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Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?
Addressing the Lack of Relevant New Heroes in Mainstream Comics
By Chad Derdowski
March 30, 2011
Well, we certainly won’t be the first to voice our opinion about this topic. We aren’t likely to be the last either. But hey, isn’t that what the internet was created for? Outside of porn, the sole purpose of the ‘net is for geeks to complain about things they have no control over, so… here’s our latest rant. It’s not even a complaint, really; more of an observation. Why is it that in a genre that includes talking ducks, gun-toting Frankenstein-and-Charles Bronson-inspired vigilantes, countless alien races, radiation-created do-gooders and cosmic dieties, there seems to be a total lack of inspiration?
Okay, that was unfair and to be honest, we didn’t really mean it. There’s plenty of amazing work being done in the world of mainstream superhero comics and tons of creativity going around. We just said that to get your attention and make sure you’d keep reading. The best way to do that is to get you riled up, right? So hopefully we did that and you’re still here. But lets be honest here folks, who was the last truly inspired, truly original hero or villain in the Marvel or DC Universes? Who was the last new hero that really set the world on fire and captured the imaginations and wallets of fanboys and fangirls around the world and in every comic shop?
To answer this question, lets go back to the beginning. As usual, it’ll be a nutshell version of history, leaving out a lot of the pulp influences like the Phantom or the Shadow and instead focusing on Superman and Batman. It’s a popular notion that the origins of all heroes essentially originate from these two legends and it’s at least fairly accurate: you’ve got your bright n’ shiny Boy Scout and your dark n’ gritty anti-hero who operates in the shadows. Everybody who has come since is a variation on one of those two themes. Now, this is vastly oversimplifying things, but the key here is that these are the big two: the ones who really made the first big impact and laid the groundwork for the superhero genre. These are the first two that mattered.
After that? Wonder Woman and Captain America, for certain. For better or worse, we’d put Robin’s name on that list. And you could probably argue a few others from the Golden Age, but when it comes to household names, it’s not like you see a lot of Hawkman logos on the back of pickup trucks – but you do see a lot of Superman symbols, don’t you? Moving into the Silver Age, you’ve got a lot of legendary heroes and amazing works, but outside of the Marvel Heroes created by Stan, Jack and Steve, there aren’t really a lot of truly important and earth shattering heroes in the Silver Age.
And we don’t mean to slight anyone’s work here or any of your favorite characters either. What we’re saying is that Spider-Man, Hulk and the X-Men really shook up the industry but Hawkeye, for as awesome as he is, really didn’t. Heroes like Superman or Spider-Man changed things. They were revolutionary. Characters like that only come along every so often and the next ones in line during the Bronze Age would, of course, have to be the anti-heroes of the 1970’s: Wolverine and the Punisher. These guys, like Spidey or Hulk before them, truly reflected the times and as we all know, became huge moneymakers as well. They set a new standard and like Superman, Batman or Captain America before them, were ripped off countless times. Sure, you could say that both were variations on the dark n’ gritty Batman theme, but they also brought something new to the table and capture the imaginations and hearts of fans. In a sea of “Cowboy” Bob Ortons and Tully Blanchards, these guys were like Hulk Hogan.
Hell, we might even throw Swamp Thing in there too as a representative of the horror resurgence of the ‘70s (and eventually the Vertigo line of more adult-oriented books) and we’re sure that there are a few others that you might add to that list (and we welcome your suggestions in the comments section). But after that… who? John Constantine comes to mind, but he’s really only on the fringes of the DCU at best. And we’re not talking about Hellboy or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or other indie darlings here; we’re talking about DC and Marvel. So who else is there? Who was the next great mainstream hero that really set the comics world on fire? The character that every creator wished they’d come up with and probably ended up creating their own version of sooner or later? The one that broke the mold and grabbed readers by the jugular (or something else) and demanded that you pay attention to the amazing new stuff that was going on when you walked into 7-11 or your local comic shop for your books? The one that guaranteed sales when he or she crossed over into other books?
