The big news in the geek world this week: Superman and Batman are starting over. Again.
DC Comics announced it will release new, modern versions of its iconic heroes in 201o, contained in single, graphic-novel formats aimed at the booksellers’ market. This is the latest attempt to bring Batman and Superman into the current century and expand their audience.
With this announcement, DC is taking the same tack that Marvel did a decade ago with its Ultimate line: rebooting its big-name characters without the years and years of continuity. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out well for Marvel. After big initial sales, the Ultimate line eventually turned into just another version of the same characters and the same stories.
This isn’t the first time DC has tried to make Superman and Batman relevant for a new generation. They’ve been at it since 1971, when Denny O’Neil was drafted to show a more human side of the Man of Steel. They’ve done it again and again, most notably in 1986, when John Byrne re-started Superman from the basics: no Krypto, no Superboy, no other Kryptonians at all. (It lasted until the ’90s, when Superboy, Supergirl and even Krypto returned.) More recently in the All-Star line, DC tried to get back to what made its two icons iconic with a masterful run by Grant Morrison, and a horrific embarrassment from Frank Miller. And let us never forget the super-mullet.
The reason you get this constant reinvention of characters that have been around since 1938 has a lot to do with the economics of the comic-book world. You’d never know it from the movies, but comic books are losing readers every year. They’ve gone from selling millions of issues per title to selling a couple hundred thousand at best. Comics are mainly targeted to a very small, specialty market: aging fanboys who go to comic book shops on a regular basis.
The fanboy market, for the most part, doesn’t want to see new heroes. (Comics haven’t come up with a new franchise character since… I don’t know, Spawn. Is there even a Spawn comic book anymore?) Nor do they want to see the same Silver Age and Bronze Age stories they grew up on, since those are childish. The publishers give the audience what they want, which turns out to be the same characters in slightly different, modern and “adult” situations. Without a distribution channel to a broad market, a new character doesn’t have a chance to crack the audience, because the audience isn’t made up of people seeking novelty. They want the familiar brands.
As a result, comics aren’t just for kids anymore. These days, they’re barely for kids at all. Which may explain why Gen Y — the biggest, fattest marketing target in history — has walked away from comics to manga and other forms of entertainment.
So in the absence of actually inventing a new character or finding new stories to tell, I’m all for reinventing the franchise. But as the AV Club says, it doesn’t mean anything unless you really change things:
The last thing the genre needs are more drawn-out revisitations of old mythology. (“Oh look, Krypto’s back. Again. And here’s how Clark Kent met Lex Luthor. Again.”) Enough with the nods and winks to the fans. Here’s hoping that if this series is really aimed at new readers, it’ll actually be new.
I’m one of those few, mildly delusional people who believes that Superman, one of the most successful fictional characters of all time, should sell a million copies a month. Everyone in the world knows who he is. The fact that his own book hasn’t even included him for over a year should tell you that the execution of the franchise has gone badly off the rails. (Ditto for Batman, who is currently dead. Yup. Dead.) Like all the reinventions before it, this one will not work if it’s just shifting a few details, like making Clark Kent a blogger instead of a reporter. There is something fundamental to the Superman mythos, something that appeals across generations. It’s a matter of revealing it, rather than hiding it under the latest fashions.
Here are my modest suggestions for getting Superman back into the air again.
- Get rid of Lois Lane. Not permanently. But when Lois and Clark got married, one of the most enduring love triangles of all time was shattered. The whole point of Clark Kent is that he can’t get a woman like Lois. Elliot S! Maggin once wrote that Clark Kent is Superman’s Hawaiian vacation. That’s why Superman has Clark: so he can be the normal guy on a daily basis. If you let Lois in on the big secret, you’re destroying part of what makes Superman appealing — the part that’s actually human. We can always bring Lois back later. But for now, Superman has to stay single. And Clark needs to see other people.
- Change the rules. Remember, this is a character whose basic operating instructions were set back in 1938. If you’ve had seventy years of stories showing the limits of superhuman strength, do you really need kryptonite as a weakness? Superman’s limits have never been about what can be done to him. Instead, he limits himself by what he’s willing to do. I think it would be interesting if the storytellers would forego any obvious weaknesses for a while. Let’s see what happens when you put an indestructible man in an all-too fragile world. And then, when someone finally does fire that kryptonite bullet, it will be surprising and new.
