So, we’ll consider this to be something of a sequel to my previous post On Canon, because I’ve been having some more thoughts about it. This time, though, rather than Arrow and Marc Guggenheim, it’s Mark Waid and The Flash.
There’s spoilers, incidentally, for The Flash past… episode 18, I think it is? There’s discussion of the identity of Zoom, in any case, so if you’re not caught up and you’d like to preserve the surprise, this is your opportunity to jump ship.
Mark Waid, if you’ve not heard of him, is a comics writer. Predominantly, he’s known for having written for the Flash, and also Superman; certainly that’s where I know him from, anyway. A quick glance at his Wikipedia page reveals that he’s also spent some time doing Captain America for Marvel, and also apparently did Kingdom Come, which is quite a well respected comic story.
I haven’t ever actually read any of his work; that is worth stating upfront, I think. As will become apparent, as much as I like comic characters and their stories, I’ve read very few comics. But, even so, Mark Waid is a big enough “name”, as it were, that I’ve still heard of him and know good things about him.
But he recently tweeted these, and I have had some thoughts.
Probably there is a lot to be said about why a creative individual considers things like this to be “pissing on legacy”; surely he knows that stories grow and develop and as part of this change over time? Similarly, I take issue with the idea that someone is “actively punished for being a fan” if a comic story isn’t adapted to the letter.
But I don’t want this post to be a criticism of Mark Waid; frankly, that’s unfair. He apologised to Greg Berlanti about an hour afterwards, so that’s that, and I think more important is the fact that he likes just doesn’t want or need some random blogger on the internet harassing him and trying to provide some psychological profile.
I do want to talk about the idea he’s put forward, though, which is somewhat linked to the idea of the spirit of the source material that I mentioned in the previous On Canon post.
This is, I think, actually quite a complicated issue, largely because different characters mean different things to different people – all interpretations are valid, right? It’s difficult to put a pin in something as nebulous as the “spirit” of a character, because you’re not really going to get one single cohesive vision of this. Sure, the author will have one idea, and sure, there might be a majority view… but that doesn’t mean it’s the view that everyone shares.
For example! Man of Steel, as well as Batman vs Superman, and indeed the DCEU as a whole, is presenting their timeless and well loved characters through a “gritty” and “dark” veneer, one which is proving to be quite controversial. Personally, I hate it; I hate the fact that Zack Snyder has rejected the idea that Superman can be a symbol of hope, or a character motivated by compassion. I wrote about it at length here, actually, in what I think is one of my better pieces of writing. There are plenty of other people who have spoken out against it – the aforementioned Mr Mark Waid wasn’t a fan of Man of Steel at the time, and there are plenty of people who are decrying the fact that Batman killed people in Dawn of Justice when he really, really (probably maybe) shouldn’t actually ever do that.
But, of course, as soon as the detractors spring up, the counter detractors (attractors?) rise up in full force as well. And that’s where it gets difficult, really. Because these characters are nearly 70 years old, and they’ve been through so many different iterations, that it is actually not very difficult for people to pull out a variety of different comic panels wherein Batman has, in fact, shot someone.
Don’t get me wrong, I do this too, though somewhat in reverse. Whenever I’m arguing about the possibility of a gay Spider-Man or whatever, and someone tells me that’s not “in the spirit of the stories”, my favourite thing to do is pull out a list of things Spider-Man has done that don’t fit the spirit of the character.
You’ve got Spider-Man eating someone’s face. You’ve got Peter Parker revealed to actually have been a clone, except maybe not. You’ve got Peter Parker fighting mystical omnipotent travellers, rather than petty crooks and mad scientists. There’s Peter Parker backhanding MJ.
And, you know, those are just the weird ones; I pull those out because of how absurd they are, and how well they highlight what I’m getting at. Even the sort of thing that people now accept to be a fairly standard part of the Spider-Man mythos, like Venom, would at one point have been unthinkable. It wasn’t even Uncle Ben who said “with great power comes great responsibility” in the first place, you know?
But then, does it break the spirit of the thing? If we stick with Spider-Man for a moment, consider the implications of “with great power comes great responsibility”: Spidey has always been a pretty normal guy, who ended up with superpowers through a freak accident, and because of that he has a responsibility to do the right thing. To be a hero.
