Comic Fodder

Everybody's a Fan Boy (But Me)

Hey, all... Some quick housekeeping:
1) I really apologize for being so late this week. Work caught up with me. And a nasty lack of sleep.
2) I have to give it up for Travis. Week in and week out, his reviews are great (even when I may disagree). And as far as I can tell, he never just rushes a review to get it on the screen.
3) Comment. Comment, comment, comment. We love conversations. You guys make it so much more fun when you chime in.

Things come and go in waves in the Comic Book Interwebs as favorite topics of discussion, accusations, rumors, "obvious" problems that need fixing, etc... rise and fall in frequency of discussion. This includes particular criticisms. Especially comic-fan-centric criticisms that rarely apply in other media.

A possible definition...

In my humblest of opinions, one of the oddest criticisms the comment sections of the blogosphere has produced has been the dismissive accusation of a writer as "a fanboy", or displaying "fanboyishness". In general, I believe the insult is meant to suggest that the writer is beholden to some aspect of a character's past, from earlier comics, that is interfering with the writer's ability to tell the story at hand. Or, leading to stories the reader prefer never exist.

Most often, the accusation seems to be leveled whenever a comic writer refers to elements of a character's past (and by character, I mostly mean franchise property) that may be unwelcome in the current context, such as bringing the different colors of Kryptonite into a story, or referring to some forgotten storyline in a character's past. This may be met with an unappreciative posture as the reader may not agree that reintroducing some forgotten element of the past is relevant to the comic they are currently enjoying.

The term is also occasionally thrown around by The Comics Journal crowd as a pretty singular reason why they perceive super-hero comics to be an impenetrable mess (yes, I have a subscription to TCJ. And so should you.). The thinking, I believe, is that super-hero comics creators are constantly rehashing the same territory and refusing to push the genre/ medium forward. This may be in direct contrast to the creator owned, non-franchise properties of publishers without a marketing and licensing machine as seen as Marvel and DC, and thus with content that adheres to fewer guidelines.

I've always found this sort of criticism odd in a culture that prides itself on accumulation not just of trivial artifacts (you can't eat a comic. It is trivial in the scheme of things.), but in obtaining trivial knowledge. And, indeed, a culture in which obsession for detail was a valued commodity among writers and readers, as revisiting plot elements and enhancing artifacts of a character's existence strengthened the continuity of the comics, reinforced the mythos of the character, and assured readers that the writer was in synch with his or her audience and would not slight them with some obviously contradictory information.

DCU and the Fanboy/ Writer Crisis

DC opened an immeasurably deep can of worms with the re-boot of the DC Universe with Crisis on Infinite Earths, and the perception of Fanboyishness has taken a bizarre turn ever since. At the core of the argument seems to be a certain dissatisfaction that DC turned back the clock on much of the continuity of the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths DCU. This is paired with the insistence of the reintroduction of pre-Crisis elements to the post-Crisis DC Universe, without substantive change to obfuscate the original (often considered corny) origins of the item in question. (See: the recent Action Comics tale "Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes").

The argument certainly has surfaced in the Superman Fan community as the post Infinite Crisis Superman titles have begun to take on several elements no longer considered part of Superman's world after 1986 and the Byrne/ Wolfman relaunch of the Superbooks. Fans decry details such as whether Superman was born on Krypton, or was a fetus sent to Earth (more or less the Byrne origin) which was birthed upon landing.

These readers do have a point. DC did re-write the origins of Superman in specific detail, including the World of Krypton during the 1986 - 2000 era, often with a goal of establishing Superman as, literally, the last true Kryptonian (which led to bizarre origins for the 90's era Supergirl and 00's reintroduction of Krypto). As readers, they have invested time, money and and their faith in the Superman books with which they're familiar.

Post Infinite Crisis, Busiek and Johns seemed to set about immediately reintroducing several elements of the Silver and Bronze Age of Superman, both restoring certain elements of the pre-Crisis Superman (the aforementioned relationship with The Legion of Super-Heroes) and altering other elements (the reintroduction of Superwoman, but with a far different origin).

Many fans took exception to the reintroduction of items like Superwoman, believing that Busiek was merely trying to reintroduce his fanboy favorite items and had no love for the post-Crisis revamp, thereby invalidating the status of Superman as a sole-survivor of the Planet Krypton, which, in their eyes, diminished the uniqueness of the character. It was Busiek's "fanboyishness" for the pre-Crisis era, which led to the re-appearance of the character, at the cost of 20 years of established Post-Crisis continuity.

