Comics Ate My Brain

February 15, 2010

Biographies and origins

Filed under: batman, dissertations, star trek, superman — Tags: , , , — Tom Bondurant @ 8:23 pm

Whenever the Best Wife Ever watches something adapted from a comic book or reworked for the kids today, inevitably she will ask me “is that how it really happened?”

Accordingly, I was watching the Midwest’s most gifted repeat offender get the snot beaten out of him yes, another viewing of Star Trek ’09 — and thinking, no, that’s not how it happened.  It is now, of course; but it wasn’t then; and that is not an insignificant distinction.

See, then it wasn’t necessary to come at James T. Kirk from Year One, let alone Day One.  Back on September 8, 1966, it was enough to see Kirk fully formed as Captain of the Enterprise.  For that matter, it was enough to introduce “the Bat-Man” as a mysterious urban vigilante; with the shocking! twist at the end of “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” being that he was really bored playboy Bruce Wayne.  Batman’s origin was told a few issues later, in a two-page vignette which had nothing to do with the main story’s Dirigible of Doom.


December 14, 2008

Attempting a "cold dissection" of Final Crisis’ woes

Filed under: crisis, dissertations — Tom Bondurant @ 9:52 pm
Tom Spurgeon observes that discussions about Final Crisis‘ failure to perform have descended into

angry jeremiads about the utter stupidity and ineptness of the current DC brain trust vs. self-styled realists lecturing in acidic tones to why none of this matters in the long run unless you’re a big nerd that cares about stupid things. What’s missing is a cold dissection as to the why and how of this happening.

Someday, possibly decades in the future, someone is going to ask Dan DiDio, Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, and the rest of the DC brain-trust about what was really going on in the years 2004-2009. Until then, I will have to make do with my own perspective.

To me, Final Crisis’ problems began with the success of 52 and the failure of “One Year Later.” Together, they were presented as a victory lap for Infinite Crisis, which advertised them via that trusty old device of the two-page characters-rushing-towards-the-reader spread. However, after 52‘s relatively good reception, I think DC’s high sheriffs figured that the marketplace was still more friendly to an event than to the regular books’ attempts to reconnect.

Furthermore, DC probably knew at the time that it had two big Grant Morrison projects in the pipeline, namely Final Crisis and “Batman R.I.P.” The seeds of each had already been planted in “Seven Soldiers,” Batman, and 52. However, I don’t think that DC had any blockbuster events planned between the end of 52 in May 2007 and the beginning of Final Crisis in May ’08; and in light of 52‘s success, I think DC wanted to gin up something to keep the momentum going. FC and “R.I.P.” might still have been big sellers on their own, but why take that chance? Give the public more 52 … or, more accurately, give it a “better” 52: a weekly series that helped out the regular titles and built momentum for FC.

Thus, DC created Countdown, apparently without a lot of help from Morrison. (Remember all the plans for the last issue of Countdown? Morrison was going to write it, and then it was Morrison and Geoff Johns, and then it wasn’t the last issue of Countdown but a standalone issue which led into FC.) Whether Morrison’s involvement would have helped is probably moot by now, though. Countdown sold in decent numbers, despite receiving regular critical and fan drubbings.

And I think that dichotomy helps explain Final Crisis’ big problem: it is an esoteric, creator-driven project which must fit into the every-Wednesday model of big-event series. I have nothing to back up either of the following assertions, but I suspect that for a good bit of the people who followed Countdown, FC doesn’t mesh with orthodox continuity strongly enough; or otherwise doesn’t feel enough like a big-event crossover. (Conversely, for many non-regular DC readers, FC may feel too heavily connected to Dan DiDio’s “culture of continuity.”) FC’s shipping schedule, and lack of connection to the regular titles, has also made it easy for every-Wednesday readers like me to forget it’s there. At this point FC might even feel perfunctory.

Final Crisis might also have arrived “too late” in another way. In the wake of Countdown and “Sinestro Corps,” DC has settled on an array of mini-events emulating the latter, each focused on a different high-profile character. Indeed, six of the seven DC franchises I consider “foundational” — the Big Three, plus the Flash, Green Lantern, and the Legion — are either in the middle of an event or preparing for one; and Geoff Johns is involved in four of the six. (Justice League has just started relaunching the Milestone characters, but I don’t think that’s the same thing.) More importantly, though, none of these events ties directly into Final Crisis. That may be good in terms of continuity tangles, but it doesn’t help remind readers that FC is still out there, waiting to be resolved.

