Using Preexisting Characters, For Better or For Ill
Travis Hedge Coke
Resurrecting someone else’s character after years of disuse. Bringing in a character from another publisher to secure a new version. Parody. Satire. Preserving a trademark. There are many reasons that comics reuse old characters, and there are many ways that the authors (artists, writers, inkers, letterers, colorist, et al) can bring an old character in. Sometimes, it’s great. Sometimes, it falls entirely flat. Maybe the authors want it, maybe the publisher demands it.
Comics muddy the waters of trademark and copyright law more than any other medium in America.The big publishers, the big Houses of Trademarks, are like fly strips; they’re meant to collect characters, new creations, abandoned properties, and to hold onto those they have, but they also just collect detritus, fluff, and characters that they, and nobody, really cares about. They hold on, not because every character has intrinsic value, but because they might, and because if they start letting some go, it weakens their hold on all the others, including those of exceptional importance. So, you see cases of characters probably unfairly or illegally appropriated into a publisher’s holdings, and other times, Frank Miller draws Elektra somewhere and, well, what are they going to do about it?
The Human Torch, the original one, the robot guy who fought in WW2, and eventually, it was revealed, killed Hitler in the Marvel Universe, was resurrected in the mid-60s because the copyright was about to expire on the earliest stories featuring him, and Carl Burgos, the author of those comics, wanted to republish them, and do new followup stories. This is a character Marvel owned, in the sense that there was not anything that seemed legally binding at all, and the stories are copyrighted but that’s expiring, and so… word comes down to do a comic that uses the character, reintroducing him after years of disuse, to demonstrate that they have a current interest in him. And, then we don’t see him used again for quite some time.
Sometimes these reuses are diktat. They’re just rights-holding exercises.
Sometimes, like the currently-serializing Patsy Walker: AKA Hellcat, the reuse seems to be neither a case of company demand or author appeal for Kate Leth or Britney Williams, but wanting to throw the small pool of serious Patsy fans a bone or three. This is smart. We get Tubbs. We get the first Nancy Brown shoutout in about forty years. This makes us love the comic and it gets us talking about it. Nancy is one of my favorite comics characters, period, ever, at all, and yes, just popping her in, even in reference, gets me feeling loyal to a book in a way that characters who appear all the time won’t.
Dan Walsh started making Garfield Minus Garfield, in which old Garfield strips are strip-mined, taking out the dead weight, the distraction called Garfield, to highlight Jon “nobody cares about this guy” Arbuckle. That’s love. Or, in any case, it’s attraction. A kind of on-sight crush.
Captain Fear, a DC property originally drawn by Alex Nino and written by Robert Kanigher and Steve Keates for Adventure Comics in the early 1970s, and hardly reused since then, has been brought back in recent years, by both Brian Azzarello and Walt Simonson, separately. One of those, regular Cube readers can tell I love, because I talk up Simonson’s The Judas Coin a lot. The Azzarello reuse… bugs me.
Captain Fear is the a Carib man who is enslaved by the Spanish in the early 19th Century, who escapes, becomes a badass pirate and captain of a ship. Walt Simonson follows this up with a story of greed, gold, a Lovecraft reference, and the glory and treachery of the high seas.
Brian Azzarello, gives us a Pepe LePew caricature with a bunch of lazy latino stereotypes snapped over him like kitsch theme armor on a 1992 Ninja Turtles action figure. He’s Cholo Fear, low-rider of the seas or something.
This is the risk you run, reusing a character. Even a minor one.
I think the Carole satire in It Ain’t Me Babe Comix is incredibly funny. The story features several name comics characters, none owned by the author, getting fed up with general or specific instances of sexism and striking off to form a no-dudes clubhouse and discovering unity, self-reliance, lesbianism, and more. It’s only a few pages long. No claim on owning the characters is made, and little pretense is given to whether or not it is a true to fact or exaggerated take on these characters. The comic has a point, and it goes after that point. That, to me, justifies anything that, in the “real” comics would annoy me. Superman can be a sexist ass, because he’s being written that way for a satire comic, to make a point, not because he’s being written by a misogynist or written for an audience who is expected to be sexist.
The authors of these comics know that we, the readers, are having reactions. They understand that they are, often, presenting these characters to an audience who have never heard of them before, another audience who are there 100% for anything with those characters, audiences that will be hugely particular and audiences that will accept all sorts of variations. Unless they are dead ignorant, they know all these readerships are possible and that they are likely. The best play to as many as possible. Some do their best, and it still fails to catch any audience at all. They are, one and all, playing to a chance. It clicks or doesn’t click.
It’s worth the chance, right?