Lest readers believe that this sort of struggle for the soul of a book's continuity exists only with the comic subculture of Superman geeks, many of the same accusations have been leveled at Morrison for his liberal use of pre-Crisis material in formulating the current Batman RIP storyline (Batmite, anyone?). Similar charges have come up against Brad Meltzer's Justice League of America for featuring a 70's-ish line-up to the JLA, and introduction of The Hall of Justice.

All three examples demonstrate writers going back to the well of ideas a unique publisher like DC has to pull from, and do demonstrate the sort of obsession for the details of comics-past that has long been a hallmark of the comic fan. Reimagining and retooling a concept doesn't diminish the seeming affection for certain elements that, when reintroduced, reveal the writer's preferences.

No, kidding...

This reader responds as follows:
Of course these writers are fanboys. Of course they're inserting their favorite elements back into the DC Universe. But they're also doing so in order to build upon ideas that once worked within the framework of DC Comics, or perhaps did not. But few ideas are ever genuinely bad. It's much more about the execution.

The irony (is this a proper use of the word irony?) is that many who lob accusations of fanboyishness are revealing their own preferences for specific material. Certainly many Superman fans might be confused by the reinsertion of pre-Crisis material that 20 years of Byrne/ Wolfman inspired Superman re-vamp have written off as unwieldy and corny, and essentially damaging to the Superman franchise. This ignores the 20 years of similarly byzantine continuity that Superman comics have developed in order to fill the void in Superman's world left by Crisis on Infinite Earths.

While its certainly worth arguing over whether the Johns/ Busiek/ Robinson/ Idleson era of Superman has successfully managed to make all of these eras co-exist, that's hardly the point. The fact is that the fans (who I would not quickly dismiss) were as invested in their version of events as writers who seized upon an opportunity to reintroduce the elements they preferred.

Only in comics, huh?

So how do we deal with this?

There's no real prescription for managing fan sentiment versus writer indulgences. Aside from adopting a zen-like state when trying to piece things together, and not insisting that the editors owe you an immediate explanation for how the scene on the page contradicts everything you thought you knew... And simply hope that there's an explanation in the offing. A wise editor (Mr. Idleson, I direct this at you) would move as quickly as possible to seal the gaps and at least lay out a concrete vision of the current world the characters inhabit, and make an effort to tell the story of a character's past in current continuity. How can we care about where a character is headed if we don't know where he's been?

As per the Batman and JLA examples: it seems that Morrison and Meltzer are filling in the gaps in nuance, dialog and asking for readers to make a leap with them which will require more than a concrete reading of events. And, in the case of Batman, for the reader to quit asking for Morrison to lay all the cards of the mystery on the table in the first 20 pages of a multi-issue story-arc.

The reader must decide for themselves whether the writer (and editorial) is taking the reader in a direction they wish to follow. And at that point, the obsessive-compulsive collector in the reader's head must have it out with the critical reader sharing the same space.

Writers must needs be a fanboy

Jim Shooter got his first writing gig for Legion before the age of 16. He submitted stories to DC comics because he avidly followed their titles, and knew that he could work in that world as well as any of the folks currently turning out stories.

Aside from that first generation of creators, every wave of creators came to comics because they knew and loved the material, and wanted to work in the industry. The interwebs would lead you to believe that the inbreeding this causes is part of "the problem" for the industry, that no new ideas can be produced as long as writers feel burdened by the history of their characters. And, to an extent, that may be true. Even Moore's work, "The Killing Joke" was based on a silver-age story revealing the Joker's origin as "The Red Hood", and "Watchmen" is a latter-day tale for the Charlton characters. "Supreme" was mostly just a revival of Silver Age Superman (and it works... completely). But I think few would dismiss any of those stories out of hand as mere rehashing of old ground.

By and large, with readers seeking continuity, respect for their characters, an understanding of the mechanics of either the DCU (and its related Earths), or the Marvel U, having a fanboy who can actually write should be a welcome treat for the reader. But that fanboy writer must keep his existing audience in mind, and make sure to placate the existing audience with some reasonable explanation when they decide to play fanboy and alter a comic's history.

