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Grumpy Old Fan | The place is the thing

by  in Comic News Comment

Today I am pondering that Ivan Brandon essay on TheAwl.com, and the things comics can do that movies just can’t.

Last week I mentioned the Lazarus Pit as an example of a comics staple that Batman movies — any Batman movies, arguably — would probably be reluctant to use. While the Pit comes with certain restrictions and side effects, it still boils down basically to an unlimited supply of extra lives. It runs counter to the idea of Batman as being grounded in reality, but in the context of a shared universe where Batman pals around with extraterrestrials (and their agents), a super-powered Amazon, and the King of Atlantis, it’s not that far-fetched. This is the old “Character Y could solve Character X’s problems” hypothesis, and it tends to be met with “Character X and Character Y play by different rules.” A good example of the latter was a “No Man’s Land” story featuring Superman (coincidentally collected in the new NML Vol. 3), where the Man of Steel’s well-intentioned assistance in trying to rebuild an earthquake-devastated Gotham turned out to be exactly wrong under the circumstances.

Of course, one of “No Man’s Land’s” villains turned out to be [SPOILER ALERT, PROBABLY] Lex Luthor, surreptitiously buying up Gotham real estate for his own nefarious purposes. Luthor’s defeat at the end of “NML” led subsequently to his role in [SPOILER ALERT, AGAIN] the “Bruce Wayne: Murderer?” arc, and it’s easy to see him as an anti-Batman. Similarly, the Joker has antagonized Superman a few times, including his omnipotent turn in “Emperor Joker” and his murderous rampage through the Daily Planet in the backstory of Kingdom Come. Still, those kinds of reversals are infrequent, because it is simply not in those characters’ makeups to adopt new recurring adversaries. Luthor and the Joker are each dedicated to their particular pursuits, but it goes deeper than that. Batman isn’t set up to fight a super-scientist on an ongoing basis any more than Superman is supposed to fight a murderous psychopath. The rules of their respective books just don’t allow for it.

However, if we “zoom out” far enough, so that those rules (and the “borders” they define) are no longer as apparent, the potential for crossovers becomes clearer. All-star titles like Justice League and the original Teen Titans can, in theory, take their characters anywhere in the shared universe, enabling them to play under different sets of rules. In this context Batman doesn’t need to justify quasi-magical elements like the Lazarus Pit, because the reader comes at such elements practically from the opposite direction. It’s a good thing, too, because the Batman rules don’t leave much room for the rest of the League.

To be sure, those team titles often had to come up with their own sets of rules simply to stay entertaining. As a Wally West/Kid Flash fan, reading Showcase Presents Teen Titans Vol. 1 has been somewhat frustrating, because Wally gets taken out a lot more than I’d have expected. I can rationalize it through his inexperience, and even his cockiness; but with the relatively non-threatening villains of these early stories, I think it’s just writers trying not to have the stories end on page 4.

Regardless, JLA and Teen Titans were gateways to the mysteries of DC’s shared universe, and they did their best to present it as a cohesive whole. Today, the New 52 is trying something similar, building its own “hidden histories” around things like the Court of Owls, Stormwatch as an outgrowth of Demon Knights, and the unseen natural forces in Animal Man and Swamp Thing. There’s tremendous power in that approach, too, because if you can convince the reader that Metropolis isn’t just Superman’s home, but the nexus of an heroic lineage lasting into the 31st century, you can create a real sense of place. Focusing on frontier Gotham in All-Star Western threatens to be overly cute, but it too plays into this idea of the city being more than a mere backdrop — even developing into something of an adversary. You can still have different rules in Metropolis and Gotham, and Central City and Star City and Opal, but they can proceed less from the particular characters and more from the idea that this is where those characters belong. It’s nature/nurture gone sideways, and it only comes from decades of accumulated history.

