Friday, June 06, 2008

The Superman 2000 Pitch: Cycles

[Another in my and Tim Callahan's look at the Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Mark Millar and Tom Peyer "Superman 2000" pitch. New posts by Tim on Wednesday and by me on Fridays.]

Grant Morrison and Mark Millar are both big believers in what Warren Ellis calls their "joint theory of industry cycles." In the interview with Millar where that description is taken, Millar says, "I'm a political buff and have watched with interest as the Western parties have swung from left to right every fifteen years in the 20th Century. Comics seem to work in twenty year cycles and Superman always seems to get popular when they're at their lowest ebb. Maybe we just turn to the more inspirational and outlandish characters when things are in a slump."

Later in the same interview (which, by the way, is taken from Warren Ellis's Come in Alone, which you should all own), Millar adds, "Imagine the industry as a human-life span. The Golden Age Boom was our crude infancy. The Silver Age Boom was the playfulness of childhood. The Dark Age boom was angst-ridden, sexually fucked-up adolesence where we were embarrassed about the physical stuff. The next boom is maturity/adulthood where anything goes. What comes next is death and transformation."

Now, this "joint theory of industry cycles" even made it into a Morrison/Millar comic, The Flash #134, which focused on Jay Garrick, the Golden Age Flash, who was filling in for an injured Wally West. In one scene, Jay and Wally are having lunch with Nightwing, and wind up discussing these "heroic ages" that we've used as convenient labels for periods of comics as real things. It's really quite interesting that this concept is applied directly to the world the heroes live in by Millar and Morrison with Wally explicitly stating that the ages last twenty years "ACCORDING TO JONES AND JACOBS" (Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs--referencing their book The Comic Book Heroes, I believe).

However, at the beginning of that conversation, Jay says something that I think applies to what Morrison, Millar, Waid and Peyer were trying to do with "Superman 2000": "THE SUPERHEROES WHO ARE ALWAYS GOING TO BE IN DEMAND IN THIS BUSINESS ARE THE ONES WHO KNOW HOW TO ADAPT TO THE MOOD OF THE TIMES." At the very beginning of their pitch, the quartet discuss cycles and state their intention to have Superman "adapt to the mood of the times," basically:

Historical record tells us that every fifteen years or so, Superman is re-imagined to address the wants and needs of a new generation. Fifteen years ago, John Byrne recreated Superman from the ground up. Fifteen years prior to that, Julie Schwartz and Denny O’Neil engineered the biggest shakeup since Mort Weisinger began bringing in all his familiar lore fifteen years previous.

That fifteen year cycle is upon us again. With all due deference and heartfelt thanks to the creators of all the fine work done since the Byrne revamp, it seems that many of the social trends and historical currents which made those comics so appropriate and so successful in the ‘80s and early ‘90s have now been replaced by newer, different trends and currents. Sadly, sales would seem to reflect our contention that new times demand fresh approaches.

We believe that the four of us understand the new face of Superman: a forward-looking, intelligent, enthusiastic hero retooled to address the challenges of the next thousand years. The ultimate American icon revitalized for the new millennium as an aspirational figure, a role model for 21st Century global humanity.

What I find interesting is that the comic book industry apparently operates on a twenty-year cycle, while Superman operates on his own fifteen-year cycle. Why is that? Millar claims that Superman is never more popular than at industry low-points, which would mean that those low points don't necessarily occur at the same point in every cycle. For instance, "Superman 2000" would have came at the end of the so-called "Dark Age" and the beginning of what people seem to be calling another Golden Age. But, if these cycles continue as discussed, the low-point woul happen five years before the transition from one age to another. Of course, this isn't really scientific in any real way, but still interesting that the cycles don't quite match up.

Now, a "generation" is usually around 15-20 years in rough cultural terms, so the concept of cycles there makes a lot of sense, as does the idea of reimaging Superman "to address the wants and needs of a new generation" every 15 years. And Superman alone doesn't operate like this, of course, most enduring characters do, as Millar and Morrison had Jay Garrick point out: it's about adaptation and evolution--something I discussed in my first post on "Superman 2000." Really, the idea of cycles is secondary to the idea that Superman must continue to adapt if he is to remain relevent, something which the Quartet recognised enough to state at the very beginning of their proposal.

But, I do find it very interesting how, during this time period, this "joint theory of industry cycles" played a big role in not just how Morrison and Millar (along with Waid and Peyer here) approached books, but also became an explicit part of the DC universe in The Flash #134. One wonders if a similar commentary would have shown up in the "Superman 2000" books.