Does that not then mean the Andrew Garfield movies, which have a pretty substantial role for Peter’s parents, and posit that he was genetically modified as a young child to allow him to gain powers, breaks the spirit of Spider-Man? That’s not a normal guy rising to meet his responsibilities, but someone confronting their destiny. It’s a fundamentally different story.
Likely you can make similar arguments about the Tobey Maguire/Sam Raimi movies to some extent, though; with their slavish devotion to the early Lee/Ditko stories, there’s plenty that they don’t pay heed to. They are, after all, just one interpretation of a character.
This is true of any character that has existed for this long. It’s not just a matter of creator (with Stan Lee’s Daredevil and Frank Miller’s Daredevil being pretty different), of course, but also of time; the Adam West Batman is rather distinct from Alan Moore’s iteration, after all.
So what is consistent? What can you consider your throughline here? What is the spirit of these characters?
I have literally no idea, to be honest. That’s quite a copout answer, isn’t it? But yeah, I have literally no idea. There is likely an idea literary study to be done here; what remains consistent about these characters across time, and what doesn’t? Does it even matter?
How can you respect the spirit when there isn’t really any one, single, coherent spirit to respect? We’ll go back to Jay Garrick, since that’s where this all started. He’s a decent example, really. Does the existence of Barry Allen piss on the legacy of Jay Garrick? Barry was a replacement Flash, after all.
Does the existence of the speedforce, and the idea it comes from Barry, piss on the legacy of Jay Garrick? Some depictions of Jay Garrick posit he’s from Earth-2. Others suggest he’s from Earth-1, but in the 40s, so he’s a true golden age hero. Who’s pissing on who here? The one that came first? The one that was commonly accepted for longer? Where’s the piss, guys?
(Lex Luthor probably knows. But only the Eisenberg version, Spacey and Hackman and Rosenbaum have nothing to do with that.)
At this point, it’s easy to just say you have to ignore all of that, and just tell good stories.
That’s the conclusion I reached with the former Arrow post, after all. Fridging Black Canary, regardless of the comics, was an utterly terrible choice; it was banal writing in the truest sense of the word, and continues a worrying trend of Arrow doing a disservice to its female characters. To decry that because of the comics is to miss the point – this isn’t bad because it doesn’t follow the letter of the source material, it’s bad because it’s lazy and even offensive writing.
But that’s an easy conclusion to make. It’s ignoring the subtleties and nuances of all this. I mean, I thought Batman vs Superman was awful, and although it wasn’t my sole problem, the fact that it wasn’t true to the spirit of the characters was indeed part of my complaint. So clearly on some level I think this is a valid criticism.
Similarly, it’d be easy to dismiss it as good stories/bad stories, but even then, that’s not quite right. I mean, the current Jay Garrick/Hunter Zolomon arc on The Flash isn’t really doing anything for me – not because I think it disrespects the legacy of the comics, but because I just think it’s kinda crap. There are a large number of people who disagree with me, and love it!
By the same measure, one of my… more unique opinions, I guess, is the fact that I actually quite liked the most recent Fantastic Four movie. I thought the body horror angle was an awesome idea… but I’ll freely acknowledge that it isn’t really in the “spirit” of the original characters. (Or isn’t it? Certainly it’s not the traditional view, but equally, I don’t know that much was ever made of the experience of getting their powers in the originals, so is there room for the body horror, as well as the fun and the humour of the originals? Perhaps.)
So again, we’re getting back to a place where I don’t really have any useful concluding points to make, and this whole post has gotten far too long for anyone to actually read it.
Let us say this, then.
When telling a story, the utmost aim is to tell a good story. When telling a story based on an archetype, it is worth considering what has made the original so enduring – be it a nebulously defined “spirit”, or a truly innovative concept, you should at least attempt to understand what makes something so good in the first place.
From there, feel free to remix or invert that which is in front of you; add to it, take things away, or shift focus. But be certain that your vision is one worth presenting; be certain you’re telling a good story. Consider whether you need this archetype to tell your story – are you better off approaching this from a different angle entirely, with your own original creations?
… well, after that, there’s no accounting for taste.