- Time for new villains. And this applies to Batman as well. I propose a five-year moratorium on Lex Luthor, the Joker, Two-Face, the Parasite or any of the other old familiar faces. They’ve become crutches. There’s no dramatic tension because they’ll always survive to fight another day, since they are franchise players as well. Let’s see what you can do without spending the credit of other people’s stories, guys.
- Speaking of which, could we not have Superman and Batman fight this go-round? I know, the fanboys love it. But it’s stupid. Frank Miller did it best in The Dark Knight Returns over 20 years ago. We don’t need a rerun.
- Lighten up. Plenty of people have done the dark implications of the super-hero, from Alan Moore’s Miracleman to Warren Ellis’ current mini-series, Supergod. Superman and Batman are the bright side of that. They’re supposed to be fun. Try to keep that in mind when you get the impulse to include a graphic rape scene to heighten the dramatic tension.
That said, there is one more thing: the new version of Alfred looks pretty badass.
For the past thirty years or so, DC has been playing catch-up to Marvel. So it shouldn’t have been too surprising after the Disney-Marvel buyout, Warner Brothers suddenly snorted, woke up and remembered it owned a comic book company too. And hey, that company was supposed to be generating movie franchises, wasn’t it?
At least, that’s what seems to be behind the move to create “DC Entertainment.”1 Publisher Paul Levitz is out2, and the new entity now reports to Diane Nelson, who oversaw the Harry Potter franchise for WB.
I know I’m a few days behind the news here, but unlike the Marvel deal, where I have nothing but speculation and random guesses to offer, with DC I have a little experience, at least on the movie side. In the course of what I laughingly call my screenwriting career, I’ve had a surprising number of meetings with big-deal producers on the WB lot. (Well, OK — with their VPs. And assistants.) My life as a comics geek usually played a part; everyone wanted some of that franchise cash, and someone who’s actually read all the funnybooks can be an asset.
Without exception, every one of these producers talked about what a pain in the ass it was to work with DC on getting movies made. One went so far as to say they didn’t even bother asking about the rights to DC properties anymore.
I did several pitches for DC Comics characters, all with the same result. It was like throwing a stone down a well too deep to hear anything when it hit bottom. It’s entirely possible my pitches just weren’t that good. Then again, nobody has had much luck getting DC Comics characters to the screen, with the glaring exception of Christopher Nolan (talented bastard). Joss Whedon — the guy who created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who introduced the concept of the ass-kicking female to an entire demographic — wasn’t able to give WB and DC a Wonder Woman they could live with. Joss Whedon. I suspect that’s a bug in the system.
Another problem was that projects were farmed out all over the place, which led to fragmentation of what should be a shared universe. (For instance, how do you do a Teen Titans movie without Robin, who belongs to the Bat-shop headed by Nolan? How do you put Wonder Girl in that movie if Wonder Woman doesn’t exist on the screen yet? Or Kid Flash, or Aqualad, or Speedy?) Without a guiding hand, stories were left to individual directors and writers. Sometimes that worked, as with Nolan. Other times, it didn’t: in Superman Returns, instead of a new way into the Superman mythos for a new generation we got a sort-of sequel to a movie from 1980. And Superman didn’t even get to punch anyone. We saw how that worked out.
On top of that, there’s the collapse of the Justice League movie, and the endless delays in getting Green Lantern and the Flash to the screen. Constantine. And Catwoman. We must never forget Catwoman.
Bottom line, there was no overarching vision — nothing like what Marvel has going for it now. The creation of DC Entertainment was meant to remedy that. Projects have been taken back from all the various producers, and DC is going to oversee the entire slate now.3
Despite what might sound like bitching here, I hope it works. I love Marvel, but I’m a DC fanboy first. My first comic was a copy of Batman my parents put in my hands when I was four years old.4 I would like nothing more than for Superman to sell a million copies a month while a line goes around the block for the latest installment of his movies. I want to see Nolan’s take on Robin, then Batgirl and even Ace the Bat-Hound. I want to see a “Beware the Creeper” TV show and a Metamorpho/Plastic Man animated series. I want Gail Simone’s Secret Six to have its own movies, DVDs and T-shirts.
And as always, I am available to write any of these things. Reasonable rates.
1 Yes, I know big corporate moves like this take forever and require lots of meetings and planning, but I think the Disney/Marvel deal forced WB to announce before everything was in place.
