Character Updating

Let me throw in a terrible aside in even before I start into the topic. When I was younger I practiced Tae Kwon Do, I started as a young adult and had a great instructor. It was a fun sport, the dojo was the perfect place to go after work and get a nice sweat going, I always felt great afterward. I did pretty good too, won the ITF National Sparring championships two years in a row as I was rising through the coloured belts. Of course, once I entered the Black Belt pool with all its veteran fighters who were doing it for most of their lives I got a nice reality check and my ass handed to me many a time. Good memories and lots of friendships formed. I am embarrassed to say though that at the very beginning I was not happy with my instructor. The man, Master Zbeb, was amazing, he was and probably still is a great fighter and an even better teacher but I had second thoughts of joining his school. Why? He was of Polish descent. Tae Kwon Do was a Korean martial art and I wanted the “authenticity” of a Korean instructor.

The aside above was the first thought I had when I thought of tackling the touchy subject of character updating.

There are many types of character updating and two of the most famous examples are two of the oldest as well. When DC Comics brought back the Flash in 1956 they did not bring back the original Jay Garrick alter ego, they updated the character to fit the times with Barry Allen. A few years later DC brought back and updated the Green Lantern character and changed the alter ego from Alan Scott to Hal Jordan. Both updates were a huge success though I’m sure there must have been some controversy and complaints from the old fans, not even a decade had gone by since the old versions disappeared. I’d love to read some of the negative old fan mail as I’m sure there was plenty.

Since then there have been countless character updates, some have worked while some have not, some have been very controversial while others have met with almost no backlash at all.

I’m going share my observations with you as to what I see as going on but before I do I have to point out that I know this is a prickly subject and that these are only my views for what they are worth.

Protests and backlashes don’t just happen when a character update involves a racial or gender change, DC’s attempts at replacing Bruce Wayne as Batman has shown us that. Dick Grayson? Not on my watch! I’m not even sure why some characters can successfully change even within the same demographic. From Jay Garrick to Barry Allen to Wally West, we may all have our favourites but we all accept the three as a valid incarnation of the Flash. Hank Pym? Scott Lang? Who’s your Ant-Man?

Here’s where I’m going to trip over myself but I’m going to try nonetheless. A lot of the white male characters were written as default characters, there was no importance to their race or gender when they were thought up, they were just thought up by a demographic in society for a demographic in society. Green Lantern stories were about adventures with little attention given to the fact that Hal Jordan is white. If we are going to use Jon Stewart as an updated Green Lantern it has no reason not to work if the stories are focused on the Green Lantern adventures. He’s the Green Lantern fighting aliens, he’s not the Black Green Lantern fighting aliens.

I recently read that the Emily Blunt character in Sicario was supposed to be a man, that was a fantastic movie and during the whole movie, Emily Blunt was an FBI agent who we all felt for. I didn’t know the character was supposed to be a man until recently and when I watched the movie I obviously noticed the character was female but it was something that was not important to the character, this was an FBI agent in a messed up situation. Sigourney Weaver as Ridley in the Aliens franchise was fantastic, I remember being scared straight when it came out, I also remember years later when critics hailed it as a great role for a woman but most of us that were there watching when it came out can attest to the fact that it was something that just didn’t register as important.

In comics, race and gender updates can work. Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel is a great example of a successful character update involving a gender change, Nick Fury Agent of Shield is a great example of a successful character update involving a racial change. Miles Morales is another great example of a successful character update involving a racial change. The great thing about the Morales update is that it proved there is a need and room in the world for Spider-Man to have two personas.

I think that change in comics finds more acceptance when the character core is kept the same. Its a tricky balance creating new fans while at the same time satisfying old, alter egos that face the universal realities of the human condition find wider audiences than those focused on specific cultural circumstances. The Nick Fury update did this very well with great results. When a character is created to tell the story from a specific cultural perspective like say Luke Cage it would be hard to tell the story of the 1970s inner-city America with an Asian or European man, it would not make sense as the character was written for an African American perspective. Wonder Woman would be an obvious female character written for a female. Characters like this most likely would not have successful race and gender updates.

Do not discredit or disregard character updates in comic books, they have gone on forever and they will continue as long as there are comics. Some will stick and some will miss and only time will sort them out. Don’t look at change through the perspective of a moment in time. Change has almost always come with some resistance, at that moment in time change is always a disruption, a shock, but change is inevitable and time almost always bears it out as necessary and good.

