Thursday, April 2, 2009

Corporate Legacies

My discussion of DC's Legacy characters and their current upheaval sparked some debate and demanded a follow up. This time I am doing something a little different. In a three part series, I am going to respond to concerns and discussions that came up in the comment section of my Death of The Legacy Character post. This series is going to jump around a little, covering a variety of subjects, but they all relate to the current practices at Marvel and DC, which I feel are the cause of some of the current problems with their characters. In regards to DC, I believe all of these problems do, in fact, go back to Dan Didio, but not in a way that most people would think of.

When DC hired Dan Didio as their Editor in Chief (EiC), it may have seemed a little strange given his background in animation, but, if you take a look at the big picture, it makes a little more sense. A recent comment by Marvel's vice chairmen Peter Cuneo, found here, makes it all the more clear. Marvel and DC are not comic book companies, they are intellectual property companies and I'd wager that Joe Quesada is going to be the last EiC at either company that will have background as a creator. Hit the jump to find out more.


One of the things that I always find amazing about Marvel and DC fans is that they always seem to forget that Marvel and DC are businesses first, story tellers second. Generally, this usually manifests as a problem when dealing with character development, or, rather, a lack thereof or a reversal of much needed character growth. A lot of people would generally point to DC legacy characters as a prime example of this problem, but that is not necessarily the best choice. In fact, Marvel's One More Day story is a much better example of this problem.

Corporate Characters, Corporate Comics

As corporations, Marvel and DC want to be able to publish their characters for the longest period of time and to attract the most readers as they possibly can. Questions of promotion aside, you can't tell a never ending story with a character that grows and changes over time because that would require the one thing neither company can give - an ending. If a character never, or rarely, ages or grows as a character, then it is less likely that readers will expect an end or, rather, you won't have to deal with the problems of indefinitely putting off "the end" of the story.

Another great example of this practice was Secret Invasion. Marvel could have done some really fantastic stuff with the Skrulls, but they didn't radically alter anything. This wasn't because of any regards for continuity on Marvel's part because continuity is clearly a dirty word at Marvel right now. It's simply because they do not want to radically alter any of their characters and possibly damage them, as they would see it. An even starker example of this would be House of M and Decimation where every mutant but the important X-Men characters lost their powers. While some important characters did lose their powers (Xavier and Magneto) they eventually regained them.

Some may point to Dark Reign and the return of certain characters at the end of Secret Invasion as proof of Marvel 'changing things', but, in reality, Norman Osborn's rise to power is a short term change that was forced for marketing reasons as opposed to strictly for storytelling. reasons. Even then, Dark Reign is basically The Initiative with Osborn replacing Tony Stark. The return of Mockingbird flies in the face of continuity as well in regards to telling stories as we have seen her as a ghost and Hawkeye even went to Hell to confront Mephisto in an old Thunderbolts annual.

So, why not abandon the Never Ending Story model of telling comics? Primarily, it is because that model has become the dominant storytelling format in the direct market, mostly due to the efforts of Marvel and DC as corporate entities. It also hasn't really failed them yet either. The 90s crash was completely unrelated, for the most part, as it was due more to speculators and getting away from that tried and true model in attempts to replace heroes with grim and gritty alternatives, and comics are still profitable enough for both Marvel and DC to not have to do anything drastic. Ending stories means that they would also have to come up with some new ones which takes time, money, effort, building new brands and so on - all things they would rather not bother with.

Obviously, there was a time in comics when characters and franchises were moving forward and, generally, doing new things with their characters. Over time, as Marvel and DC began to make use of other mediums, such as television and film, and as those mediums became more important to their bottom lines, things changed.

