I just went to visit my brother, and was able to read all the comics he buys that I’m too cheap to get. Among those are All Star Batman, All Star Superman, and Grant Morrison’s Batman run. These varied a good bit in quality — Frank Miller’s All Star Batman is a completely embarrassing self-parody; All Star Superman is a workmanlike nostalgia exercise which has been denuded of the ambivalence towards super-heroics which characterizes Morrison’s most interesting efforts; Morrison’s Batman is quite entertaining, despite the obligatory and atrocious grand crossover efforts.
But, whatever their merits or demerits, finishing the pile I was struck by (A) how completely uninterested I am in spending my own money on any of them and, (B) how thoroughly repetitive and kind of pointless they all seem. Miller isn’t just rewriting Dark Knight; he’s rewriting his own rewrites of Dark Knight (like Batman: Year One and Dark Knight Returns 2) and his own oeuvre in general (Wonder Woman’s characterization is particuarly painful, not so much because he reflexively dumps the pacifism and wisdom which is a big part of the character, as because his decision to turn her into a ball-busting fetishized dominatrix with a thing for strong men is at this point such a cliche in his own writing, from Sin City on down.) Morrison isn’t just rewriting the Weisinger era Superman; he’s rewriting Alan Moore rewriting Weisinger, and, indeed, 15 years or so of hip fetishization of the goofiness of old Superman stories. And Morrison’s Batman stories — obsessed as they are with the replication of Batman and alternate possibile Batman — seem to just be reworking, with a good deal less zip, similar concerns in the Animal Man stories that Morrison put out there twenty years ago.
Of course, any genre thrives on repetition — but you also need variation, and while American mainstream comics are good at the first, they haven’t been able to deliver consistently on the second in quite a while. Many people blame super-heroes themselves, but I don’t really think that’s the problem. For example, Cardcaptor Sakura combines Judy-Bloomesque girl Bildungsroman with a video-game fantasy tropes and comes up with something which, while not necessarily great art, is certainly a fresh, and even bizarre, take on super-heroics.
So personally, I don’t think it’s the super-hero genre that’s the problem, but rather that, in American comics, the super-hero genre has largely degenerated into fan fiction. Though, really, that’s kind of unfair to fan fiction, which, is usually motivated by real love for the material and a willingness to do all sorts of ridiculous and counter-intuitive things with it (see this sex-changing slash effort by Vom Marlowe for example.) Mainstream comics are actually the worst of all worlds — corporate fan fiction. Often, there’s little love or respect for the original vision and, conversely, a whole set of arbitrary rules in place about what can and can’t be done with them. The result has been a shrinking of the comic audience (fan fiction is always going to have a fairly limited appeal, whatever its virtues) and a stifling of creativity.
Grant Morrison’s one of the genres great writers — why put him on Superman, a character in which, as far as I can tell, he has little interest? And yes, I enjoyed his runs on X-Men and JLA, but wouldn’t it make sense, if you have a talent like that, to give him a chance to create something new? Wouldn’t that, if promoted correctly, create the possibility of new marketing possibilities, new movie tie-ins, and so forth? Similarly, why make Frank Miller go back again and again to the Batman when he’s clearly said all he has to say about him? Wouldn’t it be better to get him to do something new? I mean, it’s not like Sin City and 300 weren’t successful. Surely he could make up a marketable super-hero if he tried.
But, of course, forty or fifty years of this fannish, clannish, corporate bullshit has taken its toll. Super-hero comics are now hopelessly uninteresting to everybody outside of the tiny fan community. Distribution and marketing is aimed at this insular group who wants the same thing over and over, and the opportunities for new creations which might appeal to a broader audience are limited indeed — you can be successful with a television show like Hero, but it’s really unclear how something similar could work with comics. Still, I think that maybe the best thing the big companies could do for themselves is just stop with the endless Superman, Batman, Hulk, Spider-Man, ad nauseum. If people want to read that stuff (as they will), look at reprints of the stories that made them famous. Start investing instead in new creations…and for god’s sake, give the creators ownership, so somebody has some interest in quality control.
Update: Jason points out in the comments that Morrison is in fact interested in Superman, and hand-picked the project.