Are superheroes dying a slow death?

The way in which the “new DCU” will work is even worse than I anticipated. Crisis on Infinite Earths tried to make it so that most of the major events that had occured before the Crisis were still canon, but hadn’t necessarily occured the way they were originally chronicled. The present reboot will attempt to do the same thing, but to a potentially even more exclusive extent, and not all of DC’s titles will be roughly contemporaneous with each other – Action Comics and Justice League will be set at the “dawn of the age of superheroes” but all other September titles won’t. (The former seems like a mockery of my “use split titles to Ultimate-ize DC” idea.)

So sorry, DC, but this is a reboot, in every way that Crisis on Infinite Earths was. After all, the “dawn of the age of superheroes” will now be set only five years in the past; DC’s policy since the Zero Hour event has been that it’s been at least ten or eleven, and to try to cram in most of the major events just since Crisis on Infinite Earths in that span makes a mockery of those stories and shows just how half-assed this reboot really is. At least with Crisis, you could accept that the broad strokes of what had happened prior to the Crisis had still happened. Either reboot the entire slate from the beginning, or leave your entire historical arc intact as Crisis did, but don’t half-ass it and pluck events out of their historical context and pass it off as leaving history intact just because you and/or your fans happen to like them. Eric Burns(-White) was entirely spot-on about the whole mess.

Meanwhile, I’ve come to realize a major impetus for the reboot, and why it won’t work: the superhero canons that have maintained especially the DCU for all these decades are running on fumes.

Let’s take an example. For decades, one of the defining aspects of the Superman mythos was his double life as Clark Kent and Superman, and a major part of that double life was his relationship with Lois Lane, aloof to mild-mannered Clark Kent and head-over-heels for Superman. DC got a lot of mileage out of that tension, both in comics and in other media. Then, during the 90s, DC decided to get Lois and Clark married. In doing so, DC was meddling with an iconic part of the Superman mythos. Despite the fact that it was timed to coincide with the same happening on the Lois and Clark TV show, most people outside comics fandom are always going to associate Superman with his two-person love triangle with Lois Lane. Mess with that, and there’s a sense in which the character you’re writing isn’t Superman anymore.

So why did they do it? In part as a publicity stunt, in part because of the Lois and Clark factor, but I think it was also a recognition of the limitations of the setup, which had, after all, been the status quo for something like six decades (far longer than any fictional television show, except maybe soap operas that constantly shake up the status quo). At some point, we don’t buy that Superman will ever be with anyone other than Lois, so we start wondering why he keeps stringing her along, and we wonder how good a reporter Lois can be if she can’t see that Superman is just Clark Kent without glasses. Getting them married closes the door to many, many stories rooted in the old status quo, but it also opens the door to many new story ideas revolving around Lois and Clark as a married couple. To some extent, the status quo, if too narrowly defined, becomes too limiting. To move the story forward, DC had to remove some of the barnacles from it.

Many comic book superheroes have these sorts of lists of defining elements that people expect to see in the character. A lot of mileage can be gotten out of these defining elements, but there does come a point at which you’re just telling the same story over and over. You can’t keep these characters timeless, locked into their mid-century origins, forever. At some point, you have to provide the payoff for your setups; at some point, maintaining the setup indefinitely starts to stretch suspension of disbelief. But once you do, you’re taking away something that makes the character who he is. DC has this problem more so than Marvel; Marvel is more fond of shaking up the status quo with its heroes, and it tends to keep its iconography simpler in the first place, but even it has some lines it is loath to cross (for example, Dr. Banner will never find a cure for his condition).

Over the last twenty-plus years, perhaps these points have been reached, as more and more of the iconic aspects of many characters have been changed in the comics. Superman got married, as did Spider-Man; Superman also died; many of DC’s sidekicks, including Dick Grayson, graduated from their roles; Barbara “Batgirl” Gordon was crippled (as was, for a brief time, Batman himself); writers started introducing a plethora of Hulk personas; the Green Lantern Corps was wiped out and a new guy made the only Green Lantern. In recent years, many of these changes have been reversed, partly out of Silver Age nostalgia, partly out of a realization of the core aspects of the characters that have changed, partly – and most tellingly – because the new stati quibus have themselves started running on fumes. Most of the changes at DC that haven’t been reversed already will be reversed by the reboot – suggesting a desire to rejuvenate the old concepts by returning them to their iconic glory.

