In comic books, characters often become absent. There's the typical stories where a character sacrifices their lives or is simply killed by another for some reason. When a series has an ensemble cast, one character biting the dust isn't that big of a deal. We've seen members of the X-Men, Avengers, Justice League and Fantastic Four die at some point (only to eventually return). Sometimes team members just want to take a vacation (like when Black Panther and Storm replaced Reed and Sue).
Team books don't really feel the impact of one of the main characters disappearing. When it's a solo book, it's a little different. There has been times when characters such as Batman, Superman or Spider-Man have gone missing in their own titles. These types of stories add a new twist and gives a distinct feel from the usual stories contained in the series. A great writer can make this happen and make it work wonderfully.
How long can the main character of a book not be featured? The star of the book is most likely the main reason why readers are picking up the title. Is there a limit on how many issues readers are willing to go with the main character being absent?== TEASER ==
When it's a death issue, there are the stories of mourning and acceptance to deal with. Provided the character has a strong supporting cast, there are interesting angles that can be depicted with the friends, family and even enemies of the fallen hero. The Death of Superman resulted in four new characters filling the void. Captain America's death gave room for Bucky Barnes to step up and show how worthy a character he truly was. Batman's death allowed Dick Grayson to fill his boots and evolve even further than he already had over the years. The death of Ultimate Spider-Man is giving a new character, Miles Morales, the chance to grow into a beloved character.
These stories all lasted for a few issues. The hero's death didn't just last for a story arc. Time went by and fans kept reading. There was a story to be told and the fact that the title character wasn't in the book served to attract more attention to it.
It isn't always death that makes the main character go away. There's been a couple times when Spider-Man has been MIA. In one arc, Spider-Man was missing for about three issues. It turned out his costume was in tatters after a fight and he tried hitchhiking his way home from Virginia but got sidetracked in some wacky prison fiasco when picked up as a vagrant.
After the introduction of Ben Reilly and the Clone Saga, it appeared that Peter Parker and Mary Jane were going to sail off into the sunset. They actually moved to Oregon and Ben took over the Spider-Man titles. He even developed his own supporting cast and hangouts that gave the book a clear and distinct feel while still retaining the roots of who Spider-Man was supposed to be.
There was also when Tony Stark became too...unstable due to his alcohol intake. He couldn't quite handle running his company and be a superhero in the Iron Man armor. Eventually his friend, Rhodey, put on the armor and took his place while Tony dealt with his drinking problem.
What about the introduction of a new character? In the current SWAMP THING series, we've been reading about the return of Alec Holland. It turned out he died and his remains and essence were used for Swamp Thing before. Now we were reading about the human without any powers and it took seven issues for "Swamp Thing" to even appear. With the way the story took place, it was definitely worth the wait.
Finally there's THE WALKING DEAD. The focus has always been on the survivors of a zombie outbreak. We all know that Rick Grimes is the main character in the book. We've seen so many other big supporting characters die and some of us have speculated that Rick could possible die as well. The book could carry on without him despite the anger long time readers would have.
What it really comes down to is how the story is written. Some readers do follow the creative teams on titles. Most tend to focus on the characters. If you're reading a comic about Aquaman or Black Widow, you expect them to actually be in the comic.
A great writer can create a compelling story with the main character absent for a bit but eventually the readers will demand the character's presence in the comic. It's always interesting to see how long writers can keep the comic a success when trying to put out these types of stories. Mixing up the status quo and adding in mystery and suspense is a great thing to inject into a series but at the end of the day, we're all buying the book for the character whose name appears on the cover.