Forgotten Heroes: Flamebird

This new edition of Forgotten Heroes focuses on a character who I believe could fill a couple of gaps in the marketing and tone of DC’s superhero brand. The issue at hand is the general appeal of mainstream superhero comics; thanks to a few high-profile films in recent times, superheroes have been back in the public eye, but this hasn’t equated to anything in the way of increased sales for any major company. Much of this is due to an outmoded distribution system and serious pricing issues, neither of which can be helped by any creative revamp, but the fact that most of DC’s output has a similar direction and tone, intended to appeal to the loyalist, long-term fan, is not doing anything for their general brand image.

The Character: Bette Kane, the Earth-2 (and the original) Bat-Girl. Background Teen Titan. Entered the hero trade to pursue a crush on Dick Grayson, then Robin. Largely considered a joke, both by comics fans and by her fellow heroes, who treat her as a hanger-on. Possible connection to current Batwoman, Kate Kane, and set to appear in Greg Rucka’s upcoming run on Detective Comics.

The Problem: Bette’s an unknown quantity to most, and often portrayed as a joke to those who do know her (although Geoff Johns at least treats her pretty well when he writes her). The largest problem with Bette right now, however, is that her inherent character runs contrary to DC’s current direction, and to the general comics environment. In a comics company that was more open to humor and irreverence, and still enjoyed a readership of children and adolescents, Bette would be a marketable character. In a comics environment that actually had a desire to attract female readers, Bette’s personality and relatively modest costume and figure would be a selling point. She does have a role in Rucka’s Detective Comics to look forward to, but his typically somber tone is ill-suited for her.

The Concept: The upside to all this, however, is that Bette lacks significant baggage and has a very low barrier of entry; knowing she’s the ultimate Nightwing fangirl is all the backstory a new reader really needs. With that said, Bette needs to get out of Gotham. While she does provide a nice counterpoint to the gloom of the city, the place she should truly be is Metropolis. We don’t get to see the city on a street level very often, and we don’t regularly see much of it outside of the Manhattan-ish section where the Daily Planet is centered. With her natural sociability, Bette can open up unexplored neighborhoods in Metropolis, and given her wealthy background and younger age, there’s an obvious starting point in the real New York for this: Williamsburg. Bette as a grad student hanging around in a gentrified area of Metropolis filled with young hipsters and dilettante artists provides a great counterpoint to her upbeat, incredibly sincere personality, and it opens up the marketing of the book to a different readership than is typical of DC, the kind that would be more comfortable with Vertigo if it read comics at all. DC needs to adapt to a generation growing up in a culture without a line between indie and mainstream, and they need heroes who can adapt to an age of irony and attract younger readers.

That’s the immediate setting and larger purpose behind it. The starting point for the character herself is pretty recognizable to comics fans: it’s a book about a humorous and often luckless street-level hero, cast right from the Spider-mold. But the comic book world has seen a million Peter Parkers, and the best facet to apply here from his story is the constant bargaining and tension between maturity and adolescent wish-fulfillment. For the long run, the best template to keep in mind would be Don Quixote. Given Bette’s hero worship of Dick Grayson, her desire to be a legitimate hero herself, and the lack of respect she receives from most around her, she’s the ideal figure in DC’s stable to modernize that classic. Viewing Bette through this lens also allows the book to become something bigger; much like Cervantes’ work was a deconstruction and satire of chivalry, Bette’s story could be an examination of modern superheroics, and by extension, our present views of heroism. She also functions similarly to our current interpretation of Quixote – in the increasingly bleak DC universe, she’s a romantic idealist with a sense of humor.

The key difference here is that Bette, despite her hyper persona, is self-aware. She’s entirely modern, always aware of and anticipating new cultural trends. This plays to the series’ advantage, because modern comic book heroism is complicated and comprised of a number of different, competing strands. Bette’s self-awareness is buoyed by her natural restlessness and curiosity, so different arcs might have her trying out government-sponsored superheroics, or grim vigilantism, or hip nihilism under the guise of anti-authority rebellion, or superheroism as pop stardom. These are all concepts that are easily relatable to a reader whose history with comic books begins and ends with The Dark Knight and Iron Man, because they can be made analogous to real social and cultural questions.

