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Grumpy Old Fan | Chris Roberson, marketing and the Silver Age

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | Chris Roberson, marketing and the Silver Age

There are three things rattling around in my head today: Chris Roberson’s public departure from DC/Vertigo, John Seavey’s empirical evaluation of the Silver Age, and the notion of a Justice League movie.

Not surprisingly, the last is a product of the inescapable, wearying Avengers hype. My 3-year-old daughter, who knows superheroes mostly from her dad’s toy collection (or if they’re on “WordGirl”), happened to see a commercial the other day and exclaimed “Hey, it’s Captain America!” (She has since started playing with Mary Marvel and Katma Tui.)

As it happens, I’m perfectly happy to hold off seeing Avengers — and doing my part to deny it a big opening, in protest of Marvel’s treatment of Jack Kirby — until after its first weekend. (For this Bluegrass State native, the Kentucky Derby will always be a bigger deal.) Although I am obviously more of a DC guy, I should be at least moderately excited for this movie. I grew up on the Avengers of the 1970s and early ‘80s, when it was written by the likes of Steve Englehart, Jim Shooter, and Steven Grant, and pencilled by George Pérez and John Byrne. A couple of decades later, I eagerly followed the Busiek/Pérez run. For the most part I have enjoyed the Marvel movies, especially Captain America; and I didn’t mind The Ultimates, which surely informs much of the new movie. I trust Joss Whedon to present Earth’s Mightiest in the best light possible.

So along with the bad taste of creator exploitation, perhaps it’s a bit of pre-movie burnout which has got me down, or perhaps it’s just the constant drumbeat of publicity. Either way, it got me thinking about a Justice League movie….

… until that line of thought ran into Chris Roberson’s Wittenberg-gate declaration. I am sad to see Roberson leave DC, both because it’s hard to argue with his stance and because I enjoyed his work on Superman, Superman/Batman, and the Star Trek/Legion crossover. I say it’s hard to argue with Roberson’s position because his actions speak for themselves and arise from his own perceptions.  Personally, I’m sympathetic.  No one wants to work for a company, or a group within it, which behaves unacceptably. That behavior need not be ingrained, either — I’m reminded of an NPR story on Wal-Mart’s practices in Mexico which asserted that bribery was at odds with its particular brand of cutthroat ethics.

Thus, Before Watchmen and DC’s treatment of the Siegel heirs were so transgressive that they caused Roberson to disassociate himself from the publisher. That’s fine, and I understand where he’s coming from. It’s a shame, though, because Roberson strikes me as someone who was poised for great work within the context of DC’s pre-relaunch superhero line. He has a distinct talent for blending beloved minutiae into straightforward, entertaining storytelling which doesn’t go overboard on nostalgia. Most of Star Trek/Legion was Easter eggs from both universes, his S/B arc combined DC One Million with an early-‘80s status quo, and he tried to wrangle J. Michael Straczynski’s characterization of Superman into something a little more recognizable. The New-52 relaunch made DC trivia somewhat less essential, so in a way he and the company were becoming estranged already.  If you don’t want a fun Superman story which picks up from a relatively-obscure 1970s element (let’s say the Elliott S! Maggin creation Towbee), you don’t especially need someone of his ability. This is not to say that I value Chris Roberson only for his grasp of obscure continuity — far from it — but obscure continuity is not something in which DC currently seems particularly interested.

* * *

By contrast, I suspect TimeWarner is at least nominally interested in doing with the Justice League what Marvel appears poised to do with the Avengers: build a billion-dollar multi-movie crossover franchise out of the idea that these folks all know each other.

This is at best a pipe dream. Most likely I won’t have to worry about protesting a Justice League movie, because there is next to no chance that one will be made in my lifetime. Warner Bros. would need at least four successful non-Batman superhero movies to be reasonable hits in rapid succession, and that isn’t happening. Other than Batman, Warners just doesn’t have a successful superhero franchise. Heck, it hasn’t had a non-Batman superhero sequel since Superman Returns (or Superman IV, if you measure a franchise by a sequel which appears fairly soon after its predecessor). That non-Batman list includes the four Superman movies and Supergirl (1978-87), the two Swamp Thing movies (1982, 1989), then Steel (1997), Catwoman (2004), Superman Returns (2006) Watchmen (2009), Jonah Hex (2010), and last summer’s Green Lantern trying their darnedest to find audiences.

Warners could easily copy the Avengers marketing plan, for example by using J’Onn J’Onzz in every lead-in movie. As a shape-shifter, he could lurk in the margins of the lead-in movies, posing as a random detective, government official, or ambassador. Still, Warners and DC have been trying to get Flash and Wonder Woman to the big screen for a long time now, with nothing so far to show for it. As much as I would like to see both characters adapted properly (not to mention Aquaman and another crack at Green Lantern), I am hardly confident of any future efforts.

That doesn’t mean they won’t keep trying. Marvel released Thor and Captain America last summer, so why not do two at a time? You could have Flash and Green Lantern 2 in 2015, Wonder Woman and the next Batman in 2016, Aquaman and the next Superman in 2017, and Justice League in 2018. By that time all the newness will be off the New-52, but so what? The movie will likely feature some alien invasion — yes, like Avengers, but JLA did it first, both with Starro and the Appellaxians — and why not make it Darkseid, like the inaugural New-52 arc? It’s not going to be anything deep. It’s going to be convincing audiences that they want to see these characters together, when there’s no compelling reason why they should care who half of them are.

