With the vast gulf between the number of people willing to see a movie about superheroes and the number of readers of superhero comics, there’s a lot of talk about how to make these comic books welcoming to new readers. I’m wondering if one of the problems is the reliance on the traditional rogues gallery, the supervillains who return time and time again to menace the heroes.
One of the many reasons superhero comics are so inaccessible to new readers is that these stories tend to feature characters who have a prior history which long-standing readers are aware of, but newcomers have no familiarity with. So previous adventures from decades of backstory are likely to be referenced, and new readers will have to make all sorts of inferences to understand what’s going on. Does the hero take this bad guy seriously? Is this bad guy supposed to somehow be sympathetic? Why does the hero seem to dislike this bad guy more than the bad guy in earlier issues?
There’s the argument that it should be easy for new readers to understand as the only stories that matter for a villain are their first appearance and their status as a long time fixture of the books. That was the traditional approach, though I would add three additional elements of a villain’s story that a reader often has to understand just to make sense of a story.
First, there’s the role in a larger mega-arc which may include other stories. If there’s a recurring mystery involving Electro, many of his recent appearances are likely to be mentioned. The most recent appearance of a villain is also often referenced. This was much more typical in the 60s, 70s and early 80s, when writers and editors provided explanations for why the last showdown’s seemingly permanent defeat didn’t last. With Marvel now publishing dozens of titles, it’s often hard to keep track of the latest appearances, which is why it doesn’t happen as much anymore. You do see it sometimes, especially when it’s been a long time since a villain appeared, and it seemed as if their character arc had come to an end, in which case an explanation is necessary for the return.
For some villains, significant stories are typically referenced. Gwen Stacy will be name-dropped when Norman Osborn’s the bad guy. Kraven’s Last Hunt would be mentioned with Kraven. And the Lizard is likely to be reminded of what he did in “Shed.” It’s only true of a handful of villains, although it was accelerated during the Gauntlet mega-arc, in which several of Spider-Man’s antagonists went through major changes. It gets a bit more convoluted this way, but it’s still not as if every story the villain had appeared will be name-dropped. Though it can be argued that it’s not a good thing if a villain’s previous appearances have been so inconsequential that it’s not worth mentioning.
Casual readers might also be a bit confused if the handful of comics they’ve read earlier gives them a different taken on the characters. Someone who read Erik Larsen’s Spider-Man runs in the 1990s would be distracted over why Sandman’s a bad guy in “Ends of the Earth.” Over time, some elements of the backstory become more important than others, which can confuse readers who are only familiar with the less consequential stories.
Of course, it’s worth remembering that Spider-Man’s rogues gallery, possibly the best in serial fiction, is a major part of the series’s appeal. A kid who has seen all the movies or played one of the games wants to see those bad guys in the comics. He’s happy to see the villains he owns as action figures showing up in the book and kicking ass.
However, in comics, reviews have been good when writers have chosen not to use the traditional bad guys. Scott Snyder’s Batman tops the sales charts, with a focus on entirely new villains. As I noted in a previous entry, two of the most acclaimed Spider-Man writers explicitly went in a different direction. Roger Stern liked to pit Spidey against Marvel villains he hadn’t fought before. JMS focused almost entirely on new villains. Wizard Magazine did a list of the top ten Spider-Man comics circa 1998, which only included two stories in which Spider-Man had a rematch with someone from his rogues gallery. Three of the stories featured the first appearances of new recurring villains, while two more featured Spider-Man’s first encounters with bad guys from other titles.
I think writers should always be able to do stories with the old bad guys if someone has a Kraven’s Last Hunt, or Unscheduled Stop. But currently, most stories feature existing villains, which can be troublesome, preventing the industry from addressing a serious flaw. Maybe there’s a way around that.