Master Of The Obvious: Issue #49

Wed, July 5th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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There's a new buzzword in town: iconic.

Well, not exactly new, but it's been gaining ground in the past couple years. Of course, the comics field is no stranger to buzzwords. I'm sure everyone remembers "grim'n'gritty." Or "dark." Or "camp," if you're older. Buzzwords are traditionally marketing gimmicks, a way to say "if you liked that, you'll love this!" regardless of product similarity. Conveniently, foes of change traditionally hold up buzzwords as paper tigers to rail against, symbols of contaminations threatening the purity of their nostalgia.

And it's not unusual for editors to use them as cudgels, to beat material into what they think the markets wants, and beat writers and artists into knockoffs of "what sells": an insanely reactive and fairly insulting way to do business. But that's how comics companies frequently are. Remember, they're not in this for art. They're (theoretically) profit-making enterprises. If you've got what you think is a great idea for a funny animal comic, and they like it but think it would be more salable if the fuzzy bunny star is actually a savage, ravening werewolf that feasts on the raw steaming live flesh of his cutesy woodland amigos by the light of the full moon because Marvel just successfully revived WEREWOLF BY NIGHT and Harris Comics is putting out a PANTHA spinoff and newspapers are pumping out column inches all over the country about Dark Horse's LON CHANEY COMICS AND STORIES, you might be looking at a deal-killing disagreement. Or you might be quietly weighing the relative virtues of artistic integrity and eviction from your apartment for non-payment of rent. Or comparing the potential harm of putting out a comic you hate that doesn't truly represent your tastes and style against the potential harm of not putting out anything at all. (The latter is a dangerous position for a professional to be in. The more presence you have, the likelier it is you can build an audience - all other things, like story quality, being equal - the more material you can make available at any given time. Those who don't or can't get projects off the ground vanish.) You might be able to convince yourself you can accommodate "reasonable" editorial requests while staying true to your original vision ("he's still a fuzzy, caring bunny 28 days out of the month, and adding a 'dark' side will give him depth and conflict") and, if you're extremely lucky and talented, you might even be able to pull it off. Might.

I first heard "iconic" used as a comics catchphrase a couple years ago, in reference to Grant Morrison's retake on JLA. Morrison had this crazy notion that what people wanted to see in a centerpiece superhero team book were the company's core superheroes, a concept DC argued against. The short version: Morrison was right. The long version: it quickly got tossed around editorial that JLA was a big seller (the company's biggest seller, as it turned out) because it was "iconic." Which is partly true, certainly - sans the "big guns," JLA is just one of a million other indistinguishable superteam in an X-world, something one hopes DC remembers in Morrison's absence - but it begs the issue of Morrison's own contribution to the book. It's easy enough to spot: simply compare Morrison's issues to those around it, to the Fabian Nicenza "prologue" or the issues by Mark Waid and Marc DeMatteis published during Morrison's run. The difference in tone and style is marked. Whatever the virtues of the others, whatever the faults in his work, Morrison projects a breathless modernity the others don't. His series may center on "iconic" characters it's his handling of them that gives the book its vigor. (I don't want to ignore Howard Porter's contribution on art, but, frankly, Morrison comes off as the creative force behind the book; you get the impression stick figures would have been enough.)

It's not like there was never a time when JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA featured those iconic characters and still didn't sell worth beans. The difference between that time and Morrison's time is Morrison.

That's just an example. Editors and publishers have a need to control their marketplace (this is only an observation, not a complaint) and they can't. It's just not possible. Talent is always something of a sticking point: a can't live with them can't live without them relationship where those damn artists and writers just keep wanting to do things their own way instead of the way "we" want it. (Fans tend not to like this any more than editors and publishers do; I'm always seeing lists and letters where fans say if they published Marvel Comics they'd put Alan Moore and Frank Miller on AMAZING SPIDER-MAN or things like that. And how exactly do they expect to accomplish this? At gunpoint? That their favorite talent might not be interested in their favorite characters never quite seems to occur to them.) Sales have a nasty habit of slipping, or collapsing altogether, when specific talent leaves specific books. What better way to ward off this evil than to focus the reader's attention on the characters, not the talent?

"Editors and publishers have a need to control their marketplace ... and they can't. It's just not possible."

Or to assume it's focused there anyway. It's more comforting to think that's the focus. It suggests a level of market control. Hence the theory: iconic characters sell.

Which makes me wonder why, despite multiple tries from multiple comics companies, no one has been able to sell The Shadow in the last 30 years.

"Iconic" has really become a euphemism for "simple." It means the same thing "high concept" means in Hollywood: a concept that can be spooned out in two sentences. Easily digestible. There's a reason why new "iconic" characters are rare: as the general content of the medium has become more sophisticated - and it has, in baby steps, due to the need to keep luring in audiences increasingly jaded to older material - "simple" concepts are harder and harder to come by. Golden Age fans are fond of insisting their favorite heroes are "the true icons" of comics, and they probably are, but only by default: it's easy to be iconic when your idea of an icon is a guy who looks like a bird and flies.

[Superman]There are a number of characters widely considered to be icons: Superman, Batman, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond. Meaning: the public has a passing recognition of the names when mentioned. You could push the list on and on if you wanted: the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, Robinson Crusoe. The Shadow, Doc Savage. Popeye. Spider-Man and The Hulk. At this point you could probably add Pikachu and Rocky And Bullwinkle. Or Gilligan. Scooby-Doo. Peter Pan. Alan Moore loaded up LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN with The Invisible Man, Fu Manchu, and Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde. (While Mina Harker, Allan Quartermain, Moriarty and Captain Nemo are interesting characters in Moore's hands, I doubt one in twenty on the street would recognize the names.)

