Tuesday, July 26, 2011

DC's "Aquaman" reboot, the difficulties with being "brand-new and fresh," and the curse of PoMo

In September, DC Comics will be "rebooting" their entire line of comics. I have written a bit about the subject here, and here. The fact that DC is attempting to "shake things up" is a positive sign. It's also a positive sign that they're releasing their comics as both printed pamphlets and as digital downloads on the same day.

However, as I've already written (see the two links above!), the content they're showing us does not look promising. DC's co-publisher, Dan DiDio, has stated,
“If we can convince the people here we’re doing something brand-new and fresh, we have a good chance to really get the people outside on board.”
What they have released thus far has done little to show us that what they're doing is "brand-new and fresh." Click one of the links in the first paragraph to find out more, or just look at this image, which I fear tells us all we need to know about DC's company-wide "re-boot":

I think that the people running DC comics are sincere in their attempts to be "brand new and fresh." I think that they believe that the image above is, somehow, "brand new and fresh." I also believe that they are, themselves, fans who just love these characters so much they just know you'll love them, too! and have so much invested in them that they cannot see that what they're doing has already been done, and done to death.

Moreover, I believe that they are utterly baffled as to why Marvel commands so much of the market, nearly 45%, while they themselves command about 25%-30%. DC has some of the most interesting characters in comics. This might, in itself, be part of their problem.

DC is owned by Warner Bros, which is looking to those comic book characters for their next, post-Harry Potter, franchise. To that end, they spent as much as $300 million on the disastrous "Green Lantern" film. The people who make these comics are responsible for keeping them "relevant" to a dwindling audience, and protecting them as intellectual property for Warner Bros, which hopes to use them as film, television, and toy products. I have no doubt they're getting a lot of pressure from WB to do something to remove from their books the odor of second place that seems to have overwhelmed them for years.

This means that each of the creative decisions in each of these books is being undertaken with input from marketing, promotion, licensing, and merchandising people. Inside "DC" and at Warner Bros. Oh, and editors. This means that every great idea that the talent comes up with, however bold it might be in the pitch itself, gets turned to stasist and conservative mush after it's been through the corporate grinder. What was "brand new and fresh" when Mr. DiDio et. al. were discussing it over lunch at, oh, let's say they have great taste and ate at Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles became, well, it became that Justice League image you see above by the time it got to the (digital) printer.

Of course, this is all speculation on my part, based on my own very brief experience writing comics. But it's like that with any writing for hire, really. There are concessions to be made. When there are millions of dollars in licensing and merchandising on the line, the concessions pile up dramatically. And then you all have to go out and give interviews in which you promote your original idea (the one you really believe in), and hope that not too many people realize that it doesn't quite match up with the final, printed version.

The Hollywood Reporter ran some more images from another of DC's "reboots," the first issue of a new "Aquaman" comic book. Of the reboot itself, THR writes:
Behind the move is a feeling that DC must re-energize itself for the 21st century, not only to combat Marvel's dominance but also to counter the perception that only die-hards are still combing through the periodicals. So, in sync with a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign, DC will, in an industry first, release digital issues day-and-date with hard copies and develop new stories designed to recapture lost readers and win over a younger generation. (And potentially sow the seeds of future blockbuster TV and film franchises.)
That is a lot to have to accomplish. Based on what we've seen so far (the Justice League cover image above), it appears as though DC either isn't really trying to appeal to anyone who's not a "die-hard," or they just flat out don't know how to appeal to anyone who's not a "die-hard."

They are not, for instance, trying to appeal to me. I happen to love comics. I also love superheroes. I haven't read a superhero comic book all the way through in a long time. If that image above is any indication, they do not want me as a customer.

But, then, that's okay if they can "sow the seeds of future blockbuster TV and film franchises." Besides that, I have fairly idiosyncratic taste.

More from THR shows just how much worse off DC is than I thought:
Heroes will be tweaked and aged down to showcase them not as established titans but as strivers who "have to sweat to fight the bad guys," [Jim] Lee says. For example, Johns' new take on Aquaman -- here THR offers an exclusive sneak peek at pages 5 to 8 of issue No. 1, with art by Ivan Reis and Joe Prado -- retools the underwater-breathing hero so he is no longer the king of Atlantis and now plays off his second-banana status.

"Geoff has dived into the grandeur of the character while addressing that he's been a running joke," Lee says. "It's going to have humor and majesty."
Aquaman is, or was, the king of Atlantis. This is a man who can live underwater indefinitely, withstanding the immense pressure of being miles below the surface of the ocean. Think about how much force is exerted on a body when it dives underwater -- water is heavy, for crying out loud. The earth is something like 80% water. Aquaman is one of the very few sentient beings that can live in that environment. He is, in other words, sole protector of something like 80% of the planet. He can talk to animals that live in the ocean. This guy is a champion for crying out loud, and yet, DC is "retooling" him to "play off his second-banana status."


