Ninth Art - For the Discerning Reader -

Article 10: Auld Lang Syne

Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? Paul O'Brien looks at how Marvel and DC are treating their enduring icons, and asks, what's the best way forward for the likes of Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and the X-Men?
02 January 2006

Ah, a bold new year. An exciting new era. But some things are always the same, year after year.

Marvel and DC's superhero comics are still heavily reliant on properties dating either from the 1960s or World War II. This is something I've mentioned before, in the context of wondering why both companies are so largely ineffectual at creating new characters even within their supposed areas of expertise. This time, though, let's leave aside the lack of new characters and focus on the long-serving characters that still form the backbone of the genre. If Marvel and DC have resigned themselves to being the caretakers of a bundle of icons, are they at least doing a good job of it?

If nothing else, many of the A-list superhero characters are enduring. Viewed from inside the comics bubble, it's easy to take this for granted. But DC's holy trinity of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman have been entertaining audiences for over sixty years now. Spider-Man and his ilk have kept going since the early 1960s. Even the X-Men, the one Lee/Kirby property that only found major success after a drastic overhaul, has been in its present form for thirty years now.

Remarkably few fictional characters manage to sustain their appeal for such a length of time. A TV show is doing well if it lasts five years. Most cinema franchises stumble by the third or fourth film. To retain popularity for such a length of time, with continuing new material and new interpretations, puts these characters in the relatively select company of cultural icons such as Dracula, Sherlock Holmes or James Bond.

And like those characters, in many cases the original source material has become rather beside the point in terms of wider public perception. Films and TV shows have done more to shape the public image of Batman, Superman, the Hulk and so forth than anything in the actual comics.

But this mass awareness is where the value of the characters lies. No doubt, that's a major reason why post-bankruptcy Marvel has steadily remodelled itself into a company whose primary business is character licensing. It's also a crucial reason why they would want to make their own films, because aside from giving them a bigger share of the cash, it also gives them more control over the way their brand is presented to the largest audience.

Even so, the comics continue to exist. Their actual content is largely irrelevant to the brand value of the characters - years of 'intelligent Hulk' stories have failed to make any impact whatsoever on the popular consciousness. But they continue to sell reliably within the comics market. And perhaps there's some value in the mere fact that they exist. It lets Marvel and DC portray these characters as living entities, not simply nostalgia.

But what do you put in them? This is the difficult bit. In an ideal world - from a marketing standpoint, at least - each character's comic would continue to support his brand. That is to say, it would continue to represent the core values and ideas which that particular character represents. That doesn't mean that the series has to be trapped in the past, simply cloning old material. But it does mean that it should be presenting the same basic ideas in a contemporary way.

The reality is often rather different. Many characters have been allowed to drift horrendously off course. In some cases, the publishers and creators have utterly lost sight of the core ideas of the book. Some have become horrendously diluted. Still more have become buried in clutter. And others have made the mistake of chasing fashion.

It's frequently noticeable that the people producing the licensed versions of these characters, in film and animation, often have a clearer grasp of what the character is about than anybody working on the comics themselves. The Batman animated series, even at its weakest, displayed a far better understanding of the character's essential appeal than 99% of DC's comics. And Batman is hardly the worst example - his core values as a dark detective character have been successfully reclaimed, and the character positioned to appeal to the cynicism of the grim-and-gritty era.

Fortunately for Batman, the dark and violent style of 90s comics works fairly well for the character. He's a fairly dark and intense guy to begin with. Other characters took a hammering in the 90s. Superman has long presented a problem for DC, as the directness and innocence of the character drifted wildly out of line with prevailing styles, not to mention the desires of the comics industry to appeal to an older audience. On top of that, he's the archetypal superhero who has come to be perceived as a template for the genre. His powers have become stock; his central 'dual identity' device has become a cliché. And it hardly helps to put him smack in the middle of an overpopulated DC Universe, where the notion of a superhero isn't even anything special.