We've seen many recent examples (Jodi Picoult on Wonder Woman) of what happens when a book is handed over to a writer who isn't a fanboy, and doesn't understand what the audience might be expecting. Certainly there's too much of a good thing when readers wonder why they may have to endure a Proty II six issue arc, but the alternative (and oft proscribed method) of brining in folks who don't know the territory, regularly ends in disaster.

Personally, I think...

I am a fanboy.

I take delight in seeing how the DC roster of characters was presented in various eras. And as much as I enjoy the Showcase Presents volumes, I am aware that the era represented in those comics had to pass, or comics wouldn't have survived in any fashion. I enjoy the collections, such as "Secrets of the Batcave" that demonstrate the same concept in a lot of different ways.

And, honestly, part of my admiration for the work of Geoff Johns is his ability to use those old concepts and make them seem completely fresh. It manages to not just respect the past, but show the brilliance of those ideas in a new light for a modern audience.

I welcome the reintroduction of older material, polished up and making sense in the context of the DCU. It can make the DCU richer, and celebrates the 70 years of creators and ideas that made the company what it is today. I do not trust conventional wisdom to tell me what ideas and characters don't work for "a modern audience", and I certainly don't trust creators who wish to endlessly tweak an idea which once worked so that it will fit the mold of a "modern audience" (see: 90's era-Supergirl) when time and readers had already proven the original concept worked just fine.

So In Conclusion...

Calling out writers as "fanboys" is a lot like pointing out that the sky is blue. Before the commenter hurls the accusation, it would behoove them to ask... Why do I care? Am I really this upset by the reintroduction of formerly shelved material, or am I married to a concept that may no longer be relevant?

What does that mean to me as a reader?

As readers, we all wear our "if I were writing (my favorite character) hat". It's what leads us to become disgruntled when Morrison doesn't write X-Men in the way we think we deserve as X-Fans. Or what leads us to mourn when we hear Chuck Austen is assigned to Action Comics, and openly discusses his disdain for Superman and how he'll "fix" The Man of Steel. We don't just interpret what happens on the page as a good story or bad story, but as "right and wrong", passing some value judgment on how each writer handles the character(s).

That's not to suggest each writer is equal, but we bring a lot of baggage to how we form those opinions. For folks who came to Superman during the Stern-era, much of what's happening to Superman is antithetical to their understanding of the universe of Kal-El. Or readers who believe comics were never the same after Crisis, that Byrne/ Wolfman era of Superman may have seemed like a travesty.

There's no easy solution, but I suggest an open mind and taking some joy in piecing together the pieces of the puzzle of the past intersecting with today, to determine what tomorrow the writers will bring to your favorite characters.

Questions? Comments? Hate mail?

Come on, I can take it.

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Ryan is an Op/Ed columnist for Comic Fodder. He keeps his comics and himself in Austin, Texas where he manages the long running blog League of Melbotis.

He likes Superman.

You can reach Ryan (aka: The League) at theleague.cf@gmail.com

A better question might be at this point, how do you write an original story, without it being derivative, or an outright ripoff, of something that's come before? Most have figured out how, I would imagine....

-- Posted by: Mike Shields at August 18, 2008 6:46 AM

Mike, I think that's an interesting point that could be its own column.

While I agree that many of the writers who rise to the cream of the crop DO manage to recycle elements while telling new stories, its the weaker writers who do the outright rip-offs, of recycle the material with new, but ultimately useless stories. I think this was more or less the smoking gun for JLA Classified and JSA Classified. The stories contained familair, popular characters, but so what?

I would, in fact, argue that much of the comic landscape is little more than recycled material showing up in packages that aren't all that interesting or original. Its why I hesitate to pick up work by unestablished writers doing super-genre, zombie and other easily recognizable genre work with small publishers. The same for unestablished writers on super-titles at the big 2. Some of it may be good, but as with any entertainment, there's a flood of pretty dull stuff out there doing nothing but aping better work, but doing a lesser job.

-- Posted by: Ryan at August 18, 2008 2:52 PM

I did want to say, I seriously had to rethink this column after reading Superman/ Batman #50 over the weekend.

I felt like, had I read that comic before writing this column, this column probably never would have happened.

-- Posted by: Ryan at August 18, 2008 2:54 PM