Apr 18, 2013

On Angela in the Marvel Universe

It's been about two weeks since the news came that the Spawn character, Angela, was going to be integrated into the Marvel Universe with the fifth issue of Guardians of the Galaxy.

Here's what I wrote on the Cube's Facebook page about it when it happened and I saw Internet reaction:

I see comics bloggers and commenters saying they don't see the point of Angela being introduced into the Marvel Universe. To that, I say this: Angela was the breakthrough character of a consistent top 10 comic where the penciller and the inker were consistently named onto Wizard's top 10 lists (And you can deny Wizard's credibility, but you can't deny its reach). She was co-created by Neil Gaiman. Her fans constantly wanted more products with her, more spinoffs, more appearances, more crossovers. At one point, both her first appearance and the first issue of her miniseries were going for 20 bucks each — pretty high when you consider the fact that they had just come out a year or two prior. The subject of who owned her was still the source of online drama. And she was very, very popular among a whole generation of fans, because she was essentially the most popular character of the most popular Image comic from the most popular Image brand. I know people who stopped reading comics but kept reading Spawn—and stopped when Angela was killed.

So what I'm saying is, don't underestimate the number of fans Gaiman with Angela can potentially bring in. They are out there—they're just not on the Internet talking about comics.

And I still stand by that. Look, I was a Spawn fan when I was younger, and Angela was my favorite character. And sure, maybe a big part of that was that I was a 13-year-old boy who couldn't talk to girls and Angela wore a battle bikini... but that was the height of the Bad Girl craze, where every new female character was more outlandishly dressed and proportioned than the last, and Angela was still on top of that list. She's the only one on that list—which includes Billy Tucci's Shi, a number of Jim Lee's Wildstorm characters, whoever Rob Liefeld was drawing at the time, and Brian Pullido's Lady Death—that made waves in March 2013, exactly 20 years after she was introduced in Spawn #9.

But what was it about Angela? What made her special? Why is she a big deal?

Well, I kinda summed it up up there in the Facebook status, but let's go through them point by point. (Quick diclaimer: this is history the way I remember it, and not history backed up by countless hours of research like those others. I didn't bother.) So here we go.

  • Angela was co-created by Todd McFarlane. As time has gone by, we (and by that, I really mean I) have seen a kind of shift in perception as to who the most successful of the Image founders (Todd, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Marc Silvestri, Jim Valentino, and Erik Larsen) really is. If you look at them today, the quickest answer would be Jim Lee.

    But that's the way this stuff works. We tend to judge what happened in the past by what's happening in the present. The people who defend Rob Liefeld when someone asks "How can someone who doesn't draw any feet and knows only two facial expressions and never draws backgrounds get so much work?" respond with "Because he has a devoted fanbase to sell books," almost always neglecting to mention the fact that at one point in time, Rob Liefeld was the third hottest artist in comics, breaking records and resonating with a whole generation of fans.

    That's the Todd and Jim thing. We see Jim now and we think "success" because he's the co-publisher of DC Comics and has the power to do almost anything he wants at the number 2 comic company, while Todd has been stuck in bad lawsuit after bad lawsuit. It's overlooked that at one point in time, Todd McFarlane was comics' 800-pound gorilla, able to do anything he wanted anywhere. It's just that what he wanted was to stick to his own vision, and he did that. While Liefeld, Silvestri, and Lee released multiple titles for their imprints in order to really have a line of comics, Larsen, Valentino, and McFarlane concentrated on a book each (Savage Dragon for Larsen, Shadowhawk for Valentino, and Spawn for Todd).

    (By the way, you have to love these names they gave to their imprints, since it might have shown their mentality at the time. Liefeld's was, to the surprise of absolutely no one, "Extreme." Silvestri's is "Top Cow," making him the one among the six of them I want to hang out with the most. Lee's was "Wildstorm," which is probably the coolest-sounding name out of all of them. Larsen's was "Highbrow," which he meant ironically and makes him the one among the other five I want to hang out with the most. Valentino's was "Shadowline," which kind of prefigured the fact that he went under the radar more than anyone else. And Todd's was "Todd McFarlane Productions." You can't make these things up.)

