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.