Grumpy Old Fan | Death, diversity, “definitives”

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | Death, diversity, “definitives”

It’s taken me a couple of weeks to sort out my feelings about Ryan Choi’s death. It should go without saying that all of these feelings are negative. Ryan and his All-New Atom supporting cast were the core of a very fun comic book; and I thought Ryan made a good successor to Ray Palmer (who was missing in action for most of ANA’s run).

Accordingly, I started off angry at DC for its callous attitude towards the character, and honestly, I’m still a little angry. Regardless, that anger and frustration has developed into lingering disappointment. Specifically, I’m disappointed that DC continues to use death as a storytelling crutch. (John Seavey says it better here.)

However, I’m also disappointed in DC’s apparent unwillingness to let its superhero line develop naturally. There was nothing wrong with the Ryan Choi Atom. If anything, he was too superficially similar to Ray Palmer’s Atom: powers, costume, hometown, even occupation. Heck, they knew each other! I can see how this would make Ryan redundant once Ray decided to start superheroing full-time, but it’s not like Ryan didn’t have a day job. If you want to sideline someone like that, you let him go back to civilian life — you don’t kill him.

But we need to kill him to show how evil our villains are! Well, no — no, you don’t. You stop just short of killing him, so that he’s scared even thinking about spandex. You emphasize to him that if he thinks the words “Justice” and “League” too close to each other, that he will die before anyone can do him any good. You defeat him so thoroughly that he can’t imagine what winning feels like. That’s evil, at least to me. I feel sleazy just typing it.

As many others have pointed out, though, the larger problem is DC’s devotion to its own history. The superhero line is increasingly beholden to a hierarchy which developed out of the biggest Silver Age successes, chief among them (for our purposes) the Justice League.

I’ve written before that the JLA has historically been DC’s best way to exploit its shared universe (and, when appropriate, its shared Multiverse). At its most basic level, it brought together characters from different superhero sub-genres — urban avengers, science-heroes, extraterrestrials, etc. — who might not otherwise have a reason to interact. It did so on a large scale, unlike World’s Finest or The Brave and the Bold. Furthermore, it often allowed those characters to explore both the familiar and the odd corners of the Multiverse. By shining its light into those odd corners, JLA did a lot to open up the superhero line’s possibilities.

Unfortunately, today the original League lineup (1960-1984) has become so iconic that it threatens to confine, rather than expand, those possibilities. The “Satellite Era” roster (1970-1984) included founding members Aquaman, Batman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Superman, and Wonder Woman;* plus (in the order each joined) Green Arrow, the Atom, Hawkman, Black Canary,** the Phantom Stranger, the Elongated Man, Red Tornado, Hawkgirl, Zatanna, and Firestorm. Not a bad group, and not an unreasonable extension of the Silver Age team … but hardly a model of diversity. The very existence of Samurai, Black Vulcan, and Apache Chief speaks volumes about how white the JLA was.

In fact, a two-parter in issues #173-74 (December 1979-January 1980) had Black Lightning turn down the League’s membership offer, so he could focus on more immediate social problems. Looking back, I wonder if this was the right way to go with the character. (I also wonder if the story didn’t reflect some internal discussions at DC, but I can’t back that up.) Putting Black Lightning in the JLA would have been a milestone for the group — no pun intended — but it might also have taken him away from the things he cared about. This eventually proved true for Batman and Green Arrow, each of whom left the JLA over similar concerns. The cosmic-vs.-Earthbound debate may well have been one of writer Gerry Conway’s perennial issues, since he connected Vibe (of the Detroit League) to a local street gang.

The difference, of course, is that Vibe was created specifically for Justice League, whereas Batman and Green Arrow didn’t exactly have to beg for exposure outside JLA. Black Lightning had just come off his own short-lived title (11 issues, April 1977-September/October 1978) and an arc in World’s Finest (#s 256-61). Although Batman and the Outsiders certainly wasn’t a bad gig, JLA membership might have raised his profile enough to warrant another ongoing solo series, or at least a regular backup feature.

Anyway, before I lose sight of my point entirely, let’s get back on track. Take another look at the Satellite League. Of its sixteen members, ten have since been “retired and replaced” for extended periods of time,*** and more than a few (depending on how you count Black Canary, the Hawks, and/or Wonder Woman) were “legacies” when they joined. This didn’t make much difference in the old Multiversal days, since the ostensible legacy characters had pretty much always been the only Flash, Atom, etc., on Earth-1. Today, though, it’s not hard to imagine an updated Satellite-style lineup including Wally West, Ryan Choi, Connor Hawke, Dick Grayson, Jason Rusch, and a Green Lantern to be named later. From what I understand, James Robinson is presently doing something similar, not just by having Dick and Donna Troy succeed their mentors, but with Supergirl, Jade, and Jesse Quick replacing their male counterparts.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that DC’s ultimate goal is to return all the Satellite Leaguers to Justice League. I am saying, though, that the characters currently in favor — Hal, Barry, Ray, Ronnie, (arguably) the Hawks — happen to be Satellite-Era Justice Leaguers. I read this as consistent with Dan DiDio’s comments from late 2008:

[W]ho is the most recognizable character in that costume? What is the one most people gravitate towards and the most people address as the definitive version of the character.

