When DC hired Dan Didio as their Editor in Chief (EiC), it may have seemed a little strange given his background in animation, but, if you take a look at the big picture, it makes a little more sense. A recent comment by Marvel's vice chairmen Peter Cuneo, found here, makes it all the more clear. Marvel and DC are not comic book companies, they are intellectual property companies and I'd wager that Joe Quesada is going to be the last EiC at either company that will have background as a creator. Hit the jump to find out more.
One of the things that I always find amazing about Marvel and DC fans is that they always seem to forget that Marvel and DC are businesses first, story tellers second. Generally, this usually manifests as a problem when dealing with character development, or, rather, a lack thereof or a reversal of much needed character growth. A lot of people would generally point to DC legacy characters as a prime example of this problem, but that is not necessarily the best choice. In fact, Marvel's One More Day story is a much better example of this problem.
Corporate Characters, Corporate Comics
As corporations, Marvel and DC want to be able to publish their characters for the longest period of time and to attract the most readers as they possibly can. Questions of promotion aside, you can't tell a never ending story with a character that grows and changes over time because that would require the one thing neither company can give - an ending. If a character never, or rarely, ages or grows as a character, then it is less likely that readers will expect an end or, rather, you won't have to deal with the problems of indefinitely putting off "the end" of the story.
Another great example of this practice was Secret Invasion. Marvel could have done some really fantastic stuff with the Skrulls, but they didn't radically alter anything. This wasn't because of any regards for continuity on Marvel's part because continuity is clearly a dirty word at Marvel right now. It's simply because they do not want to radically alter any of their characters and possibly damage them, as they would see it. An even starker example of this would be House of M and Decimation where every mutant but the important X-Men characters lost their powers. While some important characters did lose their powers (Xavier and Magneto) they eventually regained them.
Some may point to Dark Reign and the return of certain characters at the end of Secret Invasion as proof of Marvel 'changing things', but, in reality, Norman Osborn's rise to power is a short term change that was forced for marketing reasons as opposed to strictly for storytelling. reasons. Even then, Dark Reign is basically The Initiative with Osborn replacing Tony Stark. The return of Mockingbird flies in the face of continuity as well in regards to telling stories as we have seen her as a ghost and Hawkeye even went to Hell to confront Mephisto in an old Thunderbolts annual.
So, why not abandon the Never Ending Story model of telling comics? Primarily, it is because that model has become the dominant storytelling format in the direct market, mostly due to the efforts of Marvel and DC as corporate entities. It also hasn't really failed them yet either. The 90s crash was completely unrelated, for the most part, as it was due more to speculators and getting away from that tried and true model in attempts to replace heroes with grim and gritty alternatives, and comics are still profitable enough for both Marvel and DC to not have to do anything drastic. Ending stories means that they would also have to come up with some new ones which takes time, money, effort, building new brands and so on - all things they would rather not bother with.
Obviously, there was a time in comics when characters and franchises were moving forward and, generally, doing new things with their characters. Over time, as Marvel and DC began to make use of other mediums, such as television and film, and as those mediums became more important to their bottom lines, things changed.
The Media Crossover
This mixing of mediums was the point of DC bringing back Hal Jordan and Barry Allen. Today, a comic book character is likely to appear in another medium more than ever. It is a lot easier, and simpler, to work Hal or Barry into TV shows or movies as heroes than it is to do so with Kyle Rayner or Wally West. Kyle's and Wally's origins are too tied to Hal's and Barry's, so it is simpler to go with Hal and Barry when it comes time for adapting a comic to another medium. You could also pose the question as to why not just use Kyle and Wally, but go with Barry or Hal's origin like in Justice League Unlimited? To answer this, there is always the question of why not just use Hal or Barry in the first place? There is also the option of giving Kyle and Wally new origins but it would still simpler to go with Hal or Barry.
So why bother having Hal and Barry come back at all in the comics? Again, due to corporate reasoning. If someone does see the movie (so far neither Kyle nor Wally have appeared in any of the new feature films), such as New Frontier or the upcoming Green Lantern animated feature and tries to get into comics, they will find that the character they liked from the movies or TV show are not in the comics and are, thus, less likely to buy them.
Much in this vein, if Barbara Gordon does, as it has been rumoured, eventually become Batgirl again, the desire to have public knowledge of the character from other mediums, such as her numerous television show appearances, will be the main reason behind it.
Comics have actually become the least important part of Marvel's and DC's revenue stream, at least in terms of income generation. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if their publishing divisions are a drain on income, at least in the short term. However, comics are the breeding grounds and origins of these larger income streams and both companies use their comics to maintain copyrights, build new intellectual properties, dust off old concepts and, in general, repurpose outdated characters for modern uses, typically in preparation for movie or television adaptations.
