Beauology 101: Comic Books: The Four Color World Turns Gray

Beau Smith Cocked & Loaded.

Beau Smith Cocked & Loaded.

by Beau Smith

It used to be that the two most feared, badass characters in the Marvel Universe were Wolverine and The Punisher. Their popularity guaranteed extra sales in whatever book they either starred or made a cameo in.

Amazing Spider-Man #129

Amazing Spider-Man #129

For the record, The Punisher first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #129 and Wolverine debuted in The Incredible Hulk #180. These two guys started out as villains, and quickly morphed into what we now call “anti-heroes”. What that basically means is that unlike the superheroes that came before them, they would kill people with little or any remorse.

The Debut Of Wolverine

The Debut Of Wolverine

This mirrored what was going on in films and TV in the late 1970s and early 80s with the torch being passed from John Wayne to Clint Eastwood. It was also a result of what happens when long time comic book fans become the creators writing comic books. They take the base of their childhood comic book heroes and inject their current adult tastes into them so that they can better enjoy the characters. It’s purely selfish reasons, but in the process, they end up sticking because of the legions of comic book readers who also liked seeing their childhood heroes become more relevant to their more mature tastes. In time, this became a major part of the reason we don’t have young readers like we used to. Comic books have not been consistently written for all ages in a very long time. Not only have the comic book creators continued to write for a mature audience only, but this has been reinforced by more, if not all, the people on the business and editorial end also being second and third generation comic book fans turned professional. It’s good for some, but also limits comics for everyone. It also limits the writers from being able to tell any kind of story.

This breaks down to why our beloved comic book reading base has remained older, and mostly male. We really won’t get a wider base of younger or female readers until this changes. If left singularly to print only, comic books would continue to just appeal to the same aging male readership. But with technology rapidly (hyper-rapid) changing the way we consume entertainment, this is all going to change and widen with or without the consent of the current publishing establishment. Those that don’t embrace it will be left in the printed dust. I’m not saying printed comics will die as a whole, of course not. But they will take other forms that need to have attention paid to if publishing and retail are to make money from it.

Present Day Bad Boys

Present Day Bad Boys

Getting back to The Punisher and Wolverine, have you noticed that they aren’t quite as “must read” popular as they once were? It’s not because they, as characters, have gotten soft. It’s because every other character got hard.

Those two characters created such a wave of anti-hero popularity that creators started adding an edge to all the characters they touched. Publishers encouraged it because they saw more money in having characters with a tougher, rule bending way of thinking. Comic book characters went from being done in black & white and four color to almost totally gray. The rules melted into a murky world where nobody is really good or bad; they’re somewhere in the middle. Don’t try and set your moral compass to that.

Superman: Kill Is Just Another Four Letter Word

Superman: Kill Is Just Another Four Letter Word

I’m sure publishers will mutter the tired old cliché that pop culture reflects the changes in reality. Well, that’s partly true, but if everything looks and acts the same, then people’s attention will drift into another direction. Comic books cannot afford attention deficit disorder right now.

It’s time that comic book creators and publishers of mainstream heroes get a little more compelling with their characters. Things are changing fast and only those that can remain smart and fast enough to keep up will remain in the race. Superhero comics can’t regress to the 1990’s Image and Marvel Lite. Let’s move forward.

Your amigo,

Beau Smith

The Flying Fist Ranch


We'd love to hear from you, feel free to add to the discussion!

  1. Kurtlove Says:

    Beau, I have been reading your stuff for years, and I find myself in complete disagreement with you. The reason for these character’s decline in popularity is much simpler. It is oversaturation. How many books is Wolverine in every month? Spidey? Thor? Cap? Punisher as well?? Here is Marvel’s policy: Hot character+stale book=Increased Sales.It doesn’t work anymore, sorry. Take a look at DC’s current assault on the market. Or take a look at how many struggling books Marvel drops marquee characters in. While you made valid points, I find that during conventions, I meet people from all walks of life that love comic books, and love the characters more than anything. Wolverine and Frank castle were relevant when you could follow their stories without having to buy 26 books a month.

  2. Beau Smith Says:

    Excellent points, amigo. I feel that we’re both right and not that really far apart, hitting the same matter from different sides. I appreciate you taking the time to post up your thoughts.

    Your amigo,


  3. Billy Tucci Says:

    Great article, Beau — you are spot on!

  4. Rob Says:

    Hit the nail on the head Beau.
    Take the DCnU as the perfect example. Here we go, taking an entire comic book universe and starting it again from SCRATCH. Huge right?

    All we hear from TPTB is that it is a great jumping on point for new readers, a chance to expand the dwindling comic book readership, blah blah blah, and what do we get??

    Juvenile sex scenes, bad characterisation, overly complicated stories that would confuse any newcomer and angst filled 90’s drama that NO 9 year old kid would want to read!

    Pick up any book from DC (or Marvel) and see if the lead character is explained at all to a new reader. Excluding Batman, Superman and maybe Green Lantern a new reader would have no idea what the hell was going on.

    Why?? Because as you stated, fans are now writers. They all know who the characters are, what they can do and write stories catered for people who are the same.

    Drives me nuts!!

  5. B. Clay Moore Says:

    I think you make a pretty good point here, Beau. Food for thought.

    In fact, I think it’s one of the reasons Mark Waid’s DAREDEVIL has been so favorably received. The tone is old school, but alien to current comics.

  6. Beau Smith Says:


    I’m glad you mentioned Mark Waid’s Daredevil. It’s one of MY favorite books right now and it’s because Mark is showcasing that you can have exciting, smart stories with a character and still add just the right bit of humor to appeal to all ages. The book insults no one and appeals to almost everyone. It’s like Waid is the only person not farting in the room of comics.

    Thanks, amigo.