Secret Wars and the Death of Superhero Comics

I blame everyone who ever bought a New 52 comic.

Back in January Marvel announced it would be launching a new Secret Wars event, 30 years after the original, except this one would be far more than a diversion for some superheroes to jump to a faraway planet, come back, and see all the battles that happened in the interim play out over the next year. This one would be the closest thing to a Crisis-style reboot Marvel has ever had – and Crisis on Infinite Earths is, from a story perspective, a rather apt comparison.

Come May, some sort of “incursion” that has been wiping out universes will strike the main Marvel universe, which will be reduced to a Manhattan that is merged with its Ultimate universe equivalent and plopped down on “Battleworld”, this version of which is made up of shards from many different universes, many of them inspired by various tales from various continuities from Marvel’s past.

What happens after all the dust settles, what the new status quo is going forward, isn’t entirely clear; Marvel’s powers-that-be are being understandably tight-lipped to avoid spoilers, and considering that Secret Wars #0 is coming out this Saturday for Free Comic Book Day, I’m pretty sure they’ve given out as much as they’re going to give out. But given what they have said – that “Battleworld is the new Marvel Universe“, that “the Marvel Universe is Secret Wars” and “the new Marvel Universe really does start in May” by the time Secret Wars #2 comes out, that “we don’t believe our history is broken”, that we should look for clues in the slogan “when everything ends, there is only Secret Wars”, that Secret Wars, as Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso puts it, “is not an intermission from our regularly scheduled program; it is our regularly scheduled program”, that “all of the series that we’re doing — all of them — are slices of the pie or toppings on the pie“, that the titles that will supposedly be setting up the future of the Marvel Universe (called “Warzones!”) will amount to “events within the event” taking place in individual zones on Battleworld, everything Marvel has done to attempt to reassure fans that no, really, this really isn’t a reboot – I’m left to reach the conclusion that what happens at the end of Secret Wars to produce a new Marvel Universe is… nothing, that the only difference between the Marvel Universe during Secret Wars and after is that Secret Wars is simply the conflict that is going to naturally flare up from kitbashing so many disparate universes together onto one world (although there is some suggestion of the existence of “universes” plural, and Secret Wars has also been compared to the X-Men’s Age of Apocalypse event that was mostly undone by the same thing that caused it at the end), and the Marvel Universe going forward is simply going to be whatever is left of Battleworld after the dust settles, a patchwork of numerous disparate, seemingly incongruous times and genres all smushed together, possibly still divided into discrete zones City of Heroes-style.

If I’m right, well, in one sense Marvel is correct to indicate that this isn’t a full-fledged reboot in the same vein as what DC has carried out over the years; whereas DC has long loved to say “everything you know is wrong”, here Marvel seems to be saying “everything you know is right“, even if much of it might seem incompatible. But in so doing, Marvel is abandoning any claim to have any relationship to reality, something that gives superhero comics so much of their power. Earth is not going to exist in the new Marvel Universe, only an artificial world resulting from a smashing-together of places designed to accommodate writers’ desire to tell whatever kind of story they want, no matter how unlikely it may be for them to coexist.

Ironically, when Marvel started one of the many things that made it stand out from DC and its other superhero imitators, and probably the one way that best encapsulated the others, was how realistic it was – the Marvel universe was so carefully crafted that multiple people who grew up on Marvel comics have attested that they could believe the sorts of things they read were accounts of things that really were happening in New York, in the real world you and I live in, all simply being reported and dramatized by the Marvel staff. Setting the books in a real city like New York was just one way this was accomplished; Stan Lee cultivated a more direct relationship between a comic company and its readership than had ever been attempted, the characters went through trials and tribulations the books’ readership could relate to, many of the books touched on themes that were in the news at the time (the space race, discrimination, nuclear testing and the dangers of radiation, the Cold War), and by and large the characters tended to be less god-like powerful than their DC counterparts. Say what you will about the New 52 (and I’ve said plenty), but at least the books DC is putting out are still set on an Earth that’s at least vaguely like our own. DC will soon be beating Marvel at its own game.

