Nobody can write like Shakespeare, the visionary John Reed reminds us in “Gist” the first part of the closing meditation to his All the World’s a Grave. Nobody can write like Shakespeare primarily because that copypasta style of cutting-and-thieving plot, character, poetry that Shakespeare relied on itself relies on a much greater archive of writing in the public domain. What’s at stake is as much the cultural ownership of great literature, as the definition of the same.
When my inbox lit up with an attached promo poster for The New Crusaders, an email via co-creator and Archie Comics Head of Publicity Alex Segura, I downloaded the file and replaced my then-current desktop wallpaper. There’s a deep sense of promise to that flawless artwork. The Original Shield, some two generations down the line now, but still smiling, seated at the head of what can only be a boardroom table. The Jaguar, but only in profile, suggesting she’s become even more mythic than before. The unbridled power of the Comet, a Fly, and a Web never before seen. And that tagline, “Returning to Action, 2012”.
In a single poster, Archie Comics’ Alex Segura, Mike Pellerito and Paul Kaminsky have completely evolved the medium out of the usual, tedious conundrum of received history. Popularly referred to as “continuity”, received history has been an albatross around the neck of many a publisher. What do we do with the 40-, 50-, 60-, 70-year plus history of this character? How do we represent it for a newer audience, for a brasher time? Do we endlessly tinker with the mix, ensuring that the character become more dilute over the years? Or do we simply dismiss the history discarding the work done by pioneering creators. And here, in my hands, and on my desktop, Alex, Mike and Paul simply refuse the dilemma. What if we can have both? Both the history, and the tireless novelty that ensured the significance of that history.
The hours-long conversation shared between myself, Alex, Mike and Paul now makes even more sense. If anything, it’s gotten me even more enthused.
“Well the team coming together, was actually really easy”, Paul says, “I worked with Ian and Ben the writer and artist on our currently released Sonic the Hedgehog and MegaMan titles. And we have such a tight ship, and I’m so happy with the work that they’re producing, that they were part of the very first discussion when we were thinking about doing this. And it’s all about the tone they’re able to set and the line they’re able to walk between not talking down to kids as readers but still being able to tell a kid-friendly story. That’s a very, very hard middle ground to strike on. But they both do it, just incredibly well. Because Ben’s style has elements of maybe a slightly more cartoony look, but it’s also got classic Silver Age elements in it as well. Same thing with Ian’s writing. It’s got very sophisticated story ideas and dialogue but tons of humor the kids love… and, kids are smart. They pick up on that stuff. I wouldn’t have appreciated being talked down to as a kid comicbook reader. That’s why I gravitated towards the stuff I gravitated towards. But I think the pick of the team with those values in mind was the easiest part of the process”.
All the while there’s a slow-building in Paul’s voice. He’s getting excited. And there’s little reason not to be excited. The New Crusaders is much about reinvigorating the old as it is about building the new. There are elements about comics that have always been, and will remain, aspirational. Not only aspirational in the sense of, at a moment’s notice, I can you can don a cape and become Robin or Spider-Man. But aspirational in the sense that, there must be very little difference between reading a comicbook as a 6 year old, and seeing your dad read his newspaper. In a sense that is buried beneath years of fandom, comics is a social institution that begins to slowly assert higher-minded thinking. With comics, the future becomes more accessible.
Paul hesitates slightly, and it’s hard not to imagine a smile in that moment, “Well I guess to a degree we’re focused on that aspirational element. Our main focus is really to tell an exciting story. And if there’a s good message in there, then that’s a plus. And we’d always like to do that. We have a special theme in this new relaunch of Red Circle [the publishing brand that produces The New Crusaders] of family and of kids and parents. It’s a universal theme, it’s something that everyone can relate to, in different ways, but on some level. So it’s kinda a big idea that will allow us to explore other big ideas. But when it comes right down to it, sticking with relatable aspects of kids and teens is going to be the main driving force behind the Red Circle”.
