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February 04, 2007


The Prankster

You know what I think? I think the superhero comics genre is facing some kind of karmic retribution right now for shoddy business practices over the years. It's a whole Greek tragedy thing. Superhero publishers establish an unfortunate M. O. seven decades ago, whereby characters are promoted to superstardom but their creators remain anonymous. Writers and artists are shuffled on and off books, with only the properties remaining consistant. Eventually individual writers and artists start to make a name for themselves, but the character-based model remains, so that Spider-man remains the property of Marvel comics rather than Stan Lee and Steve Ditko--nobody even seems to think to question this, besides giving creator credit. Eventually, strongly-written and individualistic comics finally start to break out, comics that are written or drawn exclusively by their creators, and even come to a real conclusion--just like real literature! This trickles back into superhero comics, and carries with it a desire to put a distinctive "stamp" on the character, but the superhero's lack of authorship, and the requirement that the character remain indefinitely making money for its parent corporation, leads to the cycle of change and restoration that we're all familiar with.

In other words, superhero comics were probably always doomed to suffer in comparison to real stories created by individual authors. This model only got entrenched because superhero publishers were able to supress and exploit their creative talent for so long, but at this point the genie is out of the bottle.


Maybe so. But a comic like Gage's that accepts its limitations and doesn't call attention to them--essentially a well-crafted inventory story--fares a lot better than comics like Bendis's and Brubaker's that assault their characters' status quo with great fanfare and then flinch at the last minute. Daredevil is caught between models, a neverending corporate property that pretends to a consequential, finite narrative it can never have.

I think your comparison to comics by individual authors falls apart, though. Some of the best comics ever made have been produced by teams, even the occasional shop or studios. And, of course, some of those are superhero comics.

The Prankster

Well, when I said "individual authors" I didn't mean to sound dismissive of collaborations; I was referring to a story that's shaped from the beginning through to the end by one person, or, extending that, by one creative team, as opposed to a character that gets handed down for generations. And I certainly don't think these iconic, hand-me-down, legacy characters are without merit.

But as you say, a lot of superhero comics are pretending to a finite narrative that it can never have. And they're pretending to it because, when all is said and done, stories need a progression and, yes, an ending. If the story doesn't end, then your own interest in it pretty much has to at some point. Even if it's just the artificial "ending" of your own preferred creative team leaving the book, you can't follow the adventures of a certain character your whole life--can you? Well, I guess you can, but I think that lies at the heart of the superhero genre's inability to grow up, and the attendant market stagnation, ghetto-ization of the medium, etc.

Superheroes are trapped by virtue of the model they've embraced, a model which--and sorry if this sounds shrill, but it's something that really shouldn't be ignored--was born out of corporate greed. Even the most trashy and lurid pulp novel series or TV shows have a logical boundary to them, something resembling a finite end. You can argue that, say, James Bond novels kept going after their authors' death, but everyone knows that there are the Fleming Bonds, and then there's the rest, and the latter are easily ignored. Comics, for much of the 20th century, existed as a faceless medium where the character had primacy over the author, as I discussed. And to an extent that's OK, or it would have been had the people who actually created the characters gotten their due. You can keep on cranking out Superman stories until Kingdom Come--if you're writing for kids who will eventually outgrow them and leave the field over to the next generation. I don't think it's a coincidence that that's exactly how Superman comics WERE written until the 70s--and they remained among the top-selling comics on a consistant basis.

But if you're going to pretend to being serious literature, or even just semi-sophisticated entertainment, something has to give. Even ditching the continuity and writing entertaining standalone stories--which, as you point out, few people seem to be doing these days, so that doing so feels fresh and original--can't sustain a title forever. Call it narrative environmentalism: you can't come up with bold new stories to apply to a character and infinitum, and eventually you have to start recycling. Continuity and change help with these problems, but as we've seen, the need for maintaining the brand means a character can't truly change. If you can't change, and you can't end, you're bound to wither as a creative catalyst, which is what's happening to superheroes.

I submit that, even with the most talented writers in creation working tirelessly on every superhero title, the rot is bound to set in. There may be specific problems you can point to, but the model is inherently self-limiting. Again...stories have to end, or change, or let you outgrow them.


Marc, you've put this with terrific clarity and succinctness, I love it. I can throw away three poorly-formed posts of my own now, and substitute them with a link.

