DC Comics rebooted their entire recently. While I can say I haven’t cared for any of the new titles for a lot of reasons, I’d like to go ahead and comment instead on the seemingly least important element of the reboot: The redesign of various costumed characters and move on from there.
Jim Lee is a fabulous artist who was in charge of the redesign. And that’s the problem. Because he’s failed on one of the most important elements of a shared universe. Namely, it should be populated by characters that are easy to draw.
I’ve written before on the underrated nature of simplicity, of avoiding making things complex for complexity’s sake. And comic book superheroes are perhaps one of the best examples of this. Most established superheroes of any staying power have extremely simple designs, both in terms of character motivations, background, and physical appearance. This isn’t just to make them distinctive in their original medium. It’s also practical because most superheroes are passed from writer to writer, artist to artist, regularly. In addition, ongoing comic book titles try to stick to a regular publishing schedule and simple character designs are easier and faster to write stories for and draw than complicated ones.
There’s a reason Superman wears two primary colors. And his spandex costume looks painted on. No stitching. No extraneous lines. Just a human body wrapped in blue and red with a big S on his chest and a long red cape. It is a design that has worked for decades, and not by accident.
The new designs, both in terms of characters and physical appearance, are far too busy.
Batman is a guy who saw his parents murdered, then grew up to dedicate himself to fighting crime. Anything more than that is subject to writer’s interpretation, and that’s what makes him work. Frank Miller might decide Batman is a raging jerkwad while Denny O’Neal can portray him as a detective in a mask and so on and so on. The basic framework of the character leaves him flexible enough for any competent writer (and artist) to work with.
It’s a weird thing for me (an artist) to say, but shared characters and universes should always be more important than the writers and artists who work on them. And where I feel that both DC and Marvel have stumbled in recent years is by being more enamored of their creative staff than their product. Yes, I’m proposing that comic books are not selling because they’re not commercial, because they are being written by ascended fans now who have forgotten that they are not supposed to just be writing the superhero stories they wanted to see growing up.
Even writing that seems wrong. I used to believe that if an artist created works they were passionate about, everything else would come in due time. I still believe that, mostly. However, there is the possibility that you are creating a story that just doesn’t have enough mainstream appeal to reach a wider audience. And I fear comic book superheroes are at that point.
When you have creators who live in backstory, who know every little detail of the history of the Green Lantern Corps and want to put it all in there, you run the risk of locking out everyone who doesn’t share your passion. And when you create costume designs festooned with lines and dozens of needless accessories, you definitely make the job of every artist after you a hell of a lot harder.
The DC reboot, for example, didn’t touch anything in Green Lantern’s recent years. Or Batman’s. Even when it really no longer makes any sense. Both characters have only been active in their universe for five years, story time, yet both have such a tremendous amount of backstory that it doesn’t fit well. (Batman, for example, had a son with a supervillain five years before he was active as a superhero, which could possibly be justified, but still seems like a stretch.) Meanwhile, Blue Beetle, a character with very little backstory, was completely rebooted, starting from scratch. Both decisions have less to do with the characters and their universe and everything to do with the people writing behind the scenes.
Marvel proudly has profiles in its comics calling its writers and artists “Architects” of the Marvel Universe. But really, they’re work for hire that can, and often are, replaced at a moment’s notice.
I’m not suggesting that writers and artists shouldn’t be considered important. Nobody wants to read a lousy Batman story, drawn badly. But at the same time, most of these characters are bigger and more important than the people behind the scenes. Stan Lee might have created Spider-Man, but Spider-Man will be around long after Stan Lee. And while the characters do need to adapt and change to stay relevant, messing with them too much at your peril. Because you aren’t going to improve upon Batman’s origin. And making an “extreme” version of Superman’s suit is the modern equivalent of giving him bellbottoms.
It ain’t going to stick, and you really should know better.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,