The movies are a whole ‘nother matter.

§ January 6th, 2020 § Filed under superman § 8 Comments

Well, so far this holiday/post-holiday season appears to be “Mike’s short on blogging-time” season as well, which is one of the reasons I didn’t post last Friday. By all rights I shouldn’t be posting for today, and instead sleeping the sleep of the just, but I decided not to let the site lay fallow for that long, ain’t you lucky.

So anyway, a couple of updates…a few days ago I asked for your help in getting my friends the Beckners reach their GoFundMe goal to stay housed and fed through the month. And…they made it, thanks to all of you, and my pals on the Twitters. That means a lot to me that you all were able to chip in, and it certainly means a lot to them as well. Thank you very much.

I also wanted to leave one last reminder that I’m still taking your 2020 comics industry predictions before I start looking at how y’all did with your 2019 predictions later this week (hopefully)! 2020 is only a few days old (and what a few days those have been, sheesh) so get your forecasts in before it’s too late!

I would like as well to respond a bit to something Daniel said in the comments to my last post:

“The fact that people are more concerned with Superman having red trunks than with making the character interesting and compelling for a 21st century audience tells you everything that is wrong with DC Comics these days.”

Well, my friend, let’s not be too hard on folks here. First, regarding the costume…I’ve written here and on Twitter about the…inappropriateness of the New 52 Superman costume. The weird armor-style texture to the suit seemed unnecessary, the lack of the trunks left the solid blue of the suit unbroken in an unaesthetically-pleasing manner (giving the impression in a way that he was “naked,” kinda sorta), and the worst offense in my eyes was that collar. The raised collar had an almost regal feel to it, which had the effect of further setting Superman apart from the people he was protecting.

Now one of the things that would make a person like Superman bearable to regular folks is his aligning himself with the ordinary populace. Yes, okay, he’s still in a fancy costume, but the traditional Superman suit is an old-timey circus strongman costume plus a cape. It’s humbling, it comes from lowbrow origins and yet still has a colorful, dymaic flair. It’s fancy on a relatable scale. Once you start throwing in armor and that collar, the overall impression becomes one of being above and ruling the masses, rather than fighting with them.

So the trunks, I think, are kind of a big deal, at least on a psychological level. Their return is symbolic of the discarding of the unappealing, ugly costume and the ugly, unappealing feeling that it represented. Sure, we still have the collar-cuffs holding over, and frankly I’m surprised they’re still drawing those in even now, but those are a fairly minor offense.

To Daniel’s larger point, the need to “modernize” Superman for today’s audiences, is much trickier, and certainly not something that’s going to get cracked in a late-night blogpost by your pal Mike. The problem is that if you change Superman too much, it no longer feels like Superman (see, for example, the majority of the New 52 relaunch). Or you can update his supporting cast (a little more feasible) and/or his setting (which they do anyway…current Superman comics don’t take place in 1938, after all).

The main way to update Superman is through more modern storytelling techniques, which, like it or not, we’re getting now via Brian Michael Bendis’s tenure on the titles. For all of BMB’s…quirks, it feels like a modern Superman comic. Not to everyone’s tastes, perhaps, but it’s a step in that direction. It reminds me a little of the post-Byrne reboot Superman titles from the 1980s, where they expanded the ensemble cast, depended more on continuing subplots, etc., differentiating themselves from the simpler, more standalone stories prior to the reboot. Not to say there weren’t stabs at issue-to-issue ongoing character bits in the earlier Superman books, but that form of subplotting felt more tacked on then, versus being a more intrinsically weaving into the fabric of the stories post-reboot (and even now).

One could argue that something was lost in the transition from the more classically-styled Superman tales versus the soap-operatic style that replaced them. One can’t deny that Superman sales jumped enormously following that change, whereas one can argue, still, whether the character of Superman itself benefits best from this form of modernization. Being compelling for today’s audiences is a struggle not unique to Superman but faced by pretty much any current comic published by Marvel or DC. It’s a difficult balance to find, keeping what’s special about each property while adjusting it for today’s market. Superman’s managed to make it this far, where so many haven’t, so I wouldn’t count Big Blue out just yet.

8 Responses to “The movies are a whole ‘nother matter.”

  • @misterjayem says:

    “current Superman comics don’t take place in 1938”

    But wouldn’t it be wild if they were and Superman had to confront a rise of fascism all across the globe?

