Did Fandom Kill the All-Ages Superhero Comic? [Kids’ Comics]
To paraphrase a long-lost quote from the now-defunct 2000s era comics blog Quarter Bin, the promise of continuity is that everything can fit together, and the peril is the notion that everything should.
I think about this, when I think about the time that John Constantine ripped a demon’s head off with the powers of Shazam, from Constantine #5 by Ray Fawkes and Renato Guedes.
Even the dialogue seems to be saying, “I know. I know…” like it sees that everything about this is wrong. But ironically, it’s not wrong: the logic of the shared universe supports every element of this. Shazam has met Superman, Superman has met Swamp Thing, Swamp Thing has met John Constantine, so Shazam and Constantine can meet. Yet all the same: something can be a logical idea, and not a good one.
Marvel has the same problem --- especially with the Punisher, who in the Marvel Universe needs a set of extreme contrivances just so he can continue to be a commercial property, shunting the character’s bloodiest adventures off to a special sub-universe where he eventually dies, thus rendering the version back in the Marvel Universe a different character born of a different war, even though he looks the same and has the same name, because comics sure make a lot of sense sometimes.
The same character who lit a slaver on fire and filmed it in a story by Garth Ennis and Leandro Fernandez…
…is also in Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and a host of other kid-friendly properties. That is weird when you take a step back.
It’s not a radical idea to say that superhero comics should be for children, but it seems an increasingly radical idea in a time where a Marvel comic recently had Hawkeye shoot Bruce Banner through the eyeball. All-ages comics at the Big Two are the exception, not the rule. Are the demands of continuity the reason why? Does "everything should fit together" inevitably create, for lack of a better term, "tone bleed"?
Tone bleed causes the tone of Shazam and John Constantine to mix together, and not all that well. Shazam is pulled towards an age group too old for the character, and John Constantine is pulled towards an age group too young for his character, and both suffer from having to adopt the same tone --- in this case, exceedingly violent demon-punching.
The Punisher suffers less from tone bleed as tone shift, to a tone that the majority of the character’s appearances are alien to. Any kid who is a fan of the Punisher from the cartoon where he’s mad about food is going to be in for quite a shock if they ever read any comic that the character has starred in since Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon oversaw the soft relaunch.
Multiple versions of some comics characters can co-exist. Our own Chris Sims is fond of noting that the Dark Knight trilogy of films aired simultaneously with The Brave & The Bold. We’re at a level of media understanding where people accept that you can have a Batman whose cape turns into a jetpack as well as a version of Batman where every gadget needs explanation --- and a new Batman in a new cinematic universe, less than four years after the old one.
But not every character is, or should be, Batman. People balk at the notion of an adults-only version of Shazam/Captain Marvel, just as people balk at the idea of a kid-friendly version of John Constantine or the Punisher. Having Constantine and Shazam meet arguably damages them both --- Constantine by turning him into a muscular superhero who solves problems with fighting, and Shazam by having Constantine use these powers steeped in the innocence of childhood to rip a monster’s head off.
Now, there is a fannish part of me that loves taking a character as carefully modulated in tone as Constantine or the Punisher and putting them in circumstances where the tone of the circumstances clashes and explodes like matter vs. anti-matter. Archie Meets the Punisher is the best inter-company crossover of all time, and the sequence in Doom Patrol #53 where Grant Morrison and Ken Steacy gave us a domino-masked, Kirby-rendered John Constantine is a high point of a brilliant run of comics.
(Ironically, because of the official-unofficial “Vertigo divide,” said run of Doom Patrol had to invent a John Constantine analogue in the form of Willoughby Kipling, despite Doom Patrol later winding up under the Vertigo banner itself. Just because the Vertigo divide was a good idea, didn’t make it logical.)
But those exceptions feel like they should be exceptions. The joke is that it shouldn’t happen, but it’s happening anyways. As a rule, the Punisher shouldn’t meet Archie, with all the playful innocence of Archie’s teen melodrama facing the blood and fury of the Punisher’s guns. By default, Constantine shouldn’t meet Shazam, even if our fannishness makes us want to have them meet.
And really, maybe that’s the problem right there. Fans took over comics and we realized that yes, we could have these gritty characters who need a specific tone and approach interact with our favorite superheroes. We could drop in a mature-readers-only magician modeled on Sting, or an extremely violent Charles Bronson-derived character. We spend effort and time getting a bunch of disparate ideas to fit together like pieces of a giant puzzle, not really stopping to ask if the pieces are enriched by being locked into the same picture.
To be a fan is to love a thing, but where fandom turns toxic is when the love of the thing blinds us to who that thing is really for. There’s room for different interpretations of children’s characters, but they are children’s characters first and foremost --- and we’re bigger than children and have more agency in the world, so we have to act with a little more responsibility as a result. We control them, but they’re not just for us. We have to account for tastes other than our own; the entire point of the representational politics that we advocate for at sites like ComicsAlliance.
I think about how a comic with bloody violence, lots of cussing, and a demigod’s blue penis is going to be integrated into the DC universe for the most fannish reasons of all (“we kept changing the universe to be more like this comic, so the way to stop doing that is to bring in this comic”), and I can’t help but think that we went wrong somewhere. I think about the upcoming IDW merger of all of Hasbro’s boy-toy properties --- G.I. Joe, Transformers, M.A.S.K. and ROM the Space Knight --- and I think about what fannishness did to My Little Pony, and the reputation its fans have acquired.
And while there’s a part of me that I share with Tom Scioli, on what would happen if the Mane Six met Megatron….
... I’m silently grateful for the fact that IDW’s My Little Pony comics will not be intersecting with the rest of the Hasbro shared universe, considering how old it skews.
(Even if Pinkipus Prime would be pretty rad.)