Confessions of a Comic Book Guy is a weekly column by Steve Bennett of Super-Fly Comics and Games in Yellow Springs, Ohio. This week, Bennett talks about retooling classic characters.
Buck Rogers #0 ships today with a print run of 75,000 copies, impressive even if the comic does carry a MSRP of a quarter. But as to whether those numbers accurately represent today's audience's actual interest in a character most of them know only via a campy TV show that aired before they were born is another matter.
Conventional wisdom says most of them shouldn't be interested in decades old pop culture icons (well, actually it says "old things suck") but it seems when it comes time to invest $3.00 in a comic book sight unseen they tend to choose one that comes with a pedigree. They may have only the vaguest idea who Zorro or The Lone Ranger were but still consider their comics a safer bet than one featuring an entirely new character. Maybe because they come with a track record, the kind of built-in bona fides that only a property that's already generated merchandise and other media adaptations has. Readers somehow consider them a more reliable product.
But having said that it's still all about the now; who they were isn't as important as who they are. These sorts of intellectual properties require frequent renovations if they're going to be made inhabitable for today's tenants; take, for example, someone who's had more than his share of extreme reinventions: Flash Gordon.
In the 50's he left Mongo, ditching longtime companions Dale Arden and Dr. Zarkov to become a pilot/agent for Earth in the near future*, then there's the best forgotten 1996 animated series where Flash and Dale were extreme sports loving teens. And of course the recent, appalling Sci Fi Channel series where Producers decided America was looking for an adult Flash who commuted to Mongo because he still lived with his mother.
You'd think something this bad would discourage anyone from touching the property for a while but the show was cancelled in early 2008 and by August we already had the better-than-it-has-any-right-to-be comic book series from Ardden Entertainment. At first my expectations were appropriately low (it was initially described as being "manga-like") but happily the art looks more like Kyle Baker woke up one morning and decided to add the same impossibly glossy sheen to his characters that Greg Land does.
However the most egregious example of criminal character tampering is yet to be seen, the upcoming "Syfi" (yeah, your name, that's what was wrong with your channel) four hour Phantom movie that seems to have been intentionally designed to have as little to do with the source material as possible. Of course they've changed the costume -- even I'll admit the original is silly, but can anyone say their Security Guard of Dune look is any improvement?
And they got rid of the mask, which makes sense; if you spend the money to hire the guy who played the guy who turned into a half-pig guy in the "Daleks In Manhattan" episode of Doctor Who to play The Phantom naturally you want everyone to see his chiseled face. It also takes place in America, no doubt because filming anywhere else would have cost money, and instead of fighting pirates (which now not only has a "torn from today's headlines" quality, it's the character's reason for being), The Phantom is going to face the unparalleled menace of Isabella Rossellini.
Once you've changed all of the above it's really not The Phantom any more, is it? And while these changes might make the character more palatable to American audiences I don't think the producers have considered just how popular the character is all over the world. There just might be some sales resistance when they try to peddle the series to markets overseas.
Which brings me to the major problem reviving these kinds of pop culture icons: some are just too dated to easily move into modern times (no one wants a Mandrake the Magician movie more than me, but not if the character has to look like Criss Angel, Mindfreak). And the more you try to contemporize them the more they lose whatever intrinsic appeal they might have had in the first place.
So of course I'm curious how Buck Rogers does (though I say the only way to do the character right is have him knocked out in 1928 and wake up in a dangerous world full of super weapons and genocidal race wars; ours). You think fictional characters live forever but one of the sad things about rifling through Golden Age comics is you keep coming across all sorts of wonderful once ubiquitous characters who've all but become completely forgotten: Joe Palooka, Smitty, Moon Mullins, Mickey Finn, Mutt & Jeff, The Gumps, etc.
If it could happen to them it could happen to anyone; I'm talking to you, Superman.
And special thanks goes out to Marvel Comics. Not only are they publishing 70th Anniversary Specials for the Golden Age titles All Select Comics and USA Comics, All Select will contain an all new story featuring Marvel's old/new breakout character; Marvex the Super Robot. Dreams really do come true.
* These stories can be read in the pages of Comic Revue (check the magazine section of next week's Previews) emphasizing not a sense of wonder but the everyday lives of people working in space so the former Conqueror of the Universe was reduced to a mere "rocket ship driver" (as Milton Caniff might have put it). Eventually both Dale and Dr. Zarkov returned to the strip but for years he had neither friends nor a home; I always imagine him opening his spaceport locker, seeing his signature red shirt with yellow dots from his glory days and sighing.
The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.
Column by Steve Bennett
Posted by ICv2 on April 21, 2009 @ 10:00 pm CT