Comic book fans like to complain. They like to complain on the internet, a lot! In fact, look, I'm a comic book fan and I'm complaining right now! Obviously comic book fans are not the only type of fan who like to complain. Fans are by definition passionate about the object of their fan love and such passion leads to strong opinions. But in my experience nobody quite reaches the level of incessant, entitled, tiresome whining as your average comic book fan. Recently I observed one fan on Twitter send twenty two tweets in one night to a writer complaining about the direction he’s taking a character. At no point did the writer enter into a discussion with the complainer. It was a completely one-sided rant. Of course, if you’re an artist on the internet then uninvited criticism of your work is to be expected and is not necessarily a bad thing providing it remains polite. And to be fair this particular complainer stopped short of swearing and death threats. But twenty two tweets in one night?! Twenty two! The writer had my sympathy. You have to ask yourself, at what point does it stop being legitimate criticism and become harassment?
One of the most common complaints is also, at least as far as I’m concerned, one of the most ridiculous and obnoxious. I’m referring to “That’s not [insert character]!!!” or “[insert character] wouldn’t do that!!” That particular fanboy whine regarding the treatment of comic characters drives me insane with frustration. Granted, if a comic was published tomorrow featuring Batman dropping his trousers, shuffling into police headquarters and soiling Commissioner Gordon’s desk, then that would be pretty out of character and perhaps some complaints would be justified. But let’s face it, whatever plotline is being moaned about is never as drastic as it’s made out to be. If DC or Marvel were ever to really change their characters so much as to make them unrecognisable then the people above them at Warner Bros and Disney who are trying to flog the branded lunchboxes would have something to say about it.
I find cries of “That’s not [insert character]!!!” or “[insert character] wouldn’t do that!!” so arrogant and small minded and limiting. When a fan dismisses a particular interpretation of a character as incorrect and calls for a return to an earlier interpretation then they’re essentially saying that anyone who likes the version that they dislike doesn’t understand the character as well as they do. Sounds pretty arrogant to me. Mainstream superheroes are by their very nature part of an ongoing story. They will rarely age and often their story will never really end. Most of them are several decades old. When a fan calls for the writers to stick rigidly to one interpretation of the character forever then they’re trying to confine them creatively and limit what potential for development and variety that there is in such a genre. And isn’t it strange how when a fan decries an interpretation of a character as incorrect, the version that they find to be the correct one just happens to be the same one that was popular when they first got into the character?
To illustrate what I’m arguing here I’d like to specifically address criticism of Superman’s recent revamp as part of DC Comic’s reboot of their superhero line, The New 52. Many fans have criticised DC for making this new version of Superman a cocky and arrogant individual who takes joy in his ability to defend the oppressed and punish the wicked. His cockiness and arrogance is perhaps a result of being quite a lonely figure who has had to figure out his place in the world by himself. During the three decades before the New 52, Superman was a much more humble, sensitive figure who was less prone to solving problems with his fists and more suited to solving them with a long heartfelt discussion under the duvet with his wife, Lois Lane, or an earnest heart to heart with Ma and Pa Kent over a slice of apple pie. New 52 Superman however was never married to Lois Lane, his adoptive parents are dead and he’s left his job at the Daily Planet to seek alternative ways to report on the injustices of the world. New 52 Superman is very different from his previous incarnation and this sudden change has led to a lot of complaints from fans.
There was a lot to be said for the pre-New 52 version of Superman, but he was by no means the definitive interpretation of the character. Superman is over seventy years old! During that time we’ve seen many different aspects of the Man of Steel. During the thirties and forties, Golden Age Superman was a crusader for social justice who thought nothing of defenestrating wife beaters or dangling corrupt politicians by their ankle while running across telephone wires. Then came Silver Age Superman, an avuncular chap who spent most of his days maintaining his web of lies by performing elaborate pranks on his friends and colleagues. Despite possessing the ability to move planets and travel in time he mostly just caught bank robbers. He was followed by Bronze Age Superman, who often displayed a confidence that bordered on arrogance, but would also sometimes ponder whether he was doing the right thing, usually when manipulated into doing so by self-righteous aliens. Bronze Age Superman had awesome sideburns.
The happily married, humble, sensitive version of Superman of the past few decades is mainly, in my opinion, a result of the work of three people, Richard Donner, Margot Kidder and Christopher Reeve. In Donner’s 1978 film, Superman: The Movie, Reeve portrays Superman as an extremely humble and sensitive character. It really works. The humility that Reeve brings to the role is a big part of what makes his Superman such a likeable character. His relationship with Lois Lane has always been an important part of Superman but in Superman: The Movie the love story aspect was really pushed to the forefront as a defining aspect of the character. This also worked a treat. Margot Kidder portrays Lois as very human. She smokes, spells things incorrectly, is mean to Clark and gets changed in the toilet for a meeting with the President. After the epic myth making of the first half of the movie, Lois is just what the film needs; a person in whom we see ourselves reflected, who gets drawn up into this wonderful fairytale. The film provided such a great interpretation of Superman that it wasn’t long before its influence permeated the comics’ portrayal of the Man of Steel. This became particularly prevalent when John Byrne revamped the character in 1986. After the ’86 revamp Superman in the comics was a much more humble and sensitive figure who was forever considering the limits of his power. He grew closer and closer to Lois until in 1996 they got married, and the love story that was emphasised and pushed to the forefront in the film got its happy ending.
As you can see, rather than being the way things have always been, having a sensitive, humble Superman who’s married to Lois Lane is a relatively recent interpretation. It’s part of a long line of different interpretations stretching back to 1938, and as far as I’m concerned it’s an interpretation that needs a rest. I like this interpretation but DC stuck to it so slavishly, for so long that I believe it led to something of a creative dead end. One of the last Superman stories before the New 52 was J. Michael Staczynski’s ‘Grounded’. It featured the Man of Steel so shaken with self-doubt that he embarked on a walking trip across America to reconnect with the common man. It was a deeply unsatisfying story, mostly in my opinion because the concept of a self doubting Superman, sensitively reconsidering his place in the world had been so thoroughly played out by the time ‘Grounded’ began. It was definitely time for a cockier, more arrogant Superman who was more used to punching his problems rather than walking them off, and that’s what the New 52 gave us. As for his marriage, I like seeing Superman talking his problems over with the love of his life, but we’ve had that for over two decades. What’s wrong with now having a Superman who has to figure things out for himself? After all, and I hope I’ve made this clear in the preceding paragraphs, SENSITIVE, MARRIED SUPERMAN IS NOT THE ONLY WAY TO DO SUPERMAN!
This is just one example of one character but I hope I’ve demonstrated why I’m sick of hearing “That’s not [insert character]!!!” and “[insert character] wouldn’t do that!!” in regards to superhero comics. Whether fans are moaning about Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Cyclops, or whoever, chances are they’re moaning about characters that have had several different incarnations over several decades. So next time you want to complain on the internet that a particular character isn’t behaving like the character you know and love, ask yourself this. What makes your version of this character so damn special?
(A version of this article appears on WorldofSuperheroes.com)