Sunday, March 6, 2011

White Tiger Was All Hook and No Bait: A Reflection on Bringing in Big Names in Other Fields

Occasionally over my years collecting/reading Marvel Comics I've picked up a mini-series here or there spotlighting a superheroine. This sometimes turns out to be a mistake, and when it does, it usually turns out to be a mistake in the exact same way. What's fascinating about Marvel's 2007 White Tiger miniseries is that it manages to have the same problems as comics back in the 1990s despite being written by a "name" writer, specifically fantasy Young Adult fantasy writer Tamora Pierce and her husband Timothy Liebe.

Reading the book was a disappointment, especially since while I have not yet read Pierce's books, both she and Liebe made mostly-favorable impressions on me when they were active on Livejournal near the time of the mini-series' release. Unfortunately, the book is something of a mess. It's saddled with an unmemorable gang/police procedural plot. The writers can't seem to decide if the heroine, Angela Del Toro, is super-serious or a wiseacre. And then there are the guest stars. The numerous, numerous, numerous guest stars.

I feel like I've read a number of miniseries like this one - the Julia Carpenter Spider-Woman mini-series in the 90s being the one that comes to mind the most right now. Miniseries that spotlight a superheroine but put her in an overly-complicated plot that requires a lot of infodumping, contains a lot of continuity links and is dreadfully lacking in any human drama. All in all, the entire enterprise feels like an attempt to spotlight a character without knowing why she should be spotlighted and without even the confidence that the character can stand on her own.

Yet what bothers me about the book when I look back on it is not so much that the comic was mediocre. What bothers me is I can't figure out what Marvel was trying to do here. Presumably, putting a name writer on a book creates crossover appeal. Say what you want about the comic book adaptation of Anita Blake, but it's pretty clear the prime purpose is to get fans of the original novels to purchase the work in a new format. It may be a format they're unfamiliar with (comics) but it's a story they heard before and thus may be a good entry point for at least some of them.

But who would want this comic as an entry point? I've been reading Marvel Comics since I was 11-years-old, and while I admittedly don't know much about Heroes for Hire (case in point: I thought this comic was going to be about a tiger in human form) I had very little idea what was going on here. Many of the guest stars motivations' heavily involve things going on in other books and the book contains inside jokes that mostly play to longtime readers. It's the extreme inside of inside baseball. One might argue this was done so readers of this book would be interested in other properties, but I sort of doubt that. I can't imagine anyone becoming interested in X-Men because Emma Frost shows up for one page to point out something insignificant and snark at the heroine, never to be seen again.

There's been a lot of speculation and thought on the comic book industry and the video game industry's attempts to bring in outside writers who've succeeded in other fields, most of it coming down on the side of disfavor. I don't think it has to be that way. A writer who succeeded in one field could very well succeed in another.

But that shouldn't be taken as self-evident. Crossover appeal also shouldn't be taken as self-evident. When I worked in a bookstore, I remember telling a Jodi Picoult fan that Picoult was writing a Wonder Woman comic, and the fan, far from being happy about the news, glared at me in disbelief and wondered why Picoult would do something like that.

Also, if you're famous in another field or not, if you write a mini-series about a rarely used character, please teach me something about that character, please make me want to read her somewhere else, please make it count. Because I need no prodding to pick up a story about an FBI agent who wears a tiger costume and fights bad guys, but the writer, whoever she is, needs to give me the a reason to want to keep reading it.


  1. On the other hand, I really enjoyed Marjorie Liu's Black Widow series/story arc.

  2. Ed:

    Yeah, I've heard good things about her work. I'll have to pick it up sometime.