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Grumpy Old Fan | The long and winding roads (of DC’s event arcs)

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | The long and winding roads (of DC’s event arcs)

The end of August also marks three full months worth of DC Comics’ line-wide relaunches. Naturally, the highest-profile of these are in the Superman titles, featuring a depowered and spiritually depantsed Man of Steel; and in the Bat-books, where a buff, mohawked James Gordon is the new Dark Knight. The two main Green Lantern books are also going through status quo upheavals, as Hal Jordan has gone off the reservation with a stolen power-ring prototype, while John Stewart, Guy Gardner and a handful of their colleagues have been hurled into parts unknown. (I’d say more, but it’d spoil the latest issue of Green Lantern: Lost Army.)

While I’m not exactly getting tired of these various plots, I am starting to wonder how long they can each be sustained. That, in turn, reminded me of similarly dramatic storylines that played out over much longer periods of time. I’ll be discussing a lot of storylines today, from the Silver Age to the present, and I’m sure I haven’t listed every possible one. (Spoilers: I won’t have time to get to a “dead and revived” list.) Some of these arcs were planned with endpoints, and some reverted to “normal” thanks to external factors. However, each tested the limits of readers’ tolerance for change.

* * *

We might think of such storylines as part of the “event culture” that began in the ‘80s and dominated superhero comics in the early ‘90s, but they go back much further. When editor Julius Schwartz took over the Bat-books in 1964 (on Batman’s 25th anniversary, in fact), his updates included killing off Alfred. It happened in the “New Look’s” second month, in June 1964’s Detective Comics #328, and lasted for more than two years, until October 1966’s ’Tec #356 explained that Alfred hadn’t died, but was instead transformed into the evil Outsider. In the comics a restorative ray returned Alfred to normal, but in reality the upcoming Batman TV show had prompted his revival. Alfred didn’t remember his time as the Outsider, and nobody else was eager to either. Still, the show (and the comics) kept Dick Grayson’s aunt Harriet Cooper, introduced in ’Tec #328 as Alfred’s successor; and the comics kept the charitable Wayne Foundation, begun as the memorial “Alfred Foundation.”

Alfred’s death was relatively minor compared to the wholesale makeover given Wonder Woman in Wonder Woman #179 (November-December 1968). Mike Sekowsky and Denny O’Neil headed up the “Diana Prince” or “white-suit” era, in which the Amazons left this earthly plane to renew their energies (or something), and Wonder Woman remained behind, without powers or equipment. That meant no costume, no invisible jet and no bracelets or lasso — just some martial-arts skills and a new supporting cast. That radical reinvention lasted just over four years, until Issue 204 (January-February 1973), and was reflected in crossovers with Brave and the Bold (twice), Superman and Lois Lane, and Justice League of America. With Wonder Woman pushing 75, those years are basically a footnote, although an easily identifiable one.

DC in the 1970s was full of updates, with some (like “Diana Prince”) begun in the late ‘60s. Most were comparatively more subtle: Dick Grayson had left Wayne Manor to fight crime in college, the Justice League had upgraded its Secret Sanctuary to an orbiting space station, Clark Kent had moved from print to television, and Hal Jordan had become a truck driver. (That last one was all ‘70s.) For the most part, however, the decade was an attempt to graft “modern” sensibilities on the foundations of the Silver Age.

That’s what made the murder of Iris Allen, in July 1979’s Flash #275, so shocking. Iris had been Barry’s life partner since The Flash’s reintroduction, and was arguably more important to The Flash than, say, Alfred was to the Bat-books. Barry mourned and eventually moved on — and then Iris’ killer, Professor Zoom, went after Barry’s second fianceé, Fiona Webb. Zoom’s death in August 1983’s Flash #324, apparently at The Flash’s hands, led to the two-year “Trial of the Flash” storyline. It proved to be the series’ swan song as well: Barry and Iris got their happy ending in Issue 350, but The Flash sacrificed himself in Crisis on Infinite Earths. The way had been cleared for Wally West to succeed his mentor, inspired by him but free of his baggage.

