When I stopped writing PERMANENT DAMAGE a couple years ago, I stopped reading comics. For the first time in my life. I started reading comics at age 7, with “All-Star Western” #116. That was a long time ago. (I suddenly feel like Justice Shallow, opening Orson Welles’ Shakespeare mash-up Chimes At Midnight with a moaned “Jesus, the days that we have seen.”) I still know the first five I bought: “Justice League of America” #6, “The Flash” #123, “World’s Finest” #120, “Detective Comics” #295, “Green Lantern” #7. That last one nailed my coffin shut — from there, it was a blur of pretty much everything. Aside from war, romance and funny animal comics, I was a pretty indiscriminate reader. Indiscrimination is good, when you’re starting out. It helps define taste rather than feed bias.
But I would say that, wouldn’t I? My own bias kept Russ Heath and, except for Hawkman, Joe Kubert out of my grasp for many years.
The others are completely forgettable unless you were still new enough to comics that they’d leave an imprint (that JLA issue introduced me to superhero bondage, the “World’s Finest” to the joys of humiliating Superman, the “Detective Comics” — no, that one was just forgettable…) but “The Flash” #123 and “Green Lantern” #7 spawned modern superhero comics. The former introduced Earth-2, the latter the Green Lanterns Corps, and from these two seeds whole mythologies across entire comics lines grew directly or by inspiration, flourished (sometimes), and, let’s face it, have largely grown tired and rancid. (It has been over 50 years, after all.) Even modern Marvel owes far more, content-wise, to Gardner Fox, John Broome, Carmine Infantino and Gil Kane than it does to Stan Lee, Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko. (Conversely, the Marvel movies still owe almost everything to them.)
But I was there, at the dawn of that age, and I was here for the dawn of this one, and that’s a hell of a lot of comics read. And I stopped, just like that. After 10 years of discussing comics almost every week, 12 if you add in MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS, the column that preceded PERMANENT DAMAGE, after five decades of immersion in the medium and the field, no juice left.
Not the first time I’d been through something like that. After I stopped reviewing films in 1981, after almost a year of reviewing between five and eight mostly truly bad movies (“Charlie Chan & The Curse Of The Dragon Lady,” anyone? “Flash Gordon?”) for the better part of a year, I didn’t a movie for six months, and film was my college major. Then I saw Brian dePalma’s awful “Blow Out,” then another six months before I could watch another film.
Sometimes you just have to cool out.
Funny thing brought me back to reading comics last July: I bought a 10″ Asus Transformer T-300-T tablet. For travel, originally; it seemed a lighter, more convenient alternative to my old netbook so I could keep up with email and internet on the road. Not that I was spending any time on the road, but you have to spend movie money on something. (Did I mention that during The Great Absence, “2 Guns” had finally made the jump to production? More on that down there somewhere.) Turns out, the dirty little secret of tablets is they’re great for receiving data, not great for sending it, though I suppose if I texted I’d find it easier, but texting is annoying as hell. For serious writing, tablets are next to useless. (Eventually got the keyboard/battery back accessory for the Transformer. Now writing on it’s not bad.)
Turns out what 10″ tablets are really great for is reading comics. (At least Android tablets; I assume 10″ iPads are just as good.) Screw paper. You can carry hundreds of comics on a tablet with no weight at all, manipulate page size when necessary, and on those screens the art & colors just pop. Old comics or new, doesn’t matter.
The tablet made reading comics a kick again. It’s like a whole new thing, now.
Decided it was time to catch up a little. The Newish 52 had launched in my absence so asked what titles were worth having a look at. Didn’t want to replicate my Blow-Out experience, though now that I think about it, people recommended that then too. Most surprising recommendation was Jimmy Palmiotti & Justin Gray’s “All-Star Western” — surprising because the person recommending it hates westerns — and, clinging to DC continuity by a hangnail, the run has been the most consistently entertaining of the Newish 52. If there were any sanity in fandom, readers would flock to the book in droves.
What was most recommended, though, was Scott Snyder’s “Batman” arc, “The Court Of Owls.”
Batman is easily the most confusing property in all DC’s Newish 52 — given Green Lantern, that’s saying something — and a prime example of why I call it the Newish 52. Characters like Superman and The Flash they took a machete to; while not reimagining them a la the 1956 reintroduction of The Flash (hence Newish), they hacked away at much of the baggage, rendering sleeker if not necessarily more coherent versions. Logic suggests this is the way the Newish DC should have gone across the board, and even more thoroughly, though the hardcore faithful would likely have hate it even more than they seem to hate what did happen. They should have cleaned house, started from scratch a la 1956, proceeded as though everything that came before happened in, well, some other universe. (Not that anyone with sense expected it. DC already botched at least two opportunities to completely reboot with “Crisis On Infinite Earths” and “Zero Hour.”) The Batman books, near as I can tell, kept all their former continuity and, with “Batman Incorporated,” ran with it as if there had never been any universe-wide shift, shoehorning in longrunning storylines with current revamps and ramping up an unholy mess for anyone trying to make sense of it all. Better as a reader not to try, better as a creator to simply never refer to old storylines ever again and get on with it.
