Recent remarks from Dan DiDio invite us again to ask what constitutes a character’s “definitive” vision.
Almost a year ago I came to the firm conclusion that, at least with regard to DC’s characters … well, it depends. While we should look first to the original stories written by the characters’ creators, DC’s characters tend to get farmed out across multiple media platforms, and therefore are subject to more influence by those adaptations. This makes it more difficult to pin down any one interpretation (in some cases including the creator(s)) as having produced the “definitive” version of a particular character. Last November I wrote that “[t]oday those characters ‘work’ because they’ve become aggregations of details which have accumulated over the years.” These details, in turn, have replaced a “definitive” version with what I called an “ideal aggregation of qualities.”
Therefore, last week I read with great interest the words of Mr. DiDio:
My two biggest conceits are, for a number of our characters: who is the most recognizable character in that costume? What is the one most people gravitate towards and the most people address as the definitive version of the character. The other is that I hate how we keep on erasing things and starting over. What I like to do is if there is a natural path to the story, to follow that story.
Let’s take the “definitive” comments first. Mr. DiDio appears to connect the “most recognizable” version of a character with “the one most people gravitate towards,” using a combination of those criteria to name the “definitive” version. This makes sense if you have, say, four different Flashes and you can pick only one. (It’s also not without controversy, but we’ll get to that.) However, with regard to longstanding, continuously-published characters like the Trinitarians, I favor the “ideal aggregation” model.
While we’re on the subject, a brief digression: ideal aggregation works pretty well for the legacy-line characters too. One could argue that the ideal Atom is a physicist who shrinks, as opposed to a secret agent who shrinks (Adam Cray) or a short guy with an “atomic punch” (Al Pratt). The Jason Todd Robin was an early product of an ideal-aggregation analysis, on the theory that “Robin” worked best for an adolescent, not a college student.
That brings us back to the “most recognizable” part of Mr. DiDio’s methodology, because to me it would seem to favor having Dick Grayson as Robin. After all, if we can have only one, then Dick may well have the edge over Tim not just in publishing life, but also multimedia visibility. Regardless, I think we all know that Dick will never go back to being Robin (especially not through some “natural path”); and while that reality may make this a specious example for some, I think it illustrates the weakness in Mr. DiDio’s criteria. What’s more, the Robin situation also reinforces the notion that a character with less of a general-public presence can still have become so ingrained in fan consciousness as to be immovable. Making these choices in favor of the more insular group of fans, and away from the general public, seems to me to be the wrong way to go.
I would argue instead that the “ideal aggregation” approach looks at those qualities of a character with which the general public — the Big-Gulp-drinking, coloring-book-buying public, if you will — is most familiar. In this analysis, the general public doesn’t care whether the Flash is Barry Allen or Wally West, or whether the Atom is Ray Palmer or Ryan Choi. They just know that the Flash wears red and runs real fast, and the Atom wears blue and shrinks. It gets a little harder when comparing Green Lanterns, but I would give the edge here to John Stewart, who I see on a lot more Target shelves than Hal Jordan.
To be clear, I don’t want to parse Mr. DiDio’s words to death, but neither do I want to misunderstand him. Ideally, I take it, he wants to guide readers down a series of natural paths (no erasures, no do-overs) to a lineup full of definitive versions. I have no problem with any of that. In practice, though, DC appears instead to be taking a rather circuitous road back to an early-‘80s status quo, typified by the revivals of Kara Zor-El, Hal Jordan, and Barry Allen.
So if it’s not really about “definitive versions” or “natural paths” after all, why all the wordplay? Would it really have been so bad just to have come out and said that the current DC brain trust tends to favor Hal, Barry, et al.? These are great characters, we felt they were killed off too soon, we want today’s younger readers to discover them the way we did when we were kids. That’s not as bad as “we’re old and we can change things back, so we’re gonna,” is it?
I mean, I’m as nostalgic as the next guy. (Heck, given the current demographic of DC readers, I probably am the next guy.) If it were up to me, I’d go back a few years farther, to the mid-1970s: Bruce Wayne living in the Wayne Foundation building; anchorman Clark Kent; and Dick Grayson finishing his college education. (How’d Dick get to be a curator without a bachelor’s degree, anyway?) The old Justice League Satellite would be rebuilt, and oversized anthologies (Adventure Comics! World’s Finest!) would blacken the plains.
I wouldn’t roll everything back, though. Dick would still be Nightwing, Wally would still be the Flash, and Kyle Rayner would keep his power ring. When I started reading DC’s superhero titles thirty-odd years ago, I knew the basics of each character — but it also made sense that the details of each had been tweaked to reflect the (slow) passage of time. The ideal aggregations of qualities were still in place, even though Clark worked on TV and the Batcave was downtown.
Before we get too far into my vision, though, let’s make a couple of things clear: first, we’re talking about minor details; and second, it shouldn’t be about me. In fact, it shouldn’t be about any one person or demographic’s preferred vision. With regard to a shared superhero universe, the focus should be on the kinds of changes which facilitate storytelling. Process-oriented arcs designed to reward nostalgic impulses must take care not to restrict such storytelling possibilities. After all, one reader’s nostalgia is another’s learning curve.
In this respect, DC seems perpetually in danger of plotting itself into a corner. On one hand it must convince potential readers that its superhero serials are accessible to them. On the other, though, it relies frequently on continuity-intensive events like Flash: Rebirth and Legion of Three Worlds to facilitate that accessibility. Complicating matters even further, DC has apparently targeted an audience of aging Gen-Xers who (unlike me) have abandoned the comics of their youth for external reasons which may have little to do with Barry Allen’s death.
Perhaps the final bit of irony in Mr. DiDio’s approach can be found in the company’s treatment of Superman. Clearly the current version of Superman owes much to the movies starring the late Christopher Reeve, from the crystalline Fortress of Solitude to the death of Pa Kent and the likeness of Reeve himself. However, when those movies were originally released, they diverged significantly from the comics of the time. They eliminated Clark’s Superboy career, left Ma Kent alive, and depicted a radically different Krypton. You could argue that those changes were necessary and practical parts of adapting the character for the movies, but I would say further that they recognized the realities of presenting the character to a mass audience. They were not explained through some natural path of storytelling; and neither were they beholden to any one version of the character. Instead, the producers, writers, and director of Superman built their movie around an ideal aggregation of the character’s qualities.
I look forward to the day (in March?) when DC stops tweaking the details of its superhero line and settles on its definitive lineup. I’m nostalgic for a time when DC had done just that.