Around the time Barry Allen was trying to stay out of prison, Hal Jordan was wrestling with his loyalty to the Green Lantern Corps. Having previously been exiled from Earth for a year for defying the Guardians of the Universe (starting in April 1982’s GL #151), upon his return Hal was once again torn between protecting Earth specifically and Sector 2814 generally. Most of this had to do with his love for Carol Ferris, so in October 1984’s Issue 181, Hal chose Carol. Of course, that resulted in Hal’s backup John Stewart becoming Sector 2814’s primary Lantern, an office he held pretty much through February 1986’s Issue 197. The events of Crisis on Infinite Earths facilitated Hal’s return (although they were never told in Crisis proper), which happened in Issue 198. Regardless, for most of the next several years, Hal shared the spotlight with John, Guy, and a handful of fellow Lanterns, until 1994’s “Emerald Twilight” got rid of the Corps itself.

Writer Marv Wolfman got Hal exiled in 1982, and by 1985 was planning to break apart his signature meal ticket, the New Teen Titans. That involved a lot of moving parts, so bear with me. Starting with November 1985’s New Teen Titans Vol. 2 #14, Starfire, Nightwing and Jericho went to Tamaran for Starfire’s royal wedding. That subplot ended with Starfire staying on Tamaran to fulfill her duties as its princess. Directionless without his true love beside him, an angry Nightwing returned to Earth, promptly got into a fight with Wonder Girl, and struck out on his own to look for Raven, who’d been missing since Issue 5. Meanwhile, with Changeling and Cyborg also gone, Wonder Girl assembled an even newer group of Titans, consisting mostly of the guys from the original Titans days (Aqualad, Wally-Flash, Hawk, Speedy) plus Jason “Robin” Todd.

That went south quickly, although Aqualad and The Flash stuck around for a few more issues, and Changeling and Cyborg returned. For his part, Dick found Raven working for the Church of Brother Blood, so soon enough he was too. Later, Donna’s team was attached first by a bizarro Doom Patrol called The Hybrid, and then by the Brotherhood of Evil. The big push to the end started in Issue 28, when everybody except Nightwing and Raven stormed the big Church of Blood to rescue their colleagues and try to stop Brother Blood’s “resurrection” (he’d been “killed” by the Titans a couple of years earlier). The final act took four issues, and the grand finale (May 1987’s Issue 31) included cameos from Superman, Batman, a couple of Green Lanterns and representatives of the Doom Patrol and Infinity Inc. That’s 18 monthly issues and an annual (revealing Blood’s origin) spanning over a year and a half and wrapping up subplots which stretched back even further. There was a lot of closure in this storyline, but I can assure you that as it played out in the monthly books, it seemed to take the Titans further and further from any sort of cohesion. The “Titans Odyssey” (for lack of a better term) helped set the standard for what I would tolerate from my funnybooks; and if it hadn’t stuck the landing so completely, I might not have been a Titans fan for much longer.

Two other significant storylines helped shape their respective “families” for years to come. “Superman in Exile” ran for just over six months, from January 1989’s Adventures of Superman #450 and February’s Superman #28 through July’s Action Comics #643 (the latter relaunching Action after its own six-and-a-half month stint as a weekly anthology). Essentially, Superman decided to leave Earth to get his head on straight, because ever since executing three Phantom Zone criminals (in October 1988’s Superman #22) he’d been borrowing a friend’s heroic identity and “sleep-crimefighting” as Gangbuster. While in space, he was captured by Mongul and forced to fight in gladiatorial combat, but in the down time he met “the Cleric,” a wandering clergyman who passed along a Kryptonian artifact. This was the Eradicator, an all-purpose plot device which restored Supes’ costume and powers, gave him insight into ancient Krypton, and eventually built the Fortress of Solitude. It wasn’t the only element from this storyline to bear fruit in the Superman titles, either: there were turning points for Morgan Edge, Cat Grant, and Supergirl, and the Kryptonian mythology figured heavily in “Reign of the Supermen.”