An important point to remember here is that as perceptive as Bette is, she’s not cynical. There’s very little ironic detachment in her character; she’d much rather explore something on its own terms and find out if it makes sense through experiencing it firsthand. This is also a necessary component of the book, because the point is to make the reader sympathize with Bette and laugh at or examine the concept presented. Bette’s attempts to navigate a heroic coming of age should be heartfelt. Any naiveté on her part should be matched with an equal romanticism and genuine selflessness, and it should be clear that they’re expressions of the same instincts, much like, say, Phoney Bone’s greed is just a different branch of his resourcefulness, and sometimes even stems from his safekeeping of his cousins. Humor and sadness amplify each other, and that should be the aim here.

Audience and Marketing: I’ve already touched on one-half of the potential audience: hipsters. This would be a chance for DC to market in venues that aren’t immediately obvious (ie, someplace outside its website and other comics), so why not try running ads in publications with some measure of cultural currency outside the nerdsphere, like Pitchfork Media or Vice Magazine? I’m sure this sounds distasteful to a lot of comics fans reading this, but the average age of the those fans means they likely consider someone like Kevin Smith their generational spokesperson. If this sounds like you, I’m sorry, because pop culture has passed you by while you were making jokes about Wookies. The point of this book is that it’s not for the fan DC has tried so hard to cultivate to the exclusion of other potential buyers. Attempt to make comics appear legitimately hip in the cultural eye, and you might actually have young people reading them again.

This leads us to the second half of the intended audience, that being younger readers, especially the ones who are reading manga, which has consistent sales, extensive shelf space in bookstores, and an abundance of female readers. Again, such a strategy would be accompanied by advertising in a new venue, such as Shonen Jump, or even Cartoon Network. This would also be a chance for DC to try out a digest format for a book, or even just releasing an original 80-page trade every few months for as far under $10 as they can go, because if you’re going to work to appeal to crowds that don’t generally go into comic book stores, then you desperately need the book in chain bookstores (and hey! Record stores – FYE carries anime and manga paraphernalia, as well as DC Direct figures) right next to the things they actually are interested in.

Style: DC’s humorous characters tend to be anarchic, as fans of Ambush Bug or Plastic Man will attest. It’s a great niche, but it’s not Bette. “Quirky” is an annoying buzzword for a generation reared on Juno, but it fits here: Bette’s offbeat, witty, and strange enough for her wit to land abreast of many other characters. The series should be realistic enough to handle genuine character drama in the midst of absurd humor. If the Giffen/DeMatteis Justice League was a Henny Youngman routine, an issue of Flamebird would be an episode of Arrested Development, where the dysfunction and the humor are constantly intermingling. This should be an accessible book with a slyly complex tone, sad and strange and funny and beautiful. It’s probably the closest a DC mainline book might be to what Warren Ellis termed a “pop comic.”

Given Bette’s temperament, a surfeit of narration – all energetic, much of it tangential and random – is appropriate here. Montages would be natural to the style as well – the book should move fast and be packed with events. The number of supporting players would be large, and comprising civilians (something we don’t see much of in comics these days as heroes become increasingly cloistered in their own culture), superheroes, and even some reformed or less dangerous villains. Bette is incredibly social and sees the best in people, and that should be reflected in her supporting cast. Argent strikes me as a good long-term ally, as her grounded materialism balances Bette’s idealistic dreaming, and both act out of an underlying romantic angst that serves as a subtle connection between the two (not to mention they’re both former Titans struggling to find their way into adulthood).

The basic art style should be bright, buoyant, expressive and clean – Cliff Chiang or Todd Nauck would both work excellently for the title. Humor-based comics tend to work with cleaner looks, and here it’s with a definite purpose, as the relative accessibility of the style belies the actual complexity of tone and theme. Think of a 60s pop single, and that’s the equivalent here. Manga influences are also welcome, and Runaways is a prime example of a book that managed to pull that off while still maintaining the look and feel of a Western comic.

The One-Sentence Sell: A poignant, eccentric superhero comedy written and directed by Wes Anderson.

Join us back next week for the beginning of a multi-part series of columns where we’ll look at that most classic of comic book tropes, an alternate Earth.