Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
Do new teen characters in superhero comics actually have trouble sticking around?
You know what game I love playing, Mark? Softball. It’s fun to do with coworkers and friends. There’s not too much pressure and keeping score is easy. You can just focus on knocking that over-sized ball as far as you possibly can. So I want to say thank you for pitching me this particular softball to which we both already know the answer.
There’s a real Chicken Little mentality when it comes to revamping superhero comics these days. Each failure is seen as being indicative of some step towards the obsolescence or end of the industry. And, to be entirely fair, both the American comics market and superhero genre feature some pretty spectacular failures and obsolete components. Those are things we talk about here quite a bit though and are interwoven into the market in complex and interesting ways. You can observe those on the macro-level, but not so much on the micro. Typically, when things are unpopular or fall flat on their face it’s a confluence of a lot of things, not one easy problem.
So when you hear someone talking about how teen superheroes aren’t very popular, it tends to lead to a list of reasons in how this means the end of the market. There’s discussion of how young people don’t read comics, how new characters don’t catch on, and how they just don’t build ‘em like they used to. Except all of these ideas are bad and people who tout them should feel bad.
I don’t mean to be dismissive, but actually I do. So here we are.
Yes, American superhero comics are not as popular as they were when they first appeared at the start of the Golden Age, or when Marvel Comics hit it big in the late 60s, or during the boom-and-bust cycle of the early 90s. None of that is a problem of quality though. It’s an issue of markets and decades-long trends that I don’t want to get into because we do that more than enough already in this column. But if you want to hold up a random mix of what Marvel is publishing today and tell me it isn’t as good as what they were publishing two decades ago, make sure my drink is down because I’ll perform a spit take. While there are certainly plenty of duds, Marvel is regularly producing a wide-array of well-produced content from talented creators. Rebirth can eat its heart out because nothing in it is punching on the same level as The Vision, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Ms. Marvel, or Silver Surfer. DC may be more consistent, but their competition is swinging for the fences.
And why am I focusing on Marvel? Because they are doing a lot of work to create new teen superheroes (and we are talking superheroes, so it’s mostly these two). Just check out that new Champions book and everyone that is in it.
First off, Ms. Marvel. Let me repeat myself, Ms. Marvel: character find of the decade for this publisher. Anyone who is reading her title can tell you it has not dropped in quality from day one. It is consistently funny, engaging, heartfelt, and a whole slue of other positive adjectives. It is the best teen superhero book around and it sells well. We also know that it sells very well in digital, just not exactly how well. Readers have really gravitated towards this character and she has certainly generated some new ones. I can’t tell you how exciting it is to see so many young women at comic conventions dressed like Kamala or speaking with high schoolers who really relate to her struggles. Well, I can, but I don’t want to get sappy and start rambling. It’s really exciting though.
The same thing goes for one Mr. Miles Morales. I still remember introducing a young man to this character at a superhero run in my hometown a few years ago and how his face lit up. Miles has stuck around to as a new mainstay of the Marvel Universe with his own title and a featured appearance in many recent events. He’s a big deal and doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.
Keep going through that team. You’ve got Amadeus Cho as The Totally Awesome Hulk. While the green skin is new, this guy has been loved since he started teaming up with Hercules. You’ve got Viv, daughter of The Vision, from what is hands down the best Marvel series of 2016. If the writers of The Champions don’t transform her into THE character find of the book, that’s on them and they should feel terrible about it. There are others too, but I think you’re catching my point.
Marvel is producing a lot of teen superheroes, new teen superheroes, these days and they are landing very well. I don’t want to get into numbers here. First of all, they’re boring and take time. Nobody wants me to make graphs. Second of all, those graphs would be bullshit anyway. We could definitely use Diamond numbers, but that’s a fucking awful way to look at comics trends. The amount of data not included in those essentially makes analysis of them worthless outside of the very specific market they measure. It’s equally useful to talk just observations as it is to try and examine those sales charts, so let’s just do the former.
The fact that both Ms. Marvel and Miles Morales have held down solo titles for as long as they have speaks volumes. They may be legacy characters to differing degrees, but Ms. Marvel certainly seems to do a hell of a lot better than her predecessor Captain Marvel. She’s certainly more likeable. In the meanwhile, Miles sells well, albeit not as well as the most certainly a grown-ass man Peter Parker. But comparing a new invention to one of the iconic superheroes ever created is a super shitty metric.
And sure, Sam Alexander as Nova has had some trouble sticking, but when has a Nova book ever blew up the charts? Comparing any of these characters to the popularity of their predecessors or teen books from previous eras is some silly shit. There’s a huge encampment of fans reading these capes book who just want the characters they already know, so if you’re going to compare their success to anything, it should be to other new characters. When you do that, I think the thing that becomes clear is that teens fare far better than adult superheroes. Even someone like Squirrel Girl, who isn’t quite old enough to drink, or Moon Girl, who isn’t quite a teen yet, seem to create far more buzz than the newest grown-ass man or woman flying around.
At the end of the day, success is all about metrics. If you really want to measure new teen superheroes to the success of characters invented 50 or 20 years ago, be my guest. I’d rather discuss their success compared to the market that exists today. When you look at the current state of the industry, I’d say these Champions and others are doing very well. Some spark interest among older fans, but more often they seem to hit with a younger crowd. I’m not only speaking of the illustrious and rare “new reader”, but the next generation of comics bloggers and fans that we’ve surrounded ourselves with here at Comics Bulletin.
When I speak with people brand new to comics writing or reading, I often discover they’re big fans of folks like Ms. Marvel and Miles Morales, as well as series like Gotham Academy that feature young protagonists. These seem to be the connective tissue in that non-typical audience. It’s rare that I’ll hear someone in that group talk up Amazing Spider-Man, but Miles is damn cool.
If anything, what that says to me is that these new teens have a better shot at sticking around than some of their B- and C-list elders. Sure, we’ll never see Peter Parker disappear entirely, but the same can’t be said of Booster Gold or Drax. Assuming new readers actually stick around, then these Champions and their age-based cohorts stand a real shot of being the A-list Avengers of tomorrow.