I’ve been thinking about comic books again. Specifically about Marvel and DC comic books and why I don’t read them. I go to my local comic shop every week and buy new comics but I never buy Marvel and DC comics anymore. My tastes have always run towards indie comics but I used to check in with some Marvel and DC comics every so often. Sometime around the year 2012 I stopped checking in.

The general reason I give for not liking Marvel and DC comics is their reliance on knock off characters. There is not one Spider-Man anymore. There are a dozen. Same with Batman, Wolverine, Superman, Hulk, and every other popular super hero out there. I find this tedious rather than entertaining.

There is a terrific video that shows Steve Jobs (https://youtu.be/P4VBqTViEx4) talking about leadership and what happens when marketing people start having more influence on a company than creative people. I think that’s what has happened at Marvel and DC.

It’s easy to sell stuff that’s related to something that’s already popular compared to having to create something and then make it popular. If you want to sell backpacks to little girls then put something popular with little girls on the backpack. A Wonder Woman backpack is easier to sell than a blank backpack. This effects how comics get made.

Spider-Man is popular. Put him on a backpack and a lot of little boys will buy it. But what about little girls? They might like Spider-Man or they might not. But if there was a Spider-Girl that would increase the chances of being able to sell that backpack to little girls. The freelancers who actually create the comics aren’t stupid (nor are their editors). They know that creating a Spider-Girl character will get them in good with the people who run the place. Mostly those people come from areas of the mother company that sells backpacks and such. Not comic books.

Then there is the basic way that popularity works. The easiest way to make something popular is to associate it with something that is already popular. Hence if one Spider-Man is good than two Spider-Men is even better. In the 1970s that used to apply, at least at Marvel, to the number of titles that Spider-Man starred in. But over at DC, which was a more mature company, their main heroes already had “Families.” There was Superman, Supergirl, Superboy, Superhorse, Superdog, and even more Super Family members.

Part of the reason for this “Super Family” thinking was legal. DC may as well make a Supergirl and get the copyright and trademark on it before someone else does. The other part of it was, of course, financial. Being that a character is popular a customer is more likely to buy a comic relating to that character than a new comic with no ties to anything popular.

That thinking has lead to a lot of different Wolverines, Hulks, and Spider-People. It’s hard to argue with the logic from a short term financial perspective for all involved but I don’t think it leads anywhere good in the long run. It’s kept me away from Marvel and DC comics for sure and I bet I’m not alone.

I think the problem lies in creativity. It’s tough to keep coming up with new Spider-Man stories. First they have to adhere to what the customer thinks a Spider-man story is, after all that’s what he’s here for, but they also have to be fresh and interesting. I think having a dozen different Spider-People makes that even harder. Spider-Man can get staler even faster when there are nine copies of him.

Having all those different versions of a character ruins my being interested in the character’s fate. I realized that while reading a Fantastic Four comic that involved the”Legion of Reed Richards.” He’s Mr. Fantastic from the Fantastic Four and in this story he teamed up with versions of himself from across the multiverse. There were essentially an endless supply of Reed Richards. When one died there was always another to take his place. That made me not care about his fate. The same with everyone else. Wolverine died. I didn’t care. He was just replaced with four other Wolverines.

I also think there is a long term math problem with these knock off characters. Short term it’s all fine. If your choice is between a new character and a knock off character then the knock off will make you more money right now. The problem is down the line. Knock off characters never reach the popularity of the character they copy. Batman junior will never be as popular as Batman. Think about that for the future of a company.

A lot of people point out that there haven’t been any popular characters created at Marvel and DC for decades. Off the top of my head I can think of Deadpool in the 1990s and maybe Harley Quinn also of the 1990s. I’m not even really sure how popular Harley Quinn is but at least she’s been in two movies.

My thesis is that one of the reasons there have been so few break out characters has been the focus on knock off characters. The freelance creators know what the bosses want and give them that. So if they want knock off characters to sell more backpacks that’s what gets created. Meanwhile any new character gets put on the back burner.

It’s really hard for even the big publishers, Marvel and DC, to make a character popular. That’s the nature of creativity. Any given character that is created has probably a 2% chance of ever reaching the level of Wolverine. Maybe less since I just made up that number. So in order to create the next Wolverine a publisher has to shepherd the creation of a hundred characters.

The problem is that a knock off character has a zero percent chance of being as popular as Wolverine. So every knock off character that is created doesn’t get Marvel or DC closer to the hundred characters they need to create to find the next Wolverine. And knock offs are mostly what they’re creating because of the short term financial rewards.

To make the problem even harder to deal with is that the knock offs have a better chance or reaching 50% of Wolverine’s popularity than a new character does. So do you create a character that has a better chance of reaching that 50% ceiling or one that has a shot at 100% popularity but will in all reality probably top out at 20%? It’s tough to argue for the 20% character but arguing for it is what leadership is.

In my opinion history has shown us that Marvel and DC had better start shooting for that 100% popularity. Not only have they lost a lot of fans, like me, who don’t like all the knock offs but their knock offs have reached the point of diminishing returns. They’re created just about all the knock offs that they can. It’s time to take more chances on new characters or they might run out of chances all together.