How did this happen? How did Marvel fall so far from the ideals that made it so relevant to begin with?

Read moreSecret Wars and the Death of Superhero Comics

Rethinking the Mythology of Superman

I’ve never had a particularly good grasp of the notion of Superman as a “Man of Tomorrow”, as some figure who completely changes the course of humanity with his example. I guess I never really got what being an alien from another planet with super powers who goes around beating people up had to do with bringing all of humanity to a better state or some such baloney.

There are going to be spoilers for Man of Steel ahead. It’s been some weeks since it’s come out, so most of the people who would have seen it have probably already seen it, and the rest have had to tread lightly to avoid being spoiled by the Internet explosion that broke out in the days following its release as people have stepped up and accused the film’s makers of completely failing to understand the character on any level, led by writer Mark Waid. Waid had a lot to like about two-thirds of the movie, but became increasingly concerned as Superman tore up the streets of Smallville while fighting a bunch of minions, as he fought some huge death-machine while another death-machine half a world away tore up Metropolis, as he had a final showdown with General Zod in the ruins of Metropolis, all while showing little to no regard for the people being impacted by the collateral damage of the fight, until finally being driven to nearly walk out upon seeing Superman break Zod’s neck.

As the credits rolled, I told myself I was upset because Superman doesn’t kill. Full-stop, Superman doesn’t kill. But sitting there, I broke it down some more in my head because I sensed there was more to it since Superman clearly regretted killing Zod. I had to grant that the filmmakers at least went way out of their way to put Superman in a position suggesting (but hardly conclusively proving) he had no choice (and I did love Superman’s immediate-aftermath reaction to what he’d done)…But after I processed all that, I realized that it wasn’t so much my uncompromising vision of Superman that made this a total-fail moment for me; it was the failed lead-up TO the moment. As Superman’s having his final one-on-one battle with Zod, show me that he’s going out of his way to save people from getting caught in the middle. SHOW ME that trying to simultaneously protect humans and beat Zod is achingly, achingly costing Superman the fight. Build to that moment of the hard choice…show me, without doubt, that Superman has no other out and do a better job of convincing me that it’s a hard decision to make, and maybe I’ll give it to you…

The essential part of Superman that got lost in MAN OF STEEL, the fundamental break in trust between the movie and the audience, is that we don’t just want Superman to save us; we want him to protect us. He was okay at the former, but really, really lousy at the latter. Once he puts on that suit, everyone he bothers to help along the way is pretty much an afterthought, a fly ball he might as well shag since he’s flying past anyway, so what the hell. Where Christopher Reeve won me over with his portrayal was that his Superman clearly cared about everyone. Yes, this Superman cares in the abstract–he is willing to surrender to Zod to spare us–but the vibe I kept getting was that old Charles Schulz line: “I love mankind…it’s people I can’t stand.”

Eric Burns(-White) went further, dropping a bunch of myth criticism on us to attempt to show that Man of Steel‘s Superman represents a failure to live up to his own archetype:

[Superman] is, in the end, the hero who gets it right. He makes hard choices, and finds another way. He inspires us not because of his great power, but because his great power is not what makes him a hero. If he fails at this? He fails at the archetype. He is an ectype instead. If he acts as Superman but is unable to be Superman, he cannot become Superman. He can still be a hero, of course, but he cannot achieve the archetype…In making their character Superman, they make the question of whether he’s ready to be Superman academic. In the end, their figure is a failed ectype and not the archetype. And at that point, there is no going back. Their ‘Superman,’ in the end, isn’t. And as a result, he can’t be.

This seems to be the common thread in criticism of the film: that it fails so completely in grasping Superman that it presents us with someone who isn’t Superman. Superman has ideals, dammit, and a Superman who isn’t even trying to live up to those ideals, who isn’t saving everyone he can and showing all the virtues we want him to, who just inhabits a dark, drab world like every other superhero movie, is ultimately just another superhero, isn’t Superman at all.

