Comic books and characters have seen an incredible resurgence in popularity in the 21st century. After the comic book crash of the early 1990’s, some thought the decades-old medium was in its final death throes. In many ways an entire industry was abandoning what defined it, great characters. Experienced writers that could breathe new life into characters were becoming scarcer. Fortunately this wasn’t the first time comic books had struggled and some veteran editors knew what needed to be done. The comic book industry needed to return to what they did best; they needed to focus on creating great characters with well-written stories.
What makes great comic book characters isn’t exactly simple to define. What makes great characters is very dependent on what the real world is like. Most people are familiar with the famous characters of the 1930’s and 40’s. There’s dozen of stories with characters like Captain America or Superman fighting off the Nazi threat. At that time in the United States of America the hottest topic of the day was the Nazis. Publishers were writing heroic and patriotic characters that fit into the real world around them. By the time the 1950’s came around the world had moved past the events of World War II. The characters written in the 1930’s and 40’s were now in a very different world and sales dropped.
The early 1960’s saw a rebirth of characters. Long time comic publisher Atlas Comics reformed under a new name and began to churn out characters and stories that matched the times. Atlas Comics now went by Marvel Comics and recognized that people were interested in what was happening in their own backyards. What made great characters before no longer applied and Marvel Comics was ready to adapt to the new landscape. With the release of characters like the Fantastic Four, the X-men, and Spider-man, we were given a look at what would become a foundation for characters for years to come. These characters were far from perfect, they had emotions and flaws, and they faced real world problems that the reader of the day could relate to.
In the 1960’s more attention was being focused on everyday people and everyone wanted to read about someone that was like them. Some long standing classic characters, such as Superman, still drew good sales with their escapist fantasy themes. These sales alone, though, couldn’t sustain a growing comics industry. By the end of the 1960’s relatable characters like Spider-man, Archie, and Lois Lane, were quickly matching sales with classic mainstay characters like Batman and Superman.
What makes great characters changes has the world changes. What was popular 50 years ago may not work today. When publishers let their comic books characters stagnate sales ultimately drop and we risk losing long beloved characters. Even classic heroes like Captain America and Superman have seen drastic changes in order to remain relevant as the world changes. In the 1930’s and 40’s people were looking for beacons of hope while facing the very grim realities of World War II. We created models of perfection to help the men and woman of the Allied forces face the Nazis. In the 1960’s and 70’s the focus turned inward and everyone looked for uplifting stories with characters that reflected how they saw themselves. Characters then needed to reflect the everyday man or woman instead of the perfect soldier.
As soon as publishers cease to adapt or create new characters to match the real world, sales drop. No matter how well a comic book character sold in years past it doesn’t matter if no one can relate to the character or stories. The only statement that could be made with any level of certainty on what makes great comic book characters is that they must be relevant.