[This was posted on 22 March 2008, and you can find it here, with some nice discussion in the comments. As I was reposting this, I kept thinking it reads like an episode of HBO’s How To With John Wilson, because Wilson does a lot of “You start to think/see/hear/ …” kind of observations with appropriate (or sometimes just ironic) things on the screen. It’s kind of interesting. Well, for me, anyway. Enjoy!]
I spend way too much time, probably, thinking about superheroes and pop culture and so on. Tracing the arc of how things have gotten to where they are today and this weird cul-de-sac Marvel and DC seem to be trapped in: I mean that state of arrested adolescence between juvenile entertainment and actual adult literature, that vague fan-fiction vibe that hangs over all of mainstream superhero comics like a cloud.
This week, though, someone suggested to me that you can find an alarmingly similar evolutionary arc that has taken place with another pop culture icon, and that it’s actually just a natural cycle of popular fiction. So let me try this theory on you all.
You start with the original creative work. A charming children’s story that caught the public’s imagination.
It was a success and naturally the creator wants to follow that success up. So he does a sequel.
The sequel becomes a series.
The series becomes a franchise, with diverse hands working on it after the original creator departs.
Eventually there’s a big-budget Hollywood movie. At this point the thing has entered the collective public consciousness, it’s no longer just a successful kid’s property. It’s an instantly recognizable icon, a cultural touchstone.
Then … interest fades. New pop culture things come along. The property starts to look quaint, dated, irrelevant. Its time has passed.
A lot of times that’s the end of the arc. But sometimes someone finds a way to inject new life into it, bringing in a whole new audience.
Sometimes the new audience showing up is enough to prompt someone to try a revival of the original work.
Maybe the revival lasts a little while, maybe it doesn’t. Every so often someone tries it again, and it’s enough of a success to sort of keep the franchise alive, but it never hits big the way the original once did. Still, it’s OUT there, people can find it and new fans continue to discover the thing.
Now, here’s where the weird left turn comes. Someone gets the idea to do an adult version of the juvenile property, to look at it through a different lens, so to speak.
Maybe even more than one person has the idea.
Once or twice, it can be an entertaining novelty. An interesting exercise in pop-culture deconstruction.
But what if the deconstructed version becomes so successful it starts to eclipse the original?
Maybe even sparking a series or franchise of its own?
Then the snowball starts. For whatever reason, the idea of adult deconstruction of this beloved icon seems to be the hot new thing. Everyone’s doing it.
After a while, you start to wonder …
… what is it, exactly, that all these people are trying to do?
It’s not homage, exactly.
It doesn’t really evoke the original.
It starts to look like second-generation photocopying.
You start to get the idea that all these people jumping on the Dark Adult Version bandwagon are maybe missing the point.
Or maybe they just enjoy the shock value of pissing all over a beloved childhood icon.
Now, this is not to say that these Adult Deconstructed Versions can’t be good. Like any creative effort, there’s good and bad, it runs the gamut. Some of these might be really quite clever.
Maybe the adult knockoff version’s arc even reaches that pop-culture apex, the big-budget movie.
What’s weird, though, at least to me, is that what started as a one-off novelty is now its own genre, almost. Once a startlingly novel approach, it’s rapidly becoming a cliche. Even the good stuff can’t help but look a little tired just because it’s one more in a long line. How many times and how many ways can you do a clever adult re-imagining of the same juvenile property? And why keep going back to the same well?
Eventually, you come full circle. It reaches the point where a new juvenile version, told in modern idiom without any attempt to trade on nostalgia, is actually the novelty.
So. That’s the cycle.
I dunno. I can pick holes in it if I try — but as a theory, it makes a fair amount of sense. Especially if, when you apply it to Marvel and DC, you posit that things like the animated cartoons and DVDs are the new juvenile version, and the regular line of print comics that we see every Wednesday are the last gasp of the adult re-imagining of characters like Superman or Spider-Man.
Anyway. I can’t quite decide how I feel about it, if it’s good or bad or what. But I thought it was interesting enough to be worth sharing.
See you next week.