I CAN’T BELIEVE I’M DOING THIS
I’m going to jump in the middle of Robin and Gavin’s exchange on the DC Comics reboot, even though I explicitly told both of them that I didn’t want to read about it and had nothing to say about any of it, because some things Robin just wrote sparked some ideas that I want to follow here.
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… 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?… 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.
Now before I start, I want to stipulate a few things. First, I want to take seriously Robin’s two primary arguments in his post:
- “I want to talk not about Superman’s universe, but our own—because I think this strategy says something interesting about creative economics today.” Let’s call this the explicit argument.
- Comic books themselves, as content, not just the strategies of their publishers and artists, have something to say about this. Let’s call this the implicit argument.
And I want to add a third point, that I’ll call the unconscious argument. It’s something I don’t think Robin necessarily intended, but which is entailed in the way he formulates the problem:
Everywhere in Robin’s post where he writes “artists,” you can substitute “journalists“—and probably many other nodes in creative economies, broadly construed.
OKAY, SO WHERE DO COMICS FIT IN?
This picture is from Geoff Johns’s Green Lantern: Rebirth, which came out six years ago, around the last time DC Comics had a big clean-slate event. It zeroes in on something I hadn’t quite figured out before, especially since I’m not a big DC Comics guy: the true diametrical opposites in DC’s universe aren’t Superman and Batman, who for all their differences have a ridiculous amount in common and still get along. The real opposites are Batman and Green Lantern.
Green Lantern is cosmic, interplanetary: he doesn’t even defend Earth, but a sector of the galaxy where Earth happens to be located. Batman is hyperlocal: except for the big-time crossover events, he’s fighting for Gotham and that’s it.
Batman, despite a changing cast of sidekicks he inevitably casts off, is fundamentally a loner: he’s mistrustful of others, building everything on his own. He became Batman when he was orphaned, and invented himself. Green Lantern is part of an intergalactic corps who draw their power from a central cosmic battery: he inherited his mantle, there are multiple Green Lanterns currently coexisting on and around Earth, and the story of the Lanterns goes back to the beginning of time.
Green Lantern is about will—the impossible will that allows you to believe you can harness that cosmic energy for your own purposes. Batman is about fear—the fear that allows his opponents to believe that he is more than just a man.
And Batman and Green Lantern will partner up against genuine threats to the planet, but really, they hate each other’s guts.
In this allegory, the authors who turned to indie creator-owned comics in the 1990s out of mistrust for the big legacy publishers are clearly Batman. And the ones who returned to reignite those same publishers a decade later (in some cases, it’s the same people) are the Green Lantern Corps.
The only thing they truly share besides their humanity is their audacity.
DIDN’T YOU SAY SOMETHING ABOUT JOURNALISM?
I did! (Thank you.) I was thinking about Robert Krulwich’s commencement speech to the UC-Berkeley J-School:
Some people when they look for a job in journalism ask themselves, What do I like to do and Who can take me there? Who can get me to a war zone? To a ballpark? To Wall Street? To politicians, to movie stars? Who’s got the vehicle? And you send them your resume and you say, “I want a seat in your car.” … And you wait.
But there are some people, who don’t wait. I don’t know exactly what going on inside them; but they have this… hunger. It’s almost like an ache. Something inside you says I can’t wait to be asked I just have to jump in and do it.
There’s something incredibly powerful about both approaches. I mean starting something yourself, pursuing your external obsessions out of your internal compulsion, drafting allies when you can and going it alone when you have to, living at the limits of your skills and wits—I mean, who cares if you’re in a cave? You are The God Damn Batman.
On the other hand, when you’re part of something larger than yourself—yes, you’re a caretaker, but when it’s right, you’ve been granted power and trust beyond yourself to pull it off. When you push past the tourists in Times Square to walk past the New York Times and Condé Nast buildings, you feel that power and trust made manifest.
This is something I’ve felt keenly writing for Wired, which is not an old institution, but still has a power rooted infinitely deeper in our consciousness than its current incarnation. Or its next incarnation, or the one after that. It’s a force that, if you have the will to harness it, is among the greatest powers we know.
And me, I want the right and the chance to swing that bat. I think that’s part of why Matt works for NPR. And, even though his company is younger than both, I think it’s why Robin works for Twitter.
SO WHAT’S THE JUSTICE LEAGUE AGAIN?
Well, just because Batman and Green Lantern are completely different doesn’t mean they can’t work together! And the team where they join forces, along with Superman and Wonder Woman and The Flash and Green Arrow and a lot of superheroes fewer people have heard of, is the Justice League.
This is why I want to put a different spin on Krulwich’s amazing, powerful idea of “horizontal loyalty”:
Think about not giving your heart to a bunch of adults you don’t know. Think about horizontal loyalty. Think about turning to people you already know, who are your friends, or friends of their friends and making something that makes sense to you together, that is as beautiful or as true as you can make it. And when it comes to security, to protection, your friends may take better care of you than CBS took care of Charles Kuralt in the end. In every career, your job is to make and tell stories, of course. You will build a body of work, but you will also build a body of affection, with the people you’ve helped who’ve helped you back. And maybe that’s your way into Troy.
When I was at Spark Camp last weekend with Matt, I felt the power of horizontal loyalty keenly. Even though everyone there was representing different institutions, sometimes multiple institutions, big names and startups, and frequently just repping themselves, alone—I mean, everyone was repping themselves! But we were also representing each other, and representing the work, and the best hopes of the long arrow at the front of that leaky rocketship into the future.
And we weren’t alone. No matter what our other loyalties were, no matter what powers or vulnerabilities we had or where they came from, we didn’t have to take on anything alone.
And that’s what the League is all about.
And I swear to God, Robin and Gavin—if you make me write about DC Comics again, I will go so House of M on you that no one will remember any of this ever happened.
Update: Read Green Arrow’s—erp, I mean, Gavin Craig‘s—guest post on how continuity is just one kind of storytelling technology, but one that can be fruitfully hacked.