Spoiler Warning: Be aware of spoilers for Daredevil #25.
Given this year, pessimism has been our collective default.
(That, and rocking leisurewear).
That’s been especially true within this column. Yes, my ultimate interest is better understanding comics and the industry at large — all in the hopes of making things better. And to do just that, I’ve launched into some mostly critical campaigns: against hiring practices at big name publishers; against the current crowdfunding model; and even the need for “true” diversity. If you love something, sink your teeth in extra deep, amirite?!
Yet even I can recognize that a balance is needed; for all the criticisms I’ve slung at comics at-large, it’s just as important to recognize the meaningful decisions and “positive” developments. Not to necessarily pat anyone on the back but to help track the progress of my own words and the hard work of creators and fans in building a more just industry. And maybe, just maybe, a little bit of good news can go a long way to countering the mood of 2020 and our prevailing sense of dread.
Fittingly, this last week or so saw two mostly unconnected developments that have more to do with one another than you’d actually think.
Early next year, DC will launch Future State, a two-month long event that will serve to highlight new faces stepping into the iconic boots of Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman, and other beloved favorites. From this event, new creative teams will debut on various DC titles beginning in March. Among the more promising such “relaunches” is Detective Comics, as Mariko Tamaki becomes the first woman to serve as long-term writer for the iconic series. Tamaki (who will be joined by artist Dan Mora) is just the second female writer tapped for a core Batman title (Devin Grayson penned 2000’s Gotham Knights). As far as representation goes, it’s a massive deal, even if it’s waaaaay past due.
It’s not just that it’s a great move for diversity and representation; it’s also how DC specifically plotted the news that’s equally worthy of conversation. We should live in a world where having a female writer is an everyday occurrence; the Earth we occupy, however, is one where Tamaki’s hiring is a massive bit of news. So, given that dynamic, it’s important for DC to have gone about this decision in a really smart way. Is it about appeasing trolls who think these kind of “diversity hires” are a token gesture? No, because those folks can kick rocks forever. However, it’s about understanding the chasm that exists between the world we want and the world we have, and in that sense, DC did something that felt genuinely real and important for comics representation.
To begin with, Tamaki (again, alongside Mora) has already written for this specific Bats title, having penned “The Gift” for September’s massive-sized #1,027 issue. (Both Tamaki and Mora, among other writers, also contributed to the four-issue Future State: Dark Detective series, another lead into the “new” Detective Comics.) Do you need to have written a character before to be able to do it properly? Not necessarily, but the exposure (both to the character as well as to the book’s core fanbase) is a huge benefit in the start of any new run. Readers are fickle creatures, and having a “familiar” face feels like a great way to engage folks and mitigate the “shock” of new creative teams and directions.
(Editor’s Note for December 12: A quote originally associated with Tamaki is actually from Devin Grayson. We’ve since removed the reference and reworked the following two paragraphs to better reflect the interview. We apologize for the error.)
Tamaki is also a writer who is very much about crafting relatable characters (see her run with She-Hulk). Such an approach would certainly work perfectly with the modern Batman, as creators like Scott Snyder or James Tynion IV have made his family shine bright while delving into the larger psychological and emotional capabilities (or deficiencies) of the Dark Knight. The same can be said for Grayson’s work, who once described her approach to Bats as someone who is “completely human but has sacrificed things to become more than human — and, in some ways, in a theme that ran through my work — less than human.” The result has been a more nuanced and intriguing look at the stoic crimefighter.
Once again, does her work have to align with past creators to actually deem her worthy of the role as lead writer? No way. But this is comics, and that kind of alignment is great not only for building bigger, more robust narratives but also creating stories that exist beyond the work and scope of one writer and feel more indebted to the larger canon. As an extension of all this, it’s great that this is happening with Batman and Detective Comics; these are pillars of DC and a great place to make further in-roads.
At the end of the day, though, this is all about the right talent in the right place. Tamaki is a hugely talented writer, and her past works (please read This One Summer) make her a more than capable Batman writer. But as we’ve seen again and again, it’s the little things that shore up her chances of success in an industry that’s still clearly lagging behind in so many ways.
Tamaki’s hiring, and it’s impact and rollout, goes much deeper still. The whole point of Future State is to mess around with the flow and status of the larger DC universe. Unlike past events (52 or Infinite Crisis, for instance), this latest event goes beyond the scope of “Let’s muck around with the DCU in some really weird ways and see what happens.” (Superboy-Prime punched the walls of reality, that’s what happened.) Instead, Future State is about putting a spotlight on new talent and something fresh and untested within the DCU. It would make sense, then, that the same would be true in the people actually making this book; to jump ahead to a time when we have better representation and we do more to give a real spotlight to voices who have earned it.
Is there something gimmicky to this event? God yes; it’s a massive excuse to sell books, especially to new, uninitiated readers. But unlike some of its big-book predecessors, Future State feels like something fun and organic, where it’s less about the stakes in the fictional universe and more how it’s going to change the status quo in ways that it will matter (i.e., in our actual reality). Events can be a money-grab and have value, especially if they’re an easy and effective way to inject new blood and life into series and their heroes.
It’s super easy to be cynical about events comics; as much as I loved something like Empyre, for instance, it’s hard to see some of the larger affects now that it’s over. Am I jazzed it showed the first gay superhero wedding (congrats, Billy and Teddy!)? Of course, but I think it’s still disconnected from our own life far too much. Future State feels like the first big event that I can remember where fiction is trying to drag actual life toward something new and better. It’s not, as so many events tend be, a way to mess with heroes and canons in some bubble that will inevitably be ignored in a few months time. I think about something like Death Metal, which while deeply entertaining, felt more like a bit of flash and dazzle than anything with larger substance.