    Just imagine…

    — MrJM

  • Turan, Emissary of the Fly World says:

    “current Superman comics don’t take place in 1938″…

    …This is getting away from your point, but that line and misterjayem’s comment on it reminded me that one will with fair frequency come upon someone grumbling on-line that comics characters should be allowed to age normally, one year of issues equaling one year in the character’s life…

    …but what I have noticed is that grumblers never, ever really want Superman and Batman to be over a hundred years old, or Spider-Man to be in his seventies, or Richie Rich to be about 75. They want the aging to have started when they began reading the comics. If they started ten years ago, they want the characters to be ten years older. If twenty years ago, twenty years older. Never more than that.

    I do not really have a point here. I am just sharing a thought that came to mind as I was reading this.

  • Hobee says:

    In response to Turan: for the record, I WOULD HAVE LOVED IT, if all characters (even originally Golden Age ones) aged normally. Even if it meant I would personally need to have bought back issues, reprints, or “legends” to see the characters at certain ages. What extraordinary epics those would have been, maybe actually worthy of fans’ attention and emotional investment.

  • Turan, Emissary of the Fly World says:

    No, Hobee, I cannot believe you. Consider what this actually means. Real-time aging in long-running series would require either regular replacements (Bruce Wayne would be long dead by now, and we’d be on our fourth or fifth Batman) or periodic cancellations (Peter Parker is just too old to be a plausible man of action, we’ll just have to stop all his series). How would that actually play out?

    On the first point, remember how the fans reacted when someone other than Barry Allen became the Flash, when someone other than Hal Jordan became Green Lantern, when it seemed for a moment as if Bruce Wayne’s back would stay broken and Azrael might stay Batman? Fans like to write on the Internet about how they hate the status quo and want change, but they hardly ever embrace the change when it happens. A comics business that changed its heroes regularly would also be changing its readership regularly–which might actually be a good thing, but it is not the way the business is organized now.

    On the second point, it just would not happen. Publishers cancelling popular series merely because the internal logic of the stories demands that they end? No. You are never going to see that.

    If real-time aging had been the rule in most comics, the result would probably have been immortal heroes. We would have been told that Kryptonians, Atlantishers, Thanagarians, Martians, Amazons, etc., age very, very slowly, and that super soldier serums and radioactive spider bites stop aging. The supporting casts may have needed periodic changing, but the heroes would have stayed the same.

    I have to add that even series which attempt real-time aging can get squeamish about what it means. The obvious example is GASOLINE ALLEY. As best I can tell, Walt Wallet is still alive, even though he is over 120 by now. Apparently, no one can bring himself to kill the original protagonist of the strip.

  • Thelonious_Nick says:

    I do feel like up until the mid-to-late-80s, Marvel characters did age, if not quite in real-time. I think the company was laying the groundwork at that time for a new generation of heroes, as well, with the older members of the FF being phased out, a new Iron Man, a married Spider-Man, New Mutants to eventually replace the X-Men, etc.

    Would be different, and quite possibly better, if they’d gone ahead with the direction they were going at that time. The Spider-Girl comic in the 90s was a tantalizing glimpse of what they could have done.

  • Thom H. says:

    So true about the ’80s, especially in the X-Men comics. Claremont kept moving older X-Men into retirement and teasing that the older New Mutants would “graduate” onto the main X-Men team. Then Claremont lost control of the X-Men as the line expanded and every mutant ever had to be on a team regardless of age. Too bad.

  • John Lancaster says:

    The solution to this quandary, and similar questions is: Read Savage Dragon. I know there’s only like 4 of us left but it’s the most “comic book” comic book out there…and it runs in real time…and characters die all of the time. There are even Batman, Superman, and other analogues in the book and you can just pretend.

  • Daniel says:

    I was the original commenter that inspired this post, so I feel I should probably weigh in.

    First, regarding the red shorts: It’s a silly debate. Insisting that Superman continue to dress exactly as he did almost 100 years ago is silly unless you’re going to make him a perpetual period-specific character like Sherlock Holmes or the Lone Ranger. But even with Sherlock Holmes, they were able to update that character to the present day in the BBC’s “Sherlock” and they pointedly did not have him wear his signature costume element (the deerstalker cap) except as a deliberate joke in one or two episodes. Again, having Superman continue to dress like he did almost 100 years ago is like insisting that all characters wear spats. Taking the red shorts away does not in any way affect the core nature of the character. I feel like this debate is being driven by what Michael Keaton used to call (back in 1989) “the DC Comics fundamentalists,” people who are opposed to any change at all (or more specifically, they’re in favor of certain change, but only if it’s driven by and sanctioned by them, which is largely how religious fundamentalism works, too).

