Down These Mean Streets…
David and Robert have never been die-hard loyalist fanatics, but in recent years their consumption has both focused primarily on DC Comics. With certain recent events changing that ratio, they’ve devoted some time into differences they notice between the two companies. Over the coming weeks, they’ll share some observations with you.
This is Crossing Worlds
Last time on Crossing Worlds, we talked about Marvel’s commitment to post-Enlightenment scientific revolution and DC’s reversion to ab aeterno “Just So” stories. We concluded that this probably did not hint at DC editorial’s secret membership in a cabalistic (or cannibalistic) cargo cult, but rather reflected a broader ambition to establish their characters as the unchanging and idealised pantheon of modern myth-making.
If you never have, take a look into the history of the cargo cult.
This time, as we delve deeper into the Big Two’s choice of titles, we will continue to explore the emergent properties of what is both an objective (with the New 52 and Marvel NOW!) and personal (as we change out monthly pull list in turn) period of transition. Since this is, in many senses, more of the same, we hope you’ll forgive the structural and thematic similarities to our previous piece.
Here’s a thing about Marvel NOW! It has mean streets where all-too-human vigilantes play out hardboiled conflicts in Halloween drag. Mean streets identifiably borrowed from the New York of over two decades ago, but now abstracted by the passage of time into their own unique home for stories every bit as stylised and gripping as those set in Gotham or Basin City.
All credit to the good people of NYC, not the Punisher.
Mark Waid is turning in the work of his life on Daredevil, deftly admixing international intrigue with overdue office rent, the overwrought drama of mysterious vendetta against the wretched banality of cancer. Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye Hawkguy has spent ten issues defending his dog, his apartment building and his classic car from superstorms and Eastern European thugs while systematically destroying everything he holds dear (except maybe his DVR set-up). It is, in all seriousness, one of the best comics on the stand. Greg Rucka (who kept DC’s street level titles at a critical hum for years) has just wrapped up showering affection on the Punisher, known for his exotic superpower of using guns while angry. This line-up has been joined by Paul Cornell’s Wolverine, operating under the stated mandate of being the tales of Wolverine when he’s just being a “regular guy”.
Here’s a thing about the New 52. It has plenty of streets, but they seem to be abandoned. The mystery men of the 40s, martial arts masters of the 70s and violent vigilantes of the 90s have been made scarce. Few if any legends of the street or dojo – Richard Dragon, Bronze Tiger, Manhunter, Nemesis, Spoiler, the Creeper or the eponymous Vigilante – have graced the pages of the New 52. For those new and old friends that have shown their faces, survival (as an ongoing comic book) without world-shaking superpowers (at least of the Charles Atlas variety) has been markedly uncertain. Blue Beetle’s title is gone and Static Shock barely got off the ground. Dial H quickly went both cosmic and international (go, Canucks!) and is (sadly) on its way out. Liefield’s Grifter and Deathstroke are buried in side-by-side graves, along with that whole style of “super-military” titles (Team 7, anyone?). Huntress, once a mafia princess reborn in blood, has become a dimension-hopping second-gen nemesis of Apokolips, while her on-and-off paramour, the Question, has turned from martial artist facing a permanent identity crisis into cosmic bogeyman on par with the Spectre or Phantom Stranger under the pen of chief editor, Dan Didio himself.
Guys, we really can’t express how awesome Richard Dragon is.
Green Arrow is mid-reboot, stripped of his international playboy persona and taken back to an island of ancient traditions and world-shaking mysteries for alignment with his hugely popular television counterpart. While we have every hope for the character’s rehabilitation under Lemire’s skilful scalpel, one expects Ollie to be a long way from either the Elseworld-populating enemy of blue fascists or Mike Grell’s rain-soaked longbow-wielding murderer for some time to come.
All power to Arrow, but we both miss the Green Arrow of yesteryear.
John Constantine has a new place leading a team of costumed superheroes. Stop for a moment and consider that sentence. Hopefully his solo title will take him back to his more usual surroundings of picking cigarettes out of the gutter and running for his life, but right now there’s still a feeling of more grandiose concerns as Con-job “maintains the balance of magical forces in the world” against the Cold Flame, seemingly a cadre of every big-name magician-themed supervillain DC ever conceived.
Okay, so this panel looks pretty Vertigo, but even so.
Takes as a whole, the vigilante circuit has shrunk, effectively, from the cities of the world to the backalleys of their own New York mirror, Gotham. With the ultimate vigilante, Batman, spending half his time lifted to the dizzying heights Morrison’s Batgod and the awesome newcomer of sci-fi secret agent Batwoman wrestling with gods and monsters, it is left to Bat-family champions such as Nightwing, Batgirl and Catwoman to uphold the legacy. While Batgirl is a success by any yardstick and Nightwing is clearly trying, Catwoman’s recent treatment has been so shoddy that it’s hard to imagine there’s a plan for her to represent things other than T&A. (Plus they added her to the JLA. Then they shot her ‘dead’ for a few weeks. So it goes.)