2I don’t see how this is good news for current DC executive editor Dan Didio. He wasn’t elevated to the publisher slot. According to this report, DC is looking for new feet in those boots, which means DD was passed over or forced to compete with outside candidates for the job. Didio wasn’t even mentioned in the press release. Maybe that’s because, with one or two monthly exceptions, DC has been getting crushed in sales by Marvel for a solid decade now. Maybe it’s because DC’s All-Star line — meant to compete with Marvel’s Ultimate line and provide new readers with easy entry into the DC Universe — fizzled out after two perpetually late series. (Even if one of them was brilliant.) Maybe it’s the failure of DC Comics to turn the biggest comic-book movie ever into more customers. Maybe it’s because DC’s big event of last year — Final Crisis — was a mess in both scheduling and execution. (I personally liked the actual series, but then I’m part of a very small target demo: Grant Morrison fans with an encyclopedic knowledge of Jack Kirby’s 1970s DC period. And even I was confused by the ending.) Anyway, I don’t think more attention from upstairs is going to be a good thing for Didio. Just my opinion, I could be completely wrong.
3DC has already moved to get some of its bench players into theaters and on TV: The Human Target, Jonah Hex, and a couple Vertigo properties. And it finally nailed down a script and a star for Green Lantern. More important, they’ve selected some of DC’s best writers to act as consultants on the big franchises.
4 This one, in fact.
- Topless Robot has the pros and cons here.
- Hero Complex has a sampling of reactions; full article at Comic Book Resources asking comics pros what they think.
- Disney/Marvel mash-ups from SuperPunch: here, here and here.
- And the LA Times has this list of Marvel/Disney characters it would like to see.
As pretty much everyone already knows, Disney plans to buy Marvel (story by my friend Dawn C. Chmielewski) bringing the home of Spider-Man, the Hulk and Captain America into the corporate family of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Hannah Montana.
I was away from the Internet pretty much all day yesterday, so I’ve had a chance to let the news sink in.
Like most fanboys, my initial reaction was fear and worry. (That’s my initial reaction for most everything, however.) It’s easy to imagine the downside. DC has already been through this with its corporate parent, Time Warner. Marvel EIC Joe Quesada has mocked DC in the past for having to run its stories past the corporate suits. Take, for instance, the final issues of the Authority, which used to be one of DC’s top-selling books. Mark Millar, the writer, left the title after censorship in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and DC wasn’t terribly sad to see him go. (Millar has since landed at Marvel, where he’s one of the company’s top writers.)
Disney isn’t as laid-back as Warners. The corporate brand is sacred. Anything that might besmirch the mouse ears is killed, and killed fast. Or, to put it another way, the suits will have notes.
Imagine how Disney would handle it if they’d been around in the planning stages for Millar’s bloodfest, Kick-Ass:
“Hey, Joe, it’s Bryce here at Disney… Um, looking at these pages you’ve sent over. The 11-year-old girl, who kills all the bad guys? With a sword? Slicing the guy’s head off? Is that brain I’m looking at there? Yeah, I don’t see how we’re going to spin this off to the Disney Channel… Call me when you get in.”
Here’s the other thing: Marvel’s first string of characters already belongs to other studios. The X-Men and Fantastic Four already belong to Fox, Captain America, Iron Man and Thor belong to Paramount for the foreseeable future, and Viacom and Time Warner have locked up animated TV rights to the X-Men and others.
Marvel does have a very deep bench. I just don’t know how much weight it carries with people outside the fanboy community. Is there really a big audience for Cloak and Dagger: The Movie? Even some Marvel heroes that have been around forever — like Namor, the Sub-Mariner — don’t have a lot of name recognition.
But the more I thought about this, the more I think the pros outweigh any cons.
For starters, Marvel has finally found stability. The company has teetered on the brink of extinction several times in its long history, and went bankrupt in 1996. Now it will have a corporate parent, just like DC Comics has in Time Warner, to subsidize it when the market goes sour again.
Speaking of the market, Disney might actually be able to push Marvel into making comics for kids again. Most of the buyers of comic books are aging geeks like myself. And we’re a shrinking audience. Meanwhile, the kids today buy stacks of manga. Maybe Disney can use its ability to exploit the under-12 demographic to put comics back in their tiny little hands.
