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?
A. You Should Buy This, Not That: The ‘creator over character’ credo is intended to guide consumer behavior in a ‘positive’ direction by encouraging readers to sample unfamiliar work and in a ‘negative’ direction by suggesting that they refrain from buying and reading books that they don’t like. The latter is the tougher sell. Telling people to buy something new is just a recommendation, but advising that they stop buying a book sounds more like bullying or nagging. It’s also asking readers of superhero comics to abandon the time-honored practice of reading books they hate featuring characters they love. I say ‘they’, but I can just as easily say ‘we’, because it’s taken me a long time to break the habit of reading books after the great creative team that brought me to the book either leaves or breaks up. I’ve stuck around on books after the artist half of the creative team that first attracted me to the title departed and after great writers were replaced by a series of journeymen. When I was a kid, I persevered because I wanted to keep up with the things that were going on in the imaginary lives of my favorite fictional characters. I loved the good stories but tolerated the bad ones as a plot development delivery system. I never had a problem with picking up unfamiliar projects by my favorite creators, but I found it difficult to drop books about characters I loved after I lost interest in the writing and/or the art. I was the one who kept reading Fanastic Four after John Byrne left and Daredevil after Ann Nocenti departed. It was a joyless exercise that made me a “well informed” reader with ambivalent (borderline cynical) feelings about the genre.
My dilemma was typical for readers of my generation of readers, who were known for borderline obsessive-compulsive collecting habits. Some bought everything for reasons similar to mine, and others did so because they wanted a complete set of a particular title (or group of titles) or because they viewed the books as an investment. In traditional narratives about the comics industry, these habits eventually destabilized the market place and led to the infamous speculative bubble in the direct comics market during the late 1980’s and ’90’s. This story rests on the assumption that the marketplace was ever particularly stable, but that’s a discussion for another day. Anyway, I got older and my interests broadened. I couldn’t afford to keep buying books that I didn’t really enjoy. As I went through the process of pruning my pull list, I came to the pretty obvious realization that my views on the state of the genre and the medium improved when I limited my purchases to books that I like by creative teams who were doing interesting work. It’s like any medium – when you cut out the mediocre pap (however you choose to define that), everything feels like a new Golden Age. I’ve always suspected that the market for superhero comic books was distorted by the buying habits of consumers who picked up books that they didn’t like, and it would be very interesting to see how the market responds when/if consumers reveal their true preferences.
The only thing that complicates the idea of telling people to stop buying books they don’t really like is that some readers are simply more interested in Marvel and/or DC’s vast narratives than comic books. I used to get annoyed by this, but its just what happens when the two biggest comics publishers are primarily interested in transmedia brand management. Marvel is (understandably) focused on building an audience for the different versions of the Marvel Universe, whether in comic book, video game or film/television form. DC is… I don’t really know what DC is doing. In any event, there’s some nontrivial portion of the readership for both publishers that aren’t actually comic book fans. I still think that subgroup would have a better experience if they followed the creators that they liked in their fictional universe of choice, but I imagine that they have become comfortable with viewing the storytellers as interchangeable cogs. If you don’t mind Branagh departing the Thor franchise, you’ll probably be okay with Warren Elllis and Declan Shalvey exiting Moon Knight.
B. You Should Think Differently About Superhero Comics: We spend too much time talking about the plot of superhero comics and too little about the creative choices made by the storytellers. We still compare runs on an individual title when we should focus more of our attention on the dialogue between a creative team’s run on a title and other work by members of the team. I think that the relationship between Brian Bendis’ run on the X-books and Bendis’ previous work with John Romita jr. on the Avengers or between Bachalo’s work on X-Men and his collaboration with Zeb Wells on Amazing Spider Man is far more interesting than the one between Bendis and Bachalo’s book and the preceding run by Kieron Gillen, Carlos Pacheco, Greg Land and Nick Bradshaw.
If the average consumer identified storytellers as the source of meaning and value in superhero comics, we might be more inclined to think and talk about structure, rhythm and theme instead of plot developments. We might spend more time searching for the artistry in a book and less speculating about plot twists. Sometimes we criticize critics for not helping audiences understand the unique visual vocabulary of comics, but if audiences viewed superhero titles as more than delivery systems for the adventures of their favorite characters, the demand for that kind of discussion might increase. It would be a response to the limits of the now-standard critical approach of viewing Marvel/DC titles as components of a vast narrative, which tends to set the product line (or even a family of titles) as the boundary of the story instead of the individual series or issue. It’s fun to explore how large scale collaborative authorship is practiced in Marvel and DC, but that focus can sometimes lead us to deemphasize the individual comic (or run by a specific creative team) as a discrete creative product.
