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Eric: On Superman, Batman, and Stunt Casting Writers

So, in the brief snark about my lack of snarking, yesterday, I expressed a brief, negative opinion about Identity Crisis. I felt the plot was TV Movie, not Super Hero. I felt it committed cheap thrills instead of real character evolution. And I felt that the story was the last nail in the coffin for the idea of Super Heroes -- of the Justice League -- as something meant for teenagers. This was a story meant for adults, and this was also a story meant to guide the forward evolution of the DC Universe, or whatever we're calling it this week.

And, I referred to the hiring of Brad Meltzer -- author of The Millionaires, Zero Sum, The Tenth Justice and other novels, as well as the creator of Jack and Bobby on television -- to write the series as stunt casting. Take a successful writer in another field -- one with some bearing and relation (The Tenth Justice is a Young Adult book, for example, and Jack and Bobby had science fiction elements to it), hire them to write for the comics and hope that the publicity pulls in new readers.

Well, this wasn't Meltzer's first comic book series (he did a run on Green Arrow that's now been collected into The Archer's Quest), but certainly DC has leveraged his non-comics credentials hard in promoting Identity Crisis. Which irks me at best -- it's like they're trying to convince readers that no, really, it's okay to read this comic. It's not being written by one of those hacks like Peter David or Roger Stern. It's being written by a real writer. One you like!

I despise that. I despised that when Kevin Smith was put on both Daredevil and Green Arrow. I despised that when J. Michael Straczynski­took over on Spider-Man, too. And to be blunt, that annoyance is unfair to the writers.

It honestly is. It's unfair to Smith, who wrote a Green Arrow series with tremendous affection and understanding of who Green Arrow was in the 70's, who he became in the 90's, and who he would have to be in the 21st Century. (I don't know enough about Smith's run on Daredevil to speak to it intelligently.) It's unfair to Straczynski, who's been a journeyman on Spider-Man for years now, who wrote the beautiful Midnight Nation before that (Rising Stars never interested me. I can't tell you why), who writes one of the few comics I've actually bought in the last several years (Supreme Power) -- and who's been let into the lodge officially as of this latest Spider-Man arc, because no one's trashing him mercilessly because he's a Hollywood Writer writing Spider-Man. They're trashing him mercilessly because they can't stand what he's done to the legend of Gwen Stacey and they expected better of him than that.

(I use "they" instead of "we" because I've never been enough of a Spider-Man fan to care about Gwen Stacy. So it just sounds like an interesting story to me, not an affront to Man or God. My point, however, is that it's not Straczynski's background that's fueling the anger -- it's the actual story. Which means he's officially accepted as "Comics Folk" by the community.)

Well, I honestly do believe that Meltzer was put on this incredibly controversial story to drum up even more interest, get some mainstream attention and some publicity... to "hotshot the angle," to use a wrestling reference. I think that's evident from the way DC has handled this.

But this morning, I got an e-mail from someone who knows Meltzer, somewhat. Someone who is good friends with one of Meltzer's best friends, in fact, and who has gotten some inside story. That person didn't disagree with me on my impression of the story (he couldn't in fact speak to the merits of the story, because he hadn't read it), but there was one thing he was absolutely certain of: Brad Meltzer didn't consider this stunt casting. Brad Meltzer loves comics. Brad Meltzer has always loved comics. And Brad Meltzer knows comics, and was excited and enthusiastic to write this -- not as a job, but as a fan.

And thinking back over the story I read... I have to concede that he's right. It shows. There's too many touches... too many details that reveals that Meltzer is deep into this stuff. He knows who Jean Loring is. (Well, he knows her name and role, anyhow.) He knows from Zatanna, and Doctor Light, and Captain Boomerang and the Flash Rogues Gallery.

Going back to The Archer's Quest tells us even more. This was... a travelogue, in effect, of the DC Silver Age. This wasn't a story written by a duffer given the keys to the kingdom because he wrote a few thrillers. This is a comic fan.

