Thursday, January 20, 2011

Creative suicide: The interminable age of reboots. And relaunches. And reimaginings.

Marvel published the top comic book of 2010. Do you know what it was? Do you even care? It was The Avengers #1.
“The Avengers” No. 1, Marvel Comics' relaunch of its superhero property featuring Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Spider-Man and Wolverine, was the best-selling comic-book title for 2010.
A relaunch, of a comic book that was first published in 1963, then relaunched in 1996, then relaunched in 1997, then relaunched in 1998, then relaunched in 2004 (actually a resumption of the original series launched in 1963), then relaunched in 2010. You can try to follow it all here, if you like.

In 1998, the great cartoonist Frank Miller told The Comics Journal,
When I was in my 20s, putting together Ronin and feeling the handcuffs come off creatively, I thought that we just had to win a certain number of business victories and there would be an absolute explosion of all this fine talent producing work that they were dying to do. And there's no politic way to put it-- it's been a crashing disappointment to see what's actually happened. And as time has gone by, my expectations have lowered. Talent is being squandered by people just becoming the next person to do whatever old Marvel comic. That's not just squandering an opportunity, it's suicide. Creative suicide. In one of my nastier moments, I started comparing the industry to a bunch of Elvis impersonators, trying to sell records. Understand, I grew up on the old Stan Lee/Jack Kirby/Steve Ditko stuff and loved it and will always have affection for it. But repeating it would be like staying in first grade the rest of my life.
Today, comic books are mostly advertising pamphlets, and testing grounds for properties to be sold to movies. One of the most anticipated movies of 2012 (can you stand this anticipation??) is the Avengers movie. Marvel Comics is doing its part to help push Marvel Productions' upcoming film. By rebooting a comic book that has been rebooted at least four times already. Perhaps in 2012 there will be yet another "first" issue of The Avengers (at the very least one presumes there will be a comic book adaptation of the film).

The people who are creating comic books today are marketers and advertisers. Taking material created by other people, 40, 50, 60 years before, and making it relevant for today's audience. And creating platforms from which to launch movie franchises.

Warner Bros announced long ago that it would be following Marvel's formula and begin releasing huge tentpole films based on its DC comics properties. Their first release since that announcement, Jonah Hex, was a spectacular failure at the box office. Their next release is getting a much bigger push, and a lot more "buzz": Green Lantern.

And already, people are lowering expectations. First, there are some unnamed "industry insiders," speaking about the career of Blake Lively, the actress who portrays Carol Ferris, the love interest in the film.
And both are also quick to say that should the forthcoming Green Lantern flop (and it's been a troubled production), it won't hurt Lively much. Says the manager, "Whatever the mistakes were with Green Lantern, she needs to not react to them and do an indie movie just because a big superhero movie didn't work. It's always about the role and the director. The hotter the person, the easier it is, and she's very hot right now." The agent adds, "Even though Green Lantern is supposed to be terrible, it doesn’t mean it’s not going to do extremely well and enhance her foreign value. Clash of the Titans was horrendous, but it didn’t slow down Sam Worthington any."
"Green Lantern" is supposed to be terrible. But that's just some unnamed agent. What about the fans? Well, some of them are already coming up with excuses to downplay expectations.
However, the filmmakers’ decision to ditch the standard latex/leather/spandex combination for Green Lantern’s superhero costume in favor of a more modern, completely CG costume remains the most questionable choice they’ve made to date.

WB and other involved parties have supported this decision from the get go – at least publicly – telling fans to expect a truly masterful sight on screen. However, every trailer or picture released up to this point doesn’t seem to support their claims. After taking a good hard look at more stills from the Green Lantern trailer, I’m very worried the SFX of this movie may be headed into realm of SyFy channel original movie.
Yeah, the cheesy CGI costume might ruin the film. Not the silly character himself. (Sorry, I am biased. I have never liked the Green Lantern character. He is a creepy sell-out of the planet earth to a group of sinister alien imperialist occupiers with inscrutable motives. But anyway.)

Also, there is the fact that the trailer, with its cheesy CGI costume, looks like every other superhero film we've already seen before, and fans are starting to pick up on that.
The trailer for next summer's Green Lantern movie hit the Internet in the face earlier this week, like a giant green fist. In addition to being yet another movie to feature gratuitous shots of Ryan Reynolds' abs, like [Every Movie Ryan Reynolds Has Ever Done], the Green Lantern movie distinguishes itself in another way. For the first time ever, I can't tell if I'm watching a trailer or a combination of clips from every other superhero movie ever shot. Either this is the work of a very clever editor, or there isn't a single original moment in the entire trailer.

