Monday, February 8, 2016

The Atlantic Takes DC to Task for Dropping the Ball with Superman

Whether you get around to reading my comments below or not, it's probably worth looking at this article in The Atlantic.  This is a fairly serious and well respected news and opinion source, and it's calling out DC Comics/ Entertainment for their poor handling of Superman in the past few decades.  A topic near and dear to my heart.

faster than microwaving his popcorn

I was awake and moving for all of 30 minutes Sunday morning before I looked at my phone and saw my brother sent the link to the story.  Honestly, I kind of rolled my eyes at the headline.  The past twenty or more years have been full of articles in places, both reputable and otherwise, writing about how and why Superman was no longer relevant.  Too goody-goody.  Not po-mo or meta enough.  Not "edgy" enough for today's gnarly kids and their totally radical view of bad-ass-dom.

When the first articles appeared, it seemed they were mostly written in the now-mostly-defunct general pop-culture columns by people working from a list of bullet points familiar in comics circles.  My suspicion was that they were part of that wave of "comics readers" who had read a couple of the big-name trades and followed one or two titles, but didn't read comics or know much other than they'd grown up thinking Batman was kind of cool thanks to Tim Burton and knew to be seen as a quirky pop culture enthusiast, they had to touch on comics, and Superman was the big enchilada and ripe for a take down.  That would really freak out Mom and Dad.  The second wave of articles, still getting generated, made some of the same arguments, but you could tell the actual nerds had gotten day jobs and these same nerds had grown up in a post Dark Knight Returns world where Batman was the main draw not just for DC, but comics in general.

I'd lump this article in with that second wave.  I'm just shocked to see it in The Atlantic.  (Thank to Shoemaker, Max and whomever else pointed the article at me.)

But, in general, I was pleasantly surprised.  The author seemed to actually have some legitimate comics knowledge (and name-dropped internet comics voices like Chris Sims), and shared my confusion at DC's inability to wrangle their former name character, too often working against him.

What's below started as an email back to my brother, which I stopped and closed with a "this is just going to be a blog post.

Yeah, I have a few quibbles here and there with the author's sentiments or statements, and I'm not sure if the writer or editor cut all the why's and wherefore's for brevity, but I'd say I very much agree with the thesis. And I don't think I'm alone.  The constant drumming anywhere online that Superman fans gather has become "Jesus, DC really hates their own character" and/ or "DC - stop reinventing Superman".

I mean, I'm out. I don't read new Superman stuff. I can't take it anymore. There's always a few people online who like what's happening, but there's always a couple cheerleaders for anything in comics or Sci-Fi, no matter how lackluster.

Like I said, I have a few quibbles.

*Ten years of Smallville, no matter how mediocre or terrible at times, is nothing to just shrug off because the character didn't put on the suit.  A lot of Superman mythos made it to TV with an audience far, far larger than that of the comics, and 10 years for anything on TV is a major deal.

*Jack Kirby reportedly asked to take on Jimmy Olsen to prove some point about what he could do with a character seen as superfluous with flagging sales.

*70,000 or 50,000 units moved is actually not that bad.  It's not Batman numbers, but Superman is a mid-range seller and hasn't had 30 years of Bat merchandising and support from DC.

* The article mentions Superman: American Alien as a decent read - but I'll never read it.  The guy who wrote it is Max Landis, son of movie-guy John Landis (Animal House, etc...), who got DC's attention by making a 20 minute YouTube video about how much Superman sucks, and including his Hollywood pals like Elijah Woods in some cardboard and tape recreations of some famous scenes. DC literally got excited enough by a guy who spent days of his life making and distributing something about how terrible their character is that they hired him to write that character.  That, and Max Landis comes off as the embodiment of "punchable" with nearly every word that comes out of his mouth.  That is the thinking going on right now at DC.

So, you know, @#$% you DC for even thinking of hiring that guy.

I am very glad the author pointed out Dark Knight Returns as a critical point in the change of the public perception of Superman, and that Snyder is exploiting the iconography.  But, what DC is doing with its first Batman/ Superman meet-up movie is not unlike the embarrassing recreation of the Kirk/ Spock death scene from Star Trek II that appeared in Star Trek: Into Darkness.  There's no context in presenting the rainy, armored fight as their initial meeting.  Doing so removes the tension and pathos of two figures at the end of a long road.  Placing this scene as their meeting literally makes no sense and devaluates the scene from the comic which was built on 25-30 years of these guys growing apart in philosophy. Here, it's just posturing and chest-thumping.*

Further, coming off DKR, DC Comics decided that Batman not only smarter than everyone in the DCU, the Batman of the comics now had to spend his time at Justice League meetings and just running into everyone in the JLA on the street, telling them they're stupid and wrong about everything.   I suspect this became increasingly true as the comics went in for more of what has been called "realism" as, honestly, Batman is a very non-bullet-proof dude with a utility belt as his main deal.  In the world of more "realistic" heroes that mostly shrug off bullets and fire, if Batman didn't have the edge of writer's on his side, he'd be a smear under Titano's left foot.

This has been especially true in context of the post-Crisis Superman/ Batman meet-ups.  Starting in the early 90's, the comics began a relentless drone of Batman's inner monologue that basically read: "Superman is so dumb.  He thinks everything doesn't suck, but they do.  He must like rainbows and unicorns.  If only he knew the darkness.  But he doesn't.  Because he's dumb."  30 years of this, and readers identifying with the character they already liked enough to buy their comics and wear their t-shirts meant both fans and fans who became writers and creators internalized the idea, and processed it back out.  The end product, of course, is a Man of Steel sequel that requires Batman in order to even exist.

