Wednesday, April 28, 2010

High Canonicity

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Never-Ending Marvel and DC Mega-Narratives

At 4thletter!, David Brothers explains why the notion of "canon" in relation to the Marvel and DC superhero universes, and the question whether something's "in continuity," deserve a horrible death.

As someone who spent a big chunk of his comics-reading career devouring a lot of Marvel books—most of which were rubbish—for precisely the reasons Brothers states, I think I'm coming to the issue from a similar vantage point. I'm sympathetic to what he says, to put it mildly: Yes, it's the story at hand that matters, the things it wants to say and do and the voices of the people who make it.

But there's something to be said beyond that, I think.

There's something to the "mega narratives" Marvel and DC have been telling for decades that I'm not sure I'm quite ready to write them off as completely worthless or hostile to art and creativity and all that. To any given comic that's part of those huge, never-ending fictional histories, there's an appeal based on that fact alone, even if it doesn't offer much beyond that fact; sometimes, arguably, this appeal even transcends the question whether you're familiar at all with those narratives as a reader.

Take most recent DC Universe works by Grant Morrison as an example of what I'm talking about.

During my very own "continuity-driven" phase, I was never much of a DC reader, so I know very little about the stuff that tends to come up in sprawling Morrison works like 52, Batman or Final Crisis; yes, it's absolutely thanks to Morrison, along with some of his collaborators, that those stories are fun and worth reading to me.

Nevertheless, I get something out of the... hyperconnectivity of those works—the fact that, while they work as stand-alone narratives, part of their appeal comes from the insane number of references to past or concurrent DC Universe stories that I've never heard of and have no desire to read. (I could also mention Morrison's New X-Men over at Marvel, but that wouldn't serve my point as well, because I actually did catch most of the "continuity" references, in that case.)

There's something to be said for the complexity and the perpetuity of those big, ancient, interconnected fictional universes built by the minds and hands of thousands of writers, pencilers, inkers, colorists, letterers, painters, editors, executives, etc., something that would be instantly and sorely amiss from the tapestry of what comics can do, if that type of storytelling and that type of "shared universe" went away for good. Yes, I know that most of the stuff that perpetuates and spins forth those mega narratives tends to be rubbish; but there's a unique kind of appeal to them as well, which is maybe more instinctively emotional than intellectual, because of the way it fosters, and thrives on, an attachment to characters and fictional worlds rather than the appreciation of lofty literary and artistic merits.

There's another factor as well, of course: Company-owned characters are properties, first and foremost. Whoever's doing Spider-Man or Superman under whichever conditions, as long as they belong to companies, it's never going to be a creative endeavor that's free of all "non-artistic" considerations. Consequently, I guess what I'm proposing is to roll with the punches and see those constraints for their strengths: Hey, we can have a "Marvel Universe" and a "DC Universe" that are constantly growing—vast, unique imaginative constructs guided and passed on by whole generations of people.

All the limitations and constraints of corporately owned properties aside, it's worth acknowledging that they're the only arrangement that could conceivably hope to provide something like that. I'm beginning to look at the Marvel Universe and the DC Universe as biospheres of imagination that give us the chance to see the ideas of thousands of creative people blend, collide, bounce off another and result in new ideas that plainly couldn't have been possible any other way.

I think I would miss this particular aspect of comics tremendously if that ever went away.

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