Leading Questions: Imitation Is The Greatest Form of Self-Improvement

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on September 8, 2016.

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Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.

So without any further ado…

What place is there for a superhero pastiche when the Big Two frequently lampoon and deconstruct themselves?

My initial instinct is to throw out a bunch of titles not published (or at least originally published) by the Big Two and leave it at that. But that doesn’t really explain why. Sure, I’m going to toss out plenty of examples of superhero pastiches that haven’t been published by the Big Two, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t have been published by the Big Two. So let’s focus on the why before the what.

I’m going to breakdown superhero pastiche into two categories that I think covers the majority of what’s out there. Each has a very different reason for existing outside of the Big Two, so it’ll be easier to tackle this way. Those two categories are the lampoon and the love letter. The former being any pastiche that aims to mock or tear down the superhero genre. The latter being any pastiche that celebrates elements of the medium.

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You can find plenty of examples of lampoons at Marvel Comics, much more so than DC Comics. They recently put out a collection called Secret Wars Too collecting a variety of comics from the past decade all designed to take shots at the publisher’s bread and butter. It uses Marvel’s own characters in order to poke fun at them. One piece fromShame Itself reveals a 16 part flowchart on how to plot a Marvel Comics event. Parts of it are outright silly, but others hit pretty close to very real criticism. The ongoing cycle of death and resurrection is pointed out as is the cash in on hot political topics. Hulk shouts “Hulk smash PUNY Constitutional right to privacy” in a word balloon that could almost be pulled from Civil War II. That sort of behavior isn’t an exception, it’s a tradition at Marvel Comics.

You can look back to the Silver Age and Jim Starlin’s work on the character Warlock for an early example of Marvel publishing some harsh words for itself. In Strange Tales #181 Warlock confronts a bunch of clowns who attempt to indoctrinate him into doing things according to their ridiculous methods. The clowns are thinly veiled pastiches of Marvel creators like Stan Lee and John Romita in both appearance and name (e.g. a clown named Jan Hatroom is an anagram for John Romita). It’s a take down and far from the last shots Starlin would take at the publisher.

So what else is left to be said, when Marvel is already publishing comics like this? Honestly, a lot. None of the comics mentioned above no matter how “brutal” or “insane” is actually damaging. Part of that shows in the numbers and fanbase. While Marvel has shown themselves of taking some stabs at their own follies it’s always presented in the sense of good fun. Nothing they have ever published has exposed a serious flaw in the company, at least no flaw seriousness enough to lose readers. In the meanwhile, typical reactions range from disdain for someone like Starlin who would take shots at beloved creators like Romita to admiration for the audacity of publishing it all. In either case, Marvel wins and the jokes are no more than self-deprecating humor designed to ingratiate itself to the audience. This is kind-hearted ribbing, not genuine criticism.

Let me know when a superhero pastiche discusses the recent sheltering of abusive creators and staff within either of these companies. Let me know when a lampooning of a popular character like Wolverine actually shows genuine disdain for the character or genre. Those things don’t happen at the Big Two because they are actually transgressive. What these illusions are designed to do is simply provide the illusion of being transgressive without actually crossing any lines.

Great satire (an overused word, I know) or mockery will be offensive and damaging to someone, specifically its intended target. There’s no way that the Big Two would knowingly publish something that could actually be damaging to their brands (or one another’s brands for that matter). It hasn’t happened and it never will.

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You need something like The Goon #39 by Eric Powell to really go to town on the Big Two. It’s a comic that lambasts the superhero genre and publishing model of DC and Marvel Comics in a fashion that’s so on-the-nose it finds itself embedded dangerously close to your gray matter. Powell was previously employed by both publishers, but it’s notable that there’s a gap before the publication of The Goon #39 and that he has not resumed work at either company since. Like it or not, The Goon #39 is actually transgressive. It’s something that could not be published by at the Big Two and likely burnt some bridges for its creator (assuming they still existed).

I’m going to leave the lampoons there though. Powell may have little more than disdain for the superhero genre, but I’m a pretty big fan. While I’m happy to admit there are flaws both in the genre and the publishers most associated with it, and see those flaws mocked, I’m more interested in seeing the genre at its best.

Obviously, Marvel and DC Comics want to do the same. Providing great stories that people want to buy and keep buying is exactly what they want to do. But it’s not the only thing they want to do either. They are part of larger companies and are handling intellectual property worth billions of dollars. There is a necessary level of caution that comes with how they handle any character they may consider to be iconic, and those are often the characters most worth exploring in the form of pastiche.

Within their own comics, these publishers have created elseworlds and alternate realities to twist characters while keeping their “real” versions safe from harm. There’s an admiration between publishers too where they mimic one another. If you want to know why Marvel has a dozen or more different pastiches of Superman, it’s because that character matters. From his origin in The Avengers #69, Hyperion has been a mainstay in the Marvel Universe. He has been utilized in series like Squadron Supreme (vol. 1) to explore how Superman might function in the real world and give him a darker edge. My favorite example of Hyperion arrives in Avengers #34.1. It’s a loving portrait of Superman, both his loneliness and idealism, depicted within the Marvel universe.