I say all of this not sure myself of my feelings about Final Crisis’ merits. Each issue so far has left me with a feeling of creeping dread, which is probably the minimal, baseline reaction for which Morrison et al. were hoping. However, using a collection of moments to illustrate the end of the world, instead of a more traditional approach, takes some getting used to. I loved Morrison’s JLA, and I still think his DC One Million (which admittedly, at its core, was an extension of JLA) is a model for line-wide crossovers. FC’s storytelling style is a couple of steps removed from both of those, and again that might explain a reader’s ambivalence towards it. I don’t dislike FC, but neither is it as thrilling as certain other Morrison works.

(It is sorely tempting to speculate that Final Crisis might be doing better if Geoff Johns were at the helm. Johns is involved more directly with the regular titles, and is in a better position to do “subliminal advertising” in the pages of Green Lantern or Action. We’ll see, I suppose, next summer with Blackest Night, which will have been hawked for some two years with little promoting it except the two Green Lantern titles and endless, almost self-parodic mentions on convention panels.)

To sum up, then, I don’t think DC had much choice but to hype FC. It was the next big event after 52, but its ostensible lead-in may well have created an environment (at least among DC fans) more suited to smaller-scale “nothing will be the same” storylines.

November 17, 2008

Thoughts on Star Trek ’09 (Trailer Edition)

Filed under: dissertations, star trek — Tom Bondurant @ 10:49 pm

After spending an unhealthy amount of time following our thrilling Presidential election, I had been wondering whether I’d find a new obsession…

… but then the new Star Trek trailer appeared. I am (in a word) stoked, and can’t wait the (barely!) six months which tick away just to your right.

Of course, other fans — who appear to be a small but insistent faction — are not so sanguine. For them the trailer, like the pictures which have been trickling out over the past several weeks, confirms their collective fear. The long-dreaded reboot (gasp!) of Star Trek must necessarily explode four decades of canon (or “cannon,” if you’re not particular). To this point the history of the Trekverse had been assembled out of plot points and throwaway references into a workable structure, albeit rickety and creaking in parts, upon which had nevertheless been hung hundreds of hours’ worth of stories and characters. Without canon, Star Trek is merely a collection of stories. With it, though, Trek is a vast centuries-spanning galactic tapestry. I understand why it’s maintained so intricately, and I’ve enjoyed the interconnections (intentional and otherwise) myself.

Star Trek ‘09 aims to reveal finally a new wing of the structure — the “origins” of the famous Five-Year Mission — while looking back into Kirk’s and Spock’s childhoods. With so much background material available, the participants in this story seem obvious: all those trivial (in the strictest sense) names and events relevant to this period which had already been mentioned on-screen. The story itself seems like a mere matter of connecting the dots, from “The Cage” to “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Thus, the subplots would be Pike to Kirk, Number One to Spock, Boyce to Piper to McCoy, etc. For good measure, throw in all the people from Kirk’s Academy days and early career: Mallory, Finnegan, Ruth, Carol Marcus, Captain Garrovick, Ben Finney. Perhaps most importantly, there’s Gary Mitchell, Kirk’s best friend, who may even have been his first officer when he died as part of “WNMHGB’s” climax. A “Year Zero” story would need to address the doomed Kirk/Mitchell friendship … wouldn’t it?

In a word, no. Star Trek ‘09 appears to answer those kinds of issues in the resounding negative — or perhaps worse, with resounding indifference. Pike is in it (the trailer casts him as a father-figure to Kirk), but the other “Cagers” are nowhere to be found. Neither is Mitchell or Number One. Furthermore, the sets are pristine, the Bridge is spacious, and the bulkheads are concave. It all looks familiar, but obviously it’s been changed — and for some, those changes are dealbreakers.

