A Modest Proposal in Response to Devin Faraci’s 'Fandom is Broken'

On May 25, the Nick Spencer-penned Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 uncovered modern comic fandom’s literal reading of stories and authorial intent. On May 30, film critic Devin Faraci reacted with “Fandom is Broken”. The culmination of his earlier “Why DC Universe Rebirth is a Gutsy Work of Comics Criticism” and “Guys, Captain America is Going to be Okay”, it calls out fan entitlement. Faraci concludes:

I wish this was the part of the essay where I come to you with a hopeful pep talk about how we can all be better, but I just don’t see a positive solution. If anything, I see things getting worse - creators walling themselves off from fans while corporate masters happily throw vision and storytelling under the bus to appease the people who can get hashtags trending.

There was a problem, however, even before social media democratized opinion. By illuminating the source, perhaps modern fandom will embrace good stories rather than dramatized Wikipedia entries.

The Flash #123 was the beginning of the end for superhero comics. Released in September, 1961, “Flash of Two Worlds!” codified alternate realities for DC Comics, an impact still felt to this day with the recent line-wide Rebirth, shepherded by Geoff Johns. Both plot mechanics and culture have suffered, because this started thinking of comics not as stories but chronicles of events.

I teach college writing and see this literalism firsthand, with contemporary Americans in general, when teaching Dennis Baron’s “A modest proposal: Don’t Make English Official, Ban It Instead”. Published in the September 8, 1996 issue of The Washington Post, Baron’s satirical argument that Congress should forbid Americans from speaking English is sarcastic and hyperbolic. It also overtly references Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”, the 1729 essay suggesting the Irish sell their children as food. But here’s the thing: students take both at face value, and get mad.

Both texts are non-fiction but this extends to fiction, as well. Look no further than the Rebirth #1 and Captain America: Steve Rogers #1. In the former, Doctor Manhattan, from Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1986), is revealed to have created the “New 52”, the dark and gritty 2011 reboot. In the latter, the famous Marvel Comics icon is not only an agent of the nefarious terrorist organization Hydra, but has been one all along. Rebirth represents a fan-demanded literalization of details in order to “fix” a plot, while Captain America: Steve Rogers is a creator exercising narrative tools to craft a story.

Strangely enough, this dichotomy between familiar catharsis and the unknown was anticipated by the semiotic scholar Umberto Eco in his 1972 essay, “The Myth of Superman”. He compares ancient Greek plays, with plots contemporary audiences were well-versed in, to the novel’s appeal in not knowing the ending.

This worked in plays from antediluvian times to the Renaissance “not because it caught them unaware of the myth, but because the mechanism of the ‘plot’ in accordance with Aristotelian rules, succeeded in making them once more co-participants through pity and terror.” In contrast, “The ‘civilization’ of the modern novel offers a story in which the reader’s main interest is transferred to the unpredictable nature of what will happen and, therefore, to the plot invention which now holds our attention.”

Superhero comic books, however, are a product of the industrial age and navigate the tension between myth and novel, creating a facade of change:

The mythological character of comic strips finds himself in this singular situation: he must be an archetype, the totality of certain collective aspirations, and therefore he must necessarily become immobilized in an emblematic and fixed nature which renders him easily recognizable (this is what happens to Superman); but, since he is marketed in the sphere of a ‘romantic’ production for a public that consumes ‘romances’, he must be subjected to a development which is typical, as we have seen, of novelistic characters.

The novel, Eco argues, stems from a “society that lived in the midst of messages loaded with redundance; the sense of tradition, the norms of associative living, moral principles,” etc., etc. By 1972, and unerring today, the overwhelming malaise of day-to-day life allowed that “Narrative of a redundant nature would appear in this panorama as an indulgent invitation to repose, the only occasion of true relaxation offered to the consumer.” He believed this to be true of most popular fiction.

What he couldn’t know is comics were on the cusp of “growing up”, with stories becoming longer, more intricate and more “mature”. But while readers believe this alchemized the fundamental nature of mainstream superhero comics, it hasn’t. It’s simply plasticized the process.

If Doctor Manhattan catalyzing the dark and depressing New 52 is a criticism of taking the wrong learnings from Watchmen, then Johns needs a look in the mirror.

