Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Fundamental Problem With The DC Comics Reboot

Article first published as "The Fundamental Problem With The DC Comics Reboot" on Technorati.
Many good points have been raised both for and against the upcoming massive, universe-wide reboot. If you ask me, I think the Cons far outweigh the Pros (see this article from, but that’s really beside the point. A reboot like this hits at the heart of what comic book superheroes are.

As soon as superhero comics started catching on in the 1930s, they began to carve out their place in the American mythos. To put it simply, more than anything else, they are our heroes. They are beginning to occupy a place much like that which Achilles, Odysseus, Ajax, Hercules, and all the rest did in Ancient Greece. That Greek literary tradition developed gradually and organically over many hundreds and thousands of years, being retold again and again from generation to generation. Over time the stories and characters were reshaped many times, refined, tested by the ages, and perfected into those we have today. This process is admittedly ugly, time-consuming, and, at times, confusing. It might seem like a much better idea to simply start from scratch and make up the whole thing at once, start to finish. It would certainly all be much more coherent and cohesive, but the authenticity gets lost in the process. No one person or small group of people can accurately represent the mindset of an entire people. This is to say nothing of losing the organic and fluid nature of the traditional method, which allows the characters and ideas to be honed and polished, at the same time that it fosters novelty and creativity.

Stupid - Image courtesy of
It was in the 80s that superhero comics finally grew out of their infancy and proved that they could make their mark as a legitimate art form. Usually this level of quality and substance is not achieved except by a graphic novel or limited series, but that is not to discount the value in the ongoing continuity. Frank Miller’s work in Batman: Year One or The Dark Knight Returns could be considered analogous to that Homer did when he adapted the historic and noble tradition of Greek history and mythology into his own, stand-alone work of art. The Iliad and The Odyssey don’t displace the entire Greek literary tradition, they merely augment it.

In his Essay on the Development of Doctrine, Blessed John Henry Newman expounds the Christian position on how it is that doctrine develops over time. He explains that “when an of a nature to arrest and possess the mind, it may be said to have life, that is, to live in the mind which is its recipient. ...When some great enunciation, whether true or false, about human carried forward into the public throng of men and draws attention, then it is not merely received passively in this or that form into many minds, but it becomes an active principle within them, leading them to an ever-new contemplation of itself....” That is to say that influential new ideas and doctrines (like those proposed by early Christianity) do not lie dormant over time. Instead, they take on a new life within those who contemplate them. “At first men will not fully realize what it is that moves them, and will express and explain themselves inadequately.” In the beginning, a new idea will be poorly and incompletely understood. All new ideas have implications beyond their explicit original content. Over time “new lights will be brought to bear upon the original statements of the doctrine put forward; judgments and aspects will accumulate. ...Thus in time it will have grown into [a body of thought].” Experience, knowledge, and wisdom originally exterior to a new idea will, over time, be compared against it.

Throughout this process the idea grows and flourishes into its full self. The body of thought produced has not added anything which the explicit original content of the idea did not contain implicitly and in germinal form. “This body of thought, thus laboriously gained, will after all be little more than the proper representative of one idea, being in substance what that idea meant from the first, its complete image as seen in a combination of diversified aspects, with the suggestions and corrections of many minds, and the illustration of many experiences.” In other words, the body of Catholic dogma as it exists today is in fact no more than that which was there implicitly from the beginning having been fleshed out to a greater degree and with more clarity “through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts.” Authentic development is not addition or subtraction, but “the germination and maturation of some truth or apparent truth on a large mental field.”

While Newman treated of this principle of development especially as it pertains to doctrine and theology, he does not limit its sphere of application to these only. On the contrary, the same can be said of many things, including a body of literary and mythological tradition.

The fundamental problem with the DC reboot is that it attempts to do exactly what Descartes set out to—rewrite the whole of Philosophy (or in this case, the American mythology) singlehandedly. Insodoing, DC is turning its back on almost a century of tradition, of natural and organic growth and development, of progress and refinement, not to mention its own fans. Insodoing, DC has caused countless hours of artists’ sweat and toil to count for nothing, and, more than that, DC has cheapened its comics’ appeal, quality, even their very nature.

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