It's not just licensing reasons that lead to Superman's films and TV shows taking place in a world where he's the only superhero. He's a stronger character that way. It gives him back the uniqueness that decades of cloning have removed from him. DC, in contrast, have lapsed from time to time into chasing relevancy by giving the character self-consciously 'modern' hairstyles, or even turning him into a neon blue electric hero. This does not work. It does not make Superman relevant. Superman is never relevant. He doesn't need to be. Done right, Superman is timeless. ALL-STAR SUPERMAN seems to understand this point. If the character is obviously making a bid for being contemporary, then you're implicitly conceding that he's dated, that he's old, that he needs to be modernised. He doesn't - he just needs to be placed in the best light.

Spider-Man has gone off the rails in a similar fashion. Once again, it's striking that no licensed Spider-Man story bears any resemblance to anything that's been published in a Marvel Universe Spider-Man comic in many years. This ought to set alarm bells ringing. And to an extent, it has - ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN is a clear, and largely successful, attempt to reclaim the character's core concept as the boy next door who happens to get superpowers, and who appears in somewhat soapy drama. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with this concept, which is why people will happily pay to see a film about it.

But what do we have in the core Spider-Man comics? He's married to a supermodel. He's living with the Avengers, which means he no longer has a non-superhero private life. He appears to have no civilian friends other than his wife and aunt. His supporting cast have largely disappeared. He's been given a job as a teacher, but has no apparent relationships with any other staff members. Nor does he have any recurring pupils, just the ones immediately required for a social issue story. His ordinary, everyday life - the core of the character's appeal - has been allowed to wither on the vine. This man has no life. That's why he doesn't work. That's what needs urgent attention. Nailing on some nonsense about magical spider totems is not a solution, and if anything just introduces another problem.

You could make the same point about many other characters. For all that people loved the 'intelligent Hulk' stories by Peter David - and they're very good in their own right - their link to the core concept of the Hulk is tenuous, and they've spawned an era in which the Hulk's personality, intelligence level and powers fluctuate from issue to issue depending solely upon who's writing him at the time. Even Marvel don't know what the character stands for any more.

And the X-Men have become a tragic illustration of what happens when you lose sight of the central idea. There was a time when they had a small number of clearly linked comics all singing from the same hymn sheet. Then they had a large number of mainly unnecessary but still clearly linked comics, all still singing from the same hymn sheet.

Then the Jemas/Quesada era came along, and the identity of the brand splintered all over the place. Marvel no longer wanted so many identikit comics, for good creative reasons, but couldn't bring themselves to actually slice back the line as much as that would suggest. So instead they were replaced with a slew of comics only shakily related to the central concept - BROTHERHOOD? DISTRICT X? SENTINEL? MYSTIQUE? - which only left readers confused about what the X-books actually stood for.

It's not that these were all bad comics. Some were horrid, some were very good. But they've destroyed the value of the brand. There was a time, a few years ago, when Marvel could launch anything as an X-book and it would automatically sell on the strength of that. BROTHERHOOD #1 was a top ten book, solely on the strength of the X-Men brand. Now, they can't even launch a NIGHTCRAWLER book. The line desperately needs rebuilding, and they need to have the nerve to slash back to a well-defined core in order to do it.

It's understandable that creators and editors feel they should be doing something new and, well, genuinely creative. It's also understandable that long-time readers eventually tire of the same old formula and embrace something different. And this is fine, as long as the new development is a genuine outgrowth from what came before, or a new perspective on the same themes.

But if you want something genuinely new, perhaps sixty-year-old characters are not the place to look. It's not the reinventions and the bizarre plot developments that have made these characters enduring, but the core concept. When they appear in other media, the core idea is almost invariably front and centre. In comics, it's all too often lost under a pile of clutter introduced in a misguided attempt to innovate on an idea that was perfectly good in the first place.

The wheel does not need reinventing. Sometimes oiling it will do.

Paul O'Brien is the author of the weekly X-AXIS comics review.

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