The Magazine

Batman and the Gray Lady

Jonathan V. Last, comic collector

Oct 24, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 06 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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It’s never good when the New York Times covers comic books. 

Comic book image of Batman

Comics have existed in their own, mostly subterranean, culture for about 80 years, attracting very little notice from the wider world. Superheroes are born, villains are vanquished, and the people who care about comics indulge in their guilty, four-color pleasure in comfortable obscurity. 

But every once in a while, something in comics attracts public notice. 

In January 1992, the Times pricked up its ears at the news that Marvel comics was unveiling the first openly gay superhero. The hero in question was Northstar, a fourth-rank Canadian crime-fighter to whom no one at the Times had previously paid any attention. Nevertheless, the paper pronounced the development “welcome news.” It wasn’t. Northstar was a lousy character before he was gay; he was lousy after.

A few months later, comics caught the Times’s eye again when DC Comics decided to kill off Superman. The paper was shocked that such an icon could be put down by the publisher. But it shouldn’t have been. Super-heroes die so often that there’s an axiom in the industry known as the “Bucky Clause of Hero Death.”

The Bucky Clause holds that in comics, only Bucky, Jason Todd, and Uncle Ben ever stay dead. (For the curious, they are: Captain America’s sidekick, Batman’s second Robin, and Spider-Man’s uncle.) But in recent years, even this iron law has broken down. Bucky and Jason Todd returned to the land of the living, and Uncle Ben popped up in an alternate universe. In comics, no one is ever more than mostly dead.

Nevertheless, the New York Times ran five separate items on the “death” of Superman—an event manufactured by DC to sell a one-time bonanza of comics to people who, knowing no better, thought they were collector’s items. As it happened, Superman stayed dead mere months. What the publishing stunt did kill was the comic-book industry itself: It helped burst the collectible bubble and so, eventually, put 90 percent of America’s comic-book shops out of business. The Times didn’t cover that.

Reporters were on the scene, however, when Batwoman was reinvented as a lesbian socialite. They took note when the mantle of Spider-Man was handed from Peter Parker (who was old, nerdy, and white) to Miles Morales (who was teenaged and—jackpot!—both black and Hispanic).

For the last several months the Times has been covering DC’s decision to kill its entire product line and simultaneously relaunch 52 new, “re-imagined” comic books. The moment I saw the first story in the paper, I knew we were in for trouble.

The DC reboot features all the usual horribles. In one of the Times’s 11 articles on the subject, a reporter noted: “DC gets an A for effort in producing, as promised, a more diverse universe. Cyborg, one of its most prominent black heroes, has graduated to Justice League, the company’s flagship book, and female or minority characters star in at least 10 of the 52 series. There are also new heroes on the horizon: Bunker, a Teen Titan who is Mexican and gay, will have his premiere in the third issue of that series in November.” Pity Bunker. He might have gotten his own series if only he’d been an alcoholic, too.

The passion for novelty, moreover, can produce simple incoherence. In one of the new comics, for instance, Catwoman and Batman indulge in a bit of (as Joseph Epstein once put it) sex tartare. Which would be fine, except that the entire conceit of Batman, the Caped Crusader, only makes sense if he’s a sort of secular monk. 

The new Superman is even more dispiriting. The first villain he tackles isn’t a renegade robot or an alien invader. It’s a crooked businessman. Superman roughs him up with the kind of excessive force that gives liberals the vapors. Finally the rat admits to using “illegal cheap labor” and having “no safety standards.” We later find out that Clark Kent, still a journalist, is an investigative reporter specializing in social justice.

In a way, this new Superman is just a ham-handed return to Superman’s roots. In his original 1930s run, he was a crusading populist: not exactly red, but pink enough to spend most of his time going after crooked politicians and industrialists, wealthy parasites responsible for the Great War and the Depression. It was only Pearl Harbor that transformed Superman into the character we know today. Or at least, the character we knew before DC reinvented him.

Like the “death” of Superman, this latest sales gimmick will probably peter out in a few months. Then DC will come to its senses and restore order to the comic book universe. The New York Times might disapprove of the recidivism. But then, it’s not the sort of thing the Times would notice.

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