I spent my last post bashing on DC pretty hard, so this week I wanted to take a more positive tack and talk about one of the things I really like about superhero comics, at least as practiced by Marvel and DC. I mentioned in passing that I feel the shared universe is what gives superheroes a lot of their energy. But I think that there’s something more there.
For a long time I’ve felt that superhero comics are unique in contemporary fiction, insofar as the characters and the universe don’t belong to any one creator or authoritative voice. There is no George Lucas who is the chief architect and ultimate authority of the universe. Rob Liefeld created Deadpool, but his version of the character is no more definitive than Joe Kelly or Daniel Way’s. Denny O’Neil or Alan Moore’s voices have no greater weight than Grant Morrison’s when it comes to Batman. Each author lends their particular voice and narrative sense to a character or title for a time before eventually passing the torch on to another writer.
Now to be fair that’s true of a number of characters who have continued beyond the span of their author’s life. Sherlock Holmes, for example, has endured long beyond Arthur Conan Doyle’s life, reinvented for the modern day, thrown into the future, and even recast as a mouse. There are, however, two significant differences between this sort of reimagining and what we have in comics.
First, the events of Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century are not considered to be a part of canon, while broadly speaking any superhero comic being published today is. The Spider-Man of today exists in a chain of continuity with the Spider-Man of the 1960s. But second is the fact that not only are different authors handling the same characters, but they are doing so simultaneously with each other.
These comics are not being produced in isolation, but as part of an ongoing universe which spans numerous titles released simultaneously. In any given month Wolverine might be appearing in six or more comics written by as many different authors. All of these Wolverines are subtly (or unsubtly) different, and yet simultaneously the same, and when one person does something interesting with a character it can ripple through the universe quickly.
In a recent interview with Dan Slott—WARNING: Spoilers for upcoming issues of Spider-Man—he mentions in passing that when Superior Spider-Man was announced, everyone else was asking if they could still use the old Spider-Man. But as soon as the first issues came out everyone wanted to use the Superior Spider-Man, because it turned out to be a really interesting take on an old character. Spider-Man was suddenly sort of a dick, and all the writers wanted to take him for a test-drive. I can’t really think of any other contemporary medium in which that sort of broad, active collaboration takes place.
There’s an oft quoted saying about creativity: “bad artists imitate, great artists steal.” There’s a plain meaning there about not simply copying the works of others but to build on their ideas and incorporate them into your own vision, and I think it’s a good quote. But it always makes me think of a conversation I once had with my father.
We were talking about science fiction—and I’m going to paraphrase here, because this was about 15 years ago—and he was talking to me about the author community in the early days of science fiction. At the time SF was primarily published as short stories or serialized in magazines. If a particular story was successful it would be either expanded or collected—respectively—into a novel, or perhaps republished in an anthology.
Because the stories were generally short—and being published monthly—there was an ability for other authors to respond to that story very quickly. One author would write a story with a new idea, and then other authors would pick up that idea and run with it, each one trying to outdo the others by writing the best story with that idea. Or an author would write a story that came to a certain conclusion, and another would write a story refuting that conclusion and asserting their own perspective.
A sort of dialog emerged from those pulp magazines as authors stole ideas from one another, back and forth, over and over. Good ideas slowly became fixed as tropes, narrative conventions were formed, and the new genre that became SF was cast out of the stuff of raw imagination. Science fiction eventually settled down and moved away from the monthly magazines into novels, and onto TV and movie screens.
I’ve kept a piece of that conversation at the back of my mind ever since, because hearing my father talk about the early days of SF reminded me immediately of comic books. The time scale is a bit longer due to the length of time it takes to make a comic, but a lot of the same elements are there, including the small community of creators who are referencing and building off of one another’s ideas. They are, in essence, stealing from each other constantly.
In my mind it is the collaborative universe of superheroes—something the early SF stories lacked—that keeps these characters always changing and evolving. Not simply that different stories are happening in the same reality, but that so many different creators are contributing to it AND swapping between different books.
Brian Michael Bendis, Jonathan Hickman, and Matt Fraction all have very different authorial voices, and each of them lends something different to the universe. Bendis and Hickman have produced hugely different Avengers runs, just as Hickman and Fraction have with The Fantastic Four. The superhero genre can never settle down and become just one thing because there are always different creators trying new things, adding their particular voice to the milieu.
But more than that, because these universes come about through a process of what you could call combative collaboration, each author both adding and taking away elements in order to best tell their own story using the characters as they are at the moment, I think they are in a sense truer and realer than characters or stories told by a single author with a single creative vision (and commensurate creative biases).
I discussed my thoughts on this topic a bit with my mother (noted Science Fiction authoress Cory Panshin, who has done quite a bit of writing on her own blog about the nature and evolution of social visions and mythology). She suggested that the sort of storytelling I was discussing was reminiscent of the oral tradition through which myths were passed down.
Storytellers would learn the different legends from other tellers, and each one would add their own elements or flourishes, so that the stories changed and grew over time, with characters being recast in different roles to fit the changing times. We think about the stories of Thor (the historical Thor), Beowulf, and the Illiad/Odyssey as happening in one particular way because that is the way those stories were written down. But those versions are presumably only one rendition of those events, or the lives of those characters. Other, different Beowulfs and Agamemnons certainly existed, though the details of their adventures are lost to us.
A writer working within their own private realm may declare that events resolve one way or another, or portray a character as a particular type of person, and it is so. No one can legitimately say otherwise, no matter how “wrong” it might feel (as certain fans of Harry Potter might agree). Within the shared universe, however, each successive creator adds a little bit, takes a little bit away, and slowly a character, a world, a universe becomes shaped. Each little adjustment gets us a little bit nearer the “true” form. Wild departures are quickly struck down, buried, and perhaps later brought back again in a way that feels right.
Because of the advent of copyright as a thing which extends for nigh-on a century after the death of the author the public domain has slowly dried up. Living in a world where forgotten works of 70 years ago gather dust because no one even knows who owns them, it’s hard for us to imagine a world where any storyteller could pick up a still contemporary character like Superman or Batman and tell whatever story they want to with them. It seems strange, and yet that was the case for much of human history.
In my conversation with my mother the topic of Claude Levi-Strauss came up as well, and his ideas about structuralism, archetypal events, and the assertion that a myth is not simply the one single best version, but ALL versions taken in concert—certainly applicable to comic book characters like Superman, with their plural overlapping continuities. Knowing Grant Morrison these ideas likely influenced the creation of Hypertime (look that one up, if you’re not familiar with it), a concept I have secretly always liked (please don’t tell anyone).
But aside from the assertion that “superheroes are modern myths”—which is by now a sentiment so oft repeated as to be commonplace—I think the real interesting element of all of this is the sense that these sort of collaborative universes are realer and more true than those which belong to a single author. That is, I feel, one of the secret sources of power for superheroes as an art-form, and the reason why these characters have been so enduring.