It’s also far from the best pastiche of the character I’ve found. That particular example would rest in Astro City. This is a series largely composed of characters pastiching classics from both Marvel and DC Comics in a pretty obvious manner. Its very first issue focuses on The Samaritan, a Superman pastiche, in a story called “In Dreams”. In this particular story The Samaritan is weighed down flying between his incredible responsibilities throughout the day, only to be allowed to enjoy flight in his sleep.

There’s no reason this story couldn’t exist as part of Action Comics or Superman, but there is a reason it exists better on its own. A complete lack of continuity allows this story to exist as a story about the ideal form of Superman without any of the baggage the character carries. When you read about The Samaritan you are not contending with anyone else’s vision of the character or any original intent or a previous story. You are reading about a character created by Kurt Busiek, Brent Eric Anderson, and Alex Ross. It is inspired by their take on Superman, but it is not that thing. The character you can analyze and read about in this story exists on its own without any necessity for outside context.

Context to understand the pastiche certainly helps, but story and character themselves can actually be removed from those elements and that’s an important difference. This is a singularity that speaks to both the character and the genre without having to confront the real world history of the publisher that purchased (some would say stole) the character or how that character has transformed throughout the ages. It’s something that even a comic like All-Star Superman (my favorite superhero comic ever) can’t achieve. While All-Star Superman can serve as a great introduction to both the genre and character; it is also loaded with references to continuity and is inherently bound to a much larger thing than itself.

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Speaking of favorite superhero comics, COPRA presents another reason why superhero pastiche is best when removed from the auspices of the Big Two. For those who aren’t familiar COPRA pastiches a variety of characters from the seminal ‘80s run on Suicide Squad along with some others from both publishers like The Punisher and Doctor Strange in an incredible revenge comic. I would argue its primary level of pastiche actually exists in its style and tone, pulling from action comics at the Big Two during the same period as Suicide Squad along with a variety of artists ranging from Jack Kirby to Kazuo Koike. However, it always seems to come back to the Suicide Squad when you hear folks talking about this series.

A common refrain I’ve heard is that DC Comics ought to hire COPRA creator Michel Fiffe to work on that particular property. I could not disagree more.

In its current incarnation COPRA is entirely owned and created by Fiffe; he is in complete control of the work. Placing it under the auspices of DC Comics would only limit its potential. Protecting intellectual property would limit what these characters are allowed to do or who would be presented within the story. There might be a need to include Harley Quinn based on a recent film or sales drop. It might be out of the question for Deadshot to commit suicide. Fiffe would be filtered through editors and others before creating his scripts or pages. Even if Fiffe were still creating the comics as “Elseworlds” Suicide Squad, there would still be restrictions placed on what characters were allowed to do or who ought to be used based on these outside concerns. Having Fiffe move from working for himself to working for DC Comics would only result in a diluted version of this incredible comic.

I’m going to take this one step further with yet another of my favorite current superhero comics, One-Punch Man. This is a series that lacks any obvious pastiches of characters. One and Yusuke Murata have designed a pantheon that’s unique to their own work for the most part. However, it does still pastiche a variety of familiar tropes and concepts from the genre. The ranking of heroes and monsters based on power level is something that digs deep at many fans of Big Two superheroes. Cities are generically named and almost entirely interchangeable with one another and mass destruction is shrugged off by capes in a way that is impossible to read without chuckling about Big Two event comics.

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Yet none of this may be an intentional take on Big Two superhero comics or even superhero comics. This is certainly a criticism of the genre, as One-Punch Man deconstructs, then reconstructs superheroes in a brilliant fashion. It grasps what makes this concept work without trying to ignore some of the inherent silliness or immaturity. The comic manages to move from laugh out loud moments to the incredibly sincere and inspiring in the span of a chapter. It’s a wonder.

While it pastiches things we know and understand, it does not rely on the existence of Big Two superhero comics in any way. The truth of the matter is that the superhero genre doesn’t rely on these publishers or any of their property. Superheroes are bigger than Marvel and DC or Superman and Spider-Man, and so are the copies and imitations of things created within the genre.

Marvel and DC are incredibly important to the creation, longevity, and vocabulary of the superhero, but they are not essential. Understanding the genre, whether it’s in the form of criticism or praise (or both!), does not rely on their continued existence and functions best when removed from these sources. The superhero genre is very much its own thing and is growing to rival the likes of many other esteemed traditions. Look for the best examples of this genre today though and you’ll find they exist without these publishers. While comics like Astro City, COPRA, and even One-Punch Man may build on what has come before, they exist on their own. They are unique, incredible pieces of art. They make it clear that superheroes, as well as their pastiches, have outgrown the need for any pair of names.

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About chasemagnett

Chase is a mild-mannered finance guy by day and a raving comics fan by night. He has been reading comics for more than half of his life (all 23 years of it). After graduating from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln with degrees in Economics and English, he has continued to research comics while writing articles and reviews online. His favorite superhero is Superman and he'll accept no other answers. Don't ask about his favorite comic unless you're ready to spend a day discussing dozens of different titles.
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