Sunday, July 26, 2009

On the passing of legend to myth to forgotten

A lot of announcements were made over the weekend at San Diego this weekend. The two that surprised me the most concerned two sets of characters who have been in and out of legal quagmires that seemed inextricable.

On Friday, Marvel Comics announced that they had secured the rights to Marvelman, also known in America (thanks to legal back-arching from the selfsame Marvel Comics) as Miracleman. Based on a largely forgotten British comic book and re-imagined (a good thirty years before people got sick of the term) by comics mastermind Alan Moore, the book was spectacularly popular in the 80's and early 90's until its publisher, Eclipse Comics went belly up (the details of that are an article all by themselves, I can tell you.) Since then, Todd McFarlane bought the rights, Neil Gaiman claimed he owned a piece, original creator Mick Anglo claims he never authorized the new version and HE owned the rights, and things have remained in a gordian knot for decades. The Wikipedia page has a pretty good rundown of who's said what over the years.

So Marvel announced they had Marvelman, but after careful reading of their statements, conspicuously stopped short of saying that they had the rights to those oh-so-coveted 24 issues from Eclipse. They have the rights (from Mick Anglo) to do new stories. That's very nice, but it's not quite what Marvelman fans have been waiting for. Until/unless Marvel says clearly otherwise, it sounds like those issues are just as unobtainable as they were on Friday morning.

No to be undone, DC announced on Saturday that in addition to doing the Milestone and Red Circle characters, they had secured the rights to the THUNDER Agents. As I already predicted some weeks back, I KNEW someone was going to get them now that John Carbonaro had passed on, and I was hoping it would be DC.

The histories between the two stables of characters are somewhat similar. Both experienced their original popularity over five decades ago (Marvelman in the 50's, THUNDER Agents in the 60's), both had a brief renaissance in the 80's / 90's, and both have been bogged down in massive litigation that rendered them unattainable in the eyes of most comics fans, not to mention publishers. DC came tantalizingly close to doing the Agents a few years ago, but John C didn't like the changes DC suggested to the characters, and put the kibosh on the revamp. They got reprints out of the original run of the book in their archives series, and even a nice resin statue of Dynamo. So it's obvious DC had the most invested in the characters. McFarlane was going to do new Marvelman/Miracleman stories, but his copyright battles with Gaiman kept that from happening (thank god, if I may be allowed to pass comment).

I was guardedly pleased with Marvel's announcement, I was over the moon with DC's. But one comment that I heard over and over on the boards about both announcements really shocked me.


I'm not so silly as to expect everyone in comics to know about the THUNDER Agents (though it'd be nice) but the idea that there are people reading comics today who hadn't heard of Marvelman really surprised me. I mean, we're talking about seminal work by Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, arguably two of (if not the two) best writers in the modern age of comics. But to young comics fans that "before I was born", and as such relegated to classrooms and elderly relatives driving down the highway pointing out Where Things Didn't Used To Be.

Both companies have challenges before them, But both have different toolsets available to them to make their new characters into successes. Both will have to (re-)educate the comic-buying public as to who these characters are. In this, DC has two advantages:

-They have access to the entire run of THUNDER Agents. They can, should they choose, put out another reprint, perhaps one of their Showcase editions, to allow fans to read the stories for the first time. Unless we hear otherwise, Marvel does not have access to the stories that fans (American fans at least) remember and want to see again.

-The THUNDER Agents are a unique set of characters, with powers, personalities and interactions that haven't been duplicated by other comics. They can be easily folded into the DCU and not threaten to overwhelm the Trinity with power, requiring a serious nerfing. Marvelman, at his core, is a second generation copy of Fawcett's Captain Marvel. It was the Moore and Gaiman stories that made him into something special and miffic. Marvel aready had a second generation copy of Captain Marvel. His name, ironically, was Captain Marvel. Also, as he was written by Moore and Gaiman, Marvelman had almost godlike power, enough to take over the world and create a true utopia. Obviously, that isn't going to happen in the Marvel Universe version of the character. And they already have a recently-introduced character with godlike powers in The Sentry. If they plan to use him in the MU, I fear he'll be a big fish in a VERY big pond, and will quickly get lost.

The THUNDER Agents are a great set of tools that can be used to write great stories. Their best has yet to be seen. To a lot of people, the greatest Marvelman stories have already been written. Anything else Marvel tries to do will be compared to those stories, and I'll warrant, they'll come up second.

If you're talking sales of reprints, Marvel will win hands down. They could name their price, and it'll STILL be cheaper than the usurous fees people are getting one Ebay for the original TPBs of the Eclipse runs. But when it comes to potential for new stories, I think DC has the most potential for success.

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