Should Spider-Man borrow Doctor Who’s approach to rogues?

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Perhaps there should be a rule that a majority of Spider-Man stories feature new opponents. So with Amazing Spider-Man‘s 24 issues an year, there would be a cap of 11 issues that could feature recurring villains. This way, a persistent reader would soon have a slightly more accessible “A” storyline in which the hero encounters bad guys he doesn’t have a history with.

To elaborate a little bit, if Spider-Man hasn’t fought the guy before, it’s a new villain, even if the guy is well-known to fans of other franchises. Stories in which Spider-Man fights against ordinary humans like “When Commeth the Commuter” or “To Have and to Hold” would also count as new villains. And the continuation of a multi-part storyline with a new villain would also count, as the new reader should have an easy time purchasing earlier parts of that storyline from the local comic shop. But once the initial story comes to an end, if the bad guy returns, it would be as a recurring opponent.

Doctor Who is a model for this, a decades old Television series (relaunched in 2005) which is particularly effective at appealing to new audiences. I think it’s worth looking at the accomplishments of a series that has managed to build an international audience in the millions despite a steady flow of new content and decades of backstory. As a mark of its success, it recently became the first British television series to appear on the cover of Entertainment Weekly. And Dan Slott’s a big fan.

One thing that helps is that the stories tend to feature new enemies more often than not. Ans this is a series that is acknowledged as having another of the best rogues galleries in serial fiction. I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but of the 21 stories in Stephen Moffat’s first two years as showrunner, only seven featured existing villains. As a caveat, by the term existing villains, I’m usually referring to previously introduced alien species. It’s rare for the Doctor to have a rematch against specific Daleks or Cybermen, although it does happen on occasion. There was a similar ratio of new to old rogues under Moffat’s predecessor Russell T Davies.

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Thinking of Doctor Who led me to consider how television handles this stuff, as a medium that has usually been successful at getting new audiences for programs. While there are some programs like The Wire or Breaking Bad where the viewer is expected to start from the beginning as if it were a novel, most shows try to get new audiences who haven’t been watching since the first episode. And one point of accessibility is that the A-plot usually involves new characters. It’s been this way since the first form of episodic storytelling, the Sherlock Holmes short stories, with each story bringing new murderers, blackmailers and/ or thieves.

In a critique of Star Trek Into Darkness, Mike Romo of iFanboy expressed his disappointment that the film covered old territory.

And now, this movie, Into Darkness, what does it do? Instead of doing it’s own thing, it goes back and uses story lines from the original TV series, and the best Trek movie, and brings Nimoy back!

It was time to cut the cord and, instead, we went back into the womb. We did not “boldly go” — we retreated to the comfortable, we retreated to the sure bet.

A few years ago, Marvel polled readers on their favorite stories. Most of the Spider-Man stories were selected because these were the first appearances of bad guys like Mysterio, Morbius and the Hobgoblin. It suggests an interest in new bad guys.

If I was suddenly an editor, I’m not sure I would mandate new villains in a majority of the storylines. But it’s something worth considering. Maybe JMS had it right.

One drawback is that B-list rogues would be used even less often than now. With a cap on recurring enemies, many writers are going to restrict themselves to their own creations or the classic A-listers. But they’re less prone to waste valuable real estate on the likes of Puma, Hydroman and Fusion, the villains most in need of new material.

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Another problem is that recurring villains tend to be better than new villains. The quality of a new antagonist is somewhat random, but if a bad guy’s still in demand after dozens of appearances, there’s something about that character that works. The writer and artist can also build on what’s worked in the past, and avoid takes on the character that have not been as successful. Though that type of approach is likely to result in a lot of repetition, with the 47th appearance being similar to the 46th.

There’s also the argument that if something has to be mandated, it’s less likely to be successful. If the creative team of a monthly is obligated to tell six issues worth of stories with new villains in order to do their Doctor Doom five-parter, it’s likely that the new bad guys won’t be very impressive, as these wouldn’t be stories that anyone actually wanted to tell.

However, it would be helpful to new readers if stories regularly had interactions between characters who didn’t have decades of back-story. This doesn’t quite work with the supporting cast, since Peter is going to hang out with people he has known for some time, including his family, friends and coworkers. In cop dramas, there’s a steady influx of new suspects. Legal dramas have a steady influx of defendants. For the same reasons, these types of superhero comics would benefit from more new bad guys.

The Infinite Spider-Man is a series of mini-essays regarding Marvel’s options for the future of the best character in comics.

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About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. Currently, I’m writing a few comic books about my grandparents’ experiences in Soviet Estonia for Grayhaven comics. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
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