What’s funny about all this is that Jerry Siegel himself had a very different motivation for creating the character:

[M]uch of that premise came out of my own personal frustrations. I wore spectacles and was a high school boy who wrote for the school newspaper…There were some lovely high school girls who I admired from afar. They were not the least bit interested in me. I was not Clark (Kent) Gable. I was just another face in the crowded, busy high school corridors. Those attractive schoolgirls in the classes and corridors didn’t care that I existed. But!! If I were to wear a colorful, skintight costume! If I could run faster than a train, lift great weights easily, and leap over skyscrapers in a single bound! Then they would notice me!

This notion of Superman as wish fulfillment has never completely gone away, as anyone who has ever tried to fly by putting on a cape and jumping knows well, and back when the New 52 happened I suggested that DC revitalize the character by playing up those aspects:

If Spider-Man is well known for the constant tortures both sides of his double life provide him, from the deaths of loved ones to the hatchet jobs in the local paper to just trying to make ends meet, Superman has none of it and is simply happy at how awesome having superpowers is. Superman may be a larger-than-life, mythological figure, but he doesn’t particularly feel like it; he’s just a farm boy from Kansas who happens to be able to lift cars over his head. He may not be the perfect embodiment of our ideals – chances are he certainly revels in the glory his exploits earn him – but he’s far from a supervillain either, if only because saving people is cooler, more popular, and less stressful than oppressing them…In short, I imagine a Superman who reacts to having powers the way we imagine we might react, and who becomes a superhero partly because it’s cool and partly because it’s the way his parents raised him. Not a radical change, but a substantial shift in perception for the better, in my mind.

It may not be a radical change, but some people may see it as borderline blasphemous to give Superman these borderline ordinary motivations. Perhaps most tellingly, though, in (the original) Action Comics #1, Superman is anything but a super-idealized embodiment of high-minded ideals; he implicitly beats a confession out of someone and breaks into the governor’s mansion to deliver it, then takes on a corrupt lobbyist and damn near gives him a heart attack by walking on power lines. Beyond wish fulfillment, Superman’s original appeal wasn’t in the embodiment of high-minded ideals; it was his willingness to stand up to evildoers of all stripes in the midst of the Great Depression, when Hitler was offering his own vision of the “superman”. As with most of the more extreme aspects of the early superheroes, this got toned down pretty quickly, especially once America entered World War II, and Superman became a generic fighter for truth and justice – “the American way” wasn’t added to the spiel until the 50s when the Cold War was seen to warrant it, a somewhat parochial line for someone who supposedly embodies universal ideals. The movies, especially the Richard Donner ones, seem to have stressed the notion of a “man of tomorrow” more than other media, and from that the notion has since spilled over into those other media.

More to the point, what does being a “man of tomorrow” mean? Burns(-White) tells us it’s “because his great power is not what makes him a hero”, as though Clark Kent without powers would be a cop or a firefighter or something like that. Concurring with this, a year ago Chris Sims of Comics Alliance claimed that “morally speaking, anyone can be as Good as Superman; the only advantage he has is that he was brought up by a couple of really nice farmers.” Does this make Superman better than anyone else? Is there someone else that might be as good if not better than Superman as a person? Isn’t this essentially saying that Superman is some iconic, mythic figure precisely because of how like everyone else he is, a nice guy who happens to be a celebrity? Doesn’t this basically make him Mother Teresa with superpowers? Why should this make him some figure that everyone in the world looks up to with awe and reverence and as someone to take their moral cues from, as someone whose example changes the course of all humanity? And in this context, is my proposed revitalization of the character really that blasphemous, or is it actually more true to the great mythic arc people are seeing in him, that Superman is just like anyone else except he happens to have superpowers? In any case, it’s certainly a far cry from Marlon Brando’s barf-inducing speech in the first Donner film (Sims’ article was explicitly arguing against the notion of Superman as a Christ-like figure).

