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Grumpy Old Fan | I forgot to remember to forget

by  in Comic News Comment

Its outreach efforts notwithstanding, DC’s superhero line has a longstanding reputation as a warehouse of impenetrable arcana. Even before it boasted four distinct heroic generations, it featured multiple Earths, dozens of 30th-Century Legionnaires, and thousands of Green Lanterns. While that sort of thing is catnip for obsessive fans, those are not the only kind of fans DC wants to attract. Naturally, over the years it has tried to make the superhero books more accessible, even as it sought to honor that voluminous history.

Exploring the balance between being new-reader-friendly and old-reader-comfortable is nothing new. Still, when serial storytelling is involved, even the newest takes will accumulate their own intricate backstories. Accordingly, how much DC lore does one really need? Is all that history just dead weight? Should continuity have an expiration date, or at least a statute of limitations?

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We begin with Batman and Green Lantern, two characters ostensibly “left alone” (for the most part) by the five-year timeline of the New-52 relaunch. This ended up cramming the origins of at least four Robins and four Earthling G-Ls into those five years. That said, in fairness to DC, we can make the case that all of DC’s superhero stories from 1969 to 1986 happened in a two- to three-year span (specifically, from the time the original crop of Teen Titans left for college until they started turning 20).  Conveniently enough, this period saw the debuts of John Stewart as Green Lantern and Jason Todd as Robin, plus Guy Gardner’s return to active GL duty; and we still have two years to spare. Nevertheless, it seems needlessly restrictive to pin a quarter-century of stories to the hazy ages of a group of slowly-aging sidekicks — kind of like deciding to measure “Marvel time” by Franklin Richards’ growth.

Moreover, the real issue isn’t that Batman and Green Lantern (and their dependents) retain the rough outlines of their pre-relaunch histories. The real issue is the extent to which the details of those histories inform the current storylines.

Take last week’s Green Lantern #7, which began a new arc highlighting the Indigo Tribe. The issue included the return of Black Hand, last seen practically lobotomized at the end of Blackest Night in 2010. From that we can suppose, reasonably enough, that the events of Blackest Night which led to Hand’s current state have not been revised away by the New-52 relaunch. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that all of Blackest Night is still in continuity. Obviously, many of the story’s details depend on characters not currently in evidence in the New-52 (like Wally West, Donna Troy, and the pre-relaunch Green Arrow) and/or plotlines which the New-52 relaunch has rendered moot (including various deaths and revivals). It may therefore be sufficient for current Green Lantern issues to cite only as much of Blackest Night which bear directly on the Indigo/Black Hand storyline — but that, in turn, tends to devalue Blackest Night’s role in the larger Green Lantern saga.

Now, at the risk of being obvious, a story’s place in continuity has little, if anything, to do with its merits generally. Instead, what I find curious is the notion that an epic, detail-driven mega-arc like Green Lantern’s, which had been unspooling steadily over the course of seven years, could find some of its dramatic underpinnings called into question in midstream. Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern has always been focused squarely on Hal Jordan, but even when he took over as writer in 2004 that meant incorporating Hal’s not-uncomplicated history. For example, both GL: Rebirth and Blackest Night referred to Hal’s time as the Spectre; but in the New-52 timeline, it’s not clear a) whether Hal was ever the Spectre, b) whether Hal ever died, or c) whether the Spectre even exists as part of the New-52 universe (as opposed, for example, to the universe of Earth-2). Because it seems pretty clear that New-52 Hal still succumbed to Parallax, if the Spectre is no longer in the picture a substitute would be needed for the Ghostly Guardian’s redemptive role.

If you’ve been following Green Lantern happily for the past seven-plus years, you may well see Geoff Johns’ run as a big ol’ Hal adventure, starting with his revival as a GL and revealing (through Hal) everything you ever hoped to learn about the Emotional Spectrum. Although that run doesn’t seem close to ending, the New-52 relaunch has already had a profound effect on the storyline, by inserting a break from the continuity in which it was originally rooted. More to the point, by confusing continuity, the relaunch may actually discourage reading the pre-relaunch storylines, regardless of whether they’ve been grandfathered into New-52 history.

