One of my favorite tidbits in the philosopher Michel Foucault’s famous essay, “What Is an Author?” is that authors became “authors” when they could be punished for what they’d written. Debatable this may be, but it seems worth mentioning now since, in the comics industry, a number of authors are being defied and ignored and going unpaid. Isn’t this a punishment, really, meted out not by the clergy Foucault cited but instead by our modern-day clergy, the corporation?
You can imagine the pain DC Comics went through for more than 20 years, while holding back on creating Before Watchmen. (I suspect it was originally going to be After Watchmen, but no one could figure out how to write that; it may yet happen.) Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen had become, almost instantaneously, the exemplar of what superhero comics could achieve, and while we can argue whether or not such a thing even really exists—“exemplar”, I mean, not “superhero comics”—it’s hard to argue that Watchmen as a narrative begged for more. Moore resisted and continues to resist those efforts, while Gibbons has played it a bit vague, most recently saying that all these extra Watchmen products “are not really canon.”
In any case, DC Comics couldn’t contain itself any longer, and because the fans demanded it, now we’re graced with comics featuring Ozymandias engaged in some sort of wacky fetish, which would be fine if said fetish actually appeared in the story, or if the comic itself was good, and it’s not. None of Before Watchmen is very good, and the best of it is merely sentimental filler—unnecessary but entertaining. Whereas the original graphic novel seemed both desperately needed and wildly disturbing in the way good art can be, and in a way only good comics can be.
I’m on the late train when it comes to pointing out the crass commercialism of Before Watchmen or the heinous treatment by Marvel Comics of one of its founders in the truest sense of the word, Jack Kirby, but what continues to amaze me is what I’ll call the “fanboy reaction”, an approximate and admittedly derogatory term—and a bit of a lie, since maybe I’m some kind of trespasser into the fanboy territory—but one that cuts to the passion espoused by that smallish collective of fans, the ones who critique every comic book put out by DC and Marvel but who, when you criticize those companies in public, stick up for them endlessly and with as much personal offense as if you said their own babies were ugly.
I don’t personally know anyone like this. Even a few of my most fanboy-ish art school students aren’t quite like this. So that’s the good news you’ll need to remember throughout this piece: this response is sizable, but not pervasive. Since late spring of this year, if I read the comments section of any number of internet articles about Kirby or Moore, I came to know these young men (mainly) pretty well. If the hard-nosed claim that “They should’ve known better than sign a bad contract, etc.” was the most common response, running strong in second place was something to the effect that Kirby, Moore, and others like them, don’t really control what they create, never did, and nor should they.
To convince anybody sane of this argument, it helps to argue that said Creator did not actually create said Character or Story (see Stan Lee and Steve Ditko), or at least that a great number of other people pitched in, and what does it matter who first drew The Avengers?
That’s essentially the rhetorical contribution of Scott Kurtz in a brief screed called, brilliantly, “Where Credit Is Due”. (The catch is that either no one is due any credit, or everyone is.) Kurtz aptly captures the fanboy response even though he is, in fact, a webcomics cartoonist whose online archives date back to 1998. Lost in his argument is the difference between an originator and an adapter, or as it was put in a far more detailed and eviscerating response to Kurtz’s burp than I can give, the “difference between putting an awesome flame-job on your car, and building the car.”
Kurtz argues that Kirby didn’t create Thor, just as fanboys (taking J. Michael Straczynski’s cue; see below) will note that Alan Moore based his Watchmen characters off of Charlton Comics characters DC had purchased and didn’t want to kill off. In the effort to assuage yourself of the guilt gnawing at you, anything you can do to blur the act of authoring—and you’ll notice I’m referring to it equally as a verbal and visual act—will do just nicely.