The problem, of course, is that DC forgot, somewhere along the line, that they might want to think about letting Superman have the occasional response to Batman or prove Batman wrong, that the characters are not there to all help solidify Batman's point of view.**  They forgot it wasn't actually a competition, and they should maybe think about selling diverse product and viewpoints.

If I've spent a huge amount of time on the Batman v. Superman problem, it isn't because I dislike Batman.  I'm a huge fan of the Dark Knight, but somewhere along the line, DC decided they were in the Batman business over any other businesses and it's damaged the company and the character that made them what they are and made everything else possible.  Superman didn't necessarily just fall out of favor because "cultural forces" or "culture is more edgy" (none of you people would make it 24 hours in 1930's America).  DC spent 30 years building their Batman brand loyalty in direct competition with their own other brands, culminating in the New 52, or "Now Everyone is Batman".***

What the author rightly points to is that the retreat to the direct market had a huge impact on story.

Since the 1980s, the dominant trend in the industry has been specialty comics shops replacing newsstands as primary distributors. Given this change, companies like Marvel and DC have focused their marketing toward an ever-dwindling market of adult fans, darkening their characters in an attempt to keep the interest of a readership desperate for mainstream respectability. In effect, adults were colonizing young-adult narratives and warping them in the process—an early example of what later occurred with Michael Bay’s legendarily crass Transformers films.
The market became young adult males, and the stories became power fantasies in a way that Alan Moore described as being all about "tactical superiority", which is both entirely accurate (see: The Midnighter and/ or any Batman comic), and not the lesson Watchmen was delivering at all as it carved out the idea that superhero comics could work like a novel for adults.  I don't want to paint with too broad a stroke, but appealing to the tastes of 18-24 year old men is, of course, going to get you the same Bat-centric results over and over.  With any luck, the increasingly diverse comics market will help resolve this issue

DC Comic's greatest publishing success with Superman, and, perhaps creatively during the entirety of the Didio era, has been All Star Superman, a comic as far from grim'n'gritty comics as one was like to see.  And yet, no lessons seemed to be gleaned from any aspect of this effort, and it certainly didn't make its way back up the foodchain to the movie people.****

The cumulative effect has not been good for DC Comics.  Their market share has been plummeting for a few years now, all non-Batman titles seem to constantly struggle with cancellation.  DC's inability to pivot or return to the basic form of Superman is strangling the life out of the company.  Their inability to make the most of either Superman or Wonder Woman in the comics will have deleterious impact on the ability to use DC Comics as an IP and idea farm.

Honestly, I don't really have hope for seeing a Superman who I feel is Superman until there's a complete cleaning house at DC Comics, or even DC Entertainment.

*and, it was a big deal when Batman beat Superman back in 1986.  It's now been 30 years and DC still gets a boner at the idea that Batman must always beat Superman, kind of forgetting that they own both characters.

**it's becoming increasingly easy to draw comparisons between how DC has pitched Batman's approach and some of pop and political media's "my way or the highway" icons, and/ or any fascistic thinking

***the author cuts short on the transformation of Wonder Woman, but the character has been hollowed out from her 1980's renaissance and been recast as a grim warrior who wants to stab everything.  Or, as we used to say in the 80's and 90's "The Wolverine of the Group".  A pretty far jump from her origins as someone preaching peace and love.

**** eat a bag of @#$%s, Zack Snyder


J.S. said...

I thought it was an interesting article, and there were definitely portions of it that echoed arguments that I've heard you making for quite some time. It's weird that DC can't figure out how to make Superman compelling. The concept of a guy who has god-like power (able to fly over to other galaxies and whatnot), but who remains interested enough in his adopted human family to live as an average Joe is pretty interesting. His view of humanity and himself would be fascinating. Heck, just reigning in all of that power on a day to day basis instead of taking advantage of it constantly would require enormous restraint and dedication (can you imagine sitting in traffic or riding on a subway when you know that you can fly faster than the speed of sound?). Power corrupts (even mid level managers at work go crazy with a bit of it), and Superman has A LOT of power, so it would be interesting to see him wrestling with that a bit. It would be interesting to see why he puts so much trust in human institutions (how does he arrive at a worldview where human are inherently good when there are so many counterexamples?). I know these issues have been explored, but they're worth revisiting- especially as a counterpoint to Batman (the character who remains fairly cynical about human society and who spends all of his time trying to expand his power rather than reigning it in).

The League said...

I'd actually argue that after, say, Death of Superman until 2011, the mega-narrative of Superman comics was what you were describing - this management of power idea. Not only does Superman have this power and need to navigate the world, the things that happen around him are of a particular scope that cause fairly large problems for people if he isn't careful. Batman, in many ways, was sort of the devil on Superman's shoulder with all the scolding, giving you the idea that if Batman had all that power, we'd all be in a world of hurt. Batman's need for control would not be a good match.

I think for a good look at how I picture an ideal Superman and some of those issues, I'd point you at "All Star Superman". And for how he relates to people in more mainstream comics, the Chris Roberson run on Superman that redeemed the JMS run.