With the vast gulf between the number of people willing to see a movie about superheroes and the number of readers of superhero comics, there's a lot of talk about how to make these comic books welcoming to new readers. I'm wondering if one of the problems is the reliance on the traditional rogues gallery, the supervillains who return time and time again to menace the heroes.

One of the many reasons superhero comics are so inaccessible to new readers is that these stories tend to feature characters who have a prior history which long-standing readers are aware of, but newcomers have no familiarity with. So previous adventures from decades of backstory are likely to be referenced, and new readers will have to make all sorts of inferences to understand what's going on. Does the hero take this bad guy seriously? Is this bad guy supposed to somehow be sympathetic? Why does the hero seem to dislike this bad guy more than the bad guy in earlier issues?

There's the argument that it should be easy for new readers to understand as the only stories that matter for a villain are their first appearance and their status as a long time fixture of the books. That was the traditional approach, though I would add three additional elements of a villain's story that a reader often has to understand just to make sense of a story.

First, there's the role in a larger mega-arc which may include other stories. If there's a recurring mystery involving Electro, many of his recent appearances are likely to be mentioned. The most recent appearance of a villain is also often referenced. This was much more typical in the 60s, 70s and early 80s. With Marvel publishing dozens of titles, it's often hard to keep track of the most recent appearances, which is why it doesn't happen as much anymore. You do see it sometimes, especially when it's been a long time since a villain appeared, and it seemed as if their character arc had come to an end, meaning an explanation was necessary for the return.

For some villains, significant stories are typically referenced. Gwen Stacy will be name-dropped when Norman Osborn's the bad guy. Kraven's Last Hunt would be mentioned with Kraven. And the Lizard is likely to be reminded of what he did in "Shed." It's only true of a handful of villains, although it was accelerated during the Gauntlet mega-arc, in which several of Spider-Man's antagonists went through some changes.

It gets a bit more convoluted this way, but it's still not as if every story the villain had appeared will be name-dropped. Though it can be argued that it's not a good thing if a villain's previous appearances have been so inconsequential that it's not worth mentioning.

Casual readers might also be a bit confused if the handful of comics they've read earlier gives them a different taken on the characters. Someone who read Erik Larsen's Spider-Man runs in the 1990s would be distracted over why Sandman's a bad guy in "Ends of the Earth." Over time, some elements of the backstory become more important than others, which is prone to confusing readers who are only familiar with the less consequential stories.

Of course, it's worth remembering that Spider-Man's rogues gallery, possibly the best in serial fiction, is a major part of a series's appeal. A kid who has seen all the movies or played one of the games wants to see those bad guys in the comics. He's happy to see the villains he owns as action figures showing up in the book and kicking ass.

However, in comics, reviews have been good when writers have chosen not to use the traditional bad guys. Scott Snyder's Batman tops the sales charts, with a focus on entirely new villains. As I noted in the previous entry, two of the most acclaimed Spider-Man writers explicitly went in a different direction. Roger Stern liked to pit Spidey against Marvel villains he hadn't fought before. JMS focused almost entirely on new villains. Wizard Magazine did a list of the top ten Spider-Man comics circa 1998, which only included two stories in which Spider-Man had a rematch with someone from his rogues gallery. Three of the stories featured the first appearances of new recurring villains, while two more featured Spider-Man's first encounters with bad guys from other titles.

I think writers should always be able to stories with the old bad guys if someone has a Kraven's Last Hunt, or Unscheduled Stop. But currently, most stories feature existing villains. Perhaps there should be a rule that a majority of stories feature new villains. So with Amazing Spider-Man's 24 issues an year, there would be a cap of 11 issues that could feature recurring villains. So a persistent reader would soon have a slightly more accessible "A" storyline.

To elaborate a little bit, if Spider-Man hasn't fought the guy before, it's a new villain, even if the antagonist is well-known to fans of other franchises. Stories in which Spider-Man fights against ordinary humans like "When Commeth the Commuter" or "To Have and to Hold" would count as new villains. And the continuation of a multi-part storyline would also count, as the new reader should have an easy time purchasing earlier parts of that storyline. But once the initial story comes to an end, if the bad guy returns, it would be as a recurring villain.

Doctor Who is a model for this, a decades old Television series (relaunched in 2005) which is particularly effective at appealing to new audiences. I think it's worth looking at the accomplishments of a series that has managed to build an international audience in the millions despite a steady flow of new content and decades of backstory. As a mark of its success, it recently became the first British television series to appear on the cover of Entertainment Weekly. And Dan Slott's a big fan.

One thing that helps is that the stories tend to feature new villains more often than not. Ans this is a series that is acknowledged as having another of the best rogues galleries in serial fiction. I don't know if it's intentional or not, but of the 21 stories since Stephen Moffat took over as showrunner, only seven featured existing villains. As a caveat, by existing villains, I'm usually referring to existing alien species. It's rare for the Doctor to have a rematch against specific Daleks or Cybermen, although it does happen on occasion. There was a similar ratio of new to old rogues under Moffat's predecessor Russell T Davies.

Thinking of Doctor Who led me to consider how television handles this stuff, as a medium that has usually been successful at getting new audiences for programs. While there are some programs like The Wire or Breaking Bad where the viewer is expected to start from the beginning as if it were a novel, most shows try to get new audiences. And one point of accessibility is that the A-plot usually involves new characters. It's been this way since the first form of episodic storytelling, the Sherlock Holmes short stories, with each story bringing new murderers, blackmailers and/ or thieves.

If I was suddenly an editor, I'm not sure I would mandate new villains in a majority of the storylines. But it's something worth considering. Maybe JMS had it right.

One drawback is that B-list villains would be used even less often than now. With a cap on recurring villains, many writers are going to restrict themselves to their own creations or the classic A-listers. But they're less prone to waste valuable real estate on the likes of Puma, Hydroman and Fusion.

Another problem is that recurring villains tend to be better than new villains. The quality of a new antagonist is somewhat random, but if a bad guy that's still in demand after dozens of appearances, there's something about that character that works. The writer and artist can also build on what's worked in the past, and avoid takes on the character that have not been as successful. Though that type of approach is likely to result in a lot of repetition with the 47th appearance being similar to the 46th.

There's also the argument that if something has to be mandated, it's less likely to be successful. If the creative team of a monthly is obligated to tell seven issues worth of stories with new villains in order to do their Doctor Doom five-parter, it's likely that the new villains won't be very impressive, as these wouldn't be stories that an
yone actually wanted to tell.

However, it would be helpful to new readers if stories regularly had interactions between characters who didn't have decades of back-story. This doesn't quite work with the supporting cast, since Peter is going to hang out with people he has known for some time, including his family, friends and coworkers. In cop dramas, there's a steady influx of new suspects. Legal dramas have a steady influx of defendants. For the same reasons, these types of superhero comics would benefit from more new supervillains.


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Spider-Man Reviews
features as many updates on the latest developments in Spider-Man comics as we can, along with reviews, commentary, news and discussion. Occasionally we try to throw in some game reviews as well.

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