DC Comics and the shattered illusion

There’s a third season episode of How I Met Your Mother where Ted thinks he’s found the perfect girl, but doesn’t see the glaring flaw that’s driving the rest of his friends crazy. When it’s finally pointed out to him, there’s a sound of shattering glass as his illusions are smashed and the veil of perfection is lifted from his image of his girlfriend. In retaliation, he points out one of Lily’s major flaws to Marshall and the dominoes continue to fall until the clatter of breaking glass fills the air. By the end of the episode, everyone stands figuratively naked, their defects bared before the entire group.

This has been happening in serial fiction a lot lately. I don’t mean that this theme comes up a lot; I mean that serialized fiction – whether in comics, TV, or even the movies – presents an illusion that it knows what it’s doing. That there’s a master plan being followed and if you’ll just stick with the story, all will be revealed and eventually concluded in an emotionally satisfying way that makes complete sense. This is of course crap, as I’ve come to realize more and more the last several years. The sound of shattered glass is deafening.

I’m not suggesting that no one’s planning ahead at all. Obviously, there are writers who are. But writers can only plan so far and even the best of them eventually reach a point where they’ve said what they originally set out to say. In order to keep the story going, Sydney has to lose two years of her life, you have to introduce Nikki and Paulo, or Meredith has to betray Derek by interfering with his clinical trial. Or you have to reboot your entire comic book line.

Let’s make something else clear. I’m not talking about Jump the Shark moments. I’m not even sure I believe in Jump the Shark moments. With the right writers in place, long-running series can survive the audiences’ realization that the story is making itself up as it goes along. It doesn’t have to suck after that point, though sucking often occurs. That’s why I’m optimistic about DCnU. I’d like to be more optimistic, but having seen this kind of thing work in the past, I’m cautiously hopeful that it’ll work for DC in September. But whether it works or doesn’t, it certainly does rip back the curtain and reveal the little man working the Wizard’s controls.

With each of DC and Marvel’s events since Identity Crisis and Civil War, the companies have repeated a consistent marketing mantra: “It’s all been building to this.” Say what you will about hardcore fans' only caring about stories that “count;” DC and Marvel have been encouraging that attitude by having each event flow into the next. The message is that what matters aren’t individual stories within particular series, but the gigantic stories of their entire universes. The illusion is that these gigantic stories are all headed somewhere.

Of course they aren’t. Nowhere, that is, except for the next event. Which will then lead to the one after that. There was no master plan that connected Civil War to Fear Itself. Or Identity Crisis to Brightest Day. Nor do I think anyone honestly believes that there was. It’s an illusion that the publishers sell and we happily buy. We’re not fools for buying it so long as we remember what it really is. It’s when we forget and start to believe the illusion that we set ourselves up for heartbreak.

I think that’s why a lot of long-time DC fans are upset by DCnU. The Don’t Call It a Reboot is essentially DC’s shrugging its shoulders and saying, “You know what? We don’t know where to go next.” Back in the day, this used to happen all the time on individual series that weren’t working. They’d bring in a new creative team and announce a Bold, New Direction for the series. That’s what DCnU is, but on a much grander scale and with much deeper changes. DC seems to have realized that Brightest Day wasn’t leading anywhere they were excited to go, so they made plans to wrap that up and start over with something new. The tactic could work (and I’m rooting for it to), but it does destroy the illusion. And a lot of fans liked that illusion.

At the end of that How I Met Your Mother episode, the group of friends of course realized that they still accepted and loved each other in spite of their annoying habits. The shattering of illusions made their relationships stronger. I’m curious to see if that’s going to work for DC and its fans. No one with any sense believes that DC’s actively trying to divorce itself from its current audience in hope of trying to create an entirely new one. The question is: have they created enough good will with their current audience to weather the heartbreak of seeing behind the curtain? Will fans accept and love them anyway?

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