“Icons”

Whew, we seem to have stirred up a controversy and we weren’t even trying. A few weeks ago I was asked a question about icons and whether there will ever be new icons in today’s comics. I thought the subject was too large for me to answer and I opened the forum to you. Here are two incredibly impassioned responses. I’d still like to hear more on this from you guys.
-Marv

From: "Adam Lima" <adaml@htvinc.net>

Geez, Marv, you’re right. This is too big a subject. Here’s a few thoughts on it though – but it’s far from a complete thesis paper.

First:

Iconic characters imprint themselves on our consciousness and stand the test of time. “New Icon” is like saying “new classic,” if you ask me. New characters won’t be seen as icons for years and years. (Hence, the icons may be among us now – waiting for a generation to turn around and demand: where’s my Batman Beyond feature film?!! While in the retirement home we’ll be hitting the holo-vision set with our canes and crying “Terry McGinnis? Feh!! Gimme Bruce Kent and Clark Wayne! And a blonde! Gimme a blonde!!!”)

Second (where did the current set of icons come from?):

In the Golden Age comic book heroes sold millions of comic books. There were millions of kids reading in those days. Look at the comic book heroes who got their own Republic serial, you’ll see who the break out icons were of the 1940’s and 50’s. Those heroes were a safe bet for the movie studios because they knew there were millions of kids who should up for the next 12 Saturdays of the serials run. For those of you who don’t care: I’m talking about Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel and Captain America. (The Captain Marvel one actually holds up pretty well! Shazam!)
The market came back to life in the 60’s and we got a nice new cast of icons – Marvel’s, (courtesy Jack Kirby.) DC redressed their Golden Age icons and kept busting out the books. In the sixties Silver Age the television would be the corporate proving grounds for our comic book icons – mostly on Saturday morning cartoons. And in the Golden and Silver ages – the merchandising was driven by the comic book sales.

Third: (Maybe the icons are here and we don’t recognize them?)

What are today’s corporate proving grounds for comic book characters? TV, Video games, feature films, and the toy market. Why should a comic book company roll the dice on a new character when they’ve got Spider-Man, or Batman to make bank on? Icon = Franchise = Profits. Dark Horse likes to gamble in that department and has been very successful with Men in Black and such titles – but J and K aren’t icons, they’re characters of a successful franchise. Now they might be identified as icons in the future, but right now I think they fall short of a Batman or Spider-man icon status. If Dark Horse has a long range market view, and plans to be publishing and licensing for decades to come, they may have the staying power to convert their stable of heroes into tomorrow’s icons.

Fourth:

Here’s the biggest reason I don’t think we’ll be seeing any more comic book icons: the talent pool. The entire creative establishment manufacturing comic books today seems very… inbred (for want of a better term.) There’s a big difference between the community who ushered in the Golden and Silver Age of comics and today’s players. The old timers came from non-comic book backgrounds to write, edit, draw, ink, etc. while the current community largely comes from comic book backgrounds. Hence, their approach to the medium is different – at best it pays glowing tribute to what came before and expands on it – at worst it regurgitates the stuff we’ve seen 1000 times and produces comic books with no soul.

Icons emerge from stories with soul.

(I’m not blaming the current generation, just pointing out that the Golden & Silver Age folks weathered the Great Depression, fought in WWII, listened to Hitler’s radio messages, then Stalin’s, then saw Kruschev and Castro on television. They believed in the American dream, knew what freedom was and why they fought for it, knew who their enemies were and as adults writing/drawing/editing/inking heroes for a younger generation treated their characters in such a way that their creations became icons.)

Fifth:

The brutal realities of the market. There ain’t enough readers to support the new brilliant characters. Heck, there don’t seem to be enough to keep the old icons in print. Books seem to be dropping right and left, at least at DC. We’re all grown ups now, who oddly enough, can’t stop buying our favorite iconic funny books. Are we starved for new characters? I doubt it.

As far back as Kirby’s attempt to shoot new characters into DC with the 4th World and his 2nd tenure at Marvel with The Eternals, the market just didn’t carry those characters off to the lofty heights established by their iconic predecessors.
(But honestly – those characters were torn right out of Jack Kirby’s soul. Who the Hell could follow THAT act while it was hot?) Saturday morning TV somehow failed to get Mister Miracle on the air – while the Super Friends kept the airwaves safe for America. Not even Scott Free could break into THAT line-up. Those icons had earned their air time. Scott, Barda and Oberon are still waiting for theirs.
So much for my attempt at iconography. I’m going to go home and read a comic book now. You have a nice evening.

***

From: "Matthew Maxwell" <mmaxwell@san.rr.com>

Thanks for the guaranteed conversation-starter of a topic. Or should I thank Andrew?