Now, I can speak only as a second-generation fan who grew up on the movies and ‘70s syndication, but the original Star Trek may be the last major bit of pop culture associated indelibly with unsocialized geeks. Not surprisingly, many fans have turned this perceived stigma on its head, charging that any attempt to update or “make cool” the Original Series is actually “dumbing it down.” Thus, like any other so-called cult phenomenon, Star Trek is too good for the unwashed, who must prove themselves worthy of it, and not it of them. Having spent most of my life trudging up such steep learning curves, I have some sympathy for this perspective. It’s only natural that, with our efforts rewarded, we want others to be rewarded similarly only after similar efforts.

However, when think about re-registering at the TrekBBS … well, it’s literally asking for trouble, isn’t it? The memories of debates gone by, and the spectacle of today’s polarized fanbase, are huge obstacles. Writing about comic books is much easier by comparison. For example, the Legion of Super-Heroes boasts a vocal fanbase doggedly supportive of, say, the Adventure Comics days and/or Levitz/Giffen, but to my knowledge they don’t go around making dark pronouncements like The Legion died in 1989.

No, these bitter, angry Trek fans are people who feel betrayed, and again I am sympathetic — but I have to ask, by what have they been betrayed? By the foreseeable effects of advances in time, age, and technology? By the business aspects of movie production, which necessarily demand stories with wide appeal? By the thought — and here I freely admit I’m speculating — that accepting a new version of Star Trek somehow betrays one’s fidelity to the original?

Look, I know what it’s like. Because there are fewer and fewer old-school fans out there, you think that if you don’t stand up for the good old days, pretty soon no one will. Although you came in late, you were converted just the same; and therefore others can be converted similarly. There’s nothing wrong with the basic ideas, just their execution. Above all, you don’t want the thing you love to sell out, because you don’t want it to lose that unquantifiable spark that makes it special.

Nevertheless, I am now officially stoked about ST09 because I can see Pine and Quinto as Kirk and Spock, even in the fewer-than-two-minutes they’re on the screen. The differences in the Enterprise, the bridge, etc., aren’t big enough to be distracting.

Besides, when you get down to it, Star Trek is about the boldly going. So what if the Enterprise doesn’t line up exactly with the original? It is still recognizable as the Enterprise NCC-1701, and these folks are recognizable as her crew. I’ve said before that the key to making Star Trek viable for new generations lies not so much in creating yet another new crew, which will be compared inevitably to the five previous — but in finding ways to re-acquaint the general public with the original. As much as I enjoyed having eighteen years’ (!) worth of TV sequels and spinoffs, at their core those shows could only riff on the original. For Star Trek to start over it had to do something like this …

… and for something like this to work, it can’t be hamstrung with minutiae. The Star Wars prequels had to hew to a certain structure, because they were parts of a single large story. Conversely, Star Trek takes an almost entirely opposite approach. It’s set up to tell individual stories, not one big one. ST09 may be concerned with the two biggest individuals in all of the series, but it’s not the final piece of any narrative puzzle.

Indeed, the earlier movies helped frame the exploits of Kirk and Spock in recognizable character arcs. The Motion Picture showed Spock reconciling the inner conflicts between logic and emotion; and The Wrath of Khan featured Kirk’s midlife crisis. Naturally, both movies built on the original series, but had less to do with character moments in individual episodes (“Space Seed” notwithstanding, of course) than a general sense of who the characters were. By that I mean that I can recall nothing in either movie which is a specific callback to, say, “The Naked Time,” but obviously Spock’s struggles in “Naked” (and “This Side Of Paradise,” “Amok Time,” “All Our Yesterdays,” etc.) inform his growth in TMP.

It bears repeating too that the Kirk and Spock of ST09 are not quite the characters who appear in those episodes, or for that matter in “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Instead, by coming to know each other they are in the process of becoming those characters. While it might be informative to see how Gary Mitchell or Number One affected that process, it’s not necessary, and in fact those characters might be more of a distraction to the casual moviegoer than a redesigned Bridge will be to a hardcore fan.

So, with all due respect to my fellow Trekkies and Trekkers, I say engage! to this version of Star Trek. As a certain velvet-voiced officer once said, “any chance to go aboard the Enterprise…!”

[P.S. I know that the trailer shows a familiar-looking starship being constructed out in an open field — but are we sure that this ship is the Enterprise, and not one of her sisters?]

July 25, 2008

To Ramble Boldly Where Others Have Rambled Before

Filed under: dissertations, star trek — Tom Bondurant @ 1:24 am
Everybody’s talkin’ Next Generation — hey, me too!

