I’ve written previously about the role of “plot” in corporate superhero serials. I’ve also written about the need to honor forms of creative expression. Last week, reporting on the long-promised, finally-announced Marvels sequel, Tom Spurgeon mentioned both:
Marvels was also kind of an odd book in that — as more than a few critics have noted — it’s best remembered for a kind of wistful re-imagining of superheroes from the vantage point of people on the ground when both the witness-to-history metaphor that it represented, as well as the criticism of loving superheroes too much that was obvious on a close reading, are now almost completely forgotten.
I think [the sequel] will underline how much the mainstream comic book business has changed in the last 12-15 years: the big publishers cultivate and manage premeditated blockbusters based on plot progressions and positioning now, they tend not to wake up and realize they have hits in their midst based on folks’ reaction to a creative approach.
While that’s still true generally, I do think DC is changing, or at least moving away from the large-scale event.
* * *
1. “[T]he big publishers cultivate and manage premeditated blockbusters based on plot progressions and positioning.”
That’s hard to dispute, especially after four years of constant DC superhero crossovers. From what I could tell, their collective goal (especially with Countdown) was nothing less than a separate, coherent, unified narrative created out of story arcs from across the superhero line, with each title both standing on its own and contributing to the world-building. It’s appropriate that Tom was writing about Marvels, because that miniseries used throwaway references and sequences from disparate stories to create its shared-universe narrative. Clearly the Storm/Richards wedding and the first appearance of the Sentinels weren’t originally intended to comment upon each other, but I can still hear the modern-day marketing: “you can read each story by itself, but if you read both,” yadda yadda yadda. The theory behind such narrative cultivation remains the same, even if the origins of the “raw material” are different.
Thus, Countdown and its tributaries (and DC’s recent crossover derbies generally) reinforced the kind of top-down “plot progressions and positioning” which Tom decries. Take Green Arrow And Black Canary, which is ostensibly a continuation of the Green Arrow solo title (2001-07). Connecting the two books over the summer of 2007 required a Black Canary miniseries, a trio of Wedding Specials, references to Amazons Attack! and Birds Of Prey, and crossovers with Countdown and Justice League. None were advertised as being essential to understanding the story (and I still haven’t read the Black Canary miniseries), but obviously DC would prefer that they all be read in combination.
Naturally, one could also tell shared-universe stories via a single title, as DC did with 52. It didn’t hurt that 52 had a year’s worth of the superhero line pretty much to itself. I’ve already contrasted Countdown with 52, but it bears repeating: 52 had been the anti-crossover, and Countdown aspired to become the über-crossover. (The phrase “world without end” comes to mind.) Accordingly, in hindsight I would say that Countdown‘s success depended only upon creating a separate and coherent story out of the regular books’ disparate arcs. Marvels wasn’t the first to do this, but for various reasons it seems to have become a model (at least to fandom) for such mega-narratives.
(Yes, that last statement does fly in the face of what Tom says about Marvels’ love for its superheroes — and thus it reinforces his observation that such an interpretation has been forgotten — but we’ll get back to that.)
So, to recap: among other things, Marvels stands for the proposition that a new narrative about a shared universe can be created out of its individual narratives. Countdown tried (consciously or not) to do the same thing, and failed.
To me, Countdown’s failure and the contemporaneous success of “The Sinestro Corps War” shifted DC’s focus away from line-wide crossover events and towards smaller franchise-specific events. On balance, if one supports personal creative expressions, one would have to favor these smaller events, if only as the lesser of two evils; because one would have to think that those smaller events come more from such expressions than from editorial groupthink. Certainly neither “Batman R.I.P.” nor the upcoming “Manazon” arc in Wonder Woman (for example) appear to be marked by the heavy hand of DC Editorial. Furthermore, I note that complaints about Batman under Grant Morrison seem directed mostly at the writer and his artists, not at perceived editorial interference. Morrison’s public disavowal of Countdown also speaks to a disconnect between Countdown’s editorially-driven plot and his own plans for Final Crisis. Indeed, next summer’s “Black Lanterns” has already been hyped to death … uh, as it were, but apparently it has been part of Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern plans since he took over in 2004.
Therefore, while I may be blind to DC’s editorial machinations, it does seem like DC is moving away from the kind of large-scale strategic thinking which has dominated its superhero line for the past several years. That’s not to say that individual professionals can’t (and don’t) plant seeds years in advance, though — and speaking of “Black Lanterns” …
* * *
2. “[The big publishers] tend not to wake up and realize they have hits in their midst based on folks’ reaction to a creative approach.”
Again, it seems like DC is in fact slowly waking up to this realization. Clearly the hype for “Black Lanterns” proceeds directly from the success of “Sinestro Corps,” which in turn can be traced back to Geoff Johns (and from there, of course, to Johns’ exploitation of that venerable Alan Moore/Kevin O’Neill backup story). Similarly, last year at this time, the hype for Final Crisis was based largely upon the reputations of Grant Morrison and J.G. Jones. The hype extends to the regular titles too: when Gail Simone got Wonder Woman, and Dwayne McDuffie got Justice League of America, fans were excited based on those professionals’ reputations. They seemed like excellent fits for their respective titles. (This can backfire too, as with the Walt Simonson/Howard Chaykin Hawkgirl.) Now Simone and artists Nicola Scott and Doug Hazlewood are producing Secret Six, based in no small part (I have to assume) on their popular Birds Of Prey collaboration; and fans blame editorial interference, rather than McDuffie, for the crossover-heavy Justice League plots.
