This is going to be a quick one.
I’ve been thinking about canon, alternate takes on Marvel/DC properties, cultural ownership and the artificial rules of storytelling in fictional storytelling over the last couple of days. I’m still working through some ideas on the latter two, but I want to spend a little time on the notion of canon and the possibilities suggested by Jon Morris’s DC Fifty-Too Project. For the unfamiliar, Jon Morris, an independent cartoonist and creator of the hilarious Jeremy: The Complete Strip Collection, among others, was inspired by DC’s relaunch of its main line of titles. DC Fifty-Too was a challenge issued by Morris to 52 cartoonists to imagine their own version of a new title using DC characters. The results were spectacular, a reminder of the potential locked in DC’s vast library of characters, possibilities that will remain unrealized due to restrictions of continuity or canon or the conservative preferences of editors and readers. It was the same sense of loss that I felt after reading Brendan McCarthy’s pitch for a post-apocalyptic Jimmy Olsen book or James Stokoe’s brilliant Spider Nam idea. I’d love to read these projects, whether as one-shots or limited series or ongoings, and it’s a shame that none of these projects will ever see the light of day.
I dream of a world where the “Big Two” publishers of comic books in America (in the direct market) were committed to healthy, positive sum competition and active engagement with fans. In this imagined world, readers would not only have access to “official” versions of the narratives they love, but offbeat work from independent creators featuring the franchises they know and love. In this world, publishers recognize that there’s nothing to be gained from creating or enforcing “canon”. For the purposes of this argument, I’m adopting the definition expressed by the Teatime Brutality blog: “the franchise owner’s authority to tell [the audience] how to conceptualise the components of [the] franchise”. The franchise owner will always have that authority, but what would happen if it chose to exercise self-restraint? It would be a refreshing acknowledgement of the fact that for Marvel and DC, canon may be unnecessary.
Compare the two publishers to other immensely popular cross-media franchises – Star Wars, Star Trek and Dr. Who. The owners of all three exercise restraint in unique ways, whether by incorporating independently produced licensed material into their narrative universes (through officially sanctioned “expanded universes”), embracing fan fiction, or most radically, rejecting the notion of canon entirely. Not only do these franchises operate within vast fictional universes complete with arcane world and character continuity, they operate across multiple media, with television shows, books, comic books, movies and games. The core concepts, stories and characters in these franchises are so powerful, so…mythic, that they’ve become deeply embedded in the national consciousness. The owners of these franchises can afford to exercise discretion. I don’t know if Marvel and DC have matched the overall commercial success of these franchises, but I think it’s safe to say that their respective narrative universes are at least as culturally significant. Significant enough that they won’t be diluted by authorized use in multiple narratives, even if they conflict and are in the same medium.
Brian Michael Bendis, one of Marvel’s most valued creators, suggested as when he noted that the Ultimate Spider-Man title he wrote was no less canonical than the one in Dan Slott’s book, or Sam Raimi’s film for that matter. This statement should be a harmless reflection of conventional wisdom, but was considered a provocation to traditionalist comics fans. The funny thing is that many of those fans fell in love with these characters in “non-canonical” stories. How many fans first encountered Superman as played by Christopher Reeve, Spider-Man in a Saturday morning cartoon, or Batman in The Dark Knight Returns? Is the X-Men film trilogy (and two prequels) any less canonical than the periodicals published by Marvel? We can choose to privilege one over the other, but in reality, both are the “real” X-Men.
The time when creators at both publishers were pressured to align stories across media is long over, especially at Marvel Comics, where books like PunisherMAX and the Ultimate Universe titles sit comfortably alongside the traditional titles and there is no expectation that the Marvel movie universe match the “canon” of stories set in the Marvel comic universe (or vice versa). Even DC is taking baby steps with its All-Star and Earth One lines of titles. Both publishers even occasionally publish anthologies of off-beat stories featuring their characters written and drawn by creators who traditionally work outside the superhero “genre”. The relative success of these experiments suggests that an audience may exist for “out-of continuity” books featuring Marvel/DC properties. The continued success of the core titles for both publishers implies that readers won’t be confused by multiple versions of their favorite characters, even if one undermines the other. Mark Millar’s version of Captain America may be an implicit critique of the traditional version of the character, but Ed Brubaker’s Roosevelt Democrat Captain America is still doing just fine, as are the Captain America film and Avengers animated series (which prominently features a more traditional Captain America).
So, this leads me to my modest proposal: Marvel and DC should loosen the reins on their franchises in print (soon to be digital) media. I almost want to recommend a mixed approach to publishing that includes direct production and licensing, but that raises some quality control and oversight problems. So, lets
steal an idea take inspiration from the world of film. A digital imprint curated by a panel of respected creators with diverse experiences in a variety of genres. Something between a independent film festival and a film studio division specializing in micro budget pictures. Creators with the winning ideas get funding to complete the project on their own terms, a reasonable share of any revenue generated and an honorarium. One other thing – and this is the crucial bit – these projects should be produced in the collaborative style common to ‘alternative’ comics instead of the editorially driven bullpen model. Think Ultimate Comics produced in ICON-like conditions.
These stories would have the potential to offer us something more than familiar characters in unfamiliar milieu, or a fresh coat of paint on a rusty franchise. At best, they can serve as vehicles for creators to explore the deeper meaning of properties in a way that’s not possible in traditionally produced work. It’s the difference between Jason Aaron’s Wolverine book, a superbly crafted, but ultimately conventional take on the classic character and Rafael Grampa’s version (in the recent Strange Tales collection) which interrogated the deeply troubling implications behind the character’s obsession with violence. I don’t know if there’s an audience for this, or for that matter, if any creator would be interested in doing this. I just know that I’d love to read more stories featuring Marvel/DC properties created outside their traditional production systems.