We’re in the second week of what I suppose I should call “Divergence,” because "Not the New 52" sounds a little too cute. Last week was the first proper look at the new Superman status quo, and this week features the first full issue of the new Batman. For the most part, the new directions and relaunches I’ve seen have been pretty intriguing. However, underlying them is the age-old issue of maintaining a character’s core attributes.
I’ve talked about this before in the context of honoring a character’s creators. William Moulton Marston wanted Wonder Woman to have a very specific social-justice viewpoint, and to a certain extent Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had a similar goal for Superman. Nevertheless, the two characters ended up developing in different ways.
Marston’s creative voice was never really duplicated, so Wonder Woman became just a bit more generic. Meanwhile, Superman’s multimedia success resulted in a number of new influences, which eventually helped transform Siegel and Shuster’s creation into an Establishment figure. Of course, subsequent shifts in society generally and comics particularly would push back, as with the Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories and Jack Kirby’s Jimmy Olsen in the ‘70s to the more socially conscious Wonder Woman stories in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and ‘00s.
Thus, for these sorts of long-running characters, there’s the creators’ original work, and there’s the response to that work. With Superman, the responses started almost immediately, in the form of adaptations. When Max and Dave Fleischer adapted Superman for a series of cartoons, they were responding to Siegel and Shuster’s work; but they were also mindful of the Adventures of Superman radio program, from which they borrowed elements like the opening narration (“Faster than a speeding bullet,” etc.). Later came newspaper strips, movie serials, the George Reeves TV series and a prose novel. At first they all fed off each other, but by the ‘50s and ‘60s, when the Superman mythology was exploding in the comics, the live-action and animated adaptations could barely keep up.
I’m starting to digress a bit, so I’ll throw in a familiar example: The 1978 Superman movie boasted few of the comics’ details. The Fortress of Solitude and Krypton looked distinctly different, there was no Krypto or Superboy, Clark didn’t work at WGBS-TV, Luthor didn’t have the purple jumpsuit (among other things), and only Pa Kent died. Regardless, it was popular enough to influence the John Byrne-led reboot of 1986, and for a lot of people Christopher Reeve’s performance has set the standard ever since.
My point is, when we evaluate stories featuring Character X, we’re likely to evaluate them on two levels: whether they’re good stories, and whether they’re good Character X stories. The standard for the latter is likely to be more subjective than for the former, since the definition of a “good [X] story” is likely to vary from person to person. It’s like the determination of a character’s “definitive” version.
That, in turn, reminds me of Dan DiDio’s comments back in the fall of 2008, when discussing then-upcoming “Battle for the Cowl” and “New Krypton” arcs:
My two biggest conceits are, for a number of our characters: who is the most recognizable character in that costume? What is the one most people gravitate towards and the most people address as the definitive version of the character. The other is that I hate how we keep on erasing things and starting over. What I like to do is if there is a natural path to the story, to follow that story.
With Batman in particular, and in some cases with Superman, both of them are bigger than who they are. They’ve affected not just themselves and their respective cities, but so many other characters have been inspired by them, taken on their mantle, taken on their emblem. They operate on the assumption, for instance, that they are achieving what they believe that Batman thinks is right. That’s what we’re really exploring here. We have so many characters that are built off of who Batman is – not just his sidekicks, but so many other characters that inhabit his world, that I think there is a potential here to tell an interesting and compelling story, not just about Batman, but what Batman means to everyone that he’s touched throughout his life. That’s why we’re doing this. [...]
[E]specially with characters like Batman and Superman, who’ve had stories told with them for over 70 years…we start to tell a story and we hear, “Oh, you’re going back to that story again?” Well, hopefully, we’re finding ways to reinterpret it in a new light. In this particular case, we’re really examining what makes Clark Kent unique? What makes him the hero -- not just the powers, but what makes him the hero more than any other? That’s what a lot of [“New Krypton”] is going to be about.
I have a feeling that DiDio would say much the same things about the current comics’ new Batman and new emphasis on Clark Kent. What’s interesting now is that DC seems to be getting away from “definitive” and “recognizable” in favor of -- for lack of a better term -- radical makeovers. James Gordon is Mecha-Batman! Everyone knows Superman’s secret! Hal Jordan’s a fugitive! At least with regard to Batman and Superman, these are arguably bigger changes than the ones which kicked off “BFTC” and “New Krypton.”
Ironically, they both come in the wake of stories which for the most part had very traditional underpinnings. I’ve complained that superhero comics have gotten away from simple good guy-bad guy stories -- well, “Endgame” was fundamentally a Batman vs. Joker tale, albeit a super-sized one; and “Men of Tomorrow” was lauded for its return to a more classic Superman status quo. Both stories ended with seismic shifts to their respective status quos, but the Bat-books and Super-titles have since gone a couple of steps farther.
