Grumpy Old Fan | The constant campaign, revisited

Several years ago, in a post for the old Great Curve blog that's surely lost to history, I called DC Comics' steady stream of crossovers the “constant campaign.” Just as winning candidates must shift from electoral strategies to actual governing, so I argued that DC had to stop churning and changing and settle into telling stories. These days DC isn’t so much into line-wide crossovers -- not like 2004-09, when Identity Crisis led into Infinite Crisis and from there to Final Crisis -- but it has a similar lack of focus.

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Although the New 52 makeover is only a little more than three years old, it’s gone through quite a bit of change. Many series, and many creative teams, have come and gone. The original 52-series lineup boasted a number of distinctive, idiosyncratic writer/penciler combinations. Now, however, with this week’s final issue of Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang's (and friends’) Wonder Woman, only Justice League, Batman and Batman & Robin have kept the same writer since the relaunch. Moreover, only the two Bat-books have kept the same writer and penciler.

This isn't to say that all change is bad -- see, for example, the new Batgirl and Catwoman creative teams -- but for me, a book that looks and acts differently from the rest of the line also reads differently month in and month out. Each issue takes on added significance, because it’s not just chronicling another 20 pages in the life of Character X, it’s also 20 more pages of (perhaps) a particularly enjoyable interpretation of Character X. Extended tenures are increasingly rare in the super-comics realm, so the longer a Snyder/Capullo or Azzarello/Chiang can stay on a series, the better. Add to that the ability to rewrite a character’s history -- as the New 52 relaunch facilitated -- and the distinctiveness of a particular creative team becomes even more of a factor.

Running counter to both the power of a distinct creative team and the freedom of a relaunch is the inevitable pull of a reversion to the mean. Put more simply, no matter how many changes a creative team makes to a set of well-established elements, sooner or later those elements tend to reappear. That’s why teasing previous character incarnations, if not the outright return of the pre-New 52 status quo, can be very effective at drumming up hype.

Trouble is, modern storytelling styles seem so invested in making radical changes that getting back to a more traditional setup can be pretty daunting in and of itself. When DC decided to get rid of Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps more than 20 years ago, it went all-out: Hal became an omnipotent, mass-murdering villain, Kyle had the only remaining ring, and Ganthet was the only remaining Guardian of the Universe. While some elements (Kilowog, John Stewart, the Guardians, Oa) returned ahead of Green Lantern: Rebirth, ultimately it took 10 years and lots of continuity gymnastics from writer Geoff Johns to rationalize the old setup back into existence. Regardless, they’ve now been back for another 10 years, making the era of “Kyle Rayner, The Last Green Lantern” look comparatively like a bump in the road.

Still, Kyle got a decade to himself in large part because DC was committed to that status quo. It allowed readers to focus on what was, not what might be. By contrast, the New 52's hodgepodge of old and new continuity -- including both the notion that the timeline still needs fixing, and the reappearance of some familiar faces -- has made the relaunch feel impermanent.

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I say all of that because we’re now into the fourth year of an experiment that appears to be redefining itself every year. To mark its first anniversary in September 2012, every New 52 title got to explore its origins in a zero issue. It promoted the line uniformly, but allowed for differences among the individual books. Starting with last summer’s “Trinity War,” however, DC began teasing some major shakeups. September 2013's “Villains Month” kicked off Forever Evil and its attendant changes and revelations, many of which had to wait until the miniseries’ final issue worked through its delays. Meanwhile, this year’s event started in May, with Futures End’s zero issue; and it’ll apparently culminate (I hesitate to use the word “end”) with whatever’s going to happen next spring. Additionally, for both September 2013 and 2014, DC skipped publishing regular issues of its books in favor of disconnected specials.

