Comic Fodder

All the Superhero Stories Have Already Been Told

A short while ago, in responding to points made in a post I'd done on the upcoming movie , "Watchmen" (and the associated merchandising bonanza), commenter "ninjabadass" opined:

Incidentally, I'm not sure you give the "kids today" enough credit. This generation of kids seems to have been born into an era when a great deal of the material that comes before them is derived from source material produced a generation before. These poor kids are born into an era when many of the entertainment mediums that they're experiencing almost feel played out, with no new mediums or genres being created to fill the void.

A few comments later, ninjabadass goes on to say:

Creators today are expected to have read and incorporated every work since the dawn of time into their minds before they begin a new work. If the subject of new material comes anywhere close to having been touched on in some esoteric back issue, you can count on some fanboy being there to point out where it appeared previously, and to insist that there's no further need to write about such a topic. Given how many comics have been written and how many subjects have been covered in their pages (which are available more completely and immediately than ever before), you can see how all of this information can start to feel less like a great opportunity and more like a tremendous albatross hanging around one's neck.

The gist of ninjabadass's argument, I believe, is that the superhero market has been around so long that it seems every story has already been told one way or another, and that it doesn't seem worth trying to cook up new material if the fanboys are going to recognize storylines that already existed somewhere, somehow, at some time.

It's a fairly strong complaint ninjabadass has put out there. All the good songs have already been written. All the stories told. There's nothing new under the sun. I'm not sure if ninjabadass has a prescription for this particular malady. Other than to take my old man on the rocking chair complaining and stick it.

Certainly, with dozens of stories generated per year for the more popular characters, and with decades and decades of comics behind them, it's a sisyphean task to create an entirely new Superman tale which, in no way, will recall prior Superman tales. After all, Superman lives within certain parameters. Launched from a doomed planet, raised by kindly people, mild-mannered reporter, Lois Lane, Daily Planet, Jimmy Olsen, Kryptonite... even when one of these elements is removed, it comes full circle to return to form once again. With these immutable elements, can there be an entirely original tale?

The part I take particular exception to, however, is that it's somehow "this generation" (by which, I assume ninjabadass and "m" mean 20 - 30 year olds) who face the challenge of creating original, never-before seen material and treading new ground.

Historical Fiction

I recall from seventh grade Language Arts that there are really only seven basic stories, or 20 basic plots. And by 9th grade being informed that "life is either comedy or tragedy, there is no inbetween" (thanks, Ms. Fort!). And we've been working from the same stories, repeatedly, since the dawn of man. Even Billy Shakespeare was mostly retelling historical events or rehashing otherwise known stories for popular consumption.

Superman wasn't an original idea. At least not the muscle-bound guy with the dual identity. Batman is even more of a rip-of artist than his Kryptonian counterpart, taking equal parts Zorro and The Shadow, with a dash of movie character "The Bat" for visual inspiration. For handy reference, I recommend the books of Les Daniels, and picking up "Men of Tomorrow" by Gerard Jones. Jones' book details the science-fiction and fantasy scene of the 1930's, and how the superhero and comics scene grew up out of the media-addled minds of working-class kids, amalgamating existing ideas, coming anywhere from pulps to science magazines to ancient myth.

In short, the comic superhero has never been someone with a wholly original story to tell, but who seemed oddly different with their amazing origin stories, bright costumes and colorfully illustrated adventures. Superman's first adventure seems like a hodge-podge of strong-man fantasies, just as much as Batman's first case feels at home in a Shadow radio serial.

Sooner or later, however, the characters lasted long enough to overcome their recognizable forebears in popularity, and, bit-by-bit, built up their own mythologies and stories, resulting in the average kid having a good idea of who Batman is by age 5, but the origins lost to almost all but the small fan community who would actually care about such things.

The Silver Age/ The Marvel Age/ The 80's

It's no big secret that when Barry Allen was simultaneously doused with a unique chemical mixture AND struck my lightning that he didn't just become the World's Fastest Man... He also kick started the Silver Age of super-heroes.

