Mainstream comics have always chased fads in popular culture, from music to fashion to just about everything else in between, always seeking to find a way to stay relevant in a world where something is cool one minute and yesterday's news the next. Here are ten example of times when the big comic companies shamelessly pursued fads in the mainstream of the moment, only to have the characters outlive the fads, sometimes by decades.
10. Luke Cage
In the early seventies, the Blaxploitation boom had begun in American cinema in earnest, starting with movies like Shaft, Superfly, Coffy and countless others. Although these movies were all intended for an urban African-American audience, the truth is they found a very large following with just about everyone else too. Marvel Comics, never ones to pass on any pop-culture fad, wanted in on a little of that Blaxploitation action, and in 1972 they unleashed Luke Cage, Hero for Hire on the comic buying audience.
In that first issue, a young "jive talkin' man named Carl Lucas is sent to prison for a crime he didn't commit, and in exchange for parole, he undergoes an experimental procedure, supposedly meant to cure diseases or something. Instead, it inadvertently gave him steel-hard skin and enhanced muscles. After escaping prison, he forged the identity of "Luke Cage," becoming a super-powered private detective, whoopin' all kinds of bad guy ass up in the hood. A bona fide super hero now, Cage's costume was a yellow blouse, blue tights, and a silver tiara. Somehow, I couldn't see Richard Roundtree working that look. In fact, I can't think of a heterosexual black man outside of maybe Prince who would even dare to make the attempt.
The book was filled with cliches, especially all the "jive talk" and catchphrases that Cage would spout out, most famously "Sweet Christmas!" (in case there was any doubt, Luke Cage was totally created by white people.) Eventually, Luke Cage would take on a proper super hero name (Power Man) and team up with another character created to cash in on a seventies trend, the martial artist Iron Fist. The Blaxploitation craze died out with the end of the seventies, but Luke Cage continued on, partnered with Iron Fist, until 1986. From that time on, he appeared sporadically in the Marvel Universe and inspired the stage surname of a certain insane actor named Nicolas, although in the last few years Luke has risen to prominence again in the pages of Avengers. The yellow blouse and tiara are long gone though, which if ya ask me, is a damn shame.
Luke Cage wasn't the only Marvel character created to take advantage of the Blaxploitation phenomenon; vampire hunter Blade - a half human, half vampire hybrid -was created as an adversary for Dracula himself in the pages of Tomb of Dracula. Created by writer Marv Wolfman and artist Gene Colan, Blade was visually based on NFL star Jim Brown, as much as any particular Blaxploitation star. Blade proved very popular with the readership, and by the end of 1973 was the cover feature on Marvel Preview magazine. During this time he also fought Morbius, the Living Vampire and appeared in other Marvel horror comics. Tomb of Dracula was cancelled in the late seventies, and after that Blade made only sporadic appearances.
Blade's true claim to fame, of course, is in the 1998 movie staring Wesley Snipes. This was the first successful Marvel film, which ironically was based on a character that even many hardcore comic book fans were unaware existed at the time. Of course, with his return to prominence in the movies, Marvel had to give him a more prominent place in the comics as well, and he's had various series and mini-series dedicated to him ever since Hollywood discovered that he was a valued commodity. Last seen regularly in the pages of X-Men, Blade is now too valuable a character to sit on the shelf at Marvel for too long. Considering his was the first big-screen Marvel success story, every Marvel character from Spidey to the Avengers owes their big screen life to a character who started out as not much more than yet another attempt to cash in on a pop culture craze.
Has there ever been a character in DC Comics' history more endlessly mocked than mid-'80s Latino break-dancer Vibe? How did such a cheesy, stereotypical character ever even come to be? Back in 1984, DC decided to revamp the Justice League of America. Sales on JLA were falling hard, and the once premiere super-team were now being outsold by their former sidekicks, the Teen Titans. Apparently in looking for ideas for the new Leaguers, DC decided to look towards popular culture for inspiration.
Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and other JLA icons were removed, and in their place were all new characters, all seemingly based on pop-culture fads of the moment. There was Gypsy (who turned invisible) who looked like a cross between Cyndi Lauper and early Madonna; Vixen, an African American femme fatale who looked a lot like Tina Turner; Steel (an athlete turned cyborg) was the living embodiment of Olympic fever (1984 was the year that Los Angeles hosted the Olympic Games, and Olympics mania was everywhere.)
And then finally there was Paco Ramone, better known as Vibe. A Puerto Rican breakdancer who could created seismic tremors. Paco spoke in horrible "watchu doin' mang?" style English, wore yellow parachute pants, was a gang member, and most famously, break danced while using his powers. In the early to mid '80's, breakdancing was all over the media, from Saturday morning cartoons to movies like Breakin' and Krush Groove. Somewhere, Superman was giving a giant facepalm at this lame attempt from the powers that be at DC to try and be hip. In fact, the character of Vibe was such an offensive stereotype that DC's superstar artist of the era, Puerto Rican George Perez, swore off drawing the JLA's book during this era.
