That's where the money is

[caption id="attachment_364" align="alignright" width="188" caption="Grumpy Old Fan"]


Whatever happened to comic book stories for the sake of story? Does everything have to have universe shattering impact? Doesn’t anyone rob banks anymore?

-- Keith Giffen

It’s been just over a month (well, February) since the end of Final Crisis, but there’s no lack of events at DC. Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps are still building up to The Blackest Night, Wonder Woman is in the middle of “Rise of the Olympian,” and this week sees both Superman’s move to New Krypton and “Battle for the Cowl’s” kickoff. Each of these storylines is pregnant with the possibility of radical change, and there’s still Flash: Rebirth to go.

Most of these storylines also feature new, story-specific villains, including the alternate Lantern Corps, Genocide and the eponymous Olympian, and various arrogant Kryptonians. (BFTC features so many characters there’s apparently no room for anyone new.) DC has been spotlighting its villains for a while now, most recently devoting most of January to the “Faces Of Evil” theme. Naturally, it hasn’t stopped there, what with a Solomon Grundy miniseries also starting this week and a couple of villain-oriented Final Crisis spinoffs starting in May.

Still, the superheroes haven’t been forgotten, most notably because writer Geoff Johns is working on relaunching venerable versions of the Flash and the Legion of Super-Heroes. Last week Dan DiDio told Newsarama that such reintroductions make things easier on the reader:

One of the things that we’re doing right now is that we’re looking through our list of characters’ origins and are finding what we think is the clearest interpretation and the one that’s the easiest to explain. That way, we can carry on with their stories without getting bogged down with all the continuity that put other characters in their place.

While I don’t think his rationale is entirely defensible, I’m not going to get into that today. It’s sufficient to observe that DiDio is talking about telling “their [i.e., DC’s characters’] stories,” free from continuity tangles. Generally speaking, that’s fine. However, the part about “their stories” tends to stick with me. It suggests that the stories will come from wonkish analyses of the characters themselves, and not from external factors which might reveal the characters’ qualities.

Put another way, all the various Lantern Corps hubbub boils down to pulling apart the foundations of the Silver Age Green Lantern concept to see what makes it work. Flash: Rebirth will make the case that, among DC’s very similar speedsters, Barry Allen deserves to be preeminent. “Battle for the Cowl” looks at what makes a good Batman, and the overarching thesis of the New Krypton storyline is that only Kal-El can be Superman. None of these are inappropriate storylines, but they each come out of the same let’s-work-the-details spawning ground. It’s an inward-looking approach, and I for one am eager for more outward-looking stories.

Here, of course, is where the villains come in. Luthor, Brainiac, and Zod are each up to no good in the Superman books. Sinestro seems to know where the War Of Light will lead. Arkham Asylum is about to be cracked open, again. Ordinarily, each of these would drive their particular plots pretty directly, providing threats for our heroes to stop. Under the current approach, though, they’re merely elements in a larger saga which might have started a year or more ago, and now stretches across multiple titles. Besides, the villains have their own spotlights, be they one-shots, miniseries, or “Origins And Omens” backups, each designed to gin up interest for that character’s participation in a future storyline. The old “Villain X commits Crime Y due to Motivation Z” structure may be passé, but it seems pretty efficient by comparison.

Behind all of these contortions is the assertion that these stories “matter,” a sentiment born of the need to sell individual comic books week in and week out. The implication is that a regular Luthor-caper story doesn’t matter, because by definition it doesn’t change the overall status quo: Superman will save the day, and Luthor will go back to jail. (Come back in six months -- you won’t have missed anything.) Thus, “less important” titles like Batman Confidential, Superman/Batman, and Trinity don’t sell as well as the main books and the event books -- and when the “important” books fail to produce game-changing consequences (e.g., Final Crisis), woe betide them.

Honestly, I’m finding it harder to understand this mindset, at least from the fan perspective. It seems like an outgrowth of the collector mentality, where every issue contained some plot point and/or other element that would make it more valuable financially; but that hardly drives the market anymore. Instead, the collector mentality has mutated into the event mentality. Every issue contains a plot point, period, whether major or minor; and the reader must gamble on which plots are important enough to follow. Although the comics themselves still include appropriate levels of spectacle, this storytelling style makes the spectacle secondary.

There must still be spectacle, though; beyond the mere use of superhuman powers and abilities. Now they must be used in the service of game-changing plots. While it might be effective in the short term, eventually it produces diminishing returns. If superhero fans have become so numb to superheroics themselves that the comics must resort to ever-bigger challenges, eventually the fans will get burned out. While I don’t share Grant Morrison’s interpretation of “event fatigue,” I agree completely with his sentiment that “[s]uperhero comics should have an ‘event’ in every panel!” These are supposed to be energetic, colorful tales of people who fly and deflect bullets and scare crooks merely with their costumes. Going much farther than that runs the risk of overthinking.

This is not to say that plain old thinking is bad, of course; and it’s not to say that superhero comics can’t have intelligent, meaningful story threads amongst all the flying and punching and laser-eyes. I just think that fans and pros alike have to get past this bigger-is-better idea. The traditional superhero story presents the protagonist with a puzzle, or an apparently unsolvable problem. How does Superman stop both those missiles? How does Batman save both those ferries? How does Spider-Man save both Mary Jane and the cable car? The hero’s solution reveals his character: Superman’s promise to Ms. Teschmacher makes him choose to save New Jersey. (Because he’s Superman, though, he can revisit that choice.) Batman’s pursuit of the Joker costs him the goodwill of the police. Spider-Man pushes himself to the limit in order to save everyone.

Sure, it’s not entirely fair to compare those movie plots to the comics’ serials. The movies don’t have to keep their audiences coming back every month, let alone every Wednesday. The people who produce the comics also have to make sure the readers want to spend time with their characters every month, or every week, so naturally they’ll go deeper into character details. Nevertheless, it seems like the more the comics try to make their stories accessible, the bigger and more complex the stories become (even in the name of accessibility). Again, apparently the superhero audience needs to be convinced that a particular character is worth its attention, so the character’s basic setup is thought not to be enough. (If you just wanted a guy who ran fast, you’d have been happy with Wally West.) We have to know these people, and know them well enough to want to follow them from book to book.  That way, when tragedy inevitably strikes, we'll take it more seriously than some run-of-the-mill super-crime.  Willie Sutton said famously that he robbed banks because that's where the money was, but boy is that sentiment ever out of date.  While the money these days appears to be in events (whether line-wide or character-specific), the event mentality isn't sustainable, and neither is the constant churning of character details which feeds such events.

Now, all that said, I have been enjoying Gail Simone’s continuing examination of Wonder Woman, and I thought the latest issue of Green Lantern worked reasonably well even on its own. (The Carol Ferris bits seemed to come out of nowhere, though; and the vomiting blood speaks for itself.) I’m eager to read the first issue of World Of New Krypton and the rest of the rejiggered Superman books, and I may even give Battle For The Cowl a chance. The Crises are over, and these events are okay for now; but even on a reduced scale, the event mentality still threatens to get out of hand.

Besides, I just miss the simple elegance of a good caper spoiled.

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