It makes for some choppy reading, at least on a month-by-month basis, as DC lurches from one set of changes to another, with September apparently becoming an annual disruption. You’d think that the big in-story cosmic developments -- whether they’re Pandora’s mysterious multiversal tampering, the Anti-Monitor’s path of destruction or Brainiac’s acquisition of ultimate power -- would have to have some logical, and perhaps even common, resolution. I’m not holding my breath. It may be a reasonable consequence of the West Coast move, but the fact is that we’ll probably have to wait another six months for everything to calm down. (And after that, it’s only a few more months until September 2015.)

Indeed, the West Coast move seems to be the first external circumstance affecting DC’s overall output. Pandora’s role in the cosmic scheme of things was teased for months before her ongoing series debuted, and even then her three-eyed skull-shaped “box” turned out to be somewhat peripheral to both “Trinity War” and Forever Evil. That smacks of creative dithering, not logistical concerns. It’s emblematic of a more general attitude that the New 52 still hasn’t found itself. Never mind that all or part of it might merely be temporary.

The ironic thing is, the New 52 could use a big crossover to bring all its books together and orient them around a common set of events. Forever Evil wasn’t that crossover, because it was concerned mostly with the Justice League books and only reached briefly into Suicide Squad and Teen Titans. So far Futures End and World’s End haven’t met that need, because one takes place “five years from now” and the other has been confined to its own parallel universe. While big crossovers can be disruptive, they can also show readers the differences between various creative approaches. (Arguably, the Bat-books are doing this at the moment, assuming they’re each reacting in their own ways to the fallout from Batman Eternal. We may see something similar with the New Gods, as the various Lantern creative teams try to harmonize their New 52 interpretations.) Ordinarily I’m more than happy for each series to go its own way and let the continuity sort itself out, but it’s hard to keep one’s mind on that when everything may have to reach a stopping point next March. To be blunt -- and let’s be clear, I am not saying I think this now -- I don’t want to think that a particular storyline is just running out the clock.

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So, quick recap:

-- the superhero line risks running low on distinct creative voices;

-- we might question DC’s commitment to the relaunch;

-- the relaunch itself lacks an overall direction; and

-- none of these concerns may be addressed for another six months.

What to do? Well, between now and March I suppose we’ll see a fair amount of resolution, as the various series (including the weeklies) prepare for whatever’s going to happen in April. I still don’t think the New 52 will be going away entirely, but all the multiversal shenanigans have to work themselves out, and sooner rather than later.

Again, watching this play out week after week, issue by issue, can be fairly frustrating. I don’t know if it would be better or worse to wait for the various collections. Certainly that would emphasize the stories themselves, as opposed to the gradual procession of each issue towards an uncertain future. By the time these stories are collected, presumably all of DC’s internal concerns will be behind it. However, I suspect I would still be frustrated with the larger concerns about shared-universe cohesion and general creative tone, not to mention the ever-present hints about bringing back more traditional elements.

I am left with the impression that while DC depends on the week-to-week loyalty of its direct market customers, it is just as happy to have a line of collections which can stand ostensibly on their own merits. In that respect it doesn’t have much incentive to make sure its shared universe can rationalize the contradictions between, say, Wonder Woman and Justice League, because those contradictions are much less apparent when the books are separated from their issue-by-issue schedules. While I don’t want to speak for all of the Wednesday crowd, for me, reading a big stack of individual issues is more like a survey of the shared universe than reading a single series’ collections. The latter doesn’t implicitly ask the reader to make sense of different contemporaneous interpretations.

Accordingly, DC can go a long way toward shoring up the superhero line by a) giving its creative teams the freedom to tell their own stories and b) making sure that those approaches are honored whenever the characters cross over. That may require a tighter editorial hand, but to me it would be more benign than the dreaded top-down “editorial interference.” DC’s publishing history shows it to be a collection of disparate creative approaches and genre mixes -- urban avengers, science heroes, classical mythology, etc. -- all of which can coexist peacefully without sacrificing much of what makes them special. I’ve been saying this for as long as I can remember, but it seems especially applicable at this point in the New 52.