Just look at how Marvel has gone about their promotion of both Wolverine, who has a new title launching soon in addition to an art appreciation month in his honour, among his regular dozen or more monthly appearances, and Deadpool, who is guest appearing in every other comic these days, in preparation for their upcoming movie appearances. Now, what does this mean for comics? Several things in fact.
First and foremost, the characters, stories and themes of comics have typically been dictated by other, more profitable and higher profile, mediums, typically movies. No better example of this can be seen than with the new Invincible Iron Man series. The ideas from the movie literally bleed off the page and many a character has changed their personalities and motivations based off the movie versions. Most recently, this can been seen with the introduction of JARVIS, the computer AI from the movie, into the comic and, earlier, with the artificial heart/pacemaker that Tony used to save Pepper Pots, similar to what Tony used in the movie to save himself and power his armour.
Another simple example was with the black Spider-Man costume, which was forced back into the Spider-Man comics in the Back in Black storyline to coincide with the movie.
This also means that the status quo of non-comic versions of the character are going to have an influence on the comic book version - not the other way around. The current status quo of any given character is generally the result of at least several years worth of stories unless 1) it is someone like, say, Batman, who never really changes over time or 2) they just went through a reboot of sorts, as was seen in Green Lantern: Rebirth.
The reason for this is simple - converting years of continuity to the TV or film screen isn't easy, but transferring a movie status quo to the comic is. Of course, there is the question of why they should do this. Easy, the movies and TV shows are now the primary means through which people are introduced to the characters. Making the comics more closely resemble the movies makes it more likely that people will buy them. This means stuff like a single Spider-Man, Aunt May staying around and no more out of the ordinary or long lasting adventures like Planet Hulk.
Oddly enough, DC isn't really doing this in regards to letting movies dictate their stories. There are several reasons for this. 1) They are not making nearly as many movies as Marvel. 2) The movies they are making are of iconic characters, such as Superman and Batman, who are already timeless and unchanging. 3) As a subsidiary of Time-Warner, DC has always protected their bottom line by keeping their characters as static and unchanging as possible, which leaves little room for variations from the movie versions or reason to change things when a movie does come out.
Why Not Try New Things?
Even if Marvel and DC have decided that they are not going to do anything new with their major characters, why not try something new with lesser knowns or entirely new properties? Well, there are several reasons why and they keep reasserting themselves whenever Marvel and DC do try to do something new.
The main reason why Marvel and DC never really try and do anything new is simply because they rarely succeed. Throughout the years, Marvel and DC have constantly pushed the idea that Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and the X-Men, among others, are the only "important" comics and anything other than an already entrenched concept tends to fail in the long term. Given the fact that most new concepts tend not last more than a year or two, on average, it's not shocking that Marvel and DC don't go for them.
This leads the next reason why Marvel and DC never, or very rarely, try anything new, revamps! Why put effort into creating a new character when you can simply dig up an old, failed or forgotten concept, of which Marvel and DC have a great many, and breath new life into them?
A stunningly successful example of this would be Warren Ellis's Thunderbolts or Nextwave. In both series he used a bunch of C-listers and repurposed them for modern times. Machine Man went on to star in Marvel Zombies 3 (which is leading to something of a Midnight Sons revival in Marvel Zombies 4 ironically) after showing up in Ms. Marvel for a short stint.
Creating new characters also leads to another problem, creator rights. The creation of Image Comics after the walkout of several top artists from Marvel, and the reasons why they left, probably marked the end of innovative characters that would come from Marvel and DC. Creating a new character at Marvel or DC is just too problematic for them. There is also the problem of why should a creator develop a new property give the likely way they will be treated by Marvel or DC, especially when it comes to the subject of money and ownership. Why not just take the basic idea to Image or Dark Horse and make your own book out of it?
One last thing of note, sometimes Marvel or DC will attempt to reinvent their classic line into something new and separate. The most famous examples of this would be Marvel's MC2, 2099, and Ultimate lines while DC had their Tangent, All Star and Just Imagine Stan Lee books. All of these have basically been "failures", as none of them, aside from Marvel's Ultimate line, which is having its own problems right now, are still going on a regular basis and are the only ones that lasted any reasonable amount of time.
The point is that these new takes on classic characters are doomed to fail for many of the same reasons new ideas fail at Marvel and DC. Of course, you have the additional problem that if they become successful, their traits are adapted by the main line, which people care about more, which leads to the spin-off line's decline. See the current Ultimate line for an example of this.
Such are my depressing views on the current state of Marvel and DC and their corporate legacies. In part two, I'll take a look at the bright side and look at some super heroes that are mostly unaffected by these trends and where you can find them.