This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on November 28, 2016.
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 does it mean for a character/property to continue after it has already reached its zenith?
Are you referring to America or Batman, Mark? I’m pretty sure this question is about one of those two things, but cannot figure out which one it is. For the sake of levity and giving our readers a brief reprieve from grim reality, I’m going to focus on why Batman is past his prime though.
Batman makes a great example for this particular question because it’s a concept that peaked before either of us were even born. We were raised in a world in which the greatest pieces of Batman-related art already existed. Everything Batman that was new to us was somehow inspired by or in response to the absolute best Batman comics ever created.
For the one person who thinks I’m building to something, I’m not. I’m talking about Frank Miller’s work on Batman between 1986 and 1987: The Dark Knight Returns with Klaus Janson and “Year One” with David Mazzuchelli. They are simply the best pieces of art within the Batman franchise. It doesn’t need to be explained by me when we already read comics, read about comics, and possess Google.
I understand the urge to take this sort of argument and call it silly or wrong. You don’t want to accept that you or the artists you love can’t do better with a beloved concept, especially in comics where one’s work on a piece of IP is often a yardstick for talent. And it’s much nicer and more acceptable to strive to create or be on the lookout for “this generation’s The Dark Knight Returns”. But the very phrasing of that sentiment gives away the game.
If we want to make a serious assessment of Batman-related art since the character was created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane (but fuck Bob Kane), the metanarrative is pretty clear. Since the publication of The Dark Knight Returnsand “Year One”, they have become the benchmark for everything Batman related with the exception of sales. The understanding of character, impact on the concept, depth of thematic exploration, and pure craftsmanship is unparalleled elsewhere.
Name one Batman comic since 1987 that is on the same level as either of those comics. Name one. I fucking dare you. Whatever you just said is wrong. Morrison’s Batman is great, but it’s also loaded with fat and suffers terribly from inconsistent art. Once you start to really interrogate “The Killing Joke”, you realize it’s hustle does not live up to the hype. Snyder and Capullo’s work is an absolute blast to read, but even Snyder will admit that “Zero Year” was simply striving to get away from the shadow of “Year One”. You going to say something like “The Long Halloween” or “Hush”? Get out of here with that shit. I’m going to keep this to comics for now, but we both know the only thing outside of this medium that can give these two comics a run for their money is Batman: The Animated Series. That’s it. We’re not talking about Batman v Superman; I refuse.
The truth is that for about 30 years no Batman story has approached the zenith set by Miller and his collaborators in only 8 distinct issues of comics. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, we know that’s not going to change. We can talk about whether that’s a problem with the industry or talent or character, but that’s not the question here. If we can accept that something like Batman has already peaked, then the question becomes: What comes next?
Well, this is really why Batman makes for a perfect example on this question because we already know the answer. We’ve lived the answer our entire lives, and it’s as anticlimactic as this: more of the same.
Just jump back a few paragraphs to that long list of Batman stories that are all clearly not as good as The Dark Knight Returns or “Year One”. That point of comparison doesn’t make them bad though. It really only matters if you’re trying to make a list. “The Long Halloween” might be derivative and poorly formatted, but it still has some mighty fine looking Tim Sale graphics. I’m glad we got it, if only so we could get Sale’s alternate covers for the current Batman ongoing series.
While the net gains from something like “The Killing Joke” might be negative simply due to fan culture obsessing over all of the wrong elements, it’s still a mighty well crafted comic. There are lessons to be learned there from Brian Bolland’s visual storytelling and Alan Moore’s playful recontextualization of both an iconic villain and relationship.
Perhaps the most obvious recent example of why there’s really no problem with a property continuing past its peak is Snyder’s collected work on the character in comics like Detective Comics, Batman, and now All Star Batman. He and Jock’s “Black Mirror” story is an incredibly moody tale that is as thrilling as any detective tale I’ve come across in superhero comics. His work with Capullo on “Zero Year” is something we praised extensively forinterpreting 21st Century America in an insightful and entertaining manner, one we both found cathartic. Now in “My Own Worst Enemy” with John Romita Jr. we’re receiving one of the most bombastic, bizarre, and simply enjoyable stories that DC Comics has published in years.
The truth of the matter is that we’re still significantly better off for having Snyder and all of his collaborators tackle Batman. These are stories that have driven the craft of comics, provided timely thematic messages, and given us a lot to smile about on dark days. Snyder hasn’t been shy about acknowledging the high bar set by Miller in stories that have clearly influenced Snyder’s career. He’s never claimed that his work is better, which is great because we all know that would be setting an impossibly high bar. But the man is still aiming for those stars and we’re all better for it.
Saying that a Batman comic is no “Year One” is an easy jab because it’s obvious. The truth is that there cannot be a “this generation’s The Dark Knight Returns” in a Batman comic. It would be foolish to claim that title. However, we do work with and read comics by those inspired by that incredible comic who are now making their own great Batman comics today.
Even better, while they are making those Batman comics, they’re also producing other work. They’re collaborating on creator-owned titles and new IP that could set new bars which future creators could aspire to. The goal shouldn’t be to make “this generation’s The Dark Knight Returns”; it should be to have the next generation try to make “this generation’s A.D.After Death”.
The world of comics doesn’t lie in the shadow of The Dark Knight Returns and the rest of Miller’s work, that’s just the world of Batman. The world of comics gets to stand on its shoulders.
If only I could be this optimistic about the other interpretation of this question.