Years ago I wrote an article, “Against Continuity”, with a similar goal, laying out a simple truth: there is no continuity, only approximation. I described that the philosopher Plato held there are three forms: the idea of a table, the many physical tables that have been constructed from that idea, and a painted form of the table. In essence, although there may appear to be ongoing adventures of Superman, there is no concrete “reality” outside the immediate story that a writer and/or artist is aggregating.

This topoi would allow for great stories, but fans are more concerned with accumulated knowledge and that the only important comics are ongoing and interconnected. This is why long-time fans were upset by the New 52: it meant the old DC Universe would not only not get new stories, it had actually been destroyed and replaced. Fans felt betrayed because A, the old DCU didn’t “exist” anymore and B, the old stories no longer mattered because they were not continuously being reaffirmed.

But here’s what Eco didn’t see coming: the “imaginary stories” and “untold tales” he contends confirm the timelessness of Superman and other characters are now the central continuity. In those halcyon days, from 1938 to 1969 or thereabouts, Superman was ageless on a sliding timescale with progress. The result was to present what-if stories (what if Superman married Lois Lane or what if Superman died), and untold tales (his days as Superboy or backstory from Krypton). This could present a veneer of development without fundamentally altering the character.

But about 25 years ago, actually incorporating these imaginary stories into serialized, essential books such as 1992’s “The Death of Superman” and 1996’s “The Wedding Album” became the norm in order to boost sales. “This is really happening!” the creators proclaimed to populist media outlets like USA Today.

As a result, what-ifs (so-called Elseworlds) became even more outlandish, but DC (and, by extension, Marvel) didn’t anticipate the fallout. Readers weren’t content to let one-offs like The Dark Knight Returns or Kingdom Come stand alone, so bit by bit they were appropriated. But something was niggling at readers: these stories weren’t getting followed up on. What they didn’t realize is part of the impact was a hermetic quality that allowed stakes.

A stark example is Johns’s already-attempted deconstruction of DC 10 years ago with Infinite Crisis. It textually restored the aesthetic and substance of the Silver Age (the more fantastical, lighthearted books circa 1955 to 1970), but not the tone, as well as multiple (later infinite) earths where all these stories were still continuing. Unfortunately, Johns didn’t learn his own lessons. 

Case in point Superboy-Prime, a doppelganger from the “real world” who grew up a DC fan, recontextualized as meta-commentary on a literal-minded approach to comic books. He has good intentions, but resents the modern Superboy and attacks an army of superheroes. While criticizing their illegitimacy he violently rages and cries, "You're just an imitation! Everyone knows that! I'm the real Superboy!" and “You’re ruining everything! You’re ruining me!” Although Johns rebuts Superboy-Prime by restoring multiple earths, allowing every iteration to matter, this is in opposition to the aforementioned Moore’s enlightening musing, “This is an imaginary story…aren’t they all?”

Jump ahead to 2016 and this square peg, round hole incorporation is once again being essayed. Like buying Fawcett, Charlton, Milestone and WildStorm and folding their characters into the DCU, Watchmen characters will now exist alongside Batman and Superman. Although Faraci argues in “Why DC Universe Rebirth Is A Gutsy Work of Comics Criticism” that Johns is “saying that the deconstructionist comic books of the 80s - great books, seminal classics - have so poisoned the well that they have negatively impacted what came after,” again Johns is the pot calling the kettle black.

If petulant brat Superboy-Prime represents both the older DC corrupted by the modern and a mouth-breathing fan base, it must be pointed out that Johns himself perpetrated endless dismemberments and a grim and gritty mentality. So if Doctor Manhattan catalyzing the dark and depressing New 52 is a criticism of taking the wrong learnings from Watchmen, then Johns needs a look in the mirror.

Which brings us back to Nick Spencer, Captain America: Steve Rogers and “Fandom is Broken”. Spencer received death threats, prompting Faraci’s reaction. As mentioned earlier, the story hook of “What if Captain America was a Hydra agent all along?” is exactly the kind of thing that would have appeared in, well, Marvel’s What If series. But since the “Big Two” cottoned to the idea that stories that “count” are more exciting, this happens to Captain America proper and the Internet loses its collective mind. But not only is the violent reaction morally wrong (it’s never right to threaten someone’s life, much less over the treatment of fictional characters), it’s anti-story.

