Saturday, August 09, 2008

"Dopey Is Sacred Here"

Actual photo of Superman and God,
proving that
they are not one-and-the-same person.
No photographic evidence yet clearing Clark Kent, however.

I don't moderate all my comments, though I try to read most of them.

Among the comments not moderated by me was one that my co-moderator would only refer to as "nasty."

It said something along the lines that I should be (literally) arrested for saying anything disparaging about DC, and that the commentor was going to contact Blogger to have my blog taken down.

Meanwhile, 2000 dead in Georgia, Russia is at war, and an American has gotten stabbed to death at the Olympics. Today.

But what was really important to this person was that nobody disparage DC Comics or question their rights over Superman. (If it was indeed the Superman post he was referring to. It could have been those Countdown posts).

In this person's mind, there might have even been a connection to it all; that if we besmirch an American institution like DC, if we weaken its hold on Superman -- the "commies" win. Yeah, we might end up in a conflict with China or Russia one day -- and that's when we need Superman and the Justice Society intact. And we can't have people screwing around with Green Lantern, either.

It reminds me that some fans have a near-religious attachment to their superheroes. Scratch "near" -- it's just plain religious.

I mean, what do you do in a religion? You have sacred books. "Crisis." "Kingdom Come." "Infinite Crisis."

You also quote those books a lot, and refer to specific passages.

Then, there is the concept of what's canonical, and what's apocrypha. As you know, many many people have died in religious disputes over these issues -- and continue to do so.

But you just have to have continuity. Or else -- it all falls apart. And you can't let "wrongheaded" beliefs -- like Spider-Man shouldn't be with Mary Jane for the rest of his life -- hold sway. Because then you have heresy. And you know what they do with heretics.

Looking back on it, I feel DC knew very well the fervor with which their loyalest fans held to their characters. And this goes beyond standard comic book readership, to just people who idolize Superman or Batman but don't know a lot about the monthly comics themselves. I always thought that if DC could really get those particular fans to buy the comics, they'd really be swimming in dough.

So at DC I was told that we had a very special job -- we were the caretakers of icons.

As such, there was a protocol, especially for the most popular characters.

"Superman" can't do this, "Batman" can't do that. The logos on the chest had to be drawn just right. And Power Girl's breasts needed to be a certain size. Seriously. It's a trademark.

But there was a sense that we were to avoid any scandal relating to the company or the characters at all costs -- that nothing should darken the aura of Superman in any way, directly or indirectly.

And we took that pretty seriously. That's why a lot of us were very neurotic about doing the wrong thing -- in terms of how we interacted with the public, in terms of what the characters were allowed to say in their word balloons, everything. I know some people joke about DC being "The Kremlin" -- this is probably why.

And for companies that have such iconic characters as Superman in their stable, this can be common.

Take, for example, Disney. When I was editing Disney books for Acclaim, one of our writers came up with a story called "Dopey The Genius," in which the Snow White character temporarily becomes smart. Disney completely rejected this on the grounds that it too radically challenged the concept of "Dopey." As our Disney contact told us: "Dopey is sacred here."

Obviously, Superman is not Dopey. Neither is he God. Neither is he a real person.

What Superman is, at best, is an inspirational symbol. But inspirational symbols are tricky.

You should let the symbol inspire you, but you shouldn't get too attached to it. Let Superman inspire you "in the moment" -- but then step out of that headspace and admit to yourself that he was a character created by two kids who were in turn inspired by other heroes. Admit to yourself that back in the 1940s, the company that would eventually become DC Comics took a chance on a concept, saw that it had a lot of potential, and sought to retain as much rights and financial gain on the concept as possible -- as many companies did and do.

Admit to yourself that one day, DC Comics will lose the exclusive copyright on Superman, and that many many artists and writers of varying degrees of talent and varying motives and political leanings will seize upon this character and do a 1,000 different things with it.

Yes. They will. A few might even make him gay.

And what will be done then? Will a holy war be declared to suss out just who the "correct" Superman is? Is it like "Crisis On Infinite Earths" -- but for real???

And as much lip-service as is paid to the Loyalists -- and indeed, DC has of late largely shaped their output to cater to them -- when the new generations are in full bloom, and if the tide changes, and if the 2012 equivalent of Rob Liefeld and Alan Moore shows up on the doorstep of collective comic book culture with the Latest Thing, those sacred continuities and characterization might just be bent and morphed to serve the current climate.