The elemental difference between what Kevin Smith has done in comics and what Brad Meltzer has done is Kevin Smith's Green Arrow run was pretty much liked by everyone, so he got a bye. The difference between J. Michael Straczynski and Brad Meltzer is Straczynski put in enough years before the incredibly controversial story that people are now hating Straczynski the way they hate John Byrne. Which in its own, sad way is a compliment.

Well, Brad Meltzer's Identity Crisis was certainly a commercial success, but not a critical one. I'm not the only commentator who was caught between sadness and offense by it, and I'm not the only one who feels it represents bad things for DC ahead. So the real elemental difference between Meltzer, Smith and Straczynski is Meltzer's huge project is seen as an artistic failure instead of a success. It's seen as a mishandling of the characters, a tarnishing of them, not an exalting of them. Certainly, it's how I see it.

And so Meltzer is seen as a novelist and screenwriter who got stuntcast into writing comics and didn't get it. He's seen the way the literary novelists who decide they want to write a science fiction novel, because they think no one's ever really written literary science fiction (because they don't know anything about science fiction other than Buck Rogers and Star Wars), are seen by the SF community -- as a poseur and a hack who doesn't have enough experience with what's been done a thousand times before to not end up looking like an idiot.

And it's unfair to Meltzer. Because clearly, he's got the background, and the love. He's done the research and taken the time to learn. That e-mail I got today made me think long and hard about what I wrote yesterday.

Identity Crisis is a sad moment in comic books. And DC hired Meltzer to do it because they wanted the publicity. Those are both true things, as I see them.

But Brad Meltzer himself is trying. He understands the responsibility. He knows the history. It's not stunt casting to him.

And I shouldn't imply that it is.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at December 17, 2004 9:38 AM

Comments

Comment from: Shaenon posted at December 17, 2004 1:51 PM

I don't care much about Gwen Stacey as a character either -- it's not like anyone ever bothered to give her a personality -- but I really didn't need to see her actually getting it on with Norman Osborn. And can we have just a couple of things in Spider-Man's life that don't have some arcane Green Goblin connection? It's gotten really, really dumb.

Anyhoo...

In his keynote Eisner speech this year, Michael Chabon said, "An excess of desire to appear grown-up is one of the defining characteristics of adolescence." That's what's going on here, with the "celebrity" writers, the hamhanded hardboiledness of the stories, the whole shebang. Superhero comic-book readers now have a median age of thirty or so, and it embarrasses them that the love of their lives, the literature in which they've invested so much time and money and emotion, is entertainment for children or, at best, young teens.

Personally, I love children's entertainment. I devour each new Harry Potter book, as do thousands (millions?) of otherwise respectable adults. The thing is, the fact that the books speak to a young audience is one of the things I like about them. I don't want to see a Harry Potter book where Ginny Weasley gets raped and Hermione turns out to be a crazy bitch who kills Muggles to get close to Ron.

But a lot of superhero fans do. They go gaga over anything that seems to make their beloved characters adult, mature, legitimate. That's why they love rape and brutal murders and amorality and grim, bitter revenge stories where good guys turn out to be bad. (Even better if they're bad *girls*, and a few other women can get roughed up and killed in the process. Fans have issues.) That's why they love writers from "real" media. If a sci-fi television writer wants to work on Spider-Man, it must be serious stuff, huh?

As an example, note Marvel's press releases for Reginald Hudlin, its new Black Panther writer. Marvel is making a huge fuss over Hudlin's experience as the writer-director of the movie "House Party." Nowhere will you see mention of Hudlin's graphic novel, "Birth of a Nation," cowritten with Aaron McGruder and drawn by the great Kyle Baker. This might have to do with the fact that Marvel's fans are so myopic about comics that very few of them have even heard of "Birth of a Nation." But it also has to do with the fact that, in comics, a ten-year-old light comedy film is accorded far greater weight on a writer's resume than a crtitically-acclaimed graphic novel that came out six months ago. It's a MOVIE! From HOLLYWOOD! The place all of Marvel's money comes from nowadays!

