Saturday, September 07, 2013

DC's Goat Song

So apparently Dan Didio said at a convention today that "Heroes shouldn’t have happy personal lives," which is the kind of simplistic, foot-in-mouth overgeneralization that you might expect from a company whose PR disasters include pushing two more creators off a title through editorial micromanagement, leaving creator credits off covers without letting anyone know, and releasing an art contest where the challenge is to draw a naked woman attempting suicide, and that's just this week. But it's reflective of the larger problems facing the company right now. And what the hell, it's been awhile since I did a post with a bulleted list, so here goes.
  • Editorial Rules: Maybe it was just the naïveté of youth, but it seemed in the past like there was a back-and-forth between editorial and the writers and artists. I keep thinking of "The Death of Superman," certainly a story with a heavy editorial mandate behind it, but one at least allegedly designed at an editorial retreat where Mike Carlin and (at least) the Superman title creative teams hammered out long-term plans. Maybe it was Carlin wielding an iron fist over everyone else, and because it was pre-Twitter, we just never heard about it. But then, the Superman titles had pretty consistent creative teams without anyone walking off unceremoniously, so I kind of doubt it.

    What seems to be the case now is that editorial whims become inviolable law, without regard to creative teams or stories or basic sensibility. And that would be one thing, but it seems like those whims are changing without proper communication to or regard for the creative teams. George Pérez walked off Superman and said that what got printed was often not what he wrote, and that he had no idea that Morrison was working on Superman's early days in the other title. Rob Liefeld tweeted about getting jerked around over whether or not his books were going to be involved in a crossover or with guest stars. Multiple creators have talked about being informed of relevant changes by press releases or other impersonal means. Long-term planning seems like a lost art at best, and the natural progression of a story is taking a backseat to mindless, unflinching editorial edicts like "no married heroes," even in places where such an edict makes absolutely no sense, such as with Aquaman and Mera. Editorial rules are inviolate and unconcerned with petty things like plot and characterization, which leads us to...
  • Homogenization: I'm reading more Marvel books than I have since I was a young kid, and for good reason. Even different books by the same authors (Fraction's "Hawkeye" and "FF," Waid's "Daredevil" and "Indestructible Hulk") have wildly different tones and styles. "Young Avengers," "Hawkeye," and "Daredevil" are all striking brilliant balances between humor, action, and poignancy; "Thor: God of Thunder" is working with epic themes; "X-Men," "Fearless Defenders," and "Superior Spider-Man" are all doing more-or-less traditional superheroics with interesting twists. At DC, things are a bit different.

    Well, no, actually they're not. That's kind of the problem. With few exceptions, all the books at DC are telling the same kind of grim-n-gritty superheroics with heroes fighting other heroes who are all jerks, and over-the-top villains who might as well have stepped out of the "Saw" franchise. Some books have bucked the trend and done their own thing--"OMAC," "Dial H," "Batman, Inc.," "Green Team"--and mostly have been cancelled as a result. Even the books that you might expect to have something different by virtue of genre--"Sword and Sorcery," "Men of War," "All-Star Western"--have been shockingly bland, with even Amethyst working in an attempted rape plot and making the Shazam-esque central conceit a more standard superhero fish-out-of-water idea. There are some creative teams who are telling good stories within the apparent stylistic confines that DC has set, and some books that appear to be flying under the radar a bit, but mostly DC has a single, unified voice, tone, style, and costume design. There's no "Hawkeye" or "Daredevil" at DC right now, and it doesn't look like anyone there thinks that's a bad thing. I get the feeling that people who want something else--whether creators or consumers--are getting it from other places, leaving DC with a market who only wants the same kind of homogenized endless-event dour superhero tales. Which means that there's even less chance for unique concepts or unique voices to get a foothold, making DC ultimately an interesting microcosm for the problems that have plagued the comics industry since comics moved out of newsstands and onto retail shelves exclusively.
  • Hopelessness: That uniformity might not be so bad if it weren't in service of the depressing status quo that Didio outlines in the quote above. Sure, not every hero should have a happy personal life, but when every hero's personal life sucks, and when it appears that "personal life sucking" is an unalterable law of nature in the DC universe, it doesn't leave much room for variety or growth or really even something to fight for. Drama is necessary to the superhero lifestyle, and the best heroes have sources of drama both in-costume and out. But even Peter Parker occasionally got to get one over on Flash Thompson or go on a date with Gwen Stacy. When the hero's personal life doesn't give them any solace or joy, then we start to wonder what they're fighting for, and I think even the writers start to wonder why we bother with the whole secret identity schtick. If your dual identity is just another way to invite misery into your life, why would you ever put on the glasses or take off the mask?
  • The Wrong Escapism: I think the source of that comes from the same source as the "no marriage" edicts, which is largely that the audience has shifted, and the creators have shifted the way they're looking at the escapism of superhero stories. As a kid, reading about superheroes wasn't just about dreaming of flying and super-strength, it was about imagining that I could be an adult with a cool job like reporting or photography and true love with a smart, beautiful woman. I wanted to be Peter Parker just as much as I wanted to be Spider-Man. But I think the guys working at DC right now--and a sizable portion of their now-older audience--still wishes for the superpowers, but instead want to remember the glory days of youth and singlehood, before having uncool jobs and unsatisfying love lives. I think it's sad that people--men, particularly--are so conditioned by culture to see marriage as the end of adventure and a source of boredom and stagnation, but it's sadder still to see that become the life they're looking to escape from.

    But the end result of foisting that onto characters immersed in a universe where everything is pessimistic and grim, is that you have heroes whose whole lives suck. They can't get ahead as heroes or as civilians, so where's the escapism for the reader?
Hopefully there'll be a sea change at some point. Hopefully someone somewhere will realize that there's only so much talent you can alienate, only so many creative people you can hemorrhage. I just worry that the fanbase is becoming so inbred and insular, and the mismanagement so central to the company's operation, that there won't be a DC Comics left at the end of it.

And I worry further that that wouldn't be such a bad thing.

1 comment:

Moriarty said...

You somehow managed to pull everything I'm feeling about DC right out of my brain. You even managed to mention the exact Marvel books I'm living right now.

This period of editorial mandates at DC is absolutely killing my interest in my childhood (and adulthood) favorite heroes. This is, in fact, the only time in my life that I'm reading more Marvel than DC books.

The sad thing is it's likely to get worse before it gets better. I'm actually kind of inviting it to get worse just so that a clean sweep is made of Didio, Harras, Lee and even Johns if necessary (though I have been an enormous fan of his work in the past on GL and JSA). Put people like Paul Dini or Dan Jurgens in charge and get back to stories with both drama AND joy.