Beauology 101: Superheroes: Should’ve, Would’ve, Could’ve

by Beau Smith

A few months ago here at Beauology 101, we talked about the fact that after all these years Marvel and DC are still the cocks of the walk in the comic book business. The readers also made it quite clear that superhero comics and characters are still the most bought and sought after. For over 60 years Marvel and DC have cultivated superheroes like crops of wheat with the best fertilizer. Others have come and gone, but Marvel and DC continue to stand strong with their superheroes.

Tower Comics' Dynamo

Tower Comics’ Dynamo

Other publishers have tried to establish their own lines of superhero comics. In the 60s there were a few, Tower Comics, Gold Key, Dell, Harvey, Charlton and even Archie Comics, just to name a few. The 70s proved to be a time when Marvel and DC really put some distance between themselves and any competition that reared its head. This was also the time when the mass market was changing and comic books were no longer a mainstay in supermarkets, drug stores and other traditional outlets of retail. Some even used to say that comic books were gonna die and this was a good day for it.

Comico Primer

Comico Primer

Then the 80s came along and with it came the power days of the direct market. The 80s brought on a real surge of other companies looking to establish their own superheroes. Please remember, this was a time when the direct market was really strong. A time when a new generation of former comic book readers were now retailers, distributors, publishers as well as creators. By the mid 80s there were quality publishers poppin’ up that knew what they were doing and also brought some innovative twists to comics. I’m sure you remember names like Comico, Eclipse, First, Dark Horse, Pacific and others that made very strong impressions on the way comics and superheroes were being done. It sure made Marvel and DC wake up and take notice.

Valiant's Turok

Valiant’s Turok

This power surge kept right up into the early 90s. That’s when things hit a peak of quality. It was around 1992 to 93 that the inmates started runnin’ the asylum. The next batch of former readers started filling up the positions of power in comics. It was just like when cousins start dating cousins. The more they reproduced the more messed up the product became. Art became more important than story and characters. The steak sizzled really nice, but it tasted like donkey dump. We had Image Comics, Valiant and more others than I really care to remember. Granted, I was a part of this during my own time at Image Comics and Todd McFarlane Productions. At first I thought I was doing the right thing by educating these guys on the details of retail, distribution and marketing, but I soon found out it was like teaching kids how to build a campfire and then having them turn it into a flame thrower and start scorching everything.

Just like after the fall of the South in the civil war, in the mid-90s the Carpetbaggers arrived. This time they came in the guise of speculators, foil, chromium, glow-in-the-dark, signed, variant covers. The locust that ruined the sports card market came in and devoured comics. Sucked them dry like an over-saturated vampire in a Steve Niles comic book. When they were through they left and moved on to action figures, card games and anything else they could strip mine. I think that there was a huge misfire of potential during this time of Image, Valiant and the others. I really think that if attention would have been paid to story and the view of the bigger picture they could have uprooted Marvel and DC. If not uprooted then made them better. There is nothing wrong with good, strong competition. I think if you look back at the 80’s you’ll see that when the independents produced quality story along with quality art that it made Marvel and DC amp up their game as well.

When I worked at Image and TMP from 1992 through 2000, I always said that Image could have been the biggest muscle ever flexed in entertainment. Not just comics, but entertainment as a whole. The power and creativity was there. The problems and hurdles were many. Image needed to work as a team and not studio against studio. It was one company, but it was divided into many camps. Those stories I’ll save for another Beauology 101 class. Image, Valiant and the others could have super-sized what happened in the 80s. All of comics would have been made better for it. For once the financial backing was there. They could have created a base for superheroes and characters that would have gone on for 60 plus years. I feel that they could have even taken things beyond just superheroes. That’s what would have separated them and made them pass Marvel and DC. It was obvious that Marvel and DC were happy with just selling comics to the same readership and didn’t want to expand further. Or just didn’t know how. Soon, with the threat of Image and the others gone, like old people, Marvel and DC could once again put their teeth in a glass and take a nap. Their world of superheroes was safe again.

CrossGen's Mystic

CrossGen’s Mystic

The next time they would have to wake up was when CrossGen came around. But they only had to wake up for a little while. It was the annoying nudge of CrossGen wooing top line creators away that got the attention of Marvel and DC. The fact that CrossGen also had money made them go back to the gym and start jogging once more. It wasn’t long before they started hitting the snooze button again when they found out that CrossGen wanted to do everything BUT superhero comics. Think about it, if CrossGen had taken those creators and that money and started pumpin’ out superheroes, if Mark Alessi would have kept out of the creative folks face with his ideas, it might’ve been a whole different prom date.

To help expand things in comics a publisher is gonna have to own a few important things. First they are gonna have to have money. Next, top flight creators. They’re gonna need innovative creative management. Management that has a history of what has come before and also what it takes to go beyond. Management that guides and lets creators do what they do best and still keep them on track towards the bigger picture. With the market the way it is they’re gonna have to build with superheroes. After they’re established they can then widen the path with other types of books. But the splash has to be made with superheroes. If you want to have a really nice house with fine art, and really nice things, you’re gonna have to make sure that your fancy house is built on a really strong foundation. Right now with the way the market is in comics, with distribution and with the buying habits of the readers, superhero comics are gonna have to be that strong foundation. I know other publishers have tried to establish new superhero lines. That’s part of the problem. They always feel they have to have a line or a banner to put these characters under. That’s putting the fat lady before the buffet. When publishers come out with a line/banner of characters or instantly start their own universe they cripple themselves right out of the box.

Eclipse's Airboy

Eclipse’s Airboy

Readers have told me that they would rather a character start out on their own. Other new characters should be established from within that book. If a publisher does have three new characters then they should each have their own books and not be related. After a year or so, when they have proven they can make it on their own two legs, THEN you cross them over. No need to rush things. The retailers that write me and that I’ve talked to, have told me that they tend to order lines/banners about the same and they also cut them at the same percentage as the line rolls out. They order them as one thing instead of each on their own merit. That’s what they tell me. Remember, retailers are ordering things months in advance and sometimes haven’t even seen preview art or any kind of decent promo. Most of the time all they get from a publisher is a wad of hype followed by a “beauty shot” and a terrible tag line from an old Chuck Norris movie (“This time it’s personal” “It’s Payback Time!” You get the ugly picture.) Publishers make an event before there’s an event to be made. Some things are supposed to build at a slower pace. Characters are one of them. That’s also why money is such a key factor. It allows a publisher to take the time to grow the characters. The problem is most publishers don’t have that luxury.

As readers, do you think another publisher besides Marvel and DC can really make a run at creating superheroes that will be around for the long haul or are superheroes something we’ll all just have to submit to Marvel and DC? Would you support superheroes from another publisher long term? What do you think they would need to do to make this happen? When it comes to superheroes will there ever be another publisher that can stand toe to toe with “The Big Two”? This isn’t an “Everybody vs. Marvel and DC Thing”. I’m just asking if you think there will ever be room for another super power. I’m not asking for a debate on if there should even be more superhero comics . Fact has it that superheroes are the biggest and top selling books. It’s obvious readers want them. Can anyone else do them for the next 60 years? I’m sure you’re gonna let me know. When ya do I’ll make sure everyone else knows.

Your amigo,

Beau Smith

The Flying Fist Ranch


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