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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.

COMMENTS AND RESPONSES

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jedibanner 3/30/2011 6:13:42 AM

And for the 40547642572467827151457567824562364536th time, books from RADICAL are something to keep in mind, especially for the subjects mentionned in this artical. I truly feel they have revitalized the comic books in the past 2 years and all for the best. The way the books are written, drawned and presented in different format, they bring the whole ''inspiring hero'' to a brand new level since all of the books are with unknowned characters so every read is with someone new which makes it even more fun to read.

Scarlett from Marvel is a new type of inspiring heroin and is great also (but that was covered last week right ???).

goldeneyez 3/30/2011 7:44:35 AM

The problem is that comics are written for adults who's view on the world is already formed as opposed to the idea that comics were originally for kids who's view on the world was a work in progress.  My thought is that kids are more open to new ideas and concepts while adults are already hard coded to like Hero X or to say make my comic book company Y.  As long as comic books are geared toward an audience who already have a pre-conceived set of notions there won't really be any true room for growth or imagination.

lusiphur 3/30/2011 7:56:27 AM

 jedibanner - that may be the case with RADICAL, but, as Chad stated in the article, "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."  This is about mainstream characters, not characters from books I have never heard of until your post.  I will, however, look into them the next time I'm in my local comic shop.

Nice article Chad.

jedibanner 3/30/2011 8:15:32 AM

true lusiphur, I admit I overlooked that part about the big 2.

For good suggestions from Radical, try:

- Driver for the Dead

- Earp

- Abattoir

- Last Days of American Crime

OR, from Avatar:

- Crossed

- Caligula (this one comes out this week)

jedibanner 3/30/2011 8:53:26 AM

And Goldeneyez, it's tru today's comics are for adults but remember when they were created, the era itself was that those characters were directly made to inspire and educate those kids in the '40s.

At that time, there wasn't that much other choice of mediums for kids to learn and be inspired as far as fantasy goes. So when comics were written then, it was easier to write a superman issue with inspiring thoughs and ideas.

Today's kids have so many choice as far as tv, comics, web, books, web books, PS3, WII, Nintendo DS, remote control helicopters, etc..., with all that, comics themselves have taken a step back into the ''inspiring'' not because the message is different but, because kids have moved on to something else (in my view anyway).

Which is why yes, adults rule the comic medium because we've ask that our beloved characters are more realistic and less ''preachy'' (if we still had stories of Superman helping a cat out of a tree, let's be honest, we would all whine about that issue for sure).

I still believe there is a way to inspire within the constraints of the small world of comics: Preacher comes to mind, Scarlett comes to mind, Kick-Ass comes to mind. All these books from the big 2 (although on the DC side, from what I've read, there isn't much on the new stuff but can't fully comment on DC since I don't read hardly any).

And if you want to go back a while, look at the Peter David stuff he did with the Hulk, it was clear in those days Bruce Banner was 100000 times more inspiring then the Hulk ever was...and then came WWH which showed both sides of the same coin could be true heroes.

That's why for me the story of Secret Invasion falls in that category of good heroes movies because following all the crap they've gone through (Secret war, Civil War, WWH, Annhihilation), they pulled together like real heroes would, put aside theyr differences and fought together for the greater good. THAT is what real heroes do.

Those were my 2 cents, now I need to go have a cup of coffee. 

Wiseguy 3/30/2011 11:02:48 AM

Kick Ass and Scarlett really aren't Marvel, they're published under the Icon imprint for creator owned material and it doesn't take place in the Marvel U

IMO the reason we won't get any new superheroes besides  Chad's sensible reason of creators wanting to own their creation. I'd say is that need to push the envelope. You see everytime we had a new "chapter" in comics is because it took a turn for the dark and gritty. We want them darker, dangerous and more willing to step over the line to mete justice. From Superman to Batman to Marvel's X-Men, Spidey and Hulk to Wolverine and Batman's darker rebirth. But you can only go so far down this line and we may have hit the end of the road.

Now writers just need to be creative with what we have and that's entirely possible. Look at Bendis and Johns works for example. They just need to either re-invent or peel some layers of the characters to expose something new.

madmanic999 3/30/2011 12:49:27 PM

Truth be told... whether we like it or not... it's all getting old.  It's all been done before.  People got tired of Cowboys... they got tired of Spacemen... and they will get tired of Superheros.  It's hard to be original when we've seen it all before (not saying we will never see an original idea again, but when we do, even it will draw comparison to something).  I think the goal now is to justmake as great a story as you can with what everyone has seen before.

ponyboy76 3/30/2011 4:29:15 PM

I agree with GoldenEye's point about who comics are written for these days. Wise is also right about how the comics industry has to contunually push the envelope , if they want to sell comics that is. I mean, years ago DC would never do half the things it does now with content. Marvel hasn't changed all that much but they are always trying to one up themselves with these big events, where they tease the readership with some big heroe's death. This year alone they going to have killed the human torch and now it looks like Thor (again) with this Fear Itself event.

prodigal73 3/31/2011 11:02:42 AM

One little correction regarding comics produced in the 1940's.  They were in fact produced for adults - take a closer look at all the S&M references in Wonder Woman, and yes, both Superman and Batman did kill in those days.  Although they may seem tame by today's standards, comics were in fact considered incredibly violent and racey - much like the pulp novels of the 30's.  In fact US troops made up a rather large portion of the readership in the 40's, as they wished to escape the reality of war around them.  After the war readership decreased as the returning troops did not want to be reminded of battle (readership would later decrease further because of Dr. Fredric Wertham).  To get those adult readers back, comics produced super-heros books that focused more on the domestic lives of the super-hero.  As WWII vets were getting married and becoming "domesticated", we see this reflected comics as Superman goes shopping with Lois, and Batman has to answer to Batwoman as to why he was out so late - its what the adult reader could relate to at that particular period in their life.  The idea of comics for kids/young people would come later with high-school and college kids relating to Spiderman's "complex" and frustrating life.

BTW, great points made throughout.

goldeneyez 4/6/2011 8:21:42 AM

jedibanner you bring up some excellent points about there being so many things that kids are into today.

One other thing I just thought about.  There was a recent time when new comic book heroes were being i conceived, the 90s.  From the characters of Image (Spawn, WildC.A.T.S, etc.), Top Cow, Milestone, and probably more that I can't think of right now.  I'd argue that the characters that had the most lasting impact from those times were Spawn (Image) and Static (Milestone).  This was a time of a comics being really popular because of the spectators.

Contrasting that time to now, movies have become a place where the sky is the limit as far as the imagination goes.  Almost anything that people can dream up can be put to screen through use of computer animation.  Given that, who would want to read a comic book, except the entrenched comic reading fans, when you could watch a movie?  Maybe the innovations and new characters will be born from these new mediums... in fact they probably already are or have been.  The last "new" superheroes I can really think of that were really popular and recent where the folks out of the Matrix (Neo, Trinity, Morpheous).

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