After much discussion with friends and the unwashed and bewildered, today I have decided to weigh in (again) on one of the many ongoing and irresolvable debates that have haunted the hallowed halls of comics academia since time immemorial. The question: when the instigator of a series retires from his or her creation, should the series be retired as well?
It seems a lot of creators and many fans think it should. To this, I say “ka-ka.”
I understand that a creator’s vision is important, and I strongly feel that creator should have the word on continuing the feature. For many creators, such choice was denied to them when they signed their publishing contracts. That was exploitative. Today, well, creators should know better. And many do: there are financial advantages to allowing a continuation of the feature, and there’s the idea that, to quote John Ostrander from the Stuart Gordon play Bloody Bess, “My words… my words shall live forever.” It should be the creator’s call, and there’s nothing wrong with deciding either way. Of course, after you drop dead your estate will likely overrule you, but that’s a matter between the dead you and your living family.
Aesthetically… well, that’s another matter. Bitch and moan all you want, but the replacements generally work out pretty well.
If DC retired Batman when Bob Kane left the character 40 years ago, we never would have had the masterworks of Dennis O’Neil, Steve Englehart, Neal Adams, Marshall Rogers, Frank Miller and a legion of other superlative storytellers. Carl Burgos and Bill Everett were not involved in the Marvel Age resurrections of their Human Torch and Sub-Mariner (respectively), but all those Lee and Kirby stories sure were swell. Spider-Man didn’t truly take off until after Steve Ditko left; John Romita, Gil Kane and many others took Peter Parker to heights previously unimagined by the publisher.
The trap is in the changing times: some successors deal with it better than the creators. After making all kinds of successful technological predictions, Chester Gould’s classic Dick Tracy started a pretty swift downhill slide in 1963 when Chet was convinced that “the nation that controlled magnetism would control the world.” Setting aside the desirability of such an action, this concept led to the police cruiser space coupé, one-man flying buckets, and several trips to the moon that resulted in the marriage of Junior Tracy to the Moon Maid. Hardly the same enhanced reality strip that put Dick Tracy on the front page of Sunday newspapers all across the nation. When Chet retired some 15 years later, successors Max Allan Collins and Rick Fletcher returned the strip to its roots by stressing urban crime and detection while restoring the focus on the characters and their family – and by killing off the Moon Maid and never mentioning magnetism or the moon again.
Which brings us to The Spirit. It appears some people were disappointed by Darwyn Cooke’s recent performance on the resurrected title, perhaps, in part, due to the high standard he set in The New Frontier. Maybe so, but the problem wasn’t in Cooke’s daring to follow in Will Eisner’s footsteps. After all, Will repeatedly decided to let others take on his creation: most notably, Jules Feiffer and Wally Wood, two genuine masters-in-the-making. Darwyn’s prerequisite attempt to bring the feature into modern times might not have met with some diehards’ approval, but I think that reaction wallows in nostalgia and not objectivity. Darwyn Cooke was a perfectly legitimate choice for the first year’s run of the revived classic, just inspired as the team of Sergio Aragonés, Mark Evanier and Mike Ploog is for the second.
Like it or not, these characters have become part of our cultural fabric and will, as a matter of course, be tailored by different hands. The challenge is not in the concept, but in the execution.
Mike Gold is editor-in-chief of ComicMix.