Friday, November 16, 2007

Crisis On Definitive Earth

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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