Comics fans have surprisingly elaborate conceptions about the history of their pastime. For quite some time there was a rather successful coupe by revisionists who insisted that comics were serious, dark, and adult and spent a considerable amount of effort repressing all memory of the more whimsical parts of the medium’s past. But as the dude, Newton, once said: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The equal-and-opposite reaction coming in the form of post-revisionist comics fans. Their favorite activities include muttering angrily about the ‘90s, wondering why comics aren’t fun anymore, and none too subtly reminding everyone how much better comics sold in the ‘70s when they were targeted at kids. They got particularly loud around the time The Dark Knight Rises came out.
Ramses II or Ramses the Great was a 19th Dynasty king of Egypt. He was very militarily successful, undertook many great building projects, and was terribly fond of making statues of himself. Thousands of years later he is still known for the prosperity Egypt enjoyed under his rule. Much has changed since Ramses. Egypt is no longer the power it once was in the region and political, economic, cultural, and ethnic shifts have left behind an Egypt that Ramses wouldn’t recognize.
While it took a drastically shorter period of time and having less life-and-death consequences, the comic industry has also seen significant upheaval over the last several decades. Demographics and style have shifted. Sales in 2013 are a fraction of what they were in 1975.
You will note, however, that in their state of political unrest the Egyptians have not crowned a new pharaoh. The thinking that prevailed in Ramses’ time is no longer the way forward. The circumstances that made someone like Ramses both possible and necessary are long since passed.
The glory of Stan and Jack is gone, never to be recaptured. By the same token, there will never be another Watchmen. But to accede that our greatest moment has already occurred and that all we can hope to do is try to emulate it is to ignore the very thing that made those moments so great. Something was done that had not been done before.
More than just about any other aspect of comics I worry about continuity. I don't mean this in the sense that I worry about whether all the little microcosms of Batman, Superman, and Green Lantern match up, or that I dread my favorite stories being retconned out of continuity. I'm not a big continuity person. A good story is a good story. For me its significance is neither increased nor diminished by its place, or lack thereof, in the over-arching universe from which the characters of the story hale. This is not to say I do not understand the appeal of continuity or the significance it has played in the development of the medium. I do, however, worry about the effects of continuity on the ability of creators to make well-crafted and meaningful stories.
Continuity has created a grand tradition that, in the cases of Marvel and DC, dates back decades with a rich continuous tapestry of stories. It gives them a very real and tangible sense of history and legacy, granting depth and significance to the pantheons of characters that inhabit these fictional universes. Like all ancient empires, however, these too are prone to stagnation. Comic fans are notorious for their loathing of change, and as such it makes the editorial staffs of these publishers twitchy about changing the status quo. Change for its own sake is not a positive thing, but the situation as is can, and often does, lead to characters going through a sort of petrification. They are no longer people—growing, changing, dynamic. They have solidified into symbols or ideals or whatever other words people like to use in justification of maintaining their favorite character in a very particular stage of suspended animation. All stories must, regardless of their events, leave the world precisely as they found it. Change, however, carries the risk of locking out viable and thoughtful stories on the grounds that they might not fit into the universe as it stands at the moment. In the hands of a less than ideal creator, change can easily be for the worse—creating convolution and pedantry in an otherwise clear and orderly world. Thus continuity has created the paradox of requiring drastic, but easily reversible, change in order to maintain an illusion on dynamism.
While perhaps the most meticulously crafted and maintained, modern comics are not the first medium to have a shared universe for a world of fictional characters. Let’s wind the clocks back a few centuries to medieval Western Europe where King Arthur is an international sensation. Hundreds of writers, writing in a variety of languages, from a number of countries, across several centuries all contributed to the extensive Arthurian Literary Mythos. It grew and changed and expanded over time into a beast not too dissimilar from modern comics. The stories are innumerable. In some Arthur is young, in some old. In some he is a strong and noble king. In others weak or corrupt. New knights were added to his court all the time. Sir Lancelot, an enduring and significant character in the mythos, was invented by the French centuries after Arthur first started appearing in stories in Britain. Popular knights, like Sir Gawain, received spin-off stories with them as the title characters. These writers were not confined by each other’s variations upon and additions to the world of King Arthur. They only received a wider breadth of possibility. Free to pick and choose which stories to pay homage to, which elements and characters to carry over, they made a world every bit as rich and elaborate as the ones seen in modern comics.
There are of course certain limitations we are now forced to operate under that our historical counterparts were not (copyright and trademark laws for example). This does not mean there is nothing to be learned from their example though. It is readily arguable that the writers and artists now working in the comics industry are the best the industry has ever seen. In their capable hands, seeing these characters many of us have spent our entire lives with breathe freely in their storied legacies rather than be weighed down by them could be a truly remarkable thing.
I'm having a sort of epiphany. At this point (or any point), the people who think Batman should be willing to use lethal force and the people who think he never should, are unlikely to ever switch points of view. Batman, like most mythic characters, is extremely open to interpretation. It stems from a lot of things. How do you feel about capital punishment? How do you feel about the law vs natural justice? What defines a hero? People like to talk about what it is Batman "stands for," but they rarely say what that is, and treat it as though it's self evident. They throw it out as a catch-all debate-winner, but it's not that clear. How important the no-kill code is has varied greatly across the years. Sometimes Batman is willing to cause indirect death, dodging a gunman to make him shoot another, in the Dark Knight Returns I'm pretty sure he beats the Mutant Leader to death in the mud hole. Other times he's entirely unwilling to let even the most vile degenerate die.
I'm one of the people who thinks it's become a far too emphasized part of the character and isn't an essential element. There are probably some people who after reading that are itching to tell me that I don't understand Batman at all and should go read Punisher if I want a hero who kills. Those people are missing the point entirely. Also, I happen to like the Punisher, thank you very much.
The point is that like Hercules, Odysseus, Beowulf, Samson, and all the other mythic heroes who came before, Batman is open to different takes and interpretations, and can mean many things to many people, and that should be okay. Has he got pointy ears and a scalloped cape? Is he a master detective? Does he brood? Does he protect the people of Gotham with his life? Is he vengeance? Is he the night? Then he is Batman.