The Arthur Effect is the process in which the things that make an intellectual property unique are smoothed out in order to gain a wider audience. For example, the original Lee-Ditko Spider-Man was a very angry and moody young man. He lived in a moody, atmospheric world and fought bizarre villains, like the Vulture and Doctor Octopus. He resided with his Aunt May and was very lonely.
After Ditko left, Peter Parker moved out of his aunt’s place and became damn near gregarious. Bland, “normal” villains like the Rhino or the Kingpin were more likely to crop up than the more colourful ones. The mood of the title under Romita was more romantic, both in terms of interpersonal relationships– Peter now had a real honest-to-God girlfriend– and in terms of storytelling: big, Kirby-esque superhero battles.
In short, everything that made Spider-Man Spider-Man was gone, and as a result, he became more popular. The Spider-Man of the hit Sam Raimi films is Romita’s– not Ditko’s.
I call this the Arthur Effect because of the Marc Brown character, Arthur Read the Aardvark. In the first book, Arthur’s Nose, he looked like this:
Arthur, unhappy with his long aardvark’s nose, goes to Dr. Louise, the rhinologist (who is, naturally, a rhino). In the end, he decides that he likes his own nose the best: “I’m just not me without my nose!”
But now let’s take a look at a more recent book in the Arthur series.
What happened to his nose? The whole point of the first book– that we should accept, and celebrate, the things that make us different– is completely invalidated by the rest of the series. And it’s this noseless Arthur– more bear than aardvark– that makes up the bulk of the series, stars in chapter books, has his own television program, toys, oversized plush dolls, backpacks, lunchboxes, stationary, music cds, and posters. Nothing differentiates him from all the other cute, cuddly children’s book characters– and so he’s more palatable to a wider audience.
I’m not saying this is always a bad thing, nor is it always a direct result of trying to capture a wider market. Because of the Comics Code, the friendly Silver Age incarnations of Batman and Superman are vastly different from the brutal Golden Age originals. And in the case of Superman, I think that’s an assest: no one wants to see him hurtling war criminals like javelins.
With these rough edges and quirks gone, they became more acceptable to the mainstream audience, and more-or-less codified the concept of the superhero. Really, the Arthur Effect is one of refinement.
But what a character or story might gain in beauty, clarity, and thematic unity– all very attractive to the widest possible audience– they often lose that most mysterious and precious of things: vitality.