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Grumpy Old Fan | Crowd control

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | Crowd control

There are about to be nine regular Batman titles — Detective Comics, Batman, Batman & Robin, Streets Of Gotham, Gotham City Sirens, Batgirl, and Red Robin, plus the November-debuting Batman Inc. and The Dark Knight. There are three regular Superman books (Action Comics, Superman, and Supergirl) and three regular Green Lantern books (GL, GL Corps, and Emerald Warriors). At the risk of oversimplifying, each of these titles exists on its own for a reason. Each supposedly tells its own stories, and each is independent (to whatever degree) from the others in its family.

And I feel a little hypocritical suggesting this, because I am all for the independence of any given series, but … what if these series worked together better?

DC tried to do just that on a macro scale a few years ago, when the weekly Countdown tied into practically every major superhero series. Described as the superhero line’s “spine,” and advertised as a bridge to the big-event Final Crisis, Countdown turned out to be an odd little gerrymander of a story, uneven and often confusing. Currently, several of DC’s books bear the banner of DC’s biweekly Brightest Day, but for the most part they only share characters with the year-long miniseries.

Anyway, that kind of line-wide coordination isn’t really what I had in mind. In the mid-1980s, Batman and Detective were, in effect, a biweekly series, written first by Gerry Conway and then by Doug Moench, and drawn by various combinations of Don Newton, Gene Colan, and Tom Mandrake. That ended with 1986’s Batman #400, but almost immediately, the load was picked up by the Superman books. For about the first ten years of Supes’ post-Crisis revamp, the regular Super-titles were, in effect, a single series. The revamp started with three monthly books: a new Superman vol. 2, Adventures of Superman (the retitled vol. 1), and Action Comics. In 1991 a fourth title was added, Superman: The Man of Steel; and in 1995, the “fifth weeks” were covered by the irregular Superman: The Man Of Tomorrow.

As you might expect, the two franchises had different approaches to their coordinated storytelling. Because both Bat-books were written by the same person, and drawn by artists with fairly similar styles, there wasn’t much to distinguish an issue of Detective from an issue of Batman. (Well, maybe length: thanks to backup features like “Batgirl” and “Green Arrow,” Detective’s Batman installments were frequently shorter.) Accordingly, the Bat-books were full of multi-issue arcs, including the final downfall of Rupert Thorne, updated versions of early foes like the Monk and Doctor Death, and (perhaps most notably) switching out Dick Grayson for Jason Todd. Sharing the books also gave Conway and Moench room to flesh out the supporting cast, among them Harvey Bullock, Vicki Vale, and Julia Pennyworth. It was an approach to Batman separate and apart from better-remembered interpretations of the character — which is a nice way of saying that today, it looks like a pretty bland time for the Bat-books. The period coincided with the height of New Teen Titans’ popularity (when, ironically, Dick Grayson was the bigger draw), and for all intents and purposes it ended with the release of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight. Denny O’Neil took over as Bat-editor with Batman #401 (which came out in the summer of 1986, about a month after Dark Knight #3), Miller and David Mazzucchelli produced “Batman: Year One” in issues #404-07, Jason Todd’s revised origin was told in #408, and the biweekly days paled by comparison.

Meanwhile, the “Byrne Era” had begun in the Superman titles. They came out like clockwork on the second, third, and fourth weeks of each month, with Marv Wolfman and Jerry Ordway’s Adventures sandwiched between John Byrne’s Superman and Action. Even with Byrne writing and drawing two titles (and, eventually, Adventures), the books were distinct. Superman was Byrne’s signature title, Adventures emphasized the supporting cast, and Action featured team-ups. After Action became a weekly anthology (with Roger Stern and Curt Swan on a Sunday-style“Superman” strip), and Superman went biweekly for a few months, Byrne left and the real cross-coordination began. Picking up from Byrne’s “Supergirl Saga,” Roger Stern and Kerry Gammill (on Superman) and Jerry Ordway (writing and drawing Adventures) eventually sent the Man of Steel into a guilt-driven outer-space exile, to return in time for George Pérez to re-relaunch Action Comics. The books still flowed into one another, but each featured a different perspective on Superman: Superman the superhero, Adventures the man, and Action the Kryptonian.