You and I may hate it, but the fans love it. They'll continue to snap up anything that promises to make the characters they loved when they were twelve acceptable for consumption at thirty. (And let's hope it also has Wide-Ranging Consequences for the Marvel/DC [strike one] Universe! Good lord, we can't miss THAT!) And they may bitch and moan when the story turns out to be dull and unsatisfying, when the Real Writer turns out to be just another fanboy with a couple of paperback thrillers under his belt, when in the rush to gawky adolescent "maturity" the very elements that made these comics so beloved has been lost... but they'll buy the next one. And the next. And DC and Marvel will keep publishing this crap, because they've whittled their readership down to just the hardcore fanboys, and now they have no choice but to squeeze as much money out of that small pool of readers as can possibly be squeezed.

Anyway, in case you were wondering, that's why superhero comics are no damn fun anymore.

Comment from: William_G posted at December 17, 2004 2:03 PM

So..um...yeah... Shaenon beat me to everything I was going to say.

But the solution is also the problem: Those hardcore fanboys. The hero publishers know that no matter what they do, the hardcores will continue to buy the books, no matter how crappy they have been/ is/ will become.

The simple solution: Convince the hardcores to stop buying lousy books, and they'll stop making them. One way or another.

Comment from: Prodigal posted at December 17, 2004 2:22 PM

Note added by Eric: this particular comment actually does have Spoilers for Identity Crisis in it, so you might want to scroll down if you actually intend to read the thing sometime.

Have you read "The Life Of Reilley," Shaenon? It's a 35-part exploration of the Clone Saga, and how it turned into such a gawdawful mess. It also explains why they brought Norman Osborn back despite the protestations of damn near everybody below the level of Editor-In-Chief. But I digress...

I was dubious about "Sins Past" at first, because it looked like it might turn into another clone fiasco, but I gave JMS the benefit of the doubt, and decided to stick with the story until it ended before deciding to drop the book - which I definitely would have done if the kids turned out to be clones. This storyline was a case of me starting out not being terribly well-disposed toward it, to really enjoying it and hating the fact that I had to wait 4 weeks to see what would happen next.

Identity Crisis, OTOH... Oi. I remember talking to a friend somewhere around halfway through, and saying "Believing that Dr. Light was stopped before he could actually rape Sue Dibny is the only thing that enables me to still like this book." When Meltzer started dropping hints that it could be Boomarang who was the killer, I found the idea intriguing enough to give me something other than just a car-wreck fascination. I'm a sucker for redemption stories, even if it's the qualified redemption of an utter shmo becoming an effective force for evil. But instead, we get Jean Loring psychotic, Ray Palmer tragically gone (and anybody who thinks his departure from the DCU is a tragedy should watch the JLU episodes centering on him,) and a deep and bitter disappointment at how much potential was wasted.

I'm glad that I decided to wait for the trade to buy the series, because now I don't have to spend any money on it.

Comment from: Joshua posted at December 17, 2004 2:52 PM

Fortunately, Qwantz has given me the analytical tools I need to deal with the current DCU (pretty much everything past Crisis, I suppose):

It's non-canon! Because I say so!

Thank you, T. Rex!

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at December 17, 2004 2:56 PM

William G. -- the thing is, each year, a few more hardcore hit the point I did and leave. I mean, at this point my money barely tracks in their coffers.

The problem is... they don't have a feeder system for new people coming in the other side. So, each year, they're going to have to play to a smaller and smaller base of readers, and charge more and more for the comics.

(The fact that they're going back to the megacrossover well and the cynical, speculative "collect them all" multiple covers well bodes ill for even the short term.)

Shaenon -- you're right, of course. The embarrassment of the fanboys who are growing up is the key to the whole thing. And yet, when they talk about the comics they adore, they refer back to the old school comics they grew up with, which were targeted to kids.

Which they've realized. It's one reason for Yet Another Legion Reboot, to make the Legion more like the Legion they remember. (Sooner or later, they're just going to go back to the Levitz Legion and be done with it. And pathetically, I will buy that comic.) It's why Hal Jordan's coming back to life. Why Green Arrow came back to life and started wearing a mask again.

