Where Did DC Comics Go Wrong?

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Rebooting Distortions: DC Comics and the Reboot Culture

This article was written by Christian A. Dumais at the request of our editors for the series Where Did They Go Wrong, a comprehensive glance at the biggest errors perpetrated by comic book publishers, creators, and readers.

Even before we knew of the word reboot, comic book fans had a firm grasp of the concept. Whether it was the soft reboot of a new writer taking over a favorite title and casually ignoring large chunks of what came before to the point that it felt like the main hero had suddenly become the star of his/her own spin-off (Our hero now lives in San Francisco! Our hero is now a substitute teacher!), or the universe altering hard reboots like Crisis on Infinite Earths, readers knew that the sliding scale of comic book time meant that sooner or later someone was going to hit the reset button. And while a reboot could often return the back-to-basics approach that made you fall in love with the character in the first place, it could often create unnecessary confusion. For instance, no matter how many interpretations of Superman we’ve seen, the basic origin of the character remains solid. It’s such a clean and simple story that even people who have no interest in the character can recite Superman’s origin by heart. You can do the same with Batman. Try it sometime. And then ask them what Wonder Woman’s origin is.

I did that last weekend when I was doing a lecture on American comic books at Pyrkon, the largest pop culture festival in Poland. I asked a room full of comic book fans about Superman’s origin and Batman’s origin, and then when I asked them about Wonder Woman’s origin, a woman in the front row said, “Which one?” I said I’d accept any of her origins. No one could tell me any.

I think about that as DC Comics is preparing their next reboot – the third major universe-wide reboot in just over a decade. This particular reboot is revealing something I’ve always suspected: DC Comics is unwilling to commit to its own universe, and in doing so, is unwilling to commit to their characters. To compound the problem, they’ve recently put out a movie bringing together two of their most profitable properties in what should have been a slam dunk, but instead ended up being a convoluted bore. And with a reboot happening in two fronts, DC Comics is muddying the waters, which not only makes it difficult for the casual fan to know what is going on, but even manages to alienate their hardcore base.

(I’d be doing everyone a disservice if I didn’t at least bring up the DC Renaissance happening on television. With the exception of Gotham, DC’s success on TV is pretty mind blowing, especially when the success of these shows hinges on their willingness to embrace the inherent goofiness of the comic books, something their cinematic counterparts seem too ashamed to acknowledge.)

I’m all for trying new things with characters. I look back on Marvel’s throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach they embraced at the turn of the century rather fondly. Daredevil was outed! Bucky had become Captain America! Xorn was Magneto all along!

You could see that DC Comics was trying the same thing in the last few years with the New 52. Superman was outed! Jim Gordon had become Batman! Eric Border was the Joker all along! And while many of the ideas on the surface were interesting, DC Comics failed where Marvel succeeded because DC Comics never established the ground rules of their new universe in the first place. Instead, they did a hard reboot, set the stories five years later, and then ran in every direction possible.

(In all fairness, Marvel put themselves in the same position with their recent “it’s not a reboot” reboot in the aftermath of the excellent Secret Wars, by setting their stories eight months later and implementing huge changes in the process. Both DC Comics and Marvel have each created their own elaborate house of cards with a vague promise that they’ll let the readers see the table the cards are stacked on later.)

Jim Gordon (my absolute favorite comic book character, by the way) puts on the cowl after Batman is believed dead. Now there’s an idea with a lot of potential. But who is Jim Gordon in this new universe? What is his history with Batman since I’m still not sure which stories in the previous universe are still in continuity? Most importantly, why is he suddenly younger and muscular?

This is not to suggest that continuity is paramount, but there is still an obligation for the characters to fit within the collective pop cultural image, or cultural memory. For instance, Peter Parker is expected to be male, young, intelligent, funny, a New Yorker, and someone who never quite gets it right. If Peter Parker is having the perfect day, Spider-Man will have the worst day, and vice-versa. We could, of course, change his race and/or ethnicity because none of that explicitly contradicts the fundamental make-up of the character (I’d argue that making him other than white actually makes a whole lot of sense). However, making Peter Parker a middle-aged man, or a young overweight teenager, or an unfunny brat, would go against the expectation. Like it or not, these comic book properties are bound by cultural memory.

Returning to the recent example of Jim Gordon, the shift in his age and physique is jarring (keeping in mind he is still the father of two grown adults), to the point that if you removed the text from the story, there are absolutely no visual clues for readers to make the association that this is Gordon – even the trademark moustache is missing. Just as we’re supposed to accept that Clark Kent becomes a completely different person when he removes his glasses, such is the case with Gordon’s magical moustache. Gordon’s unboundedness to his own cultural memory creates a sensation not dissimilar to that of the uncanny valley.

(And to bring it back to race-switching for established characters, whether we’re talking about Spider-Man or James Bond or Perry White or whoever, I don’t believe that fans are racist when they reject such ideas. I think their inability to properly articulate their instinctive repulsion at the said uncanny valley often creates the appearance of racism.)