Naturally, when Superman: The Man of Steel debuted, it too came with a unique style, thanks to writer Louise Simonson and penciller Jon Bogdanove. By then, though, the books were defined more by their creative teams than by particular mission statements, not least because the creative teams on the other Super-titles had been moving around. Simonson and Bogdanove stayed on S:MOS throughout the book’s first seven years, but Jurgens moved from Adventures to Superman, Karl Kesel and Tom Grummett took over Adventures, and David Michelinie and Jackson “Butch” Guice replaced Roger Stern and Bob McLeod on Action. The books maintained their own identities, especially during the “Reign of the Supermen!” storyline, but all those characters, stories, and subplots got to be too unwieldy. In 1999, editor Eddie Berganza succeeded Mike Carlin (who’d been editing the books pretty much since the revamp). Berganza brought with him a (mostly) new slate of writers and artists, including Jeph Loeb, Joe Casey, Mike McKone, and Steve Epting, and the days of “weekly Superman” were over.

Before I get much farther, I should also mention the “biweekly” days of the ‘90s Legion of Super-Heroes, when the main Legion book and its companion, Legionnaires, helped relaunch the post-Zero Hour Legion. If memory serves, the books were biweekly from 1994 until Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning took over (also, probably coincidentally, in late 1999). In terms of storytelling style, I’d compare the biweekly Legion to the biweekly Batman, since both books used fairly similar creative teams. The books diverged somewhat when part of the Legion was stuck in the 20th Century, but for the most part both titles told one big story.

Now, considering all those comics, and especially the intricacies of some of their plots, the first lesson of tight intertitle continuity seems to be that it is not sustainable. The Superman books did it weekly (that is, four times a month) for about eight years, and that was after being twice- and thrice-monthly for over four years — and I would argue that the end came a couple of years too late. Moreover, cross-continuity necessarily involves a certain homogenization, such that one creative team’s style doesn’t end up overwhelming another’s. It’s not quite sacrificing quality for quantity, but it does require everyone to be on the same wavelength.

Nevertheless, when it does work, it can be a deeply rewarding reading experience. The apex of the weekly Superman books was the “death and return” mega-arcs of 1992-93, especially when each of the “new Superman” got a title to himself. A good weekly superhero comic should have an urgency appropriate to the story’s circumstances, such that the reader is carried along by narrative momentum. 52, the biweekly Justice League: Generation Lost, and (to me, at least) Trinity had that kind of energy, but each of them lasted “only” a year. The Super-titles built a pretty dense thicket of plots, characters, and subplots for over twelve years, and by the end they were just kind of there. In fact, thanks to the “New Krypton” mega-arc, recent Superman titles have gone through their own period of tight continuity, and now we are back to each book telling separate stories (specifically about Superman, Supergirl, and Lex Luthor).

So with all that said, why interconnect the Superman books, or the Green Lantern titles, or especially the Bat-titles…?

Well, franchises — or “fiefdoms,” “families,” whatever — are funny things. By definition they’re their own shared mini-universes. Batgirl, Red Robin, and Catwoman might not interact regularly (or even directly) with Batman (whichever one) and/or Robin, but they all tend to run in the same circles. They’re each adding to the texture and flavor of their Gotham-centric mini-universe. More to the point, Dick Grayson is still growing into the Batman role, and Bruce Wayne is relearning it. I’m all for fans puzzling out continuity, but I won’t turn down expositional clues as to which issue takes place when. The Superman books have been doing this occasionally, I think; but the Green Lantern books each seem concerned only with their own storylines. (I can’t speak to Emerald Warriors, which for various reasons I haven’t been reading.)

Of course, reminding readers about related titles might also encourage them to read said titles, as (for example) I might be encouraged to do with regard to Emerald Warriors or some of the ancillary Bat-books. As much as I have railed against it, that particular marketing strategy can be fairly effective. Also, it would help me feel like certain plot elements weren’t coming out of left field just because they were set up by books I hadn’t read.

Finally, there is the notion that certain characters are “big enough” to handle multiple titles. I’m pretty sure Mike Carlin justified the weekly Superman books that way (although at times it seemed like the books were about anyone but Superman). With two Batmen, two Robins (one “graduated,” one not), a new Batgirl, the imminent return of Batwoman, and a renewed emphasis on Gotham City, the Batman line is already big enough to merit closer coordination. Once Batman Inc. and The Dark Knight have started, I feel sure I’ll be wanting a roadmap. Otherwise, everyone’s off doing his or her own thing and the big picture looks more hazy.

The key to all of this is logistics — making sure books come out on time, giving creative teams the freedom they need, keeping the chronology straight — but again, when it works, it’s worth it. If I’m going to plunge into these franchises, I hope the experience is sufficiently immersive.