The Relentless Pursuit Of Imperfection

by  in Comic News Comment
The Relentless Pursuit Of Imperfection

[Yes, this is still a DC-centered column.]

As I was finishing up the first Peter David Hulk collection, it hit me (because I am slow) that the end of the Hulk is hardwired into his character makeup. Once Bruce Banner is irrevocably “cured” of his monstrous alter-ego, the series is over. Yes, there have been several status-quo-changing variations on this solution over the years, including (from what I understand) the current Red Hulk/Green Hulk situation. Nevertheless, if Marvel ever wants to get out of the Hulk business, the most direct solution is right there waiting.

Most of the classic Marvel characters started out with some such hard-to-overcome trait. Ben Grimm wanted to be human again, and Reed wanted to cure him. Captain America struggled with Bucky’s death and his man-out-of-time status. An ignorant (but significant) segment of society persecuted the X-Men. Odin forbade Thor’s love for Jane Foster. (Plus, Thor-the-comic always had Ragnarok to look forward to.) While each of these subplots has been resolved, to one extent or another, another always seems ready to take its place. (Not unlike the heads of Hydra, amIrite?) Marvel characters are seen as deeper, more complex, etc., because they are generally tragic figures.

By contrast, DC’s Silver Age superhero books were about solving problems, be they Batman-style mysteries, Flash-type hypotheses, or JLA-level obstacles. Character traits only entered into the story as bits of secret-identity business: Clark’s nerdiness, Barry’s tardiness, Hal’s emotional manipulation of Carol. For the most part, these folks didn’t have to deal with anything beyond the scope of the immediate story, so each of those stories was allowed to end on its own terms.

Of course, when fans invoke the conceit that all these stories must take place in the same shared universe, and from there pile character bits, plot points, trivia, etc., into one big data file, we get the bogeyman called Continuity. Continuity is just another way to say that This Is All One Story. Again, where Marvel is concerned, the “this” — the One Story — is of an Earth (centered on New York City) where superpowers generally cause as many problems as they solve. With DC, the One Story is harder to discern, because there are so many different characters, approaches, settings, what-have-you. What, indeed, is the One Story of a particular DC character, let alone the larger DC Universe? For the Trinitarians, those endings probably sound fairly utopian: Batman is pretty much finished once Gotham City has been scrubbed clean; Wonder Woman’s mission will be accomplished when the Earth is finally at peace; and Superman might not be satisfied even then. Implicit in DC’s lattice of “legacies” is the notion that there will always be some evil for super-people to fight, from the present day into the far, far, far future.

Therefore, Marvel can do as many depressing, woe-is-us, everything’s-in-the-toilet Big Events as it wants, because they all reinforce the superhero line’s mission statement: superpowers bring you grief. Without that kind of overarching theme — unless “good always triumphs in the end” counts as an overarching theme — DC’s Big Events aren’t One Story, but “one thing after another.” This, in turn, robs the line of a central focus, and tends to make every official pronouncement from the publisher sound like some variation on wait and see. It’s always nice to hear statements with some finality in them, on the order of this week’s “[s]o much of what we’ve been building toward for the last few years has been leading us to [Blackest Night].” Considering how the past several events have flowed one into the next, though, such statements are rather rare.

And that’s understandable. If Blackest Night is really the last link in the latest Great Chain of Events, it is the end of a story DC has been telling since George W. Bush’s first term. (It may be a story only a flowchart could love, but it is a story nonetheless.) Accordingly, BN must say something meaningful, both about reanimated, cosmically-powered super-corpses and the people who love them, and about its predecessors in the Great Chain. After all, neither Blackest Night nor any other big DC storyline can piggyback, Marvel-style, upon a larger theme.

Let’s be clear: this is not necessarily a problem. In fact, as I have argued previously, it is built into the structure of DC’s superhero line. The publisher’s corporate history is full of expansion and assimilation, from mergers in the Golden Age to recent deals concerning the Red Circle superheroes and THUNDER Agents. There is no One Story coming out of the DC superhero line because there is no single creative figure (or team) whose work has informed it. In other words, Marvel today is continuing a mega-story which Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko started. DC is not, because it cannot — but again, this is not that big a deal.

See, in order to keep its soap-opera fresh, Marvel must tinker constantly with its characters’ inner turmoil, sometimes at the expense of their otherwise-reasonable growth. Last week Justin Zyduck at theorized that Spider-Man must have gotten pretty good at superheroing over the course of his career — but not too good, and not too successful at juggling it with his personal life, or it wouldn’t have been true to his character. The Peter who was Tony Stark’s protégé, who was married to a supermodel and living with the Avengers, and who had finally managed to placate Aunt May’s fears about Spider-Man, was evidently not sustainable in terms of the ongoing serial narrative.