Now, all that being said, I don’t like the notion of Superman killing Zod at the end of the movie. Superman is the one superhero that should never, ever kill, no matter what, and for the film’s makers to have him kill someone, in pretty much the exact same way that caused a storm of controversy when the comic book version of Wonder Woman did it in the lead-up to Infinite Crisis, with barely an ounce of remorse, does betray a lack of understanding of the character that makes me wonder if this is the final bullet in the superhero genre’s shambling corpse, made even worse by the entire rest of the movie hammering home the “man of tomorrow” angle like no film before. But even then, as Sims pointed out, Superman has killed Zod specifically before, both in the very Donner film, Superman II, that Man of Steel was retelling (and arguably even worse then, although with little involvement from Donner himself), and even in the comics shortly after John Byrne’s post-Crisis on Infinite Earths reboot, though the latter went through the “remorse” story arc that neither film did. Maybe that says more about those stories than it does about Superman or this story, but it still suggests that no matter what the continuity, Superman’s status as ultimate paragon of our highest ideals isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.

This wouldn’t be so bad if the Internet Archive had more of their content from the old site.

Here’s what the proprietors of the Superman through the Ages site apparently decided back in April: “We’re too lazy to perform basic, common-sense steps and research to figure out how to keep our site safe, so we’re going to make it as difficult as possible for us to restore our site by uploading everything manually onto static pages, risking losing all the following we’ve spent nearly two decades building by taking forever to get back the content that was their reason for coming to the site in the first place, if ever! It’s not like the Internet is going to blow up when the new Superman movie comes out in such a way that our collection of classic Superman stories might be a key source of research for certain bloggers looking to weigh in on the controversy!”

Seriously, 99.9% of sites on the Internet, including sites with forums, WordPress, wikis, etc., work just fine with nary a slice of malware or other hackery, but no, you get hit with malware that renders your site mostly offline for over a year before you do anything about it and when you do, you just decide to give up on any and all web technology that wasn’t around when Netscape was big and Geocities reigned (with the possible exception of CSS). I’m sure there are plenty of people who would be willing to pitch in and help you get everything back up faster, but no, that’s just another “security hole” you’re opening up. Never mind the multitude of sites like Wikia or (possibly) that would effectively keep your site safe with their own security upgrades without you having to do anything…

(It also doesn’t help that the only source of updates other than the main page is on Facebook, which I continue to avoid signing up for like the plague, but which I need to sign up for in order to see more than bits and pieces of five comments, which means I can’t see any of what other people have said about the situation or the proprietor’s responses to same…)

How to really revitalize the DC Universe

You know what the saddest part of DC’s “New 52” “soft reboot” (apparently they’re calling it that now, apparently out of a realization of just how reboot-like it is) is? A hard reboot isn’t really that bad an idea.

I can understand why they don’t want to do it. Aside from alienating existing fans, they have some critically-acclaimed storylines going in their Batman and Green Lantern books, and they’d rather not kill that golden goose. It’s really the same sort of thing that screwed up Crisis on Infinite Earths, when they didn’t want to screw up well-praised runs on books like New Teen Titans and Legion of Super-Heroes. That, coupled with poor editorial control, resulted in continuity being more of a mishmash than it had any right to be, and screwed up some properties to a state of confusion beyond repair. (Ironically, Legion wound up more rebooted than the rest of the DCU as a result of CoIE.) The solution is to announce the reboot well in advance, allowing all storylines to be wrapped up (if the old continuity is abandoned entirely) and preventing anyone from starting new critically-acclaimed storylines you’ll want to keep until after the reboot, much as Eric Burns(-White) suggested a while back.