While it is easy to turn this into a “no-relaunches” diatribe, to me the underlying issue is still the amount of working knowledge a superhero-comics reader can be expected to possess. Using Black Hand’s glassy stare to ponder the existence of the Spectre is an extreme example (although it does suggest that DC doesn’t want readers to think too carefully about pre-relaunch books). The issue goes back at least as far as the start of the Silver Age — when Julius Schwartz famously decreed that readers would accept a new Flash, because it had been five whole years since the old one had been around. Today, of course, superhero serials demand longer attention spans. Johns’ GL tenure goes back almost eight years, and Grant Morrison’s been on the Bat-books for almost six. The “weekly” Superman titles of the ‘80s and ‘90s had frequent callbacks to earlier plot elements, especially in 1993’s “Reign of the Supermen,” which combined the Eradicator (introduced in 1989) with Hank Henshaw (1990).

Such practices can train readers to develop long memories. I once pooh-poohed 2007’s Superman/Shazam! First Thunder miniseries because it sounded too similar to a plot thread from 1992’s Eclipso: The Darkness Within miniseries, but after seeing a couple of scenes realized how different it was. Clearly, it’s not fair for me to compare the superficial similarities of stories separated by fifteen years, but sometimes it’s not easy for me to forget the older stuff.

Still, as asked above, how much DC lore does any given reader really need? For most of the New-52 books, I suspect the answer is “back to September”; but occasionally there’ll be something like the Huntress miniseries, teasing the alert reader with hints that this is not the Helena Bertinelli you might have expected. Those reveals tend to be few and far between, though. Especially in light of the relaunch, I’m guessing DC is more invested in telling new stories than dropping clues about the validity of old ones. Collections can bring readers up to speed on the Batman and GL arcs they might have missed, and those collections also tend to lessen the impact of “X years’ worth of comics.” Taking several days to read Johns’ Green Lantern from the beginning is obviously different from living with it, month in and month out, since George W. Bush’s first term.

Regardless, the information we learn from those stories doesn’t come automatically to the front of our brains when we open a new issue. I’m not thinking about Clayface or Ninja Man-Bats or the Penguin when I read Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman, mostly because I don’t associate them with the Court of Owls storyline, but partly because I’m depending on issue #7 to remind me where #6 left off. However, when I see that the first page of #7 has callbacks to (MINOR SPOILERS) both “Batman: Year One” and maybe Batman: The Return, those fire up the relevant memories; and when I hear that a big secret will be revealed in the issue, the “lore” part of my brain goes on alert.

[Shameful admission: I was a psychology major, and I particularly liked cognitive psychology, but haven’t used much of that knowledge in over twenty years….]

The distinction is between that sort of readily-accessible situational awareness (Batman’s fate at the end of #6) and the more deeply-ingrained long-term memories (as of, say, Hugo Strange stories). A good example of satisfying both kinds of cognition (besides Johns’ GL and Morrison’s Batman) was 2006-07’s 52, which told a fairly accessible (and trivia-rich) story using C- and D-list characters. Again, though, with the New-52 DC has put the emphasis on what’s happening now, which can create a cognitive dissonance between what we longtime fans remember (or are used to) and what the current story’s actual resolution may be. It’s almost a question of creators “playing fair” with readers, except that neither side has necessarily agreed on all the rules.

So, do we need a bright-line rule past which certain stories are no longer automatically controlling? DC’s various wholesale housecleanings offer some guidance — I daresay you’re not likely to see references to specific Golden Age Wonder Woman stories anytime soon — but as with the Huntress miniseries or Morrison’s use of Bat-Mite, you never know what might be repurposed. We’re probably safe in saying that the work of a book’s current writer on any relevant characters is fair game, so that takes care of Johns’ Green Lantern tenure and Morrison’s various Batman titles (plus related subplots in 52 and Final Crisis). As well, when Dan Jurgens and Keith Giffen take over Superman, I wouldn’t be surprised to see elements from their other New-52 work, like Justice League International and OMAC, show up in the Man of Steel’s title.

