Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Why Won't This Work?: Four-Pack

It’s funny, because even before Kiel’s great post about Captain Marvel, I’d been thinking a lot about characters who seem perennially on the cusp of the A-list or great in concept but never quite living up in execution. I earmarked a half dozen or so and started mentally jotting down some thoughts and then read what Kiel had to say.

And now there’s no way I can match up anywhere near his brilliant little essay, so I’ve got to just be content to serve as the house band playing people out the door after the main act has finished rocking—drat! But hey, I love reading K-Pheg’s musings and he put my own theses into overdrive, so I’m happy to take that and run with what I’ve got.

There has definitely been a rash of “Finally! Somebody nailed it!” cases in comics over the last decade in particular. Iron Fist went from being a neat relic of the martial arts craze to a true fan favorite after Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction added an extensive mythology to the mix. Booster Gold has emerged as more than comic relief simply because folks realized he can indeed be taken seriously without having to lose any of the humor. Deadpool happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right creators and is now riding a wave of zeitgeist. Even Green Lantern has gone from DC’s perennial B-Team captain to their most valuable franchise because Geoff Johns hit on the magic formula of going bigger and bigger with just about every aspect of the franchise.

I think any of the four characters I’m about to spout off about are one good pitch away from sustained success, and while I may not have the key code myself, I do have some brief thoughts on what already makes them work and what they might need to hit that next level.

J’onn J’onzz is one of my favorite DC characters and pretty much always front and center as part of the Justice League for the past 30 years or so, but he’s never broken out as a solo star the way the rest of the “Big Seven” have (and I think he’s cooler than Aquaman, hence why I’m picking him here). Yes, he did have a respectable and enjoyable series written by John Ostrander back in the late 90’s, but I think that grew more out of the fact that Grant Morrison’s JLA was selling well and they wanted every major team member to have their own book as opposed to anybody having a grand vision for the character (and that’s certainly no knock on Ostrander, whom readers of this blog know I have great respect for).

To me the coolest aspect of The Martian Manhunter has always been that he can literally be anybody, and thus fit into any story, something Ostrander did hit on a few times, but never got to fully exploit in my opinion. J’onn is equal parts science fiction hero and noir detective, a unique combination to say the least; given his connections within the DC Universe, he could easily slot into stories with just about any other focus from the mystic to the urban as well. I’ve always felt the best possible role for Martian Manhunter would be as the anchor of some sort of anthology title with rotating co-stars, but that’s just me and I know those can be a hard sell. Brightest Day has already cleared a major hurdle for J’onn in giving him the best costume he’s ever had, and both Geoff Johns and Peter Tomasi seem to have genuine affection for the character, so I’ve got high hopes here.

It’s actually a bit surprising to me that Storm hasn’t achieved more success outside of the X-Men from a publishing standpoint. She was far and away one of the most popular characters in the most popular book in comics for many years, and even during periods since when she’s been slightly more marginalized or X-Men hasn’t been quite the top of the heap, she’s still held in fairly high regard within the fan community. She was one of the featured players in the 90’s X-Men animated series most fans still remember to this day and was played in three hit movies by no less than Halle Berry. She’s got cool powers that are easy for anybody to understand as well as for any creative writer to stretch, she’s always had pretty iconic costumes, and to “go there,” yeah, she’s a strong black female character in a genre that doesn’t have that many.

Honestly I do think a Storm solo series could be an easy homerun, just for whatever reason nobody has ever got it off the ground. Certainly Chris Claremont laid plenty of groundwork and fodder for stories galore in his early years writing the character, from her childhood as pickpocket to her adolescent “goddess” years to her punk rock rebel days as well as the claustrophobia, the great loves, the flowery speech mixed with street toughness and all the other good stuff that makes Storm who she is. I guess it’s possible X-Men writers through the years have wanted Storm to themselves and couldn’t visualize her running off on solo adventures in between missions ala Wolverine, but I think her value as a globally-recognized iconic character with loads of potential makes her too valuable to have on the sidelines.