Before most folks have read word one, Future State has already had some real impact, and now it’s up to us (fans, creators, publishers, etc.) to make the promise of this series/event resonate beyond a momentary bump in readership. This event doesn’t mean Tamaki will be successful (again, that’s based on her own abundance of talents), nor does it mean DC has moved entirely into the promised land. But it’s something that makes us think and understand our own behaviors and tendencies, and that’s what great comics should always do. If the best stories can’t physically change the world, there’s no real point to them, isn’t there? It’s up to us to follow through on the potential and make one great moment or development have true meaning.
Speaking of Empyre, it turns out there’s great things popping over at Marvel beyond this intergalactic soap opera. Namely, as of issue #25, there’s a brand new Daredevil patrolling the streets of Hell’s Kitchen: Elektra. Yes, as Matt Murdock does his bid for manslaughter, the super-assassin herself has donned the red battle armor (heavily modified and infinitely cooler than Murdock’s suit, IMO) to keep the peace. Without spoiling too much more, Elektra’s decision is basically as a stop-gap to win over Murdock to help her and Stick defeat The Hand.
Before I go on with my larger point about Elektra, I want to pause and make one thing clear: I am in no way comparing gender-swapping a hero (especially one that’s mostly a temporary decision) and hiring a female writer for the first time in a book’s 80-plus-year history. But here’s the thing about true and proper representation: it’s a battle of inches. It needs to be who is writing what books, and what books are starring which characters; the stronger and more robust this process is, the better it is overall. It’s not that it’s about “all or nothing”; rather, it’s about creating as holistic of a picture as possible that comics are as inclusive as possible and truly reflective of a more dynamic society. All victories are big victories, no matter what that actually looks like.
So, given all of that, you may have already guesses that, much like Future State, I think Marvel was especially smart in how they went about tapping Elektra as the Woman without Fear. First and foremost, this likely couldn’t have happened anywhere outside of Chip Zdarsky’s run. Over the last two-ish years, he’s slowly developed this hugely rich and intriguing narrative, one continually focused on pushing both Murdock and the mantle of Daredevil to its outermost boundaries.
From killing someone to getting arrested (and actually doing the crime), Zdarsky wants us to really re-evaluate the larger contextual value of this beloved character. Having Elektra come in, then, is just another way to reframe this character and make us try and delve a little deeper. (Especially as, earlier in the run, Zdarsky played around with this idea of “we’re all Daredevil” during a battle for Hell’s Kitchen, which only bolsters the entire approach.) Zdarsky’s story has always been one interested in breaking down long-standing ideas and what kind of people exist under these cowls, and this just further proves it.
But there’s another really important component to all of this: as I mentioned earlier, there’s a seemingly temporary element to Elektra’s work as Daredevil. (Please feel free to prove me wrong, Mr. Zdarsky.) I think that ties back into another point I made earlier about working in the industry as it is now. Which is to say, having that quick “button push” back to “normalcy” for this series/canon is a great way to strive toward representation in a way that doesn’t just appease the bulk of fans who want this (just give us these new characters as readily and frequently as possible) but those who need more work.
Again, we’re not appeasing the regressive dweebs of the world, but there is something about structuring these approaches in a way that feels especially thoughtful and deliberate. In the case of Elektra/Daredevil, it’s about showing the inherent impermanence of these characters, and how easily creators can make these changes. Few other mediums can do this as effectively as comics, and if we’re going to make the move toward better representation, we should rely more on this ability to rework canons with such deft and impact.
As a quick aside, it’s probably super important that it’s a character already well established in the Daredevil “universe.” (Sort of like Tamaki’s own “experience” in Detective Comics.) Across her many appearances and character arcs, Elektra feels like an essential part of the character’s story, a really great foil of sorts for Murdock. Her “elevation” is a natural development. Again, we should be able to break these “toys” and rebuild them as we see fit. But it’s the best developments that feel organic and unwaveringly true to the canon at hand.
Now, I get that celebrating these two developments in the grand scheme of 2020 is like thanking your lucky stars you were only attacked by two rabid wolves. Still, this has been a year about finding joy and goodness wherever we can. In that sense, the developments with Daredevil and Detective Comics feel like a kind of sigh of a relief. After all the bad news and shitty behavior by people everywhere this year, there’s some discernible proof that we’re making decent inroads. There’s other evidence of that in this industry, but these two stories, with so many similarities (and yet real differences) feel like a genuine bright spot. It’s progress both on the page and behind-the-scenes that we can all point to as signs that not only do people want to see more dynamic creators and stories but that it can be done in a way that has lasting impact and value beyond just mere tokens.
It’s clear that more work needs to be done, but it’s about 1) celebrating the small things and 2) recognizing that, in the middle of an industry shift, it’s these “little” victories that often demonstrate some larger progress. As easy (and sometimes fun) as it may be to rip on big-time publishers, I also give a solid shoutout to DC and Marvel for two great, albeit different steps forward. When things like this happen, and we grow who and what occupies comics, we all win in the long-term. Victories can seem fleeting or with little impact, but every time they happen, we’re setting ourselves up for new wins in the ongoing chase for comics to be both an agent of change and reflective of a better, more equitable world.
Not even 2020 could ever truly stop that journey.
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