Trade Perspectives: More on Johns-ian comics and DC's New Earth

Monday, July 30, 2007

[Contains spoilers for Flash: The Fastest Man Alive #13]

Frequent Collected Editions commenter Michael sent me an email the other day (see email address at right) in response to my review of Absolute DC: New Frontier:
You seem to be saying that Johns and Meltzer are positive-leaning writers and I don't think that is true at all. The way I see the current DC is dark and dank and cynical. Meltzer [wrote a comic where villains] killed and raped Sue Dibny. None of the heroes are acting in the heroic fashion Cooke has them in here. And every other month a character is killed or kills someone. I think before DC is the positive place you're hoping for, Dan DiDio has to go. ... You seem like we'd agree on it but I'm not sure. Thanks for a good review though, it's nice to know what's inside!
Michael's note gives me an opportunity to clarify some of the points in my review. In my discussion of how Absolute DC: New Frontier represents a trend toward "Johns-ian comics" away from the previous "grim and gritty" era, I was looking at a concentrated effort from Countdown to Infinite Crisis through Infinite Crisis itself to brighten DC Comics, spearheaded by Dan Didio, Geoff Johns, and the rest. We have to admit, when you look at "Emerald Twilight," Batman's betraying the JLA to Ra's al Ghul and Batman's general standoff-ish-ness, and the general event-driven comics of the 1990s (the "Death of Superman" story duplicated in Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow, and what have you), the DC Universe immediately following Infinite Crisis is a much brighter place--comraderie between the heroes being only the start.

Even if one decries the mass consumerism of the current Countdown to Final Crisis effort, we can still be glad that at least Final Crisis promises to hold more depth and relevance than, say, Genesis. I believe Michael's points above are valid, but I think he's confusing the journey with the destination--yes, Identity Crisis put the DC heroes through the wringer, and yes, Wonder Woman killed Maxwell Lord in The OMAC Project, but these were all stories conceieved in the run-up to Infinite Crisis and the lighter days to follow. It would have been one thing if Sue Dibney went unmourned or Wonder Woman unpunished, but neither is the case--these events were not portrayed lightly nor forgotten quickly. I sooner fault DC for killing the second Dove in order to pull the rug from under in Armageddon 2001 than I do for Sue Dibney's death. While I will grant that there might have been other ways to accomplish the same thing, at least Identity Crisis functioned with the intention of accomplishing better things in the future.

Granted, I would say that the recent death of Bart Allen does shake my confidence somewhat in the "New Earth" of DC Comics. I can't quite believe that DC intended Bart's death from the start of his new series; to that end, Bart's brutal death smacks of the kind of "putting characters out to pasture" that we saw in Zero Hour with the Justice Society, or killing off Oliver Queen to introduce a new Green Arrow right after. Then again, I haven't read the said Flash story yet, and like Fred says, it may be better not to judge until all is said and done.

Anyway, we're continuing to move through our One Year Later reviews here at Collected Editions, with more looks at the brand-new series that came out of Infinite Crisis coming up. And look for more perspectives on DC's new era coming up; it's 2007, we'll posit ... so why does it feel like 1994? More soon.

Thanks for reading!
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  1. I find your response interesting, but I think that the DC status quo (if there even is one) is more complicated (and, perhaps, inherently dishonest) than either of you are giving it credit for. In your case, it might partially be a result of being, by definition, behind the current comics.

    To start, I remeber that, as Identity and Infinite Crisis got going, that DiDio was promising that these "dark" events were merely the purifying fire which would lead us into the "light." This became especially obvious as thesis statement for the whole thing when we got to Infinite itself, with all of its tongue-wagging regarding the darkness of the 90s (see also Jurgens' laughable recaps of many of his own comics in the 52 backups, which, I realize, may not actually be included in the trades).

    When we get to One Year Later, it's easy to say, at least as far as Batman (especially) and Superman (to a lesser extent) are concerned, that the goal has been reached, and the heroes are better people.

