pretty long series...her first book ran to 329 issues and the second (started by Perez in 1987) ran to 226; definitely longer than average, especially the second series (for the Modern Age anyway).

Another character who comes to mind is Deadman: cool concept, great guest star, interesting in a mini-series, but would get tedious in an ongoing series (which is probably why he's never had one).

Mike W.

Anonymous said...

JA mentioning the Wolverine limited series got me thinking again (dangerous). Marvel was big on limited series in the BA. So we got 12 issues of Vision and Scarlet Witch, 4 issues of Wolverine, etc. No plans or intention for lesser heroes to maintain a continuing series but in fact just the opposite. Kind of reminds me of what fast food chains do when they introduce new items for a limited time only. Hurry, before they're gone! Act now! So it seemed a marketing decision to go more limited rather than open-ended series.


Humanbelly said...

Yesssss, yes, yes, yes--- thanks dave-b. You're absolutely right, it was Equinox (sheesh, the "Ice/Fire" guy. . . how could that escape me?).

MTU's editorial folks were kind of in a bind w/ that book, 'cause the letters page reflected a NEVER-ending tug-of-war between the all-Spidey crowd and the all-Marvel-heroes bunch. The poor book changed directions so many times. . .


Fred W. Hill said...

Great point, William, about supporting casts and separate civilian identities. Of course, for some characters it's much harder to pull than for others. the Hulk is a rather weird case as in his first few years, Rick Jones was the only person who knew that Bruce Banner was the Hulk but for the comic series to try to maintain that secret for much longer than it did would have really strained credibility (yep, even in a "fantasy as you like it" comic!). Just how many times could Banner disappear everytime the Hulk shows up and then reappear shortly after the Hulk vanishes and always wearing the same sort of torn up pants as the Hulk before someone figures out there's a connection, especially if that someone also did the research and noticed that the Hulk first appeared on the night after the accident in which Banner received a massive dose of gamma radiation and on the very same military base?
Anyhow, some characters seem to work in groups only on a relatively shortterm basis -- remember, Namor was only a regular in the Defenders for about a year and a half, although then his past self was part of the Invaders for its run of about 4 years.
And although I enjoyed Dr. Strange's tenure in the Defenders, I still think of him as more of a solo character than a member of a regular team. As with the Silver Surfer, Namor and the Hulk, the very power & personality of Dr. Strange would only seem to fit in with a loosely connected group like the Defenders rather than as a permanent member of a tightly structured group like the Avengers.
One aspect of Thor's solo series that vastly improved that was the inclusion of his Asgardian friends as regulars so that it didn't matter when Dr. Blake mostly never showed up -- and Blake's social network as shown in the comics consisted solely of Jane Foster! The antics of the Warriors Three were far more entertaining than the soap opera of Don & Jane. And despite all his powers, Thor often had a very rocky relationship with his own father, which I'm sure many readers could relate to.
Meanwhile, we should also recall that once even perenially non-group hero Daredevil was on the verge of being cancelled before Miller significantly improved his ratings.

Doug said...

I love watching you people work your magic all day long. There is some solid analysis in the comments of this post.

What a great place to hang out!


Karen said...

I wanted to jump in today, but work got in the way. Like Doug said, you guys really ran with this one! I enjoyed reading all the comments this evening.

Maybe the natural follow-up to this would be, What team character most deserved their own title? What do you think, should we run that as a post? (Did we run it already? I can't remember!)

Doug said...

I think we did an Open Forum a couple of years ago with a title like "your favorite character, trapped in a team book". I believe I came across it on one of the linked posts that show up at the bottom of our dailies.

So obviously I also don't remember it much -- let's do it (again)!


Teresa said...

Moon Knight.
How many times have they tried to reboot poor Moony? I want it to work. I like Marvel's Batman. I have so many series attempts it is hard to keep them separated.

Power Girl.
They had a shot when she was on Earth 2. That series was building a strong cast. But CoIE splintered her history into a schizophrenic mess.

Edo Bosnar said...

Tom's observation about mini-series in the '80s (don't forget, there were also Falcon, Cloak & Dagger, and even Jack of Hearts minis back then - and DC got into the act with Green Arrow, Deadman, etc.), has got me thinking (yeah, I apparently have a lot of time on my hands...). Bascially, the 1970s especially were pretty much a laboratory for characters who basically showed they weren't "leading man material," at least to the extent that their solo titles didn't last very long: Red Wolf, the Cat, Black Goliath, Omega, Shanna, Nova, Iron Fist, Richard Dragon, Black Lightning, Ragman, Steel... I could go on ad nauseum. Some were given a second lease on life in team books, others just faded away.
Agree with Teresa about Moon Knight by the way. Despite that pretty respectable first series, which is still fondly remembered today, he never did seem able to become "Marvel's Batman." Too bad, really, I think a Moon Knight movie would be really cool.

By the way, I tracked down that post Doug mentioned, it's from January 2012:
If we're really revisiting that topic, I haven't changed my mind much - I still think Nightcrawler and Ultra Boy would work well in solo titles. Having since read the last part of Stern's Avengers run, I'd probably just add Monica Rambeau and second starfoxxx's proposal for a Wasp solo series.

Humanbelly said...

Edo- I don't know why this immediately jumped into my head, but I think a detective-oriented series starring Jan could be an off-beat sleeper hit. It wouldn't have to be noir-ish, but it certainly wouldn't want to live in the cosmic realm of the Avengers. There's a lot about her that makes her very appealing as a crime-solver who unwittingly falls into that career path (a pretty common trope in detective fiction). She's funny, smart, keenly observant (the whole fashion thing-- you can't believe the level of personal info that's mined from having that eye), VERY deceptively powerful (especially since she's a teeny little thing), has a strong sense of duty and responsibility, can "play" the part of ditzy society chick, is very upwardly mobile, and has a neat superpower that lends itself to stealth.

Boy, I'm liking this idea even as it's bubbling out of me. . .


Edo Bosnar said...

HB, I like your detective idea, and you make a good case for it. Personally, I had a sort of similar thought, mainly involving Jan as a sort of corporate/white collar crime buster, who occasionally has to use her powers when some renegade bankster or corporate raider (or, to make it more contemporary, derivatives trader) hires thugs to do his dirty work for whatever reason. One requirement for me: Roger Stern would have to write it.

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