Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Letting Go

A number of webcomic artists I follow recently discussed the latest reboot of some of Marvel’s intellectual property, which happened around the same time as DC rebooted the Justice League with Wonder Woman in a particularly feminist-enraging pose. Kris Straub, I think, made some very good points, but his point about the confinements of canon doesn’t really go far enough.

Sure, if you want to tell more stories about Batman, the established canon restricts what you can and can’t say. If you want to fill in some backstory about Bruce Wayne, or if you’re relying on his backstory being a certain way, you’d better hope nobody has said anything beforehand that contradicts you. Because if they do, you only have two options - reboot and wipe the slate clean, or give up and tell a different story.

At what point did comic artists become obsessed with the first option? I know a lot of people aren’t familiar with the state of the big two comic book pantheons - Marvel and DC - but you don’t really need to be. All you need to know is that there are like six different versions of Spiderman being produced at any given time, each with different artists, writers and canons. Amazing Spiderman. Fantastic Spiderman. Spectacular Spiderman. Non-stick Spiderman. What the fuck do I know what they’re all called - I don’t read comic books and you probably don’t either, and this is a big part of the reason why. In reality, all but Original Spiderman could be renamed Superfluous Spiderman.

Is it really that hard to come up with new characters? I get it - some of these heroes are iconic. You grew up reading about them, and you probably started out drawing them before you drew your own stuff, so it’s like a dream come true to get to do Superman comics for a living. And I’m not saying it’s not interesting to play with the characters in a different way - a darker, grittier version can explore a new side to the idea of heroism, for example. But you know another way to explore those themes? Invent a new character that is darker and grittier from the start.

I don’t want to sound flippant, like I’m saying creating an iconic character that generation after generation will love is a simple task. It isn’t. But I really don’t think it’s asking too much to say that they should try. I don’t think it’s asking too much for artists to be creative.

As an aside, I don’t have such a problem with starting from scratch if it’s adapted into a movie. Adaptation necessitates some level of change because the media are very different, and making a movie introduces the subject matter to new audiences - most of the people who went and saw Spiderman have never read a Spiderman comic book, so you have to start from the start. I do, however, have a problem with them rebooting the Spiderman movie franchise a decade after they released the first one.

It’s not like it’s impossible to do these things with new IP and still produce a classic. Look at Watchmen. It managed to explore a lot of complex ideas about the nature of heroism, about dealing with power, about all the things superhero comics are there to do - with all-new characters in an all-new universe. I’m sure there are other examples in dead-tree format, but I’m more familiar with webcomics - and let me tell you, there are people doing brilliant things there, in everything from basic daily humour strips, to storytelling comics with long plot arcs, romances, the lot. And it might not be a comic, but on the topic of superheroes, Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog was a fantastic movie in all the ways that rehashing the X-Men for the zillionth time isn’t.

Plus, while Marvel and DC have had the old more-of-the-same, ridiculously-homoerotic-muscles art for decades on end, some webcomic artists are doing fantastic things on the art front as well. Dresden Codak is an example that is kicking ass and breaking barriers in both art and storytelling - I really can’t recommend it enough (start from the start and you will soon be among those cursing the long time between updates). Even things like Dinosaur Comics and xkcd deserve a mention - while the artwork takes considerably less skill than your average comic, their success relies partly on the fact that they tried something most people wouldn’t.

I know why it happens, of course. It’s the way of the world at the moment - create something good and then wring its throat until you can’t get anything more from it. It’s happening everywhere - just look at The Simpsons! That was far and away my favourite show in the world for over a decade, but they should have let it die a long time ago - I can’t even stand to watch it now, it’s so hackneyed and over-done. But no. These corporations refuse to relinquish their stranglehold on their IP because they still smell money - artistic integrity be damned…although I suppose it’s worth pointing out that many of the original creators of the IP have little if anything to do with them now. They’ve moved onto other projects, retired, or died. And I know we can’t really control what the CEO of Marvel does, but we can at least stop providing a market for it.

I can kinda sympathise with Kris Straub’s desire to just “plain old tell a Batman story” but the truth is, at this point, you really can’t. You can’t tell a new Batman story for the same reason you can’t write a new Simpsons episode: because there are none left to tell. It’s time to let these classics die a graceful death, before we pollute their memories any further - and to give those artists doing new and exciting things the attention they deserve.

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