It's a little thing, really, I suppose. But that it needs some shouting from the rooftops even so is itself a problem.

And, Prankster: permit me to disagree with you slightly! Well, with your permission, more than slightly: and I couldn't be more on the side of the writers and the artists, but I think you've got about twenty things wrong here, and I don't at all agree with your thesis. If debate is what you'd prefer, I'd be pleased to clash with you a bit; however if it were up to me I'd rather let different strokes hold for different folks, right now.

My Dad's birthday today. Hello and a pleasant morning to everyone.

Greg Morrow


Stories may need to progress to an end, but stories and characters aren't the same thing.

Once you hit twelve, the Twelve Labors of Hercules are over, but Hercules himself can go on to appear in the Argosy, and both are distinct from his birth and death stories.

Of course, once a character's story (and in superhero comics, that's often the origin) is over, the character is often no longer the lead, but instead stands as narrator, Greek chorus, or deus ex machina in the stories of other characters, and that's a perfectly good model for corporate properties.

Additionally, a situation or premise can be static without impairing a story's ability to progress or end; it just tells you that a subset of all possible stories are off-limit. Since the space of stories is very large indeed, that's not much of a limit.

Take Clark Kent, reporter for the Daily Planet: That means you can't write a story that reveals Superman's secret identity and the Daily Planet can't fold (among other things).

But you can write a story in which someone else's secret identity gets exposed. You can write a story about Clark's friendship with his crosstown rival at the Metropolis Tabloid, and what happens when that paper folds. You can write a story in which Clark is laid off and has to struggle for a living (or use his superpowers), so long as Clark ends up getting rehired (as a consequence of his Pulitzer-winning magazine series about living poor in America).

All those are (or can be, and probably have been) real stories, with real progress and read ends; they just don't disturb some of the core aspects of Superman.

The Prankster

But can this be maintained forever? That's what I want to know. Superhero comics have been ongoing for many decades--almost seven, in the case of Superman and a few others. No other medium demands continuation for that long while trying to insist that the stories are just as real and vital as when they were being written by their original authors. Will there still be Superman and Spiderman comics coming out on a monthly basis in another six decades? I think the only way there can be is if comics go back to being kid's stories, or do a LOT of rebooting. I think the only way "serious" superhero stories can continue is as standalone series a la The Dark Knight.


But can this be maintained forever? That's what I want to know.

Well, no, it can't--and so what? Superhero comics six decades ago looked very different and I would expect superhero comics in my grandchildren's day to look completely different again. (Assuming they are comics at all, and not interactive telepathic downloads or delicious Sequential Art Pills.) That doesn't say anything about the health of the genre--healthy genres are always in flux. Only the dead ones are stable.

I also think you overstate the importance of original and finite narratives in other genres (James Bond is older than most superheroes, and has had as many ups and downs) while overselling the demands for continuity and tradition in superhero comics. The genre doesn't demand continuation--just a relatively stable set of conventions that can support stories for six decades or more. Superman doesn't have to be in continuity with every Superman story ever told, and in fact he never is--he just has to be Superman, and "Superman" turns out to be a pretty minimal and flexible set of conventions.

These complaints, besides being a little pro forma by now, strike me as having too much invested in the very systems they decry. Current trends in superhero storytelling will wax or wane--some can't wane fast enough for my tastes--but it's so likely that the genre will stick around that there's no point in worrying whether the style of the day can be maintained forever. Of course it can't. The question only seems important if we're hanging on an answer from Wednesday to Wednesday.

Bruce Baugh

That's actually something I've been mulling around from time to time lately, Marc: how long are superheroes' real continuities, in the sense of stuff that genuinely has an ongoing or regular effect on what stories can be told with them now? As nearly as i can tell, it ranges from "more or less none" in the hands of particularly careless creators and editors on up to a functional maximum of a decade or two. Anything beyond that threshold is purely cherry-picked, and generally subject to major revision.

As you say, it's much more about a few thematic elements than an actual cotninuity.

Jones, one of the Jones boys

Marc, I just read that Daredevil issue. You're right, what a disappointment. Brubaker is better than this.

Oh, but one thing is different. Like, the Kingpin is totally going to reform now...until the next time someone wants to use him as a villain.

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