The Media Crossover

This mixing of mediums was the point of DC bringing back Hal Jordan and Barry Allen. Today, a comic book character is likely to appear in another medium more than ever. It is a lot easier, and simpler, to work Hal or Barry into TV shows or movies as heroes than it is to do so with Kyle Rayner or Wally West. Kyle's and Wally's origins are too tied to Hal's and Barry's, so it is simpler to go with Hal and Barry when it comes time for adapting a comic to another medium. You could also pose the question as to why not just use Kyle and Wally, but go with Barry or Hal's origin like in Justice League Unlimited? To answer this, there is always the question of why not just use Hal or Barry in the first place? There is also the option of giving Kyle and Wally new origins but it would still simpler to go with Hal or Barry.

So why bother having Hal and Barry come back at all in the comics? Again, due to corporate reasoning. If someone does see the movie (so far neither Kyle nor Wally have appeared in any of the new feature films), such as New Frontier or the upcoming Green Lantern animated feature and tries to get into comics, they will find that the character they liked from the movies or TV show are not in the comics and are, thus, less likely to buy them.

Much in this vein, if Barbara Gordon does, as it has been rumoured, eventually become Batgirl again, the desire to have public knowledge of the character from other mediums, such as her numerous television show appearances, will be the main reason behind it.

Comics have actually become the least important part of Marvel's and DC's revenue stream, at least in terms of income generation. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if their publishing divisions are a drain on income, at least in the short term. However, comics are the breeding grounds and origins of these larger income streams and both companies use their comics to maintain copyrights, build new intellectual properties, dust off old concepts and, in general, repurpose outdated characters for modern uses, typically in preparation for movie or television adaptations.

Just look at how Marvel has gone about their promotion of both Wolverine, who has a new title launching soon in addition to an art appreciation month in his honour, among his regular dozen or more monthly appearances, and Deadpool, who is guest appearing in every other comic these days, in preparation for their upcoming movie appearances. Now, what does this mean for comics? Several things in fact.

First and foremost, the characters, stories and themes of comics have typically been dictated by other, more profitable and higher profile, mediums, typically movies. No better example of this can be seen than with the new Invincible Iron Man series. The ideas from the movie literally bleed off the page and many a character has changed their personalities and motivations based off the movie versions. Most recently, this can been seen with the introduction of JARVIS, the computer AI from the movie, into the comic and, earlier, with the artificial heart/pacemaker that Tony used to save Pepper Pots, similar to what Tony used in the movie to save himself and power his armour.

Another simple example was with the black Spider-Man costume, which was forced back into the Spider-Man comics in the Back in Black storyline to coincide with the movie.

This also means that the status quo of non-comic versions of the character are going to have an influence on the comic book version - not the other way around. The current status quo of any given character is generally the result of at least several years worth of stories unless 1) it is someone like, say, Batman, who never really changes over time or 2) they just went through a reboot of sorts, as was seen in Green Lantern: Rebirth.

The reason for this is simple - converting years of continuity to the TV or film screen isn't easy, but transferring a movie status quo to the comic is. Of course, there is the question of why they should do this. Easy, the movies and TV shows are now the primary means through which people are introduced to the characters. Making the comics more closely resemble the movies makes it more likely that people will buy them. This means stuff like a single Spider-Man, Aunt May staying around and no more out of the ordinary or long lasting adventures like Planet Hulk.

Oddly enough, DC isn't really doing this in regards to letting movies dictate their stories. There are several reasons for this. 1) They are not making nearly as many movies as Marvel. 2) The movies they are making are of iconic characters, such as Superman and Batman, who are already timeless and unchanging. 3) As a subsidiary of Time-Warner, DC has always protected their bottom line by keeping their characters as static and unchanging as possible, which leaves little room for variations from the movie versions or reason to change things when a movie does come out.

Why Not Try New Things?

Even if Marvel and DC have decided that they are not going to do anything new with their major characters, why not try something new with lesser knowns or entirely new properties? Well, there are several reasons why and they keep reasserting themselves whenever Marvel and DC do try to do something new.

The main reason why Marvel and DC never really try and do anything new is simply because they rarely succeed. Throughout the years, Marvel and DC have constantly pushed the idea that Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and the X-Men, among others, are the only "important" comics and anything other than an already entrenched concept tends to fail in the long term. Given the fact that most new concepts tend not last more than a year or two, on average, it's not shocking that Marvel and DC don't go for them.