Over in Batman, January 1989’s #429 wrapped up the monolithic “Death in the Family” storyline with the results of that infamous phone-in vote. Issue 430’s epilogue marked the end of Jim Starlin’s run as writer, and the next several months featured two issues from writer James Owsley and three from writer John Byrne, as the Bat-brain trust tried to figure out where to go with the next Boy Wonder. New writer Marv Wolfman (him again!) introduced Tim Drake with the four-issue biweekly “Batman: Year Three” (issues 436-39), and expanded on his backstory in the five-issue New Titans crossover “A Lonely Place Of Dying” (co-plotted by George Pérez). By December 1989’s Issue 442, Tim was Robin-in-waiting, but he’d spend the next calendar year (spanning 16 Batman issues) training in the Batcave. He finally donned the redesigned red-and-green at the end of December 1990’s Issue 457, ending an almost two-year period without a regular Robin.

* * *

I’ve gone into detail on those old storylines mostly to balance their duration against their narrative merits. It’s not so much that the Bat-books were Robin-less for about two years — which seems like a blip compared with the Diana Prince Era — but that you could tell they were in a holding pattern to a certain extent. I mean, I liked the Owsley/Aparo issues and the Byrne/Aparo “Many Deaths of the Batman” pretty well, but with “Year Three” you could really see where the book was headed, and that was comforting. Ironically, once “Lonely Place” was over, and Tim started his open-ended training, I started wondering when he’d get into costume (especially after Issue 450 came and went).

No doubt super-comics publishers have feasted on reader uncertainty for decades, but it can be a delicate balancing act. Remember, I liked the 1985-87 18-issue New Teen Titans saga because it ended well, both emotionally and narratively. The “Titans Hunt” of 1990-92 spanned 15 issues (#70-84) and was designed to remake the team, instead of bring it back together as the earlier mega-arc had. I admit that sounds conservative and entitled, and I recognize that New Titans probably needed a creative jolt after 10 years, but it didn’t help that “Titans Hunt” ended just as the wild-and-crazy ‘90s were beginning. The book was never the same, partly because it could never settle on a status quo. Jericho and Raven had been turned evil (Raven for the second time), new members like Pantha, Phantasm and Wildebeest weren’t that compelling, and the plots started with Donna Troy’s evil future son and became progressively more outlandish. That’s when I did stop reading New Titans, and when I eventually picked up the back issues, I realized I hadn’t missed much. Only near the end of the ‘90s, with Devin Grayson and Phil Jiminez’s reverential JLA/Titans miniseries — which basically ended with a group hug and a “power of love” moment — did the group regain its appeal. It was corny, but it worked.

Again, though, it worked on me because it was targeted towards longtime Titans fans. The ‘90s also saw the rise of Hal’s Emerald Action Team, or HEAT, the vocal group of Hal Jordan fans who thought Kyle Rayner’s adventures were a traveshamockery of Green Lantern’s potential. There was a case to be made that DC treated Hal a bit more shabbily than his bestie Barry Allen (and, consequently, that Kyle was more of a charity case than Wally West), but that got lost amongst the proverbial green-energy torches and pitchforks. There will always be fans who Demand Action, and a Return To Greatness, in the face of what they see as utterly wrongheaded creative choices. The rest of us — and I am assuming that’s most of us — are, I hope, more open-minded, or at least more patient.

* * *

Actually, “Emerald Twilight” was something of an outlier among DC’s other death-and-replacement arcs of the ‘90s. “Knightfall” (spring 1993-summer 1994) and the “Death of Superman” cycle (fall 1992-summer 1993) replaced Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent with decidedly unsustainable takes on Batman and Superman. Diana got replaced twice as Wonder Woman during the ‘90s, first by Artemis (issues 93-100, January-August 1995) and then three years later by Hippolyta (issues 129-36, January-August 1998). Oliver Queen’s son Connor Hawke became the new Green Arrow (October 1995’s issue #101), Wally West was replaced by his grimmer-timeline counterpart Walter (Flash issues 152-59, September 1999-April 2000), and Kyle Rayner replaced himself with his then-girlfriend Jade while he tried to start a new Green Lantern Corps (okay, that was in 2001 or so, and just for an issue or two).

