I’ve written before about the fundamental difference between DC and Marvel. (Marvel started with a core group, as opposed to DC’s loose confederation, blah blah blah.) However, as plok reminds me, Marvel also benefited greatly, yesterday and today, simply from not being DC. That is, Marvel was and is free to riff on classic superhero tropes ‘til the Skrull-cows come home, because that’s part of what a competitor does. When DC finally started using serialized storytelling, the “illusion of change,” and the “realistic” flourishes which had become a staple of the House of Ideas, it was pretty much too late: DC would always be playing catch-up. This has, to put it mildly, not worked out so well for the folks who first brought you the superhero.
There may be a way, though, for DC to capitalize on the static nature of its flagship characters while simultaneously making them fresh for today’s readers; and it comes from a little TV show called …
(wait for it)
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My initial interest in (and affection for) “Glee” came from my own musical background. Just like paragon-of-cool Will Riker, I am a trombone player. Since fourth grade, I have played for any group which would have me — concert bands, orchestras, marching bands, jazz bands, whatever — in venues from churches to concert halls to midnight hockey games. Not quite as TV-friendly as a high school glee club, granted; but trust me, high-school band isn’t exactly on the road to popularity either. (College band was a little better.) Thus, when “Glee” posits that being in show choir is just about the worst thing a high-schooler can do in terms of reputation, it’s not hard to believe.
Indeed, on one level, “Glee’s” first season was all about a group of disparate singers learning to work together, rely on one another, and otherwise bond. Naturally, this gave the show a nominal amount of ongoing subplots — who will hook up, who will break up, will the glee club itself survive, etc. Now that Season 1 is over, though, I’m not really eager to crack open the DVDs. The soap-opera aspects of “Glee” never really grabbed me, and in hindsight they seem somewhat perfunctory. Not that I’m unhappy with who hooked up and who broke up, but that doesn’t strike me as the real point of the show. Although the characters have changed, bonded, triumphed, and failed, they haven’t moved all that much. It’s the “illusion of change” all over again.
Fortunately, the performances are reliably good. My wife and I might not own the Season 1 DVDs, but we have four CD compilations and a couple of iTunes downloads. Accordingly, the real point of “Glee,” it seems to me, is simply to bask in the power of music itself. That’s an incredibly corny statement, but for all its aspirations to hipness, “Glee” is still a corny show at heart.
Besides, for a lot of people, music plugs right into their emotional centers; and music performed well can make up for a piece’s own shortcomings. Consider “Safety Dance,” a moderately-catchy ‘80s no-nukes song perhaps best-remembered for its unfortunate ren-faire-themed video. “Glee” used a more modern, subversive arrangement to turn the song into a flash-mob dance number, shot with handheld verisimilitude by none other than Joss Whedon:
Even without knowing that Artie dreams of someday being able to walk, the enthusiasm in that sequence is palpable, because it is about the symbiotic joys of performing and spectating. It may even be musical theater in a nutshell: the happy notion that anywhere, at any time, a non-obnoxious song-and-dance bit might break out. It’s a bit of fantasy which clearly wouldn’t work in real life (and it sometimes stretches credulity even in the show’s context).
Of course, those soap-opera elements give many songs their emotional weight. Without a story structure, “Glee” is pretty much “American Idol” with more consistent talent; and without the music, it would be a fair-to-good high-school show. Likewise, superhero comics must balance the demands of serialization, and the corollary demands of collected editions, against the indulgence of “moments.” Super-speed costume changes, ring-charging ceremonies, and moody Bat-Signal shots are fine in isolation, but you can’t have too many too close together or they border on self-parody.
That doesn’t mean you have to avoid those kinds of familiar moments. By design, “Glee’s” songs are all covers, mostly of well-known songs. I’m not going to suggest that Geoff Johns is “covering” Steve Englehart or Cary Bates in the pages of Green Lantern or The Flash, but I think there is something similar at work. Just as we know how a song should sound, we know how a familiar character should behave, and we expect certain elements in those characters’ stories. You can have a new Dynamic Duo, and you want them to facilitate good Batman and Robin stories, but I suspect you still want a nominal amount of familiarity. Seeing the Flash costume spurt out of Barry’s ring, seeing Clark duck into the storeroom or the unused staircase, seeing the Bat-Signal through Wayne Manor’s windows — these are all formulaic and/or clichéd by now; but they ease the reader into the story.
And it’s not just those little moments of ritual. This week’s Superman #702 is a decent-enough story (a touch too satisfied with itself, actually) which, despite being part of “Grounded’s” walk-across-America, isn’t particularly connected to any time or place. It involves topical concerns like the auto industry and illegal immigration (and health care too, tangentially), but it also finds room for a traditional Super-fight and even a Clark Kent appearance. As I say, these are things I think the average reader expects to see from any regular Superman story, but in light of “New Krypton” and now “Grounded,” regular Superman stories seem harder to find. The same goes for Wonder Woman, of course; the Bat-books are gearing up for another big transition; and I would argue that Green Lantern is still engaged in the years-long “War Of Light” mega-arc. However, “Grounded” is turning out more traditional than I might have expected. Flash and Justice League have also been putting out more traditional superhero fare, in the sense that their storylines don’t really require a working knowledge of arcane continuity. (Not that they don’t depend on arcane continuity, that is….) They’re not especially formulaic, but they feel comfortably familiar, even though they may figure more heavily in upcoming line-wide continuity exercises.
More importantly, they work as showcases for the spectacle which defines superhero comics. The Flash’s battles with the future-Rogues have included some impressive super-speed sequences, and the corrupted Starheart has provided a sufficiently epic reason for the Justice League and Justice Society to (once again) team up. In the end, sometimes you just want uncomplicated spectacle. Sometimes you just want a decent multi-voice reworking of “Express Yourself,” and it doesn’t hurt that the female cast members all look good in Madonna gear.
So my advice to DC would be to embrace the spectacle, and not worry so much about the justifications. If viewers can accept spontaneous musical numbers, readers can take a few gratuitous looks up in the sky.