But Crisis on Infinite Earths was also an opportunity, an opportunity to shake up DC’s stable of superheroes and tell their stories afresh, stories not possible in the mature universe CoIE replaced, stories about superheroes in the early days of their careers and going through the associated trials and tribulations. The only other time in DC’s history that has produced this sort of opportunity until now was at the very start of the Silver Age, but DC was more interested in telling their “iconic” style of superhero story, so while they refreshed many old concepts, they didn’t spend much time going into the story potential of their just starting out. Marvel did, however, and when CoIE came around, DC made up for lost time. Most of the core concepts of their heroes remained the same (most of the changes coming to villains and minor heroes), but despite CoIE depositing readers in an established universe not that different from the one left behind, DC took advantage of the opportunity to retell the early days of their classic heroes in books like The Man of Steel, Batman: Year One, and George Perez’s run on Wonder Woman (who was retconned to not have existed before CoIE).

With this reboot, DC has/had another opportunity to start afresh, shake up its core concepts, and tell new stories about superheroes just establishing their careers. DC seems to be taking the Silver Age approach: many if not most of their heroes are being shaken up, but aside from Superman and the Justice League, no stories set in the unique, ever-changing, uncertain period early in the age of superheroes, and precious few origin retellings, with everyone being thrown into the five-years-on continuity minefield I’ve talked about, and complained about, before.

While I’d prefer that DC go whole-hog with their reboot and start at the beginning, that’s not to say I disdain the importance of shaking up their old concepts. The whole reason DC is going through with this reboot is to make itself more relevant to today’s audience, especially outside established superhero comic fandom. From virtually the instant Marvel declared independence from the restrictions of a DC-controlled distribution system, and for virtually the entire time since (the major interruption coming at the turn of the millennium when Marvel declared bankruptcy), especially following the rise of the direct market, DC has placed a distant second to Marvel in the comic book sales charts. They just haven’t captured the zeitgeist as well as Marvel for the better part of 40 years.

This might be explained by Marvel’s product being better suited for the existing hardcore comic book fanbase, but Marvel’s movies have done ghostbusters at the box office while DC’s have had mixed success at best, and Marvel first struck a chord with audiences when comic books were a lot more popular among the general public. Marvel revolutionized the superhero in the 60s, presenting heroes that seemed more human and relatable and touching on important themes, and since then DC has had to fight the perception that their stories and heroes are still stuck in the 40s and 50s, that they’re too committed to an unrealistic Platonic ideal of the superhero, that their stories and heroes are too idealistic, too abstract, not human enough.

Now, there is certainly a place for idealism, and it’s certainly possible that DC’s commitment to those ideals has been overstated. I think there is still room for DC’s heroes and the ideals they embody, but I think their presentation needs to be modernized, made more relevant to today’s audiences, to make the message of those ideals all the stronger. Here, then, is my proposal to, for lack of a better word, “Marvel-ize” DC’s properties. I’ll skip Batman, the most Marvel-esque of DC’s properties, and perhaps not coincidentially the most successful and popular, both in comic books and the box office; he doesn’t need any major updates. But I will take a look at DC’s other major properties to find out how to improve their appeal to modern audiences while preserving and strengthening the core of their character, and to what extent DC is achieving these things with the present reboot, starting after the jump (because this will be a long post).

Read moreHow to really revitalize the DC Universe

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.

What DC Comics’ revamp really means

This may be a two-part post, though the second part probably won’t be under the “webcomics” heading. If you’re not familiar with comics history, get a crash course before continuing with Part II of “Webcomics’ Identity Crisis”.

This September, DC will effectively reboot its entire universe (well, not really – more on that in a bit), launching 52 #1 issues to, presumably, replace their existing line of titles with a more “modern” DC Universe. DC previously rebooted its continuity in 1985-6’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, and performed “soft reboots” (performing various retcons without wholesale junking what came before) on roughly 10-year intervals thereafter, in 1994’s Zero Hour and 2005-6’s Infinite Crisis. (The in-story justification for this reboot appears to be the ongoing Flashpoint event.) Perhaps more importantly for the general comics industry, they will also release their comics through digital platforms on the same day they come out in comic book stores.