Its tough to imagine that by the 1950's, with only a little over a decade of superhero comics on the stands, that some considered superheroes played out. Rebooted as a police detective by Kanigher, Broome and Infantino, The Flash relaunched the DC superhero franchise, more or less leading up to DC's superhero comics as we know them today.

That is, unless you discount the tremendous impact that Marvel Comics' 1963 push into the market had on superheroics. Following a genuine serialized format in the tradition of a soap opera or continuing television program rather than an episodic presentation of super-adventures in which the entire adventure would be wrapped up in a few pages, or, more likely, a single issue. And, I don't think I need to lecture this crowd about the expanded world of who could be a superhero in the Marvel comics, from "Puny Parker" to the rocky Ben Grimm.

However, by the mid-80's, with 30 more years under their belts of DC and more than 20 of Marvel, once again many felt that superhero comics had told every version of every tale that could be spun. After all, despite The Thing's rejection by Sue, Peter's sick Aunt and even the alterations to the seemingly impervious Superman titles with the placement of Julie Schwartz as Super-Editor, a lot of what happened in the comics was still hero v. villain, even with more "realistic" angles to the heroes' lives, cluttering them up.

This writer hesitates to say who set the first volley, but with Miller's Daredevil and Dark Knight hitting the now-older comic audience, V for Vendetta on American shelves, Watchmen, Swamp Thing, et al... all looking at the superhero formula and shaking things up to tell new stories that American audiences weren't used to seeing in their superheroics. In many ways, Crisis on Infinite Earths marked not just the conclusion of the old DCU, but with the very real editorial shift at DC, the conclusion of an old way of doing business and telling stories.

Because this era occured concurrent to when I first began switching from Bugs Bunny comics and Beetle Bailey collections to superheroes, I can say that I was honestly unaware of the seismic shift occuring. I had no expectations of super-hero comics, and came to books like Dark Knight two or three years after the initial push, and wouldn't read Watchmen until High School.

But once again, rather than moping that all the stories had been told, a new generation of writers was findingw ays to write superhero comics that worked for them for their peers, and for their maturing audience. No doubt critics pointed out superficial similarities in the stories. Clearly Watchmen were just the Charlton heroes in drag, and mad scientists had been setting off doomsday devices since the dawn of science fiction. Just as men had gone beyond their humanity when exposed to something greater than themselves in works of science fiction. But the writers had taken the concepts, boiled them down and synthesized them into something new and different.

They would be followed by other giants. Gaiman. Bendis. Name your favorite whose work received a chance to flourish that might never have been considered in 1975, 1955, 1940...

The Albatross of Continuity and Fanboys

Around 2003, it became very fashionable for writers to poo-poo continuity and fanboys who cared about continuity. "I'm telling a new story," the writers said, "and its a real drag when I can't tell the story I dreamed up because it contradicts what the fans of the character understand to be the history of said character." Editors, hot to get name-brand writers on their books (such as when Berganza brought Chuck Austen onto Superman) seemed to want nothing but to get out of the way of the writers and make them happy, hoping that whatever lightning had struck with their previous efforts would zap again. To return to ninjabadass's point:

Given how many comics have been written and how many subjects have been covered in their pages (which are available more completely and immediately than ever before), you can see how all of this information can start to feel less like a great opportunity and more like a tremendous albatross hanging around one's neck.

True. But isn't that what they're paying writers and editors to do?

At the end of the day, isn't that really the bottom line of what is expected of a writer/ editor team, to come up with new stories that work within the world of the character but expand upon what has come before?

Every decade or so, we see that its not an impossible task to push the storytelling in comics beyond what we believed possible, or what kind of stories work for superheroes as new writers with fresh takes on old properties step into the ring and create seismic shifts.

If the market were bigger, I would probably be more inclined to agree with ninjabadass, but when Marvel and DC decided to pull out of the general market and appeal directly to the captive consumer at the Direct Market level, writers need to expect that when they come to a franchise title such as Captain America, Spidey, etc... they can grow an audience, but there is a core audience that was there to begin with and who will notice when you ignore continuity, repeat storylines, etc... In short, to that audience, it looks less like a brilliant story idea when you mash the details and winds up looking more like a mistake.