Compare Spider-Man’s escape from continuity with the 1986 Superman reboot. Prior to 1986, Superman and Lois’ relationship was defined by the phrase “eternal triangle.” Supes himself was, in his heart, a lonely Kryptonian haunted by various tragedies, including the deaths of his foster parents, the shrunken Bottle City of Kandor, and (oh yes) the destruction of Krypton itself. He fit into human society primarily through the elaborate fiction of “Clark Kent,” the eternally self-effacing journalist who remained something of an outcast even as a network news anchor. Today, though, “Superman” is the fiction; a well-adjusted Clark is married to Lois; Pa Kent lived a much longer life (and died of natural causes unrelated to his son); and Kryptonian society is rebuilding itself just a couple of A.U.s away from Earth. While these changes aren’t improvements on the pre-1986 status quo, they do represent differences from (and perhaps resolutions to) those pre-reboot concerns. Not everyone was happy with the fundamental alterations which facilitated these developments, but they did give the Superman mythology room to breathe and grow.

Naturally, there are various degrees of experimentation currently on display at DC, from the forward-to-the-past movements which brought back Hal Jordan et al. to the envelope-pushing Secret Six and the almost-comforting sameness of (any) Batman. However, each of DC’s superhero characters exists on its own terms, not as an expression of some company-wide mission statement.

This has not stopped DC from trying either to craft such a statement (“The Original Universe,” anyone?) or to build such a shared universe. The Marvel U clearly plays to the strengths of the Direct Market, and vice versa; and DC naturally wants to duplicate its success. Even so, Marvel’s characters may be too complex to be sustainable over the long haul. The publisher is advertising its 70th anniversary this year, but the one which counts more is the 50th anniversary of the Fantastic Four two years from now. At that point, Marvel will be trying to cram five decades’ worth of superhero publishing into — what? — 12 years of “comic-book time.” (I’m making a rough estimate based on Franklin and Valeria Richards.) When DC turned 50, it came pretty close to blowing everything up and starting all over; and it still blew up quite a lot. Marvel may well keep rolling along, albeit with its headliners freshly tweaked for maximum familiarity. I can only hope that DC’s tweaking will have finished by that time.

Although I do get frustrated with DC’s attempts to play exclusively to one set of aging fans (of which I am, admittedly, a member), I am more willing to give it a pass on the tweaking. Marvel’s characters were designed to grow and change with virtually every issue, and so they did: Peter Parker and Johnny Storm went to college, Reed and Sue became parents, Jane and Thor broke up, Cap got over Bucky’s death. At some point, though, that growth and those changes came slower and slower. By contrast, DC’s characters weren’t supposed to change. (If they did, as when Barry and Iris got married, it tended to reinforce the status quo.) Changes would only get in the way of solving each story’s puzzle — they weren’t the point of the story.

In fact, although Green Lantern: Rebirth was a medal-round display of continuity gymnastics, and laid the groundwork for Blackest Night, I daresay the bulk of the ongoing Green Lantern title hasn’t cared a whole lot about Hal Jordan’s growth and development as a person. Specifically, the point of de-Parallaxing Hal was to roll back all those years of doubt, so he could once again be the confident GL of the Silver Age; and Flash: Rebirth looks to be pointing Barry Allen and friends down the same path. I expect the new Flash ongoing (whenever it might appear) will deal much more heavily with the Rogues and the Speed Force than with Barry’s personal issues. Because DC’s various rehabilitation projects ostensibly allow it to tell more discrete, straightforward stories, the tweaking therein seems more honest than Marvel’s constant attempts at preservation. Over the years, Johnny Storm has been about as aimless as Hal Jordan, but Hal was never part of “the world outside your window.”

To me, once a character’s final fate becomes apparent, the larger arc of his life (or at least his career) must deal with that fate either directly or obliquely. By and large, the motivations which drive DC’s characters have external sources (fighting crime, etc.), and aren’t the kinds of things which one grows out of, or otherwise learns to deal with. They may make DC’s characters less complex on an issue-by-issue basis, but more sustainable in the end.

Indeed, DC’s great strength isn’t so much in its characters themselves, but in the diversity of styles and genres its characters represent.  Its superhero line can be an excellent venue for telling a wide range of stories in a variety of ways.  If Blackest Night is really the culmination of the Great Chain’s efforts, perhaps that diversity will flourish in its wake.