If one considers only the comics, those criteria — “most recognizable,” “gravitate towards,” “definitive” — tend to favor the Silver Age characters, because they have the overwhelming advantage in terms of exposure. Even today, Wally West has “only” been the Flash for 24 ½ years, so he still comes in second to Barry’s 30-plus. Ray Palmer would have had to disappear for decades (kind of like Barry did) in order for Ryan Choi to catch him. (Assuming Ryan is brought back to life somehow, that is.) In that context, those standards are horribly unfair, not least because DC tends to construct its legacy characters with their predecessors in mind. If Wally and Kyle have deep roots in Barry’s and Hal’s traditions, aren’t Barry and Hal the definitive versions for all time?

At the time, I argued for an “ideal-aggregation” approach, based not around those subjective (and easily manipulated) standards, but on the character traits most familiar to the general public. “In this analysis,” I observed, “the general public doesn’t care whether the Flash is Barry Allen or Wally West, or whether the Atom is Ray Palmer or Ryan Choi. They just know that the Flash wears red and runs real fast, and the Atom wears blue and shrinks.”

So if it doesn’t matter who’s under the mask, why not use Barry and Ray? Surely they are more recognizable to the comics-buying audience, and DC has truckloads more of their comics to reprint (for the bookstore-shopping general public, of course) than it does with Wally and Ryan. Surely it’s easier to adapt the Silver Age origin stories into movies and TV shows.

Well … all that may be true. We may not know, though, until DC actually starts marketing to the general public and not to an insular group of longtime fans. The ‘90s “Superman” cartoon used artist Kyle Rayner as Green Lantern, but much of his origin and backstory (and appearance) came from the Silver Age. Who’s to say that an Atom adaptation wouldn’t have Ryan stuck in that cave with a size-changing lens? Once you get past the Trinitarians, I still have a hard time believing that anyone cares about a legacy character’s particular alter ego. (Yes, even considering the “Flash” TV series.)

To be sure, DC still has a ways to go before the Satellite Leaguers can hold a reunion. Bruce Wayne is time-hopping, and Ralph Dibny is dead. However, Bruce is on the way back, and I can’t help but think Ralph is too. (Even if he’s not, I’d still bet on that reunion. Apparently nothing gives a superhero team gravitas like an empty chair at the big table.) As for diversity, there’s always Mr. Terrific, Batwoman, Mikaal Tomas, the Question, Blue Beetle, John Stewart, Cyborg, et al. And, full disclosure, I continue to enjoy Barry and Hal’s respective revivals, and I plan to read the “Atom” co-feature in Adventure Comics.

However — and this is the critical point — it’s not because I like Barry or Hal or Ray to the exclusion of Wally or John (or Kyle, or Guy) or Ryan. It’s because I like the basic concepts behind the Flash, Green Lantern, and the Atom. Yes, those concepts were conceived in the Silver Age and explored for decades after that. Yes, the characters with whom those concepts are associated are the most familiar to me, and arguably the most “definitive.” Yes, DC may have the best chance to sell the most comic books to its desired audience (and I stress that qualification) if it uses those characters.

That doesn’t mean it gets to kill a perfectly viable character for what amounts essentially to shock value. As I wrote in November 2008, “[w]ith regard to a shared superhero universe, the focus should be on the kinds of changes which facilitate storytelling [emphasis added]. Process-oriented arcs designed to reward nostalgic impulses must take care not to restrict such storytelling possibilities. After all, one reader’s nostalgia is another’s learning curve.”

Therefore, unless Ryan’s death sets up his eventual revival — not impossible, but I daresay extremely unlikely in the wake of Blackest Night — killing him clearly cuts off his storytelling potential. His attitude, inexperience, and measured approach to superheroics distinguished him from his predecessor, and when Wonder Woman offered him JLA membership towards the end of his series I looked forward to seeing him interact with the rest of the League. Being a rookie sure didn’t hurt Kyle in the Morrison era, and it made a reader-identification character to boot. Instead, I am once again baffled that one of DC’s blunt-instrument decisions has truncated another character’s outreach to new readers.

I mean, I had a friend in college who wasn’t really a bad guy, but he definitely lacked some social skills and came across like a jerk to a lot of people, occasionally including me. At one point I had to tell him, “sometimes it’s hard to be your friend.”

Well, DC … sometimes it’s hard, you know? Every time I say this I sound more and more naïve, but I do think the superhero line is, overall, pretty good and getting better. I think the change-for-its-own-sake mentality is on the decline, and the books are trying hard to succeed on their own merits. There are a lot of positives —

— but then there’s this kind of easily-avoidable, tone-deaf crap.

Again, I’ve moved past being angry. I’d say my disappointment is worse … because if I keep being disappointed, I stop caring about these characters altogether; and if I go, there’s no guarantee I’m replaced.

Not that DC especially needs (or should even want) me reading.  As I’ve said before, I don’t want DC to make superhero comics specifically for me. It’d be nice, though, if they were made for as many people as possible.


* [Founder J’Onn J’Onzz was on an extended leave of absence for most of the ‘70s and ‘80s.]

** [Black Canary was the last member to join (February 1970’s issue #78) before the team moved into the JLA Satellite.]

*** [Eleven if you count Superman, who even in death was never really “replaced.”]