Ghost Rider? Not really. Speedball? Don’t make us laugh. We might be inclined to put Venom on that list, but he’s worn out his welcome and been reinvented a few times over. Sentry? Umm… no. Beta Rey Bill? Nope. We’ve wracked our brains and the best thing we can come up with is Deadpool.
But when we peruse the racks at our local comic shop, we find a lot of legacy heroes and more than a few torches being passed… there’s more than one Batman right now. Pretty soon there will likely be more than one Captain America too. Barry Allen isn’t the only Flash running around out there and there’s a whole corps of Green Lanterns. There’s a Red Hulk as well as a long-haired younger version of the green one. Wolverine has a child and a female clone. Sometimes it seems like the only way to get a new book launched with any level of interest is to recreate a popular hero in either a younger or female incarnation. But there doesn’t seem to be anyone new taking the world by storm.
We’ve got our speculations as to why this phenomenon has taken place. Superhero fans aren’t exactly known for being accepting or even all that interested when a new idea comes their way. If you’re a Wolverine fan, it’s probably a lot easier to accept another claw-wielding, adamantium-laced badass than it is to try something totally different. And hey, if Wolverine sells in the 27 books he’s currently appearing in, it’s probably safe for the powers-that-be at Marvel to assume that his kid will move another two or three titles.
It probably has something to do with fans wanting to have their cake and eat it too. When Kyle Rayner became the new Green Lantern, Hal Jordan’s fans complained enough to shake the pillars of Heaven and the same thing happened when Hal came back. Barry Allen might be the “classic Flash” but Wally West has quite a following as well. So why not have both? And while we’re at it, why not have a grandpa version too? It’s sorta like Captain Marvel, Captain Marvel Jr., Mary Marvel and Uncle Dudley and it ensures that everybody is happy because everybody gets what they want. Unless what they want is a world in which characters move on, progress, change and experience anything resembling actual growth. But that’s one of those “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” sort of problems that have long been plaguing superhero comics and probably always will.
The third big reason we can come up with is history. As in, those who don’t understand it are doomed to repeat it. Creators know that when they come up with a brand-spanking new idea while working on Astonishing Spider-Bat, that idea becomes the property of Marvel or DC. And why would you give up your best idea only to see it taken from you and exploited, turning a huge profit for your corporate masters while you toil away for… okay, we don’t really know what these guys get paid and honestly, it’s probably a lot more than we’ll ever see working at the gas station or bagging groceries. But the point is, Superman made a whole lotta money for DC and Warner Brothers and the dudes who created him could barely rub two nickels together when they died. Obviously that kind of atrocity isn’t as prevalent these days, but the fact remains that if you’ve got an idea for the next Batman or Wolverine, he’s not yours anymore if you introduce him in the pages of Justice League or X-Men. And guys like Robert Kirkman or Mike Mignola have proven that you can be successful outside of the Big Two – so why would you throw away your best ideas only to see somebody else get rich off of it?
So what are we stuck with? Well, maybe nothing new, but honestly, we’re not really complaining as much as it might seem. We’ve got amazing creative teams like Rick Remender and Tony Moore giving us an all-new take on Venom. We’ve got guys like Jonathan Hickman reinventing the Fantastic Four and Geoff Johns revitalizing Green Lantern with ideas like the Emotional Spectrum. We’re getting a lot of the same-old, same-old, but we’re not going to lie: some of that same-old is pretty damn creative too and we’re not going to act like we don’t hit the comic shop every week to make sure we get our fix.
It’s true, we really haven’t seen a lot of astonishing new heroes that have revitalized and revolutionized the industry and truth be told, we’re not holding our breath anymore. But on the other hand, we’ve got books like Walking Dead, Scalped, Sweet Tooth, Echo, RASL and Northlanders doing that for us (and hopefully doing it for you too!). And if you’re really looking for something new in tights and flights, there’s always Invincible. And honestly, you oughtta be reading Invincible anyway.