There is a schism -- an essential schizophrenia -- in superhero comics today. There is a driving need to continue the "maturing" process of comics (without ever actually letting them mature -- I'd personally love to see a Wonder Woman comic come out that was entirely about a normal woman trying to survive in the world. Hell, I could tie it into the mythos seamlessly. I could make it work. It'd even be good. But it would never sell.) while also playing for the nostalgia angle of the original version of these comics. It's causing stress fractures at best.

Want a lovely duality? One of the better selling minis and graphic novels of the last year was Formerly Known as the Justice League, which went back to the Giffen era humorous League... and featured Sue Dibny prominently. I actually bought that TPB, because it was good, goofy fun. They had a sequel planned, too.

It's now officially in limbo. I've heard rumors that Keith Giffen and the rest have said, in effect, "no Sue, no comic." Identity Crisis was the ultimate repudiation of Formerly Known as the Justice League, even as DC would like to trot them both out side by side.

What it is, ultimately, is sad.

Prodigal -- I threw a spoiler warning on your comment. Because I'm like that.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at December 17, 2004 3:22 PM

Addendum to my compare and contrast between Identity Crisis and Formerly Known as the Justice League:

This is a link to a Keith Giffen interview about a new "JLI" style independent project he and J.M. DeMatteis are doing, far far away from DC. There's a couple of lines of note to the conversation:

Although not working through DC means not having the marquee "JLA" name there to draw in readers, it also means no worrying about editorial concerns for big name franchises.

"There?s no one looking over our shoulder and saying ?no, no, no, we need that character next Wednesday.? ?No, no, no, we have to slaughter her mercilessly,?" he said.

[...]

And if you are hoping for Giffen and company to return to the JLI one day, you probably shouldn?t hold your breath.

"I never again, as long as I live, am touching DC Universe characters in that context," he said. "And that?s it, over and out."

There you have it. As direct as someone who might someday want to cash a DC paycheck again is going to make it. He's out of there, and DC's lost one of their principle strategic books for holding the nostalgia fans.

Comment from: Prodigal posted at December 17, 2004 3:55 PM

Fair enough, Eric.

Oh, and btw to Shaenon: There's at least one superhero book out there that is sheer, unadulterated fun: PS 238. If you're not reading this, you should be. :)

Comment from: joenotcharles posted at December 17, 2004 5:02 PM

I always think of Peter David as a novelist before I think of him as an author of comics, anyway, because I'm mainly familiar with his media tie-ins. It's kind of weird to see Meltzer and him listed in separate columns, mainly because of what they wrote *first*.

Comment from: Jason Seaver posted at December 17, 2004 8:52 PM

Actually, that sequel to Formerly Known As The Justice League is coming out starting in March, although as part of the JLA Classified comic rather than as a seperate miniseries.

Comment from: Shaenon posted at December 17, 2004 9:01 PM

Yes, I totally read "Life of Reilly." The whole damn thing. What's really interesting about it is the picture it paints of the mid-90s Marvel Comics, so different from the Marvel Comics of today. That Marvel was riding high on the speculator boom and Todd McFarlane's revival of the Spider-Man franchise, and it was making money hand over fist with Clone Wars crap. They had a cash cow, and they were determined to milk it dry. Which leads us directly to the Marvel and DC of today: the cash has dried up, all but the most devoted fans have departed, the market has shrunk to a string of tiny specialty stores, and the only way to keep going is to squeeze the faithful few with one uninspired "event" after another.

PS 238 is cute enough, but there's only one superhero comic for me these days, and that's Plastic Man. It's fun and silly and sells like crap.

Comment from: Bo Lindbergh posted at December 18, 2004 2:17 AM

The future of superhero comics is probably Stephen Crowley's Magellan.

Comment from: Ray Radlein posted at December 18, 2004 5:39 AM

Back when I still had an income, and lived within 20 miles of a comic book store, there was a lot of really good work being done in superhero comics at Marvel and DC; and that was only two years ago. Have things really gone to hell that quickly?

