The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

The cosmic custodians
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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

4 comments

A combination Ethnographer and Archivist.

Propagandist says…

I’d be the mortician and retire that tired old cliche.

I think one has to assume that every Superman story has been told at least once, if not twice or thrice. Put him a an unfamiliar context? That’s been done. Find a way for him to use his powers thats actually new and exciting? Good luck. Make him evil? Amp up his powers? Take away his powers? Change his political affiliation? It has all been done. So what then, does one do with the responsibility to create a new story, knowing that whatever is proposed would likely not be original? Everyone has a superman story they want to tell. And in the end, I think all we can do is add our voice to the chorus; to contribute to the mythology. To know that somewhere, an eight-year-old kid may be opening his very first Superman comic – and its your comic. To know that you have the opportunity to shape or reshape someone’s image of the character…the thought is humbling. After all, if we’ve learned anything from comics, its that with great power comes great responsibility

Myths were created in part to explain things that man had no way of understanding. And I think that’s all I would do with Superman. Attempt to explain –or at the very least explore– what I don’t understand; what I can’t possibly comprehend, earthbound and x-ray visionless as I am. I think all art needs an element of mystery. Not necessarily murder-on-a-train mystery, but an element of the unknown or unknowable. I think it should make us see the world in a new way or at least try to consider it from a perspective other than our own. What better perspective from which to examine the unknown than that of a man who literally sees the world differently from everyone else? Both in terms of perspective and interms of scale. Hell, Superman can see infrared, microwave, even cosmic frequencies. He is aware, in some way, of almost everything (except of course lead-lined underground lairs). The thought is terrifying. How does he process all this information? Does he struggle to move through and sort through the invisible infrastructures that we can only access through some sort of mediation and selection? How is he not completely overwhelmed at every moment by pure information? What is his perception of space and time? How does this affect the way in which he moves through the world and how does he maintain an element of humanity while inundated with data? Does understanding the scale of the solar system affect the way he understands the scale of a major metropolis? Comics have definitely explored these ideas, but they usually tell more than they show. By showing readers the world as experienced by Superman, I would hope that they consider the modern mysteries of their own world. I guess that would make me artist as empath.

Gavin Craig says…

One of my favorite moments from Bruce Timm’s Justice League cartoons was when Superman confronts Darkseid and talks about how he feels like he lives in a world made of cardboard, constantly having to worry about breaking things, or people. Kind of like your comment, Jimmy, it’s an interesting reminder that even Superman comics don’t spend much time thinking about what it’s like to be Superman. Too often he’s just a guy to flies in (from outer space!) to punch something really hard.

While I think that you’re right that on some level, every Superman story has been told, I think you also point to the fact that there’s still the possibility of a fresh story from a writer’s own unique imagining of the particulars, and putting one’s self in a character’s shoes is a promising first step.

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