Has it happened? Have we exhausted the genre? Is it time to stop making superhero movies?
Remember what Frank Miller said back in 1998.
Talent is being squandered by people just becoming the next person to do whatever old Marvel comic. That's not just squandering an opportunity, it's suicide. Creative suicide.
Comic books have become an insular, forbidding place, and as the readership has declined, the "big two," Marvel and DC, have done little to try to expand the audience for comics. Instead, they've fought for a larger percentage of that ever-diminishing audience. Rather than expand with new concepts and new ideas -- new non-superhero ideas -- they've doubled down on their existing properties.

The results have been unintentionally hilarious. For instance, in October, DC Comics published a book entitled Superman: Earth One. Here is what DC Comics' own website has to say about it:
Forget everything you know about The Man of Steel and brace yourself for a staggering new take on the world's most popular Super Hero.

Best-selling, Hugo Award-winning writer J. Michael Straczynski (BRAVE AND THE BOLD, Thor, Babylon 5) and red-hot rising star artist Shane Davis (GREEN LANTERN, SUPERMAN/BATMAN) team up for this exciting launch of the EARTH ONE graphic novel series. Set in an all-new continuity re-imagining DC's top heroes, EARTH ONE is a new wave of original, stand-alone graphic novels produced by the top writers and artists in the industry. The groundbreaking new line rockets into effect right here with the Super Hero who started it all – Superman!

What would happen if the origin of The Man of Tomorrow were introduced today for the very first time? Return to Smallville and experience the journey of Earth's favorite adopted son as he grows from boy to Superman like you've never seen before!
That copy is intended to entice you to purchase the book, and read it. Are you at all interested in reading a "staggering new take" (better sit down when you read it) on "the world's most popular Super Hero"?

If this one doesn't stagger you...

How many "new takes" on "the world's most popular Super Hero" have there been? I don't know, but it's been a lot.

Actually, there was another "new take" on "the world's most popular Super Hero," published in the very same year as Superman: Earth One. It was called Superman: Secret Origin. It was published in six issues beginning in 2009, finished up in 2010, and the collected hardcover was published in December 2010. Here's how DC Comics' own website attempts to entice you to purchase and read this work:
Writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank bring you a startling new look at the beginnings of Lex Luthor, The Legion of Super-Heroes, Lois Lane, Metallo, Jimmy Olsen, The Parasite and more of your favorite characters from the Superman family in this new, deluxe hardcover. Collecting the acclaimed six-issue miniseries!
I suppose we should be grateful that this hardcover book is merely "startling." You shouldn't try to "stagger" too many comics fans all at once; all 200,000 of them might bump into each other. But the important thing is that DC Comics released two major re-imaginings/re-tellings of the origin of Superman within two months of each other.

This is the best that DC Comics can do?

 ...Perhaps this will startle you?

And go back up and read the stuff about Superman: Earth One again.

Set in an all-new continuity re-imagining DC's top heroes, EARTH ONE is a new wave of original, stand-alone graphic novels produced by the top writers and artists in the industry.

This is somewhat similar to what Marvel did with their "Ultimate" series. "Re-imagining" the same properties they've always published, and continued to publish. But it wasn't new when Marvel did it, either. There's not much point in going back through the complete history of comics, but I will note that Frank Miller himself "re-booted" Batman with the book Batman: Year One. That was back in 1987, just after the completion of "Crisis on Infinite Earths," which was supposed to streamline and simplify the entire jumbled history of the DC Universe (to what purpose? to try to get new readers?). DC ended up re-booting a lot of their characters around that time. There was a whole new slate of "#1" issues for the collectors to buy.

The point is: "Original, stand-alone graphic novels... re-imagining DC's top heroes." The comic book equivalent of Newspeak.

Or, as Frank Miller said, "Creative suicide."

And it's no coincidence that Warner Bros is preparing another reboot of the Superman film franchise (they had to race to get the movie into production before they lost the copyright on certain elements of Superman's story). The marketing tool that was Superman: Secret Origin apparently served as a direct inspiration for that new film.
Details about Zack Snyder's reboot of the 'Superman' franchise have been somewhat hard to come by, but comic book fans may have just gotten a huge hint as to what direction the newest Man of Steel adventure might take, courtesy of screenwriter David Goyer.
Goyer, who has the somewhat unenviable task of updating the character for a new generation, had this to say about Johns' take on the character in his preface. "There is a heart breaking moment halfway through the first chapter in which young Clark is told the truth about his heritage. He races out into the night, sobbing, stumbling through the cornfields. Eventually, his foster father, Jonathan, finds him.