Admittedly, much of that good work was going on in the margins of the genre █ street-level things like Gotham Central, Alias, or Catwoman; or oddities like X-Statix. I know that X-Statix and Alias have ended; on the other hand, I was able to catch the first couple issues of Greg Rucka's run on Wonder Woman, and Joss Whedon's new X-Men title (Ubiquitous X-Men? Amalgamated X-Men?), and they both looked like they were off to good starts, at least.

It also occurs to me that, once upon a time, Greg Rucka could have been considered "stunt-casting," Whiteout aside; and, for that matter, that Joss Whedon still is something of a case of stunt-casting (Marvel did not hand him a brand new X-Men title because they were impressed with his fine work on Fray, after all). Frankly, on the whole, I think that stunt-casting has a pretty good track record, overall; at least recently.

And am I the only person who considered Devin Grayson finally getting to write Nightwing to be a nice bit of symbolic stunt-casting?

Comment from: Shaenon posted at December 18, 2004 1:34 PM

>>Admittedly, much of that good work was going on in the margins of the genre █ street-level things like Gotham Central, Alias, or Catwoman; or oddities like X-Statix. I know that X-Statix and Alias have ended; on the other hand, I was able to catch the first couple issues of Greg Rucka's run on Wonder Woman, and Joss Whedon's new X-Men title (Ubiquitous X-Men? Amalgamated X-Men?), and they both looked like they were off to good starts, at least.>>

Alias: It's just been relaunched; don't know much about it right now.

X-Statix: Cancelled.

Catwoman: Darwyn Cooke was replaced with a much cruddier artist. Ed Brubaker is stepping down as writer in an issue or two.

Whedon's X-Men: I do like this series so far. It doesn't have the manic imagination of Grant Morrison's run, but Whedon is good at the kind of fun supernatural soap opera that's the basic appeal of "X-Men." The three million other X-titles right now are pretty dire.

A few years ago, Marvel was experimenting with funkier material, hiring a bunch of indie and alt-comix creators to work on its fringe titles. I really enjoyed some of the stuff that came out of that period, like X-Force/X-Statix, James Sturm's "Unstable Molecules," and Peter Bagge's Spider-Man one-shot. But that stuff didn't sell very well, so we're back to a zillion X-Men spinoffs and Wolverine in everything and Rob Friggin' Liefeld drawing "X-Force."

Good lord, I'm a nerd, aren't I?

Comment from: Prodigal posted at December 19, 2004 3:17 AM

To paraphrase the Crow, "Nerds, aren't we all?"

I've been enjoying The Pulse a great deal, because I love the whole concept of Jessica Jones a lot. And I've been loving Astonishing X-Men because it's taken what Morrison did and built from it (as opposed to how Claremont has done his best to give any- and everything Morrison did the finger.) Its opening storyline kept me wanting to see what would happen next, and John Cassaday wa drawing. If the rest of the X-titles would disappear (or at least take a break,) and leave us with just this, I'd be a pretty happy guy.

Another title I recommend: The current run of Fantastic Four. Mark Waid gets the idea of the team, and of each of the characters. And what he's done with Johnny in the last couple of issues . . . pure "wow" for me there.

Comment from: siwangmu posted at December 19, 2004 11:09 PM

I'm a little nervous because I've never posted here before, but I've been addicted to this site/blog for a while now. Anyway, I just wanted to add another fan's perspective into the mix, since the conversation wandered over to X-Men territory. I've been a huge X-Men fan for a while and for six years bought all the core titles (until I dropped all of it last spring in the sad realization that I couldn't afford what I was buying and since I've been away at school so many of those years and was only sporadically managing to sit down and catch up on reading what I was paying for).

