The Rubber Band Effect

So today I’d like to take a moment to talk about one of the big things that got me to stop reading comics from the “big 2” (Marvel & DC) and focus more on Indie Comics. It’s called the “rubber band effect” and it just kills me.

Ok so there is this concept I’ve dubbed “the rubber band effect” and it is best illustrated by asking “Who is Batman?”. The answer is, “Bruce Wayne”. Now I hear some of my more seasoned readers shouting, “What about that fantastic run by Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely where Dick Grayson was Batman or when, in the 90s, Azrael was Batman?” and that my friends is the point. No matter what happens there is too much of a brand built up around Bruce Wayne being Batman that they will never replace him. Now let’s extend this to the infamous “Death of Superman” even from the 90s. Superman is likewise too big of a brand to die.

They do these changes for sheer shock value but they never are permanent- they always “rubber band” back into place. You can stretch and mold a character into whatever shape you want- but it will eventually snap back to a recognizable form. I will admit that over a long period of time changes can slowly become permanent but it’s a progressive evolution over decades (like Batman getting “darker”) and not really the fault of any one writer.

Now, I understand why they do this. If a new reader (or even an established one) picks up a comic about the Flash- they expect it to be about the Flash. If it’s about a gun-wielding depowered Barry Allen that might fly for a few issues or maybe even a event, but eventually they want to see him zip around in red tights again. These characters have a place in our mind because they are so iconic and to change that means we can’t identify with them. You also have dozens of writers working with these characters in one medium or another of the course of a decade (in the case of Batman it’s the movies, TV shows, various comic lines, cross-over events, etc). A little change gets lost in the “noise” of these writers writing a character for various demographics and telling different stories.

So why does this bother me if it is inevitable? On some level I really wish comic events and changes “meant” something. Like after I read that Damian Wayne died on February 27, 2013 I turned to my fiancée and said, “I give him 2 years”. Sure enough, in June 2014 the story arch “Robin Rises” started and he was back on his feet by December 2014. Knowing this, as a long time reader, it just takes the “umph” out of any sort of major change. They hype it up and blow it up but eventually it all snaps back into place.

Now there are exceptions but they take a lot of time and effort to pull off and no editorial mandate is going to force it to occur. It’s a matter of popular opinion. In 1986 Frank Miller wrote the seminal work “The Dark Knight Returns” and showed Batman in a very dark and gritty light. Along with the success of Alan Moore’s Watchmen in that same year we ushered in the “Dark Age” of comic books where anti-heroes and a more mature focus became the norm. Without public opinion and the strength of the writing in those books we wouldn’t have had the adoption of elements from the mainstream (or… Rob Liefeld). As a result of this we see a more homogenized version of Miller’s Batman (because he is 10 shades of bat-shit crazy in Miller’s hands) in the mainstream nowadays.

So effectively what sticks and what doesn’t is a popularity contest. Comic companies, believe it or not, do not make most of their money on comic sales. They use comics as their testing grounds for what should be adapted into the “long term” canon of a character’s mythos. For example, 1988s Batman: The Killing Joke (also by Alan Moore… in case you had any question of his impact on comics as a genre) was so popular that Barbara Gordon’s paralysis and subsequent role as the hacker and information broker “Oracle” was made canon. I mean Jason Todd (one of the Robins) was literally killed off due to a voting contest.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel however. Now I’ve brought up some fantastic limited series comics in this little rant of mine and that is where the “meat” is. Stories that exist outside normal continuity can have characters die for good, can have them undergo drastic transformations (for better or worse) over the course of the pages. If you want to see where the future of a character is going to be- look at the popular limited series.

Here are some to check out:

  • The Sandman (my all-time favorite)
  • Watchmen
  • Old Man Logan
  • Batman: The Killing Joke
  • Ex Machina: First 100 Days
  • Astonishing X-Men (Joss Whedon’s stuff)
  • Runaways (SOME rubber-banding)
  • The Dark Knight Returns
  • Kingdom Come
  • Hellboy
  • Batman: Year One
  • DC One Million
  • All-Star Superman
  • Legends of the Dark Knight
  • Spiderman 2099