A recent post at CBR looks at 25 characters from the 2000s who looked to become the Next Big Thing, but weren’t. The one I felt worth posting about: Manchester Black.
Created by Joe Kelly, Black debuted in Action #775 (cover by Timothy Bradstreet) as leader of the Elite, a takeoff on the Authority. He and his hard-core superhero team are stunningly powerful (Black has literally world-shaking TK and other psi abilities) and they have no qualms about killing or crippling the bad guys they go up against. Superman’s PO’d they’re operating in Metropolis. He’s more PO’d that the public loves their approach, finding them much cooler than Superman’s stodgy, Boy Scout, don’t kill people way.
Finally Superman challenges the Elite to a showdown on the moon in front of TV cameras — and whichever side loses won’t be coming back down. Superman wins by playing the same hardball his opponents do; a horrified Black accuses him of being a monster. Superman agrees — if he played by their rules, he would be. But it’s all been a trick to drive home precisely that point (this later became the ‘toon Superman vs. the Elite). As Joe Kelly says, Superman’s not interesting because of what he can do but because of all the things he chooses not to do.
Black later escapes prison and ruthlessly destroys Superman’s life, all to prove the truth: Superman’s no better than Black. Push him hard enough and he’ll throw mercy out the window. But even when he believes Black has murdered Lois, Superman doesn’t kill him. Shell-shocked to realize Superman’s the hero (“Guess we know what that makes me.”), Black takes his own life.
The CBR article suggests that was a waste: “Black took the Superman mythos by storm when he debuted. His revenge plan against Superman poised him to become a Joker-like character for Superman — and then he offed himself. Good-bye, potential.”
I’d argue the opposite. By giving his fight with Superman an ending, and a dramatic one, Kelly made him a great character. If he’d stuck around, he’d become what he is in the New 52, a generic vigilante type who sneers at Superman for not making the hard call. He might be popular, because that kind of trite bad-ass often is, but he wouldn’t be as good.
It’s a comics problem many people have pointed out. Great stories have an ending. Sinbad goes on voyages, then retires happily to enjoy his wealth. The Count of Monte Cristo gains his revenge, but then ends his scheme when he sees he’s hurting innocent people. The Empire is overthrown, leaving Luke, Leia and Han free to pick up normal lives. Sherlock Holmes retires to keep bees in Sussex.
In comics (or any serial format), there’s a reluctance to let go of any intellectual property that might generate more cash. Alan Brennert gave a perfect ending to the Hawk and the Dove, but Marv Wolfman promptly retconned it away (and he didn’t even have plans to revive them). Characters get happy endings but someone eventually revives them, often just to kill them.
Kelly made the right call. Black is a bigger thing because his creator didn’t keep him around.
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