Of course, that’s eminently appropriate for the origin of the Justice League, which (like the Justice Society before it) was grounded in marketing. Fannish wish-fulfillment was a part of it too, whether you’re talking about the JLA or the JSA, but that’s just the flip side of selling books — and it’s a sentiment the general public doesn’t automatically share. I’ve argued previously that the Justice League has no thematic reason to exist. It’s not a school, a family, or a demographic. In fact, in the context of the larger DC Universe, it exists specifically in relation to — and “above” — everyone else. The JLA is the World’s Greatest Super-Heroes, but to moviegoers they’re just some more super-heroes … and hey, if they’re all teaming up, where are the Avengers anyway…?

That’s getting a little farther down the road than is probably necessary, though. I have the sense — perhaps unwarranted, but there nonetheless — that the New-52 Justice League is the precursor for a still-hypothetical movie in the same way that The Ultimates seems to inform the big-screen Avengers. Both marry a certain lack of grounding in comic-book history with an aggressively modern sensibility, and both can get away with it to some degree because each team’s all-star nature belies that kind of grounding. You can’t really do a straight-up New Teen Titans adaptation — assuming you’d want to, which is another question entirely — without getting into the histories of Batman and Robin and the Doom Patrol, because Robin and Changeling (nee Beast Boy) come into those series with particular emotional issues formed by their previous associations. However, because the Justice League is basically just this clash of archetypes, for practical purposes it doesn’t matter whether Green Lantern or Aquaman bring anything especially Silver Age-y to the table.

Naturally I say “for practical purposes” because the Justice League carries with it a certain Silver Age-y sensibility. This comes both from its prominence in DC’s shared universe of the 1960s and ‘70s, and from being defined negatively by what it was not. It wasn’t meant to be close-knit and dedicated, like the Detroit League; overly reliant on relationships, like the Giffen/DeMatteis Justice League International; or unsure of its status, like the Leagues of the early ‘90s. Instead, over twenty-four years the original Justice League of America became an institution, and when Aquaman disbanded it in 1984’s JLA Annual #2, an era went with it. That kind of attitude can’t be established simply by fiat at the end of six issues, and it remains to be seen whether a multi-year Avengers-style plan will do the trick.

* * *

Finally, John Seavey’s post on the Silver Age’s empirical merits helped remind me that DC will always have a love/hate relationship with its most influential period. Few phrases in comics history are more evocative (or, perhaps, more prejudicial) than “Silver Age DC,” which brings to mind everything from parallel Earths and various Jimmy Olsen humiliations to Space Cabbie and the lettering of Ira Schnapp. After citing better pacing, less solemnity, more creativity, and more diversity (in terms of story and characters), Seavey concludes that Silver Age creative teams “weren’t imitating the Silver Age all the damn time:”

Once you scratch off the veneer of humorlessness, decompression and self-consciously “adult” storytelling that covers modern comics, what you basically get is a bunch of people trying very hard to recreate the comics that were popular when they were kids. […] Now all we get is an extended “house mix” of [Silver Age] stories.

I’m not necessarily disagreeing, but I’d say that for most of the past forty years, DC has been trying to update the Silver Age; and now, with the New-52, it’s trying to re-establish most of the books without relying on specific Silver Age foundations. As a practical matter this is not unreasonable, especially if DC sees Silver Age trappings as unfriendly to new readers. However, as we’ve seen with the ostensibly-untouched Batman and Green Lantern families, an established history doesn’t have to be a turnoff. It’s all in the execution, which is why it’s frustrating to see the publisher run away from its history as a general rule. Right now a clean break might have been the best thing for The Flash, but perhaps not for Superman or even (dare I say it) Hawkman. Hey, Kurt Busiek and Fabian Nicieza wrote a credible Hawkman as part of Trinity’s supporting cast, and they had to deal with all that continuity….

* * *

The ultimate irony in all of this dot-connecting remains the notion that I, as a fairly-typical Longtime DC Fan, would like nothing better than an endless stream of extrapolation from the comics universe with which I am most familiar. That necessarily involves building on (or, if you’re so inclined, ripping off) any number of comics professionals who likely remain undercompensated for their work. That’s the bittersweetness of Chris Roberson’s situation: he refuses to participate in such a system despite his tremendous potential for creative success within it. More power to him, and hopes for continued success, but I’d love Roberson on Superman, New-52 or not, because I loved reading his Superman stories. Instead, I’m catching up on Memorial, and I’ll be looking out for his creator-owned work.

Meanwhile, who knows how many other professionals are turning away from DC and Marvel based on those companies’ actions? Corporately-produced superhero comics aren’t the purest form of creative expression, but they’re far from the worst. However, as long as DC and Marvel remain tone-deaf on these matters, their talent pool will dwindle and the overall quality of their superhero lines will suffer.

To be sure, I am complicit in DC’s and Marvel’s behavior as long as I continue to buy what they’re selling. However, although very little I do is entirely guilt-free, I am long past being satisfied merely by base fanservice and/or continuity porn. To keep this longterm fan coming back, DC has to do right, demonstrably and consistently, by the professionals on whose work it depends.

I recognize that DC will never be fully transparent, and I do not expect that.  Nevertheless, everyone has his breaking point.  Chris Roberson has apparently reached his, and mine may not be far off.