Greatest artistic collaboration in history. Both of them.
When it comes to artistic collaboration, two works top them all. They are the single largest, longest running, most consistent and most evolved two works of artistic collaboration in history. You might be scratching your head if you randomly stumbled across this headline just now, wondering what I might be talking about, but there really is no question. If anyone reads this, they are going to decry what I’m saying here and call it crazy, but it’s absolutely true. Their best arguments will be prejudice.
The two largest works of artistic collaboration of all time are the fictional universes of Marvel and D.C. Comics.
To be crystal clear: they are two distinct collaborations. Each body is one vast collaboration.
It is a point that needs to be made, urgently, because the foundation on which these two works are built seem to be crumbling, and as we choose as a society not to support these universes anymore, we need to be cognizant of what we’ll leave behind. This week, over at CHUD.com, a writer foretold the doom of superheroes with glee. He wrote:
I welcome the death of superhero comics with open arms. I gladly bid farewell to the endlessly serialized adventures of the members of the Justice League and Reed Richards and friends. Hopefully the people who have made their livings creating and selling these awful comics will be able to find new jobs and make new livings. I wish them all the best of luck. But if there’s going to be one good thing that comes out of this new great depression, it’s going to be the understanding that comic books are bigger than superheroes.
He’s welcome to his view, but I think he’s missing a larger beauty of the superhero universes. Never before have so many people been involved in one enormous interweaving narrative. If you’re not familiar with comics, there’s a thing in comics called “Continuity.” It could also be called “History.” Everything that happens in comics becomes a part of that history, and, like in real history, what happens in the past often shapes the stories of the future.
Of course, “History” in comics is a lot more fluid, changeable and shifty than real history and there is no question that a fixation on history can lead to some of the more annoyingly persnickety attributes of fanboy culture. On the other hand, there’s some special about one writer returning to an old story by a different writer, finding new meaning in it for a character today and letting it inspire new revelations about a character or new challenges for him or her to face.
And in that way, it’s a collaboration. It’s true that there’s just one writer or artist on a book at a time in most cases, but he draws on all the past writing of that book and every other book in the universe to tell his story. If a guy writing a story about Daredevil (a fairly gritty urban superhero) can think of a good reason to have a Norse God pop up and ask for his help in fighting a mad scientist who hasn’t shown up since the pages of West Coast Avengers, the writer can do that. As long as it’s a good yarn.
And the next guy over in the bullpen might read that story and pick a thread of it up in his own book.
Or the editors might make the writers of every book come up with some element of a larger crazy story, which isn’t always everyone’s favorite way for a story to play out, but it does reflect the point.
It’s as if F. Scott Fitzgerald could have introduced his rich dandies to the rough and tumble gentlemen of Hemingway and sat them across a diner booth from the down-on-their-luck Okies of Steinbeck.
Books very seldom share characters. At most, it happens within the oeuvre of one writer, but not across multiple writers. And, in the exception when it does happen, it isn’t “real.” If one writer borrows a character from another, it’s a cameo, a reference, the former writer has no need to think of that event as part of his character’s history the next time he decides to use him.
This is a unique facet of comics and I find it beautiful and moving. Some people look at comics and just see guys in tights flying around, and I guess that’s what this fellow Devin has come to. I see two gigantic narratives (Marvel’s and D.C.’s) that has been molded, renewed and transformed again and again by hundreds of very talented creators to create two unwieldy masterpieces, unique in their scope in all the world.