Comic Fodder

Reruns: The Flash, Guest-starring... Another Flash!

Yesterday, I was ranting about Wildcat finding out he had a son, and the son went from dissing his dad in one panel, to adopting the exact same codename and becoming a super hero by the end of the issue. It's bad enough that nobody stays dead in comics, but now when Barry Allen comes back, he uses his old name, but Wally West keeps using the same name as well. And Dan Didio plays his fiddle and insists there is no confusion on the part of anyone anywhere, while kids burn illegal copies of his comics on the web, if they bother to read anymore instead of just play a video game.

My good buddy Earl commented that he didn't really see the problem. Those of us who read comics readily understand the multiple earth phenomenon, and I admit that's not a real problem. The bare minimum they should do is what Nick Marino cited, when Marvel took the Thor and Iron Man substitutes and made them into Thunderstrike and War Machine. But let me make my case and explain the real issue, and show how this is really just a symptom of a larger crisis that envelops comics, movies, and television.

This insistence on having the old guys return and keeping everybody using the same name is an insidious sort of stagnancy, one that is just one symptom of a larger disease, one that has spread across every entertainment format, to the detriment of us all. Part of it is from our information age, where we are deluged with data, and at the end of the day, in our race to assimilate it all, we have no idea what percentage was junk that will be meaningless in a week, and how much of it can still be useful in a reasonable future time frame. So we sit and watch slight variations on the TV, and go to see a fourth sequel at the movies. We complain about having nothing to see but sequels, even though that's the only thing we've been going to see lately.

Wanted: New Characters. What We're Given: Writing the Same Old Characters

DC's Golden Age characters were rebooted with new people donning new costume variations that kicked off a new age of popularity for comics, but the industry has since condensed to a small niche market. Is this a reflection of their refusal to show true growth? Jack Kirby invented a new character every day, but the two publishers seem content to mostly just sit and milk whatever they can out of their existing stock. Is it a coincidence that Marvel exploded to dominance based on a series of brilliant new concepts, one new idea after another? How many failures were left in the dustbin in those years, ignored because they're not still around? Is this sudden rash of looting Golden Age characters part of the desperation? If DC could settle on making Barry and Hal the focus over Jay and Alan in one generation, why is it reversing the Wally and Kyle combination and sticking us back with Barry and Hal again, for who-knows how long? And while it's great fun to revisit classic characters like Alex Ross' Human Torch series and Brubaker's nostalgic time-trip saga in The Marvels Project, are good minds re-treading too-familiar ground at the expense of true growth?

Between Project: Super Powers, The Twelve, and DC's incorporation of Milestone and Red Circle characters, the comics industry has scraped the bottom barrel of the past as much as you could imagine, all in the space of two years. Not to say that some of these haven't proven capable of supporting good stories, but if they ever want the industry to have another chance at an explosion, is raiding the dustbins really the right strategy? I think resurrecting old guys and keeping them center stage is static. I think in the long term, it means boring, and it means stagnation for the comic book industry. We see examples of this in cost-cutting, adventure-averse Hollywood, where a producer semi-jokes that he could make a movie based on the brand name of Kleenex, just because it's a familiar commodity, and people will go to see it because they know it already.

That's partly why Hasbro is getting movie treatments for their board games, like Monopoly and Risk and the Ouija board. The executives are refusing to green-light anything unless it has a proven success or recognizable brand name already attached to it. It's why you'll see a ton of superhero movies and films based on novels for the next couple decades; it's why the comics industry is translating novels and TV shows into comics again, hoping to capture people with a familiar concept. It's why you might see a movie one day based on a cereal, as opposed to a gripping drama about a boy, that couldn't get sold because the executives didn't want to take a chance on it being a flop.

The comic industry should be different. The costs of a flop are relatively low, if it can't develop an audience, it gets canceled. We're not talking about a $100 million development deal, here. The comics are already being treated as an experimental R&D department, to sort through and slap up on another screen for mass-entertainment treatment, so why don't we see more stuff? Are the bean counters so thoroughly in control that even our Outlandish Experiments Department has to produce only stale, safe fare that absolutely has to turn a profit? In such a relatively low-cost environment, why do the comic publishers not take a hint from Hollywood, or big pharmaceutical companies? Spend some time researching in a dozen different pots, and when you land a big winner, use the profits to offset the losses from some of your less-successful ventures.

Big pharma spends an average of $7 billion in R&D to burn through their hopes, and out of all of that, they end up with one big drug that is useful enough, so they can charge a ton of money for a few years and recoup their development costs. Those profits are applied against the losses from their losers, too, and then they have to start the whole process over again, because they lose their patents and generic pills eat into their profit margin before too long. Comics could do something similar, but without worrying quite as much about a generic copy biting into their sales.

Instead of seeing a ton of new titles, most of the re-launches are covering B- or C-list characters that couldn't sustain their own series in the past for very long. The limbo of the current crop smacks of quiet desperation. The birth of the Silver Age began with Barry Allen (by most people's reckoning, at least). A new age cannot begin if good ol' Barry never leaves! The publishers were quick to try this reboot and switch to a new, different person behind the costume once before, but then what happened? The attempt to move from Barry to Wally West has met with sudden reversal, worse than any doom the Reverse Flash could inflict on the franchise.

I submit that we are overdue for resurgence in comic books. There should already be a new heralded age of circulation in the millions. But that can only happen if there is something new to grab the attention of a bigger audience somehow. Regurgitating Barry Allen back into the role of the Flash, and to a lesser extent, bringing back Steve Rogers and Bruce Wayne and Ray Palmer ad infinitum, will simply keep us trapped in this strange new limbo. Why will DC and Marvel not move on from their initial success? If there is going to be another creationary boom, it can’t be born from rotating creative teams playing with the same old box of toys forever.

