Sunday, September 8, 2013

DC Comics and the Case of the Deathless Media Franchise

It's been a big week for comic book drama.

The greatest tidal wave of Internet outrage has come from DC's new contest - and while asking artists to draw Harley Quinn naked and suicidal is definitely not the worst item on the company's social sensitivity rap sheet, it's really not helping.  (Next up: Batman sobbing helplessly as he masturbates to a Leave It to Beaver rerun!  Ha-HAAaaaaa!)

The second wave of the PR shit-nami has come as DC vetoed Batwoman's marriage to her long-term partner - while being careful to articulate that they are not objecting to lesbian superhero marriage, but superhero marriage across the board.  (And yes, dear reader: even Aquaman.)

Which brings us, rather retroactively, to A Lee Martinez's latest post.  He calls it Continuing Drama vs. The Dreaded Third Act, and opens with this:
One of the reason I enjoy writing standalone novels is that it allows me to tell stories that have a beginning, middle, and an end.  Series fiction is, almost universally, stuck in the second act by its very nature.
ACT ONE: Peter Parker gets bit by a radioactive spider, gains superpowers, learns a lesson on personal responsibility.
ACT TWO: Spider-Man struggles to fight crime and redeem himself in his own eyes and the eyes of the city he defends.
ACT THREE: Spider-Man learns to balance his obligations as both a superhero and an ordinary man, gets married, has some kids, stops being such a sadsack.
Yes, it’s that Act Three that’s the problem.  It NEVER happens.  It was never intended to happen.  Spider-Man is stuck in that second act, and he will never actually get out of it.
(I highly recommend clicking over to read the whole thing - it's a humdinger of a thesis.)

For all the publicity it's garnering at the moment, DC's weird, regressive Peter-Panning just shines a brighter spotlight on an issue that's been endemic to franchise fiction pretty much since the get-go: namely, that you've set up a system that pits your brand against your story - and the brand wins every time.

Would it be interesting to see Spider-Man get his Act Three?  It certainly was back when they called it The Incredibles.

But if we actually let Spider-Man grow and change as a character, we'd eventually run out of Spider-Man stories to tell - and Happily Ever After does not sell comic books, action figures, or kids' underoos.

So we have to keep the machine going.  Superman and James Bond and Dr. Who have been so calcified by time and money that their adventures will never, ever end - we'll just keep swapping out their puppeteers as needed.  And the more closely a supporting character orbits that fixed heroic center of their universe, the less they will be allowed to change.  (Killing off Squid-Boy?  No problem.  But Jean Grey just can't stay dead.)

That is the part that sticks in my craw.  When you know going into the story that the good guy can't achieve final victory OR die trying - that the Earth will not get blown up, or stay blown up if it does - that any substantial growth the hero has to do already happened back in his origin story - it feels like... well, kind of like how my good buddy Ike probably feels when he bumps up against the aquarium wall.  You know, like the story should be moving you forward into consequences, costs, changes, fallout -  but there's something artificial holding you back.  (Or in the case of mainstream comics' chronic retconjuration, letting you move forward and then teleporting you back.)

It's like some kind of invisible force field...!
And to be clear: I don't mean to dog on deathless franchises, or snipe at the people who enjoy them.  But I think it's interesting that we advocates of progressive nerd-dom get so vexed about these things - about DC's misogyny and militant super-bachelorhood, and the eternally white male Doctor, and all that mess I ranted about in Skyfall - when for the whole life of the franchise, we've basically been paying its creators not to change.

Not that we shouldn't ask for our favorite series to become more progressive, more inclusive.

Just that if they seem to be terminally stuck in the 1960s, it's because that's where they came from... and if they seem to be hell-bent on staying there, we might ought to quit spending so much energy ranting and begging and shaming them to move forward, and start putting our love and money into series that already have.

I hear Image Comics is lovely this time of year.

He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion.


  1. Both DC and Marvel are such horrendous places to work or create these days that I feel like a turd for supporting either one. I believe DC also let Gail Simone know she was being fired via email, as well, because they are ALL CLASS. James Robinson also recently cut ties with them for unknown reasons after working with them for many, many years, which also looked suspicious. But yes, Image. I never thought I'd be cheering for the company that brought the world Witchblade, but them having Saga almost makes up for it.

