www.cbr.com

Issue #9

For some reason, people keep asking me about the Wisconsin Mafia these days.

I have no idea what they're talking about. I grew up in Madison Wisconsin,and I did have a couple benign brushes with the real Wisconsin Mafiawhen I was a music critic there, but these people are referring to analleged "mob" of comics talent that came out of Wisconsin, like RichardBruning and Mike Baron and Steve Rude. And me. The myth goes thatsomehow we all greased each other's wheels and allowed Wisconsites totake over the comics industry.

Nice story. If there ever was a Wisconsin Mafia, it never did anything forme.

It's not unusual for waves of comics talent to suddenly sprout from specificareas. Up until the early 70s, New York cornered the market, but thenCalifornia got into the act. Jim Starlin, Al Milgrom, Rich Buckler and othersrose together out of Detroit's comics fandom around 1972. Bob Layton,Roger Stern and John Byrne launched their careers off a little Indianafanzine called CPL around 1976. (John was Canadian, of course, but CPLbrought his art to professional attention.) In all these places, there was anorganized comics fandom where those who broke through gave entrée forothers. But Wisconsin? Not a chance.

The closest I ever got to a Wisconsin Mafia was Mark Gruenwald, whoarrived in Manhattan from Appleton WI a few months before I movedfrom Madison. I didn't even know he existed until then. I'd gotten in on thecoattails of the CPL Gang, as they were called, but Mark and I, having ahome state and a Manhattan neighborhood in common, became closefriends and writing partners for a couple of years. An assistant editor atMarvel, Mark had no power to speak of, and, though he did throw me whatassignments he could, our association probably hurt him more than it helpedme. (The power structure at Marvel held me in low regard, but that'sanother story.)

Mark and I both held strong opinions on what comic books should be. Asour opinions parted, so did we. We never became enemies, but it wasn'tuntil just before Mark's recent death that we really started talking again,and then only at conventions. He was a great guy, but his driving obsessionwas one I couldn't share.

Mark loved universes.

Universes were pretty much implied in comics the first time the JusticeSociety ever banded together, but nobody concerned themselves withwhether the Mars Wonder Woman went to was the same Mars GreenLantern went to. Nothing was reallysuggested until 20 years later, whenGardner Fox set the Golden Age heroeson their own parallel earth, a conceptlong established in science fiction but never really applied to comics. ButDC was then subdivided into editorial fiefdoms, and editor Julius Schwartzwas under no obligation to correlate THE FLASH with events or settingsin Mort Weisinger's Superman books, even though they appeared togetherin JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA. Even internal consistency in titleswas rudimentary.

When the Marvel Universe congealed around Stan Lee - a triumph ofconvenience over design, as Stan was writing something like ten books amonth and leaving the plotting mostly to his artists, and less variation meantless he had to keep straight - fans reacted strongly. It was an exciting ideaat the time, the notion that all these separate stories could coalesce into asingle all-inclusive myth, and when fans became pros, they started writingabout what excited them. Since most broke in at DC, which had recentlypurged its old talent for political reasons, they began "universing" DC. JackKirby's NEW GODS bumped the overt myth content of comics to a newlevel, and Jim Starlin wedded that to acid mysticism and the convolutions ofMichael Moorcock's Eternal Champion to take superhero comics "cosmic."And where once people had talked of Earths or worlds, universe was theofficial buzzword.

Mark came to professional attention with his fanzine OMNIVERSE,co-edited with Dean Mullaney, who went on to found Eclipse Comics.OMNIVERSE attempted the ultimate jump to a unified field theory ofcomics where not only did The Flash and Superman share the sameuniverse but all comics universes were sectors of one great superuniverse:his Omniversal Theory. He never stopped quietly pushing it. On somelevels it's a really great idea, with only one flaw.

Universes are bad for comics.

I recently tried to explain to one reader why many creations are of theirtime and don't necessarily translate for a new audience. DC's AdamStrange - America's First Spaceman - made sense when astronauts werenew and the space race excited us, but I doubt it's a coincidence hispopularity faded the closer we got to the moon. (And as our nationalattention shifted from "the last frontier" to social issues.) While Marvelhas managed to keep him active (if not consistently popular) for 30 years,the sensibilities underlying Captain America are so tied to the 1940s it'sno wonder they keep reviving Nazis or pseudo-Nazis like Hydra to justifyhis existence.