That said, we all know of a story that was good enough that we just shrugged off the continuity flaws and went with it.

What I'd suggest is that its not trolls in comments sections who dictate the quality of a story. And its certainly not columnists like myself who shoot off a few hundred words about Final Crisis. Its two things: (a) did it sell initially, and more importantly (b) do people remember enough to make it a part of continuity? Ie: Are they now essential parts of the story of that character?

I'd look to Geoff Johns as the antithesis to the "albatross" argument. As a writer working within long-running serial fictions, he managed to take some of the shoddiest re-imaginings, re-boots, etc... of characters such as Brainiac who have seen more versions than Bond's had actors, and he still manages to weave them all together into one complete story. That's not to say it wasn't a lot of work, or that it worked completely... But he manages, time after time, to take what the reader might know about a character and use it to tell a story. Even using parts of old stories like amd Frankenstein of storytelling, if you've been reading his run on Action.

And as crazy as Superboy Prime's punches on reality may have seemed, at least it went a long way to explaining what the @#$% was wrong in the DCU, and how it could be corrected. And, heck, we're still talking about that particular narrative device today, aren't we?

The Kids are All Right

ninjabadass says:

These poor kids are born into an era when many of the entertainment mediums that they're experiencing almost feel played out, with no new mediums or genres being created to fill the void

I think I responded by saying: every generation feels that way.

There's an exchange for receiving the gift of youth and having your life ahead of you. Your trade off is the knowledge that others came before you, and its up to you to either meet them or exceed them. That's the way it works. That's why movies change, books are different, and why we aren't all still listening to Stephen Foster's greatest hits on the pop music radio station.

We do see changes in mainstream comics, still. Perhaps not the colossal shift of Watchmen or Dark Knight, but its worth noting that when they were released, they were just prestige format mini-series. It's unlikely many knew the impact they would have. And, surely if there had been message boards at the time, there would have been complaints regarding the style, the stories, what have you... And as I'll freely admit, all of this internet stuff with comics is a lot of noise to signal.

For those looking for hope or signs of change:

Look at what's become of Daredevil since Bendis took over the book and Brubaker picked up the baton. Or for more subtle changes, look at what Rucka did with Wonder Woman. We can look at Millar's Ultimates as a change in a stories set of characters. Or celebrate that a series like "Alias" ever even existed at Marvel in the first place.

We can even look at how Marvel has committed to a mega-narrative approach to storytelling as company policy as a huge change (maybe not for the better, but there you have it).

Or whether or not Final Crisis is a harbinger of things to come for super-dense narrative structure for the audience that's so familiar with the tropes, it just needs the bullets rather than the whole drawn-out story.

But for artists and writers looking to make a splash in the scene, its not just about bringing your best pastiche. Denny O'Neil, Neal Adams, Alan Moore, Frank Miller, hell... even Kanigher didn't become legends in the industry because they tried to repeat what was done before. Yes, they did it by following in the path of the giants before them, from Siegel & Shuster, to Eisner to whomever... but they are the ones we remember because they took it to the next level.

For today's creators languishing in the market, its not enough to tell adequate superhero stories which try to live up to the creator's favorite title. For creators signed to the Big 2, or for the 20 year old cooking up a self-published title in his bedroom, buying into the notion that "it's all been done" is going to be why nobody cares about your comic. Especially in this market of fan boys/ girls who have seen it all, and even if they don't vote with their trolling on some comment board, may certainly vote with their wallets if you're not brining something new to the table.

We expect that certain paths will be followed. That's part of the deal when you come on board to write a franchise character. There's no doubt that its become increasingly difficult to find that new angle, but to use Superman as an example... Morrison's use of Superman's tropes in "All Star", most of which were throwbacks to the Silver Age or early Bronze Age, tell an entirely new story. One which the audience somehow came to the conclusion was both classic and groundbreaking.

And what was Final Crisis if not an exploration of tried and true DC concepts through a new filter?

