Rise of the C-Listers

One of my favorite stories involves Sean Connery, though it may be entirely apocryphal. Upon finishing work on Diamonds Are Forever, the actor was asked by an interviewer if he would ever play Bond in the future, to which he replied “Never again.” Well, as film buffs know, the next Bond movie starring Connery was titled Never Say Never Again. Not too long ago, I departed Moar Powah! with a final post detailing my love of Green Arrow and wishing a fond farewell to the site. But I guess, just like with any great comic book hero, I couldn’t stay gone long.

What prompted me to return? Well, the main reason results from the germ of an idea that took hold and wouldn’t let me go. I’ve noticed a trend in the last few years in the comic book industry which I’ve dubbed “The Rise of the C-Listers” (and subsequently decided to utilize for the title of this article series). Every few months, a new series starring a lesser-known character from the Big Two seems to enter comic shops and receive critical acclaim and sometimes financial success to boot. But what is behind this trend?

Be honest: you didn't care about Hawkeye before Fraction, Aja, and Wu took him on.

Be honest: you didn’t care about Hawkeye before Fraction, Aja, and Wu took him on.

The New Golden Age

Comic book historians and fans often classify American comics into several “ages,” each covering a period of years and containing a number of characteristics that exemplify the majority of comics from the era. For example, it’s widely accepted that the Silver Age starts in the mid-1950’s and ends around the early 1970’s it’s often cited for its introduction well-known versions of popular characters such as The Flash and Green Lantern, as well as some of the wackier stories found in the medium (particularly any comic containing Superman).

While the current era of comics hasn’t received consensus on a name, I’ve heard it referred to as the New Golden Age more than once. Why should our modern era hold this name? While opinions on quality are of course mixed, never before in history has the comic industry offered such a variety of titles from a plethora of creators and publishers. There is, literally, something for everyone., American comics are no longer limited to the superhero genre, or even a few general types of superhero comics at that.

We're living in a world where Fiona Staples and Mark Waid are the team on Archie, for goodness sake!

We’re living in a world where Fiona Staples and Mark Waid are the team on Archie, for goodness sake!

Think about this: we’re living in a market where Image Comics holds roughly 10% market share. That’s a company that exclusively publishes creator-owned titles, with plotlines including everything from a tale of teenaged assassins in the late 1980s punk scene to the story of a future where everyone is technology-addicted except for an enclave of people living in Japan (and those are just the Rick Remender titles). Furthermore, a number of other publishers are posting significant success, including Valiant, Boom Studios, Archie, IDW, to name a few.

Such a diverse market reveals that now more than ever comic books are becoming more accessible to people from all walks of life. While such an environment may not seem conducive to publishing comics about lesser-known properties, oddly enough the reverse is true: despite all the options and all the noise, opportunities arise to tell stories about these characters, and they come with a key advantage for creators: flexibility.

The Secret Ingredient: Flexibility

Flexibility is one of the greatest advantages of writing about C-list characters. While editorial mandates will often constrain better known characters, those without an established fan-base and larger exposure in popular culture are therefore ripe for more experimental stories and narrative techniques. For example, would Hawkeye #11’s style (i.e. told from a dog’s point of view) ever fly in a comic like The Avengers or The Amazing Spider-Man? It’s unlikely. Playing in a space with C-listers allows writers and artists to do (almost) anything while still working within the established Marvel and DC Universes.

By mentioning innovative storytelling, I'm legally obligated to display a photo of Kurt Busiek.

By mentioning innovative storytelling, I’m legally obligated to display a photo of Kurt Busiek.

It’s challenging for creators to flex all of their creative muscles when working with more popular properties. Sure, we’ve seen amazing stories for such characters in recent years (in particular I’m thinking of Greg Capullo and Scott Snyder’s work on Batman) but even these series are hampered by a need to keep within established parameters. For example, the most recent Batman arc dealt with Jim Gordon taking over as Batman, while Bruce retired and lived a quiet life. Of course, fans knew this wouldn’t last, but it was still interesting to see Bruce have some time to himself. For a C-lister, however, such a change could last longer; perhaps not forever, but at the very least more than a year.

Established Fans and New Readers: A Double Benefit

Who do these new C-lister led series appeal to more: established fans or new readers? Trick question. I hold that the answer is both, and that both parties are integral to the success of these series.

On the one hand we have established fans. These are people who have read comics for several years or, in some cases, their entire lives. This is a category I’ve painted with broad strokes, of course: you’ll have everyone from those who buy one trade paperback every few months to people who buy multiple single issues every week.

What’s the biggest risk for established fans? Becoming jaded. When you’ve been reading comics for an extended period of time, particularly if you’ve stuck with only a few characters or publishers, things can get stale. New stories can feel like retreads of old ones and characters don’t change (or, if they do, it doesn’t stick). In this case, stories starring C-listers can provide a breath of fresh air. Established fans are usually aware of these characters (and, in a few cases, are longtime fans of said characters) and such series present the opportunity to explore a character firmly cemented in a universe but from a new perspective. Even if it doesn’t land, the resulting series still provides the opportunity to explore new angles for a character. In some cases, they can even educate teach established fans about relatively tangential characters.

Comic shops in the 1980s were just as cool as today, albeit with fewer series starring C-Listers!

Comic shops in the 1980s were just as cool as today, albeit with fewer series starring C-Listers!

New readers form the opposite side of the coin. They’ve usually read only a few comics in their life, if any, and today are often brought to comics via movies or TV series. A common issue new readers have is knowing where to start. With a C-lister, however, it’s easy for a new reader to dive right in: the character’s past usually doesn’t matter or, if it does, it is addressed early in the series to provide the barest of frameworks necessary to understand the rest of the series. New readers also lack preconceived notions: they won’t necessarily turn their nose up at a series simply because they’re unfamiliar with the character or premise.

Nevertheless, some might counter that new readers would be more likely to follow a character they know from media, such as Captain America or The Flash. However, I would counter that, while such characters may provide a gateway, as these new readers branch out they might be more likely to try a new series with a character with whom they aren’t familiar.

No Bad Characters

One of my favorite comic writers, Geoff Johns, is credited with saying something to the effect of “there are no bad characters, it’s just a matter of how they’re written.” This is a fact I try to keep in mind whenever a new comic series is announced. I must admit my skepticism when some series were announced starring a C-Lister (or D-Lister, or even Z-Lister), but it’s a feeling I’ve fought against each year as I’ve come to realize more and more that great writers can make any character fascinating.

Aquaman #1

Geoff Johns succeeded in making Aquaman not only cool, but also one of the best comics for over 2 years. Let that sink in.

Through the column, which I plan to publish once per month, I intend to examine one series that fulfills my criteria as starring one or more C-Listers. Those with a fair comic book knowledge from the last couple of years can probably guess some of the series I will look at, but my hope is that I’ll have at least a few surprises in store. Aside from just a straight review, I intend to examine the structure of the series, what aspects work well, what could use improvement, and why the story works with the characters involved.

Here is my list of ground rules for defining a C-Lister when it comes to choosing what comics I’ll examine in this column. Note that my articles will also include series starring D-Listers and below:

  1. The character cannot have starred in more than one other well-known mini-series or ongoing.
  2. The character must be from an established universe.

With that in mind, I look forward to exploring the C-Listers with you all! I’ve already got a list in my head of the first few series I’ll examine, but am happy to take any and all suggestions you might have. Until next time!

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