The Iconic Crisis of DC Comics

When DC relaunched their universe with the “New 52” initiative, I crossed my arms and said “prove it” with a cocktail of stoicism and hope for a reinvigorated mythology  that would reignite the comics industry and bring it back to a level of progressive, exciting storytelling not seen in the 21st century.

My optimism was misplaced – and I should have seen it coming.

“We want to return our characters to their most iconic representations,” said DC co-publisher Dan Didio in a 2009 Newsarama interview, discussing the reasons for bringing Barry Allen back in THE FLASH: REBIRTH. From Wally West (The Flash from 1987 until Barry Allen’s return in 2009 — THE Flash for my generation,but that’s not the point here) to Stephanie Brown (first shuttered by a de-Oracle-ized Barbara Gordon (the most “iconic” Batgirl)  in the pages of Bryan Q. Miller’s brilliant BATGIRL and most recently in Mr. Miller’s SMALLVILLE  SEASON 11, where DC swapped out his fan-lauded decision to place Stephanie Brown as Nightwing to the SMALLVILLE-verse’s Batman with Barbara Gordon), this “iconic version” rallying cry is the flag Didio and DC wave each time they are questioned on enforcing their nostalgic iconicism on readers. “If we’re going to introduce a character into the SMALLVILLE world, I want them to be the most iconic versions like Barbara Gordon or Dick Grayson” (emphasis added), said Didio on the decision to replace Stephanie Brown with Barbara Gordon in Miller’s SMALLVILLE Season 11 (though other reasons have come to light, notably that Stephanie Brown is considered “toxic” in DC editorial — whatever the reason, this does not change the argument; a writer was asked to remove a character by editorial).

Much of the time, Didio precedes “iconic” with the qualifying “back to” or “to return our.” More than the disingenuous misuse of “iconic” (which, if honestly interpreted, should read “MY favorite” or “I hate that damn new character”), the qualifiers “back to” and “return” signal a regressive streak in DC Comics, the company, which, it should be noted, launched the comic book industry in 1938 with ACTION COMICS #1. It should also be noted, however, that DC has historically been a regressive and reactionary company with few  historical precedents to prove otherwise (when they do prove otherwise though? Wow). Whereas Superman once fought the fat-cat bankers and Batman was a ruthless vigilante of the night in the pre-War years, both became good citizens and faithful protectors of the establishment following WWII and the ensuing “Red Scare” of McCarthyism.

Marvel, on the other hand, has proven (for the most part, but they’re not without their pitfalls) to be a more progressive and fan-oriented company (at least historically). The simple fact is that Marvel’s success in building the “Merry Marvel Marching Society” was because it was a company that fostered the good faith and goodwill of a dedicated fandom by engaging in a two-way dialogue with that fandom.

Conversely, DC seems content with enraging their fandom by imposing their own vision of how comics should be. I don’t want to make it sound like Marvel is a pious saint; it should be noted that Marvel most famously kicked fans in the nuts in 2007 with the publication of the Devil-dealing, marriage-erasing adventures of Spider-Man: One More Day, written by J. Michael Stracynzski and drawn by Marvel’s then-Editor-in-Chief, Joe Quesada, who felt the need to impart his own nostalgic editorial mandate onto the Spider-Man universe.

A regressive and nostalgic clinging to a mythology decades past is not a sustainable model for an industry, let alone a medium. It enrages fans by taking away things they love and sets storytelling innovation and character development back thirty years. Where comics were once 70 years ahead of their time (Pre-WWII), they are now 30 years behind the times.  At their worst, comics are pamphlet-sized manifestations of midlife crises. At their best, comics are tools for brilliant storytelling experimentation in longevity. The characters and stories have at their core something not even the greatest of films can have — they are allowed to evolve and grow over decades, reshaping themselves for a new generation, pushing the icons into new territories and into new hands.

Instead, DC is willing to stifle that unique trait — available in no other medium — for the sake of their own nostalgic and regressive editorial vision. They are a selfish company, a company constantly seeking the mythic unicorn of “new readers,” which don’t exist. They count on the bankability of their product, they bank on the habitual buying habits of their devoted, thinking the devoted will buy anything and everything (thereby insulting the intelligence of their fans — the cardinal sin of entertainment), thus perpetuating and sustaining their steadfast clinging to an idealized past, the comics and stories that first transformed them into fans and eventually, gave them a job.

The problem is, the stories and time period Didio and company are clinging to are some of the most BORING years of DC Comics on record. Between 1965 and 1985, with few exceptions (O’Neil and Adams’ Batman run, among few others), DC was a company where storytelling was by-the-books and reactionary. It was also the time that DC would be defined by media other than comics, much like today. In the 1960s, you had the William Dozier-produced, Adam West-starring BATMAN TV series — that in its third season featured Yvonne Craig as Barbara Gordon AKA Batgirl — which created a reaction AGAINST the campy series in the comics following its cancellation leading to the character-defining O’Neil-Adams run. In the 1970s, you had the Wonder Woman television show, and the king of all nostalgic comic book memories, the Christopher Reeve-starring SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, directed by Richard Donner. It’s a sad statement that for nearly 20 years, the company that helped CREATE the comics medium and industry was defined by OTHER media.

From 1986 until 2001, comics were defined by comics — for better or worse. In that time period, you had THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, WATCHMEN, SANDMAN, BATMAN: YEAR ONE, THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN saga, MARVELS, KINGDOM COME, THE KILLING JOKE and other tales. Of course, you also had the “holographic chromium big guns big tits big muscles little feet” era as well, but hey, not every memory can be awesome (and most of those guys are either running DC or writing and drawing several New-52 books).

The last time comics were defined by comics — specifically mainstream comics?AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #36, the September 11 tribute issue, a beautiful and stirring piece of literature that showed how quickly a medium could encapsulate the feelings of a world in panel to panel form. From 2001 until the present, comics have again been defined by film and television –– and now video games, with Christopher Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT trilogy, the Marvel Film UniverseRocksteady’s ARKHAM ASYLUM series, and others staking their claim to the “definitive in the eyes of the mainstream” crown.

The time is ripe for a new revolution in comics; indeed, it is already going on in the independent comics world. But for the mythologies of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman (who is on her way to brilliant reinvention courtesy of Brian Azzarello; somehow, that has slipped under their nostalgia radar), The Flash, Green Lantern, and others to thrive, a new revolution must find its way to mainstream comics. To show the unfiltered potential of comics as a medium, the industry must embrace progressive storytelling, allowing their icons to evolve — not singularly under the auspices of superstar writers like Grant Morrison, but from the top down, with an editorial vision that both embraces what came before but understands the needs and wants of a new generation of fandom, no longer selfishly beholden to their own mid-life crisis mish-mash of nostalgia wrapped in a gossamer veil of “iconic,” but with a risk-taking, cavalier willingness to be not micro-managers of talent (“they wanted a typewriter, not a writer,” said George Pérez of his tenure on the New 52 Superman series), but stewards of a reinvigorated “post-industrial folklore,” (as Denny O’Neil called it) ushering in an era of progressive, exciting storytelling that will inspire a new generation to contribute to the growth and sustainability of the most vibrant and exciting medium of the last century.