Ask Chris #198: The Mass Media Influence On Comics Canon
Q: Is it ever worth it to change comics canon to match the canon from other media? — @firehawk32
A: This is a really interesting question for me, because I always think of myself as someone who doesn’t really get excited about superheroes showing up in movies or TV. I mean, obviously, that’s not actually true — I mean, I cowrote what was essentially a full-length novel about The Dark Knight, Batman: The Animated Series ranks alongside oxygen and pizza as my favorite thngs in the universe, I could not have been more stoked about seeing Arnim Zola The Bio Fanatic in two major Hollywood films, and there will never be a time when I’m not still mad about Man of Steel. But at the same time, and at the risk of sounding like even more of a hipster elitist than usual, those aren’t the “real” versions of those charactesr to me. I like TV and movies just fine, but when it comes to the superhero genre, I’m in it for the comics. Everything else is just a bonus.
That said, what’s considered “canon” in comics changes literally all the time, and often for a lot worse reasons than because there’s something out there that’s resonating with a mass audience.
Superhero comics have always had a weird relationship with with other mass media, and it starts right at the beginning. It’s sort of easy to forget about when we’re looking back from his triumphant 76th year as the flagship character for a publisher, but as much success as Superman had in comics back in the early days, kicking off the Golden Age with a huge boom and a thousand imitators that formed the foundation of a brand new medium, there was a huge part of that early success that wasn’t from comics at all. It was from radio, the dominant medium of the time, and it started changing how the comics worked almost immediately.
It’s worth noting that The Adventures of Superman, the radio show, debuted 1940, only two years after Action Comics #1. At the time, there was still a lot of what we think of as being a core part of the character that had yet to be really solidified, from his powers to his supporting cast. The thing is, there are a lot of those elements that originated on the airwaves rather than the page. Kryptonite, something that’s such a huge part of his character that it’s actually entered into the language in the same way as “Achilles heel” has? That was from the radio. So was Perry White. So was Jimmy Olsen. All of those elements were brought into the comics later, because they’d worked so well in telling stories on the radio. Even beyond just what was in the comics, the very idea that Superman could be an inspirational force for good in the real world? You’d be hard pressed to find a better example than the story of how Stetson Kennedy used the show as a platform to bring down the Ku Klux Klan.
Obviously, that’s a special case. Being around at the dawn of both the character and the medium and genre itself gave the radio show a pretty important place in the early development of that specific character. But at the same time, that idea, that comics could be shaped by how their characters and ideas were presented to other media. If anything, it became even more prominent after the introduction of the comics code, when the entire medium was relegated to being made for a very specific audience, dominated by a very specific genre.
I’ve mentioned before that this is one of the most fascinating things about the development of American superhero comics — how they were sort of set aside and allowed (or forced, depending on your point of view) to develop in isolation, producing genre conventions and a visual language that’s completely unique to the form. And part of that, a big part, was how they thrived by building these interconnected universes, these massive tapestries of a long-form sequential narrative that influence and reflect each other. That’s the “canon” that you’re talking about, and it’s something that, purely on the basis of its scale, is unique to superhero comics.
But at the same time, the influence of mass media was never really gone. It may not have been quite where it is now, when Batman has been a prominent character in TV shows and movies for 25 solid years without ever really being absent, and when a movie with Hawkeye in it made a billion dollars at the box office and allowed you to buy Marvel Comics Brand Merchandise at every retail establishment in the country, but there was never really a time when superheroes were completely absent from mass media either. Even when it was just on the fringes, with only the most popular characters managing to break out of comics onto television, they’re always in there somewhere. And with that presence, there’s always going to be an influence, even if it’s small.
Up until the last few years, one of the requirements that seemed to be in place for mass media treatments of superheroes was that they had to cut through the complicated continuity of the comics and boil the characters and stories down to the most essential elements.
The best example of this came, of course, with Batman: The Animated Series, where it was done really well, and ended up producing what a lot of people — whether they were long-time comic book readers or just people who were becoming fans through the show and the movies — considered to be the single best take on the character, ever.
It’s easy to see why, too. By paring everything down to what was essential, people like Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, Alan Burnett, Eric Radomski and Mitch Brian were able to pick out what worked from the character and what they wanted to present to their audience, and since those dudes had a really great understanding of Batman, they made some great choices. And those choices, in turn, influenced the comics that the show was originally based on.