It took me about six months, but I watched every episode of TNG, DS9, and “Voyager,” plus the four TNG movies, in a rough Stardate order. (I had to use a spreadsheet.)

Now I’m on “Enterprise,” heading into the home stretch after polishing off the season-long Xindi storyline … but there’ll be time for that later. Back to the 24C shows.

I feel pretty confident in saying that TNG’s greatest asset was Patrick Stewart. Stewart sold even the goofy early-season episodes with a great combination of calm and charm, taking that stuff seriously, although not to the point of camp. Plus, he had that British accent which, with us Yankees, counts for a lot. Stewart made Picard cool, so Picard helped make TNG cool.

TNG also benefited from Paramount’s seven-year commitment. Despite how you count the Original Series episodes, TNG had almost one hundred more. Clearly this provided room for all those character spotlights and political arcs. Yes, traveling from one mission to another no doubt leaves a lot of down time — perfect for rehearsing that play or practicing that instrument — but sometimes it felt like Picard’s crew spent as much time with their hobbies as they did with the lateral sensor array.

Allow me to digress for a moment. As it happens, here’s plok/pillock, commenting on his own post:

[…] clearly the main problem that faces the crew of the Enterprise-D is that they’ve got entirely too much free time on their hands. Christ, don’t these people have jobs? Everybody plays the violin, and everybody reads Shakespeare, and an awful lot of the military personnel of the future seem to be heavy into sculpting…and all the chicks wear high heels, and there! I’ve just summarized their culture pretty decently, I think. BOOOOOO-RING!

Of course, Riker’s trombone and Crusher’s dancing were meant to round out the characters precisely by getting them away from gadgets and technobabble. Still, when the Season 6 opener featured the crew hiding out in old San Francisco as a wobegone troupe of frustrated actors …well, I suspect you either thought that was an hilarious extrapolation of all those shipboard plays, or you wondered how much time there was on the Enterprise to kill.

And yet, the one character on TNG who I wouldn’t have expected to be exported so well was O’Brien. Sure, there was his star turn with his old captain in “The Wounded,” and his and Keiko’s wedding in “Data’s Day,” and he was showing up pretty reliably by the time he left. However, watching all those TNG DVDs, I was on the lookout for signs of DS9’s O’Brien, and I didn’t see too many.

It’s funny, and a little cruel, to realize that O’Brien — the guy TNG fans could look to on DS9, at least until Season 4, for a familiar Enterprise face — becomes DS9’s designated punching bag. He’s thrown into two different Jails Of No Return. He has to face the possibility of a suddenly-grown, feral daughter. His wife is possessed by a Pagh-Wraith. He’s briefly, but intensely, attracted to Kira while she’s carrying his child. He’s even replaced with a time-displaced duplicate about halfway through the series. Naturally, DS9 respected O’Brien’s TNG hobbies (kayaking, the cello), but pairing him with Bashir both expanded his horizons and gave his free time some structure.

Maybe that’s part of my frustration with the TNG cast’s free time — those hobbies are all so random. Picard loved literature, archaeology, and the theater, but had a wild streak finally curbed by that Nausicaan. Riker loved jazz and cooking, Crusher the performing arts, and Troi chocolate. Even O’Brien’s TNG hobbies seem to have come off some wheel of fortune.

What annoys me about the hobbies is that they distract from the more interesting parts of the show. Remember when the crew’s memory gets wiped by the new First Officer, and Riker and Ro theorize that maybe they were really lovahs? That never went anywhere. (Heck, nothing with Ro ever went much of anywhere.) Instead, we got Worf/Troi … which also went nowhere, except to show (in “All Good Things”) how much Riker still lurved her. Furthermore, would it have killed TNG to explain Geordi’s transition from navigator to engineer a little better? What about an episode where Wesley hijacks the holodeck for his own onanistic purposes? Yes, that’s what Barclay was doing, but who’s to say a desperate Wesley, petrified of his secrets being laid bare before a crew of a thousand, might not just blame the malfunctions on poor ol’ Reg?

(Speaking of whom, note how easily Barclay transfers to late-period “Voyager,” which also constructed episodes out of the crew’s leisure-time pursuits. Now, obviously the Voyager crew has more justifiable reasons for their hobbies, but still.)