    Todd focused solely on building up Spawn as an empire, and that led to a toy company (which revolutionized the action figure industry with better molds and higher-quality sculpting), a movie (not very good), and an animated series on HBO (decent, not great). Of every title that Image put out from the 90s, only two remain: Spawn and Dragon, and Dragon was never as highly bought (though it was, routinely, better acclaimed). Todd McFarlane was a constant presence in Wizard's top 10 artists lists (and like I said, you can discount the credibility of Wizard, but you can't discount its reach), and was almost always #1, even when he was no longer penciling the title, to the point that Wizard ended up adding a "no inkers" rule on the list. Only Todd was the only inker there, beating out artists with strong fan followings, like George Perez, Alex Ross, and, oh, Jim Lee.  When Greg Capullo took over penciling duties, he was cracking the list too, making Spawn the only title that had two artists on the Wizard top 10 artists list every month, until they instituted the no-inker rule. At one point, Wizard ran an article on the crossover fans at the time wanted most to see: Spawn/Spider-Man, drawn by McFarlane. To this day, I think that's the most moneymaking crossover that never happened.

    was a constant presence on the top 10 list even up to the day I stopped collecting comics in 2001. And it was there despite the fact that the series was as slowly paced as a 1950s basketball game (really, nothing happened, ever), despite the fact that the prose was as tedious as cutting up nine cardboard boxes with an X-acto knife, and despite the fact that it could have given Chris Ware a run for his money in the "My God, this is really depressing and I'm spending money on this" department. And yes, maybe Todd screwed up with business deals and the baseballs and the lawsuits. And yes, maybe Jim is in a better position now. But when you consider Image's original vision, which was the creation and development of their own characters, and the fact that Todd consciously decided to focus on Spawn instead of doing things that could have brought him more attention (like the Spawn/Spidey crossover, or even returning to Spidey for a while around the Heroes Reborn era), I don't think it's a stretch to say that Todd is the most successful of the Image founders. And considering that one of them currently runs the #2 comic company on the planet, I think that's saying something. Spawn was the bestselling title of the most successful imprint of the hottest new company of the 90s and was drawn by that decade's hottest artist, and that probably would have been enough to make Angela stand out as the biggest Bad Girl. But there was another: she was also co-created by the hottest writer.
  • She was also co-created by Neil Gaiman. And Neil created her in 1993, en route to winning the third of his fourth straight Eisner Award for best writer (a slightly bigger deal than you might think, since there's a popularity aspect to the Eisner Awards, and no one else has won this award four times in a row, although Alan Moore did win it a total of nine times). Gaiman was the hottest comics writer on the planet, since he was right in the middle of Sandman. And maybe that doesn't seem like much when you consider that Image ushered in the "Hey, we have to have hot artists who draw busty babes and a bunch of double-page spreads so that the original art will go for a lot" era, but when you have writers like Steven Grant, Grant Morrison, and Peter Milligan on the scene, being the hottest comics writer still has to count for something, right? When you consider that Gaiman is the second of five guest writers that Todd hired to do Spawn stories because he knew his limitations, and the fact that those guest writers were Alan Moore, Dave Sim, Frank Miller, and Grant Morrison, that definitely counts for something, no?

    And maybe it's the fact that there were so many, shall we say, insubstantially written comics at the time that Gaiman co-creating Angela made an impact. Sure, there were a lot of Bad Girls, and sure, maybe they were just an excuse for artists to draw T&A and a cheap way to get adolescent boys to buy them, but surely if Gaiman was writing one, it had substance, right? Even when her first appearance hit, and we get virtually no glimpse into Angela's actual character (all she does is kill Medieval Spawn in a flashback, get to the present, and then try to kill Spawn and fail), there's "potential." Of course there is; she's written by Gaiman! There must be something there. Or so people told themselves.

    So Angela ends up getting a three-issue miniseries by Gaiman and Capullo, where she's framed by her fellow angels and she has to stand trial. There's a hint of a romance with Spawn, and the series ends with Angela deciding to go freelance and not working for Heaven anymore. It's an intriguing setup for what was at the time one of the most intriguing mystery characters, rife for development.

