Alternate Cover: Licensable characters

Does Marvel face the same problems as Disney in developing new characters to match its archive favourites?

Gambit and Thunderbolts from Marvel Comics

This week, Marvel announced that the Thunderbolts character Songbird had been added to the line-up of the forthcoming console game, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2: Fusion. As a Thunderbolts fan, since the first issue, I couldn’t help but be pleased.

This is because Marvel (and comic companies in general) don’t always give the best treatment to their second- and third-stringers when it comes to licensing. It’s easy to see why, though. After all, Songbird – a character from a mid-to-low selling series – isn’t going to shift lunchboxes like the Hulk.

But why is that? Marvel has been described, at times, as “the next Disney”, sitting atop a vast library of licensable characters. However, like Disney, they’ve also had a hard time creating new properties that can sit alongside the established greats. The last Marvel character acknowledged to be a true success story on the level of the classic Marvel creations is Venom, and he first turned up in 1988! Has it really been 20 years since Marvel created a character with proper cross-medium appeal?                         Put bluntly: Yes. There are a few characters who flirt with mass-market acceptability. Gambit (created in 1990) is quite popular, as is Deadpool (created in 1991), which presumably explains their appearances in the forthcoming Wolverine movie, but even so, neither of them is even close to being a Spider-Man or a Venom. Indeed, neither of them can even keep a comic series going for long enough to reach triple digits! What hope have they got outside the medium?

Even though Thunderbolts has been going well past 100 issues in an almost-unbroken run, the characters in it remain fairly unrecognisable to the public. Plenty of comics fans would actually struggle to identify the characters, in fact. The question, then, is “what makes a character into a licensable entity?” If comics companies can sell the character images, it ensures their survival and popularity – witness relaunch after relaunch for The Black Panther while Shang Chi or Cloak & Dagger are allowed to quickly disappear from view. Some characters seem to be only one sales slump away from being given up on altogether.

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Unfortunately, manufacturing mass-appeal isn’t as easy as it sounds. There’s something to be said for the simplicity (if not the accuracy) of “Does whatever a spider can” while Songbird, well-established as she is, defies such simplistic terms – I struggle to be more concise than “reformed supervillain who creates hard-sound constructs using her sonic carapace” and even that’s already bordering on incomprehensible in real-world terms.

It seems that despite a 10-year history, characters like Songbird are destined to be stuck in licensing limbo, just about ticking over in their own series, but never really turning up outside of it. At least the appearance of the character in MUA2 does suggest, finally, that Songbird actually be allowed out of the cage for a change.

James writes Alternate Cover every Monday at Den Of Geek. His previous column can be found here.