Universes are the detritus of the 1970s, when comics, facing plungingsales as they are now, scrambled between the twin idols of myth andrelevance to make comics more meaningful for readers. We like to thinkof comics as the last repository of myth in our culture, but that's a prettyegotistical view. All fiction is myth, regardless of medium. While ancientmyth is supposed to have great resonance, we shouldn't forget thatthey're what's left of dead religions, and those religions are dead for areason. GILLIGAN'S ISLAND is no less a myth of our culture thanSuperman. Superman is no more a myth than NATIONALLAMPOON'S CHRISTMAS VACATION. The idea of universes as thegrand tableau of new myths has led more than one talent toquasi-religious excess, attempting to illuminate the meaning of existencebetween fight scenes. Enough is enough. By the 50,000 resurrection orthe five millionth destruction and rebirth of the universe, even philosophy -once fascinating in comics simply because there previously wasn't any -can't keep it interesting. Jung said that the closer you get to your dreams,the further they recede from you. Myth, like dream, is an unconsciousprocess, something scores of fantasy writers and Hollywood producershaven't learned. If you start by consciously trying to create myth, you endby creating Jar Jar Binks.

The compression of entire lines into a singlecoherent universe, most notably in DC'sCRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, was alsothought to make those worlds more real forthe readers by wiping out redundancies andstreamlining continuity. All universing did wasto separate comics even further from the realworld, and from the experience of potentialreaders: only borderline schizophrenics needapply. Like most people who wander off intotheir own little worlds, comics companies havebecome, at least editorially, more solipsistic asthey've depended more and more on universesas content to the exclusion of all else.

Whatever was originally behind universing, in the 90s it has become, likevirtually every other aspect of comics, a marketing gimmick. (Not that itwas ever anything but. As soon as Stan Lee realized he had aproto-universe on his hands, Marvel started marketing that over individualcharacters. It wasn't enough to buy Spider-Man, you bought Marvel.) AsImage rocketed to popularity, whole comics companies rose peddlingtheir books on little more than shared universes, and existing companieslike Malibu and Dark Horse were suddenly desperate to generate theirown universes. Even DC and Marvel created "new universes." None ofthem lasted. Pinned down on the tiniest details, they were all suffocatedby minutiae, everyone forgetting that all the great myths were syncretic -even Greek and Egyptian mythologies, often presented as coherent storycycles, resulted from waves of migrations and conquests replacingindigenous gods and heroes with new ones - and even Marvel Comicscame together piecemeal and unplanned. Everyone tried to replicate 30years of Marvel history overnight, and it can't work. It landlockseverything. There's no room to move.

Universes make for bad writing, andwe get enough bad writing in comicswithout them. Logic tells us that"universes" offer an expansive view forwriters to work with, but the opposite ismore true. The weakness of theTarzan concept is that today we knowenough about Africa to not expect lostcivilizations there. We've mappedenough of the moon and Mars and Antarctica that lost lands and secretbases grow less likely by the day. Fu Manchu, the manifestation of theYellow Peril, is unconscionable today. The more territory mapped out, theless there is to discover. Fact is always an obstacle for fiction. Ignoringfact opens the door for some reader saying "But that can't be so!" andonce they say that, you've lost them. Universes carry their own sets ofartificial facts, eradicating contradictory stories in the name ofverisimilitude. Continuity, not story, is the raison d'etre of the comicsuniverse, and any story that doesn't fit becomes, de facto, a bad story.Universes are crutches for editors, cheats for readers, and shackles forwriters.

I'm not saying Alan Moore shouldn't putPROMETHEA and TOM STRONG in thesame universe if he wants to. Let every writercreate his own universe of books for all I care.But should he have to put them in the samecontinuity as FROM HELL and BIGNUMBERS? Why should Batman existalongside the Justice League? A weakness ofmy CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWNwas the expectation of many readers thatthey'd take for granted things like ghosts andmagic and telepathy that are common in theDC universe but strange and suspect in ours; the DC universe hadrendered "the unknown" moot. While there will always be readers whosay "I like it," many readers have shown their growing antipathy towarduniverses, putting their money behind things like DC's Elseworlds booksinstead. Or simply no longer buying anything.

There's no reason comics must mimicthe real world. But by ritualisticallydisconnecting comics from anyconnection to reality, by wrappingcomics in hermetic esoterica in lieu ofactual stories, we marginalize what possibilities comics have. Theuniverse concept is played out - almost 30 years on and it's still just soundand fury, signifying nothing. Can anyone honestly say universes havemade for better fiction? They've captured a few imaginations in theirtime, but whatever power they had for that has obviously waned badly.It's time for comics universes to wane as well, and for comics writers tofind their own ways, their own voices and viewpoints, again.

No special information this week. As usual, my website is Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions.

EXCL.: Tales from the Dark Multiverse: Knightfall Promises a New DC Crisis

More in CBR Exclusives