The Super-titles got event-happy following “Reign of the Supermen.” After 1995’s “Death of Clark Kent” (introducing Conduit, one of the whinier Super-foes), 1996’s Final Night-induced power loss, and the Super-wedding — jerked around on the schedule, by the way, by TV’s Lois & Clark — 1997-98 gave the world the Electric Superman. This is a good example of a change so radical it practically guarantees a push of the reset button. By contrast, the Bat-books spent all of 1999 in “No Man’s Land,” a storytelling setup focused on primal emotions and raw urban adventuring. You knew post-quake Gotham was going to be rebuilt, but thematically it wasn’t far removed from the regular Batman environment. The same applied to the “Dick and Damian” status quo of 2009-10: Bruce Wayne was coming back, but the new Batman and Robin were a good blend of different and familiar. Electro-Supes was just different.

* * *

At present, many of DC’s A-listers are in the middle of all-new, mostly-different makeovers. “Truth” is perhaps as big a change for Superman as “Diana Prince” was for the Silver Age Wonder Woman. Jim Gordon’s mecha-Batman is the latest in a slew of changes for the Bat-books stretching back to last spring’s Batman Eternal and “Endgame.” The two Green Lantern storylines also seem open-ended, as does Dick Grayson’s employment with Spyral. Readers might reasonably expect any or all of these upheavals to be reversed at some point, because they’ve been trained to expect such reversions.

However, if a reversion is seen as necessary, it implies that the change was not — or worse, that the change was somehow destructive to the character. Even a genre as conservative as superhero comics can do without that implication. What we might dismiss as “the illusion of change” is a pretty powerful tool for sustaining interest in these deathless characters. The tension at the core of their existence is between their market-friendly familiarity and their need for reader-involving forward motion. Whether you think DC “aged” or “updated” these characters too slowly or too quickly in the ‘70s, ‘80s or ‘90s; and whether you think it was right to give them mostly fresh starts with the New 52, are basically moot points. DC’s history of, and reputation for, relaunches pretty much means it’s stuck with the continuity it has right now.

That said, the past several months have shown that DC can do a lot within its current continuity. As The Beat reports, the rumor mill is rumbling that Dan DiDio and company don’t have much confidence in “DC You,” and will be returning to more conservative strategies in the months to come. It sounds like another turn of the direct market’s self-fulfilling cycle: Publishers publish what they know will sell, and readers buy it because they’re comfortable with it. In this model, books like the new-look Batgirl are the exceptions that are supposed to satisfy everyone’s appetite for diversity, not harbingers of an ever-developing readership which publishers and retailers ignore at their peril. It may well be the case that DC tried too hard and spent too much on both an attempt to capture that readership (with the “DC You” books) and keep hold of its lifers (with Convergence and its tie-ins), and now it’s literally paying the price.

Still, I can’t imagine that the only lesson learned from the past several months is never to try. A good bit of the storylines discussed herein are no longer controlling (thanks to the New 52 relaunch) or, at worst, are best left forgotten. Some were born out of boredom (“let’s just kill him”), office politics, and/or avarice. However, with the benefit of hindsight and the convenience of back issues, we might look back at some today and see genuine epics, or at least stories that come close. An extended storyline that really does put the characters through the wringer and advances their development without long-term damage can be a very satisfying read, both as it unfolds and after it’s done. Marv Wolfman and Eduardo Baretto did it with their New Teen Titans saga, the Superman books did it with “Reign of the Supermen,” and the Bat-handlers did it with “No Man’s Land.”

We’ve all got our favorites (and not-so-favorites). Maybe some of us have even been learning to appreciate the new takes on Black Canary, Doctor Fate, or even Prez. The professionals’ freedom to try new things, and the readers’ capacity to experience them, can embrace those kinds of changes as well. DC will likely be tempted to go back to the old ways of keeping readers interested, but it shouldn’t dismiss the power of a new perspective.

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