What are some of the key comics to collect when talking character updates? Marvel Superheroes #13 from 1967 introduces Carol Danvers to goes on to become Captain Marvel, Ultimate Marvel Team-Up #5 from 2001 introduces the black Nick Fury (I’m pretty sure I got this wrong on an old Undervalued Spotlight), Ultimate Fall Out #4 from 2011 introduces Miles Morales as Spider-Man. Avengers #181 from 1979 introduces Scott Lang who goes on to become the new Ant-Man in Marvel Premiere #47 also from 1979.

Help me flush out some more recent successful character updates, what characters, what issues? Which of these has the best long term prospects? Remember comic print runs over the last 15 years are at historic lows, some of these books will be able to develop relative scarcity with an increase in demand.

Character updating can have infinite nuances, I’ve touched on some very macro ones I was comfortable with above. In the end there no way of guessing what will work and what won’t, all I know is that there character updating will continue and we should look at it as an opportunity for investment.

Default image
Walter Durajlija
Walter Durajlija is an Overstreet Advisor and Shuster Award winner. He owns Big B Comics in Hamilton Ontario.
Articles: 1584

12 Comments

  1. The comic book movie update that has confounded me the most Walt is Spiderman….turning our web slinger into a version of Ironman light…..I cannot believe that this new version was so quickly accepted and the movie made close to a Billion. Yikes

  2. Will comment further later – but Dave I think that makes perfect sense from both a character and business perspective. From when I was a wee lad I always said a guy who had been bitten by a radioactive spider getting the powers of a spider was a classic super-hero, but the idea that this random guy could invent the most amazing material ever and load near-infinite amounts of it into bulbs on his wrists was a real deal-breaker for me. The Stark II explanation is the only plausible scenario (plausible in the Marvel Universe, that is). From a business perspective the fans don’t want to give up Iron Man, so the segue way using this approach is smooth. The same level of technical genius but now with a different set of character flaws.

  3. Great points Chris….and the cinematic Iron man is likely more popular then the cinematic Spiderman, considering the success of both the Iron man and Avengers movie, so that may play into it a little as well. Peter Parker was always described as a wonder kid with a brain , just socially backward, and I think that’s what appealed to me. I was socially backward without the brains. 🙂
    No wonder I befriended Walt 😉

  4. I have listened to you and Chris Owen talk about this subject several times on Comic Culture. There is the aspect of appealing to a new younger audience that has a more diverse sensibility vs older readers who don’t want to see their hero’s changed. Some of the characters you mentioned made some great transitions that should appeal to all but the most dug in fans. Others were a bit more sloppy! While I love the cinematic version of Nick Fury, changing him in the comics seemed a bit more forced and it took me awhile to accept the 60’s Nick Fury was basically gone. Other cinematic attempts at change were a fail like that last Fantastic Four film with an African American Torch. If the change had been made with say Johnny Storm going off to do something else and the FF take on another Flaming hero to replace him who happened to be African American… THAT would make sense!
    Some hero’s tho may be off limits. Batman replaced by who… Nightwing…maybe. Superman… can’t happen! But these are first string contenders. Agents of Shield brought in several characters and fit them into their concept but those characters were far down the ladder and it was ok! The newer generation want to have hero’s just like we did… so I believe change is needed but its up to the creators to apply their skills and do it thoughtfully… not ram what they want down our throats… they need to realize who really butters their bread!
    I think a lot could be said for getting some distribution of comics back into grocery and convenience store magazine racks ( kids comics and all ages material) purely for reading and then they can graduate to comic stores and find out what else is out there! After all comic stores and distribution to other kinds of stores went on for 20 before comic stores were almost the only outlet! If you want to get kids hooked on newer changed heroes then you have got to get the material into their hands! I don’t think it would hurt comic stores in the long run and would help the industry as a whole!

  5. Gerald! First of all, thanks for listening to Comic Culture. (And by the way, we will be back soon!) Second, don’t get me started on distribution and how there is a severe lack of Marvel and DC comics out there in general population at grocery stores, corner stores, etc. I know we are living in a more digital age and kids want immediate gratification via youtube and other various apps. However, I believe the comic market is really in some serious peril.

