Have superheroes outgrown publishers?

This week I caught one or two references to DC (in theory amid a coordinated effort by various arms of the Time-Warner octopus) planning “A New Super Hero Universe Designed Just For Girls.” For what it’s worth, I side with those asserting that, while this may represent an attempt at doing the right thing it’s wrongheaded in practice. Friend Sean already said most of what I would, so just go read his blog if you want more direct comment.

Reading further discussion of this initiative, today, has sparked one or two indirectly related thoughts, though. Primarily, I’m scratching my head trying to think of other examples, besides the DC and Marvel superheroes, of attempts to twist and stretch entertainment concepts to fit so many different niche markets. Am I missing any major parallels? And if not, is this as I suspect evidence that this effort just isn’t really practical?

Thinking about it, the DC and Marvel superheroes probably are cultural anomalies in at least a few ways. The earliest, e.g. Superman, Batman and Captain America, have been actively published for about eight decades now. I suppose Captain America was off the shelves, briefly… but even his renewed run, along with other Silver Age characters, are now past a half-century. Of at least one new comic, every month, year in year out year in year out.

What else is similar to this?

There are some comic strips that have been running for several decades… but, aside from the fact that these are a very closely related art form, most of those old strips are pretty obscure at this point. When was the last time Dick Tracy or Popeye were a big deal?

Further, when did Dick Tracy or Popeye ever spin off such number and variety of niche-audience versions as is the case with iconic superheroes?

So far as I can come up with, most other major privately-owned fictions stick close to one approach, at least at one time and usually even over the long term. With traditional comic strips, and iconic cartoon characters, this has usually been an “all ages” approach, either through being brilliant enough to appeal to many demographics (Peanuts, Looney Tunes) or bland enough to avoid excluding many (most traditional newspaper strips). Some other fictions have gotten big with a slightly narrower target audience, and stuck with it. James Bond has mostly aimed at white adult-ish males up for a break from complexity, and (to date) hasn’t really veered from this. Star Trek has, for about 50 years now, aimed at nerdy adults and decided that’s enough.

You can pick out exceptions, obviously. (The recent Star Trek reboot seems to want to appeal to the Fast/Furious audience at least as much as it wants to appeal to nerds.) But these seem nonetheless minor, to me, compared with the gymnastics that Marvel and DC have been attempting for at least a generation now.

I suppose this is partly a legacy of the fact that, in both cases, even when selling in larger numbers they were not really taken all that seriously from a business perspective until fairly recently… by which point fans had grown older, gotten into the business themselves, and gradually recast concepts originally assumed to be for children. Meanwhile, probably in large part due to unrelated factors, the actual market got smaller and older… and the core series of superhero icons trended even more toward mature (or at least older) audiences.

By the time anyone gave a toot about trying to manage these as professional franchises, “market segmentation” had probably been firmly built in already. DC got big-time adaptations in the 1970s with Superman, and even earlier with Batman… but I’m guessing that in the latter case, the whole thing being treated as farce, it didn’t result in much message discipline… meanwhile, Marvel had already concluded by the mid-70s that a Spider-Man for kids called for a new, separate series alongside the original comic.

Spidey Super Stories was probably an outlier, mostly, for the next 20 years, but by the 1990s a slew of “Adventures” titles and other younger-reader versions of the popular superheroes were rolling off the presses. I have the feeling that Disney probably would not have done things this way, had they been running Marvel, but by the time of their purchase it was way too late. (DC, iirc, has been corporate-owned rather longer, but somehow the comics arm seems to remain steadily amateurish for all its dullness, all the same.)

So there are comics for young readers, “clean reboot” series optimistically aimed at new readers (Marvel’s Ultimate line, DC’s Earth One or whatever it’s called), now a line planned “just for girls…” Meanwhile the core DC and Marvel universes keep chugging along and so far as I know, no one is even imagining that they will become more “general audience” again (even though DC jettisons its entire continuity with increasing frequency).

I probably don’t really have much of a “serious” point here beyond what the f—, is it just me or is this awfully unusual? To my mind, if this points to any kind of conclusion it’s that iconic superheroes have passed the point where a single publisher can responsibly curate them. Yes, the bosses at DC seem determinedly stupid, but in fairness to them I think Superman and Wonder Woman e.g. have just outgrown any private ownership. Like Holmes, these are icons that belong to the world which made them such. Unlike Holmes, of course, our laws still regard them as private property which belongs to the shareholders at Time-Warner (or ABC-Disney in Marvel’s case).

Too bad, but this seems unlikely to change any time soon. As a result, I expect that friction will continue between 1) a public that feels a sense of ownership in these characters and obligation on their part to match various social ideals, and 2) formal private owners that can only do so much at once, even if they are inclined to care about those ideals and possessed of basic competence.

And heaven help those who care as deeply as I did at 16, because this is just gonna be exhausting…

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