Back in 2009 in my “Webcomics’ Identity Crisis” series, I predicted that eventually, the old monthly comic format would fade away, as webcomics and graphic novels replaced newspaper comic strips and monthly comic books. Noting that Diamond had recently induced a contraction of the market and that further contraction to exclude almost all companies other than Marvel and DC was looking very possible, I proclaimed that the direct market existed solely for the purposes of DC and Marvel, and suggested that most of the smaller comic creators would abandon the direct market in favor of graphic novels in bookstores and webcomics. That DC itself is reinventing the company and embracing the web as a parallel revenue stream is a sign even they may be bailing, or preparing to bail, on the direct market. Presumably, they figure that even more than themselves, the direct market really exists primarily to serve Marvel and Marvel alone, who has had a substantial lead over DC for virtually the entire time since the 1960s.

Or at least, it would… if they weren’t keeping the existing monthly comic paradigm.

The monthly 22-page comic is a relic of the days when comics were published on newsstands, when they were magazines that happened to have comics in them. As the idealists of the time who started futzing around with the concept of the “graphic novel” keenly realized, it became obsolete with the rise of the direct market in the 1970s; Marvel and DC continued publishing them mostly out of inertia, while smaller publishers that took advantage of the direct market published monthly comics because Marvel and DC did (and because they were cheaper and, for a time, less exotic than graphic novels). The only reason the comic book industry accepts that comics should be published in 22-page chunks every month is that that’s the way it’s always been done. If the direct market perishes, it won’t continue to be the way it’s done – even when bookstores stock monthly comics, it’s always segregated from their other magazines on spinner racks, reducing the point of pretending to be magazines.

By keeping one foot in the direct market, DC is shutting themselves out of the creative benefits of a move to digital distribution, at an opportune time to do so, coinciding with the reinvention of their universe. By committing to the monthly 22-page comic format, DC has shut themselves out of using the infinite canvas, or even adopting the webcomic model. Perhaps DC is understandably wary of their ability to make money out of the web alone, or whether their existing audience would follow them. But what’s even more baffling than that DC would go the digital route but not take advantage of its possibilities, is that they aren’t taking advantage of this reinvention to move towards the other comic distribution mechanism of the future, the graphic novel model.

Comic books have come a long way from the Silver Age when an entire story could be told in one issue, often leaving room for one or two more stories besides; “decompression” has become the norm, with most stories taking 4-8 issues to complete, and with the greater depth that most comics creators have started looking for, 22 pages has started looking increasingly cramped for an entire story with beginning, middle, and end. This has only furthered the obsolescence of the 22-page monthly comic, so DC could go far by removing the 22-page constraint from their writers and allow them to go as hog-wild as they wish on self-contained stories released less frequently (perhaps two or three times a year) in graphic novel form. (Xaviar Xerexes wonders at the end of this post whether DC is missing an opportunity by not making these comics for kids again, which at least would justify the length as well as the inherent silliness of the whole concept of superheroes. DC’s more “fantastic” heroes haven’t meshed well with the serious stories told with them.)

That DC isn’t doing any of this makes me wonder what the point of this revamp is – it’s worth noting that in 2009, DC Comics was restructured into DC Entertainment to strengthen the connection between comics and other media, making me wonder if the ultimate impetus for this move is to create new properties for media exploitation and reinvent existing properties to be more exploitable. It’s even more baffling that they would keep a foot in the direct market when no one is going to walk into a comic book store unless they’re already a fan of superhero comic books, and even distributing over digital channels isn’t going to be anywhere near as effective at drawing in new “readers” as said exploitation in other media, as Marvel is doing with its line of movies, which are slowly building towards an eventual Avengers movie. Yet by completely relaunching its existing universe, DC risks alienating their existing direct market audience and throwing out one of their biggest assets – as exemplified in the likely end of four or five titles that can claim their legacy and numbering back to the Golden Age.