But at the same time, lines once thought to be even more unbreakable have been crossed. Batman died, and Dick Grayson became Batman; Marvel revealed a plethora of secret identities in its Civil War crossover, most notably Spider-Man (in his case later retconned away); most of Marvel’s mutants were depowered; there are a gazillion colored Lantern corps running around, as well as more Hulks than you can shake a stick at. I don’t buy the argument that “every story needs a conclusion” often used to argue for sweeping aside the old stable of characters – we’re talking about characters, not stories, and real people don’t get neatly-tied-up endings (and if you know your Greek mythology, Hercules’ death is almost an afterthought) – but sometimes, reading about some of the “current events” in superhero comics, I’m reminded of nothing so much as a story winding down to its conclusion, whether building up to a huge climactic confrontation or simply tying a bow on a character’s story and passing the torch to the future. The status quo is shaken up in ways only the winding down of a story can, especially stories that have gone on for this long.

Since the advent of the direct market, the world of comic books has been of, by, and for superhero fandom, with other genres just trying to sneak between the cracks. Perhaps, as Scott McCloud suggests in Reinventing Comics (a decade ago!), by focusing all our energies on one genre we’ve tapped it out of everything it had to offer. The 80s saw several deconstructions of the modes of the superhero genre, in works like Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and later Kingdom Come – deconstructions that later gave rise to a wave of “reconstructions” in the 90s that sought to take the more “realistic” world presented in the deconstructions and bring to them the elements that made the genre popular in the first place. In other words, we’ve turned the genre of superheroes so far inside out that we’ve turned it right-side up again – all before 2000. Combine this with the fact we haven’t really created any new iconic superheroes since the late 70s (not coincidentially coinciding with the rise of the direct market), maybe early 80s, and is it possible we’ve wrung everything out of the superhero genre there is to get out of it?

Some would say so, or even that superheroes’ time in the zeitgeist has passed. I’m not so sure. One of the most popular series in the history of the Cartoon Network, and certainly one of the ones that first put it on the map, was The Powerpuff Girls. While The Powerpuff Girls boasted more adult writing and humor than one might otherwise expect (something that, looking back, distinguished Cartoon Network from competitors like Nickelodeon in the late 90s), it was, by and large, a decidedly traditional take on the superhero – looking back, I’m reminded of nothing so much as the old Silver Age comics.

I’d argue that The Powerpuff Girls is the only new true superhero concept to break out in some way in the last twenty-five or so years, and perhaps the only one to originate outside of comics since The Green Hornet. Most of the other contenders for the crown twist the concept beyond recognition – Buffy, Witchblade, and Heroes are too ordinary, Kick-Ass and Watchmen are too deconstructive, the Tick and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are too parodic, Spawn, Harry Potter and anything involving vampires are rooted in fantasy or horror, and Power Rangers and Dragon-Ball Z are rooted in martial-arts films. Many of the above spend too much time in their own little world (also a complaint against Sailor Moon), and with some of those, it’d be hard to call them true breakouts.

Why is it that the only real breakout superhero concept of the past twenty-five years is… so basic? Has all our deconstruction been a waste of time, yielding no real fruit? Have my constraints guaranteed that only the most undistilled of superhero concepts can qualify for the title? I doubt it – Marvel’s wave of new concepts in the 60s was the original superhero deconstruction. When I look around, I see that the breakout concepts that come closest to superherodom come from what are, at least nominally, kids’ shows – even though quite a few involve even more adult writing than The Powerpuff Girls. Is Xaviar Xerexes right to claim that the next frontier for superheroes is in its kiddie past? Perhaps we’ve lost sight of the core of the superhero genre, that it is fundamentally a power fantasy, and all the deconstruction has ruined the fun, all the pandering to twenty-somethings that haven’t let go of their childhood has resulted in superheroes’ real core audience – kids and teenage boys – falling out of focus.

That’s not to say adults can’t have superheroes appeal to them – Marvel is busily building its superheroes into the next great film franchise, up there with Star Wars and Harry Potter – but clearly there hasn’t really been anything new to appeal to them. Most of what they’ve been exposed to has been dedicated to ridiculing the concept; the reconstruction wave of 90s comics hasn’t really hit the popular consciousness. Meanwhile, DC and Marvel have largely rested on their laurels of their existing back catalog, and haven’t really had much interest in creating anything new. Now those concepts have started to show their age, and DC’s response is to beat a hasty retreat to the comfort of the most iconic forms of their concepts.

Most of the good superhero concepts may be taken, but as with oil, that just means you have to look harder to find more, not that we’re completely out yet. Perhaps the time of DC’s and Marvel’s superheroes is coming to a close, and the genre needs to be completely upended and reinvented to be kept alive, but it’s far from dead yet. In fact, there may be something to be said for rejuvenating some of DC’s old concepts, especially with how long DC has been staring up at Marvel. DC’s stable has never been as well-suited at appealing to the direct market audience as Marvel’s, and DC has essentially spent several decades trying to play Marvel’s game, rather than its own. If it’s not going to make a concerted effort to market to the audience their stable is most suited for, though, I think it can still be salvagable, and DC made to compete with Marvel on a level playing field. But that’s not a topic for this post.

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