What do you do, though, when a writer’s reputation has been made largely on the strength of his manipulation of plot? Johns has gotten more mileage out of that Empire of Tears story than a Prius coasting down a steep hill in a tailwind. The rest of his current DC work is all interconnected, both subtly and not.
To be sure, before Johns came along, Marvels helped make Kurt Busiek’s reputation as a skilled continuity gymnast. More recently, Trinity was sold in part on Busiek’s strengths as a writer; but lately it’s been revisiting “Syndicate Rules,” the only arc from Busiek’s abortive stint as JLA writer. Is this just Busiek exploring stories he never got the chance to tell (whether in JLA or Superman), or is it more “plot progression and positioning?”
With Busiek it appears to be the former. With Johns, though, the dots are there to be connected. The current Legion Of Three Worlds draws upon a number of Johns-written (or co-written) arcs, including Infinite Crisis, “The Lightning Saga,” “Sinestro Corps,” and “Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes.” Likewise, Johns’ Booster Gold proceeded directly from Booster’s subplots in 52, and who knows? Booster may also end up playing a substantial part in LO3W.
Ultimately, I get the feeling that somewhere out there is the grand DC story Geoff Johns has literally been waiting his whole life to tell, which will tie together everything he’s ever written in one vast spandex tapestry. When that happens, will it be plot progression and positioning, or will it be a writer’s ultimate form of creative expression?
I suspect the answer lies in one’s evaluation of Johns’ (or any writer’s) work. My own feelings about Johns have waxed and waned over the years. I dropped his Teen Titans and JSA a few years back, and was never a huge fan of his Flash. (I am therefore skeptical about his Barry Allen revamp.) However, starting with Green Lantern I thought he found a good groove; and he seems to be appreciated more today than he was a few years ago. I would even say that Johns’ work on Booster Gold offers new angles on Marvels‘ witness-to-history and heroes-will-break-your-heart themes.
Accordingly, using Busiek (who in this respect follows other continuity-friendly writers like Steve Englehart and John Byrne) as an example, it seems possible to develop “continuity gymnastics” as a valid means of creative expression — or at least a valuable implement in one’s creative toolbox. “Thy Kingdom Come,” the current Justice Society arc co-plotted by Johns and nostalgiameister Alex Ross, doesn’t seem to be connected to Johns’ other titles in the way that, say, his Legion stories are. While “Thy Kingdom Come” and the “Earth-1 Legion” stories do speak to Johns’ nostalgic tendencies, nostalgia alone doesn’t serve a mega-narrative. In other words, the “Geoff Johns brand” of creative expression still might not be welcome in all corners, but I do think it can produce popular stories apart from (or perhaps in spite of) Johns’ plot
* * *
It’s possible, too, for a popular writer with his own recognizable style to be caught up in the tempests of event plotting; and that’s what I think has happened with Greg Rucka, his creations Crispus Allen and Sasha Bordeaux, and his charge Reneé Montoya. Each started out as second-string supporting players in the Batman books, with Allen and Bordeaux having been created by Rucka and artist Shawn Martinbrough during their early-aughts collaboration on Detective Comics. Allen and Montoya then went from Detective to the Rucka-written Gotham Central; and from there were transformed (in Infinite Crisis and 52, respectively) into superheroes. Since Gotham Central was a book about ordinary detectives dealing with weird super-crimes, these were significant changes … but Rucka was involved.
Somewhat less surprising was the development of Sasha Bordeaux from Bruce Wayne’s bodyguard into Checkmate’s cyborg Black Queen. Because Rucka and his collaborators used Checkmate to write Sasha out of the “Bruce Wayne: Murderer?” arc, it was more appropriate for Rucka to bring her back via Checkmate’s role in The OMAC Project. That, in turn, led (again via Infinite Crisis) into the Rucka-written Checkmate series.
Still, even with Rucka’s guidance, each of these characters has endured, across multiple titles, changes which have left them vastly different from their original conceptions. I’m inclined to see this as “plot progression and positioning,” but again I find myself excusing such manipulations whenever Rucka is involved.* His prior work with these characters definitely lends further developments (including the current Final Crisis: Revelations) a certain level of credibility that, say, a David Lapham might not enjoy … but, when linked to editorial mandates, that credibility can only go so far.
* * *
Hmmm … I didn’t stay too close to Tom’s second point; but oh well. To me it all comes back to the notion (or the rationalization, if you’re so inclined) of “trusting Professional A to execute Plot B skillfully.” Isn’t that a validation of a creative approach?** I mean, I trust Greg Rucka to use Revelations to wrap up the loose threads left over from Crime Bible; and I’m willing to give Geoff Johns the benefit of the doubt on what I think is an unnecessary Barry Allen project. The reputation must be equal to the task — use an Ed Brubaker to revive a “dead means dead” character, not a Judd Winick/Superboy-punch combo.
In fact, the more skeptical I am about a particular title or concept, the more I’ll look to the creative personnel for reassurance. DC knows this, and relies upon those pros’ reputations to provide cover for its editorial decisions. Nevertheless, DC must also know that a professional’s reputation can take only so much. (See Jim Starlin and Death Of The New Gods; and now Jim Starlin and Hawkman.)
Besides, on balance I’d rather support writers and artists whose work I enjoy than subsidize plot twists I find hard to swallow. It’s often hard to separate those goals, but I keep trying.
* [Will Pfeifer wrote the 2006 Crisis Aftermath: The Spectre miniseries, David Lapham wrote the Spectre stories in 2006-07's Tales of the Unexpected, and Matthew Sturges wrote the Spectre arc in 2007-08's Countdown To Mystery.]
** [Within the context of corporate superhero serials, of course.]