What's wrong with publishing earlier versions of a novel? Photo: Abhi Sharma/Flickr
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Why publishers should embrace the film world's enthusiasm for releasing a director's cut

The film world is keen on releasing a director's cut, which differs from the final version of the movie; publishers should do the same with books.

When Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange was first published in the United States, in 1962, it was controversial for the obvious reasons, but also for another more obscure: its US edition was missing the book’s twenty-first and final chapter, in which the infamously nihilistic protagonist begins to recognise that life might actually have some meaning after all. According to Burgess, who grumbled openly and at length about the omission, his New York publisher found that original ending too “Kennedyan,” when what they really wanted was “a Nixonian book with no shred of optimism in it.”

So for nearly twenty-five years, it was the bleaker ending that US readers got – and though finally the book was re-issued with the final chapter restored, by that point it was sort of too late, because Kubrick’s film adaptation had already been released without the “happy” ending. (Allegedly, Kubrick didn’t even know the book had a twenty-first chapter until long after the film was finished, and when he read it he disliked it.) Still, there’s some sense of victory about the book’s re-issue, which made Burgess’s pure creative vision once again available to all. To use the parlance of Hollywood, he finally got his director’s cut.

It’s oddly appropriate that all this happened during the Sixties and Seventies, because it was during exactly that period that today’s notion of a director’s cut, as an auteur’s definitive creative vision, was first appearing in Hollywood. Yet while the film industry eventually embraced the notion of a director’s cut and ran with it – ran, in fact, with the idea of releasing multiple versions of films, each definitive in its own, idiosyncratic way –publishing did not. Despite a few exceptions, there seems to be very little enthusiasm today for multiple editions of the same contemporary book. And that’s a real shame, because when I was asked – unusually – to significantly “re-cut” the US edition of my novel for its release in the UK, I actually found much to appreciate in the enterprise.

Since the birth of directors’ cuts, of course, they have inevitably been joined by other kinds of marketing-driven alternate releases, and as a result have lost some of their artistic standing; it’s hard to argue that Road Trip: UN R8D constitutes a culturally significant contribution to the canon. And while I expect it’s that reek of greed that’s prevented self-consciously literary publishers, anyway, from really pursuing alternate cuts with the same glee as Hollywood, that bias seems short-sighted – because there have been plenty of re-releases that have commanded critical acclaim alongside commercial success (Apocalypse Now Redux springs to mind).

Besides, what’s wrong with a little naked commercial ambition in the publishing industry, given everything we’re always hearing about the death of the book? There’s clearly a demand for this sort of thing. The New Yorker, for instance, has previously published “early drafts” of well-known stories by famous authors, and there’s already a market for new translations of foreign language work – not to mention the perennial re-issuing of Shakespeare and other classics according to slightly different original texts. If we’re already doing all that, why not different drafts of contemporary books as well?

I suppose part of the objection might be that, by definition, an author’s last draft is supposedly the best. So when we have the definitive final text – unlike with Shakespeare et al – there’s no reason to publish a “worse” earlier one. Yet this is a silly argument, because any writer will tell you that, by the final stages of revision, most changes are a matter of minor rearrangement rather than major improvement. There are certainly plenty of things in my early drafts that I cut and now wistfully re-read. (In the UK edition of my novel, I even reinstated several pages at the end of chapter four, with tweaks, that I’d cut before it was published in the US.)

Perhaps another objection is that changing a book solely for the purpose of creating a new “cut” is bound to reflect concerns beyond the author’s original artistic intent, and this is presumed to somehow sully the product. And since studio meddling – the same kind that spawned the director’s cut in the first place – is often blamed for ruining otherwise good films, I suppose there’s some fear that introducing the same kind of process to books might ruin them as well, just as they did with A Clockwork Orange. Except this is a silly argument too, because most novels are already a product of a creative team as large as any behind a film – from editors to marketers to sales execs – and that team’s motives are varied and not always focused on preserving the author’s original creative vision. That hasn’t destroyed literature yet, nor did it make A Clockwork Orange any less successful.

In any case, people already re-read favourite books all the time – and a few well-placed changes, even if minor, can make those people reconsider even the parts of a book they thought they knew back-to-front, showing previously unsympathetic characters in a new light, for instance, or revealing new motivations behind other characters’ choices. That was certainly my experience re-cutting on my own novel, and it’s the true promise of recutting films, too – and if that doesn’t make a good case for more regularly doing the same to books... Well, what does?

What Ends by Andrew Ladd will be published in August by Oneworld £12.99

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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.