On Business: Changing of the Guard

By | Monday, September 28, 2015 1 comment
When I was a young adult, I didn't understand how a person could be a fan of a single sports team for life. The roster would change from year to year, so if you liked a team because of a specific player, wouldn't you switch over to that new team when the player went there? And what would happen when they retire?

As I grew a little older, I began to realize that the coach has an important role in the overall character of a team. So even if the entire roster changed, a coach would (theoretically) run the team as s/he did before, and the style of game they played and the type of approach they took would be fairly consistent. So I understood how someone might be a fan of a single team beyond the relatively short life of an individual player's career.

But coaches aren't immortal, nor are they immune to layoffs. So how/why someone could remain a lifetime fan of a team still eluded me. If an assistant coach was promoted, and followed a similar style to the previous coach, I could see that a fan might stay with a team, but only after some reasonable consideration of the new person. Even maybe if an entirely new coach was brought in and just happened to do things in a similar way to the previous coach.

For a long time I thought comic books were different. Switching the writers and artists out might be like changing the team roster, and you could liken the editor to a coach. But even beyond that, they would all be working towards the goal of telling stories about certain characters. And the characters, in order to remain the same characters, needed some consistency. So even if the creators were throwing new ideas and directions out there, Spider-Man was still Spider-Man. Whereas the only real consistency in a sports team would be their logo, a comic character was more than just a visual representation.

(I should point out that I also couldn't understand how someone might be a long-term fan of books like The Avengers or Justice League which had constantly changing rosters.)

A lot of my initial thinking developed around this when I was first getting into Marvel in the early 1980s. Their characters had been around for, at most, twenty years and they were under the editorship of one man (Stan Lee) for at least a decade of that, and by that person's understudy (Roy Thomas) for another four. So what I was seeing was only five or six years removed from the original direction. Interestingly, though, subsquent editors kept fairly in line with that notion for another 15-20 years, probably due in part to the fact the newer editors (most notably Mark Gruenwald) grew up reading the original's line.

What I hadn't really paid attention to was DC. Despite being nominally familiar with their line, I was somehow unable to piece together just how wildly different a character like Batman could be. I had read a number of the "New Look" stories, I had seen reprints of some of the 1950s stuff, I watched Super Friends regularly, I had seen the Adam West TV show... a few years later, I read The Dark Knight Returns and I saw Tim Burton's Batman. And through all of that, it never dawned on me that all these people were presenting wildly different characters whose only real shared characteristic was a name. How could one person be a life-long Batman fan when he showed up as a totally new character every 5-10 years?

Now that the Marvel Universe is safely past the half-century mark, I can see how disparate their own characters have become. John Byrne, Walt Simonson, and others tried to follow very much in the footsteps of Jack Kirby on the Fantastic Four. But more and more creators have made their attempts and have shown radically different concepts. Jonathan Trask, Mark Frost, and Roger Corman all gave it a shot in live-action. They had cartoon shows in 1967, 1978, 1994/1995 (technically the same series, but it was totally overhauled between seasons), and 2006. Plus that WTF version of the Thing in 1979, and appearances in the 1994 Spider-Man, 2009 Super Hero Squad, and 2012 Avengers cartoons. And that's the obvious stuff outside the comics! As I've mentioned before, I dropped my 25-year habit of reading the Fantastic Four comic because the characters had gone so far afield from what I first enjoyed about them. The team that I used to love reading every month was no longer showing up in the book that carried the same title.

What's weird is that only with the start of this year's football season did I recall that lack of understanding I had regarding a life-long fan of a single sports team. And while I still don't get it, I can look at comics fandom and ask the same question. It's a business decision that comic publishers make to change how they handle their characters, just as it's a business decision for a team to hire/fire a coach. The owners think that bringing in a new approach will prove to bring some success and therefore appeal to a wider audience. In some cases, they're right. In some cases, they're wrong. Regardless, why continue to be a fan of something when it's changed so much that it no longer embodies that which made you a fan in the first place?
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Anonymous said...

I get you completely with the sports. I was a hockey fan and Chris Chelios was my favourite player. Watched him win the cup on Montreal, followed him to Chicago, then eventually to Detroit, but over time I watched less and less hockey.

I could understand cheering for a team if it were full of home town players, but that's not the case in most professional sports. I do get the appeal of cheering for players you like (I did it) but they move around from team to team and retire. I see no reason to cheer for a team's management either as even they get hired and fired. Team ownership even changes hands ever so often.

I assume people are just big fans of the sport involved and the nearest team is the 'home' team you see on TV a lot. So I think that's what people choose to get emotionally invested in.

Now with comics and particularly as an old Avengers fan, I can explain at least my liking the book for years despite changes in freelancers and characters. Usually the characters changes are somewhat gradual. Some characters you really like, some you're okay with, others are new and they might grow on you. The over-arching theme of the book - a group of heroes band together to handle situations that no one hero can handle alone - was something I wanted to read. Some freelancers runs are definitely better than others, I found myself sticking with the book because I still wanted to follow the characters and I was under the belief that the book would get better again soon. Plus there is that old collector mentality in place too.

Obviously the habit can be broken. I read Avengers from #276 until the end of Busiek's run. By then I was switching over to TPBs exclusively. I did buy the Geoff John's story right after Busiek's run, but had no interest in reading Bendis' Disassembled story line. The basic plot of the Avengers breaking up and reassembling had already been done before (particularly leading up to issue #300) and I just didn't want to read that same plot again, no matter how different of a take was done with it.