It's not impossible. It can be done. And it can be done well, but what may have been an "A-Game" in comics fifteen years ago may no longer even get you off the bench at DC or Marvel. And that's the way it should be.

Never ending battle

All that said, comics could certainly do with another Watchmen. Maybe its time we welcomed something hugely groundbreaking. Something that doesn't push the possibilities of the superhero story in small, progressive chunks, but in cosmically enormous steps. But while Watchmen deserves the accolades (well, many of them), its also a 23 year old comic. We're due.

Do DC and Marvel even have the engine anymore which could drive a work like Watchmen if it were put in their hands? That's maybe a whole different conversation.

But it's also worth noting that Watchmen wasn't Moore's first work. It just happened to be one of his break-out pieces after years of toil on other titles in which he learned and refined his craft. With Watchmen, he found his angle and took it.

Something for those kids who are worried there's nothing new left to do to consider. It's not always about a grain of an entirely new idea. There have been billions of minds before yours cooking up stories. And certainly in super-hero comics with continuity, franchise standards, what have you... its not about what nobody has said before, but in how your voice is going to say it.


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

Great article, thanks! Hope to read more of your stuff in future.

-- Posted by: John at February 10, 2009 4:23 AM

Hey John! I appreciate the kind words.

I usually write one long column per week (look for the Krypto icon), and I'm also responsible for The Signal Watch columns at Comic Fodder (look for Jimmy Olsen).

Travis, our editor, writes absolutely terrific columns, and I'm always happy to see what he's got up each week.

-- Posted by: Ryan at February 10, 2009 10:51 AM

Well, I still think that the internet and the ever-growing, continuing presence of online reference materials (and all of the half assed "experts" it has created) has made it tougher than ever to strike out into not only comics, but many major mediums of artistic expression today. We live nowadays not only within the structure of our own society, but within the ruins of at least one or two generations that came before us. This will continue to be true from this point forward, and the issue will only continue to compound itself. The kids of 2050 will potentially not only have their own culture to deal with, but the cultures of the generations that came before them. Everything is on film and video and audio tape, and now everything is going digital, so minus some sort of apocalypse, none of this stuff is going anywhere. Maybe various aspects of the ever-present past will just be adopted by different subcultures as their own. The roaring 20's kids in their zoot suits might bump elbows with the hippy kids in their tie dye and patchouli while greasers from the 50's roll up and down the street in their suped up hot rods and leather jackets (come to think of it, the rockabilly crowd has already sort of staked out the 1950's as their time period fashion statement- they've just added tattoos). Anyway, it's going to be harder and harder to even interest people in the new as people find their favorite varieties of the old to hang onto.
In terms of comics, artists and writers, daunted by the prospect of having to come up with something new in the face of so much popular older material, will be tempted to emulate rather than innovate- to replicate the style of their favorites rather than trying to come up with something really new and unique. This is already happening in pop music.
Anyway, you have some good points, but I still maintain that the current generation is facing something new. My generation grew up with a few old records and black and white reruns of a few old shows as reference points. Kids today are buried in the cultural artifacts of other eras and inundated with critics who keep telling them they're not "getting it right" because the new works aren't as good as the old. Tough time to be an artist.

-- Posted by: Ninjabadass at February 10, 2009 5:44 PM

I salivate at the world you describe, of co-opted styles emerging as some sort of breakdown in the timestream and becoming indicators of splinter social norms and/ or socio-economic consideration (I am reminded of the Victorians in "The Diamond Age").

As long as there are young people, I suspect it will always be possible to sell them on the new. Nor do I see a healthy respect for the old as a broken model.

Comics have only just caught up with every other media, as per makinga home for classic material at the hands of the audience. Sure, its killed the back-issue business, but its also made it possible to know what the heck people were referencing. And my hope is that efforts like Marvel's Digital initiative will make this even more possible.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I work in an absolutely enormous library, for an enormous university, where I'm working to develop digital repositories for the preservation and open access of all kinds of data. I don't know what would sell me on the idea that 18-20-somethings shouldn't be aware of the works that came before them.