C. You Should Recognize That People Are More Important Than Property: This is the simplest and most important reason why we should value storytellers more than characters. It’s the refrain that came to mind every time I read comment threads (I know, that’s my own fault) on articles about publisher/creator disputes or about retired creators who had significant financial and/or health care issues. Although some would express support for the creators involved, there was always a contingent of commenters who used the thread as a forum to cosplay as free market quasi-libertarian economists. They would argue that creators should be satisfied with the compensation that they received at the time the character was created, regardless of whether the contract was adhesive or unconscionable or whether the creator (believed that they had) retained reversion rights. They would argue that a creator’s heirs were being selfish for pursuing claims on behalf of the estate. I wasn’t bothered by their ignorance of economic theory and contract and intellectual property law. If we silenced everyone who talked about things they didn’t understand on the internet, there would be very few conversations. It was the lack of empathy, the ease with which people dismissed the sins of the past and the struggles of retired storytellers. These readers were primarily concerned with getting their superhero comics fix and afraid that a successful lawsuit would interrupt their supply or that hard-luck stories about creators would sour their reading experience.
My disgust at these comments is offset by the sense that publishers have contributed to this mindset. Every time someone wished that the heirs of the Siegel or Kirby estate would just go away, I was reminded that most fans’ views on creators rights and intellectual property are perfectly aligned with the financial interests of the industry’s largest publishers. It’s the natural result of the companies’ strategy of convincing fans that the people creating the projects they love are superstars and interchangeable. Publishers will give storytellers ‘fun’ nicknames, refer to them as architects and spin elaborate tales of happy bullpens, but creators are replaceable (especially if they’re the penciller, inker, colorist or letterer. Why yes, comics are a visual medium, why do you ask?). They want us to think that the team working on our favorite books are the greatest until they depart and are replaced by another team that is the greatest. A reader who cares more about the publisher’s characters than the people who tell the stories is a more loyal customer. If that same reader valued the storytellers more than the publisher’s brands, it’s less likely that their perspective on the industry will be perfectly aligned with the large publishers.
Why I Might Be Completely Misguided (Avoiding Epistemic Closure): I’d love to believe that a fanbase that adjusted the comparative value of creators and characters would be more willing to engage with the realities behind the production of their favorite comics. The problem is that this idea relies on the assumption that we (the community of readers) share a common set of prior beliefs. The community of readers is politically diverse and includes economic conservatives and libertarians who are naturally inclined to embrace a media corporation’s perspective. These readers are less likely to sympathize with the plight of an older creator with health concerns or be troubled by the sordid history of superhero comic publishers. Adjusting the comparative value of characters and storytellers may make some difference, but it isn’t a panacea.
I also can’t ignore the possibility that my expectations are unreasonably high. Most consumers of culture don’t spend much time thinking about the artists who create the culture or the conditions under which it is produced, particularly if it is created through a collaborative process and is owned by a media corporation. We talk about the cult of the show runner in American television, but no one talks or cares about (and I’d bet that few even know the identities of) the show runners behind the most popular shows like the Big Bang theory or one of the interchangeable CSI shows. I’d bet that few people even know who they are. Some people want their entertainment to be the amusing/stimulating stuff that fills the gaps of their lives. Would it be fair to expect them to do more? Maybe not. Maybe the best that we can do is to occasionally remind them how the sausage is made and offer an alternative way of looking at the industry/culture.
If you don’t read superhero comic books, I could understand why you’d feel like the superhero books published by Marvel and DC have never felt less relevant to the future of comics culture or the conversation about comics. That might be true, but the superhero books published by Marvel and DC account for a significant share of the direct and digital market and many of the high-profile creators that help make the ‘independent’ scene economically viable got their start (or are still working for) one of the ‘Big Two’. Both publishers and their respective readers still matter, and adjusting the perspective (and buying habits) of the readers is a necessary component of industry reform, whether we’re looking for more diversity or better deals for creators.
The bottom line? Whether you’re a fan of superheroes as media properties or cultural symbols or vast narratives or simply as a genre of comic books, you should recognize that the books are a product of the creative vision of those who make the book, not the company that publishes it and that we should value them more. And readers like me need to do a better job of stepping outside of our comfort zone by buying Harbinger instead of X-Men.