Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Corporate Ownership Issue: A When Words Collide Follow-Up

Time to dip into the WHEN WORDS COLLIDE mailbag!

Reader Chris Dueker writes:
There is one complaint against superhero comics that I'd be curious to see you address further, that being the corporate ownership of the titular characters. This isn't the case for all heroes, but it is for most of them, and certainly for the most visible (Batman, Spider-Man, etc.) I think the fact that anyone who writes Batman, for example, loses some popular respect because:
1.  They didn't create the character
2. They can't significantly change the character without approval
from the owners.
(Grant Morrison's current arc aside, such change is rarely approved.)
It also seems that the comics writers who achieve the most fame with a company owned character are the ones who are given the most freedom (Frank Miller's "Dark Knight Returns").

This doesn't make such comics writers any different from television writers, but I don't know if saying that accomplishes anything. Even today TV writers are not held in anywhere near the high cultural esteem as novelists.
Okay, let's see. First of all, I think the comparison to TV writers is almost valid, but not quite, because very few TV writers work on an extended run of episodes in a row, which is very common in superhero comics. The TV writers who do have a strong voice and a lot of control -- David Simon, for example -- are held in increasingly higher cultural esteem, though. And it all depends on what you mean by cultural esteem, and which novelists you're talking about, too. I don't think Clive Cussler is held in high cultural esteem, but he's a novelist who sells a lot of copies. And many of the novelists held in high cultural esteem are only esteemed by a small, elite group. Anyway, it's a sticky issue of high culture vs. low culture and all of that stuff, and I'd rather just move on than have to wade through that old debate. Especially since it's clearly changing as academia embraces popular culture more and more wholeheartedly.

So let's talk about the notion that superhero comics can't be as good as literary comics because of the corporate control of the characters. I think it is a giant hindrance to quality, sure. The more comic writers and artists I talk to, the more stories I hear about how individual issues were changed because of corporate mandates. A distinct lack of freedom, plus editorial meddling, probably get in the way of superhero comics being anywhere near as good as they might be. But that doesn't mean superhero comics can't be good. It just means they often are not -- largely because of the corporate influence. It's not an inherent aesthetic flaw in the genre; it's a flaw in the business model. The same is surely true for novelists who are forced to make concessions to a perceived audience -- or from publisher demands, and the same is definitely true for anyone working on a movie with any sort of reasonably high budget. So comics aren't along in their restrictions.

Plus, as I point out in my responses to biases #5 and #6, what makes superhero comics good is not necessarily the ability to tell a story free from any constraints. The constraints act as part of the storytelling tradition superhero comics inhabit. It's about repetition and recursion -- and the quality can be judged within that tradition. Saying a Superman comic can never have any substantial quality because a writer or artist doesn't have freedom to do what he wants with the character is to miss the point, I think. The quality can come within the restraints, just like any genre. (And, of course, some of the best superhero stuff has been the work that has pushed against the restraints the farthest.)

And, the fact that someone didn't create a character hardly makes the resulting work less interesting. I mentioned Shakespeare a lot in my column, and I'll mention him again here. He didn't create his famous characters. They were all (the famous ones anyway) based on existing characters from previous literary or historical works. He still gets credit for them, though, because it's his interpretation of the characters that matters, not the creation of them.

Thanks for the letter, Chris!

Anyone else care to chime in on this topic?


Chad Nevett said...

There are some television "auteurs" I'd say. I mean, Larry David and Aaron Sorkin have both made careers on the fact that their names are associated with quality--and a particular style. You can watch a show either of them wrote and know they did it. Television does tend to make all of the writing similar, but that's to the creator's voice. There are a lot of shows where the writer's voice/vision is one of the big appeals for the viewer. Look at the rabid following Joss Whedon has--or Chris Carter. Hell, David E. Kelly is another name writer/creator in television.

Timothy Callahan said...

Exactly. And they are usually esteemed because of it.