It took a few years to get to it, but that 2000 post-No Man’s Land “New Gotham” era was pretty tightly based on what had worked about B:TAS. The aesthetics, the renewed emphasis on shorter stories after devoting so much time to lengthy “mega-series” like NML and Contagion, even bringing over breakout characters like Harley Quinn and, to a lesser extent, Lock-Up, all of that was either based around connecting to fans of the show or spearheaded by creators who had seen how good things were.
More recently, however, things have shifted again as a direct result of the success of the Avengers movies. Chad Bowers brought it up when we saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the way he put it was pretty blunt: “Continuity won.”
Those movies may individually be built around the same idea of stripping things down and getting to the core of a character without being burdened by decades of stories by dozens of creators that are occasionally at odds with each other, but taken as a whole? Taken as a franchise? Those movies aren’t just succeeding because one of them was good, they’re succeeding because they’re an attempt at replicating what comics have been doing since the ’40s: They’re buildling a shared universe. Avengers, as far as moviegoers are concerned, isn’t just one movie. It’s nine.
That’s unquestionably an influence from the comics, but the influence that they’re giving back comes in terms of which characters we’re seeing, and how often we’re seeing them. I mean, we’re living in a time when we’re about to have Guardians of the Galaxy, Star-Lord and Rocket Raccoon series going at the same time, something that I don’t think anyone would’ve predicted five years ago. But here we are, with one of the largest media companies in the world banking its summer box office success on those characters, and that confidence filtering down into the comics.
Back in 2006, when Civil War and Annihilation were both happening at the same time, the cosmic side of the Marvel Universe was completely overshadowed by the ham-handed political metaphor of involving a couple of Avengers (I refer of course to Civil War). In 2014, in movie theaters, they’re on par with each other — at least for one summer.
All of this is to say that the influence on comic book canon from other media is a very real thing that’s been around since the beginning of comics. And more often than not, it’s not a case of if it’s ever worth it to to change comics to reflect what’s going on elsewhere, it’s a question of whether it’s ever worth it not to.
As much as I love comics — and I think I’ve made it pretty clear in 200 installments of this column that they are in fact my favorite medium — they do exist as this weird little niche market in a lot of ways. There’s a TV in every house and a movie theater in every town, but there aren’t always comics around, and while I genuinely believe that if you could go back in time and rig things up so that comics had that type of mass media penetration, everyone really would love them as much as I do. Sadly, that’s not the case.
And yet, there are versions of those characters that people do love, that people are connecting with through other media, reaching millions rather than thousands. If you can do that with those characters — characters that, for as much as I love them, are still commodities owned by megacorporations — then why wouldn’t you change the primary sources to reflect what the largest number of people liked? That’s democracy, son!
When DC reboted back in 2011, I honestly wondered why they didn’t take that approach with it. Not for the entire universe, maybe, but at least for their more prominent characters, why didn’t they just build them to be more like they are in mass media? Why not have a Superman based more closely on Smallville, a Batman more in line with the Nolan movies, and a JLA that was more like Justice League Unlimited? If those are the versions of the characters that are connecting with millions of fans, and you’re in a medium that’s losing its mind with joy if it manages to pull in 200,000, why not takes your cues from them?
Now, obviously, I don’t actually want that DC Universe — although I think it’s worth asking if it would actually be any stranger than the DCU that we actually ended up with from the New 52 — but at the same time, I think I’d be perfectly happy if Batman was more like he is on B:TAS or if the Aquaman of the comics was the same one who popped up in Brave and the Bold. Or, you know, if everything was like it is in Brave and the Bold. Which, I believe, introduced the idea of Batman using Nth Metal Batarangs to fight ghosts, something that actually did somehow make it to the New 52 through the pages of Batman Eternal.
I was more than happy to accept that particular influence back into comics, just like I’d roll my eyes if Superman started mentioning how he ran around for a friggin’ decade as the “Red Blue Blur,” and just how I actually do roll my eyes at anyone who draws Captain America’s mask with a chinstrap.
It all just comes down to whether you, individually, connect with what’s being presented to you in mass media. In theory, everything you’re seeing in movies or on TV has its roots in something that was there in the comics, whether it’s a direct lift or just a characterization that flows logically from how those characters were built — or at least from how the people involved in mass media thought it flowed from how the characters were built by people whose intentions may have been completely different. The only real rule is that you should use whatever works, but what works for you (Superman in a doofy jacket) might be completely different from what works for me (Batman having a jetpack and a laser sword in his belt).