As for the second-stringers, there are still great opportunities in Marvel’s back catalog. Wolverine was a one-issue adversary for the Hulk when he debuted. It’s not the name of the superhero that really counts. It’s the story. (And aside from Superman, Batman and a few others, how many civilians can actually name a comic book hero?) It’s worth remembering that Marvel’s film success began with a D-list vampire hunter named Blade, while the first Captain America movie was a direct-to-DVD embarrassment.
But more than anything else, this deal is a sign of respect. After years and years of begging to be taken seriously, of countless headlines that insist, “Comics aren’t just for kids anymore,” Marvel has made it into the big leagues. They’ve turned funny books into billion-dollar movie franchises, and Disney’s offer is basically an invite to come sit at the grown-up’s table.
DC Comics — and its parent company, Time Warner — just got handed another chunk of legal kryptonite, according to this article in Variety.
In an ongoing Federal court battle over Superman, Judge Stephen Larson ruled Wednesday that the family of the superhero’s co-creator, Jerry Siegel, has “successfully recaptured” rights to additional works, including the first two weeks of the daily Superman newspaper comic-strips, as well as portions of early Action Comics and Superman comic-books.
… This means the Siegels — repped by Marc Toberoff of Toberoff & Associates — now control depictions of Superman’s origins from the planet Krypton, his parents Jor-El and Lora, Superman as the infant Kal-El, the launching of the infant Superman into space by his parents as Krypton explodes and his landing on Earth in a fiery crash.
DC has already lost the ownership of Superboy in another, similar legal dispute. And more of the actual ownership of the character keeps reverting back to the heirs with each decision.
In 2008, the same court order ruled on summary judgment that the Siegels had successfully recaptured (as of 1999) Siegel’s copyright in Action Comics No. 1, giving them rights to the Superman character, including his costume, his alter-ego as reporter Clark Kent, the feisty reporter Lois Lane, their jobs at the Daily Planet newspaper working for a gruff editor, and the love triangle among Clark/Superman and Lois.
While ownership of the Man of Steel is one point of all this legal activity, the real issue is money and how much Warner Bros. and DC owe the Siegels from profits they collected from Superman since 1999, when the heirs’ recapture of Siegel’s copyright became effective.
All of this legal maneuvering has led some of the geek-minded — like me — to wonder if Siegel’s heirs would take Superman out to another company. This would be complicated, because, as Variety notes, DC and Warner own a lot of pieces of Superman that came after the original story, like his current “S” shield, kryptonite, and characters like Jimmy Olsen. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen.
Courtroom drama aside, I’m not sure Superman would work anywhere but DC, however. The obvious candidate to grab Superman is DC’s perennial rival Marvel Comics. Marvel has the money, from its massively successful film franchises, and it has the established stable of talent and a distribution network if it wants to make a bid for the character.
But Marvel’s universe is far less friendly to Superman-type characters. Because of the storylines set down by Stan Lee and all the writers since, being a super-hero in the Marvel Universe is a pretty raw deal at the best of times. Spider-Man is a hunted outlaw; the Hulk is considered a natural disaster on par with a hurricane; the X-Men are considered inhuman freaks. Look at how they treated Captain America, a guy who punched Hitler in the face: they put him on trial, and then someone shot him.
A Superman — a big guy in a flowing cape, flying in to save the day — doesn’t work in this environment. Not to say that Marvel hasn’t tried. They created a Superman analogue called the Sentry. Every big story since his entry into the Marvel Universe has had to take a minute or two to explain why the Sentry doesn’t just solve every problem by tossing the bad guys into the sun. (Short answer: he’s crazy, so that limits his effectiveness.)
Marvel went a little further in this direction recently when it announced it’s acquired the rights to Marvelman, a British knock-off of Captain Marvel, who was himself a knock-off of Superman back in the 1940s. He doesn’t wear a cape, but other than that, he checks all the same boxes as Superman. Impossibly powerful, can’t be hurt, can’t be stopped. Most of Marvel’s villains, like most of its heroes, barely have super-powers at all. It doesn’t seem like a fight against the Constrictor or Paste Pot Pete would offer much of a challenge to a guy who’s basically a god in spandex.
Of course, this is all just speculation. DC is probably not going to lose one of its most valuable properties. But if Marvel did want to get into the Superman business, he’ll have to start off as the only hero in his own world. He’s just that big. He distorts the landscape of other fictional characters in his orbit. Marvel would probably have to build a whole new universe around him.
Actually, I think I’d really like to see that.
(Thanks to Topless Robot for the link.)