Meanwhile, they have spent so much time throwing familiar names for both heroes and villains at us over the past ten years, they didn't have any room to tell us who these people were, or why we should care. "Hey, there's a new Air-Wave! Oh, never mind, somebody just killed him..." The automated processes that are in place will tell writers that they have to find a place to insert a character, or the rights might lapse. Who cares if the Ringer was killed? Just slap some other nobody crook in his suit and have him in the background. There is no story-telling here, it is business practice on the off-chance somebody else could ever make profit off of a “ringer” concept, but as long as Marvel throws the suit on someone every five years or so, they can make a claim to the property.

Stuck on Watchmen

It is all tied together: the same-name problem; the endless parade of replaceable bad guys; the inability of anyone to stay dead. While we can poke fun at these tropes and even craft some good stories out of them, we’re still not moving forward. There’s a reason that Watchmen and the Dark Knight Returns are still held up as the standard by which we measure other comics. They were bits of genius, each in their own fashion, but they were meant to inspire people to try their own thing. Instead, the entire industry chose the least common denominator and created a decade of “grim and gritty” comics. Even Alan Moore has expressed his own distress at the fact that so much time has passed, and we’re still sitting around talking about Watchmen because nobody has been able to do better. Even your most egotistical sportsman will still show pride when a new athlete steps up and breaks his record; he knows it is good for the progression of the sport, it shows growth.

All of these famous creators have expressed a desire for others to strike out on their own and create something new. It doesn’t matter if it was Jack Kirby back in the day or Alan Moore now. They knew that originality and creativity had to be pushed and prodded, never rest on its laurels. Instead, everyone takes their stuff and we rinse and recycle and move the pieces around a little differently. The only saving grace for comic books is that TV and the movies are in the same boat right now.

TV and Movies: The other two broken legs of the pop culture stool

How many spin-offs of CSI are there now? How many of NCIS? How many more lawyer/doctor/crime procedurals are we supposed to take? Why must we endure the same rush of copycats every time a single game show or reality show is successful? It’s not just the iPhones and the Playstations that are taking attention away: television has become a graveyard of copycat formula. Even science fiction, which is supposed to be visionary, is spending almost all of its time recycling re-run concepts like the Prisoner, Battlestar Galactica, and the Terminator. For all the grief Dollhouse has received from the fans, at least it tried to wrestle with an interesting concept.

Hollywood is so scared of disappointing their shareholders with a loser, the directors and producers are lying through their teeth to land a deal. A producer will take the name of an old movie and announce a remake. The trick is, they will then take the one thing they liked about the original movie and then run with it to do what they really wanted to do. It’s only because the executives thought there might be some audience recognition via a remake that the project gets the greenlight. I’ve lost track of the people that have admitted openly in interviews that they couldn’t get the project approved without doing it that way. So fans of the original who thought it really would be a remake are disappointed, and it usually ends up that the people who didn’t care about the original aren’t impressed by the new variant either.

The Last Chance

The only window of opportunity left for comic books is the fact that Hollywood is so desperate for brand recognition, they will be raiding comic books for the next fifteen or twenty years for projects. So far, neither the comic publishers nor Hollywood have been able to significantly increase comic readership in conjunction with the movie treatments. The movies do increase the overall awareness of each character, and introduce a ton of toys and other merchandise to inundate the pop culture playground. This is the time frame that is left for people to change the game.

Writers and artists have a unique format in sequential art. There are a ton of techniques that can be used that shine only in the comic format, and either don’t work as well for TV or movies, or can’t be translated at all. It’s part of the reason a film treatment for Watchmen was never going to work on any more than a simplistic level. For a company like DC, they need to let Wally West graduate to being the only Flash, and let Barry Allen take his place in the foundation of heroic monuments. For other story-tellers, they need to experiment and innovate. There’s no shame in slumming around to play with classic characters. I can certainly understand the appeal of getting to write the “big guys.” Who could resist a shot at Batman or the Avengers? There are some writers who will only want to do that. Fine, let them stay there and make the most of what they can with it. I’ll still pick them up and read them and hope for the best.


There’s a reason why we don’t mention Superman or Iron Man to people who ask us for a good example of a comic book. We immediately jump to things like Maus, Fables, 100 Bullets, Cerebus, and Astro City. Even hardcore fans like me who grew up on a steady diet of almost nothing but superheroes are eager for everyone to realize that there is more out there, that you can be successful with different genres, and use different conventions. It’s why we jump like drowning men at Y the Last Man and Ex Machina, and any entertaining theme that can provide just enough of a deviation from the normal capes and tights, and highlight other possibilities.

There are two ways for things to change. One, Marvel and DC can start letting death mean something, stop putting new people in Z-list costumes and not even bother to tell us their civilian ID, and start having their respective shared universes grow and change. Two, they can wither and die as a new company provides the spark to usher in a new generation. Without one of these things happening, in 30 years, comic books might be nothing more than a bunch of nostalgic collector’s items for 10,000 people in the entire world, and shrinking every day.

Or, of course, we could have a small subset of what we have today, and see a few people reading a digital Superman and Batman and a handful of the same titles forever, while our grandchildren watch 3-D, scratch ‘n’ sniff versions of NCIS: Indonesia and the latest movie reboot of Star Trek. And if a small part of you doesn’t want to scream out loud at that prospect, I don’t know what to do.

Tpull is Travis Pullen. He started reading comics at 5 years old, and he can't seem to stop.