I don't cotton to the notion of superheroes or fictional characters as religious icons. I mean, it's fun to look at it all and play around with the concept, in Joseph Campbellian terms -- it's a nice place, and all, but I wouldn't want to live there.

I think religion -- real religion, that induces faith and mobilizes people to act -- is something very very delicate. The thought of that mixed with the place where I got my free comps every week and which fed me potato chips from the conveniently-placed vending machines -- kinda makes want to vomit. That, and the idea of Power Girl as the Virgin Mary. Or Mary Marvel as the Virgin Mary, for that matter.

And one of the things that religious fervor can -- but certainly not always -- do is make one excuse/cover up whatever indiscretions, scandals, negativities, and wrongs that have been committed by the agents of said religion. Because the power of the religion -- or the government, or family unit, or what have you -- is in the belief in its essential infallibility.

In such a mindset, the Siegel situation is a potential apocalypse -- Siegel and Siegel's heirs being considered the Adversary. What is worth more: Superman the intact icon with the DC bullet (or is that a swirl?) to the top left of him, or some creator's rights issues? Icon of millions versus some heirs to some guy?

But if you really love Superman -- Superman in its entirety, the real Superman -- you have to take it all into consideration. You can't hate its creator.

If you really idolize a person or an icon or an entity, but blind yourself to any warts that might obscure the picture -- you're worshiping something that is incomplete, and largely a product of your own mind more than its reality. You don't have to focus on the warts -- but shooting the messengers and burying the victims doesn't make the warts go away.

Then again, you can worship Dopey...


  1. Anonymous8:09 PM

    I just can't respect that type of fan. I mean, I get not being thrilled about some movie portrayals of beloved characters and everything...but when you are so fervent that any criticism of your favorite company is a crime? You have officially sucked the fun out of the hobby. And dammit...if you have reached the point of such romanticizing? Please, get out of comics so the rest of us do not have to be burdened with such stupidity. We have Marvel Ape...that is burden enough.

    Man I felt surly there.

  2. I was once physically attacked by a fellow student because I argued that Shakespeare wrote with financial, personal and political concerns in mind. Apparently, this is completely wrong, as Shakespeare is a timeless genius and no such considerations must be attached to him! I like to think of the student who attacked me sitting alone in his house, furiously trolling message boards, just like your Superman guy - defending his icon in the face of all reality.

  3. Well said. You are right to say that taking these characters in new directions is critical to their generational survival. A person that does not grow and adapt will not survive.

    However, I think you miss the point about the protection that Batman, Superman, and even Dopey deserve. In the times that we live in,... people need to know that there is still Truth - that no matter what Superman still stood for an idealism that humanity can't reach. That is what being a hero is all about. A level that humanity strives for. Superman can't be a deadbeat dad - so he is not like us.

  4. Maybe when there is a war going on we shouldn't care or think about anything else.

    Oh, wait...

    Eh, this blog is pretty well known. I'm sure everyone in your position gets the same stuff.

  5. Oh great... you've offended both the Holy Dopeys AND the Neverenders. What next... besmirching the Great Sparky? Mocking the vision of the Great Bird Of The Galaxy?
    An interesting parallel... early christendom fought over the basic origins of Christ. Was he the son of god, god in human form...? When he was a Greek bishop, St. Nicholas punched another bishop because of stated beliefs.
    There are fine lines between storytelling, mythology, and religion. What is a lifeline to one person can be a battleline to another.
    and Val, how do we know that isn't a robot Superman? "I find your lack of faith disturbing... "

  6. You wonder where that kind of outrage comes from? You nailed in that fourth paragraph. In a world of uncertainty, people cling to those unwavering icons.

    Doesn't anyone wonder why superhero movies are the rage now? It has little to do with the creative bankruptcy of hollywood producers - its all about the zeitgeist in america.

    We want moral authority or at least the illusion of it. Who better to give it to us than superman. hell, I think that is why superman returns failed. no one wanted a emo, postmodern revisionist version, even if it called back to a better, more innocent time.

    Like westerns in the 1960s, which were a response to that restrictive era with images of an age of lawlessness and adventure. Superheroes are about black and white. You might have a crappy job and are going to be among the first generation of americans not to do better than your parents, but at least superman still wears a red cape and has a spit curl. its comfort food for the lower brain stem

    Yes, its about the bottom line for the companies, but in the case of comics, I think its also about "fanboy" influence on the genre. Too many fans are writing, and by being stuck in time, they are calling back to the silver age rather than moving things forward.

