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Issue #9

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #9

For some reason, people keep asking me about the Wisconsin Mafia these days.

I have no idea what they’re talking about. I grew up in Madison Wisconsin,
and I did have a couple benign brushes with the real Wisconsin Mafia
when I was a music critic there, but these people are referring to an
alleged “mob” of comics talent that came out of Wisconsin, like Richard
Bruning and Mike Baron and Steve Rude. And me. The myth goes that
somehow we all greased each other’s wheels and allowed Wisconsites to
take over the comics industry.

Nice story. If there ever was a Wisconsin Mafia, it never did anything for
me.

It’s not unusual for waves of comics talent to suddenly sprout from specific
areas. Up until the early 70s, New York cornered the market, but then
California got into the act. Jim Starlin, Al Milgrom, Rich Buckler and others
rose together out of Detroit’s comics fandom around 1972. Bob Layton,
Roger Stern and John Byrne launched their careers off a little Indiana
fanzine called CPL around 1976. (John was Canadian, of course, but CPL
brought his art to professional attention.) In all these places, there was an
organized comics fandom where those who broke through gave entrée for
others. But Wisconsin? Not a chance.

The closest I ever got to a Wisconsin Mafia was Mark Gruenwald, who
arrived in Manhattan from Appleton WI a few months before I moved
from Madison. I didn’t even know he existed until then. I’d gotten in on the
coattails of the CPL Gang, as they were called, but Mark and I, having a
home state and a Manhattan neighborhood in common, became close
friends and writing partners for a couple of years. An assistant editor at
Marvel, Mark had no power to speak of, and, though he did throw me what
assignments he could, our association probably hurt him more than it helped
me. (The power structure at Marvel held me in low regard, but that’s
another story.)

Mark and I both held strong opinions on what comic books should be. As
our opinions parted, so did we. We never became enemies, but it wasn’t
until just before Mark’s recent death that we really started talking again,
and then only at conventions. He was a great guy, but his driving obsession
was one I couldn’t share.

Mark loved universes.

Universes were pretty much implied in comics the first time the Justice
Society ever banded together, but nobody concerned themselves with
whether the Mars Wonder Woman went to was the same Mars Green
Lantern went to. Nothing was really
suggested until 20 years later, when
Gardner Fox set the Golden Age heroes
on their own parallel earth, a concept
long established in science fiction but never really applied to comics. But
DC was then subdivided into editorial fiefdoms, and editor Julius Schwartz
was under no obligation to correlate THE FLASH with events or settings
in Mort Weisinger’s Superman books, even though they appeared together
in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA. Even internal consistency in titles
was rudimentary.

When the Marvel Universe congealed around Stan Lee – a triumph of
convenience over design, as Stan was writing something like ten books a
month and leaving the plotting mostly to his artists, and less variation meant
less he had to keep straight – fans reacted strongly. It was an exciting idea
at the time, the notion that all these separate stories could coalesce into a
single all-inclusive myth, and when fans became pros, they started writing
about what excited them. Since most broke in at DC, which had recently
purged its old talent for political reasons, they began “universing” DC. Jack
Kirby’s NEW GODS bumped the overt myth content of comics to a new
level, and Jim Starlin wedded that to acid mysticism and the convolutions of
Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion to take superhero comics “cosmic.”
And where once people had talked of Earths or worlds, universe was the
official buzzword.

Mark came to professional attention with his fanzine OMNIVERSE,
co-edited with Dean Mullaney, who went on to found Eclipse Comics.
OMNIVERSE attempted the ultimate jump to a unified field theory of
comics where not only did The Flash and Superman share the same
universe but all comics universes were sectors of one great superuniverse:
his Omniversal Theory. He never stopped quietly pushing it. On some
levels it’s a really great idea, with only one flaw.

Universes are bad for comics.


I recently tried to explain to one reader why many creations are of their
time and don’t necessarily translate for a new audience. DC’s Adam
Strange – America’s First Spaceman – made sense when astronauts were
new and the space race excited us, but I doubt it’s a coincidence his
popularity faded the closer we got to the moon. (And as our national
attention shifted from “the last frontier” to social issues.) While Marvel
has managed to keep him active (if not consistently popular) for 30 years,
the sensibilities underlying Captain America are so tied to the 1940s it’s
no wonder they keep reviving Nazis or pseudo-Nazis like Hydra to justify
his existence.

