Nick Leshi

Nick Leshi
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Bronx, New York, United States of America
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December 13
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Writer, actor, media professional, fan of entertainment, pop culture, and speculative fiction. Contact nickleshi@aol.com for more info.

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AUGUST 18, 2009 12:08PM

Celebrities and Comic Books

Rate: 4 Flag

Quote of the Day: “Tekno has come to be seen as the epitome of a certain kind of publishing that reveres the marquee over the content.” – James-Vance.com

There are those in Hollywood and Madison Avenue who firmly believe that if you attach a big-name celebrity to a pile of dung, no matter how stinky it might be, the masses would flock to it and pay their hard-earned money to take a whiff. In their eyes, the world of entertainment is driven not by stories or content, but by the Cult of Personality (and when that fails, throw in a formula that includes explosions, graphic violence, and some scantily clad vixens). Even though I lean towards the side of “Content is King” and value good writing above all, I don’t dismiss the power of superstars to make a project a blockbuster success. (I also think sex and violence have a proper place in our fictional fantasies, when done right, but that’s a topic for another day). We’ve seen the impact celebrities have in movies, television, music, and even video games. But do they have any relevance in the world of comic books?

Big names have been attached to comics for good and bad. Kevin Smith, director of Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and Jersey Girl, has written some excellent comic book tales, particularly his work on Daredevil and Green Arrow. His mini-series Spider-man/Black Cat was, in my opinion, inconsistent with a frustratingly delayed publication schedule. Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse, wrote Fray for Dark Horse Comics and Astonishing X-Men for Marvel, as well as comics based on his own franchises. Science fiction writer Orson Scott Card, best known for his Ender series of novels, also wrote for Ultimate Iron Man. J. Michael Straczynski, who brought us Babylon 5, did a wonderful job on Amazing Spider-man and Supreme Power. Actress Rosario Dawson has created her own comic book, Occult Crimes Taskforce.

These are all established writers and entertainers, but do readers flock to their stories because of the names attached or because the stories and characters are good enough to stand on their own? Will the general public pick up the latest issue of Spider-man when they hear that it is co-written by Bill Hader and Seth Meyers of Saturday Night Live? Will mainstream audiences purchase Virgin Comics because of the celebrity creators attached to them, like director John Woo for Seven Brothers, director Guy Ritchie for The Gamekeeper, director Shekhar Kapur for The SnakeWoman and Devi, actor Nicolas Cage for Voodoo Child, Deepak Chopra for Ganesha, and Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics for Walk In? (Virgin Comics also has projects involving Jenna Jameson, Hugh Jackman, and Duran Duran.)

This reminds me of the short-lived comics publisher from the 1990s, TeknoComix (which later became BIG Entertainment). They recruited celebrities to develop comic book titles. This was during my comic book collecting days, so I have most of them. Some were good and had potential, others were pretty lame. It seemed like the titles were rushed and the storylines just ran over in non-sequitur directions. They didn't really seem to care about the content, they were pushing the celebrity names.

The best, not surprisingly, were the titles created by Neil Gaiman, one of the greatest writers around. Lady Justice was about a spirit who possessed the bodies of female victims seeking vengeance for the wrongs committed against them. It worked as an anthology series – with most issues featuring self-contained stories, or parts of short arcs. Mr. Hero: The Newmatic Man was a cool character, a steam-driven automaton, with a neat steampunk vibe. My favorite was Teknophage, a wicked lizard in a hellish reality who may or may not have been the original serpent from the Garden of Eden.

Other celebrities in the Teknocomix lineup didn’t fare as well. Leonard Nimoy’s Primortals, about dinosaur-like aliens, was fun, but the premise didn’t go anywhere as the series progressed. Isaac Asimov’s I-Bots, about android superheroes, also suffered from lack of development. Mickey Spillane’s Mike Danger, about a time traveling detective, had its moments of fun, but the plot jumped all over the place, reaching ridiculous extremes. Gene Roddenberry’s Lost Universe was a meandering mess. John Jakes, who wrote bestselling historic novels like North and South, delved into space epic territory with the ambitious Mullkon Empire, but the artwork was so bad and so rushed that I consider it to be probably the worst comic book of all time.

Some celebrities have great ideas, and comic books are a wonderful medium for them to showcase their creativity. But they certainly won’t be able to attract a following for their work based on their names alone. It all boils down to the story and the characters.

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Whedon's Fray is a worthy extension of the Buffy franchise. Gaiman's imagination is an endlessly fascinating place to visit.
TeknoComixand its ilk are part of the reason why I have stuck with the Marvel-ites in my recent return to comic book collecting. There are some good independent books like Strangers in Paradise, Bone, Love and Rockets or Stray Bullets, but for the most part indy titles start off strong then go...nowhere. Either that or they are played for comedy and tend to lose any neccessary continuity to keep one buying the book every month.
Superheroes need not lack the dramatic expanse and content of the above titles. There is as much dramatic potential in Peter Parker's life as in the lives of Francine and Katchoo (SiP).
The late 70's - early 80's version of Heavy Metal kind of killed comics for me. I discovered the underground stuff about the same time. Superheroes and such remain so much fluff, in my opinion. Mind you, I don't get stoned all the time and sit around obsessing over fringe music anymore. To each his own, I suppose... I have to agree that someone selling their celebrity cachet to promote a comic book is pretty insipid. Everyone has a clever idea from time to time but that doesn't mean it should be brought to fruition. Most of the comics you mentioned sound God-awful. Let the pros do their thing and let the wannabes remain just that.
When writers write comic books, I at least try to pay attention. When it's an actor--well. Writing a graphic novel is HARD. You get few wordsand a limited number of panels. They really have to count.
Praising Neil Gaiman's SANDMAN may be obvious, but by god it is so very well done that all this time later it still stands out. I really agree with your take on Leonard Nimoy. PRIMORTALS never really took off.
Good post. Rated.
I sorta wondered what happened to comics with celebrity names attached to it, especially Tekno Comix. What these people forget is this: Comics readers prefer more substance than mere style. Any fool can create a style for a window dressing.