This leads the next reason why Marvel and DC never, or very rarely, try anything new, revamps! Why put effort into creating a new character when you can simply dig up an old, failed or forgotten concept, of which Marvel and DC have a great many, and breath new life into them?

A stunningly successful example of this would be Warren Ellis's Thunderbolts or Nextwave. In both series he used a bunch of C-listers and repurposed them for modern times. Machine Man went on to star in Marvel Zombies 3 (which is leading to something of a Midnight Sons revival in Marvel Zombies 4 ironically) after showing up in Ms. Marvel for a short stint.

Creating new characters also leads to another problem, creator rights. The creation of Image Comics after the walkout of several top artists from Marvel, and the reasons why they left, probably marked the end of innovative characters that would come from Marvel and DC. Creating a new character at Marvel or DC is just too problematic for them. There is also the problem of why should a creator develop a new property give the likely way they will be treated by Marvel or DC, especially when it comes to the subject of money and ownership. Why not just take the basic idea to Image or Dark Horse and make your own book out of it?

One last thing of note, sometimes Marvel or DC will attempt to reinvent their classic line into something new and separate. The most famous examples of this would be Marvel's MC2, 2099, and Ultimate lines while DC had their Tangent, All Star and Just Imagine Stan Lee books. All of these have basically been "failures", as none of them, aside from Marvel's Ultimate line, which is having its own problems right now, are still going on a regular basis and are the only ones that lasted any reasonable amount of time.

The point is that these new takes on classic characters are doomed to fail for many of the same reasons new ideas fail at Marvel and DC. Of course, you have the additional problem that if they become successful, their traits are adapted by the main line, which people care about more, which leads to the spin-off line's decline. See the current Ultimate line for an example of this.

Such are my depressing views on the current state of Marvel and DC and their corporate legacies. In part two, I'll take a look at the bright side and look at some super heroes that are mostly unaffected by these trends and where you can find them.

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Andrenn said...

This was absolutely brilliantly well done. While I must admit, it is sad to see how Marvel and DC both are more dependent on media's outside of comic books, I do still like revamps from time to time. Though in the case of characters like Spider-man it doesn't work as well. Still a great post and many excellent points.

othermarlo said...

Nicely done. One thing, though: I don't agree with seeing DC's All-Star Line as a failure; in fact, A-SSuperman was a critical darling [and I believe it sold well] and A-SBatman, while critically lambasted, has been a top seller whenever it comes out.

ShadowWing Tronix said...

The thing about Kyle is that he really isn't tied to Hal. Only the mantle of Green Lantern is. For his DCAU debut in Superman, they could have easily done something closer to how he gets the ring in the comic, with Sinestro as a stand-in for Parallax. Since all he was doing in all his DCAU apperances, including Static Shock, was trying to destroy all the GL rings so he'd have a clear shot at the Guardians, there's very little you'd have to change. (I even have a great version in my head, if they want to zip to the future and ask me. And I seldom think I have a better, rather than different, alternative to the pros, outside of "enough with all the supercrossovers already!!!!!")

The bigger problem I have is that they give the image of changing, but don't actually change. If they lived in some kind of timeless world like certain comic strips do, that'd be fine. However, they keep setting things in a set modern period, and have to break out the sliding timeline (or as one reviewer refered to it, "Marvel Time") to match up.

And with all the other mediums using the Peter/MJ coming together anyway, it's not like movie and TV viewers couldn't pick up a new comic and see just how the relationship ends up. They still have Clark and Lois married, if only because after all this time Lois looks like a complete moron not figuring out who is who. But the old joke isn't played out with a new continuity (more DCAU and less Smallville).

ShadowWing Tronix said...

Oh, and Tangent wasn't meant to be running universe, like Ultimates or Milestone. It was just a fun game they wanted to play, like Amalgam.

