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Grumpy Old Fan | Tradition, expectation, and message

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | Tradition, expectation, and message

The great strength of DC’s superhero line is its heterogeneity — that is, its history of bringing together different genre-based roots and different storytelling approaches. However, as the shared-universe model came to dominate superhero serials, DC’s various high sheriffs have tried to impose various kinds of order on these disparate perspectives. Starting in the Silver Age, the infinite Multiverse organized characters broadly, for example by generation (Earth-Two), publisher (Earth-X, Earth-S, Earth-Four), or special category (the Crime Syndicate’s Earth-Three, the Zoo Crew’s Earth-C). Crisis On Infinite Earths consolidated a lot of that, The Kingdom’s Hypertime sought unsuccessfully to reincorporate it, and 52 compromised with a scaled-back set of parallel Earths. Today, the New-52 setup still has a Multiverse, but the main DC-Earth has scaled back its superheroic history dramatically.

Details aside, though, each of these cosmological structures is an attempt to bring some deeper meaning to DC’s superhero line. Put simply, for a long time DC’s superhero books weren’t about something, whereas Marvel presented a “world outside your window” in which superpowers came with their own sets of problems. Thus, from the post-Crisis 1980s until the end of Flashpoint last summer, DC was arguably “about” superheroic legacies, and had no small success putting new faces with old names.

And again, those details are not especially germane to today’s post. Instead, I want to talk about the nature of DC’s various traditions, the extent to which those traditions should guide the publisher, and whether DC’s superhero books can, collectively, ever really be “about” anything.

* * *

For all intents and purposes, the New-52 was teased on the last day of August, 2011, and rolled out over the course of September’s four Wednesdays. It fit Flashpoint’s changed-in-a-wink ending, and it worked out pretty well as a marketing tool.

However — here I pause to adjust my smoking jacket, tuck away my monocle, and take a puff on my pipe — the purist in me wonders about the effectiveness of a more radical, gradual relaunch. What if, instead of 13 books a week for four weeks, the New-52 titles each premiered a week at a time? Start with Action Comics in Week 1 and Detective in Week 2, then Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern and the next Action #2, Legion and the next ’Tec, etc. (By now you should know I wouldn’t renumber the older books.) It would give DC time to see what worked and what didn’t, and it might even build anticipation throughout the year, so that the 52nd book would be an event in and of itself.

Certainly this is not the most practical strategy, not least because DC wouldn’t want its market share to drop off so precipitously on the front end. Indeed, it is based on historical concerns rather than business ones. As it happens, the new Action and Detective were (and are) Week 1 titles, reflecting their venerable status within the superhero line; but in the first week of September 2011, they were part of the crowd. They weren’t first, though — Flashpoint #5 laid the groundwork for the relaunch (appropriate to Barry Allen’s role as Silver Age avatar) and Justice League #1 was a big attention-getter.

If it sounds like that bothers me, or offends my carefully-honed sensibilities, well … on some small level I suppose it does. Regardless, successful companies aren’t based around artfully-recreated cannibalizations of their own histories. Given the chance to reboot DC’s superhero line, I would have taken every book back to its beginnings, or at least back far enough to be relatively uncomplicated.

Of course, that issue is tremendously thorny, because invariably you end up undoing changes which were themselves beloved parts of younger fans’ status quos. You may even make reinstating those changes inevitable: if Dick is Robin and Wally is Kid Flash, readers will surely expect them to “graduate” before too long. In fact, many of these concerns revolve around expectations, which change with each new cycle of stories and each subsequent generation of readers.

While that may sound elementary, it’s fundamental to the idea that DC’s superhero books reinforce a larger theme. We don’t expect Superman to be bound by his 1938 power limits or guided by social activism, but we might find him boring if he’s too powerful or too much of a Boy Scout. We want Superman to be entertaining based on how we perceive him, not necessarily how he was conceived. (As discussed last week, that apparently goes double for Wonder Woman.) Similarly, devices like retcons and deconstruction play on the effects of old stories. Take the Doom Patrol: late in his run, Grant Morrison put the Chief’s history in a whole new light; and Marv Wolfman and George Pérez used Gar Logan’s background with his old group as the basis for his behavior with the New Teen Titans.

None of that gets us any closer to a grand unified DC theory, but that’s because DC simply can draw on too much from too many to find any singular theme. “Legacies” (the concept, not the miniseries) was probably the closest the publisher got to such a thing, and even that boils down to the constancy of codenames. Morrison (him again!) played with this idea in his DC One Million crossover, where the general public of DC-Earth’s far future could give themselves a particular hero’s superpower(s) as easily as downloading an app.

In this light it’s eminently appropriate that the New-52’s flagship is Justice League, because there’s never been much to the League past that whole “world’s greatest” thing. Just imagine … the mightiest heroes of our time! announced the ads for The Brave and the Bold #28, over fifty years ago. The JLA wasn’t a family, or an academy, and didn’t have any particular unifying quality, because for all practical purposes it didn’t need one. Being the world’s greatest superheroes wasn’t that hard when there weren’t that many superheroes around.

Generally speaking, that sort of attitude — whether justified or not — has informed DC’s superhero books for much of their existence; and that attitude has needed adjustment to keep DC’s characters interesting. Hal didn’t question his worldview until Ollie came along. Barry was sainted in death so that Wally’s exploits would contrast more easily. In perhaps the ultimate exploration of DC’s super-ethics, Kurt Busiek in JLA/Avengers postulate that while the world admired Superman and his fellow Leaguers, the heroes struggle with the potential abuse of their powers. It’s an issue raised at least as far back as January 1972’s “Must There Be A Superman?” (written by Elliott S! Maggin for Superman #247), but it’s not as prominent as Marvel’s “power and responsibility” or “hated and feared” motifs.

