The Death of Canon; or how I learned to stop worrying and love adaptation.

‘’The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted…Classic criticism has never paid any attention to the reader; for it, the writer is the only person in literature…we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.’’

This lyrical quote comes from Roland Barthes. It can be found in his famous, yet mercifully brief, essay, The Death of the Author. It comes at the very end of the piece and makes the essays undertaking a little more succinct. Barthes claims that the authors intention for a work no longer matters, through its interpretation by readers, it becomes something else entirely, often something completely new. In short it signaled the death of the ‘’author-god’’. When Barthes first published his work it became one of the most provocative and formative essays of it’s time shaping how people approached academic study in the early sixties.

‘’Nerd Rage: Term used to describe extreme anger, offence, indignation, and other similar emotions by a nerd, geek or similar. Nerd Rage can be triggered by a number of things, most commonly through helplessness in the face of bullying, internet fights, or seeing their favorite film/show/anime/etc degraded or insulted in some way.’’

Sadly much like Barthes and the Sixties, certain cultural phenomenon’s become synonymous with their times. What we have here is the definition of Nerd Rage, a term used to describe the reaction of (certain) millennials whenever their favourite things are altered, challenged or really in any way questioned. It is my shame to admit that on occasion, being a lover of comics, that I too suffer from the aforementioned affliction.

This rage seems to have become a lot more present in my life as the mass adaptation of almost all comic books began to dominate our every televisual and cinematic moment. For the most part, I have no issue with adaptation, but bad adaptation I have no time for.

This became particularly apparent to me upon viewing the final trailer for the upcoming Batman Vs. Superman film. Watching it I came to realise that it is going to be a film that is the logical end product of an industry that has slowly been increasing special effects and spectacle into a compounded mess. The trailer features nothing but CGI and Melodrama, not to mention claims that it gives away the entire plot. Sadly I was only proven right when I eventually saw the film (it’s fairly rubbish, and die hard Batfan or not I can’t stand by it, though it hasn’t stopped others trying.)

The movie is clearly aimed at fans who revere Frank Millers, The Dark Knight Returns, as the ultimate version of the Bat. He’s violent, racist and all around seems to be a very rightwing conservative Batman. Forgive me but I detest this incarnation and left it behind after I’d passed the age of 17. Does that make me a snob? Probably. But if being a snob spares me this kind of writing:


then pass me the caviar.

I’ll concede that half of this is satire, the two talking heads in the final panels make this clear, but the Batman’s dialogue here is atrocious and the rest of the comic gives his voice a similar style. The more of Miller I read the more I wanted to distance myself from his work. Over the years with books like Holy Terror (originally conceived as a Batman story.), the tale of a Batman-esque hero who takes on Al Queda, made me realise that Frank Miller is possibly a horrible human being. This very recent article perfectly summed up my own feelings towards his work. Anyway, it came as no great shock to me that Brian Azzarello was brought in to co-write the third and final installment of the Dark Knight Trilogy with Miller, they needed someone established and liked to rein in the crazy.

So I was trying to come to terms, not only with this Snyder version which is clearly aimed those that love the above work but also with the fact that I love Frank Miller’s Year One arc I had a relative epiphany; Barthe’s slaying of the author-god would be my cure for Nerd Rage.

Just because I enjoy Batman, a character originally created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane, does not mean that each and every iteration of it from Schumacher to Snyder is something I have to like and defend to the death. In comics perhaps more than any other form of print the death of the author is impossible. Each new authors/ adapters vision will shape the characters of the genre, be it for better or worse. What we can choose to do as readers is view each arc/ adaptation as it’s own standalone work, thus condemning or praising it on our own terms. As singular works they call definitively for the death of canon.

Initially this seems like a convenient way of distancing myself from the less savoury aspects of the franchises and creations I hold so dear. In some ways it is that, but more importantly it is a way for me to enjoy the things I love without constantly having to worry about things like faithful adaptation, source material, fan service, and above all the term, it’s exactly like the comic.
Lot’s of people would see no problem with these terms. Movie adaptations of comics should be as faithful as possible, canon is essential! and did a little fan service every hurt anyone? Yes actually, usually it’s employed to the detriment of female characters, as this helpful tongue in cheek She-Hulk cover from the 90’s illustrates (also probably the reason you clicked):

