This is the first of two posts pegged to DC Comics’ upcoming restart of all its series with issue #1. The second will come from longtime Snarkmarket pal Gavin Craig. Update: We tricked Tim into writing about Green Lantern!
So it’s been tweeted and blogged about: this fall, DC Comics is going to restart every single one of its series (Superman, Batman, the Justice League, and on and on) with a new issue #1. Costumes have been redesigned; storylines have been streamlined.
It is a move that’s similar to—though much more sweeping than—Marvel’s Ultimate strategy. In both cases, there’s a recognition that the accumulated story-cruft of the past fifty years (or even the past five) isn’t really interesting to anyone any more. The weight of continuity and consistency crushes you in the end—so let’s just drop it. Let’s start fresh. Let’s get back to the primes of the story.
But I want to talk not about Superman’s universe, but our own—because I think this strategy says something interesting about creative economics today, and I think it raises some interesting questions about what it means to be an artist.
But first, the 90s.
In the 90s, I was deeper into comics fandom than I ever would be again: swooping into Troy Stamp and Coin after school, making my way to the comics racks way in the back, greedily grabbing up the new releases. What I didn’t understand at the time was that I was dorking out during a singular moment in the history of the business: the birth of the indies. And not just alternative indies, but truly (indeed, dorkily) mainstream indies, indies that published superhero comics just like Marvel and DC, except a) they were more violent, and b) contra Siegel and Shuster and Kane and Lee, the creators, not the company, kept the copyright.
On one level, comic-book IP is a lottery ticket—and whoah, what a lottery. The billions brought in by Batman media and merchandise dwarf DC’s receipts for Batman comic books. It’s not just the old titans that are valuable; look at young gods like Hell Boy, or the still-squalling Walking Dead. But now, miracle of miracles, you no longer have to surrender your newly-minted myths to corporate coffers in order to get them published and build an audience. Therefore, you’d basically be crazy to create anything new—anything potentially lucrative—within DC’s or Marvel’s walls.
And this actually changes the logic of those places quite a bit. Today, you don’t go work at Marvel and DC because of what they are; you go because of what they have. It’s almost like a natural resource. Superman and Batman are potent substances. They have this incredible innate energy, this incredible mythic density, built up over decades. They really are like petroleum—a bright eon of individual organic contributions all compressed into this powerful stuff that we can now burn for light, for entertainment, for money.
Today, this is really the only pitch that DC can make to a talented creator: Come, come, work for us. We’re the only ones with sweet Gotham crude.
(This is the part of the post where I was going to declare the end of the Modern Age of comics, but then I felt a tickling in the back of my brain and googled it and realized I already did that back in 2009. Oof—you know your brain’s gotten lazy when you start repeating yourself without realizing it. But, this is good—this means we can go in a different direction now…)
Now, this kind of pitch is, in fact, pretty appealing, and I don’t mean to diminish the work that results. When a great writer goes down into the myth-mines, the world sometimes gets gems. Look at Frank Miller’s Dark Knight and Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman. This process doesn’t only extract and consume; sometimes it regenerates and replenishes, too.
But this is an interesting kind of incentive, right?—an interesting kind of economic activity. I’d love to hear from some modern comic-book writers and artists: How do you weigh the opportunity to work on an old titan like Superman against the opportunity to create something wholly new, and to potentially profit from that creation? Is it only sentimental or emotional value that draws an artist to the former—or is there more? (You hear Jim Lee articulate some of that value in this post, I think. And the superb Grant Morrison in this video.)
And does this kind of incentive exist in other industries? Maybe it’s like government in a funny way—the executive branch in particular, where it’s all about singular, continuous institutions. Instead of Superman, it’s the White House. Instead of Batman, it’s the CIA. In both worlds, to be the executive—to have your hand on the wheel, even for a short stretch—is a special opportunity and a special responsibility. (And in both worlds, whoah, everybody is totally eager to tell you how badly you’re screwing things up.)
But where else?
Maybe what we’re talking about here is the difference between being an entrepreneur and being a custodian. We tend to think of artists as entrepreneurs, right?—inventors, trailblazers, risk-takers. To make meaningful art is often simply to try something new.
But this is a different model—it’s artist as caretaker.
And then, that model can take you in a hundred different directions, because there are so many different ways to take care of things. Is it artist as hospice nurse, keeping the old titans comfortable in their decline? Is it artist as restorer of paintings, dissolving layers of grime, burnishing the colors below? Is it artist as archaeologist, unearthing the wonders that have been hiding there all along?
Here’s a question, then. Trusted with the care of Superman, which role would you choose? I don’t mean, you know, would you make him more cosmic, or give him a dog, or change his hairstyle; I mean, what would you be? Nurse, restorer, archaeologist—or something else entirely?
Now, onward to Tim’s post…