Andrew brings up Spawn, Witchblade and Hellboy as iconic characters that have been created in the last 10 years. I can't agree (no matter how much I like Hellboy personally, he's nowhere near iconic status). Spawn is fairly well-known, enough so that you could stop a person on the street and maybe get them to name Spawn as a superhero; I doubt the same could be said for Hellboy or Witchblade. Not to pick on his choices particularly, because I don't think that there's been an iconic character created in the last twenty years. Anyways, it'll take at least that long for an icon to emerge, if not more so.

And really, I don't see any new icons being created anytime soon. There's a couple of reasons for this (all of which are my opinion, of course, feel free to disagree).

1. The fragmentation/reduction of the comic market. The comics market has shrunk considerably. I don't really want to speculate on why, we all have our favorite reasons. But not only has it shrunk, it's become a lot more scattered. We've got a myriad of different publishers all competing for a smaller piece of the pie. It's a lot harder for someone or something new to push out of the pack and stand out as something that'll last. There's too many alternatives. Like in music, the Beatles came into a climate where there was one largely undifferentiated youth culture (yeah, know it's never that simple) that listened to the music and made the band what it was. Now you have a thousand genres and sub-genres of music that kids use to make their identity with, and crossing those lines is pretty difficult. Same thing in comics. Just like we're never going to have another Beatles, it's doubtful that we'll see the rise of another Superman in the current comics climate.

2. The freedom of a creator-owned property isn't always free. You trade freedom for the ability to get giant marketing machines (when those muscles are flexed) working for you (again, yeah, it's not that simple). Yeah, we all hate the big two because they don't like quality (or so the cliché goes), but they can get the books on the shelves and in front of eyeballs. Again, their power is slipping, but it's still considerable, and could grow if they chose to take some chances. Am i saying that creators should sell their babies? Hell no. There's also a sense that comics are 'real' only if they happen in a big continuity and are part of an ongoing storyline, but that's another issue entirely.

3. Some of the best work in comics of late, has been all about tearing icons down, subverting them, making fun of them, generally making them into non-icons. That's a relatively tough current to fight against. Yes, there have been some great works celebrating superheroes, but that's certainly not the prevailing trend. I'm not sure where to fit books like Astro City (to name one example) into this, as I've only read a couple of 'em, because I don't really know if they're celebrating comic heroes or simply recreating known characters in a creator-owned universe (as I've heard them criticized.)

4. Many big creative decisions aren't being made by artists, but by corporations. No, I'm not saying that DC's editorial board is under anyone's thumb. However, it seems to me that a lot of chances aren't being taken. Or if they are, they're being thrown into the Elseworlds/imaginary story category. This is likely a somewhat unfair judgment, since I don't read nearly as many mainstream superhero books as i used to (who could afford all those titles anyways?) I'll also add to this that putting your big characters in four books a month isn't always a good idea. Crossing stories through all of those titles is certainly not a good idea, either.

5. Most of the big fan-favorite characters haven't been characters, they've been gimmicks. Wolverine can be a great character when written well. I don't think that this is the case a lot of the time. So far as I saw, Venom, Forge and Gambit were never really characters with any depth or substance. Pretty costumes and weird gimmicks, sure. But that's not enough to give 'em staying power.

Geez, I sure sound like an 'ol sourpuss, but I calls 'em like I sees 'em. Do I hold out hope that there will be creative explosions like there were in the sixties and the eighties (in terms of DC allowing Alan Moore to take Swampy places he'd never been, and really allowing the Vertigo line to even be born, though Moore would never write a Vertigo title)? Sure I do. There'll have to be some changes.

Will we ever see an iconic character along the lines of Superman, Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Spider-Man or the Hulk (iffy) again? I certainly don't see that happening immediately. Icons are a lot more than just being widely read or converted to television shows or movies or having toys made in their likeness. Icons are the ultimate representation of their subject. Not just among comic fans, but amongst the culture and all cultures as a whole. That takes time, and you have to start with something more than a flash in the pan.

How would I fix this? Increase readership, encourage creators to give up their babies by treating both the creator/creation as more than a simple commodity, maintain firmer control over how properties are represented in media outside comics (but paying attention to the differences in the media and making _necessary_ adjustments) and by taking some chances on something new rather than just putting more miles on the old warhorses. That and to let heroes be heroes. If they're going to be iconic (assuming that's desirable) then they have to be larger-than-human-life.

-Matt, who isn't holding his breath.

***

Anyone else wanna chime in with their views? In the meantime, I’m keeping this short – I’m on my way to Mid-Ohio Con, so if you’re in that area c’mon over and say Hi. Also, a reminder to write into our message board, What The Hey! I come on a few times a week and answer questions, if they need to be answered. And, lastly, don’t forget to take a look at my new website at www.marvwolfman.com.

Oh, sorry, I lied. That wasn’t the last note. I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving, and since this is being written before Thanksgiving, I hope I had a great one, too.

See you all in seven.
-Marv

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