    That said, when you talk about comraderie, don't forget that the JLA actually did survive Batman's betrayal, and Batman made amends by (along with Superman) revealing his ID to the new guys. That period was basically one of writers like Waid taking current continuity as it was, but writing new stories that (in a much less protracted fashion than the two Crises) put them through bad things in order to bring them closer to that old-school (Silver Agey) sense of camaraderie.

    The thing is, dark sells. Disturbingly enough, rape sells, as DC decided when they dictated its inclusion to Meltzer in Identity Crisis (check this blog if you haven't already). And yet, especially with DC, there are a LOT of fans who complain vocally (some, to an almost maniacal degree) when there is the slightest besmirching of a hero's nature). So DiDidio tries to have it both ways when he has DC publish a lot of "dark" comics while trumpeting them as a return to the Silver Age. Really, the main thing that was different about Infinite Crisis was the aforementioned messages contained inside, claiming that dark comics were bad.

    So what do we have now? We have Johns, who writes a lot of good stories and clearly does prefer to have his heroes be "heroic," whatever that means, but also incessantly revels in horror-movie gore (decapitations! dismemberment!). What's more, we have Countdown (to Final Crisis), which is more or less "dark" (at least superficially) and really puts the lie to the claim that the "light" was our destination. I mean, maybe it was going to be originally, but the dark (Infinite Crisis) sold well, and the light (One Year Later) didn't.

    As far as I'm concerned, I don't think I care really which path they choose; it's the hypocrisy that bothers me the most! Sorry for the long comment.

  2. Carl,

    Thanks for the comment and for stopping by.

    I essentially agree with you on all points. Dark does sell (as shown by any number of comics on the market), which makes DC's lightening of their universe somewhat risky. At the same time, I think there was a certain kind of darkness in DC's universe (Batman being a dick, among other things) that was beginning to both grate on the fans and impede storytelling, that had to be fixed.

    So if you want to quantify DC's new universe as a "lighter darkness," I agree with that. A mature darkness, if you will. I think what will be interesting will be to see what the ultimate "point" of Final Crisis is when all is over; my guess is that we'll retain at least the "lighter" comraderie that came out of Infinite Crisis. I think that's probably here to stay.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

  3. Weird, I thought I posted something about this last night but now I don't see it. Hmmm.

    Well anyhow thanks for the responses to my email. Thanks Carl. I checked out that blog and it's something else. I wonder about all of that. It partly seems to fit with DiDio's hatred of fun comics (for example his extreme dislike of the Giffen/DeMatties/Maguire run of JLA, and obviously Young Justice), but I also wanna take into consideration the bloggers viewpoint may be skewed.

    I've gotta think about this more. This, if it's true, is very offending to me. To portray rape and murder just so you can look "badass" is a real problem for me. I know others may not care as much about it or think about it differently but...well anyhow, Mother Jones has an interesting article about the treatment of women that mentions Occasional Superheroine. It also mentions a comment from DiDio at a convention saying that in his mind, "Stephanie was never really Robin". Which in addition to everything else I hear about the man just makes him sound worse.

    Before I comment too much on this whole thing I wanna do a bit more research and think about this more. This all has the potential to alienate me even more so from current DC to be honest. Here's the URL (sorry I haven't got the HTML thing down yet) to the Mother Jones article:

    I may be jumping the gun but I'm starting to think all of this is a bigger problem at DC than I first thought. But right now I'll give it all the benefit of the doubt and withold too much judement.

    I also wanted to say that CE, you may be seeing DC becoming "lighter" because you're reading whole arcs at once and I (and maybe Carl too?) have read individual issues. Just food for thought.

    BTW, anyone feel free to contact my myspace (linked with my name here) about all this. I'm always open to dialogue.