Anonymous said...

Archie is the most drastic. Nothing ever changes in that universe. But, I think they introduced a 3rd girl for tension. Can't be sure.

Nice article.

Salieri said...

As I've said time and again, Dark Reign s not only copying The Initiative, but also the exact arc in the 90s where Osborn seized control of the Daily Bugle and took over New York's crime operations. Hopefully, it'll end here as it did then - Norman comes up with a crazy plan, believes that he's the new Jesus, and ends up locked in the loony bin for his cronies to rescue.

Nick Marino said...

i don't think there is a reasonable solution to the never ending story model. yes, the companies are now property driven as opposed to story driven when you look at things as a whole (but was it ever different?). the thing is, fans and creators are just as responsible for this as the executives. nostalgia is an enormous part of the comic book direct market, and it does drive editorial decisions to a certain degree.

to further the situation, these characters are no longer only creative and corporate controlled - they're also pop culture controlled. the collective consciousness of the public creates a demand for a certain version of a character and continues to hold onto it. if the comic book market (and the nature of the characters) wasn't like this, it would feel like a completely different establishment. it would be much closer to the OVA setup that anime has, wherein shows run for a limited length of episodes (almost like the graphic novel of animation) OR some shows (Naruto and Bleach for recent example) continue for long stretches as their characters often experience great changes... but eventually some of the charm fades (much like it does for any TV series).

i understand the desire to see these characters move beyond their established iconic status into something new (an evolution, if you will), but i think that corporate comics are the wrong place to look for that. it simply isn't their M.O. you can look towards secondary and supporting characters (Machine Man, War Machine, Nightwing, Emma Frost) for these sorts of changes, but you can't expect to see it happen to Spidey or Hulk for any permanent stretch.

i also think that the notion of "Obviously, there was a time in comics when characters and franchises were moving forward and, generally, doing new things with their characters." also feeds into the entire nostalgic myth of comic book fandom. to me, saying "i wish that characters could actually change again" comes from a similar emotional motivation (if different intellectual motivation) as saying "i wish that they had the most classic, iconic version of this character in place right now." i think that both concepts are predicated on a myth that at some point in the past, things were working perfectly. if that were the case, then characters never would have stopped changing, and stuff like MC2 would be the mainstream now... OR Tony Stark's origin would have always stayed as 1960s Vietnam and never received a modern military update.

the fact is that these corporate characters exist somewhere between those two realms: changing to fit the desires of pop culture while remaining familiar enough to span generations. that's why they make money and that's why they'll continue to make money. if not for that phenomenon, we wouldn't even be here discussing good directions to take with these characters in the first place - they would be long forgotten right now.

Eric Rupe said...

othermarlo - I consider them a "failure" in the sense that there is only two series so far, a third was canceled (Batgirl by Geoff Johns and JG Jones) and a fourth (Wonder Woman) seems to be in some sort of limbo and/or hell.

ShadowWing Tronix - While you could do Kyle's origin to work Hal out of it, Hal already has a origin like that which is one of the reasons you would use him, less work.

I think the reason why they are set in modern times because otherwise they become odd period pieces and it is just easier to write about current times.

Eric Rupe said...

Nick Marino - Good point about the pop culture stuff. I have a hard time thinking about that stuff because I can't separate what I know and experienced from the whole discussion and get a neutral view point on it so I don't really think about it.

While I do think that nostalgia plays a large part in the Direct Market, and probably too large, I think it was publishers responding to one need of some consumers, but like with Watchmen, everyone missed the point and it spiraled out of control.

Gabriel J said...

Wow! Great article. I'm glad there are people out there who aren't drinking the Kool Aid and are able to reasonably look at the way things are.
I've been getting less and less enjoyment from mainstream books, so I've had to look to other places and there are tons of good stuff being put out by smaller publishers.

Jake said...

Eric - Loved the follow-up article. You pretty much hit it from every angle. Good discussion going on here as well. Looking forward to the next part.

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