Or, more bluntly, “How to write ‘dark and edgy’ so that I don’t flying into a shrieking rage and bang my head against a wall until sweet, sweet unconsciousness calms my anger.” Or, even more bluntly, “There is a difference between making a character dark and edgy and making them into psychopath or a [Denis Leary]!” Yes, I feel strongly about this.
I love Batman. I’ve even said so. I have a love-hate relationship with Wolverine, but mostly love. I understand why Batman is Batman but I also understand why Cyclops should not be Magneto. I certainly don’t advocate every hero should be Superman or Captain America. He and Superman are the embodiment of truth, justice, and the American way. These are difficult characters to write, and probably even more difficult since the Dark Ages of Comics. We, as a society, are cynical. Our heroes have largely become anti-heroes, and I am sorry to have seen this happen (this is also why I’m very hesitant to see Man of Steel). To this, I direct you to a link which sums up my thoughts so well.
Consider the Ultimates Universe. I’m unhappy with the Ulti-verse for many reasons, but mostly because it seemed to me the comics were dark and edgy for their own sake and the characters so very different I wasn’t sure why Marvel hung the same names on them. Hey, editors/writers – you can’t have characters that are familiar to everyone and also completely different! And what did we get? A cannibalistic Hulk, a Captain America so far removed from 616 Steve Rogers he deliberately manipulated the Hulk into eating one of his (Cap’s) nemesis, and all the squicky subtext of 616-Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver’s relationship presented squicky context with Ultimate Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, amongst other horrors. Sometimes comic book worlds get even worse than that, to the point the characters are pretty much unrecognizable.
But I dream of a better world, where art isn’t stamped out and watered down so quickly in the name of a quick buck. In that better world, I am the Tyrant-in-Chief, and I have a few rules about how my imaginary comic empire would be run. So, if I was Tyrant-in-Chief of some comic book company and I was dealing with a writer who wished to take a comic into the world of dark and edgy, here is how I would handle it.
1) Start with the most important question – why do you want to make this comic/character dark and edgy?
a) If the hypothetical writer’s explanation contains the words “extreme” or “cool,” and especially if those words are conveyed in writing and deliberately misspelled, or “because Batman/Wolverine,” they get thrown out of my office. Hey, I’m a Tyrant-in-Chief, after all, although I might have listened to the explanation in aghast horror/amusement. Also, I am clearly not the Tyrant-in-Chief of Image Comics in its early days.
b) If the hypothetical writer’s explanation is mostly coherent and the writer believes the main point would be to explore an aspect of a comic/character that has not been explored, the writer may continue their pitch to me.
2) Next question (assuming the writer is still in my office) – how does exploring this darker aspect of a comic/character add to the comic/character?
a) Again, any answer with the words “extreme” or “cool” or “Batman” or variants thereof merit immediate ejection from my office.
b) If the explanation is mostly coherent and the writer believes this exploration could lead to interesting plot developments later or overall benefit the story/universe, the writer may continue.
3) Corollary to this question – does exploring this darker aspect of a comic/character damage the established comic/character?
a) An answer with a variant of, “of course not; that guy is lame” results in a boot to the head.
b) An explanation that shows a thorough understanding of the comic/character’s history and the implications of going darker and edgier would allow the writer to continue talking to me.
4) Last question (again, assuming I have anyone to talk to) – why do you feel it is important to tell these stories in this way?
a) Dark and edgy, grim and gritty, kewl or x-treme, are absolutely unacceptable. Said writer may end up packing up their office and being escorted out depending on how tyrannical I felt that day.
b) If the writer gives me anything to go with, I might consider it. Writers are hired to write stories, and hopefully they have stories they want to tell and feel are important. If they aren’t enthusiastic about their stories, it does show. This is not a green-light to the story, by the way. This is only the baseline for a writer to not get a boot to the head.
The reasons why, to me, the Ulti-verse and some of the DC universe ended up so awful are pretty clear – the answers to the vital questions above were all a). Whereas I would have chucked a writer out my office like a stereotypical sitcom father chucks an unacceptable suitor for his daughter of his house, the creative team (and I use the term loosely) at Marvel gave a greenlight to cannibalistic Hulk, and worse. I understand comics are about profit. This means those in charge of comics (like any commercial art industry [such as movies]) don’t necessary care why something new was successful; they only want to duplicate that success as quickly as possible to make more money before the fans (or viewers or readers, etc.) get bored and want something else new. In turn, this means those in charge are seeking the easiest way to duplicate success, so in the case of the landmark comics that started the Dark Ages (like “Watchmen”), they duplicated what they thought was the key feature, that is, darkness and edginess. The fact that the quality and complexity of the stories had far more to do with the success of such stories was not their concern. Dark and edgy was easy to duplicate, and so that became the defining feature. Again, comics are hardly the only entertainment industry guilty of this.
Here’s a tip (and summary to all the above) to the comic book executives of the mainstream comic book companies (no, DC doesn’t get a pass either because have you read “All-Star Batman and Robin????”) – there is a difference between making a character dark and edgy and making a character into a [Denis Leary] or a psychopath. I know, I can’t believe this has to be spelled out either. And yet. Here’s a handy checklist:
1) Successfully Darker and Edgier – Ultimate Spider-man (both Peter Parker and Miles Morales)
2) Just a [Denis Leary] – Ultimate Captain America
3) Just a psychopath – Crazy Steve, I mean, All-Star Batman
I honestly believe a lot of the people in charge do not understand this concept – there is a difference between making a character dark and edgy and making a character into a Denis Leary or a psychopath! Dark + edgy =/= good. I will also extend this to those producing superhero movies, because they don’t understand the difference either. So stop this. Internet memes aside, no one likes “the goddamn Batman.” Superman is not Batman. Cyclops is not Wolverine. “Cool” or “extreme” or “that dude is lame” are not reasons to make a comic/character darker and edgier. I do not want to read about (or see) [Denis Learys] or psychopaths being passed off as heroes. Dark and edgy has its place, but I really wish that the people in charge of the various entertainment industries would stop a moment, ask themselves the important questions listed above, and really think about their answers.