It takes more than a moment to soak up the sheer enormity of what Paul has just said. He’s diminuendoed down to an even tone that flawlessly masks the sheer high-frequency of what he’s said just moments earlier. Did Paul just say that the focus of Red Circle comics would be to incorporate more readers rather than exclude them? Is this that return to the kind of mainstream comics that “mirrored perfectly the daily lives of its readers” that comics legend Will Eisner spoke of in Graphic Storytelling? I want to be able to recalibrate, I want to position this against the context of what had already been said, but the kinetic idiom of The Room kicks in. This is a Writers’ Room, this is a creative space. Ideas are tossed back and forth, they circuit round and loop back again. And by the end of it, the wealth. But before the wealth, there’s the interjection.
“If I could just…”, Archie Comics President Mike intervenes. “One thing that not a lot of people seem to talk about is the predominant distribution method for comicbooks has always controlled content in terms of how stories are told. In earlier days, when it was basically a newsstand system you weren’t guaranteed to get every single issue. You couldn’t get one through 10 of a book. You’d have to look, and the stories were reflective of that. The stories were done in one, they were told so that you may not know what happened before, but you were filled in through the dialogue. As the direct market came about, longer stories, 12-issue maxi-series, Watchmen came about also. Things that couldn’t happen before based on distribution, started to happen. And now, we’re actually coming upon the next new distribution method.
“And I think what the Red Circle, and the Red Circle app will take advantage of, is the power that distribution allows you in terms of storytelling. Right now, digital is still being used as another version of a direct market store, and it can’t quite fill that role. Nothing is like a direct market store. Nothing beats hanging out with 20 people on a Wednesday reading the same titles. What digital offers in distribution, and offers therefore in storytelling, is the universe. And that’s what Red Circle is tapping into. You’ll get your new story that will come out over the course of a book, but for that price you get a guided tour of the full universe. So you read a book, and you really don’t understand what happened because there’s some arcane something that happened in 1968. Then you have to go look and dig through and find someone somewhere with the right book or set of books. That’s really part of the collecting aspect that a comicbook store offers.
“But to really put an entire universe at the reader’s hands, is what we’re doing with Red Circle. Where did The Fox come from, how did this happen? You get the entire backstory. A full comicbook library. So the app allows you now to dig into everything you’ve ever wanted to, in the superhero universe”.
Everything you’ve ever wanted to.
When you get the chance, go find a copy of John’s All the World’s a Grave. Maybe one Sunday morning, walk into a bookstore you’ve never been to before. Maybe bump into an ex and she’ll already have it in the pile of books she still keeps by her bed. Where ever you are, grab All the World’s and make your escape. You’d have already gotten everything you need.
John’s play is genius enough. It’s a retooling of Shakespeare’s own lines to produce an entirely new play. Hamlet makes a war to win the heart of Juliet, but on returning to Elsinore, finds his mother Gertrude having murdered his father and married Macbeth. You’ll read it again and again, but the play is not the thing.
Late one evening, maybe it’s Summer once more and you’re among friends drinking wine a sunset, maybe we’ve cycled around to winter again, and the snows have begun to hem you in. Maybe it’s early in the morning, before the sun, but late enough for you to be awake. Maybe then, you’ll read “Gist” and you too will agree with John that Shakespeare needs to be reclaimed from the people who claim to own him. Those who hold that Shakespeare is high culture and not popular. You’ll read “Gist” and then you’ll barrel right into “& Gyb”. And that will mean the world. You’ll retrace John’s footfalls down the hall of an argument that will seem as clear and as bright as anything you’ve ever seen. You’ll understand that All the World’s a Grave isn’t simply about reclaiming Shakespeare. It’s about reclaiming literature itself. It’s about denying the tyranny of received history. It’s about overturning the need for there to be a fixed number of classics that simply delete any classic being written today. It’s about remembering that the assumption that what The Few have “read is the best there is to read is an untenable assumption”. It’s about recalling that the popular became popular for a reason.
That’s what you’ll be reading when you read John. And that’s why you’ll want to buy a universe, for the price of a comicbook.