The Watchtower 4.26.04: Going Solo

A month or so back when the summer plans for Marvel Comics were crystallizing, it became sadly evident that the Fabian Nicieza-penned Hawkeye ongoing series was not a part of them, facing cancellation after less than a year of publication. I’m disappointed about the cancellation not only because I think it’s a brilliant and witty series about a charming character, but also because it is once again demonstrative, to use an analogy I know from professional wrestling but that probably originated elsewhere, of the glass ceiling most “second tier” characters face in comics.

To elaborate: there seems to be an invisible barrier that prevents characters best known for being popular cogs in a team book from sustaining their own ongoing series. Now sometimes this is because the company that publishes the character is simply churning out books and gives a solo title to a character that they should know doesn’t have the necessary reader support and doesn’t put big name creators on the book to generate interest (the early 90s Wonder Man series from Marvel leaps to mind here…and as much as I hate to admit it, good as Guy Gardner: Warrior was, DC launched it for the wrong reasons, I believe). Other times, a fan favorite creator will specifically ask to launch a book featuring a character you might not expect to be striking out on their own but whom the creator has a hankering for; these books usually do ok until said creator gets bored and moves on (John Byrne on She-Hulk is a good example of this).

However, sometimes decent characters are spun out of team titles and given either good or underrated creative teams and still don’t go anywhere at least in part because the company isn’t willing to take the chance on the character slowly building a following the way they would a new Superman or Spider-Man book. Some examples…

The Martian Manhunter: I talked about the potential of this character in one of my first columns. His late 90s series by writer John Ostrander was hailed as being good, but not quite good enough. Interestingly, Aquaman, a character of comparable popularity among hardcore comic book fans, got a hot new creative team on his flagging series last year rather than cancellation, largely because the non-comic reading public knows who Aquaman is and has not heard of J’onn J’onzz (the Justice League cartoon could still conceivably change this).

The Vision & The Scarlet Witch: A decidedly different series written by Roger Stern back in the 80s starring two of the Avengers’ most popular members. The high concept of super heroes in the suburbs was one with a lot of potential, but Marvel didn’t have the confidence in the characters as franchise players and their adventures never went beyond a series of minis.

The Ray: This book had a creative team fans would go nuts for today in Christopher Priest & Howard Porter and it was an entertaining old school super hero action book, but DC was jumpy about the obscurity of the character despite his JLA run.

Bishop: An x-book that actually gathered some critical acclaim against all odds given the lead character, when the line re-launched in 2001, the book was written off as too much of a risk because it was a solo title starring and X-Man other than Wolverine (a similar case can be made for Gambit, X-Man and Mutant X).

And of course now Hawkeye.

There are certain characters that are iconic enough or have had enough success some time in the past that you can pretty much say with certainty Marvel or DC will always give the character a new creative team or direction before they consider cancellation. Off the top of my head, that list is the following characters (I’m only including characters who are also active members of team books, so we’re excepting Spider-Man, Daredevil, The Hulk and a few others): Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Wolverine and Robin. Characters that are currently bucking the odds and doing well with their solo books despite being the “mid-carders” of comics are Green Arrow, Hawkman, Nightwing and She-Hulk (the latter’s book is only two months old, but early indicators are good). Aquaman gets his own special category as outlined earlier.

That’s less than a dozen characters you can more or less guarantee will always have their own solo titles and appear in the pages of your favorite team book. At last count, the combined members ship of the JSA, JLA, Avengers, X-Men, Teen Titans and Outsiders (I’m excepting Fantastic Four because they work best as a family, Legion because it has its own special pocket of the DCU, X-Statix for a similar line of reasoning, Exiles because the nature of the book makes solo titles tough and the Ultimate titles because Marvel has expressed a desire to keep the number of titles in the line low) was sixty-six members strong. That’s a lot of good characters that only get a few panels in a team book each month. I offer who I think are the prime candidates from each team to go solo and what writers and premises I think would give them a fighting chance if Marvel or DC backed them up.


The JSA

Mr. Terrific
Michael Holt, the current Mr. Terrific, has so many different sides to his character that are begging to be showcased outside the confines of a team book. The “driven by the death of a loved one” is well-worn territory, but it’s always a good launching point. The “crisis of faith” religion angle is one Geoff Johns has covered/is covering extensively in JSA, but it’s another launching point. I think the real draw to the character is the cool technological and martial arts angles. This is a guy who just kind of decided to become a super hero and taught himself how; he’s Batman of the 21st century. Get somebody who understands both technology and the Eastern disciplines Mr. Terrific had to learn in order to become such a great martial artist and have them explore the intrinsic conflicts between the two (and while you’re at it, find a guy who will tackle the inherent conflict the guy must have felt training under Easterners, people very in touch with their religious faiths). Mr. Terrific is a bundle of contradictions waiting to be unpacked; he’s also just a bad ass character with a cool hook as far as being good at everything and a sweet look. How could this series fail?