However, I’m more curious to see whether the New-52 books will be written for the “short-term” or “long-term” reader — that is, whether they tell relatively discrete stories, or whether they start laying the groundwork for multi-year mega-arcs. As a practical matter, the landscape probably favors the former, to make it easier to bail out if a new book (or new team) doesn’t catch on. As the superhero line stabilizes, though, I expect to see the seeds of those multi-year arcs planted. Obviously Snyder and Capullo have done that with Batman (and Snyder probably has similar plans for Swamp Thing), and I’m guessing Johns has at least three years’ worth of Aquaman in him.

I can’t leave this topic without mentioning the seminal comic of my high-school years, The New Teen Titans under Marv Wolfman. Usually it’s Wolfman and George Pérez’s Titans, but after Pérez left in 1984, Wolfman and the late Ed Barreto put the Titans through a pretty eventful few years. Starfire’s arranged marriage on Tamaran separated her from Nightwing, who left the group to look for Raven, who’d disappeared after destroying her demonic dad. Meanwhile, with Changeling and Cyborg off on their own quest, Wonder Girl reassembled the “original Titans” (Aqualad, Wally West, Hawk, Speedy, and Jason Todd) for an ill-fated confrontation with Cheshire. After fighting the Brotherhood of Evil and a twisted attempt to recreate the Doom Patrol, the Titans headed for a final battle with Brother Blood, who’d brainwashed both Nightwing and Raven. It was all very melodramatic, but the four weeks between issues were eternities. By the time it wrapped up (after eighteen issues and an Annual), Wolfman and Barreto had brought closure to some longstanding subplots, including Raven’s emotional well-being and Wally’s place in the world, and they’d literally put Blood out to pasture. Like the more famous “Judas Contract,” which was the culmination of the Terminator storyline begun almost four years prior, these issues were probably most satisfying for longtime readers, but at the same time they cleared the decks for new adventures. Although every jumping-on point is an opportunity to jump off, it made this longtime Titans reader especially eager to see where Wolfman and Barreto went next.

Being written with at least one eye towards collections, the New-52 books are particularly well-suited for such extended storytelling, and specifically for the kind of extended storyline which can come to a definite end. Johns did it with his Flash work, I expect him to do it with Green Lantern, and if he stays on Aquaman long enough, he’ll do it there too. Regardless of creative team, though, the New-52 books have a chance to establish their accessibility by using continuity judiciously. It’s probably too early in the relaunch to set an expiration date or statute of limitations (although eight years might be a good start), but depending on how the books are managed, the issue may resolve itself.

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Character creators:

Bob Kane and Bill Finger created Batman and Hugo Strange.  Kane, Finger, and Jerry Robinson created Dick “Robin/Nightwing” Grayson.  Finger and Sheldon Moldoff created Bat-Mite.  Gerry Conway and Don Newton created Jason “Robin” Todd. Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino created Wally “Kid Flash” West.  Marv Wolfman and George Pérez created Cyborg, Raven, Starfire, and Brother Blood, and put Dick in the Nightwing suit.  Steve Ditko and Steve Skeates created Hank “Hawk” Hall.  Arnold Drake and Bruno Premani created Garfield “Beast Boy/Changeling” Logan, and Premani and Bob Haney created Donna “Wonder Girl” Troy.  Paul Norris created Aquaman.  Robert Bernstein and Ramona Fradon created Aqualad.  John Broome and Gil Kane created Green Lanterns Hal Jordan and Guy Gardner, as well as Black Hand.  Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams created Green Lantern John Stewart.  Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman, and Siegel and Bernard Baily created the Spectre.  Jack Kirby and Stan Lee created Franklin Richards.  Paul Levitz and Joe Staton created the Huntress (Helena Wayne).  William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman.