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Blathering on about corporate superheroes…

Chris Butcher is fed up with the injustice in the world of DC and Marvel comics! (via Sean Collins)

I think that one day, maybe if Bendis gets bored with superheroes, He and Maleev (or he and his “ALIAS” artist Michael Gaydos) are going to start turning out the best crime graphic novels that the comics industry has ever seen; the new work will make the excellent JINX and TORSO look anemic in comparison. If this were the Japanese comics industry, we’d already have it too. We’d have Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima doing LONE WOLF & CUB. But this is America, and so we get a good run of DAREDEVIL, which will inevitably end and be followed up by CHUCK AUSTEN, which is… Well.

Because… well, I guess because apparently if Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev and Michael Gaydos were Japanese then they wouldn’t do superhero books. Which, hey, I don’t know any of those guys, maybe they hate superhero comics and wish they could do their own special thing but those fucks at Marvel won’t let them. But the funniest thing about these outraged rants against the tragedy of good creators working on superhero comics, for me, is always the moralistic tone. (And here I’m also thinking of Tim O’Neil’s review of The Filth in The Comics Journal, but I haven’t read that myself, so maybe Tim didn’t put it in such a moralistic context.) It’s like, if only Marvel weren’t so evil and were more like Japanese publishers they’d let Bendis do whatever he wants, but they’re evil so they make him do evil trademark-babysitting. Chris’s special twist on the anti-superhero schtick is that creator-owned superheroes are fine, but corporate-owned superheroes are bad, they’re bad even if they’re good. OK, sure, but I think there’s maybe a problem with this. I was reading a really good interview with Grant Morrison a couple days ago, and as Morrison talks about writing JLA, he seems to have a genuine affection for the characters, which suggests to me that he in fact wanted to write JLA. And I’m going to make an assumption here, based on the joy and love I see in Daredevil and Alias, that Bendis also actually wants to write these corporate-owned Marvel characters. Why? Well, here’s what Morrison has to say:

After FLEX MENTALLO, I knew I had to do some superheroes. More specifically, I had to see if I could bend the entire superhero industry in a certain direction in order to effect a large scale magical working - a shiny pop direction I blueprinted in the last book of the FLEX MENTALLO series […] Using the big icons of JLA I figured I could really influence the trend away from dead end realism and towards a hyperfuturist renaissance of the comic book imagination. I’d been working on this since ANIMAL MAN but getting access to the JLA allowed me to bring big concepts and wild ideas back to the mainstream.

I conjecture that Bendis isn’t writing Daredevil and Ultimate Spider-Man as part of a magical ritual, but I’m sure he has his own reasons. David Mack, in his introduction to Daredevil: Parts of a Whole, says

I’ve always felt that my writing is felt most powerfully if I am able to write it from a personal context. I need to be able to emotionally imbue the character with my own personal experience. The challenge [with Daredevil] was to find a way to do this, bring something of my own to the main characters (and to my new characters), but also to write the book in a way that respected the rich history of Daredevil, and all that the previous writers have brought to the character.

Of course, some people would ask why Mack doesn’t just write his own characters in the first place and avoid these compromises. But… Several of Jeff Noon’s novels sample heavily from Lewis Carroll’s work. Stephen King’s Dark Tower alludes to all sorts of pop culture from Dr. Doom to Star Wars to The Wizard of Oz. Eric Shanower’s Age of Bronze retells the Trojan War myths of Greece. Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen uses characters, settings, and plots from Victorian and pulp-era trashy literature. I know, I know, here I am comparing Moore’s clever metafictional use of real literature and some guy doing trademark-babysitting on Superman, no comparison. First of all, as David Fiore so eloquently put it:

Mina Harker, for God’s sake? Dracula is the Plan 9 from Outer Space of Novels!

Second of all, is Alice in Wonderland better than an X-Men comic? Well, it’s probably better than X-Treme X-Men (I’ve read not an issue of X-Treme X-Men, so I suppose I wouldn’t know). Is it better than Morrison’s New X-Men? Hell, I like them both. I haven’t read Alice in many years, maybe I would think it better than New X-Men. I know a lot of people will laugh at me or feel sorry for me because I think such a question as “Might a corporate superhero comic like New X-Men be as good art as Alice in Wonderland?” even requires consideration before answering “No.” Sorry, I don’t believe in high-art/low-art hierarchical dichotomies. And I don’t care about the question of what gets to be art at all, just to preemptively answer arguments about whether I should even be referring to a corporate superhero comic as “art.”

