Saturday night, I finally got to watch the movie 42. It’s about Jackie Robinson as he crossed the color lines of pro baseball right after World War II. I was ready to cry. I cry a lot at civil rights stories, for reasons I don’t completely understand, except that I can feel my heart tearing in two to see humans being treated as less-than.
What I wasn’t ready for was the way I burst out in tears during the trailer reel. It wasn’t even a really good movie preview that did it–it was a Public Service Announcement from Warner Brothers for a DC Comics child hunger initiative called “We Can Be Heroes.” It was everything I love and find moving in the iconography and symbolism of the Justice League and its members: protectors of humanity wherever they’re needed, asking for no thanks or compensation. Just doing good in the world. Take a second to watch; you’ll see what I mean.
But I was fresh from anger so blinding that I brought in the Darling Husband to help me write a blog post about it because I was worried I couldn’t write sensibly on the subject. So the tears that sprang to my eyes and clogged up my throat were tears of fury and frustration. Why couldn’t DC Comics be THIS instead of the ongoing train wreck I recounted last week?
I care about this because DC is family to me. I grew up in the glory days of Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman and Christopher Reeve’s Superman and the technicolor weirdness of Sunday-afternoon episodes of Batman. I had the Underoos to prove it. I waited in line to have my picture taken with a distinctly sausage-like Batman at the local Toys’R’Us, and I was thrilled about it.
Later, the Darling Husband romanced me from afar with DC comics, mostly Vertigo titles that filled a space in me I didn’t know was empty. And when our first son was born, DH flew him around the room ever-so-carefully when the theme song of the Justice League cartoon came on. After a while, Connor’s head would swivel between TV and Dad every time he heard it, drooling (literally) in anticipation of his thrilling flights. The boys were born just a little too early for the cool Fisher Price Little People versions of DC characters that are in stores now, but we bought all of the large, chunky ones designed for slightly older kids, and they’re been loved to pieces.
We’re in that gap now where there isn’t much for kids coming out of DC Comics. TV appears to be the only place they’re making kid-friendly content.The title Superman Family Adventures was nice, but it’s been cancelled. There’s no DC analog for video games like Marvel Ultimate Alliance or Marvel vs. Capcom, which are slightly more mature than the admittedly excellent LEGO Batman games, but still not too warped or bloody. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight movies and Man of Steel are un-fun and too mature for kids.
I’m not saying that there should be no material aimed at mature readers, not at all. I’m saying that DC has abandoned creative products for one end of the spectrum of readers and fans, while continuing to market their merchandise with the force of a firehose to those young children. And that doesn’t even address the way they’re driving their women readers away with a stick.
So here are five things I can think of that DC Comics could do right now to get on the right side of this problem and reclaim their historic place:
1) Let Batwoman marry her fiancee. Happy relationships make terrible drama, so I don’t expect it to be a Happily Ever After, but get with the times and let them have a wedding.
2) Green-light a Wonder Woman movie now. And don’t put it in the hands of some dude who’s made a bunch of superhero movies. Put it in the hands of a woman who’s made great films about heroes, like The Hurt Locker (and Oscar-winning) director Kathryn Bigelow. Let Jane Espenson and Mary Robinette Kowal collaborate on a script. And of course, get Kathleen Kennedy to produce. You can cram in as many SFX as you want, but the creative team needs a different grasp on the character and story than superhero movie directors usually have.
3) Stop putting sexualized violence in every video game scene involving a woman. Her name is Catwoman, not “Bitch.” No pulling women around by the hair. And if I can’t kick Batman in the bubble bag, you shouldn’t be able to kick a female character in the crotch.
4) Make more age-appropriate content. If you want kids to be into Batman enough to buy pajamas and plastic cups and Halloween costumes, tell them stories so they understand why Batman is cool. Don’t market Man of Steel merchandise to elementary-age kids who would be terrified by the dark, bitter Superman of the movie.
5) Don’t force your creative teams to fall on the sword for every PR disaster. Maybe some dumb ideas originate with a writer, artist, or editor, but they don’t make it to the public eye without a whole lot of executives signing off on them. Many execs were creatives once themselves, so they should know that if the corporation doesn’t give them enough support and latitude, artists can’t take the courageous leaps that make great, lasting art.