'I don't want to be someone else,' says Clark. 'I don't want to be different. I want to be Clark Kent. I want to be your son.'

Right there in that moment, Geoff contextualized Superman in a way that I'm not sure has ever really been done before. I had an 'aha' experience when I read that. For the first time I was able to grasp how lonely Clark must have been when he was growing up. And what a sacrifice Clark must continually make by being Superman."
Emphasis added because that is the whole point of Superman's origin. The writer, Geoff Johns, was not "contextualizing" Superman, he was having Clark Kent state explicitly what is the theme of the Superman origin story. He was stating the obvious.

Why on earth do you think that Superman continues to be Clark Kent? Because he wants to be Clark Kent. He doesn't have to be. He's Superman -- he could be anything or anyone he wants. He wants to be Clark Kent. Is this really a revelation?

You're a massively successful screenwriter and this is a revelation to you?

This is made even more embarrassing by the recently leaked photos of what would have been Tim Burton's take on the Superman character.

That is a new take on the character. Already I'm interested, and I haven't even heard anything about the story. But that costume shows more thought and effort and uniqueness than "I don't want to be different."

Imagine that as your rallying cry. For crafting a film about a superhero. "I don't want to be different." But then, that's what the fans are saying, in regards to these pictures. For instance:
If this wasn’t a Superman movie, I’d say these costumes look great. But being as it is Superman, well, let’s just say I’m glad Bryan Singer and Zack Snyder got there first.

"I don't want to be different."

The images show that Burton's Superman would have used Lite Brite tech and a metal "S" logo for the chest piece. (Also, you can see an early version of the suit modeled on a mold of Nic Cage.)

Burton's Superman movie was a big deal in the mid to late 1990s; as most of you already know, Kevin Smith was hired to write a draft of the screenplay at one point. Burton's project went bye-bye, and Warner Bros. turned their attention to what would become Bryan Singer's Superman Returns instead.

There's a reason why these images were never seen before. See if you can find it.

"I don't want to be different."

Not too long ago, we posted costume test photos from Tim Burton’s aborted Superman Lives. I tried to avoid these posts, not because I don’t like engaging in speculation or deeply pondering “what-if” scenarios, but because the glimpses I saw made Superman look pretty atrocious.

Endless reboots, restating the obvious points of a character's origin story, removing all subtlety and nuance so that fans can have their "aha!" moment, reliving what they've already read... but this time, it's explained just a little bit differently!

Last year, sales of comic books declined by 3.5%. Comics sales have been declining for awhile.

The response? Reboot The Avengers. Reboot Superman. Reimagine Superman. Turn Batman into a postmodern commentary on Iron Man. Give Wonder Woman a new costume that looks like something that would get a contestant "aufed" from "Project Runway."

Oh, and movies. Movies, movies, movies. They're already working on a "Green Lantern" sequel. But what else has Warner Bros got? DC has  been so busy rebooting and reimagining its characters, over and over again, that they haven't come up with any new, bit concepts for the motion picture side. Even as marketing pamphlets, the comic books are failing.

Creative suicide.


A.Jaye said...

Fantastic post Sprague.

Looks like the outlaw comic books that have always been supversive and a bad influence on children couldn't be more mainstream now. Once Hollywood get their hands on a product creativity dies for the dollar. Look what happened to J-Horror.

Ricky Sprague said...

Thanks, A.Jaye.

The Hollywood angle is to be expected. But why are artists so eager these days to "sell out"?

A.Jaye said...

I think half the problem is the culture. If you invent something or run a successful small business even your investors will expect you to sell out to the man.

No thank you mom and dad.

There exists a generation of human beings behind us who have no concept of nuturing an idea into published fact. Fin. It's certainly not the people's fault. It's what the corporation calls ancillary revenue.

Now the tail wags the dog. A publisher looks at potential movie rights before book sales. Thus every new novel published reads like a screenplay.

Every superhero is doomed to the infinity of reboots - because the writer/artists cannot create a 40 year old brand instaneously. They have to sell out - or self publish.


A lot of supposition in my thesis - but look what they done to my business.

Jennifer said...

The happiest new year to you and your readers!