OK, now that I’ve got that mild little rant out of the way, my point is, writing about other people’s writing is a fine old tradition in literature, and writing new stories for characters that other people created is simply a direct way of writing about other people’s writing. When Shakespeare lifts material from older sources, it’s cherished art. When Jeff Noon writes a novel about Alice, or when Grant Morrison rewrites the Marquis de Sade novel 120 Days of Sodom in The Invisibles, it’s art (or sometimes it’s just empty postmodern cleverness, depending on your point of view). When Brian Bendis writes Daredevil, it’s a tragedy he’s not writing crime comics like he should be. Or maybe, and I’m about to propose a crazy theory here, maybe Bendis actually thought he had something to say about the Marvel Universe. Or maybe he just likes Marvel’s money. Or maybe he likes Marvel’s money and he thinks he has something to say about the Marvel Universe…

This is an unorganized mess! Oh well, it’s not like I’m getting paid to write this. Formal essay structure can get fucked.

Look, more Chris Butcher!

Oh, and for those of you who would argue that we don????????t need another JINX, or that ALIAS and DAREDEVIL are the new JINX’s from Bendis, all I want to do is point out the difference between POWERS and even Bendis’ most mature Marvel work. The differences, what he can and can’t do, are obvious. Plainly stated, particularly when you put the two works in sharp contrast. POWERS is the one that people are going to remember 10 years from now.

I think the weird thing about that passage there is that he says he wants to point out the differences between Powers and “even Bendis’ most mature Marvel work” (which would be, I guess, Alias?), and then says the differences are obvious, and then apparently the only differencea are that Bendis has more creative freedom with Powers and people will remember Powers ten years from now but won’t remember Bendis’s Marvel work. Which, hmm.

Alias Powers
Naughty words Yes Yes
Sex Yes. Granted, only one scene, but I’ve only read one volume of Alias and I’ve read several of Powers, so like I said, unscientific data collection here. Yes
Violence/Gore Yes. Maybe not as much as Powers, but come on, it’s not like we judge art based on liters of blood (well, I don’t). This whole comparison thing here is just a snarky joke anyway. Yes
Mispellings None that I recall, but I’m sure there were a few An easier question would be, “Does Powers have any words spelled correctly?”
Creative Control OK, this is probably the sticking point…

Wait, I already talked about this. The challenge of saying something personal with a character somebody else created, writing a story about a character somebody else created because you have something to say about the character or maybe something related to the character or something that you think can be said best or only through that character. Alan Moore can say whatever he wants, with a great deal of creative control, about Mina Harker and Alan Quatermain and Captain Nemo and all these characters because they’re in the public domain. If we were still using the United States’ first copyright law established in 1790 which allowed authors 14 years of monopoly over their creations, Daredevil would be in the public domain now and Bendis could write all sorts of Daredevil stories without asking Marvel. (Of course, there’s trademark to take into consideration, but at any rate we can imagine a set of intellectual-property laws which allow much greater creative freedom than the ones we have now, in which case Bendis wouldn’t have to do work-for-hire at Marvel to write his Daredevil stories.) But we’re not, and I don’t know how long Marvel gets to hold their copyrights, but it’s a long long time.

So creative control is an issue. But, you know, I think Bendis has a lot of creative control with his Marvel comics. Not as much as Powers, no, but a lot. Creative control is overrated anyway. Casablanca was produced within a studio system which epitomized creativity by committee. Does this make it (and all the other classic movies created within the studio system) an inferior movie to, say, Citizen Kane, which Orson Welles was allowed to produce with absolute creative control and no studio interference? I guess some people would say so, I don’t know why they’d think that though. To add nuance, yes, it would be nice if good creators like Bendis and Morrison never ever had to adhere to Marvel’s (bizarre and inexplicable) content restrictions.

This is what my point, such as it is, amounts to: There’s a big difference between Jessica Jones getting mixed up in a murderous sex scandal involving Captain America, and Jessica Jones getting mixed up in a murderous sex scandal involving a Captain America parody. And, like I said, it would be nice if intellectual-property law in the United States didn’t suck, but it does, so if you want to write something about Captain America you have no choice but to play along with Marvel.

As a final note, one obvious response to all this is that maybe Bendis doesn’t want to say anything about Captain America and is only working for Marvel because he needs money and benefits and stuff. Sorry, don’t care! Money is fine, but if an artist creates a piece of art then I’m going to assume the artist had some creative drive to create that art. I’ll readily criticize the corporate stranglehold on creativity, but I’ve never seen justification for the notion that corporate copyright and lack of creative control on the part of creators have a necessary negative effect on the artistic and aesthetic qualities of a work.