As DC heads into its 80th anniversary, it faces yet another opportunity to reposition itself. While the publisher has been nodding towards more traditional approaches to its characters, the key to a successful 2015 may instead be a more accommodating attitude towards its creative teams. Let them tell the stories they want to, cultivate an environment which promotes that, and enjoy the results.  DC may not be ready to stop campaigning, but eventually it will have to start governing.


And here is the Futures Index for this week’s Issue 26.

  • Story pages: 20
  • Mister Terrific/Bruce Wayne pages: 3
  • Yamazake/Jason/Madison pages: 5 (including a double-page layout)
  • Terry/Plastique pages: 3
  • Fifty Sue/Brother Eye pages: 4
  • Grifter/Lana pages: 1
  • Ronnie/Jason/Batman pages: 4 (including a gratuitous splash page)
  • Pages with at least one Bat-character or reference: 10
  • Number of subplots which reference or echo the Batman-and-Robin relationship: 3
  • Odds that Fifty Sue will help destroy Brother Eye: 6:1
  • Odds that she will do so at the last possible moment: 3:1
  • Odds that Green Arrow’s plan to “fix” Firestorm will actually work as intended: 9:1
  • Odds that Madison’s peril will end up fixing Firestorm: 2:1
  • Odds that Madison’s peril will end up making her Firestorm: 2:1

NOTES: The solicitation for this issue made a big deal about Batman’s appearance, saying specifically that “he reveals a truth that will unravel Firestorm’s world.” That turns out to be the news that Green Arrow faked his own death, which was arguably more important for the plot of this miniseries than it was for Ronnie and Jason as characters. To Ronnie, it was the last straw in a series of superheroic failures going back to his mother’s death. He responded to GA’s death by imprisoning Jason within Firestorm, which I would argue had more of an effect on their relationship. In other words, it didn’t need to be GA’s death; it could have been some other trigger. However, the way Batman explains it, GA faked his own death in order to shock Ronnie and Jason into growing up; and for the past few months Batman has let them keep believing GA was dead in order to see if they would, in fact, grow up. I’d say Jason is right to be a little peeved.

Of course, with Yamazake descending quickly into the depths of movie-serial villainy, it’s just as likely that Ronnie and Jason will become Firestorm again in order to save her. I know we’ve seen Madison’s own evil-scientist father already in this series, but his actual characterization seems like a blip compared to the animosity his reputation engenders. I’m not saying he didn’t do bad things, but the way people react is like he kicked their sick cats while peeing in their Cheerios. I suppose it’s appropriate that his association with Madison would be enough to push Yamazake over the edge.

The issue’s other big revelation has Fifty Sue set to turn against Deathstroke, and presumably the rest of the Cadmus Island insurgents, following Brother Eye’s news that Deathstroke has been working with it. I don’t think this changes Fifty Sue’s overall arc -- her unpredictability all but guaranteed she wouldn’t stick with any particular “side” -- but I guess this was part of the process which led to Brother Eye’s eventual victory.

Speaking of which, we get a little timey-wimey philosophy from Terry McGinniss as he clues in Plastique on his recruitment of Tim Drake. As one of two time-travelers trying to influence the course of history, he has the best chance of doing something in this story to change the nightmare of “35 years from now”; and he seems to be doing that by reaching out to Tim. Excuse me, I meant to say “planning to reach out,” because FE’s narrative structure apparently dictates that we get 3 pages of talking about talking to someone instead of (and probably in addition to) actually talking directly to them.

Finally, I enjoyed how Fifty Sue’s impression of the Batman-and-Robin relationship was so much more nurturing than the actual relationship(s). In the New 52 timeline, Tim was an “intern”; and Batman gives Ronnie and Jason a particuarly gruff, condescending pep talk. Maybe Fifty Sue will reshape reality to give Batman better people skills.

NEXT WEEK IN THE FUTURE: Green Arrow studies OMACs! Batman versus Batman! Huntress versus Mister Miracle! Power Girl versus a bloody lab! And ... a nice day for parachutes!

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