Ah, but I can hear you already: decades of accumulated history is DC’s problem! Well … it is, and it isn’t. DC should be eager to entice readers into learning more about its shared universe. It shouldn’t be crafting stories designed to please only those readers who already know. Take Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham’s Batman Incorporated Vol. 2 #2, the history of Talia al-Ghūl. The story mixes copious amounts of Bat-lore with a few new elements, in order to present a concise biography of the book’s main villain. For that matter, Kurt Busiek and George Pérez’s JLA/Avengers threw enough trivia at unsuspecting readers to fill whole volumes of Who’s Who and OHOTMU … but did it skillfully enough that they might not have noticed.

Compare that, however, with Morrison’s Final Crisis, or (a little further back) the Keith Giffen/Tom & Mary Bierbaum “Five Years Later” Legion of Super-Heroes, both of which seemed written for post-graduate dissertations in their particular fields. While that version of Legion was my first real foray into following the series monthly — not a good idea for someone who had only picked up the occasional issue a few times in the mid-1970s — in a real sense it did what a relaunch should. It got me interested in the Legion’s world, and it encouraged me to hunt up some back issues (especially the Who’s Who in the LSH miniseries) to answer many of my questions.

Now, I’m not saying that there are no truly steep learning curves, and I don’t mean to imply that frustrated readers should keep one eye on the page and another on Wikipedia. That only encourages lazy storytelling. Rather, I think DC needs to be a bit less shy about delving into its fictional history. If the reluctance to do so comes from some sort of inferiority complex — that is, if DC and Marvel actually see their superhero comics as a medium artistically inferior to their superhero movies — they need their collective head examined. The movies shouldn’t be the comics’ ultimate vindication (or worse, their justification), they should be the barest example of what the comics can do.

Thus, to operate at maximum potential, the comics should lay out a pretty big canvas. It used to be that Metropolis and Gotham were separated only by a river, Kryptonians could break the time barrier on their own, and the Flashes could travel between Earths just by vibrating the right way. While the New-52 books don’t need to make things that simple, they must still create a certain feeling of comfortable unreality. As a rule, DC has never been about “the world outside your window,” preferring instead to be the world as it might be. It used a good bit of our world (and, in some stories, our world itself), but it also had the flexibility to make Metropolis a futuristic City of Tomorrow, to isolate Gotham for a year, and to establish Atlantis and Themyscira as part of the family of nations.

This sort of thing doesn’t have to be every issue of every comic, but it should crop up enough to be a reminder. To trot out a very old example, the classic (and brief) Steve Englehart/Marshall Rogers Detective Comics stories had three prominent references to the wider DC world. One was Batman’s allusion to a recent Justice League adventure (also written by Englehart, I think) involving the Shadow-Thief, who of course was not a regular Bat-villain himself. Another had Robin called away from the Batcave to discuss Teen Titans business, which prompted some good-natured ribbing from Batman about the Teen Wonder’s relationships with Wonder Girl and the Harlequin. The third was a simple Daily Planet headline about Superman. If a reader were looking for a more grim, “realistic” take on the Darknight Detective, those things might have taken him out of the story; but by the same token, the Englehart/Rogers stories weren’t that grim (especially not compared to some later interpretations).

I’ve talked a lot about Batman in this post, partly because Batman tends to be the least fanciful of DC’s A-listers, but also because the Nolan movies have tried so steadfastly to be down-to-earth. I have a lot of affection for those movies, but I also don’t think they should necessarily establish any boundaries for the comics — and certainly not for comics which go deeper into fantasy or sci-fi than the Bat-books. The DC Universe is a loose hegemony of genres, defined somewhat by its fictional geography. That allows Gotham, Metropolis, Central City, Skartaris and the 31st century each to establish particular “house rules.” However, that also gives its characters the freedom to play on someone else’s turf, and thereby acknowledge that one set of rules doesn’t necessarily fit everyone.

Part of the fun of a shared universe is this freedom to explore, and consequently to test the limitations of style and genre. You don’t need a constant-crossover culture to do that, just an all-star title like Justice League or boundary-crossing formats like The Brave and the Bold, DC Universe Presents, or the new National Comics. However, those books work best with enticing settings, and for that DC needs to embrace more of its history. It can’t shy away from certain elements just because they might not fly on the big or small screens. After all, why go someplace that looks like where you’ve already been?