I realize I’m not addressing either Tim’s central point (TNG was trapped by its fidelity to the sensibilities which millions of Trekkies held dear) or plok’s (TNG ignores its own implications about the universe in favor of a bland status quo). Well, from what I understand, TNG’s relentless devotion to camaraderie came from Gene Roddenberry’s directive that there is no conflict in Starfleet. (This, of course, led pretty directly to the built-in three-way crew conflicts of “Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager.”)

However, another Roddenberry directive, going back to the original “Star Trek,” was that Kirk et al. needed to be recognizable as 20th-Century humans. David Gerrold’s The World Of Star Trek quotes Roddenberry’s Star Trek Guide:

[T]he only Westerns which failed miserably [at the time] were those which authentically portrayed the men, values, and morals of 1870. The audience applauds John Wayne playing what is essentially a 1966 man. It laughed when Gregory Peck, not a bad actor in his own right, came in wearing an authentic moustache of the period [emphasis in original].

Gerrold then goes on to say, “What Star Trek is, is a set of fables — morality plays, entertainments, and diversions about contemporary man, but set against a science fiction background. The background is subordinate to the fable [emphasis in original].”

Now, to me that sounds more like “Galactica 2.0” than any of the 24C Trek shows. Just about every installment of the current “Battlestar Galactica” fits into the macro-plot. It has never engaged in the kind of navel-gazing, look-how-this-works episodes which were staples of Ron Moore’s previous employment, because by and large the show uses familiar, even retro gadgets. Sure, there are FTL spaceships and the corners have been cut off the paper, but one of the early Caprica episodes had Starbuck driving a Hummer, f’r goshsakes. There are no salt shakers standing in for laser-scalpels — the scalpels look like scalpels, and the salt shakers like salt shakers. The tech is not the point — “the background is subordinate.”

Of course, that could also have been the mantra of much of “Voyager,” with its self-repairing corridors and spontaneously-reproducing shuttlecraft. Ironically, I think of “Galactica 2.0” as “Voyager” crossed with late-period “Deep Space Nine” — all politics, intrigue, and survival, with a dollop of religious commentary. However, “Voyager’s” weekly renewals were in the service of its secondary message; namely Janeway’s desire to preserve Federation ideals and protocols thousands of light-years from home. “Galactica,” like DS9 before it, ponders what kinds of catastrophes must necessarily alter a society’s most cherished beliefs. “Voyager” responds overwhelmingly in the negative: the Federation is what we know, and true to the Federation we will remain, right down to steam-cleaning the carpets and replacing the lightbulbs after each week’s space battle.

And yet, “Voyager” is known for that episode where Tom Paris evolves into the lizard (making lizard-babies with Lizard-Janeway), plus a good bit of altered timelines and holodeck emergencies. Remember the 29th-Century Captain Braxton, stuck for 30 years as a homeless person in 20th-Century Los Angeles, cursing Janeway’s name the entire time? “Gritty Voyager” gets explored via “Year of Hell’s” alternate timeline, and in a roundabout way through the beleaguered crew of the Equinox [not Phoenix — must proofread more!]. The alt-crew even gets mashed up with the holodeck in “The Killing Game,” when they’re brainwashed into thinking they’re fighting Nazis in WWII France. Seven threatens to re-Borgify, the Doctor becomes an entertainer on two different planets, Janeway fancies herself da Vinci’s assistant. For a while the whole ship is even duplicated, and the duplicates have their own set of adventures before dying anonymous, ignominious deaths. Trek lore holds that Kirk’s Enterprise was the only Constitution-class starship (out of twelve!) to return from its five-year mission relatively intact — well, Voyager spit itself out of that Borg transwarp conduit better than new. No wonder Janeway (again, like Kirk) was made an Admiral….

And that brings us back to “Deep Space Nine,” a show that at times seemed all about the background. Not quite in the techno-philic way that TNG or “Voyager” were, but in the sense that a working knowledge of about a dozen characters’ backgrounds was really necessary to appreciating all the subtleties. There were no subtleties on the other two shows; at least not like on “Deep Space Nine.” Its characters, and I suppose its Starfleet characters particularly, were transformed from TNG’s brand of idealized-human into more recognizable people.