While continuity can be a barrier to entry to a story, it can also be a tremendous asset, and DC has leveraged its continuity like no other, creating a sense of legacy around their characters. Several characters that were teenagers in the Silver Age have grown into their own identities as adult heroes, with Wally West, the former Kid Flash, even taking his mentor’s mantle as the Flash when his mentor died during Crisis on Infinite Earths. The most famous of these might be Dick Grayson, the former Robin, taking the identity of Nightwing (immortalized on screen during the later run of the 90s Batman animated series) and, since his own mentor’s death a couple years ago, himself taking the mantle of Batman.

However, DC’s approach to continuity and the passage of time has been rather half-assed (how long has present Robin Tim Drake been in high school again? With all these former teenage sidekicks taking adult identities as early as the 80s, shouldn’t the “original generation” of heroes be in their 40s by now?) – they have an interest in keeping the “iconic” versions of their characters, and although the monthly pace of comic books allows much less time to take place than the actual time between issues, the passage of time can’t be held off indefinitely, and for various reasons DC has frittered away a lot of that time.

The reasons for such conservativism are arguably outweighed by the story possibilities it holds back – of the only three characters for whom it really matters all that much (of their next three iconic franchises, two have had at least three different people hold each of their mantles), two, Superman and Wonder Woman, have been portrayed as effectively immortal (although admittedly Lois Lane is another matter), and Batman has, as mentioned, already been killed off and replaced (a move, note, that has been largely critically acclaimed by superhero comic fans, many of them clamoring for Bruce to never come back, despite the seeming inevitability of returns from the dead in comics). But if DC is understandably committed to the iconic versions of their characters, it seems a reasonable compromise is to start a brand-new universe aimed at new readers alongside the existing DC universe, which is then allowed to grow and change dynamically.

Marvel went in this direction with the 2000 launch of the so-called “Ultimate” universe – while wildly successful, there’s evidence a lot of its fans came from existing comics fandom, and the Ultimate universe quickly became as continuity-choked as the mainstream Marvel universe. Still, what’s to stop DC from launching their own “Digital” universe? In fact, DC’s four Golden Age-dated titles are split two apiece between Superman and Batman, and since the end of multiple stories in a single issue DC has tried valiantly to justify the existence of two separate titles. What’s to stop them from putting the “new” Superman in Superman and the existing Superman in Action Comics, or the “new” Batman in Detective Comics and the existing Batman in Batman, and splitting the rest of their line between their universes?

DC has attempted to clarify that this is “not a reboot“, implying that this new status quo will be overlaid on top of the existing DC universe, but they’ve also released material suggesting even the most iconic characters will be revised, made younger, and given new costumes, leading me to ask: why half-ass it? If you’re going to go this far to sweep aside the shackles of continuity, why not cut them off entirely? I personally will watch at least the start of this new initiative with interest, to see what new twists DC puts on their old characters as well as to watch this revolution unfold, and I intend to devote a future post to my own ideas for reinventing DC’s stable, but the way DC is going about all of this, I can’t help but think it’ll bite them in the ass.

Blog of Webcomics’ Identity Crisis: The End of the Second Comic Book Distribution System?

Once upon a time, you went to the newsstand to pick up the newspaper, some highbrow and lowbrow magazines, and the favorite comic books. That was the first comic book distribution system. It was marked by a wide variety of genres and publishers until about the 1960s.

Then comic book stores and the direct market sprung up. That was the second system, and it was marked by the dominance of superheroes, DC and Marvel superheroes especially.

Now DC and Marvel are making considerable gobs of money outside comic books while Diamond’s anti-small-publisher practices portend a potential mass move to the Internet and comics are starting to bang on the door of bookstores.

So if DC and Marvel eventually decide to scale back and rethink the way they do comic books, Sean Kleefeld thinks that will be the death of Diamond.

I’m not sure what will replace it or if anything other than webcomics replaces it, or what the third system will look like, either in terms of the distribution mechanism, the selection of genres, or the diversity of publishers. But it’ll be very different from the second system.

(The model of the monthly comic is really rooted in the first system. If DC and Marvel decide to move to mostly a graphic novel format, or move entirely to the web, I think you’ll see those “pamphlets” become basically unheard of.)