It’s a new year… but why are we still reading comics featuring the same old superheroes?
Welcome to the perihelion, fellow travelers on the Great Spaceship Earth! The year is new, but I’m not quite ready to let go of a topic and theme that we began addressing in this space towards the close of 2012, namely the creative tension felt by veteran comics creators as they ply their trade in a mainstream superhero comics industry that tolerates change and innovation only to a limited degree. Garth Ennis, never really associated with the capes and long johns set to begin with, responded to this by skewering superhero culture—the characters, the business of it, the creators, the publishers, and the fans—in The Boys. Joe Casey, who has spent the better part of the last ten years or so trying to update the language of superhero comics with varying degrees of success at Marvel, DC, and Image, admitted that even though he is “bored as fuck” with superhero comics, he is still hell-bent on making the genre exciting and vital for him again.
Ennis and Casey aren’t the first high-profile comics creators to publicly lament about the creative restrictions of mainstream superhero comics or the exhausting cycle of hype that accompanies whatever transitory change or gimmick is in vogue at a publisher. Writer Peter David posted in his blog a week before his recent stroke an article (“The Illusion of Change“) he wrote almost 15 years ago in an issue of Comics Buyer’s Guide addressing many of the same issues Ennis and Casey confronted in their recent works:
There is, of course, something to be said for maintaining the illusion [of change]. Why commit oneself to genuine change when by simply pretending to change things, one doesn’t have to risk finding oneself stuck with a character who has lost those elements that made him appealing in the first place…
… All too often, the work of producing superhero titles harkens back to Paddy Chayesfsky’s newsman in Network proclaiming, “We are in the boredom-killing business.” Batman’s back breaks, but we know he’ll be back. Superman dies, or becomes an energy being, but we know that—sooner or later—he’ll be back the way he’s always been. Fans perceive the changes simply as an array of gimmicks concocted to maintain interest in characters who have as much growth potential as Garfield…
… The problem is that on the one hand fans want real change, want a sense that something has long-term meaning; on the other hand, as creators we’re boxed in. Things intended as changes in the status quo are seen only as the latest in an endless succession of unconvincing and temporary morphs, unless they’re dramatic enough that they can’t possibly be undone… at which point the fans go nuts and demand not only the reinstitution of the status quo, but the heads of everyone who had anything to do with the change in the first place.
We’ve seen all these illusory changes before and we’ll see them all again sooner or later, is what David is getting at. His original article references the Spider-Clone Saga and the Death and Return of Superman, but many of his points could also be made about more contemporary “events” such as Spider-Man: One More Day and DC’s continuing and seemingly never-ending reboot of their superhero universe. While it’s easy to point the finger at backward-looking readers unwilling to give genuine change a chance, the pressure to maintain the tried-and-true status quo—deviating from it only superficially and briefly with illusory changes—comes from all sides, internally and externally: readers who demand change but not too much change, writers, artists, and editors who’ve spent years laboring in the trenches in order to be in the place to finally play with “the big boy toys” only to use their hard-earned position to recreate or subjectively improve upon the beloved stories and character designs from their own youth; the corporate brain-trust which prizes product consistency and brand stability in IPs whose market value these days primarily stems from licensing and film production; and of course, that old reliable bugbear of institutional inertia.
But is long-term and meaningful change even possible in indefinitely on-going serial fiction featuring commodified characters? Could it really be that Marvel and DC’s superheroes are no different from Jim Davis’ Garfield in terms of the potential for genuine character growth and in their being wedded to ultimately static story and design premises? Should we even seriously consider looking to Marvel and DC’s most popular on-going superhero comics offerings for characters that actually grow and change organically and sensibly over time in the first place, knowing how important the task of keeping characterizations and designs constant and standard is to the businesses of licensing and superhero film franchise development?
These concerns are hardly unique to superhero comics, of course. Allowed to go on long enough, even the most popular television shows, musical acts, video game franchises, novel series, and other long-running and/or serial forms of popular fiction and entertainment eventually hit the point of diminishing returns for both the artists and creators involved and their intended audience. What does seem distinct about the superhero comics situation is DC and Marvel’s recent reticence in creating and promoting new properties. It is almost assured that today’s comics creators have learned from the errors made by their work-for-hire predecessors who were and continue to be short-changed by virtue of contractual technicalities of their share of the millions of dollars their most popular creations continue to rake in for Warner Bros. and Disney, and the current generation of writers and artists now actively seek to keep their best and most unique ideas for characters and stories for themselves. Such reasoning helps to explain why DC and Marvel seem to be playing a game of musical chairs with their established characters with their respective New 52 and Marvel NOW! initiatives, taking entrenched standbys and placing them in unexpected settings or unusual team-up combinations in a flailing bid to create the illusion of a new dynamic from old parts. By contrast, many notable comics professionals like Mark Waid, Ed Brubaker, Joe Casey, Warren Ellis, Brian Wood, Jonathan Hickman, Greg Rucka, Brian K. Vaughan, Garth Ennis, and others seem to be putting out all of their genuinely new comics creations in some form of self-published medium, with or without the assistance of a creator-friendly outfit like Image Comics, Dynamite Entertainment, Dark Horse, Oni Press, or Avatar Press. It is also telling of the relative paucity of invention in today’s mainstream superhero comics that, of the American comics properties created in the last quarter-century or so, those that have had the biggest crossover success are creator-owned projects like Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, Frank Miller’s Sin City and 300, and Mike Mignola’s Hellboy while DC’s and Marvel’s multimedia fortunes hinge on the success of film adaptations of characters originally designed five, six, seven, or even eight decades ago for an audience of primary school-aged readers.
The argument can certainly be made that it is the adult reader who refuses to learn from comics publishing’s recent history and keeps on being disappointed by superhero comics’ repetitive nature—despite a fixed, easily discernible pattern that has been in place for years now—who is making things unduly difficult for him or herself. Maybe those asking for something different from on-going mainstream superhero comics are asking for things the current combination of genre, format, and industry simply can’t provide: It is the customer who walks into a McDonald’s looking for homemade meatloaf and scalloped potatoes who is in error, not the cook doing an earnest job thawing frozen beef patties and dunking fries in hot oil. And with that analogy I don’t mean to suggest that there’s anything inherently wrong with publishers offering the sequential art equivalent of preprocessed, precooked fast food. They are simply meeting market demand, after all, and there is certainly a place in everybody’s diet for the occasional treat full of familiar flavors and empty calories. The problem might just be that our expanding tastes and expectations as experienced and older comics readers, informed by the last sixty years of sequential art and other media, can no longer be fully satisfied by a superhero comics industry whose creative tangents are restricted to a circular course dictated by modern, industrial-scale commerce in entertainment.