Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
How do you reconcile a character’s portrayal as a certain icon when it doesn’t seem to bear out with their origins/history?
I’m not going to lie to you, Mark. This week I want to try and get right to the meat of the matter, which we both know isn’t my strong suit. However, I can see New York Comic Con looming along with a bunch of responsibilities that need to be addressed before I fly out. So I’m coming at you hard and fast this time. Hold onto your butts.
This is a superhero question. We can talk about long-lasting characters from other media, especially prose, but those creations can’t approach the breadth or depth of how characters in the superhero genre have been reinterpreted. Whether you take a look at someone like Sherlock Holmes or Mr. Hyde, they’ve centered around the same themes since their inception more than a decade ago. Even when they pop up in comics like Planetary or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, respectively, you can see how they dial back to the original author’s intent.
Then you take a look at a lot of characters in superhero comics and wind up scratching your head. There are a lot of really nit-picky examples, but I’m going to go big and broad with one of the most valuable characters from those too charitably of named publishers, “The Big Two”. In this instance, the characters I most want to pick on are a couple we’ve drug through the ringer before: Spider-Man and Batman.
Let’s start with Spider-Man, specifically those first 38 issues, 2 annuals, and Amazing Fantasy #15. This is where Steve Ditko with the assistance of Stan Lee created Spider-Man. Before you jump on me for reducing Stan’s contributions, they’re there, but let’s not pretend they’re equal to Ditko’s. Everything we’ve discovered in Ditko’s interviews, later work, and corroborated stories helps supports the narrative that he was the primary plotter, designer, and all-around creator. It’s generally accepted that as his relationship with Marvel grew more strained he didn’t even go in for the “Marvel method” of creating comics. He just drew the pages at the end of his time with Amazing Spider-Man and shipped them in; no discussion was had.
You may be thinking that Spider-Man’s core themes have stayed largely intact, and you wouldn’t be terribly wrong. The whole bit about “with great power must also come great responsibility” has stuck. The idea of this as a story about growing up has stayed, even when Peter Parker is a grown ass man. The themes of a never-ending struggle with your relationship to the world and those around you have stuck. All of the important stuff is there, but the stories haven’t been told in the way Ditko imagined them since he left.
While the character is recognizable, the tone is absolutely not. As soon as Ditko left his long, spindly lines and strange angles were replaced by the romance art of John Romita. The plotting skewed towards pure soap opera, connecting all of the characters in the book into a tangled web. In fact, one of the reasons Ditko left was over a key disagreement with Lee who wanted to make the Green Goblin, Norman Osborn. Ditko thought this was contrived and did not reflect the world he wanted to see Peter struggling with. Instead of finding a random rival who almost destroys his life, Peter would now be drawn into a more complex narrative within his own circle of friends and family.
You can argue the merits of what’s the better story, but either way only one of these fits the stories being told in Amazing Spider-Man. The random encounters and conflicts of responsibility in a complex and unjust world were upheld by the seemingly bizarre proliferation of Spider-Man rogues. After Ditko left, we wound up with stories where Doc Ock would bone Aunt May, and that sort of overspun soap opera has been a defining characteristic of the Spider-Man ever since.
Batman on the other hand is someone whose core thematics have been grafted onto him after the fact. As long as I’m on a tear about creators and classic characters, when we discuss Batman we’re primarily talking about Bill Finger. Bob Kane can be included in the same manner as Jerry Robinson and other core contributors, but that garbage human being didn’t create Batman by divine providence or any other means. He stole someone else’s ideas. Just in case I’m not being clear:
Fuck. Bob. Kane.
Alright, so Batman starts out as a gun-wielding vigilante in the mode of pulp heroes like The Shadow. He has a tragic origin that encourages him to pick up a schtick and go stop criminals by any means necessary. And that tragic origin isn’t really a big part of his early stories. It’s pretty much comparable to the Krypton stuff in early Superman stories, meaning it’s somewhere between filler and non-existent. Yet when you think about Batman today or ask passersby about him, what comes up?
Are there pearls flashing through your mind’s eye right now? Don’t lie. I know there are.
It’s the angst and the suffering and the unending quest for justice and/or vengeance. These are the defining characteristics of one of the most recognizable characters in the world. Yet they only nominally stem from its creator Bill Finger and other early collaborators. If we were to define Batman by those origins, he would be much more similar to The Shadow and Doc Savage in nature. The emphasis there is on his adventures and all of those wonderful toys, while the heavy stuff comes much, much later.
You can point to a lot of the 70s work for how Batman was reimagined in this direction, but I think the pivotal creator in this conversation will always be Frank Miller. In the course of two four-issue stories, he provided a definition for Batman that has been the most significant influence on the character in comics, cartoons, and film ever since. And Miller did all of this more than 40 years after Bill Finger drew Batman for the first time. Thus we have a character who has only found its most iconic form in the second of its existence, albeit based in details from much earlier.
So, how do we reconcile this? I’m going to answer your question with a question because I’m a jerk like that… Must we reconcile this?
Look at what I just did above, ever so briefly. I examined (again, ever so briefly) how Finger and Ditko’s visions for their characters were changed after they no longer had control of them. But that means we can recognize what was the original and what became the iconic or more widely known, at least. As readers and fans, we can tease these differences out to see how each artist who touches these characters provides a bit of their own DNA to them.
Sometimes that DNA becomes a central part of the character’s identity moving forward, like what Miller and Romita added. Other times it is a re-interpretation of what has come before, a genetic mutation, like in the work of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo on Batman, which is so clearly influenced by Miller. In any case, it’s possible to discuss these different iterations and what they mean individually, which makes for an excellent conversation.
The only time it becomes a problem is when we start to look at these characters as monuments, figures crafted from stone around core, immutable characteristics. That’s a problem because it’s absolute bullshit. When these characters were determined to be owned by much larger entities at their conception, and then those entities sought to divorce them from their creators in every meaningful way, they lost anything that could be defined as a true core. There are our personal versions and the most recognizable versions and the versions put forth by their originators, but there’s really no true version at this point.
When we talk Batman, Spider-Man, or even Superman (the superhero icon of icons!), we have to always remember to be specific, or that we are discussing a specific version at the very least. We can talk Finger’s or Miller’s or Snyder’s Batman, but they’re all different Batmen. Of course, that leaves a whole discussion about the ethics of how this conversation came to be sitting out there, but that’s not the question this week.
For the question this week, my answer is this: Enjoy the variety and don’t believe there’s one true version of characters from this bizarre and disreputable history of superhero comics. You’ll be much happier that way.