Comics / Spotlight / Black Astronaut

Mister Terrific Is the New Black Panther – His Comics Don’t Sell

By Hervé St-Louis
January 15, 2012 - 11:31

When DC Comics announced the new 52 comic book series it would use to reboot its comic book universe, I was thrilled at the prospect of a Mister Terrific comic book series. The New Mister Terrific, Micheal Holt was introduced in the Spectre series from John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake in issue 54 of the third volume in 1997. At first he was a two-bit character, quickly invented to capitalize on the name of the previous Mister Terrific which had also had little appearances in comic books, even though he had been a brief member of the Justice Society. This Mister Terrific was like was his predecessor. He was good at anything he attempted to do.

But John Ostrander and the other creators who handled the character after that, elaborated on the concept. He wasn’t just good at anything, he really was a polymath and super smart. Polymaths have the uncanny ability to learn anything quickly and become good at it. It was his capacity to learn that made him special. Like many super heroes, he was a rich guy with too much time on his hands. But he wanted to give back to the community. Unlike the other guys like Batman and Green Arrow, he actually helped people by working directly with them. Another thing about Holt, he was black.

Appearing in the 1999 Justice Society of America series, he quickly became one of the most popular member of that team, based on fans’ responses. The character was popular enough to play a major role in the Justice League animated series in the 2000s. But quickly, his star started to fade. Once the most intelligent man on Earth, Geoff Johns and other writers started referring to him as the third smartest man alive. This is something that never sat well with me. Why could Batman be the world’s best detective, the Flash, the fastest man alive, Green Lantern, the holder of the most dangerous weapon in the universe, but Mister Terrific had to settle for third place status after two unknowns?

The new Mister Terrific was started on a weak note with artwork by Gianluca Gugliotta and scripts by Eric Wallace. To say that this series has been bad is an understatement. Yet, I really wanted it to succeed. The stupidity of the “third smartest man” was continued, while the popular leather jacket of the character was abandoned. In his adventures, Mister Terrific fought an evil blue guy who looks like Megamind but had none of his charm. Next, he fought giant bugs that looked like Annihilus. It is told that the DC Comics 52 was an attempt to create every type of comics that the competition had under a veiled cover. Mister Terrific’s adventures occupied the territory of the Fantastic Four, but without the charming family and support cast. Moreover, the first issue of Mister Terrific alienated many comic book readers with subtle comments on race relations by one of his supporting cast / would be damsel in distress trying to win his favour. In that scene a black woman commented on how Karen Starr, previously known in the previous DC Comics universe as Power Girl was a bad choice for a love interest for Holt, because she was white, successful and beautiful. While some readers may see this hinted at social commentary as justified, others saw it as racist. The series has been plagued by comments that it was racist ever since.

The series was ill-conceived from the beginning. It seems to be the case with many 52 series where the publisher DC Comics just approved a series with the attitude “we’ll see if it sticks.” The problem with this approach is that it can damage a character for quite a while. Once a character has had a series cancelled because of sales issues, it’s very difficult for that character to shine again in his individual series. Just ask Aquaman, Hawkman and the Atom. Every new series they get is a complete retooling of their previous ones with substantial changes added. Why? Because no one trusts that the simple basic premise of the character will be popular to work on a newer series because it failed once. Of course, these rushed conclusions fail to see what really did not work. Often time it was the talent working on the series and not the basic premise of the character. Yet, new creators will always thinker with a character with a failed series.

That brings me up to my Black Panther comparison. Marvel Comics has been trying to push the Black Panther as a major character for years. Partly it’s because they don’t have substantial and powerful black characters that can exist on their own. Well, they do with Storm, Luke Cage and Blade, but none of them has had lasting series. Black Panther had been artificially supported by Marvel Comics for about a decade before Disney finally forced them to cancel his series. In the meantime, Black Panther went through several changes to make him more palatable to American readers. Black Panter's classic series written by Christopher Priest, was admired for its innovative and complex plots, but failed to gather any lasting readership. The next reboot with Reggie Hudlin saw a rebooting of years of continuity and a more vindictive approach towards race relations. In that series, Hudlin pissed off many readers by making the Black Panther’s dad, defeat the World War Two Captain America. While the series was popular at first, as soon as Hudlin and John Romita Jr left, it fell back on old numbers and Marvel Comics stopped promoting it. Instead the retooling started. Black Panther married Storm or the X-Men. That didn’t boost his popularity. Why would it? The two were forced together, because you know, black characters should marry each other even if they were never seen together in the same comic book in the past and that a mini-series had to be published to established that they did date way back in between panels. Right. When that didn’t work, Black Panther was replaced by his sister – they made the Black Panther a woman. When that didn’t work either, they gave him a mini-series where he faced Doctor Doom. The series was good and little retooling was involved but it wasn’t enough. So Marvel Comics decided to make Black Panther an immigrant in the United States. Marvel figured that would make the character less exotic and more working class which might appeal to some readers. Apparently, that didn’t work either and Disney had the series cancelled. Maybe the next retooling Marvel Comics attempts with the Black Panther is to have him divorce his wife? Divorce usually works! Well, it did work for Spider-man!

My point is that if anyone ever attempts to create another Mister Terrific series, a lot of retooling will be involved. Even in this series, his costume was changed, his origin was changed. The reason his wife died changed too and he was given a son that would come in the future. The intervention of the Spectre had nothing to do with Mister Terrific becoming a super hero.

Who knows what future retooling might do to Mister Terrific. We might find out that he isn’t even the third smartest man on Earth. He might have many of his abilities reduced. He may sport a Mohawk. Or maybe he’ll be angry and gritty and want to punch sinister villains every couple of issues. Or maybe they’ll give him a real Fantastic Four supporting cast. They’ll pluck some third rate DC Comics character that no one cares about like Firehawk, Chunk and the Elongated Man and they’ll call it the Challengers of the Fantastic. Maybe they’ll make Mister Terrific white or use his predecessor Terry Sloane instead.

What made the character so popular for the last decade will be lost with new creative teams trying to fix him and make him bearable for comic book readers. Or worse, Mister Terrific will be permanently written off as a character that cannot sell and that people have no interest in and that cannot support his own mini-series or a regular series. Meanwhile, Batwing, another black character with little exposure before 52, despite its African locale is becoming a fan favourite.

Had the editors at DC Comics tried another creative team, this series could have worked. Maybe if it had been a limited series that forced Wallace to write a serious storyline that grabbed readers’ attention right off the gate, this series could have appealed to fans. But we’ll never know as Mister Terrific, a character with such tremendous potential is being cancelled. Time Warner Inc. the parent company of DC Comics and Marvel Entertainment support the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).

Last Updated: March 10, 2022 - 22:00

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