  4. Do you blame Didio, or trying and failing to boost sales?

    All of these events are self-contained stories that tie into the big picture. We have yet to see the big picture and we are judging it by the parts. We don't judge a year in our lives by nitpicking and focusing on every single day, no we look at how they all tied together.

    OYL wasn't a reboot, it was a way to give characters a chance to change without worrying about all the internet continuity cops. Lets not focus on anything lets just read and accept every story, dark or light.

  5. Fred, with all do respect...that is not an attitude I would ever adopt. I am sorry but "here's your crap, take it or leave it" is just not in my nature. I love the medium and industry of comics too much to ever just say "Please sir, may I have another?". I would hope every comic fan would feel the same but realize they don't. I don't blame DiDio for trying to boost sales. I blame him for using something as horrible as rape and murder to do it. Especially when it is just to make him seem "badass".

  6. Michael, I agree with you that taking unnecessary violence to look "badass" is unnecessary. I am just holding my opinion until after the whole thing is said and done.
    I see you point and think that it is warranted, I am just waiting to look at the big picture.
    I personally think that the rape was setting a tone, whether or not that tone has been addressed has not yet to be fully seen. If you are right, then I too "love the medium and industry of comics too much to ever just say "Please sir, may I have another?""
    I am just going to wait and see... every person has their own personal boiling point.

    Great discussion Michael, and more importantly thanks for being respectful many people on the net are not as respectful as you.

  7. While reading that article, I noticed a few typos like this one:
    "After the two previous boy Robins had retired and died, respectively, their uniforms were preserved behind glass inside the Batcave."

  8. Hey Fred, I actually used to share your opinion, but I think that Season 7 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the breaking point for me. I kept telling myself (I usually lurk rather than post, actually) that the naysayers were wrong and it was all gonna make sense and be satisfying in the end. It wasn't, and it made me realize how often people actually are right to not withhold judgment.

    As for comics, I think it can be much more frustrating when you think of how little story you get every month (unless you wait for the trade, but I'm sure that can be frustrating in other ways, due to the irregularity of releases and whatnot). I do think this leads some people to make unreasonable complaints at times, but I'm also aware, increasingly, of all the times they've been right about the letdown.

    I think that sometimes we are mistaken when we assume that it's the the ending that determines the tone and message of the overall work(s). Sure (spoiler?) Scarface gets killed at the end, but the point isn't crime is wrong and doesn't pay, the point is that the movie is glorifying his actions before tacking on that moralistic coda of him getting his comeuppance (and this goes back to Classic Hollywood I believe).

    Finally, I don't think there's any way that we'd be getting a Final Crisis if "One Year Later" had sold better. You're certainly not going to convince me that Final Crisis was part of the plan going way back to Identity Crisis #1 (or before, when the seeds were supposedly being planted). There is definitely more than a bit of flailing going on here on DC's part. It may well be that the bloodthirsty fans didn't respond well to what "lightness" there was in One Year Later (which generally was a sales faliure), and that DC is suffering because they did, for a short time, attempt to do what so many people consider the "right thing."

  9. Fantasic discussion here. Thanks to all.

    While I agree with Carl that Final Crisis wasn't entirely the plan from Identity Crisis, or even mid-way through Infinite Crisis, I think seeds of it were there (they've been saying "watch the skies" for a while now), if that makes a difference. Comics and their serial nature are built on this idea of "OK, what do we do next?" so I can't blame DC for "next"; mainly I'm just interested in some sort of comprehensive thematic follow-through. I heard the other day that Power Girl is supposed to play a role in Final Crisis leading into her own series, and I was heartened by this; Kara was important in Infinite Crisis, and if she's important in Final Crisis, too, maybe that's a sign of positive follow-through. I'm more and more a fan of Fred's watch-and-wait philosophy.