There’s nothing worth a direct quotation in “Where Credit Is Due” but for its closing few sentences:
“…the real world does not operate like the morality plays we see acted out on the silver screen [sic, I think] in movies like ‘The Avengers.’ Life can not be summed up by ‘that’s not fair.’ It’s not as simple as ‘Give Jack’s estate some money, Marvel. You can afford it.’ That’s not pragmatic thinking. That’s cynicism. And I’m so tired of the cynicism. Guys, learn from the Avengers movie. The real villains here are the cynics. They are our Loki. The people looking to pit fandom and an entire industry against itself to make themselves feel powerful.” [bolded in original, don’t ya know.]
Guys, set aside the curious definition of cynicism and you have a morality play of the villain working from within the subculture, “in it” but not “of it”, turning it against itself, destroying Team Comics, just for his own gain. What is that gain? Not actual power, but the feeling of power, which is, despite himself, a crucial point made by Kurtz. And of course, because we’re avoiding simplicity, that villain can never have a point.
New York Times film critic A.O. Scott wrote recently, in one of those annoying feature-as-conversations, that “comic book fans need to feel perpetually beleaguered and disenfranchised, marginalized by phantom elites who want to confiscate their hard-won pleasures”.
You know, when a film critic for an elite publication generalizes you into the category of paranoid, hoarding and self-pitying fandom, it’s not hard to think there really is something to the disenfranchisement and marginalization. Maybe it’s all true. At the same time, when you read Kurtz’s review, you get a sense that maybe Scott is right, which is an ugly feeling.
The Feeling of Power
But what’s behind all of this? Why has this group of our community, this group of devoted readers, turned against comics’ creators?
Since their earliest days, the Big Two, especially Marvel, have excelled at promoting themselves as benevolent paternal figures, and along with this has come a kind of harmless competition, since they own roughly 90 percent of the market share. The rivalry between Marvel and DC is primarily marketing, of course, and brilliant marketing at that: in its initial appeal to adolescent males, the back-and-forth of “Marvel v. DC” created a community charmed by a debate club-seeming aura of competition, thanks to Stan Lee’s gleeful “Excelsior!” and the rule of calling DC the “Distinguished Competition”. But there’s nothing for them to really fight over since they both stick to conservative business models and pray their movies pay the bills. What ground is there left for them to conquer except in other media?
One of the effects of this, though, is to personalize the corporation. This isn’t quite the same as each company’s definition of itself by its characters, which of course they do. This is closer to the company fulfilling its designed nature as father/older brother/best friend as the source of everything that is good, which is why it makes perfect sense that Marvel is owned by a corporation that has excelled at the same kind of persona branding. Few other companies seem to do this, including film studios and book publishers, and maybe it’s the difference between millions and billions, or billions and going out of business.
It’s a little too easy to say that such a strong corporate persona kills any chance of a strong, abiding sense of individual vision or a real belief in authorship. Despite the dreary and cynical portrait I’ve painted, real art happens at both Marvel and DC, and much of it springs from the pens of individuals’ unique styles. Which are then copied, and copied again, and reiterated in how many books. Lately that seems to be changing—you can look to Jae Lee’s incredible visual composition in Ozymandias, or Amanda Connor’s it’s-okay-if-we-breathe-a-little pliancy in Silk Spectre for some variety—but I’m suspicious, because, well, this has happened before.
The comics art form was born in a commercial milieu as powerful as the one that shaped film and television. There’s no getting around that historically. Often connected, accurately, to newspaper comic-strip precursors and the collections of those into book form, some of the earliest comic books were basically advertisement pamphlets. Unlike literature and the visual arts, which it draws from liberally, comics has no real folk tradition. Its “high art” single-author mystique is relatively new and nowadays invested more in “art comics”, where the same inscrutability is creeping in that you still find in the creation and criticism of the fine arts. Meanwhile the greatest auteurs of the mainstream have worked collaboratively; their visions have almost always been achieved through cooperation of some kind because the market and the medium demand it. For me, that joint authorship is partly what makes comics so interesting and volatile.