I know we’re talking about fictional characters, but I’d argue that the way we respect and care for our fictional characters is a direct reflection of who we are as a society. A Batman that continually evolves into something darker and more violent is reflecting a world which believes that is the hero it needs. Whereas a misappropriation of a character without the proper context to justify it reflects a world of uncertainty, and to feed into this form of static loop devalues both the fictional and the real world.

A lot of Superman fans were up in arms regarding the fact that Superman killed Zod at the end of Man of Steel. Those who stand by the film’s climax tend to mention that Superman has killed people in the comic books before, including Zod. But while it’s easy to drop issue numbers in a conversation to support your argument, I’d argue that the cultural memory of Superman supersedes this kind of nitpicking.

For example, most people agree that Little Red Riding Hood survives her ordeal with the wolf after she is saved by the hunter. You can argue that the hunter saves her before the wolf strikes or he arrives a little too late but still saves her by cutting the wolf open and removing her; however, if we are going to get nitpicky with the continuity of Little Red Riding Hood, we should ignore the two aforementioned reboots of the story and just accept the fact that there never was a hunter and that the titular character of the story died at the end. But we won’t do this because this isn’t the accepted version of the story, no matter how much we might want to shout about it.

The same can be said of Superman. There are literally thousands of Superman stories in various media where he refuses to kill that to go out of your way to point out the one time he does feels extraneous. Because if we accept that yes, Superman does kill (and should continue to do so), then that also means we accept Batman using guns to fight crime, Professor Xavier having feelings for one of his underage students, and most of our favorite surviving Golden Age superheroes as blatant racists. Our cultural memory allows us to maintain the image of the character while sanding down the character’s imperfections until we’ve achieved the ideal memory.

And when it comes to Superman, maintaining the ideal image of the character is what’s important. While Gordon is my favorite comic book character, I believe Superman to be the most important. I wrote about this recently as @DRUNKHULK, and I’ll reprint it here (apologies for the ALL CAPS in advance):

CAN DRUNK HULK BE STRAIGHT WITH YOU FOR A MOMENT?! SUPERMAN IS ONE OF THE GREATEST CHARACTERS IN AMERICAN CULTURE! A MAN DOING GOOD IN THE WORLD BECAUSE HE IS KIND AND DECENT AND WHO ALSO HAPPENS TO BE AN ORPHAN WITH SUPER POWERS! A SUPERHERO SO PERFECT AN ENTIRE INDUSTRY SPENT THE NEXT 80 YEARS TRYING TO REPLICATE HIS SUCCESS! AND WHEN THEY REALIZED THAT THEY WOULD NEVER COME CLOSE TO HIS GREATNESS! THEY DECONSTRUCTED HIM UNTIL HE BECAME MEDIOCRE BECAUSE READERS COULD RELATE TO HIM BETTER AS A JOKE MORE THAN THEY COULD AS AN IDEAL TO ASPIRE TO! IF YOU THINK THAT SUCH A CHARACTER IS OUTDATED OR HAS NO PLACE IN TODAY’S WORLD! PLEASE UNDERSTAND THAT THE PROBLEM IS NOT WITH SUPERMAN! BUT WITH YOU!

When the cultural memory doesn’t fit the most prominent iteration of the character like Superman, there is the possibility that the values and morality we associate with the character can get lost in the disconnect.

(At the risk of brushing up against the overused Superman as Jesus Christ metaphor, it’s clear that the vocal majority of Christians are utilizing the distorted cultural memory of Christ over the actual Christ in the written text, and in the process the religion’s values are deteriorating. This is where cultural memory becomes hazardous, when beliefs are informed by those who watched the movie instead of reading the book.)

While the current cinematic interpretations of Superman and Batman and their inability to get along has made a lot of money for Warner Brothers, I’m confident it’s not the kind of money they were anticipating. What should have been a cultural milestone is already an afterthought. Say what you will about the most recent Star Wars, but at least people were still talking about it three weeks later.

Rebooting is a natural part of storytelling. It’s always been there whether we’re talking about our ancient ancestors playing a game of Telephone to pass along their stories from one generation to the next or a nameless corporate committee removing Superman’s red trunks. The only difference between then and now is that the audience is much, much larger, and it is continuing to grow. So the choices being made in the name of rebooting carries far greater consequences, and it is easier to run the risk of alienating your audience when there are seemingly an infinite amount of story-driven universes out there in a variety of media just waiting for them with open arms.

When you reboot a distortion of the original image and pass it off as authentic, it creates a kind of resistance that is difficult to shake off. And while it’s easy to say that fans deserve better, the real crime is that a new generation – especially children – loses access to something as beautiful and pure as Commissioner Gordon’s magical moustache.

Christian A. Dumais is a writer and university lecturer. His books include SMASHED: THE LIFE AND TWEETS OF DRUNK HULK and EMPTY ROOMS LONELY COUNTRIES. He also wrote A WEST COAST THING, the most comprehensive book ever written about Marvel’s West Coast Avengers. You can follow him on Twitter at @PuffChrissy.
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