There are two fallacies in the "iconic" logic. 1) Just because everyone knows their names doesn't mean anyone gives a damn. 2) It's taken as a given that the longevity of these characters in the popular imagination (whereas once hugely popular characters like The Scarlet Pimpernel and Nick Carter have faded into relative obscurity and characters like Zorro and Felix The Cat only manage to erupt like a pimple above the surface of the popular imagination for a few moments at a time) is due to same innate strength of the characters rather than superior marketing. Superman, for instance, is commonly accepted in the comics field to be a staple, perhaps the staple character of the field and certainly the most "iconic" superhero, but he has also barely weathered several rough patches that pushed him close to sales extermination only to be rescued pretty much solely due to the determination of Warner Bros. to keep the character going. People don't know Superman from comic books, many don't even know Superman comics are still being published. They know him from TV shows, movies, cartoons, peanut butter jars. Superman is widely known and The Black Canary isn't because Superman has been relentlessly marketed for more than 60 years. Mainly because he got there first.

(I sometimes get the idea people don't even know what Superman's about. Joe Casey recently suggested the concept is clearly a religious allegory, but he's dead wrong. Superman originated as Jewish assimilation fantasy during a period of very unsettling diaspora where Jews were uprooted from their homes all over Europe - in the face of demonstrably horrific evil - to migrate to the United States were they were largely viewed as outsiders. The message of Superman is that someone from "somewhere else" can not only become a productive member of their new society but someone who exemplifies all the things good about that new land, despite (because of!) their differences. What is Clark Kent but an expression of the fierce desire of the outsider to fit in above all else? Any urge to turn it in religious allegory is latter day revisionism. Social allegory, maybe.)

It has long been suggested that Marvel's characters are intrinsically inferior to DC's characters because DC's are "iconic." That never stopped them from seriously outselling DC's icons. To suggest "iconic" characters really mean anything in the marketplace is ludicrous. Even now, yes, JLA may have sold well but the sales of most member books, in the absence of events like "No Man's Land" (which bolstered the Batfranchise at a moment when it was staring down a slide), continued to wane in the same period, GREEN LANTERN (arguably among the least iconic of the bunch) being the main exception. Captain America is the only Marvel character who truly fits an iconic mold, because, hey, his whole motif is an icon, the American flag, but Captain America has traditionally been among Marvel's worst-selling characters.

"It has long been suggested that Marvel's characters are intrinsically inferior to DC's characters because DC's are "iconic." That never stopped them from seriously outselling DC's icons."

But the "iconic" label makes people feel good. "Iconic," though misapplied, invokes religious significance, a subtle connection to the infinite. It suggests weight. Calling superheroes (or, at least, some superheroes) "iconic" at a moment when audience interest in them erodes daily conjures a mystic certainty that, yea, though we walk in the valley of the shadow of cancellation, we don't really have to reconsider any underlying precepts of what we're doing. Our faith can remain true, and our arrival in the promised land of milk and honey remains imminent.

Great. So now we're the Branch Davidians. Save your confederate money, boys, the South shall rise again.

Well, the superhero could return in force, but only if the concept shakes off the trappings and structures and reinvents itself as something that means something again. Icons are nothing more than symbols, and meaning drains from symbols. "Iconic" is a meaningless term, connoting a significance that simply doesn't exist outside the Greek Orthodox Church (and even that's debatable in some circles.) It doesn't matter in the slightest whether a character can be considered "iconic" or not, whether it's as old as the comics medium or the latest thing off the presses. All that matters is what's done with it.

Several readers apparently hoping to start a "let's you and him fight" feud wrote recently to sic me on Joe Casey's new column, CRASH COMMENTS. Particularly his recent two-part defense of superheroes. Sorry, no feud. For the most part, we seem to be saying the same thing. Casey only differs from me in his argument that superheroes need only throw off all their trappings and disguise themselves as other things to keep going. Sort of like changing your name from Kurtzberg to Kirby, I guess. My only question is: if you're dumping all the trappings, why bother trying to call them superheroes at all? I agree without question that the superhero must evolve to survive, but evolution also suggest it will become something new. We may as well start approaching it like that.

I'm in the midst of selling my home in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and moving to the general environs of Las Vegas. Why? For better access to Los Angeles while living in a much less expensive territory than California. For a change of pace. But mostly because I'm sick and tired of waking up with sinus headaches in the unending damp. What does this mean to you? Possibly shorter columns for the next few weeks, as my time gets eaten up. (It has already been eaten into considerably, with big and little disruptions to my work schedule.) But there will a MOTO every Wednesday during my transition, regardless.

It has, however, screwed up @VENTURE something fierce, and thrown me way behind on answering e-mail. Everything will be caught up by mid-August, hopefully, and until then I'd appreciate it if everyone bore with me.

Speaking of which, MOTO will be at the one year mark in three weeks. Every time I turn around now, some other comics writer is firing a web column, so I guess I started something. (Tony Isabella is still the godfather of online pro columns, but I'm just conceited enough to take credit for the current wave.) Whether I'll be at the San Diego Convention (July 20-23) is still up in the air, dependent on move variables, but if I am the one-year column will be written at the con. A Very Special Episode.

Since we're talking about superheroes this week, and since people keep putting forth the proposition that the superhero is a salvageable concept that has not burned out through decades of abuse, overexposure and rigid avoidance of introspection on basic concepts, this week's question of the week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board is for all the superhero lovers out there (though others are welcome to chime in): what existing superhero most exemplifies what you think is a viable future for superheroes, and why?

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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