    This idea that Michael and Fred discuss of using rape and murder in comics ... obviously both of those things are horrible, though we see murder all the time in comics, going back decades, so it's hard to say that's something new. Rape, on the other hand, was a shocking, era-defining choice for DC. As I've said before, another writer could have probably accomplished the same thing without using rape, but I worry about this idea that rape (portrayed negatively as a crime) has no place in comic books. It's on TV and in other media, and to ignore it in comics is akin to ignoring poverty or racism -- ignoring it offers a sense that "it just doesn't happen" or "it's not our problem," when really it's everybody's problem.

    If anything, I'd agree that maybe Identity Crisis needed some sort of parental warning on it. And then we get into the difficulty of, well, Identity Crisis was a universe-wide event, so it's hard to put a warning on it without a warning on every other title; obviously this is a complex issue. But in some criticism of Identity Crisis (not the comments above) I got this sense that the posters felt that "rape can't happen in our [DC] universe," and to me that's a dangerous turning of a blind eye.

  10. Well I had no intention of implying that rape should never appear in a comic. On the contrary, i think comics are a very good place to explore the riskier issues. But this rape wasn't done to explore the ramifications of it. It was done to make Dan DiDio and DC look "badass". Stepping aside from the fact that DC has a horrible history in how it treats female characters (ask Kyle Raynor), I can point to a more recent DC comic where a pointed issue was handled poorly.

    Recnetly a WonderWoman issue dealt with a group of women's shelterx that used her name and example as inspiration to help women escape abusive situations. In the comic several woman tell how Wondy inspired them to get out and seek help. One woman used Max Lord's death as a example of what to do, hit her husband over the head with a cast iron skillet and left. Later on, when WonderWoman goes to deal with an abusive husband her one and only reaction is violence. What does that say? Violence is ok as long as it's directed at men? or violence is an answer? I can hardly see how that issue leads to a "lighter" DCU.

    On a side note, the issue made me feel physically ill, having been in situations like the ones described. I certainly wouldn't hand this issue to a teen girl and say, "here's a good moral tale". Again, here's a important issue that should be able to be in comics, but not handled right.

    Perhaps what we've seen is the death of hope in the DCU. I've stated this elsewhere that a major part of the problem I have with Diana's murder of Max Lord is that in other stories when her back was to the wall and all seemed hopeless she found a way out without snapping a guy's neck. Now, she had no option? Hmmm..

    Superman killed in the Phantom Zone and I thought that was wrong too. It goes against what we knowa bout the character so not only does it lead to a darker place, it goes against what we know.

    But let's see about that destination that is supposed to be "lighter" long do we wonder around the desert until we start to notice that we're traveling in circles? So to speak.

    Finally 2 more points. One, Fred...thanks for being respectful as well. That my friend is because I have a mother and father who taught me you can disagree without being nasty. And secondly, Buffy made perfect sense at the end for me. I think it's the best show ever put on tv. Certainly not the most "light" either. But again, there was hopefulness.

  11. collectededitions (do you have a real name, by the way?), you have a good point about rape. Citing Occasional Superheroine, whom I linked to earlier, I think it's safe to say that Michael is right about DiDidio's (I really can't spell that name) motives and the moral wrongness, if economic rightness (don't forget, folks, in capitalism every thing is fair game if you can make more money from it) of them.

    However, I think I come at this problem a little differently that Michael - to be honest, I can't really see anything wrong with Diana's actions in the issue described, although that's more of a kneejerk response than a well-thought-out position, admittedly. But how about Meltzer, who, charged with implementing DiDio's directive, went ahead and wrote a story in which rape is shown to be bad because it negatively affects men. How did Sue deal with being raped? How did she learn to cope and move on, as she apparently did (since, of course, none of the people writing her up until her death ever knew that she'd been raped). Rape is heinous in Meltzer's work because it is an affront to men and their property, basically, and it drives them to moral extremes through their righteous indignation (the memory wipes). Yes, there are a couple of women standing about in the Satellite, and one is the actual memory wiper, but you don't get a sense of their importance or even their sense of relating to what happened as a woman. And Ralph, meanwhile, keeps talking about what was done to him, particularly after Sue dies.