But maybe what defines a fanboy isn’t lasting enthusiasm or knowledge about authors, and certainly not actual volatility; maybe it’s a certain style of perception that begins by identifying most with character and then moves toward the corporation. There’s a need for stability with the characters—small changes are okay, and you can kill off Batman every now and then—and since the corporation supplies the character, it controls that reliability. And so, for God’s sake, don’t attack the corporation!
The designs of individual authors produce chaos; the function and at least intended design of corporate superhero comics is to provide order. In this milieu, comics authors are not sources of meaning, but simply sources of the production of the same meaning over and over with only slight variations.
Staving Off Death
When Foucault wrote in “What Is an Author?” that “[t]he author is the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning,” he emphasized that we make this so. We choose, in critical ways both pop and academic, to allow the concept of an author to narrow our responses to art by adhering too much to the figure of the author. Kirby and Moore? Those guys just get in the way! “The author is therefore,” Foucault goes on to say, “the ideological figure by which we fear the proliferation of meaning.”
What originally gave me the chills when I read Foucault’s essay was not just its clinical detachment from the act of authoring, but also the idea that this mode of interpretation could be applied to modes of creation and, through the functionalism of the author, turn creation into a kind of erratic but regular assembly line…nothing much more than a production. Even worse, that seemed inevitable. How can you consider production without interpretation, and interpretation without production? Creativity, art, making in a more elemental sense—these seemed capable of skirting the whole notion of modes altogether, escaping a clutching self-consciousness.
But maybe that was just a romanticism. At the same time, it quickly became clear to me that what Foucault proposed was not going to win over the world anytime soon. That was in 1996, I think, maybe 1995, when the internet seemed like a curious hobby and a fun way to trade tapes with other Prince fans.
The difference between what Foucault was saying and what the fanboys are saying is that Foucault meant the proliferation of interpreted meaning and they mean the proliferation of what I’ve been calling “produced” meaning—the thing we read that we then interpret, ie. the comic book. That’s why DC and the rabid fans defending it (including its own PR-friendly artists) can pretend that Watchmen is a line of characters no different than the rest of its characters. Brand characters like Wonder Woman and Batman, or Iron Man and the Hulk, are always proliferating meaning. They never die, and they so they never stop. Someone new just comes along to tell the story. If all authors can do is keep a plate spinning, they haven’t “created” anything, and thus J. Michael Straczynski can say about the Before Watchmen line, of which he is writing Dr. Manhattan and Nite Owl, that—
“A lot of folks feel that these characters shouldn’t be touched by anyone other than Alan, and while that’s absolutely understandable on an emotional level, it’s deeply flawed on a logical level. Based on durability and recognition, one could make the argument that Superman is the greatest comics character ever created. But neither Alan nor anyone else has ever suggested that no one other than Shuster and Siegel should ever be allowed to write Superman.”
—and completely ignore that Shuster and Siegel were hoping Superman would get picked up as a serialized comic whereas Moore entered the agreement with DC and wrote Watchmen as a complete story, wholly internalized with no need for extra history except what the reader would imagine in his or her mind: a graphic novel. (Or is that an emotional argument?) If fanboys want to continually proliferate meaning, which means, in this case, that DC can finally capitalize on its branding, there’s no need to honor Moore’s vision because he’s not actually an author, in their understanding of the word, consciously or subconsciously.
When the choice has to be made, we care more that characters never end, staving off our own fear not of the proliferation of meaning, but its end. That, after all, is the urge behind Before Watchmen. Though its series title suggests precedence, the project is, besides a corporate plan to increase revenue, a staving off of The End.
And isn’t that a fine by-product of allying oneself with characters, not authors? Their capacity to tell stories waxes and wanes before their death, and their own individual peculiarities may lead them away from their most-beloved characters. When a character is owned by a corporation, the storytelling can continue. The stories may be terrible, but they exist. In a culture valuing incredibly rapid generation of “new” content, even the continuation of old stories, a rehashing of tired narratives, and an outright violation of the creator’s vision all count as new content.