?Comics readers in the U.S. often cast a longing eye toward Japan where – in addition to all those manga about giant robots, naughty schoolgirls, and willowy gay teen boys in love that get exported over here – fans of all ages and interests have comics to call their own. Obsessed with golf? There’s a comic for that. Interested in a romantic drama set in some big business? There’s a comic for that. Want to follow the ongoing adventures of a gourmet chef who also fights people? There’s a comic for that. Rather see a vampiress who looks like a little girl have graphic sex with Cthulhu-esque tentacle monsters? There’s about 40 comics for that.
Stateside, alas, most mainstream comics are about superheroes and little else. And based on what some of the larger companies give us when they try to stray from the cape crowd, it’s probably just as well — none of the following titles made much of a dent in attracting newbies to their local comics shop. Here’s the evidence of what can go wrong when comic companies try to increase comic readership.
8) Steelgrip Starkey and the All-Purpose Power Tool
?Not a porn comic, despite its title, although it was published by Marvel’s “adult” line, Epic. Starkey’s a construction worker, see, and the tool is this amazing, magical device that configures itself out of thin air to solve whatever problem might arise, from catching a plummeting meteor to holding up the U.N. building after terrorists try to blow it up (leading one supporting character to exclaim, “Damn towelheads!”). For all its attempts to appeal to blue-collar readers and to the American tradition of building stuff (the John Henry myth is cited on numerous occasions), Steelgrip Starkey starts with a ludicrous premise that just gets goofier over the course of six issues.
?There was once a time in this country when girls were voracious readers of romance comics with titles like Young Love and True Romance. Somebody at Marvel’s Epic line (them again!) thought to rekindle the hearts-and-flowers comics genre with this title, although the cover called to mind the Sweet Valley High series more than anything else. In the hopes that fanboys – or at least Spider-Man completists – would pick up the thing, Trouble focuses on the sexy adventures of Peter Parker’s Aunt May when she was a nubile teenager being courted by her future husband Ben. Shockingly, readers didn’t cotton to a story about the sexcapades of a character they know best as an octogenarian. Marvel had planned a big push for the eventual collection of this limited series, but scrapped it after direct sales were soft.
6) Bluewater Biographical Comics
?Twilight and political partisanship are the hottest tickets around, it would appear, since publisher Bluewater Productions has put out a series of comics telling the life stories of folks like Stephenie Meyer, Sarah Palin, Robert Pattinson, and Barack Obama (they also gave us graphic bios of Ellen DeGeneres and Lady Gaga, among many others). And while there’s certainly nothing wrong with the idea of using the comics medium to capture the lives of leading figures in the culture, and a few of them are actually good (TR contributor Chris Ward’s Obama bio comic in particular), there’s no excuse for most of these things to be so hacky. The Meyer one in particular became a popular target for blogosphere jeering, from the fact that the story is narrated by Count Dracula to the one-page montage devoted to depicting the outline of the state of Utah in her palm.
5) Christian Archie
?I imagine some poor kid in the 1970s, growing up in a fundamentalist Christian household where comic books are forbidden. Suddenly, one day, he gets Archie comics at church, and he’s so excited to get to indulge in this tantalizing medium that’s been kept from him. But it’s not long before this kid figures out that these aren’t the regular adventures of Archie and his pals; nope, it’s the Spire Christian Comics version, where regular Archie artist Al Hartley licensed the characters from Riverdale High for 19 of the most blandly moralizing comic books you’ve ever read. In “Archie’s Clean Slate,” a hike through the woods inspires Dilton to note, “Wood serves man from the beginning to the end!” Big Ethel adds, “Man’s cradle and coffin are both made of wood!” leading Betty to conclude, “That’s another example of how God provides for us!” Fun crowd.
4) Mother Theresa of Calcutta
?Perhaps the Vatican was looking jealously at those Archie comics and were hoping for something with a slightly more papist flair – or Marvel Comics was no doubt hoping to repeat the big sales of their 1982 one-shot The Life of Pope John Paul II – but in any event, lightning did not strike twice with this 1984 comic about the little nun who became a global sensation (perhaps a crossover appearance by JPII, or Spider-Man on the cover, might have moved more units). The life of the woman born Gonxha Bojaxhiu is narrated for us by a reporter from “World Cable News,” and it’s as gooey and sanctimonious as you might imagine.
3) Billy Ray Cyrus
?What’s that, music fan? You love “Achy Breaky Heart,” but rather than a bio-comic, you’d rather watch the mullet-ed country star hunt for Native American ghosts or travel back to medieval times? Then the short-lived Marvel Music line has just the thing for you! This goofy one-shot popped up in the middle of Cyrus’ original 15 minutes of fame (before daughter Miley rescued him from obscurity), and it contains two utterly ridiculous tales of Billy Ray’s wild adventures with adoring fans in between sold-out concerts and reminders not to litter. Too bad there wasn’t a second issue wherein a drunk Waylon Jennings could kick this punk’s ass.
2) Angel Love
?The periodic (and purely cash-inspired) urge on the part of major publishers to try to get girls to read comics has frequently led to disaster.(see #7 on this list, Trouble). But Angel Love is such a bizarre hybrid that it’s hard to imagine who, exactly, was its demographic. The drawing style was “cute” in that wide-eyed style meant to draw in young readers, but the content dealt with serious issues. Red-haired Angel was a waitress trying to make it in the big city, but when she wasn’t trying to clean up a cocaine-addicted boyfriend, she was tracking down her long-lost sister, who ran away after dad got handsy, because mom needed a bone marrow transplant. The jarring contrast between the words and the pictures was like trying to watch Oedipus Rex as performed by the Smurfs.
1) NFL Superpro
?Jocks don’t read comic books, the logic behind this one must have gone, so we need to create one just for them! As a result we got this embarrassment, about a former NFL player who survives a fire (where some experimental chemicals doused him) and becomes a superhero in an indestructible football uniform, taking on villains like the time-traveling “Instant Replay.” Now, if you’ve ever seen something like “Superman Meets the Quik Bunny” or those infamous 1970s Twinkie ads, you know that DC and Marvel aren’t above participating in flat-out advertising. But this was an actual series (until it got cancelled after issue 12) featuring a guy wearing an NFL corporate logo on his chest and on his head. The fact that it was dreadfully written and drawn on top of that made “Marvel’s Newest Super Hero Sensation!” (as the first issue’s cover promised) an industry-wide joke to this day.