Monday, October 1, 2007

Dusting the Cobwebs: Characters Escape Limbo

By Chris Buchner

For all the things Marvel has been doing lately, whether you love them or hate them, you’d be hard pressed to deny one thing: there’s a massive revolution in resurrected characters going on. Marvel has boasted a stable consisting of well over 4,000 original characters created and published over the years. However, some tend to fail where others succeed, and become relegated to what’s known as “comic limbo,” meaning they’re rarely seen from or heard of again. IF at all. These are what are known as C or D-list characters, when compared to the well-known A-list ones like Wolverine or the popular but not as known B-list ones like Ghost Rider.

It all began subtly a few years ago when Marvel resurrected their Official Handbooks of the Marvel Universe, which were comic-sized guides on their characters and universe. Hot on the heels of the success of their Marvel Encyclopedias, Marvel decided to bring back the series as a supplement to those books with a price tag that would be of greater appeal to the average comic fan. Unlike the original Handbooks that ran from A-Z for multiple issues, they chose to release them as one-shots (single standalone issues) with a tighter focus on a particular family of characters. One book would be entirely dedicated to Spider-Man characters, another to Avengers characters, one for the Hulk and X-Men and so on.

Other themes soon emerged for the Handbooks, having them tie in specifically to a particular event (e.g. Civil War Files) or feature characters only from a particular decade (e.g. Marvel Legacy 1960s-1990s). With renewed interest in these forgotten characters, Marvel has also been integrating them back into the new comics coming out today, either as part of an established series, within their own series or in a limited series. To further welcome them back into the spotlight, Marvel started releasing trade paperbacks collecting adventures centered around a particular character before they return in all-new stories. For example, Omega the Unknown, a character from the 70s whose series only lasted 10 issues but gained a huge cult following, has a new mini due to begin the first week of October. The original 10 issues was collected into a trade paperback just the week prior. Also, their Essential Marvel collections, books that collect a 20+ issue chunk of a particular run of a title, have begun to expand from the A-list standards into the smaller titles like Luke Cage. At least one event, “Annihilation” and its sequel, was charged with the task of reviving interest in Marvel’s long-stagnant space character library. Of course, this isn’t just limited to superheroes; it extends as far back as Marvel’s horror history from the 1950s as various monsters and supernatural-themed characters were given their time to shine in a series of one-shots and mini-events.

What does this mean? That Marvel is actually giving some of their characters a new chance to thrive. As discussed in a previous article, even the most corny, ridiculous, flop of a character has fans, and those fans finally get a chance to have their characters back in their four-colored glory. There have even been instances where supremely outdated and stupid aspects of a particular character have been updated to appeal to the new generation of readers as well as give some integrity to the character for possible staying power. There are many great characters out there that debuted at the wrong time, were marketed poorly or were unable to find their audience and thus faded into the abyss only to emerge for the occasional guest-starring role…if that. Now, with the marketing machine firmly behind these characters and some slight makeovers and updates, there’s a better chance that someone out there who will take notice.

Some of the characters who have made or are beginning to make their return to the pages:

Sleepwalker was an alien from the Mindscape that accidentally came to inhabit the mind of Rick Sherridan and can emerge into our world whenever Rick falls asleep. Created by Bob Budiansky in the 70s, the character was shelved until DC’s Sandman inspired him to try the character out. Sleepwalker’s series lasted longer than most (33 issues plus a special, compared to the typical 12 or 24) but was unable to find or hold a sufficient audience to save it from cancellation. Some speculate that it was Marvel marketing’s claim that it was “Sandman done right” that left fans with a bitter taste in their mouth, given the appeal of Sandman. The character would virtually disappear until a proposed series by Robert Kirkman was pitched in 2004 with a NEW Sleepwalker; however, that character debuted in the only issue of Epic Anthology, part of Marvel’s failed attempt to revive their Epic imprint. New respect was given for the character in an arc entitled “League of Losers” in the last volume of Marvel Team-Up that paired him with several other B and C-list characters to save the world. In 2007, Sleepwalker made another prominent guest-starring role in recent issues of the new Ms. Marvel series (Ms. Marvel being another B-lister given a new chance at life and so far being a success).

The Excelsiors are a group of former heroes who have formed a self-help group to get them off the capes and costumes for good. In their numbers are the heroic Green Goblin (Phil Urich) who has not been seen outside of appearances in Spider-Girl comics, Darkhawk (Chris Powell) who was last seen in the alternate universe series U.S. War Machine, Turbo (Mickey Musashi) formerly of the original New Warriors, Lightspeed (Julie Power) formerly of Power Pack and Ricochet (Johnny Gallo) one of the four alternate identities Spider-Man temporarily adopted that were bestowed to members of the team known as Slingers who was last seen in Wolverine’s “Enemy of the State” arc. Originally appearing in the pages of Runaways, the Excelsiors have upgraded to their own mini-series called the Loners due to popularity with an option for an on-going if the sales merit it. Added to their line-up in the mini are the fourth Spider-Woman (Mattie Franklin) who was last seen in the pages of Alias as a drug addict, and Hollow (formerly Penance) formerly of Generation X who hasn’t been seen since the title’s cancellation.

Heroes for Hire is a title ripe with under-used characters. Originally featuring Power Man (Luke Cage, who has had a renaissance of sorts in the pages of New Avengers) and Iron Fist (Danny Rand, currently enjoying new success in his own series The Immortal Iron Fist), the series ran for 125 issues. A second volume launched in the 90s with the addition of rotating characters like She-Hulk (Jen Walters, who had 2 series of her own, and is currently on her second volume of her most recent series), Black Knight (Dane Whitman, a former Avenger who plays some kind of role in the upcoming “Mystic Arcana” event), Hercules of the Avengers (who had a mini-series in 2005), Ant-Man (Scott Lang, a former Avenger that was killed in the “Avengers Disassembled” event, prompting his daughter Cassie to eventually join the short-lived Young Avengers), and a new White Tiger (a legacy character, the concept previously discussed in Estella).

The latest incarnation of the book now features former police woman with a bionic arm Misty Knight (who was a supporting character in various series up to the 90s until giving new life in the Daughters of the Dragon mini-series), Colleen Wing (Misty’s detective partner who has also been a supporting character in various series), Shang-Chi (martial arts master created during the Kung-Fu explosion in the 70s who tapered off into guest-appearances until receiving a mini-series several years ago and an Ultimate Marvel counterpart), Humbug (Buck Mitty, a former super-villain that was a laughable character, but recently received an upgrade during the World War Hulk tie-in issues), Black Cat (Felicia Hardy, who has been a frequent guest-star lately in Spider-Man titles), and a new Tarantula (Maria Vasquez, another legacy character).

Now, if you’ve been scratching your head and wondering just who some, or ALL, of these characters are, then congratulations…you’ve got the point. You don’t know about these characters because they haven’t achieved the success nor been given the backing of characters like Spider-Man, Wolverine, Captain America and others. Granted, many characters may not deserve to see the light of day again, but a company can’t rely on a limited stable forever. Fresh stories exist out there, and there are plenty of characters to fill a needed void. There’s a revolution afoot in comics, and readers are being given more options gradually for their reading pleasure. If you haven’t found anything appealing about current characters, maybe these new old ones would be the ticket for you. Give them a shot; see for yourself if there was a character for you out there you missed out on the first time around.


Orange Blossom Goddess (aka Heather) said...

This is so interesting! I think Marvel really had the right idea (both for their pocketbook and for the true fans) of putting together these guides.

Heather T.

April Boland said...

Great job :)