This team was so tied into pop-culture fads, that a mere two years after they were created, most of the new members were already looking dated as hell. This version of the JLA was ultimately deemed a sales failure, and Vibe was killed off in DC's Legends crossover event. The very first Latin-American character ever to make it to the League would also be the first member of the League to die in the line of duty. After that, aside from the occasional mention, Paco was swept under the rug, as DC's biggest politically incorrect embarrassment.
Leave it to Geoff Johns, DC superstar writer and lover of all things retro in comics, to revive Paco for the New 52. Not only is he back, but he actually has his own ongoing monthly title, something that would have been unheard of back in the day. The new version of Vibe has the same powers, but has left behind the breakdancing and the cheesy accent, and seems like an honorable attempt at doing the League's first Latino member some kind of justice. Much in the same way that the original Batwoman was created as a reaction to cultural homophobia, and then later made a lesbian as a statement against it, hopefully Vibe 2.0 can make up for the racist caricature of the past.
7. Power Girl
This one might be a wee bit of a stretch, but just go with me here. In my opinion, DC Comics' Power Girl was absolutely a cash-in on the mid 70's fad of "Feminist Chic" that was going on in pop culture at the time, especially on American television screens. Now, to be clear, I'm not suggesting that the concept of feminism is a mere fad, but during the mid-to-late 70's, there was a brief time when the concept of women's lib was being exploited by the media as something of a trend. As a facet of this trend, there were strong women starring in leading roles in action/adventure shows for the first time ever. Police Woman was a popular show starring Angie Dickinson, and was the first ever hour-long action show starring a woman. It ran for four years and 92 episodes. This of course was followed up by Charlie's Angels, The Bionic Woman and of course Wonder Woman starring Lynda Carter. But Police Woman was the trend-setter, and you can see that in Power Girl's first appearance, where she is a dead-ringer for Dickinson.
When Power Girl was originally introduced back in 1976 in the pages of All-Star Comics, she was essentially a "Women's Lib" version of Supergirl; she was still Superman's cousin and her real name was Kara, just like Supergirl, but this was the Superman of the parallel Earth-2. But this was a '70s version of Supergirl, with all the baggage of the era in tow. My first exposure to the character was in an issue of All Star Comics, where her fellow teammate the Star Spangled Kid decided to reward Kara with a symbol similar to her cousin Superman's, a letter "P" in a triangle. An enraged Power Girl crushed it, yelling "I'm not some cheap carbon copy!" From that moment forward, I always preferred Power Girl just a li'l bit more than Supergirl. Everything about that era of Power Girl was obviously some older straight dude's idea of what feminism was, through the filter of the media ("They're angry! But still sexy!") and eventually, Power Girl became a fully rounded character. (uh, no pun intended.) She continues to be a mainstay of the DC Universe to this day, long after the fad of powerful action hero women on television has passed. A fad that sadly, should have never really ended.
As much as Marvel and DC gave into stealing from pop culture fads at large when creating new characters, it is possible no one fell into this trap more than the characters created in the formative years of Image Comics,back in the early 1990's. Not only is the character Grunge, created by Jim Lee and J. Scott Campbell for Wildstorm comics series Gen 13, based on a music fad, this character is unimaginatively even named for said fad. (Can you imagine if Dazzler had just been named "Disco?")
Percival Edmund Chang, as he was really called, was like a smorgasbord of '90s pop culture cliches all mixed into one character; he's slacker, a term popularized at the time, but he's also named for a music scene that started in Seattle and spread like wildfire through pop culture during this period. So of course, the character Grunge is also from Seattle. It was like every early '90s Generation X cliche rolled into one. Ripped jeans, Doc Martens, tats across the chest, you name it, Grunge left no '90s cliche unused. Aside from being from Seattle, the only reason the character is even called Grunge is that he got to choose his own hero name; his power is to molecularly bond with and take on the properties of any object he touches. Really, what's so "Grungy" about that?
The funny thing is, by the time the character Grunge made his comic book debut in 1994, the grunge rock phenomenon, which began to hit the mainstream in earnest in 1991 with the release of Nirvana's album Nevermind and the subsequent success of bands like Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains and Soundgarden had already become played out. Much of the music would continue to find success, but the term "grunge" was more or less dropped, making the Wildstorm character seem even more out-of-date.
Somehow though, the character has survived, and has shown up in not only all subsequent revivals of Gen 13, but is even in the New 52, as an adversary for Superboy. At least it looks like this version of ol' Grungey boy appears to have layed off the steroids a bit.