Monday, June 21, 2010

Hands in the mix

Mort Weisenger was a great businessman who could see what sold Superman comics, and came up with a plot formula that is almost mathematical in its preciseness, while still giving the kids what they wanted.

He could also be a complete dick, but this is when men were men and the future was a shining vision of hard steel and moulded glass and nearly everybody thought they had to be a dick to drag the human race on that long, slow road to progress.

Weisenger's contribution to the world manifested itself in the editorial iron grip he held on the Superman franchise for a considerable number of years. For several decades worth of stories, one Superman comic was pretty much indistinguishable from another. Clear simple stories with a crazy fucking hook and a good slab of resolution.

It kept the readers coming back for more, even as evolution of the character and concept dragged at a crawl. Some of the comics and stories that came out under Weisenger's control of the Super-books managed to transcend their restrictions, offering up slices of pure science-fiction craziness that burned into the brains of these young readers and still have massive influence on the current creators.

Most of them were complete rubbish, but you could sometimes find a nice panel or line or image in there to make the effort seem worthwhile. Looking back on them now, they can seem crude and dull, but Weisenger had millions of children lapping that stuff up over the years.

Somewhere down the corridor, Julie Schwartz had his own vision for what worked and sneaked in innovation on a wheelbarrow full of mad ideas. Each man's editorial voice was, like many editors at the time, distinct and unique. The creators didn't matter. It was all about the characters, who might just be colourful and weird and interesting enough to get that ten cents worth of pocket money every month. No writer or artist or colourist or letterer or editor was bigger than that.

This was the face of a system that lasted decades. At various points in comics history, the creators have grabbed the spotlight away from the editors, usually led by a few distinct and raw voices that took control through their own skills.

That could have led to a utopia of creator brilliance, freed of all restrictions and oversights, anything could be possible. Instead, we got Brigade #1.

Superman is more than 70 years old now and DC has shown recent signs of returning to the age of the editor-driven storyline. It doesn’t matter who actually writes the latest long and drawn-out super saga, as long as an editorial vision is adhered to.

Problem is, it's hard to shake the feeling that everybody is so bloody nice that no real creativity is going on - storyline are worked out in consensus, plot by committee, everybody gets to have their say.

In an interview with David Bishop for the Judge Dredd Megazine a little while back, Alan Grant described the end to his extremely lucrative run on various Batman titles, tracing his dismissal on the character to the creation of the Cataclysm crossover.

Grant blamed some of the editorial staff for the mess and suggested they were aging fans who were more impressed by the cool moments than the amount of plot holes that crop up to get there.

He also said that later on he ran into one of those responsible for his misery and the former editor was apologetic over his previous actions. After building a bit of experience in both work and life, he realised there could have been a better way of handling the whole situation.

I don't know the people involved, but it's safe to assume they don't think of themselves as bad people, they genuinely wanted to help the characters in the comics they edit and decided their way was the best. Unfortunately, it usually results in a run of mediocre comics that are quickly forgotten, as creators do the bare minimum to keep their editor happy.

Higher up the food chain, Dan DiDio comes out with his own proclamations, puts characters through some bizarre turns and has presided over a frequently incoherent universe that needs constant crisis coming. But he still seems like a pretty affable guy, who joins everybody for drinks after work and tells semi-amusing stories about his penis.

Some editors – including the legendary Archie Goodwin and the delightful Karen Berger – know they get the best work out of their creators by stepping back and letting them get on with it.
But on most mainstream comics, it’s the editor who pushes the title in certain directions. They’re a lot better at not insulting the creators, but they ultimately have the final say. And if it’s not the individual editor who is controlling things, chances are it’s someone higher up the food chain. DiDio is more hands on than many executive editors overseeing entire universes, but he’s not unique.

And the group editorial approach rarely produces anything that is actually as exciting as the things a truly talented individual can come up with. Plot by consensus, finding that lowest common denominator that everybody can be happy with, it rarely leads anywhere worthwhile.

It’s interesting that the concept of writing rooms works so well in network television, while comics are a more individual-driven success. But it is a medium that rewards personal vision, far more than bland homogeny.

Maybe what DC really need is another Weisenger, another hard bastard who says that things are the way they are and you can hit the pavement if you don't like it. There is something to learn from all the great magnificent bastards, who may make lives miserable from time to time, but craft legends and profit with a dedicated focus on a perfect formula.

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