On the flip side... its hard to argue that nothing new is available or of interest to the kids these days with hundreds of cable channels filling the air waves, more kinds of music available to them than I could have even imagined in high school, and the steady embrace of the flavor of the month, just as its always been for the youth market.


If the issue is that kids are being told they aren't "getting it right", then I would point them to what every generation of young people has done before them. Quit crying that nobody feels you're a precious little snowflake, and actually create something worth remembering. Tell the old fogies to stick it in their ear, take the best of what's come before, co-opt it, claim it as your own and do something that works for you. And, heck, maybe it'll actually sell.

-- Posted by: Ryan at February 10, 2009 6:10 PM

Part of the problem isn't that there aren't any new storiest to be told - it's that CORPORATIONS have a vested interest in their characters and can't/won't let certain stories be told. These companies will protect their lisensed creations and prevent them from going too far outside the box of pallatable acceptance where they will forever reside.

10 years ago Chris Priest wrote a Wonder Woman story for Legends of the DCU called The 13th Letter. Basic presmise is a despot agrees to stop a war he instigated if Wonder Woman will spend the night with him. The story solicit intrigued me to no end and I couldn't wait to see what one of my favorite writers did to make the story believable.

Instead, the story was gutted and we were left to believe that the despot developed a conscious that allowed Diana to spend the night without him pressuring her to actually, you know, "spend the night". Priest did his best but it was just stupid. The uproar at the time over even the implication was deafening but I bet if DC hadn't torpedoed the story it would have sold a lot more issues than it did.

-- Posted by: David at February 10, 2009 6:24 PM

Well, yeah. And in a way, I think this is a little off-topic as it deals with corporate control of properties versus freedom of the writer. That's why, above, I questioned whether DC and Marvel had engines for bringing a Watchmen or Dark Knight to the table these days, and immediately shelved the question.

There are always going to be rules around the licensable characters. And on something as iffy as "sex for trade" for Steinem's mascot, and symbol for womanhood everywhere, I'm not surprised DC balked.

This isn't the cool-kid, punk rock view, but: Sometimes it pays to see the big picture, and while I can appreciate Priest's stance, sometimes as readers who know a little about this stuff, we have to remember there are a lot of corporate players between our interest in a hypothetical question of Wonder Woman's moral dilemma, and the licensing people saying "you did what?"

I'll admit, some of this pushing the envelope stuff works within the framework of the licensed characters, and some of it doesn't. Watchmen was flipped from being a story about the Charlton heroes to "all new" characters for a reason.

I don't know why Priest went forward with a watered down version of his story, but it seems like he could have put it in his pocket until he found the right outlet or the climate had changed. If he really believed in it that much. Ten years ago may have been too long ago to see that whole industries would be made off of variations on the licensed characters (see: Midnighter and Apollo, or Majestic, or Supreme) doing what Supermna, Batman and Wonder Woman couldn't.

And so I think it worth noting that the pushes those stand-ins made have been responsible for what is acceptable in mainstream superheroic work and pushed the boundaries until they broke.

We're not stupid. We know who Apollo and Majestic and supposed to be. We can tell those stories with a wink and a nod, if they should be told.

But in the end, I think the point remains the same. Change is happening. Incrementally in some places. In giant leaps in other places. Its always been harder to change things in a popular franchise, and so we may have to look elsewhere for the next big thing, but isn't that how its always been?

But I do want to point out: We may not see some of the social mores challenged as quickly with the big three at DC, but that doesn't mean we don't see new voices breathing new life into the character with a viewpoint that somehow meets company approval. I mean, you don't get much more traditional than Batman, but we all cite Dark Knight as pivotal to the trending in modern comics. I think people would point to Superman stories like Kingdom Come as somewhat groundbreaking, or Morrison's work the past few years with Superman as setting new standards (including "Final Crisis"). Or the unapologetic take on Wonder Woman taken before the Infinite Crisis re-launch.

-- Posted by: Ryan at February 10, 2009 7:15 PM