    But the larger issue with Superman is that for the past 40 years at least, DC has been negligent (I would even go so far as to say incompetent) in their brand management of their signature intellectual property. Through their negligence they’ve allowed two completely different and separate interpretations of this character rise to prominence without ever coming down officially on which version of the character is officially sanctioned. It’s vacillation by way of corporate cowardice.

    One camp of the audience is adamantly in favor of what I’ll call (for lack of a better term) the silver age version of the character. In this version, Superman is all good, all perfect, all knowing. He’s essentially God. He’s SUPERman. The version is advocated for by the likes of Grant Morrions, Geoff Johns, Richard Donner, and Mark Waid.

    The other version of the character advocated for by an entirely different camp of the audience is a flawed man inside of a god’s body. He tries to do well, he learns on the job, but he makes mistakes along the way. He’s a good person but he’s imperfect. He has a heart of gold but feet of clay. He’s SuperMAN. This version is advocated for by the likes of John Byrne, Bruce Timm, the Fleischer brothers, Tom DeHaven’s fantastic “It’s Superman!” prose novel, and most famously (and controversially) Zack Snyder.

    The two versions of the character are not compatible. One cannot be simultaneously perfect and imperfect. I unambiguously fall into the latter SuperMAN camp. I have yet to read a SUPERman story (by the likes of Johns, Morrison, Waid, or anyone else) that is in the least bit dramatically interesting. Whereas the other, imperfect version of the character has proven time and time again to be narratively compelling.

    The problem is, whereas the DC Comics fundamentalists, who are DC’s hardcore and most loyal audience, vocally (even obnoxiously) prefer the perfect version of the character, the general public does not. But the fundamentalist audience, despite their loyalty and fervor, is too small to be profitable. Mike can correct me if I’m wrong on this, but sales went up dramatically on the Superman title when Byrne radically reinvented it in the 1980s, but as soon as the Death of Superman story was over, sales on the title have seemingly fallen precipitously ever since. In the movies especially, as polarizing as Zack Snyder’s DC films are (I love them), the general audience responded positively to them by the only metric that is important to corporate management: dollars. “Man of Steel” made more money than any other pre-Avengers Marvel Phase One film except for Iron Man 2 (the metric it should be judged against, not the later mature MCU). Even more importantly, “BvS,” the film that everyone loves to pile onto, made 50% more than “MoS.” The public clearly responded positively to this interpretation of the character with their dollars. Compare this to the four Christopher Reeve films (which I would argue fall into the SUPERman interpretation of the character) where every film in the series earned less than the film that came before. Audiences quickly grew bored with the perfect version of the character. The same thing happened with the abomination of the “Justice League” theatrical cut. WB panicked at the ire of the online trolls and rejiggered (e.g., sabotaged) Snyder’s version of the film to change the imperfect Superman into the perfect Superman and the result was that, until “Shazam!,” it was DC’s lowest grossing film as part of their shared universe. Again, the audience spoke with their dollars. They embrace the imperfect version and reject the perfect version.

    So DC, in its corporate cowardice/incompetence/negligence, has allowed both versions to exist, probably for the very valid reason that 1) the vocal (but significantly smaller) hardcore audience prefers the perfect version (so they can’t upset their core audience despite it not being large enough to be profitable), whereas 2) the larger but less vocal general audience has proven time and time again (by parting with their dollars) that they prefer the imperfect version of the character. Both audiences literally want something completely different from each other and DC is incapable of pleasing both. So they vacillate between the two versions and, DC and WB being the reactionary cowards that they are, they flinch at the first hint of criticism and switch back. So the character has basically become nothing more than a neutered, uninteresting corporate icon. Essentially he’s an anodyne logo (like Mickey Mouse is for Disney). Further complicating this is the fact that I think that DC management philosophically sides with the fundamentalists and prefers the perfect version of the character, but being managers, they can’t ignore the fact that that version of the character doesn’t make any money.

    Instead of arguing over red shorts or no red shorts, DC management should be focusing on resolving this fundamental core dilemma that they’ve let fester over the years.