Creators should not be the stewards of intellectual properties, keeping them chugging along with boring regularity. They should have the freedom to play with the toy box in any way they see fit without fear of implication. As Faraci states, “When they leave the book the pieces generally need to be put back - the toys need to be put away - so that the next team can play with them as well.” Essentially he’s advocating for Eco’s position that anything take place as long as Superman is restored to status quo by issue’s end, but on a grander scale of a creator’s run. But I’ll take that a step further and advocate to abolish continuity altogether.

A writer’s run would start with the platonic ideal of a character, thus allowing them to tell any story they please. That’s basically what they do now anyway, but that leaves the next writer to escape the challenge of being written into an impossible corner. By removing that challenge amazing stories can result without the tether of canon. Attempts have been made in the past, such as the recent Sensation Comics Featuring Wonder Woman, but those always had the stipulation that they’re outside continuity. They also end up shoved into a numbered Earth box, anyway, constantly measured against the main universe. By having no canon, there will be no obsessive-compulsive need to categorize everything as Earth 1, 2, and 3, and stories will become the driving concern.  

In the end, continuity is just a social contract. It’s maintained with precariously and is abolished on a whim, often times with regularity in a generation. By accepting Nick Spencer’s Steve Rogers is not the same as, say, Ed Brubaker’s or Stan Lee’s, not only will fans be able to relax but creators will, too.

Bart Bishop

Column by Bart Bishop

A professor once told Bart Bishop that all literature is about "sex, death and religion," tainting his mind forever. A Master's in English later, he teaches college writing and tells his students the same thing, constantly, much to their chagrin. He’s also edited two published novels and loves overthinking movies, books, the theater and fiction in all forms at such varied spots as CHUD, Bleeding Cool, CityBeat and Cincinnati Magazine. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with his wife and daughter.

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Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel July 1, 2016 - 9:39am

Great article. Intelligent and direct.

So If I get this correctly, which I most likely will not, we have this sandbox. There are X amount of toys and everyone is playing with them at different times. However, each person plays with them in his/her own way. This would not be an issue except there is an audience watching each person play with the toys. These people mostly believe the play time stories should have continuity. Except, each person playing with the toys has basically told them to F off. So, the audience rants and raves, they call in the playground manager who then must find a way to keep the peace. He starts telling people how they can and can't play with the toys. This angers some greatly, others are fine because that's the way they were playing with the toys anyway. But now the half the audience is mad because half of them as well lost the story they wanted to be told. They've lost their continuity.

So we have half the audience happy, half the playground kids happy, and it's opposite. The playground manager is hellbent on keeping people coming back, but also he wants them all back. So, he goes and changes the balance to get the angry people back. He does this over X amount of years, no one group is really happy because they now know everything that happens is a half measure. But the lot limps on, and we all remember the good old days, are at least semi-content at the present, and this is our lives.

The entire playground is kind of dull and watered down. The people aren't really excited. They're mostly just nostalgic. The people certainly aren't letting any new toys into the playground because they don't want that kind of hassle all over again.

So here we are. We can't build a new playground, no one has the money to fund it. No new toys. We've started to exploit every classical theme imaginable, so even the stories are getting dull and repetitive. They try to spice it up by brushing off the world and saying look, it's new, but we all know it's not. And quite frankly, it isn't that no one has a solution, and it isn't the problem with compromise. It just may be that we've been fighting with each other for so long, so many compromises have been made, that we seem to have lost sight of what we really wanted. Because, what exactly do we want? Is it just continuity? Do we just not want the other side to get their way? Are we done being deconstructionists?

And if the world shifts toward something new, those who understood the old world suddenly become obsolete. So there is a vested interest in keeping this crippling balance. We know where we stand in it. But doesn't that just make us the new patriarchy? We become the instrument for our next dark age, too stubborn to let go and move on.

Then it turns into, "Move on to what?" And my only answer can be, "I don't know." So the reply is "Exactly, you don't know, you don't even know what we're talking about. So stay out of it." Then I nod and smile.

In the end, it looks like we've built our version of Ptolemaic Astronomy. The false monster. Perhaps it's time we pull a page from Descartes and wipe the slate clean and see where we are. Sure, we can keep building on rubble, but it doesn't seem very stable.

What am I even talking about? And all I can say is, "Exactly."

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words July 3, 2016 - 8:14am

thank you for this piece. I have to spend time digesting it, but you have eloquently expressed the muddy chaos of my thinking on the subject.

I've pretty much abandoned Super Hero comics, but I was never really weaned on them to begin with.