On a fine day last week month in New Haven, I was talking comics on twitter with some friends while waiting for my train to move. The topic was DC Comics’ decision to reintroduce the Huntress (a female vigilante) as a woman with brown skin. If you’ve been following DC’s rebooted New 52 universe, you’ll know that the Huntress was originally re introduced as the daughter of Batman and Catwoman from a parallel universe. This new version of the character is an updated take on Helena Bertinelli, the daughter of a mob boss familiar to both fans of the DC universe that preceded the new 52 and fans of the Arrow television show.
This decision closely followed DC’s decision to reintroduce Wally West (a character who was Caucasian in earlier incarnations) as an African American. During the conversation, a good friend of mine expressed some concern about DC’s decision to fundamentally change existing characters and mournfully noted that reboots mean that no one ever exists anyway. The comment reminded me that I’ve felt disconnected from DC titles since it’s recent reboot, which led her to suggest that we still feel an emotional connection to the characters even though we all say ‘follow creators not characters’.
On a recent episode of Wait, What?, Graeme and Jeff discussed Jeff’s superhero/adventure comic ennui. (Editor’s Note: This is the best comics podcast since that other one. Become a patron via Patreon.) During the conversation, Graeme suggested that one of the reasons that Jeff found it hard to maintain interest in superhero and adventure comics not published by Marvel and DC was that he didn’t have an emotional/nostalgic connection to the characters in the book. Although Jeff’s lack of interest seemed to be driven by evolving genre preferences and his concern that the superhero/adventure books were part of a broader brand marketing strategy designed to separate readers from their cash, something about Graeme’s suggestion resonated with my own experience. I enjoy a number of the superhero and adventure books published by Image, Dark Horse, Valiant and Dynamite, but I tend to drop (or lose interest in) these titles far more frequently than lesser titles published by Marvel and DC. I love Fred van Lente and Jeff Parker, but frequently have to remind myself to pick up their non-big two superhero books.
Since I became a regular superhero comics reader again in the mid aughts, I’ve been more interested in creators and creative teams than individual characters. I’ve also banged the ‘creators over characters’ drum to everyone I knew who read superhero books. At the same time, I have to admit that I would be more entertained by a great story featuring a Superman analogue if it actually featured Superman. I’m more likely to buy a pretty good X-Men book than a fantastic issue of Harbinger, Valiant’s answer to the X-Men. Does this complicate (or undermine) the idea that creators should be more important than characters?
I don’t think it does. First, I don’t think that my interest in Superman stories necessarily implies any loyalty towards ‘Superman’ as a character or brand. I respect people who love the characters as characters, but sometimes that love looks an awful lot like simple brand loyalty. If someone is into Spider Man because the character’s story and values resonate with something in their lives, that’s great for them. It’s not the equivalent of self-identifying as a Cap’n Crunch super fan. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that the media conglomerate that owns Spider Man views people who identify as Spider-Man qua Spider Man fans as the “fiends they’re accustomed to serving“.
When I say I love Superman, I’m expressing fondness for stories featuring the character that explore the themes we associate with the Superman narrative. I’m interested in how stories by Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder or Geoff Johns and John Romita, Jr. resonate with earlier stories by creative teams as varied as Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, Mark Waid and Leinil Yu, John Byrne or Elliott Maggin and Curt Swan. I don’t care if “Superman” is married or single. I don’t care if “Wolverine” dies, but I am interested in how a story by Paul Cornell and Ryan Stegman build on a prior story by Jason Aaron and Ron Garney and an even earlier set of stories by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller in a fictional universe with tighter continuity. When I’m faced with a choice between X-Men and Harbinger, I don’t think that I’m simply expressing loyalty to my favorite brand if I choose X-Men.
I value those stories, but also recognize that the people behind them are more valuable.
An Aside: I guess that’s why I was surprised by my general lack of interest in DC’s most recent reboot. I’ve always been able to roll with the punches in the past, but there’s something about this one that leaves me cold, and it’s not just because most of the books aren’t any good. I know that all reboots are driven by a mix of commercial (expand the audience by making the books accessible to new readers) and creative (give storytellers opportunities to tell stories unburdened by decades of continuity) reasons, but the New 52 (which was preceded by two other recent reboots) just felt like more of a pure marketing campaign, the end-result of an ambitious junior executive’s corporate synergy strategy.
When I tell people to value creators more than characters, I’m trying to express a simple idea: people are more important than property, even if the property is entertaining. It’s not supposed to serve as a blanket condemnation of readers who enjoy books featuring their favorite Marvel or DC character or who have some emotional connection to the characters. It’s more of a friendly (and easily misunderstood) reminder that storytellers are more important. A nudge to get readers to think more about creators and question the degree to which we’ve aligned our perspective on the art form with that of media corporations and become shareholders with no equity. But I’m not sure that’s a good enough explanation. What do I really mean when I argue that creators are more important than characters?