    Variant covers, special editions, store exclusives and the other myriad of multiple copies of the same books are really propping up a sagging marketplace. Too many versions of the same book are being published and purchased by the same group of individuals. Not enough DC and Marvel material is being published for the younger generation. And this started so many years ago that really, it’s us old guys keeping the market alive. And many of us are getting tired of it. But I digress…

    I think that it’s okay to update characters. I really do. As long as it makes sense. And in the every changing DC or Marvel cinematic universes, well, why not. Sam Jackson as Fury in the movies is awesome. Did I like it in the comics? Well not so much. Maybe because I wasn’t a fan of the Ultimates where he first appeared. Maybe I’m too much of a traditionalist. Either way. Movies: yes. Comics: no.

    However, let’s take one step further: Did I like how Nick Fury was no longer Sgt. Fury with his Howling Commandos? Sure. It was a natural progression of the character. What about when they made Nick Fury a Watcher-like character chained to the moon? Well.. I guess it’s okay. But I still don’t mind it because at least it was a natural progression of the character.

    Natural progressions of characters occur in movies too, but not from the start. So Sam Jackson as Fury at the start of the Marvel cinematic universe is fine by me. Would it be weird to see Sam Jackson play Batman? Yeah kinda. Would it be weird to see him play Shang Chi: Master of Kung Fu? Yeah, but maybe it would awesome?

  6. Hey Chris O., your 9 different Variant Covers of Zombie Tramp #3 are in including the Virgin one you wanted so badly. Let me know when you can come and pick them up.

    Gerald is right about the store distribution, I’ve always said comics have a distribution problem, not at the back end but at the customer end. Some towns have one comic shop and some smaller towns have none!

  7. Ok now I read the post and not just Dave’s comment so I can write something else.

    Jay Garrick and Alan Scott had to go because of their lame sidekicks. Some of those covers from the forties are just too embarrassing to look at.

    Overall I think there are two very different strains of character updates. One is within comics, the other is comics to elsewhere, particularly movies. Within comics, I think organic and well-developed character updates can be successful forever. Take Green Lantern – this wasn’t just a reboot of the old series with an unexplained costume change and an unexplained new character, but rather a totally new hero who happened to have powers similar to the old hero’s. Ms. Marvel is another example – she has her own backstory that goes all the way back to the beginning.

    By organic I mean that it too jarring that one day everybody wakes up and Nick Fury is a black man. Huh what? On the other hand, comics are great for weird backstories like the “real” Nick Fury decided to deal with racial bias by going under deep cover and directing “Nick Fury” in his S.H.I.E.L.D. activities through some high tech gizmos, etc. & etc. (Not my idea of “well developed”, but this is stream of consciousness…) As long as the update fits into the continuity or starts a new continuity (well), all is good.

    Moving to another medium is a completely different situation. There the right answer is to not ruin it for the comic fan-persons, but get creative and give them something new that is appealing, while at the same time delivering a coherent picture to the unwashed such that they don’t need to know the comics backstory. Disney knows what it is doing on this front. In that case Nick Fury is the movie Nick Fury to begin with, forget about the comic backstory – but the core character is there for the initiated. Spider-Man is a ingenuous kid who lives with his aunt. Black Panther is the king of a hidden African country. Black Widow is an ex-Russian assassin. Otherwise we don’t need to carry the baggage that in issue elebendy-seven it was revealed that… This casting off of the old baggage makes the Easter eggs that much more fun, a tip of the hat to those who notice.

    Speaking of character updating in movies – and I still haven’t seen the movie, so don’t tell me! – The Joker is a character who has gotten stuck on the other side of this divide in the comics, and I think that’s why there were so many “I’m so over him” comments in this topic awhile back. The Joker can’t really handle updating because he is such a black hole – any attempt to humanize him will break the character. From what little I know about the movie – don’t tell me! – it seems like the very right move was made to completely break with the black hole and bring back some kind of a human.

  8. Good point of the Joker Chris and on the Movies and Comics distinction, actually almost all comments reference that movie versions are somehow different from the comic versions, and it seems easier to update in the movies where the large percentage of fans are not tied down by canon, I have to think on that a bid.

  9. 20 years ago there still seemed to be plenty for my kids to read. Power Puff Girls, Batman and Superman Adventures, and Scooby Doo just to name a few. We got them at grocery stores and comic stores! Plus I tried to get them into back issues with 60’s Harvey comics on Ebay! My youngest graduated To Bone eventually. We had a great time reading and then putting them away in a box to reread another time! You are right, since then the major companies have more Or less abandoned kids who the backbone of comic buying when I was a kid!

