Mainstream comics are tricky beasts. We are well past the point where just about anyone is creating much in the way of new characters, because why would they? It’s not as if we’re still in the times where people had to sign over their original characters to a guy with a cigar, top hat, and monocle for $43 anymore. If you have an original idea, you can take it to one of the indie publishers, publish it yourself, or release it on the internet, and people have done these things to varying degrees of success.
Still, mainstream is where the big money and security is, for better or worse, and that’s where people are going to want to work. A combination of inertia and nostalgia generally guarantees that Marvel and DC are where people are going to want their superhero stories to come from, so people who want to make comics are probably going to gravitate there. Even people who start off indie and have talent are often going to be lured to the mainstream by the promise of a paycheck and a chance to leave their crappy grown-up jobs behind. I don’t disparage this, as everyone has to make a living somehow and it’s not my place to tell them to keep making their awesome indie book that no one bought instead of writing the latest Wolverine story and being able to live in a house instead of a studio apartment with eight roommates, even if the selfish part of me wishes that’s exactly what they’d do.
My point in all this is, upon arriving at the mainstream and being put on a book and given the keys to the kingdom, there is often the temptation for a writer to want to leave their mark on a book. After all, plenty of writers made their bones this way, by changing a franchise book in some major way and being the influence others follow from there on out. Alan Moore transformed Swamp Thing with his run and people have been aping his ideas ever since (well, until all the recent unpleasantness). Walt Simonson’s run on Thor is so good, and, frankly, complete that whenever a new writer starts on Thor, they talk about how much like his run their work is going to be. Frank Miller’s Daredevil stories were so epic and noir that they’ve led every writer who followed to try topping each other in just how bad they can shit on Matt Murdock’s life. These are often cited as The Definitive Runs on books. They define the characters and their worlds for years to come. It’s easy to see why writers, eager to express themselves and build a name in a world where none of the characters are truly theirs, would be tempted to do this. It is, however, something that needs to go away.
So why is a definitive run bad? Well, in and of itself, it’s not. Telling the best stories possible is exactly what creative people should do, and if they’re lucky enough to have people enjoy these stories and be inspired by them, so much the better. The problem is when people become more interested in leaving the mark and less in telling the story. Obviously ascribing motives to others without knowing their minds isn’t completely fair, but if a writer, for instance, retcons a particularly vile deed into the main character’s past, kills a beloved supporting character, and leaves the hero with a completely shattered status quo for the next person to pick up, does it seem like they were trying to just tell enjoyable stories with that character, or were they trying to be noticed by doing things to the character that no one had before?
Attempting to create a definitive run or leave a mark is essentially the same as trying to buy fifty copies of The Death of Superman in the hopes that one day you’ll be able to sell them and get rich. The reason these things worked in the past is because no one was doing them and no one expected it. Walt Simonson wasn’t trying to force everyone after him to follow what he did (if you notice, he generally left Thor’s world pretty close to what it was before he started by the end). For me, the most enjoyable mainstream books right now are not those trying to make their runs redefine the characters, but the ones focused on telling stories and ignoring everything else. Grand changes do sometimes happen when a writer just tells a story, but sometimes we just get to see the characters live in their world, and have fun with that. Why is that so terrible to so many people? Why do we need everything to Change Forever? If everything Changes Forever all the time, that change becomes meaningless. It’s cynical, and on top of that, it rarely works.
Enough is enough, I say. Stop trying to create definitive runs. Create good runs. Great runs. Fun runs. Sad runs. If you’re lucky enough to keep a character a long time, inhabit their world and see where it goes. If things change, great. If they stay the same, what’s the harm? Your stories can still be enjoyable. Be the best writer you can and ignore how you’ll be perceived. Ironically, it will probably improve your chances of actually creating something worthwhile.