December 9th, 2009
Reinventing the Franchise

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The big news in the geek world this week: Superman and Batman are starting over. Again.

DC Comics announced it will release new, modern versions of its iconic heroes in 201o, contained in single, graphic-novel formats aimed at the booksellers’ market. This is the latest attempt to bring Batman and Superman into the current century and expand their audience.

With this announcement, DC is taking the same tack that Marvel did a decade ago with its Ultimate line: rebooting its big-name characters without the years and years of continuity. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out well for Marvel. After big initial sales, the Ultimate line eventually turned into just another version of the same characters and the same stories.

This isn’t the first time DC has tried to make Superman and Batman relevant for a new generation. They’ve been at it since 1971, when Denny O’Neil was drafted to show a more human side of the Man of Steel. They’ve done it again and again, most notably in 1986, when John Byrne re-started Superman from the basics: no Krypto, no Superboy, no other Kryptonians at all. (It lasted until the ’90s, when Superboy, Supergirl and even Krypto returned.) More recently in the All-Star line, DC tried to get back to what made its two icons iconic with a masterful run by Grant Morrison, and a horrific embarrassment from Frank Miller. And let us never forget the super-mullet.

The reason you get this constant reinvention of characters that have been around since 1938 has a lot to do with the economics of the comic-book world. You’d never know it from the movies, but comic books are losing readers every year. They’ve gone from selling millions of issues per title to selling a couple hundred thousand at best. Comics are mainly targeted to a very small, specialty market: aging fanboys who go to comic book shops on a regular basis.

The fanboy market, for the most part, doesn’t want to see new heroes. (Comics haven’t come up with a new franchise character since… I don’t know, Spawn. Is there even a Spawn comic book anymore?) Nor do they want to see the same Silver Age and Bronze Age stories they grew up on, since those are childish. The publishers give the audience what they want, which turns out to be the same characters in slightly different, modern and “adult” situations. Without a distribution channel to a broad market, a new character doesn’t have a chance to crack the audience, because the audience isn’t made up of people seeking novelty. They want the familiar brands.

As a result, comics aren’t just for kids anymore. These days, they’re barely for kids at all. Which may explain why Gen Y — the biggest, fattest marketing target in history — has walked away from comics to manga and other forms of entertainment.

So in the absence of actually inventing a new character or finding new stories to tell, I’m all for reinventing the franchise. But as the AV Club says, it doesn’t mean anything unless you really change things:

The last thing the genre needs are more drawn-out revisitations of old mythology. (“Oh look, Krypto’s back. Again. And here’s how Clark Kent met Lex Luthor. Again.”)  Enough with the nods and winks to the fans. Here’s hoping that if this series is really aimed at new readers, it’ll actually be new.

I’m one of those few, mildly delusional people who believes that Superman, one of the most successful fictional characters of all time, should sell a million copies a month. Everyone in the world knows who he is. The fact that his own book hasn’t even included him for over a year should tell you that the execution of the franchise has gone badly off the rails. (Ditto for Batman, who is currently dead. Yup. Dead.) Like all the reinventions before it, this one will not work if it’s just shifting a few details, like making Clark Kent a blogger instead of a reporter. There is something fundamental to the Superman mythos, something that appeals across generations. It’s a matter of revealing it, rather than hiding it under the latest fashions.

Here are my modest suggestions for getting Superman back into the air again.

  1. Get rid of Lois Lane. Not permanently. But when Lois and Clark got married, one of the most enduring love triangles of all time was shattered. The whole point of Clark Kent is that he can’t get a woman like Lois. Elliot S! Maggin once wrote that Clark Kent is Superman’s Hawaiian vacation. That’s why Superman has Clark: so he can be the normal guy on a daily basis. If you let Lois in on the big secret, you’re destroying part of what makes Superman appealing — the part that’s actually human. We can always bring Lois back later. But for now, Superman has to stay single. And Clark needs to see other people.
  2. Change the rules. Remember, this is a character whose basic operating instructions were set back in 1938. If you’ve had seventy years of stories showing the limits of superhuman strength, do you really need kryptonite as a weakness? Superman’s limits have never been about what can be done to him. Instead, he limits himself by what he’s willing to do. I think it would be interesting if the storytellers would forego any obvious weaknesses for a while. Let’s see what happens when you put an indestructible man in an all-too fragile world. And then, when someone finally does fire that kryptonite bullet, it will be surprising and new.
  3. Time for new villains. And this applies to Batman as well. I propose a five-year moratorium on Lex Luthor, the Joker, Two-Face, the Parasite or any of the other old familiar faces. They’ve become crutches. There’s no dramatic tension because they’ll always survive to fight another day, since they are franchise players as well. Let’s see what you can do without spending the credit of other people’s stories, guys.
  4. Speaking of which, could we not have Superman and Batman fight this go-round? I know, the fanboys love it. But it’s stupid. Frank Miller did it best in The Dark Knight Returns over 20 years ago. We don’t need a rerun.
  5. Lighten up. Plenty of people have done the dark implications of the super-hero, from Alan Moore’s Miracleman to Warren Ellis’ current mini-series, Supergod. Superman and Batman are the bright side of that. They’re supposed to be fun. Try to keep that in mind when you get the impulse to include a graphic rape scene to heighten the dramatic tension.

That said, there is one more thing: the new version of Alfred looks pretty badass.