Dr. Mid-Nite
I’m still trying to track down the original Matt Wagner mini-series that introduced Dr. Pieter Cross, but if that work inspired Johns to give the character the amazing depth and likeability he’s built up in JSA, I’d do my best to sign up Wagner for a monthly (since Geoff is a bit overloaded). Play up the medical angle and bring in people who love shows like E.R. Mid-Nite’s also already got a neat established supporting cast. But the real draws of Mid-Nite are his unique nature (Daredevil is a blind lawyer and he’s done well for years…surely a blind doctor can have similar success) and that he’s a genuinely nice guy, a character you want to root for. Not enough of those in comics these days.


The JLA

The Martian Manhunter
Just click the link to my earlier column from above.

Zatanna
A character with a lot of depth and many layers who has always had a cult following but never really been given the chance to expand it; the epitomy of what this column is about. Paul Dini wrote a great one shot a few months ago that sold well and generated good buzz. A Zatanna ongoing could be fun, exploring the double life of a performer/super hero and also have a deeper mystical angle. Throw in an artist with some real range to portray the mystical realms with the creativity of a Steve Ditko or Jim Steranko and you’ve got a surefire winner.


The Avengers

The Vision
Easily the most interesting of the “machine trying to be human” characters (the ranks of which also include Red Tornado and Machine Man), Vizh has been given several mini-series, but none have really had the full Marvel promotional machine behind them. The character’s sub plots are always among the most popular in Avengers and never get enough room. He’s also got intriguing relationships to explore with several teammates and Avengers foes from the Scarlet Witch and Wonder Man to Ultron, the Grim Reaper and even Magneto. Kurt Busiek could do wonders with one of his favorite characters in a monthly showcase.

Black Widow
One of the stronger female protagonists from a company that isn’t known for them, Black Widow is another character that has had a string of successful minis that have never translated into a regular series. Now that Brian K. Vaughan is no longer working on Mystique and will have his Ultimate X-Men run cut short by Bryan Singer, why not give him a crack at a character with a similar premise to the shape-shifting spy he revitalized.

U.S.Agent
This is one of my more risky propositions and I recognize that. It’s a very similar sell to Guy Gardner with a less likeable character. What you need here is a very specific type of writer: one who knows and has an appreciation for politics, but who won’t use the series as his personal soapbox. John Jackson Miller or Warren Ellis could be a good choice.


The X-Men

Cyclops
I had never had any great like for Scott Summers as a character until I read Brian K. Vaughan’s “Icons” mini-series two years ago. To me, the character had never been portrayed as more layered, fascinating and actually likeable. Let Vaughan go to town monthly with the leader of the X-Men, give him some creative freedom to sort of ignore the continuity of the core x-books, and you’ll get a series that will slowly pick up steam given time.

Rogue
She’s more interesting than Storm (in my opinion) and has enough of a fan following that a well-done series would be given a chance by readers and by Marvel. The beauty of Rogue, like The Martian Manhunter, is that if one personality is getting stale, you can explore the backstory of any of the other people she’s absorbed over the years. Provided it doesn’t get too angsty, her struggle for self-identity is also a reliable touchstone. Gambit as a built in supporting cast member doesn’t hurt either.

Cannonball
It’s another hard sell, but get Fabian Nicieza writing the story of a young man growing into some big shoes and I think you’d get a cult hit. Whether or not it would have the numbers to go beyond issue twelve…well, I’d like to at least wait and see.


The Teen Titans

Cyborg
One of the most dynamic characters ever with two generations of fans behind him, Victor Stone has a cool look, a wild history, neat powers and enough inner turmoil to fuel years of solo stories. I think the best approach here would be to jump around in Vic’s history, not set all of the series in the present, show the progression from angry young man to hero to leader. The best writer for the job? Vic’s creator and the guy who has always brought a fire to the character: Marv Wolfman; George Perez on board as a co-plotter and/or artist guarantees a big seller.


The Outsiders

Jade
Jade is a character too good to have been relegated to girlfriend/team member status as long as she has been. Her ties to heroes from her father to current love interest Kyle Rayner give her an already made rogues gallery. A Jade ongoing would also be a chance for DC to have a series that looks at celebrity and super-heroics the same way X-Statix has for Marvel. This could be a very smart series about a very smart character.

Arsenal
Kind of a no-brainer here; every writer who has ever written Roy Harper in a team book has gone out of their way to give him as much spotlight as possible. He’s a fun character to write and to read because of his wit and also the fact that he doesn’t always make the right decisions; he’s human and he suffers the consequences. Being a single parent adds another dimension to the character and his daughter, Lian, is a fun supporting character for writers to play with (if they can decide once and for all what color her hair is). With roots in Native American culture, a background in government ops work, the heroin addiction he had to overcome, and connections to Green Arrow, all the Titans and Cheshire (the villainous mother of his child) there’s a lot for writers to play with here.


Got your own picks for who could support their own ongoing series? Send them here and it will be another part of my upcoming reader feedback column.