    These old chestnuts are very familiar to all of us in adventure stories, I'm sure, but perhaps what's galling nowadays is that there are women heroes in this universe, hell, have been for decades, and that with the influence of Buffy, and of others (some equally significant, others more superficial), the question is increasingly "why aren't they taken as seriously?" The days of women in superhero comics used to rack up tragedy points for male heroes really oughta be over. People quibble over whether female heroes are really killed more than males, but maybe that's the wrong focus; we should consider how many of the same stories could have been told in ways that suggest their importance as individuals, not accessories.

    Of course, Whedon did write the introduction for Identity Crisis and is even letting Meltzer write some of Season 8... I have some thoughts on that, but this is long enough already.

    One last thing... Michael, I think it's safe to say that Superman killing has been repudiated and regretted by the powers that be for some time. With his continity in flux, it may well be retconned out entirely pretty soon, if this hasn't happened already.

  12. Wow... great discussion.

    So many points to talk about, so lets start with the wait and see. Earlier I used the analogy that we remember a year in our life not as everyday, but the sum of the whole. I feel this way about comics because I am a teacher and many days I have a great lesson planned but it bombs during delivery. If my lesson is failing it is my responsibility to change it in stride. Rarely do I finish the bad lesson and "retcon" it out the next day by starting over telling my students to pretend it never happened. Comics are similar.

    I agree that OLY probably did not do as well as management thought but as CollectedEditions said I also think the seeds were planted. I think that the original goal is/was the same the way of getting there is being changed in stride, just as I do during a lesson.

    I think its safe to say that we all agree that the rape could have been handled differently, but... "You will never appreciate the sweet if you have never tasted the sour." If DC is planning to make a less dark universe it makes sense to darken it a lot first so that the readers notice and appreciate it.

  13. I think Carl really gets to the heart of it here, that the violence in Identity Crisis seemed for effect only--it was never addressed in terms of Sue's own struggle or Sue and Ralph's relationship. I don't think Meltzer meant to be callous, but that's likely where this failed.

    Separately, Carl reminds me that in my review of Superman: Sacrifice, I actually note that I think Wonder Woman made the right choice in killing Max. If we take comics at their word, that Wonder Woman holds a lasso of absolute truth, then there isn't anything else she could have done but kill Max; her difficulty is in the (DC Universe) world's perception of her actions. Don't forget, Greg Rucka portrays Wonder Woman as routinely killing mythological villains; I think Rucka is playing Wonder Woman's killing of Medousa earlier in his run against her killing of Max in the end to show it's not Diana that changes, it's the world's perception of her.

    I think Rucka purposefully adds some vagueness here, however, such that we're indeed left to wonder whether Diana could have made another choice or not, but certainly Rucka's trying to make a point with the debate. It's because of this that I tend to side with Fred's wait-and-see stance; taken just in Sacrifice, Diana's actions might seem like murder, but taken in view of Rucka's full run on Wonder Woman, things look different. At the same time, I'm pretty sure Carl's right that Superman's killing of General Zod has been retconned post-Infinite Crisis. Once a trade reveals this, you'll definitely see me address it in a review; it's an interesting decision on DC's part.

  14. Sorry I've been gone guys. Had some stuff to catch up on.

    CE, I just wanted to mention that while the lasso compelled Max to tell the truth, the truth may have been that he had planned to take WW down by having her kill him. Suicide by cop if you will.

    I also wanted to come back and mention that I just read that Joe Q, at a Marvel panel at Wizard World Chicago, mentioned that they've killed Mary Jane. This might've been a joke but am I the only one who thinks this sounds like Marvel copying DC? Just a thought. I'll have to organize some more thoughts about the other responses here.

    I am still really concerned that DC editorial would treat rape so lightly for a selling point. I really would like some confirmation on that somehow. Whether it's true or not.h