  10. Chris O…. looking forward to that renewal of Comic Culture…a friend of yours said you were working on it and I kept holding my breath waiting… but darned if I didn’t keep finding I’d passed out on the floor each time!

  11. Comic Cultures return? A good excuse exists to social distance from Walt Chris 😉
    I fear Gerald that the comic industry is dying, living on in cinema and TV. Im glad your children got a taste of the wonderful childhood we shared growing up. Comic racks in every variety store….even Kmart , bus terminals and grocers had comics. And who went on a vacation without comics loaded up in the rear window? Remember old book stores , Like Mikes Bookstore, with piles of old comics? pre comic specialty shops.
    And Chris Meli…you should write for comic daily…you’ve lots of interesting perspectives. I liked the hero side kicks of the 1940’s…but comics were for a child audience back in the day. Probably ages 6 to 12. ( I wonder what that says about me?? )
    The Boy Commandos were a big seller, as the reader could identify with kids of their own age. It sold over a million copies a month, out sold only by Batman and Superman. Unreal.

    as per wiki…
    Simon & Kirby were hired away from Timely Comics by DC towards the end of 1941, primarily due to their success on Captain America, but without there being a clear purpose to the decision, nor title to work on.[3] Finding themselves initially embroiled in the Captain Marvel lawsuit, Jack Liebowitz gave them free rein to create or revamp DC heroes. Initially, the duo created new versions of The Sandman, and Manhunter (both of whom bore strong resemblance to their Captain America work), before deciding that “kid gangs seemed to be the way to go”.[3] Teenage sidekicks (Batman’s Robin, Captain America’s Bucky, etc.) were fast becoming a comics staple, intended to provide young characters with whom youthful readers could identify.[4] Simon & Kirby’s own Sentinels of Liberty (later the Young Allies) had already succeeded in this mold, and had an influence on their subsequent creation.
    Detective Comics #65 (July 1942). Art by Jack Kirby, Jerry Robinson and Joe Simon.

    Having already created the “Sentinels of Liberty” for Timely, they now created for DC the Newsboy Legion (“a Dead End Kids-style group led by a police officer in a Captain America-like blue-and-yellow costume, toting a shield”[3]). Although America had not yet entered the war, headlines and news stories highlighted the role of British commandos, so Simon and Kirby fused the kid gang with the commando, and created The Boy Commandos.[5]

    The international group included the French Andre Chavard, the English Alfie Twidgett, the Dutch Jan Haasan and an American only known as “Brooklyn”.[6]

    Debuting in the pages of Detective Comics[7] #64 (the issue #65’s cover (left) shows Batman presenting the gang but they appeared first in the issue before) cover-dated June 1942, the team became extremely popular, also appearing in World’s Finest Comics (#8-41, 1942-1949) and were then soon spun off into their own title,[8] launching with a ‘Winter 1942′ date. The title sold “over a million copies each month,” and was one of DC’s “three biggest hits” alongside Superman and Batman.[3] Kirby drew around five pages a day of the title, but Liebowitz requested an even faster turn-around – fearing (as happened) that the two would be drafted, as had many other industry professionals. Simon & Kirby hired “inkers, [letterers], colorists, and writers, striving to create a year’s worth of tales” (Boy Commandos was also a quarterly title until Winter, 1945). Among those hired was a young Gil Kane, who recalls being:

    “hired to do as many Boy Commandos, Newsboy Legion, and Sandman stories as I could… they gave me scripts and they would do the splashes and they would have it inked.”[3]

    Boy Commandos #1 (December 1942). Their first featured anthology series. Penciled by Jack Kirby, inked by Joe Simon.

    According to Jess Nevins’ Encyclopedia of Golden Age Superheroes, “Most of their criminals are ordinary, either Germans and Japanese or merely human criminals, but there are also exotics like Crazy Quilt, Diamond Hand, and Mr. Bleak, he of the devilish shadow.”[9]

    Boy Commandos ran until issue #36 (Nov/Dec 1949),[10] and was edited throughout by Jack Schiff. Among the individuals who assisted Simon and Kirby on the title (and its covers) were future-Superman legend Curt Swan,[11] as well as Steve Brodie, Louis Cazeneuve and Carmine Infantino.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: