Monday, March 22, 2010

On the hopes that the third time will be the charm

In the past few years, DC has made announcements about three stables of comics being folded into the DCU proper. The introduction of the Milestone characters was by far the one that generated the most excitement among fans. Milestone put together a solid and impressive set of books and characters in the early 90's, and only The Great Comics Glut could stop them. One character, Static, got a very good animated series based on him, and numerous crossivers with the other DCAU series. There wasn't a convention that came by where someone didn't ask about their eventual return to the DCU, and when they finally made the announcement, there was much rejoicing.

And then it sort of...well...

First Dwayne McDuffie get to write JLA, another move that got a lot of people excited, considering he had been story editor on the Animated series for years. He would get the introduce the Milestone characters in a major plotline in JLA, as well as have a number of other appearances across the DCU, including a series of issues of Brave and the Bold. Well, Dwayne's run on JLA was interrupted numerous times thanks to required tie-ins to Final crisis et al, last minute changes to plots that resulted in him having to re-dub panels at the last minutes, and by the time the Milestone story started, many people had written off his run etirely.

Dwayne's stories stories were all stellar, be was never "given the space to let him do the work", as Webb Wilder likes to say. As a result, the triumphant return of the Milestone characters was more of a wet firecracker. Now that the two issues of Milestone Forever have been released (also with lines taken out at the last moment for nebulous "fair use" reasons), the only evidence that they are back at all is that Static is a member of the Teen Titans. And there's more than a few people of the opinion that Static was the only character they really wanted, and were willing to take a bath on the rest just to get him. I don't quite buy it, but I don't quite discount it entirely either.

So now, save for Static (and a plotline in Teen Titans involving Dakota running right now), the Milestone characters are part of the deep pool of backup characters that might or might not get used by a creator down the line should they have a good idea for them. And for all the good it did, it would have been just as well if they never returned at all.

Last year and change, DC announced they has secured the rights to re-imagine the Red Circle characters, the characters Archie Comics held. If that announcement sounded familiar, it's because it was the same stable of characters they used to create the 90's Impact line of characters, a line that featured soe of the first DC work of Mark Waid, Tom Lyle and the late lamented Mike Parobeck. Rather than try again with those characters, DC chose to start again from scratch and create brand new interpretations of them. We got new versions of The Web, The Shield, Inferno and The Hangman, all introduced by J. Michael Straczynski. In addition to the new titles, the characters made appearances in other DC books to introduce them to the fabric of the world. And DC heroes appeared in the Red Circle books- The Shield locked horns with Magog and the Great Ten in his first few issues, and Web has come to loggerheads with Oracle. So while the Milestone characters were almost snuck into the DCU (and their sudden appearance wasn't explained for MONTHS, leading to great confusion), the Red Circle books would be definitely linked to the DCU from square one.

The books were quite interesting, with some bold ideas in them. But alas, both titles were cancelled this week with issue 10. Mirroring the Impact line, the last try was a team book, The Mighty Crusaders, which will come out the month before the books' last issues. Since the characters were not bought by DC but merely licensed, it's assumed they will vanish entirely from DC once the contract with Archie expires, just as the Impact titles went away with never another mention.

Now, in both cases, the idea was to bring in new characters to the DCU that new people could get into without having to sift through decades of history. This is a solid idea, and needs trying again. But there's a simple fact in comics - new ideas face an uphill battle. Unless a new characters or title has an "A-list" name attached to it, it's a battle getting current readers to try something new, simply because they're likely already buying quite a few books now. And getting completely new readers to a new title is even harder, since precious little comics news makes out of the comic shops.

There have been plenty of successes with new characters in comics over the last couple of years. They just haven't come from DC or Marvel. Image's comics are ALL brand new characters, but as I mentioned before, they all have the benefit of A-list creators to draw attention to them. Marvel has gotten a bunch of hits thanks to folks like Bendis, but most of them have been unconnected to the Marvel Universe itself. The Sentry is about the only truly new character to be a breakout hit in the MU, and if the rumors are true, that may change in the near future.

DC has usually gone the route of legacy heroes - taking a character name or concept that has been around a while and handing it to a new character. The new Blue Beetle is one of the latest examples of that. While his book was recently canceled after a VERY entertaining run, the character's become a breakout star on the Batman: Brave and the Bold animated series, with his action figures selling quite well. But again, he was brought down by the reticence to try something new, combined with a fairly sizable readership who were still smarting from the way Ted Kord, the previous Blue Beetle, was uncerimoniously shuffed off this mortal coil. In many eyes (not mine) it seemed as if he was killed off expressly so they could create a new version, a move that didn't exactly make any friends when they tried it with Hal Jordan and Kyle Rayner.

New characters at DC are few and far between. The Power Company had a brief but well-received run, Secret Six is a new version of an old title, featuring old characters used in a new way under the stady hand and twisted mind of Gail Simone, who's also getting to spread her magic on Birds of Prey again. But all told, save for those few exceptions, DC makes most of its money bringing us what they've been bringing us for decades. Being a to-the-bone DC fan, I have no problem with that at all, but whenever they try something new, I try to give them a fair hearing, and nine times out of fourteen, I enjoy it.

Last summer DC announced they had finally secured the rights to the THUNDER Agents, the Tower Comics characters created by a sadly underappreciated diety of the medium, Wally Wood. I was,am, and will remain to be over the MOON about this. I've gone on and on about the characters before, so I won't do it again. But based on the past two failed experiments, I am quite keen to see what DC can do this time to make the characters of interest to the new readers. I'm rational enough to know that they will have to rise or fall on new readers; there's simply not enough people who remember them to carry a series.

The Milestone characters were re-introduced with no explanation at all. If you didn't know who they were, you had no idea what was going on. The Red Circle books started on square one and were introduced to everyone at once. Both fizzled. So what's plan C? How do you introduce a whole set of characters to new readers and not overwhelm them? Off the record discussions with DC editors revealed that there are a lot of folks at DC who have been begging to waork on the characters, so I think we'll get some solid work from them; stories written by people who want to write them, as opposed to those who get assigned to. Will they tie the characters to an existing story concept like Checkmate, or even STAR Labs, or will they create something new? Will we see a big name or two involved, at least for the launch to draw attention?

All I know is that once the announcements are made, you are not gonna be able to shut me up about them. So go buy some cotton, cause you gonna have to block out the thunder...

1 comment:

  1. Don't know if you've heard, but it seems the original T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents (the complete Tower run) ARE, in fact, public domain!
    The Deluxe and Carbonaro versions are still under copyright.
    DC HAS used PD characters, usually creating NEW versions of them (The Ray, Black Condor, Spy Smasher)
    Thus, the rights DC bought from Carbonaro's estate only cover the versions HE did as JC Comics, Omni, etc.
    Perhaps we'll hear something at C2E2 this weekend...