When you grow up reading comic books, you quickly learn that everything is terrible, you’re an idiot and that it will never, ever get better. It will just continue to perpetuate itself, swallowing its own tail like some hideous four-colour ouroboros. It’s cute when Star Wars fans complain about the prequels or when Trekkers whine about Voyager or Deep Space Nine. It’s really cute. Comic book fans are used to being disappointed by what they love.
Blame Stan Lee but comic books are always advertising new projects as the greatest thing to come down the pike since indoor plumbing. No, really. Stan Lee deserves all the blame for this. He’s the one who started it, the relentless hucksterism, the hard fucking sell, the full-court press. The words “To Be Continued!” actually mean “Jesus, are they going to drag out this story-line for ANOTHER issue?” If I had a nickel for every time I was told “Not To Miss IT!”, I’d be living on a private island made entirely of platinum.
Comic books often take ‘bold new directions!’ that everyone hates and then six months later, they revert to the mean. Death is such a meaningless concept in comics to the point that it’s actually a requirement for membership in the X-Men, the Avengers AND the Justice League. For an embarrassing length of time in the 1990s, Superman was rocking a mullet. Then they turned him into an electric blue ballet dancer. Then they turned him back to normal (minus the mullet, thank God.)
They turned Batman into Wolverine. They turned the Punisher into Heaven’s holy hit-man. Then they turned him into a Frankenstein-like creature. Then they turned him back to normal. They turned Wolverine into God-knows-what at this point and then they killed him. (He’ll be back. In fact, a version of him is already back.) Say the words “Clone Saga” to any long-time, long-suffering Spider-Man fan and watch the fire-works. Better yet, say “One More Day” and then stand back. (This was the story-line where Spider-Man made a deal with the Devil(!) to save Aunt May, who had already “died” once and has been at Death’s door since 1962. The price the Devil asked? The erasure of Peter and Mary-Jane’s marriage. Yeah, I know. That’s pretty fucking stupid. You don’t have to say it. I already know.)
Creative missteps are one thing; the deliberate detonation of what makes a character popular in the first place is quite another. It’s hard to come up with exciting stories month after month about a billionaire who punches murder-clowns or a living god or a guy with knives that come out of his knuckles. The three-act structure can be a blessing, like a road-map or a curse, like a prison cell. The impulse to shake up the status quo is strong. Any good creator would want to put their mark on such long-running, iconic characters like Batman or Superman or even Wolverine. A radical re-interpretation is sometimes exactly what’s needed to re-invigorate the franchise and make fans realize why they liked it in the first place.
Grant Morrison re-imagined both the Doom Patrol and the Justice League in remarkably different but equally effective ways. On the other hand, radical re-interpretations hardly ever work or last very long. And there’s always a cadre of cranky old fans who grumble about Batman using a machine-gun or Superman killing people. Grant Morrison also lost his mind while he was radically re-imaging the Doom Patrol and the Justice League and now his scripts are written by a monkey named Jeff who lives in a cardboard box in the basement and smokes cigars all day.* (* This is probably not true. The monkey’s name is Barnabas.)
Whenever sales dip to a certain thresh-hold, shake-ups happen. They might be minor, like a new costume or a change in locale (Daredevil’s moving to San Francisco!) or major events (Barry Allen has died at least three times but he always gets hand-waved back into existence). This has one of two effects – either they work (the All-New, All Different X-Men and the New Teen Titans are both excellent examples of this) and they attract new readers and acclaim; or they don’t work, at all (like every subsequent iteration of the X-Men or the Titans since about 1985).
Perhaps the most ridiculous ‘bold new direction’ was the Blackhawks. They were an international team of ace fighter pilots during the war (the French guy was a ladies’ man, the Dutchman was a kindly father figure, the Chinese guy was a racist stereotype); they had cool fighter planes and stylish black leather uniforms, like any good para-military force. (Except the Chinese guy, who was a racist stereotype.) They fought the Nazis during the war and mostly fought ex-Nazis after the war. By the mid-60s, they’d pretty much run out of Nazis to fight month after month and The Batman TV show was in full swing at the time so they gave them all stupid new costumes and “super-powers” based around technology. One guy was called “the Listener” and he had ears all over his costume, which looked like nothing so much as an especially ugly pair of pajamas. The whole thing was best left forgotten and in about six months, it was. They went back to the black leather.
Everything is terrible. That new Ghostbusters movie might be good or it might be shittier than Ghost Busters 2. Everyone loves the new Mad Max movie but I can all but guarantee that everyone will HATE the NEXT Mad Max movie. They’re making more Star Wars movies – what’s the over-under on whether or not they’ll be any good? They certainly won’t be the same. Here’s hoping they don’t go in a bold new direction.
Think of all the bad movies you’ve ever seen. Do you think anyone ever actually TRIES to make a bad movie? I can assure you that they do not. But there’s always a tight-rope to walk, of “what if this movie is a piece of shit that kills my career?” Ask Johnny Depp. He’s made tons of bad movies in the last five years alone.
It’s different with comic books, of course, because the stakes are so much lower. Comic books have an inferiority complex. They’re the transsexuals of literature – they’re not classy like prose, they’re not deep and meaningful like cinema but they contain aspects of both. A comic can reach more people, especially those with weak or non-existent literacy skills before an 800 page novel can get its boots on. A crude doodle of a dictator can shake the country much more-so than a reasoned, well-researched documentary about the same dictator that nobody ever watches. You can glance at a cartoon and get it immediately, whereas you have to sit your ass down to read a novel or watch a film. But comic books ignore this obvious truth and tart themselves up with a surfeit of pouches on every costume or ridiculous arbitrary changes for the sake of desperately increasing sales (Captain America’s a werewolf now!).
Comic book fans are used to failure, sequential failure. So they reach for ‘bold new directions’ and radical re-interpretations that rarely, if ever work and that never last.
Because everything is terrible, you’re an idiot and things will never, ever get better.
Here endeth the lesson.