If Aquaman were a real, actual, living being, he would be regarded as one of the most amazing people on the planet. I bet you that he would be one of the most -- if not the most -- popular superheroes, if for no other reason than our ever-present worries about climate change. Aquaman would be a fetish figure all over the world.

And yet, DC is treating him as a "second banana." How so? Here's one page from the preview DC released:

Again I ask: Wha--? The "glass of water" line is intended to be funny -- or, at least, the reaction to the "glass of water" line is intended to be funny: check that pause in the fifth panel, and the sheepish looks -- but it only makes sense in a "winking at the audience" PoMo kind of way. As a reference to Aquaman's "second banana" status, and the jokes made at his expense in the real world (even NPR has called for a moratorium on Aquaman jokes -- and now DC is making them?) don't work in the context of a comic book about Aquaman.

DC needs to own Aquaman. He is a tough bastard. He rules 80% of the freaking planet. If there's an oil spill somewhere or trouble on an oil rig, who are you calling? When that oil drill burst off the coast of Louisiana, leaking millions of barrels of oil, wouldn't you have liked to see a goddam Aquaman swim down there and plug it up in about five minutes?

"Second banana"? Are you kidding me?

Submarine disasters. Sinking ships.  Sea embargoes. For crying out loud, Aquaman has the trademark on sea rescue. It's not his fault if he's been saddled with creators who can't think of anything to do with him (he actually has had, on occasion, some decent writers working on him).

Iron Man was a joke at Marvel. A second banana, maybe third banana. He was basically just Marvel's version of Batman, and a halfhearted rip-off at that. But Marvel took him seriously. Marvel owned Iron Man. Today, Iron Man is one of the most famous superheroes in the world. And Iron Man has to build himself a special submarine suit of armor if he wants to go swimming five miles under the sea. Aquaman can just dive right in.

DC needs to stop with the PoMo (I'm thinking specifically of Grant Morrison's Batman Incorporated stuff, but the "glass of water" line is a small example of just how prevalent that movement has become in American mainstream comics -- and, yes, it is a major reason why fewer and fewer people are reading mainstream comics; after awhile, it's no fun reading a story whose sole purpose seems to be for the writer to prove how so very clever he can be while still creating a product that the corporate overlords can market) and start taking their characters seriously, and without so much oh-so-clever guile. And if you're going to make a change, go all out with it. Don't just repackage the same old, and tell us it's "brand new."

If DC is intent on this "humor and majesty" stuff, perhaps they could make Aquaman a lovably earnest fellow who doesn't realize that the policeman's barb (and, really if you'd just seen someone flip over a truck and resist machine gun bullets would you really make a joke at his expense?) was intended as snark, and he could talk about the importance of staying hydrated, but that he doesn't need anything to drink at that moment because of, oh, something about the nature of his oceanic powers? Over the course of the first issue, Aquaman's earnestness would win out over the nonsensical PoMo. (Maybe that could be one of his powers -- overcoming PoMo and deconstructionism in comics -- in the second issue he could battle a character called Deacon Struckshonne, who has a big beard and wears enormous rings like Alan Moore. Of course, that in itself is PoMo and deconstructionist, isn't it? You can't win.)

But. Over at the Aquaman Shrine (the "die-hards" beyond whom DC is attempting to appeal), I found this image, also recently released by DC:

In his post accompanying this image, joe writes:
Speaking personally, I can see the influence of both the legendary Jim Aparo as well as the amazing George Perez in Reis & Prado's artistic style. These elements combined with their own larger-than-life, modern approach lead me to believe that it is their art that will be responsible for introducing the Sea King and his cast to a whole new generation of Aquaman fans.
Maybe it will; I don't know. But that artwork (which looks to me like everything DC's been doing for the last ten years, to ever-dwindling sales) has a lot to overcome. Just for starters: Why is "the Sea King" standing in the middle of a city? they couldn't create a dramatic image of him, perhaps, swimming?

I'm not sure if even a glass of water will help him.


Iced Borscht said...

I think the Qua should be reimagined as a chain-smoking, gravel-voiced retired cop who moves to rural oceania and finds that country living ain't all it's cracked up to be.

A.Jaye said...

I see the potential for a movie franchise. I also see the kiddie cartoon. I also see an environmentalist's icon. This fish guy could be as big as Superman.

"Glass of water?"

That's sitcom in panels. I'm glad I don't read comics anymore. Well apart from Frank Miller.

Ricky Sprague said...

Sometimes I find the lack of creativity in the creative industries dispiriting.

On a happier note, the same month in which DC will be "rebooting" its entire universe to be basically exactly the same as it's always been, Frank Miller will be releasing another creative punch to the gut:


So there's that to look forward to.