This was the exact opposite of “Voyager’s” secondary mission statement, which had Janeway and Chakotay reorienting their Maquis crew to regular Starfleet practices. Instead, DS9 found not just O’Brien, but Sisko, Bashir, the Daxes, and even Eddington, changed by their time on the station. The non-Starfleet characters (Kira, Jake, Odo, Quark) grow and change too, but their fundamental orientation to society isn’t challenged in the same way. (Well, okay, Odo’s is; but he’s a special case, needing first to find said orientation.)

See, if Starfleet represents the baseline code of ethics for the fictional Trek universe, it follows that challenging that code takes a lot. Even when Kirk or Picard runs up against Starfleet, it’s in the service of remaining true to the code itself, as opposed to the people trying to enforce an alternate interpretation. It didn’t take too long, though, for “Deep Space Nine” to have its characters explore those alternate interpretations themselves.

Both TNG and DS9 were self-referential. However, TNG concerned itself with refining the traditional Trek ethos whereas DS9 allowed itself to test the ethos’ limits. To appreciate those tests, though, required that aforementioned working knowledge of Trek.

Also, “Deep Space Nine” made much better use of its holodecks than did either TNG or “Voyager” (a baseball diamond! a Vegas nightclub!) … but I’m getting tired and this has gone on too long. I welcome your comments, because I hope it’ll help me focus my thoughts more.

November 17, 2007

Crisis On Definitive Earth

Filed under: dissertations — Tom Bondurant @ 4:15 am
Dick Hyacinth‘s list of complaints made by superhero fans includes this observation:

It seems to me that the most vocal online fans are the ones who feel the greatest attachment to specific characters. So you get a lot of complaints that Intellectual Property X is written out of character, or that Storyline Z violates some musty story from the complainant’s youth. In its more extreme forms, criticism informed by such notions of ownership seems like nothing more than cross checks against the fan’s preconceptions of how the character(s) “work.” If the comic meets these expectations, it’s good. If not, it’s bad.

In general, I don’t disagree. I also agree that we commentators should want to reward “good comics” as a rule, without regard to their place in a larger corporate-owned “canon.” However, I don’t know that it’s possible to discuss corporate superhero characters without taking into account “how they ‘work.'”

Dick mentions the Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four and the Lee/Ditko Amazing Spider-Man as the pinnacles of creative achievement from Marvel, and also better than anything DC has ever published. For me to debate that would be beside the point. However, each book continued past the departure of its original artist, and each enjoyed some measure of success without that person. Considering the “Marvel Style” which Stan Lee and his collaborators pioneered, and the persistent debates over “who did what,” I think it’s safe to say that neither book was the same. Still, Lee, the other “parent” involved, kept writing both books, keeping them from being farmed out entirely to new people.

What does that mean for our evaluations of the Lee/Romita Spider-Man and/or the Lee/Buscema FF? Are they exploitative, even in part, because Romita isn’t Ditko and Buscema isn’t Kirby? Is Lee’s position in Marvel’s management structure a factor in our analysis? Where did Stan’s loyalties lie — to the work, created in collaboration with Kirby and Ditko; or to his corporate responsibilities? I don’t know the answers to all of those questions. We might come down on the side of the work, in order to keep it in its purest form. However, since Lee was still involved, isn’t there at least some sense that he wants to do right by the characters?

Before we go on, I’ll acknowledge that these various problems can all be avoided simply by leaving the work solely in the hands of its creator(s), and no one else. Thus, Fantastic Four would have ended when Kirby left, and Spider-Man when Ditko left, etc. However, that’s not the situation which faces us today. It seems to me that if we enjoy Intellectual Property X, we should want to honor the creator(s) who brought IPX to us in the first place. That may well entail judging the current work against the original work.

I’ve written previously (based in part on plok’s exhaustive series) about the transformation of a creative endeavor into a corporate property. As I see it, the original creators by definition lay the ground rules for “how the characters work.” Taking that point to its extreme, Lee and Kirby, working together, could never have written the FF “out of character,” and the same goes for the Lee/Ditko Spider-Man. (Note, though, that this wouldn’t have stopped them from producing low-quality comics, or from producing comics of a significantly different tone, tenor, whatever. Let’s keep this simple, though.) By the same token, after one collaborator left, an “out of character moment” would be possible. Indeed, the main function of the new collaborator(s) would arguably be to ensure that the characters never have any such anomalous moments.