Sensational She-Hulk #40, June 1992

The first two pages of the above comic continue it’s commentary on the state of how comics are written around this time, mostly by utilising the skipping rope in the exact way you’d imagine if you’d like to read a little more just click here. This kind of ‘’fan service’’ is like a pervy loyalty point reward system for comic book fans and is more commonly recognised as the principle of ‘’sex sells.’’
For some bizarre reason it is rarely applied to men, but when it is the results are often a little sillier and done under specific circumstances:

I’ll just leave this here then…

This image comes from the now notorious Marvel Swimsuit Issues of the 1990’s. Sometimes it’s good that the 90’s are over.
I’ve shown these images and made this point about fan service for a reason. Firstly comic books, especially from different eras, are often ridiculous. Secondly comics have always treated canon as more of a fluid entity.

In the age of adaptation we live in, most forms of culture are seeing some form of the superhero brought to them. Those networks that can’t get there hands on all the big name properties they can have started to diversify into smaller niche comic book titles. One of the most notable to date is Fox’s Lucifer.

As you may have guessed the central protagonist of the series is Lucifer Morningstar, perhaps better known as Satan. It is adapted from Mike Carey’s Vertigo series, which was inspired in it’s own right by the Prince of Darkness’ incarnation in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. Already you can see a clear pattern of adaptation emerging, the death of author was little more than a formality in this case, as Gaiman actually gave Carey his blessing to expand the Lucifer universe.
The Series wen to receive quite a lot of acclaim from both fans and critics alike. I personally love the comics and so was naturally delighted to hear that the fantasy series ( one that took place almost entirely in the metaphysical realms of major religions and beliefs.) would be adapted for television by FX. That was until I saw the leaked pilot episode, the first and major issue for me was Lucifer’s appearance:

A Little Less than a Family Resemblance.

As you can see little to no effort was made to find a match for the comic. His characterisation is also a mile off. The comic version of Lucifer is a callous, manipulative, uncaring, combine with this that fact that he has little to no sense of humour, you are left with an ultimately unlikable character. Despite this he remains utterly charming which is a testament to Mike Carey#s skill as a writer. His television counterpart is the exact opposite, he is a foppish dandy type character, who is obviously quite handsome, he spends much of his time womanising and commenting on how humans are fascinating. He is the stereotype of the suave playboy British accent only revealing his devilish side in moments of extreme fury.

Then there is the second issue, which is that instead of the reality hopping plots the comics are famed form, the tv series is a case a week procedural which sometimes features the supernatural but more often than not shows the devil using his powers in some petty way.
Fans were left a little annoyed and nerd rage soon followed. They turned to the comics orignal creators for support in their anger, only to realise that both Gaiman and Carey had no real problem with the new direction the character was being taken in:

 Lucifer Twitter

Gaiman’s words on the subject, ‘’We leave our toys in the sandbox for other kids to play with’’ , show how certain creators simply understand that in comics the death of the author and dissolution of canon is inevitable. Furthermore that it can lead to rejuvenated shelf like for older characters.

This understanding proved itself to sage advice as the series continues to progress it sticks firmly to it’s case a week format, but as it does so Tom Ellis, Lucifers real life embodiment, begins to display a deep and subtle kind of misery or existentially angst that goes a little way to redeeming some of the series. It is nowhere near as accomplished s the comic but as it’s own standalone version of the character it has a lot of potential to being a worthwhile piece of television in itself. It has also allowed some of the more overlooked aspects of Lucifer in the comics to make their way to the screen, for instance, his affinity for the piano:

Nina Simone it ain’t but a fantastic nod to the comic it just about manages.

It’s not like kissing canon goodbye is something that comics haven’t been doing for a while. Both Marvel and DC underwent huge reboots recently becoming Marvel Now and New 52 respectively and it could generally be argued that by the time fans came around to the idea and the dust had settled from the furious bouts of tantrums had by many that both universes are now a little better from having sailed from the harbour of a canon. Maybe it’s simply time to accept the more malleable aspects of adaptation. Yes, sometimes it can ruin your favourites, like letting Ben Affleck run around in crimson PVC with horns bolted to his head, but it can also rescue characters from their own choppy messy pasts, like turning Ian Mackellen’s Magneto into Micheal Fassbender, restoring fans faith in a franchise.
The only thing that is required to do that is to burn that most sacred of terms, Canon. Then take a leaf blower to it’s ashes to make sure it doesn’t come back.


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