Recent developments in superhero comics and TV reminded me of this conversation from a fan gathering I attended, not too long ago.
I've tried to reproduce it to the best of my recollection, but since several of the participants are normally quite erudite and respected I think you'll understand why I avoided using their names.
"Wow. David E. Kelley must have a career death wish."
"Wonder Woman, dude, he's doing the new Wonder Woman. Don't you pay any attention to the TV news?"
"Not when it's about Wonder Woman. Hell, I hardly pay attention to who's writing the actual book."
"That's my point!"
"There was a point? I must have missed it."
"Dude, Wonder Woman is where careers go to die. Anybody who works on that character is lucky to get out with a whole skin."
"What are you talking about?"
"No, he's right. Wonder Woman is the third rail of comics. No matter how successful you are, Wonder Woman will destroy you."
"Oh, come on, people have been successful on Wonder Woman."
"Since 1945? Who?"
"Well, obviously George Perez. Phil Jiminez. Uh... Gail Simone... Greg Rucka... "
"I don't mean quality. I mean sales. I mean buzz. I mean marquee value."
"Talking about sales then versus sales now is a false dichotomy. Nothing in comics sells like it used to. It's all aimed at overweight nerds like us. And we're dying off. Usually without reproducing."
"Oh, that's cold, man."
"Harsh truths. Face it. When was the last time you had a date?"
"Well, there was She-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named..."
"That carnivorous plant you used to be married to doesn't count."
"Hey, at least I was married! What is with all these cheap shots? Did someone run over your dog?"
"He's still bitter because of the time that rollerblade chick shut him down in Chula Vista."
"Never gonna let me live that one down."
"No, seriously, though, look at the record. Wonder Woman's like this albatross DC has to drag around behind them forever. The estate says they have to grind the book out till the end of time or they lose the rights. It should have been canceled years ago. Instead it's become this sword people fall on. Now it's at the point where every couple of years someone comes along and says 'no, no, I can make it work.' And then they don't and they get fired, or they flee screaming. Look at this thing with whatshisface, the Babylon 5 guy..."
"Yeah, him. Comes in with the flashy new costume thing and big news splash about how it's a whole new day and he does what, three issues? Or the other guy, the other TV guy...."
"Yeah, what a train wreck that was. How many years did that story take to come out?"
"I don't know, because I don't read Wonder Woman. I told you."
[caption id="attachment_76273" align="alignnone" width="620" caption="Not either writer's finest hour."]
"But it didn't kill their careers. Heinberg did a bunch of cool Marvel stuff, he does TV still. And Straczynski had a friggin' national bestseller of a graphic novel. Why should they stick around and do a monthly slog on a book no one is buying?"
"Wait, I can't tell. Did he refute your point or make it?"
"You're all wrong anyway. Wonder Woman still has merchandising, they still put her in movies and cartoons, the book's ongoing, she's around. The real third rail of comics is Aquaman."
"Hey, I like Aquaman!"
"Dude, you're clearly the only one."
"Aquaman can be successful..."
"Really? Name a time it sold. Hell, name a time it was a buzz book... name a time it was a fan press darling like the Perez Wonder Woman or Gail's or Strac-- Strik-- Babylon 5 guy's."
"I'll tell you when. It was when he had a cartoon. I was there in '67 for the Superman-Aquaman Hour and it friggin' rocked. That show and the Adam West Batman led me to comics but it was the comics from that cartoon that held me. Back then Batman was Gardner Fox and Joe Giella doing these bloodless puzzle things but Aquaman, The Flash, Justice League... those books were cool, they brought me back to the drugstore rack every chance I got."
[caption id="attachment_76267" align="alignnone" width="620" caption="My first Aquaman. And my second. Which turned out to be the last one for a while."]
"So, 1967. That was, what, Cardy?"
"Cardy and Aparo. Steve Skeates was writing it, I think."
"And the buzz on it was so great that they canceled it."
"And nobody's made it work since. Case closed."
"Peter David wrote it like a blond Sub-Mariner. Grim 'n' gritty."
"No, no, that's crap, I get so tired of hearing that, it's just not true. All Peter David did was incorporate the history of the character and fold in his own Atlantis book stuff."
[caption id="attachment_76273" align="alignnone" width="620" caption="THIS IS NOT 'Just a blond Sub-Mariner' DAMMIT!"]
"And again, it was so successful that they canceled it. Seriously, how many reboots of Aquaman have there been?"
"Uh... counting from when? Golden Age, then Silver, then 70's fake Marvel, then 80's with the blue suit, then the mini where they undid the blue suit and went back to emo fake Marvel, then Peter David, then Larsen, then Veitch and then... damn it, I know I missed one..."
"More than one. Dan Jurgens took a swing at it in there somewhere."
"Between emo fake Marvel in the 70s Adventure strip and the Peter David one, there was that one with Shaun McLaughlin."
[caption id="attachment_76273" align="alignnone" width="620" caption="The forgotten 1990s book that was actually pretty good."]
"Oh yeah. Okay him. And, uh, Sub Diego and Sword of Atlantis and now Brightest Day. How many is that?"
"I lost count."
"Whatever. The point is, nobody can make the book go."
"So? It's not a third rail, it doesn't end careers or chase people out of comics."
Pause as all consider this definition.
"Okay, I got it. Here's your third rail. Following Grant Morrison."
"What? I don't get it."
"Grant Morrison comes on a book and then people try to keep it going afterward. They tank it. The end."
"Oh, come on."
"Seriously. Rachel Pollack on Doom Patrol? Chuck Austen on X-Men?"
"Okay, yeah, Doom Patrol, but what about Animal Man? JLA? Peter Milligan and Mark Waid did all right there."
"They did okay by completely ignoring what Morrison did. Grant Morrison always breaks the toys before he puts them away. He left Animal Man in a place where you literally couldn't tell stories about Buddy Baker any more that didn't feel anti-climactic. There was nowhere left to go after he became a self-aware comic character and talked to his own writer. And JLA, same thing, he ended that one with everyone on the damn planet getting superpowers and flying into space to fight the cosmic bad guy. You can't go anywhere from there either, everything after that is anti-climax almost by definition. It's a total mess if you're the new writer. All you can do is reboot, pretend it didn't happen and start over."
[caption id="attachment_76273" align="alignnone" width="620" caption="Where DO you go from here? The repercussions of those events make any further serial storytelling pretty damn hard..."]
"Okay, so you don't mean just be the next guy. You mean actually try and follow what he did. That's true of lots of writers. Why isn't trying to follow Frank Miller a third rail? Or trying to out-Moore Alan Moore?"
"All right then, just say that trying to follow up on the previous guy's run is the third rail."
"Uh-huh. And you know why it is? Because of fans like you that piss and moan about the new guy being sucky, even though the poor bastard never has a chance. He tries something new and you want it like the old guy did it. So he tries to do that and he gets sneered at for not being the old guy. You want it the same, but different. There's no pleasing you guys. All you want to do is sit around and eat pizza and bitch."
"What, you have a problem with pizza now?"
"I forgive you for saying that because I know you're still bitter about--"
"Don't say it!"
I don't know if we ever did figure out what the third rail really was. Maybe it's actually just hot girls on roller blades.
See you next week.