What I wanted to add was about the experiment of Marvel's with the indie-er creators, specifically Grant Morrison on X-Men. I'm almost certain I represent a tiny minority on this, but... I kinda hated Grant Morrison's run. One big factor may have been the way I was reading... maybe I missed a couple issues somehow that made it all more pleasant and interesting and Magneto not a drug addict and didn't make all the character development invested in Xorn turn out to be a lie and that made everything make sense. The other major, major factor was that the much-loved artwork of Frank Quitely looks like unmitigated ass to me, which just made it unpleasant to read (in short: Frank Quitely is good at drawing ugly things. Very good. Cassandra Nova? Very ugly. Good for him. But when freaking Jean Grey and Emma Frost are ugly, you are doing something wrong. I like to look at pretty things, it's a flaw I am aware of. Heck, I bought Fathom just for the prettiness, that's just me. And Frank Quitely made me want to put down X-Men, which should never happen.)

I also bought X-Statix, mostly because I had been subscribed to X-Force, and I thought it was interesting,fun and different, but... it didn't stay interesting to me. God knows the quality was better than most of standard Marvel, but that alone didn't invest me in what was going on at all.

It's obvious to me that I am some kind of Philistine, here, but in the "why didn't the indie stuff sell better" discussion, my voice might be relevant, because I did drop X-Statix... I just wasn't excited about reading it after awhile, and unless your characters own my soul enough that I just have to know what's going on with them (X-Men, ::shudder:: Generation X), you need to make me excited about picking your book up to stay on my list.

I'm finally planning to come out of comics hibernation and find out what's going on now with my old titles (I already know I'll love Joss' X-Men, I love everything else that flows from his pen, and he likes Kitty, so woo), but I wanted to chip in what I've figured out, personally, about comics.

Indier does not always mean better. I wish it did, then the way to make the X-Men good would be really easy. But as much as I adore Preacher, and Sandman, and Bone, and other really good, less-mainstream fare, it didn't work when they had their little Revolutions... GenX had sucked like crazy forever, but that didn't make me appreciate the out-of-character interactions, pointless death and unsatisfying conclusion that comprised the last few issues.

Okay, it's too long, not logical enough and maybe not even useful, but hopefully somebody finds this interesting and I'm not just posting to hear myself talk. Now to stop angsting and hit "preview."

In conclusion, this website is the best.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at December 19, 2004 11:21 PM

Siwangmu raises an interesting point. To what degree can we apply the "stunt casting writers" phenomenon within the comics industry. Grant Morrison taking over the X-Men is one example -- it was cast as an Event with a capital E, as much as Joss Whedon's assignment was. But the same could be said for John "strip mine" Byrne taking over any given comic title.

On the other hand, is it possible to stunt hire from within the industry itself? What if it's Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman? If Neil Gaiman got it in his head to write twelve issues of Daredevil, it would be an astounding Event in comics, but it also wouldn't really be the area of comics he's known for. Does that become stunt casting?

I don't know, but it's interesting to ponder.

Comment from: Prodigal posted at December 20, 2004 12:25 AM

Siwangmu - I had reservations about Morrison's run at the time, as well, Frank Quitely's art being the biggest one (I swear, every single character that man has ever drawn, except for the protagonists in We3, looks like they're retaining massive amounts of water.)

But a couple weeks back, on a visit to my local Barnes & Noble, I read through the trades collecting his entire run on th ebook. And I decided that, unappealing art aside, I really liked it. It's one of those things that works better if you can read it all in one go, rather than one installment at a time.

Comment from: Ray Radlein posted at December 20, 2004 3:41 AM

The thing that always freaked me out about Frank Quitely's work is the fact that everyone, but everyone, had that same broken pug nose; just like everyone has the same sharp cheekbones and jaw line in Gil Thorp [complete aside: I never knew that the "Jerry Jenkins" who wrote Gil Thorp was the same Jerry Jenkins who coauthored the Left Behind books... just imagine the crossover potential there!].

As for Morrison's part of things, I liked his X-Men run a lot, although it still fell prey to Morrison's characteristic flaw: His comics tend to feature 25 pounds of ideas crammed into a 15-pound bag of a story (an exception to this was The Filth, which had 80 pounds of ideas in that same bag). Sometimes, he's like the A. E. van Vogt of comics, sucking you along in the vortex of his wake; other times, he's like the doomed protagonist of Neil Gaiman's Sandman story "The Muse."

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