Which, admirably, Scott Snyder seemed to want to do with “The Court Of Owls.”
Unfortunately, he lost me almost instantly, with Batman going to an underground convergence of abandoned train tracks under Gotham City, representing the old five routes into the burg and now, in smothering symbolism, controlled by the five organized crime families that run the Gotham underworld. Were the character just starting out, if this had been a complete relaunch, this wouldn’t have bothered me. But the Newish mythology says Batman has been active in Gotham City for five years.
Think about that. This is a guy whose whole raison d’etre is to exact vengeance on all crimedom for the brutal murders of his parents. Of course, what really drives Batman isn’t thirst for vengeance but stunted adolescence backed by a personal fortune & virtually unlimited resources that keep the usual necessities of life from standing in the way of his ambitions and forcing him to grow up (an unmentioned underlying theme that perhaps strikes more of a chord with modern audiences than, say, Superman’s emphasis on civil service and responsibility). So this guy has had five years to wipe out organized crime, and he not only knows what crime families exist he knows exactly where to find them. And they’re still there, operating.
In the DCU, there are three levels of crime. There’s organized crime, crazy supervillains and the lowest level street crime involving spouses who suddenly kill each other, the random person desperate for cash who suddenly decides to mug a passerby, etc. Street crime, that’s too unpredictable to expect Batman to stop it unless he’s in the right place at the right time. Crazy supervillains? They’re crazy. There’s only so much short of execution anyone can do about that. Organized crime? Not only should organized crime no longer exist in Gotham City, he should routinely and definitively drive out anyone who tries to set up shop. He should be making Metropolis look like a preferable alternative. He should be the damn Hat Squad.
That five years after he has started his crusade against crime, there are still five fully functional organized crime families operating in Gotham indicates only one thing:
Batman is a pussy.
I’m pretty sure that’s not the message they’re trying to get across, but if you think about it at all, that’s the message you get. He’s an entitled rich kid with lots of attitude and no follow-through, who can’t even get around to dealing his single avowed reason for existence.
I don’t blame this on Scott. It’s part of the general corporatethink surrounding characters like Batman, and it’s been in place for a long time, through many regimes. I’d be very surprised if anyone at DC even thinks to question it. Corporatethink does not like to think things through. The function of corporatethink is to carve out a comfort zone (however one defines comfort in whatever situation) and resist any departure from that zone, usually at all costs. If there are departures and they turn out successful rather than the horrific failures corporatethink is certain they’ll be, corporatethink just moves the zone over to the new sweet spot, calls it the new comfort zone then commonly tries to redecorate to make it look as much like the old comfort zone as possible.
And everything gets touted as new. Ish.
That’s a problem of dealing with icons. People get tangled up in the iconic, and in this business, in any entertainment business, “iconic” is shorthand for “we have something we want to turn into a moneymaking franchise, so we need you to think it’s a lot more important than it is.” But “icons” generate repetitions. Using Batman and “The Court Of Owls” as an example again, the Batman offices really ought to keep a chart of gimmicks that shouldn’t be repeated again. Faceless (which is to say impersonal) all-powerful centuries-old conspiracies, especially those that pop up out of nowhere into an already littered continuity, are inherently boring. Not every new master villain has to have some deeply intimate direct connection to Bruce Wayne. (Weren’t Dr. Hurt and Hush enough?) And is there some website somewhere in the DCU that has Batman’s secret identity posted or something? Everybody knows!
None of this is anything that’s difficult to correct, but it’s never corrected. It’s frequently blamed, sideways, on the writers, disguised as a courtesy to them: we don’t want to limit the possibilities. We can’t eliminate crime families because some writer might come in with a great story about Batman vs. crime families. But if you listen to rationales for resurrecting unperforming “icons” from the grave over and over and over again, there are no limits to possibilities. Both can’t be right. At least there seems to be no end to the possibilities for organized crime in Gotham City: now Leviathan has take over the place, right under Batman’s nose. The only possibility for Batman now seems to be swaggering but ultimately ineffectual bully. Even in “Dark Knight Rises,” he only barely manages to save the day after numerous people are killed and most of Gotham City’s population is displaced on his watch, even after he stops thinking about his bad knees. I guess you have to keep those stakes raised somehow.
And I guess there are still a few things left to say after all, now that the landscape has changed. So: TEMPORARY MADNESS. A cheap seven week publicity stunt leading up to the release of “2 Guns” on August 2 (my graphic novel that they drew the film from has just been rereleased by BOOM! Studios, so if you haven’t read it yet, don’t be a stranger) but also almost two months of big fun from behind the curtain of pop culture. Sure, I’m indulging myself, but to quote Falstaff in Chimes At Midnight, “If to be merry and old is a sin, then many an old host I know is damned.”
But “Damned” is another story.
Sorry, no politics except cultural politics this time around, but if anyone wants to pay me to write political commentary, you know where to find me. Replies, mash notes, hate mail, etc. can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Anyone who wants face time can find me at the San Diego Comic-Con, July 18-21 (try the Boom! Studios booth) & WizardWorld Chicago August 8-11 (I’ll have my own table).