With the success of Iron Man of late, I half-expected DC to polish Steel off for another star turn, and I certainly wouldn’t have minded as he’s a fine character. I Always liked that he was bound to the Superman family by his ethics and morality, not any sort of heritage or shared powers since he was a street level dude whose abilities were rooted in technology rather than being inherent or alien. A lot of writers seem to dig Steel as Grant Morrison put him in the JLA and then he was one of the leads in 52, but neither really led anywhere significant.

I think with John Henry Irons you have to really play up the self-made-man aspect of his journey, as that’s how Louise Simonson originally sold him to fans and what lots of people latched onto pretty quick. The duality between his street roots and the higher-class lifestyle his intellect afforded him as well as playing those smarts off against his bulk also made for good stories. Truth be told, I think Simonson had a pretty good thing going in those initial stories and in the first couple years of his only ongoing, the core concept just needs to be spruced up for a new generation and put in the hands of a capable creative team. He could also work pretty well in the spot Cyborg currently inhabits on the Justice League (I’ve never liked the idea that Cyborg is some sort of late-blooming super-scientist since that runs so contrary to the character’s roots).

I have an affection I don’t truly understand but fully embrace when it comes to comic book characters that go into battle and excel with only their skills as hand-to-hand combatants. I guess in universes where everybody has super-strength or vague energy powers (TM Sean T. Collins), it’s always cool to see dudes who get crazy respect for just being able to punch and kick well. And while I love me some Richard Dragon over at DC, Shang-Chi I think has him beat by a shuriken when it comes to potential.

From an artistic stand-point, Shang-Chi would be gold in the hands of one of the new guard of Marvel fight choreographers like David Aja, Alex Maleev or Michael Lark who have made Iron Fist and Daredevil’s adventures look like poetry in motion over the last few years. From a story perspective, the Master of Kung Fu has a perfect blend the martial artists influence those characters tap into mixed with an actual espionage background as he was a British secret agent ala James Bond during his 70’s heyday.

Basically, Shang-Chi takes elements of what has made Iron Fist, Daredevil, Captain America and the rest of Marvel’s crime, martial arts or spy-centric books sing during this most recent era and mashes them up beautifully with a lead who provides the perfect cipher for an enterprising creative team, not to mention a built-in big bad in the form of his we-need-a-new-name-for-him uber-crimeboss dad. Looking forward to his upcoming appearances in Brubaker’s Secret Avengers as they could really be the start of something big.


IADW said...

Nice list! I'd love to see Martian Manhunter get his own book back.

The other one I'd add to the list is The Vision. I just think hi whole perspective is interesting - plus he has that whole warped family tree to play off.

Tom Spurgeon said...

Where's that picture of Shang-Chi from?

Ben Morse said...

Dan-Vision is definitely a good one. Not enough has ever been done with him solo.

Tom-I honestly have no idea. I found it on Comic Vine one day when I was searching images for a thing and have used it every time I've referenced Shang-Chi ever since.

Magilla Gorilla said...

Looks to be Mike Deadoto's art, you can probably use that as a starting point to track down its origin.

Richard Hancock said...

That image of Shang-Chi looks much more like an image of Bruce Lee.

BTW, I'd love to see Paul Gulacy's beautiful early Shang-Chi artwork reprinted, but I understand there's an issue with rights to the Sax Rohmer supporting cast (e.g. Fu Manchu).

Anonymous said...

I'm all with you on Storm; If you look at the late #200s and the whole #300s of UNCANNY X-MEN you can see a definite run of her adventures by Claremont, and I wish something like that could be done.

I read in the backmatter of a NEW X-MEN trade that Morrison originally wanted to use her on the team, but when they couldn't, pulled in Emma Frost.

Right now, Storm is still hanging out in two worlds -- the world of Black Panther books and then X-Men -- I'd love to see her transcend that somehow, maybe even become an Avenger?

And I believe that Shang-Chi pinup by Mike Deodato Jr. was just a commmission or one-off work that was never published. Here's something about it, but I can't translate:

Ken said...

I'd buy a J'onn J'onzz monthly if it were done in either of two ways: A) the lead in an anthology as you mentioned, or B) as a solo series where the stories take place over his entire career, like Madame Xanadu (where he had a fantastic role in a recent story arc) or Iron Man Legacy (whose Serpent Society run-in may be the first Iron Man story I buy off the shelf in over a decade).

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