    But it never happened.
  • Angela's appearances were limited. Those were the only stories Gaiman wrote for the character. Throughout the 90s, fans clamored for more of Angela. They wanted to know her origin, they wanted a new miniseries, they wanted an ongoing—name it, the wanted it. They never really got anything they asked for. (One thing they did get: an Angela action figure, with a they-said-it-was-an-accident-but-I'll-bet-anything-it-wasn't "no panties" variant. Again, you can't make these things up.)

    The Angela projects that came out were the following: a team-up with Rob Liefeld's Glory that Liefeld's imprint handled and was more about Glory's development, a team-up with Jay Anacleto's Kildare from the Aria series that all of ten people remember, her origin in Curse of the Spawn where it's revealed that she's the amalgamation of souls of abused women (and she's barely in it), a few cameos (and that's being generous) in Spawn, and one final arc in Spawn leading up the the 100th issue, where she holds off the host of Heaven and then finally gets killed, presumably because Neil and Todd started fighting then, or maybe just because Todd felt like having a big death. Either way, it seemed like a stupid move, killing off a character that fans were so invested in despite so few appearances. I have friends who collected comics in the 90s, then dropped everything but Spawn, and then dropped Spawn altogether when Angela died. Sometimes that's all it takes.

    But that's partly why it's such a big deal. Fans wanted more Angela since she was introduced, and they never got it. Wizard ran a whole article about it, and Todd's defense was that he wanted every appearance of hers to be special, and in a way, it worked... but the more you hold off, the more fans will want, but there's only so long before their patience runs out. Fans clamored for more, that by the time Angela was shuffled off, they ended up accepting that they were never going to get it, dropped it, and left. Now, with Angela coming back? They're back, or, at least from my experience, interested and curious to see what happens. And that's why Angela's fans aren't on the internet talking about comics, because they left when she left, and why Angela doesn't seem like a big deal to some comics bloggers and hardcore fans.

    Without fans to defend her, the comics internet gets overrun by people who aren't fond of the character, to the point where 20 years later they make it sound like she wasn't a big deal. Some people I've seen have said that it shouldn't be Angela; it should be Marvelman. Marvelman is an important character in comics history, and he's important to comics fans, and he'll earn more spots in a "Most important moments in comics" than Angela will... but he was never as big as Angela. Never mind the fact that I don't even see the value in more Marvelman and they should just find a way to reprint the Moore stories already; he never sold as much and appealed to so many casual fans. Angela was part of one of the biggest booms in comics history.

    (It's kind of like comparing Hakeem Olajuwon to Shaquille O'Neal. Hakeem had a more impressive peak against harder competition and with weaker teaamates, more moves, and better defensive abilities; Robert Horry said Hakeem was the best and he played with both guys at their peaks; and even Shaq calls him the best center ever; but Hakeem isn't as big as Shaq in terms of reach and crossover appeal. It's not even close, really. I'm a Hakeem fan, my favorite center ever, but if I were a general manager and one of my aims was to earn revenue? I'm picking Shaq ten times out of ten, no questions asked.)

    And while we're at it, I think it's important to note that the internet isn't a representative sample of what actually sells. There are only really three major groups of fans: (1) The hardcore fans, who'll buy just about anything that has something they're remotely interested in, no matter how much they complain about it, (2) The casual fans, who'll buy something if they think it's good, and (3) The really casual fans, who'll buy a comic if it's particularly transcendent (think of how many people you know who have only read Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns or Maus.) It's probably important to remember that the people on the internet are mostly from the first group, and that's why you can only really write for the second group—the first group is moot and the third is something you have no control over.  If you believed the internet, no one ever likes big events, Wolverine isn't a popular character, and Squirrel Girl is the greatest Marvel character ever.
And that's what's in store for Marvel and its fans later this year, when they bring in Angela, the most popular character from the most popular new book of the 90s from the most popular imprint of what was then the most popular comic book company. Need I say that the fans who read her as kids are now earning wages, and it's "cool" to be a comic book fan once again? After 20 years of clamoring for more of their favorite freelance angel, they're finally getting it. I'm almost definitely going to buy the first trade when it's out. How many will be with Gaiman and Angela as they come out monthly? We'll find out.

Welcome back, Angela.

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