Again, I’m fascinated by what the DiDio of 2008 might have thought about this. First, he stated a preference for the most “definitive” or “recognizable” version of a character; and second, he hated reboots and wanted story arcs to follow “natural paths.” It would be easy to tear apart those old statements with the power of hindsight, since 2011 brought the unnatural path of the New 52 reboot -- and with it a number of less-than-definitive changes. However, as DiDio told CBR recently,
[W]e should always be looking forward. I feel very strongly about that. I think we have to be looking to the future. Instead of looking to the past of what we've done, I think we've got to embrace where we're heading[...]. Not to discount anything, but realistically, I'm more excited about where we can go than where we've been. [Convergence] was a great chance to see [past versions of characters], but I think after a while, you want to start seeing where we can be going to, and what can be new and fresh. [...] As long as they're true to the interpretations of the characters, and are recognizable at the core, I think it's very important for us to modernize, update and contemporize where we stand with our characters and stories [...]
In the abstract that’s harder to assail, although we might dismiss DiDio’s statement as mere cover for a decision that really can’t be rolled back. In the 25-plus years between the relaunches of the mid-‘80s and the start of the New 52, DC’s superhero characters did grow and become more contemporary; but after a while the shared universe became unwieldy. For better or worse, the New 52 offered a lot of series the chance to start over, without having to worry so much about finding those natural paths. Take the pre-Flashpoint Superman: besides getting married to Lois Lane, he a) exiled himself into deep space, b) lost his powers at least three different times, c) gained energy-based powers and split into two different beings, d) died and was revived, and e) saw his worst enemy and his high-school chum each become president of the United States. The current version of Superman hasn’t been through nearly as much.
Per DiDio, though, the current version of Superman still needs to be “true to interpretations” and “recognizable at the core,” no doubt with the goal of being “definitive.” The same goes for everyone from Adam Strange to Zatanna. As much as DC wants to modernize, there is still a strong tendency to revert to whatever the current brain trust prefers.
Underlying all of this is the aforementioned relationship between a body of work and the reaction to that body of work. As the body accumulates, the reaction necessarily adapts. By 1985, Cary Bates had been writing the adventures of Barry Allen for over ten years, and wrapped them up with what turned out to be a two-and-a-half-year storyline about the Flash being tried for murder. The reaction to that in 1986 was to emphasize the youth and unpredictability of 20-year-old Wally West. At the same time, the various Superman writers and editors had been maintaining various elements of the Silver Age status quo for decades; and the reaction to that was to sweep it all away in favor of Clark Kent’s Earthly upbringing. In that respect, the New 52 was a reaction to the continuity which had accumulated over the previous quarter-century. The problem was that a lot of readers had grown fond of that continuity (which, again, was largely a reaction to the Silver Age) and didn’t appreciate being knocked so abruptly off its proverbial path.
See, sometimes I think we fans aren’t so much fond of a particular story as we are fond of the atmosphere in which that story was presented. That’s not exactly a fancy way of describing nostalgia. Instead, it’s the desire for every Character X story to live up to our own subjective standards for Character X. There’s nothing wrong with that -- it’s inherent in why we follow these characters -- but it can inhibit our appreciation of the larger work.
To be sure, the other end of this analytical spectrum, where creative teams and/or corporate handlers feel free to do whatever they want for as long as they want, isn’t ideal either. (I’m looking at you, Jared Stevens version of Doctor Fate.) However, this tendency is somewhat self-regulated by the practicalities of the market. Mecha-Batman, like AzBats before him, would have to go a long way to compete seriously with 70-odd years of the classic version. Fans are free to read whatever they want, but the professionals necessarily have to keep coming up with new material. That means taking risks, whether it’s a new costume, a new person in the costume, or a combination of both. Whatever the changes are, they force examinations of those core attributes: Does Superman need to fly? Can Batman be a genial sort who teaches college courses and travels in time and space? Is The Flash just a decent person who runs really fast?
The comforting thing is, superhero comics always have ways of restoring those definitive attributes: Bruce Wayne will be back, Dick Grayson will be Nightwing again (someday), and somewhere out in the Multiverse, Wally West is still the Fastest Man Alive. What’s exciting about the current comics is that there are a lot fewer self-imposed restrictions on characters and creative teams, such that anything is possible, without regard for whether the shared universe will bear it. When Dick became Batman and Mon-El took over for Superman, the Justice League roster adjusted accordingly. However, in both the Geoff Johns/Jason Fabok Justice League and in Bryan Hitch’s upcoming Justice League of America, Batman, Superman and Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) are their familiar unadulterated selves -- no battlesuits, T-shirts or gauntlets to be found.
I’m hoping this comes less from a failure of editorial control and more from a desire to free up creative teams, because the latter makes sense for a superhero line which is still trying to find itself. Ostensibly, “Divergence” takes advantage of DC’s logistical changes by allowing the superhero books yet another fresh start; but it’s also an opportunity to step back and see what the shared universe looks like after three-and-a-half years. With any luck, this will produce some good comics, and who knows? Someday they might even look definitive.