On the Super-Fly Podcast a couple of weeks ago I jokingly remarked that I’d eat a shoe if “Justice League of America’s Vibe” reached issue twenty. It was one of those off the cuff remarks you just throw out there sometimes but it seems to have gained some momentum among our listeners (you can see who by checking #VivaLaVibe on twitter). While it started out as a joke, I stand by the statement and am fully willing to consume a shoe (or at least part of one) if Vibe reaches issue twenty. All things considered, I’m not too worried.
First of all let me say I have nothing against the particular creative team (writers Geoff Johns and Andrew Kriesberg, penciller Pete Woods or any of the others) nor a particular dislike for the character. It’s often said that there are no bad characters and Johns has become DC’s go-to “character mechanic,” especially given his runs on historically ridiculed characters like Aquaman and Hawkman. His method is brilliantly simple: create interesting stories by tapping into the core aspect of the character and expanding on that, which seems to be what he and Kreisberg are going for by tying Vibe’s powers into the idea of moving through the various worlds using vibrational frequencies. DC has been slowly rolling out the return of its multiverse and they’re clearly positioning Vibe to be a key player in all of these developments. A fresh take and increased importance sounds like the perfect recipe for success. But is it enough?
Superhero comic fans like to be told that they book they’re reading is “important,” but that’s a fleeting concept. In the pre- and post-Civil War era Marvel’s then-Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada continually referred to Speedball as an example of a “bad character.” It turns out he was trolling us in the Mighty Marvel fashion and Speedball became “important.” After getting the spotlight in one of Marvel’s biggest events he became a cornerstone of the revamped Thunderbolts franchise under writer Warren Ellis. However they didn’t stick much with his core concept, taking him from a bouncy, unabashedly happy-go-lucky teen hero to the pierced-up, death metal looking Penance and basing his powers on how much pain he could inflict on himself. After taking that as far as they could they did a little bit of fixing up and has has since fallen back into limbo. “Importance” over. Today’s “key player” can often be tomorrow’s “benched” or “radioactive” character. Importance is as fleeting and fickle as the fan base’s attention.
DC is not Marvel. While they’ve played the “radically change character’s status quo and then put it back how it was” they’ve been very big lately the “iconic versions” of characters. The constant tug of war between a character’s classic and familiar incarnation and the newer, modern version has been one of the biggest challenges DC has faced in the past several years. No decision about who should be what character has been met without some form of backlash. Ask any Wally West or Stephanie Brown fan what I’m talking about. The prevailing wisdom is that new and original characters in superhero comics have a dismal track record and that’s true…except for when they’re huge successes (see The Runaways). When you have a giant catalog of characters like both Marvel and DC have it makes sense that you try to fix what you’ve already got to appeal to that fanbase rather than gamble on something new.
Even though many of the gambles made at the start of the New 52 didn’t pay out, in most cases the blame for those failures can be attributed to the fact that the books just weren’t that good. It’s almost a shame DC has gotten so ruthless in their cancellation policy given that some of those books could’ve been turned around given a new creative team or direction. While no one thought Animal Man was going to be a big seller, he had been used so effectively and originally by Grant Morrison many gave him a chance. Does Vibe have that potential, or any kind of legacy other than “the breakdancing guy from that version of the Justice League.”
As radical as the idea of the New 52 was the implementation of it has come from a very “playing it safe” place. Many decisions seemed to be based on some form of nostalgia, be it character choices (Barbara Gordon as Batgirl, Barry Allen as Flash) or creative teams (Scott Lobdell, Fabian Nicieza and Rob Liefeld). One of the things that Marvel seems to consistently have them beat on is bringing new creators into the fold. They’re getting better at it but public conflict between editorial and talent doesn’t seem to be helping them much. If DC wants to put up a real fight for the top spot but don’t want to raise prices, double-ship half their line or have “blockbuster events” every year then they need to be bolder. Taking two titles to rehab the reputation of a character that is generally looked down upon isn’t bold. Certainly there are far worthier characters not being used that could’ve gotten a solo series, especially since Vibe is featured in Justice League of America. Fresh creators, fresh ideas, fresh characters. That’s where greatness comes from.
And I don’t mean breakdancing-fresh, Vibe.
Nostalgia and event story-telling aren’t sustainable concepts and shouldn’t be the foundation that you launch a title on. That, more than anything else, is the reason why I roll my eyes a little when I see Vibe being talked about as a key player. Before folks think I’m turning my nose up at something sight unseen I’ll say that I’ve read the first issue of Vibe and it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t great, either. In an ocean of Big Two comics, many of whom feature the same characters or character families, mediocre just can’t cut it any more. Both publishers need to learn that “strip mining” these kinds of properties like this leave very little room for folks to try something new. If that something new doesn’t click right away they’ll move on. Given DC’s current track record that means curtains for Vibe.
As someone who loves comics I hope I’m wrong and Johns, Kriesberg and Woods make a comic that connects with readers and hangs around for nearly two years. As someone who watched the industry for most of my life, my gut tells me that’s not in the cards. If I’m wrong, well…my gut will tell me what shoe leather tastes like.
Filed Under: Op/Ed