  7. I don't even know what to think. Some people can't separate themselves or their own identities from that of various corporations whose products they purchase. So much so they can't even handle the kind of well-reasoned, constructive criticism you offer here.

    That just seems strange to me. Mindless, even. Few things are as scary as mindless, angry fanaticism. These reactions that come from the hypothalmus or the spinal column or some atavistic nerve cluster like an enraged bee swarm or fireant's nest. The dark funhouse mirror reflection of being a "fan."

    People who won't let you bail when the boat's taking on water because the Boat is Sacred.

  8. Yeah, this kind of stuff bugs me.

    All the fans who *hate* Tony Stark seem to be ascribing real-world feelings to a fictional character, forgetting that he's written by several different people, and they can just pick and choose which version to like (I could see him written by Matt Fraction and no one else and be happy with that). I'm also bothered by people who are that protective of big companies. You think DC or Marvel care how loyal someone is? They're going to make money even if people hate their books, judging by most posters on internet boards.

    I read comics for entertainment, period. I shake my head at bad stories and dumb ideas (Electric Blue Superman, anyone?) but there's nothing that shouldn't be done with characters, because they're NOT REAL. Things can be undone.

  9. "and that the commentor was going to contact Blogger to have my blog taken down."

    Getting blogger to take a blog down that's serving viruses and porno popups is nigh on impossible, so I don't think this guy will get very far.

    Interestingly, there's someone going around displaying extreme levels of hostility on any blog / forum daring to criticise Final Crisis.

    Comic nerds, man. Sometimes, you just gotta swing them into the Manga section by the ankles.

  10. it's an odd thing. i've been really surprised and confused by the internet hate generated towards grant morrion for batman r.i.p. and final crisis.
    i guess i don't take comics seriously enough, because i'm loving both of them. while i can understand people not liking it, it just seems downright loathing in some cases, i don't get all the hubbub, bub.

  11. Actually, I just noticed this guy seems to end up commenting on blogs that have been linked to (but not before insulting somebody / everybody on the original blog too).

    The guy I'm talking about lets fly at the author in an article that links to this blog - I'd almost be willing to put money on it being the same person I'm talking about. At least it makes the prospect of writing a review of Final Crisis exciting...

  12. I read all the post, and i´m with u in all.

    Superman is the messiah!

  13. Very good points all around.

    It does make me wonder what DC will do once its icons finally go into the public domain. Will it follow Disney's course and try to keep hold of them in perpetuity? Or will it learn to evolve as its situation evolves? I'm hoping for the latter... Especially in comics, I think you want to stay topical and engage your readership. Can DC remain current, say, in 2050, still publishing about that guy from Krypton who was raised in a small Midwestern town? I don't know... my crystal ball is in the repair shop this week. But I suspect it can't.

    In the end, both DC (and the comics industry as a whole) and its readership are going to have to deal with change. Whether it's going to be big things like Superman suddenly no longer in print because of legal problems or small things like suddenly deciding Clark Kent grew up as an Internet geek instead of a cornfed farmboy to keep the character accessible to its audience, it's going to come. And we're all going to have to learn to live with it, one way or another.

  14. I see people "worship" at the "temple" of the comic book store every Wednesday.

    Then they worship Marvel or DC then they worship Spidey or Bats.

    And so on...

    It is no different to the "religious fervor" some worship sports teams.

    I think everyone needs something to believe in and with this belief comes blindness.

    It happens in relationships between people, political groups, and countries.

    The common thread is people. We aren’t perfect but we think/hope our icons are…

  15. I'm reminded of this moment from the Kevin Smith film:

    I've learned to be patient with comics. If I don't like the way a certain character has been handled, I know it's only a matter of time before a new writer comes along to make things right. And if no one *can* make it right, then cancellation is a relief.

    If there's one thing I've learned from clones and deaths and maimings and impostors, it's that these characters can survive anything. They will prevail, even from bad writing and editorial decisions.

    Heck, even Azrael appears to be gearing up for a comeback. And recent polls say *I'm* the only one who liked him!

