None of the Magic Has to Fade: Characters and Creators

Matthew Derman
Splash: Cover art to Joe Satriani's Surfing with the Alien. Interior Art: Layla Miller from X-Factor and Before Watchmen: Ozymandias.

The magic of comics is the magic of perpetual fiction--the idea that the well-worn and familiar can easily pop up in new and unexpected scenarios like the Silver Surfer appearing in analog on the cover of Joe Satriani's Surfing with the Alien.

Choosing what comics to follow is a more stressful and time-consuming aspect of my life than is probably healthy. Part of me hates the monthly factory-style production of new issues and series, while another, maybe bigger part is hopelessly in love with it. I like the serialized nature of ongoing comicbook narratives, and the collaborative side of things well, the coming together of writer(s) and artist(s) and letterer(s) to create something shared. But both of these things come with downsides, too, the former leading to stories that never really end and characters that never really die, and the latter causing situations where great creators are paired with poor ones so that the end result is mediocre or worse. As much as I appreciate the number of titles from a variety of creative teams made available to me each week, deciding what to actually bring home is a risky and imprecise calculation based on too many variables.

In the world of mainstream, Big Two superhero comics, there’s not only the creators to consider, but the characters themselves, many of whom have been around long enough to have fans of their own, independent of whoever is writing or drawing their current adventures. The heroes have appeal beyond the names on the covers of their books, but those names cannot be ignored outright, either. There’s no promise of a satisfying story simply because Green Arrow’s in it, just like not everything Joshua Dysart writes is pure gold, and even Mike Norton draws the occasional bad-looking panel/page/issue. These are examples I chose based on my own preferences, but you can swap in any character, writer, or artist and the point remains the same. I may love the Silver Surfer, but that doesn’t mean all (or even most) Silver Surfer issues published over the decades are any good. So when deciding whether or not to read a new series, the mere fact that it’s centered on a hero I adore isn’t and can’t and shouldn’t be enough information. Who’s responsible for that character, and what are they going to do once they get theirs hand on him/her? If the wrong team is given control over a great hero, I’d much rather ignore their run and not have my love for said hero tainted than buy comics I don’t enjoy just because I care about the protagonist on a big-picture level.

This is an even stickier wicket when a certain character becomes inextricably tied to a specific creator or creators. The most immediate and current example that springs to my mind is Layla Miller. Invented by Brain Michael Bendis and Oliver Coipel during Marvel’s House of M crossover event back in 2005, Layla later became one of the central members of the cast of Peter David’s recently-concluded run on X-Factor, and it is because of that book and David’s intensive development of Layla that I fell in love with her. Her time in House of M could not be less significant to me (especially since that was an alternate reality story to begin with) and if I see Layla in the cast of a series not written by David in the future, I’ll be extremely reluctant to pick it up. How could anyone write her as well as he did? And if they can’t, why would I want to read a less impressive Layla? On the other hand, if David ever decides/gets to write her again, I’ll unavoidably buy whatever series he does it in. I won’t necessarily get anything else he writes, or maybe I will, depending on who’s in it and what artist(s) David is working with. But Peter David & Layla Miller in the same place is somewhere I want to be.

As before, this is just one of many personal examples I might offer, and I’m sure any comic reader could do the same. Particularly superhero fans, but others as well—we all have creators we’d follow anywhere, characters/stories we feel attached to and want more of no matter who’s making them, and bizarre instances where these things meet and a certain person or group of people gets something so beautifully right that we just want it left alone forever as the perfect thing it is. Hence the backlash against, say, The Clone Saga, Before Watchmen, Superman/Wonder Woman, Buffy Season Nine, the death of any character, the rebirth of any character, and so on and so forth forever. People get invested, because that’s where the fun of fandom lies. But it also makes us vulnerable when the powers that be decide to make a major change to something or someone we love.

This must apply to fans of anything, even outside comicdom. When Dan Harmon was booted from Community, he surely took people with him. Somebody out there is no doubt boycotting the recent Star Trek movies, while others have watched them only because of J.J. Abrams. There have got to be Cheers fans who hate Frasier and vice versa, with a third group that thinks Kelsey Grammer is aces in that role regardless of setting. Right? People don’t always want to see movies based on their favorite books, or remakes of their favorite movies, or for anybody to have a chance to tarnish anything they enjoy. Because if you put yourself through a poor-tasting take on something you love, the fear is that you’ll love the original thing less when it’s over. And it goes in both directions. A Star Trek fan potentially has just as much to lose as an Abrams fan if either watches and dislikes the new movies. Nobody wants to see their fictional heroes misinterpreted or their real-life heroes miss the mark.

With comics, the problem is the sheer number of creators who have had their turns with some of the oldest and/or most beloved characters. The truly major figures typically have multiple titles devoted to them, and they get to be on the flagship teams and in the event books and all of that. They saturate the market, and someone’s got to meet all those deadlines, so there are often multiple versions of the same character running around in different books by different people that all supposedly exist in the same continuity. It’s maddening, because it means in the same month you might read a great new comic and a terrible new comic about the same character acting contradictorily. You lose faith in the heroes you used to rely on. That’s why I spend so much time worrying about what to follow; there’s a constant struggle between not wanting to miss out on good stories about my favorite characters and not wanting to any waste time or money on bad ones.

I never get it right, of course. Not completely. There’s the creeping curiosity that never goes away, the oohing and ahhing at new treats dangled in front of me by the publishers like so many carrots. I ashamedly admit to being sucker punched on more than one occasion, and recently, by the marketing campaigns of what turned out to be some truly unpleasant comicbooks. Yet for every one of these, there’s also an example of someone doing something bold, new, and somehow still fittingly in step with a character or characters I’m into. So you’ve just got to take your lumps, I guess. This is not to say I’m not constantly trying to make my pull list flawless; I am. But I live with the aggravation that necessarily comes with my inability to ever entirely succeed at that task.

And it is aggravating. I like to think I’m developing a fairly discerning taste as time goes on, but it’s never going to be an exact science. Any creator will have their off moments, any character can be misunderstood or illogically morphed or forcibly shoved into an ill-fitting story. Not every artist’s style looks good to everybody, or is right for every script or character. There are no promises, and series that sound like sure things in theory can fall flat in execution. This is obvious and inevitable and unfixable, a natural side effect of the industry’s current structure, and of the group effort involved in the production of almost any comic, anyway. So I try with all my might to find the most trustworthy and talented folks working in comics today, keep my eyes open for any instances of them taking the reins on characters I dig, and then hold my breath that it’ll be a good match so that none of the magic has to fade.

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