    Re: never evolving - I believe the example of Peter Parker is more one of FANS not allowing a character to evolve than a company being unwilling to go there. For a brief time Mr. Parker was both happily married and expecting a child (and for an equally brief time there existed a series ABOUT that child), but fan outrage brought both storylines to revert back to what they are now. They said a married Parker with a kid was not the geeky loser they knew and loved and identified with, and shortly thereafter MJ not only lost the baby but divorced him.

    That said, Northstar, Superman, and the Golden Age versions of Green Lantern and the Flash all married successfully (till the reboots), and Reed and Sue Richards have proven that a married couple with children CAN have adventures. I think two other parts of the problem are that there are a distinct lack of writers who can carry certain elements off (or are willing to) and that the big two are trying to pull in the younger readers with all the drama that being single entails rather than something they can't identify with, like marriage or having children.

    I'd check out Boom Studios as well. I've had very good luck with some of their properties.


    1. Oh, wow, dude - I'd not heard of the Peter Parker debacle. That's an eye-opener, right there. So maybe it's not as much a case of DC with their heads in the sand as it is DC electing to satisfy the portion of their fanbase that doesn't want to move forward - either the 17-year-olds who want a Spider-Man that speaks to them or the 45-year-olds who want Spider-Man the way he's always been.

      Regardless, I definitely agree that pulling off married-with-children plot arcs requires a higher caliber of writer, and given that DC seems to be running off their talent as fast as they can pull them in, we probably shouldn't hold our breath. Ah, well - Boom Studios it is, then!

    2. The Parker storm happened... somewhere in the mid 90s, and it was also during the much reviled Clone Saga, so the fans were just outraged across the board. Also, Peter Parker/Spider-Man belongs to Marvel, as do Reed and Sue Richards (and Northstar) and not DC, but right now both companies are being douche-y about making their properties reflect a greater cross-section of humanity, though if I'm going to support one over the other it's going to be Marvel, which is a hard thing for a hardcore DC dork like myself to say.


    3. Oh shit. Sorry, dude! I did actually know that Spider-Man was Marvel, I promise, and of course Northstar is from the X-Men and hence from Marvel (though I probably would have lost our team the trivia point on Fantastic Four. Despite their shafting Johnny Storm, because if there's one character we haven't seen enough of, it's freaking Spider-Man.)

      I kind of want to buy you a really good rocking chair and a blanket, so we can record you telling the tales of comic drama from years past. For posterity, and future generations.

  2. Oh, lawsy, you sound like Alex. Remind me to politely excuse myself if the two of you should ever be trapped in the same phone booth while changing into your over-the-tights-underoos and debating "why the comic book industry sucks".

    Bless y'alls pea-pickin' hearts (definitely intended with the most Southern of meanings)

    1. Ha! It's funny you should say that, cuz I think he and I disagree more often than not. He's from the school of good clean well-executed classic fun, while I gravitate to a lot of what he finds overly slow/boring/complex/gritty/ambiguous.

      But yes, we'll be sure to let you crawl out the elevator's emergency escape hatch before we start arguing about morally compromised heroes :)

  3. The fun thing about the Marvel movies is that they do show growth and change. Tony Stark is not the same guy in Iron Man 3 as he is in Iron Man 1-- when he has trouble, he asks his friends for help. (Also, he has friends!) Which is why I like the movies better than the actual comic books.

    1. aMEN! When Ed Brubaker kills off Professor X, I don't really bat an eye. When Brett Ratner does it, I shake my impotent fist at the sky.

      I was thinking about why that might be - you know, why the consequences in movie-dom feel bigger and more permanent than simply launching another comic book alternaverse, even though the movies are ultimately as deathless and endlessly rebootable as their source material.

      Maybe it's because the movies are so much slower and rarer - y'know, there's not an Iron Man out in theaters every month, so all of his silver-screen stories are that much more valuable somehow.

      Or maybe it's because Tony Stark is immortal, but Robert Downey Junior is not. Sooner or later, he'll have to pass the suit to someone else, which puts an extra premium on his screen time and character development. (I can see this mattering to Whovians as well.)

      Or maybe it's just that corporate serial fiction like Big Comics (as opposed to a single authorial mastermind like Charles Dickens knocking out chapters for Bentley's Miscellany) is a constant revolving door of artists and writers, and the stories have to keep changing course as their creators die, quit, or get fired, or surprise edicts like this Batwoman thing get handed down from on high. A finished movie is a single coherent work, no matter how much horse-swapping happened during production.

      Or maybe RDJ just has us helplessly in his thrall :)