That tends to devalue the contribution of a John Romita or a John Buscema, and if we are interested in maximizing creative expression we don’t want to do that. Thus, at some point, Spider-Man must stop being a “Ditko” character in order to become, at least in part, a “Romita” character. Repeating this process long enough, and with sufficient numbers of people, and Spider-Man does take on a life of his own. Nevertheless, every Spider-Man story may in theory still be measured against the original Lee/Ditko run, because those issues comprise the “definitive” work. Later works may be just as influential — Simonson’s Thor, Miller’s Daredevil — but the later people are still doing riffs on someone else’s creation.

It’s a little more complicated at DC, because DC started exploiting its characters earlier and across multiple media platforms. The Superman radio show added a number of elements to the character, and the Batman serials likewise affected the comics. The current Superman and Wonder Woman books seem especially far removed from their Golden Age adventures. The scope of Superman’s adventures has been expanded geometrically from where they were in the late ’30s, and I’m pretty sure no mainstream Wonder Woman comic wants to get close to the sexual politics in those ’40s stories.

More to the point, though, DC’s characters have been so franchised-out that the original works no longer seem as relevant. Batman is the exception which comes most quickly to mind, but although the dominant Batman paradigm has been in place since 1969, it followed at least two decades’ worth of stories which are today considered far “out of character.”

Accordingly, you can’t look to Siegel & Shuster for Superman guidance the way you can look to Lee & Kirby. Instead, depending on who you ask, the “definitive” Superman is Christopher Reeve, or Alan Moore’s Supreme, or Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely’s All-Star. In other words, it’s the Superman which most closely approximates an ideal aggregation of qualities. Because, by and large, DC can’t point to a series of canonical works like Marvel can, it has to traffic more in these Platonic ideals, and there’s where it gets into trouble.

If we look to the work of the original creator(s) for inspiration, guidance, and/or a qualitative baseline with regard to a particular character, with DC we arguably have to look to multiple sources. Siegel and Shuster laid the foundation for Superman, but at some point the character stopped being theirs, just like Spider-Man stopped being a Ditko character. This is not to say I don’t get a particular primal charge out of the original Siegel and Shuster stories, and it’s not hard to connect one of those stories with, say, an Elliott Maggin/Curt Swan issue, but that connection covers a lot of distance. Christopher Reeve was performing Elliott Maggin’s version of Clark Kent. Grant Morrison is riffing on the Weisinger era. All of Superman starts with Siegel and Shuster, but not everything goes back to them immediately.

So whose creative vision is being honored by the Superman stories of 2007? Hard to say; and that leaves room for argument. The problem with DC’s characters — and it may well be a problem with Marvel’s too, but I’m not as much of a Marvel scholar — is that today’s fans think they know just as much about Superman, or some other Intellectual Property X, as today’s pros. I certainly can’t speak for all superhero-comic fans, but I’d be willing to be that many see themselves on equal footing with the pros in at least two ways: both groups start with the same access to the texts, and thus to the “rules” of a particular longstanding character; and neither group can claim to have created that character. Those contentions may not be defensible, but I do think they exist. Thus, the character exists independently from its creator(s), the current creative team doesn’t have an absolute claim on it, and its corporate owner is only out to make a buck — so who else is going to stick up for the character’s best interests but a fan?

Again, I’m not saying I feel that way. I’m not saying the majority of superhero-comic fans feel that way. I honestly don’t know. However, I’m guessing that such a line of thinking could reinforce fan “attachment,” “entitlement,” whatever you want to call it. Obviously everyone’s happy when the latest issue of Intellectual Property X matches up with the generally-accepted consensus about what makes a good IPX story. When it doesn’t, though, we see appeals to “continuity” and/or charges of being “out of character.” To me, fans of corporate superheroes have just substituted this comparatively nebulous notion of a “definitive” Intellectual Property X for the work of the original creator(s). Today those characters “work” because they’ve become aggregations of details which have accumulated over the years. They’re almost more products of evolution than intelligent design … but that’s just a facile comparison. It’s late and I don’t want to get into another long discussion.

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