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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Flying Fist Ranch