Still, perhaps the abuse-of-power theme is a good fit because so many of DC’s characters are in clear positions of power to begin with. Superman occupies a certain community leadership role, Wonder Woman and Aquaman are royalty, the Green Lanterns answer to ancient cosmic caretakers, Batman and Robin are wealthy, etc. They’re one-percenters, and the current books have built stories and conflicts around these positions. Sinestro is the poster boy for overreaching, the Owls tell Batman he’s never been part of Gotham’s “true” power structure, and Superman has to earn Metropolis’ trust. Aquaman and Mera have uneasy relationships with local law enforcement, the Justice League bigfoots the federal government, and the Flash’s powers threaten spacetime itself. It’s not the same for every New-52 book (Jonah Hex and Andrew Bennett aren’t exactly in privileged classes), but it’s not particularly isolated either.

Despite being a contrast to Marvel’s traditional “powers = complications” stance, it’s also not something around which to build a shared universe. I can think of several power-corrupts-themed storylines from the post-COIE era, starting with Legends and including Bill Messner-Loebs and Peter Gross’s run on Doctor Fate; Kingdom Come; “Superman Rex” and “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, And The American Way”; and maybe “No Man’s Land.” Recent years have brought us the mindwipes in Identity Crisis, its OMAC-related fallout in Infinite Crisis, and the Guardians’ lethal-force authorization in “The Sinestro Corps War.” Thus, the concept is flexible enough, but it’s also somewhat generic, since any number of superhero storylines could play on the temptation just to do something productive with one’s superpowers. (That said, I don’t remember any Robin stories where Tim struggled with violating the civil liberties of his fellow students….)

The other side of abuse-of-power stories is the purer form of socially-conscious heroism expressed in works as diverse as the Siegel/Shuster Superman, the Marston/Peter Wonder Woman, the O’Neil/Adams “hard-traveling” Green Lantern/Green Arrow, DC: The New Frontier, and All Star Superman. It’s arguably harder to derive an overarching theme from these kinds of stories, except in a very general “doing what’s right” sense. The abuse-of-power stories involve testing the heroes’ ethical rules (Should I disobey a government ban on superheroes? Should my robot counterparts and I police the entire world 24/7? Is my belief system out of date?), whereas the socially-conscious stories give the heroes more room to explore and express their beliefs (cf. New Frontier’s Wonder Woman or O’Neil/Adams’ Green Arrow). Still, you can’t really determine a general DC-superhero morality from such disparate sources, and we are left with a fairly broad statement of what the superhero line is “about.”

For decades, DC has struggled with how to unify its superhero books. Dan DiDio’s recent Facebook post listed his ten favorite titles from the past ten years, and a good bit of them dealt with big crossover-type events: Identity Crisis, Infinite Crisis and its Countdown To… special, the one-two punch of “The Sinestro Corps War” and “Batman R.I.P.”, the 52 miniseries, and of course the New 52 itself. The others were high-profile relaunches (GL: Rebirth and the Supergirl story in Superman/Batman) and high-profile creative teams on A-list characters (“Hush,” Superman: Earth One). None of these set out expressly to say something profound about the nature of DC’s superhero line, and although there are some abuse-of-power stories in the list I don’t think we can derive any one message from them collectively.

The attitude which kept DC’s characters square-jawed, stalwart, and (comparatively) bland for so long might now be seen simply as the responsibility of great power, which of course has a very familiar ring; but DC’s heroes tend to heed those responsibilities in a less complicated way than their crosstown counterparts. By and large they haven’t had (and don’t have) to worry about paying the rent, taking care of elderly relatives, unconventional body image, or perpetually bad relations with the media or the authorities. Moreover, decades of not having to deal with such situations has reinforced our expectations about these characters. (Ironically, the once-again-wealthy Green Arrow is at odds with my perception of him as a working-class progressive.) On a certain level, we all know what Superman should stand for, but we may disagree about the details which inform that stance.

Expanded across the board, that’s DC’s apparently-self-imposed conundrum: finding something upon which to unify its superhero line without alienating any significant part of its readership. If DiDio’s post is any indication, DC still seems to want desperately for the comics-reading public to embrace its books as a whole, but its previous efforts have come off as top-down mandates. In a 2004 installment of his long-running CBR column, the veteran comics writer Steven Grant suggested a less-evil, if not exactly happy, solution:

[P]eople who try to work out grand overarching schemes for universes, with all the backgrounds worked out in minute and tedious attention to details, or who tie all character experiences together with a singular gimmick, pretty much fall flat on their faces. Part of the fun of comics is their sheer vivacity, the sense that anything could happen, and if comics aren’t giving off something like that vibe, they’re not giving mileage for money. Overthought pre-fab universes tend to be sterile, limited places, no matter how their creators may delude themselves otherwise. Better, any of you still plotting out such a thing, to come up with some down and dirty unifying focus then let the various talents run with the ball wherever the mood strikes them. Statistically, the output isn’t likely to be any worse.

Grant was talking about Crossgen’s smaller “startup” universe, but the principle still applies. DC’s superhero line has grown from so many different influences into so many different directions that it continues to resist the inevitable top-down impositions; but out of all those voices some themes have emerged. I’m not sure if a 52-title lineup is manageable enough to express even two or three themes consistently, let alone speak to one exclusively; and I don’t know if the superhero line should be that consistent.

DC’s great strength is its diversity — different genre roots, different storytelling approaches, perhaps even different sociopolitical perspectives. In many ways it’s been a very conventional environment which encourages tradition and plays to expectations. The New 52 is just the latest attempt to distill those traditions into a form which satisfies those expectations. Maybe over the next ten years, the superhero line’s creative teams will figure out where they want the New-52 to go, and we’ll get to enjoy the different ways they take us there.