  16. Folks who cling to the notion of the "real Superman," who say "Superman would never do that" forget that, even in the time of Siegel and Shuster, Superman was a constantly-evolving concept. Is the "real Superman" the Superman who, in the early stories, fought against capitalist greed on behalf of child laborers and slum dwellers, or is he the my-country-right-or-wrong patriot who is, essentially, a tool for defending capitalist interests? Or is the "real Superman" the fascist overlord of Siegel and Shuster's pre-DC concept?

    You hit on something with your comment about the copyright issue. Not only will thousands of people come along and re-imagine Superman, this re-imagining is crucial for keeping the character alive through the ages. The legends of Hercules in ancient Rome weren't copyrighted material, they evolved and expanded and survived because the character captured people's imaginations and they kept on telling the stories for hundreds of years. If there is only one "real Superman," the character will die as soon as the society that gave birth to him changes.

    We understand the basic outlines of who Hamlet is, but artists will never stop re-interpreting the character because Shakespeare won: he created a great character who, like Hercules, now belongs to everyone. Imagine if there was a Shakespeare Trust whose job it was to keep track of all Shakespeare productions going on in the world, making sure that everyone paid strict attention to the costumes of Elizabethan theater, that Hamlet must appear in this shade of doublet and that weave of hose, must have such-and-such length hair and must say his lines in a specific order or else is not the "real Hamlet."

  17. I understand the 'sanctity of the franchise' argument better than I do the need for change for its own sake. Change needs to happen organically, and needs to be convincing, otherwise we're just seeing the latest in a long line of writers trying to deconstruct characters or be iconocalsts with nothing to offer larger mythologies beyond "X is now dead/gay/from an ethnic group that doesn't read comics/a woman/really into running their own museum and always has been but never told anyone in their fifty-plus years of existence - not even themselves during internal monologues."

    By all means let characters and stories evolve, but don't do it just because the competition have done it first and you want to be seen to be as 'modern' as they are, or because it's been three whole months since the last direction-change and sales haven't jumped up by thirty thousand copies a month.

  18. Fan is derivitive of "fanatic" for a reason. Sometimes people forget that we live in America where we have freedom of speech, and the speech that is truly protected by the constitution is the stuff we don't like.

  19. Great post. I virtual stand and clap at you.

  20. Let us not forget that while Disney's and DC's COPYRIGHTS may expire on their characters, their TRADEMARKS on those characters are another issue entirely.

  21. Your analogies don't always work all that well really. For instance, in the history of Christianity disagreements over the interpretation of writings agreed to be canonical than over questions relating to the canonic or apocryphal status of certain religious text. (In Catholic/Protestant disputes, are people even aware that Protestants call certain books, e.g. the Books of the Maccabees, apocryphal that the Catholic church calls "deuterocanonic"?).

    Also, I think that structurally a lot of the examples you use actually got it backwards. For instance, with regards to Spider-Man, it is actually the belief that he should be married to Mary Jane that is treated as heretical or dissident. The thing here is that pope Joe Quesada has proclaimed the dogma that Spider-Man Must Not Be Married, Even If He Has to Strike a Deal With the Devil to Become Unmarried, and a segment of the faithful refuse to follow him. But the opposition to the new course is actually a fairly mixed bunch, ranging from people who want Spider-Man and MJ to stay married until the end to those who prefer an unmarried Spider-Man but would have preferred a divorce or a complete reboot of the series to what happened in "One More Day" etc. (Also I may note that pre-OMD pro- and anti- marriage fans coexisted pretty peaceably given that both tastes were catered for with the mainstream titles on one side and Ultimate Spider-Man and Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man for the other). There is no "Church of the Married Spider-Man", there is no organisation, there are no programmatic texts that every member agrees on. There is a church or party of the Unmarried Spider-Man though, which 160 years after the Communist Manifesto published its Spider-Man Manifesto and whose leaders and faithful tend to speak about those who are opposed to the undoing of the Watson-Parker marriage in the way politburo members talk about counter-revolutionaries and bourgeois dissidents being destined to the dust-heap of history.

    This is not to say that all pro-marriage Spider-Man fans are nice people. What people who use "heretic" in a modern discourse often forget is that history shows that heretics are frequently just as intolerant of other beliefs as their persecutors.

  22. what law did numbnutz think you were violating that he could rat on you about?

    for a guy so into "truth, justice, and the american way" he has a shaky view of our laws.