Universes are the detritus of the 1970s, when comics, facing plunging
sales as they are now, scrambled between the twin idols of myth and
relevance to make comics more meaningful for readers. We like to think
of comics as the last repository of myth in our culture, but that’s a pretty
egotistical view. All fiction is myth, regardless of medium. While ancient
myth is supposed to have great resonance, we shouldn’t forget that
they’re what’s left of dead religions, and those religions are dead for a
reason. GILLIGAN’S ISLAND is no less a myth of our culture than
Superman. Superman is no more a myth than NATIONAL
LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION. The idea of universes as the
grand tableau of new myths has led more than one talent to
quasi-religious excess, attempting to illuminate the meaning of existence
between fight scenes. Enough is enough. By the 50,000 resurrection or
the five millionth destruction and rebirth of the universe, even philosophy –
once fascinating in comics simply because there previously wasn’t any –
can’t keep it interesting. Jung said that the closer you get to your dreams,
the further they recede from you. Myth, like dream, is an unconscious
process, something scores of fantasy writers and Hollywood producers
haven’t learned. If you start by consciously trying to create myth, you end
by creating Jar Jar Binks.

The compression of entire lines into a single
coherent universe, most notably in DC’s
CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, was also
thought to make those worlds more real for
the readers by wiping out redundancies and
streamlining continuity. All universing did was
to separate comics even further from the real
world, and from the experience of potential
readers: only borderline schizophrenics need
apply. Like most people who wander off into
their own little worlds, comics companies have
become, at least editorially, more solipsistic as
they’ve depended more and more on universes
as content to the exclusion of all else.

Whatever was originally behind universing, in the 90s it has become, like
virtually every other aspect of comics, a marketing gimmick. (Not that it
was ever anything but. As soon as Stan Lee realized he had a
proto-universe on his hands, Marvel started marketing that over individual
characters. It wasn’t enough to buy Spider-Man, you bought Marvel.) As
Image rocketed to popularity, whole comics companies rose peddling
their books on little more than shared universes, and existing companies
like Malibu and Dark Horse were suddenly desperate to generate their
own universes. Even DC and Marvel created “new universes.” None of
them lasted. Pinned down on the tiniest details, they were all suffocated
by minutiae, everyone forgetting that all the great myths were syncretic –
even Greek and Egyptian mythologies, often presented as coherent story
cycles, resulted from waves of migrations and conquests replacing
indigenous gods and heroes with new ones – and even Marvel Comics
came together piecemeal and unplanned. Everyone tried to replicate 30
years of Marvel history overnight, and it can’t work. It landlocks
everything. There’s no room to move.

Universes make for bad writing, and
we get enough bad writing in comics
without them. Logic tells us that
“universes” offer an expansive view for
writers to work with, but the opposite is
more true. The weakness of the
Tarzan concept is that today we know
enough about Africa to not expect lost
civilizations there. We’ve mapped
enough of the moon and Mars and Antarctica that lost lands and secret
bases grow less likely by the day. Fu Manchu, the manifestation of the
Yellow Peril, is unconscionable today. The more territory mapped out, the
less there is to discover. Fact is always an obstacle for fiction. Ignoring
fact opens the door for some reader saying “But that can’t be so!” and
once they say that, you’ve lost them. Universes carry their own sets of
artificial facts, eradicating contradictory stories in the name of
verisimilitude. Continuity, not story, is the raison d’etre of the comics
universe, and any story that doesn’t fit becomes, de facto, a bad story.
Universes are crutches for editors, cheats for readers, and shackles for
writers.

I’m not saying Alan Moore shouldn’t put
PROMETHEA and TOM STRONG in the
same universe if he wants to. Let every writer
create his own universe of books for all I care.
But should he have to put them in the same
continuity as FROM HELL and BIG
NUMBERS? Why should Batman exist
alongside the Justice League? A weakness of
my CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN
was the expectation of many readers that
they’d take for granted things like ghosts and
magic and telepathy that are common in the
DC universe but strange and suspect in ours; the DC universe had
rendered “the unknown” moot. While there will always be readers who
say “I like it,” many readers have shown their growing antipathy toward
universes, putting their money behind things like DC’s Elseworlds books
instead. Or simply no longer buying anything.

There’s no reason comics must mimic
the real world. But by ritualistically
disconnecting comics from any
connection to reality, by wrapping
comics in hermetic esoterica in lieu of
actual stories, we marginalize what possibilities comics have. The
universe concept is played out – almost 30 years on and it’s still just sound
and fury, signifying nothing. Can anyone honestly say universes have
made for better fiction? They’ve captured a few imaginations in their
time, but whatever power they had for that has obviously waned badly.
It’s time for comics universes to wane as well, and for comics writers to
find their own ways, their own voices and viewpoints, again.


No special information this week. As usual, my website is Steven Grant’s Alleged Fictions.