Subtlety is the key to any good master thief
In our last Crossing Worlds, we griped that –
… the New 52 feels like a small, static thing, not unlike the JSA’s imprisonment in a neverending Ragnarok pocket universe. The same faces playing out the same roles against an effectively indistinct and unimportant background. Stepping back from the New 52, it seems that the number refers not only to comic titles or worlds in the Multiverse, but also to the number of people who really seem to be involved in the stories being told.…
On further reflection, the issue isn’t just the sense we’re shrinking down to the same few faces – it is also that those faces are starting to look the same. Like the panelled armour, underwear-on-the-inside, high-collared uniform of the Johns/Lee Justice League, the Leaguers themselves are starting to look the same to us.
Look, we understand on some level that the front and centre of DC’s business is telling stories about the space cops of the Lantern Corps bringing renegade war criminals to space-justice; about a surprisingly pulpy Birds of Prey teaming up with an undead science experiment to battle legions of suicide ninjas in the Japanese sewers; and, of course, about that Superman guy saving the world from invading monster armies.
Of late, the overarching model for these stories (perhaps understandably) has been taken from one of their most commercially successful writers, and now creative honchos: Geoff Johns. Johns at his best is a genius at that sort of epic four-colour adventure. Bold characterisations, rocking splash pages, dramatic escalations of power, simple mythologies and the ability to execute a long-term vision without compromising accessibility. These elements, however, seem to have been exalted into an ovearching sensibility for the New 52.
Johns – particularly when compared to several of his noteworthy contemporaries – has never really shown a strong ability for stepping outside of his style. On point, he has never shown, to our recollection, a flair for the grit or moral subtlety that characterises the ‘graphic hardboiled’ milieu. That’s fine, because most writers have tones and styles in which they work best and not every writer should sound the same.
And that’s the key point: not every writer should sound (or be required to sound) the same.
As the DCU pushes a very strongly defined house style (seemingly modeled after Johns’ particular strengths) we find a certain sameness sinking into the tenor of the universe as a whole. One of the eternal challenges from an editorial perspective is to keep a universe coherent while making sure stories do not end up being more of the same. DC’s titles are wildly variable in quality, but save for some obvious stand-outs, it’s hard to suggest they still feel like they vary wildly in tone or subject matter.
When you deliberately or accidentally produce comics from a cloning tank, the disparate quality between the original and the Bizzaro comic become all too obvious. Keep in mind that this is, primarily, superhero comics that we’re talking about, so no-one is expecting anyone to reinvent the wheel with every title. Produce, however, 52 titles that feel the same, and watch as people gravitate towards the five or six titles that are doing that ‘shtick’ best. We would suggest that the solution to avoiding this arc of diminishing returns’ is not to pattern everything after the work of the more versatile writers – it’s in allowing diverse writers to find and use their own voices.
This is obviously subjective, and maybe we’re wrong. Maybe this is the viable strategy in today’s shrinking market – Figure out what will largely please a bunch of people and repeating it. Provide the comfort of the familiar. Take each valuable IP and retool it to fit the model. Start with Aquaman, move to Green Arrow. Cancel the ‘misses’ early and double-down on the hits with additional related titles. Keep it going until every title hits that ‘sweet spot’. Profit.
Sales trends, though, indicate that we might be right, and that people will gravitate only to the few “primary” example of that kind of book. More importantly, even if it were an effective sales strategy, it can still do some significant damage to the uniqueness of the DCU.
If you will allow us, we’ll step from our soapbox onto a slightly loftier soapbox for a second: Despite diminishing readerships, the Big Two comic universes are something special and important to our culture. Only daytime soap operas and long-running sci-fi settings like Star Trek and Doctor Who have comparably interlocking, eternal narrative structures, and they each draw from a smaller box of toys to build their stories. Only a comics fan can examine decades of character growth and development across all of time and space, watching threads weave in and out of the stories of a thousand other heroes. With the long literary legacy of valuing crossovers and expanding continuities , these features make the settings valuable unto themselves, and heroes representing different narrative and cultural legacies serve to expand and support this setting.
50 years, guys. We’re coming for you “Guiding Light”!
Any given story being cosmic or political or high-stakes isn’t a criticism. It is, if anything, the safe call for a stirring saga of superheroics. The problems of cosmic heroes do not become less compelling by virtue of being more epic. They don’t necessarily become less “relatable”, if we can borrow that buzzword bandied about by naysayers unreasonably tired of heroes from the high end of the power scale.
Rather, it is that the street-level characters matter because they keep the setting dynamic without exhausting a reader’s ability to invest. Notwithstanding how much any title may make our heart race, street level heroes almost by definition play for far lesser stakes than the big guys. That brings something gripping to a superhero story – the all-too-elusive ability for the protagonist to not just suffer a temporary setback but to truly lose. When the stakes involved are saving the universe, losing means the end of the universe. Goodbye, status quo, farewell Leicester Square.
Interestingly, the model used for this was Robert’s first apartment
The cosmic titles often try and fudge this kind of possibility by introducing planets to explode or dimensions to collapse, but there’s an innate artificiality to introducing something just to watch it die. It’s not to say that there can’t be a genuine investment in these places, but they lack the impact of setting elements that can seem completely ingrained to a street level title being at risk. When the stakes involved are the saving of an apartment building, losing means losing the apartment building. The real loss of the stakes you’re invested in. Tragically, we as readers are all calibrated to a world where such things happen every day. As a people who process events through stories, the street-level narratives, well-spun, help this calibration not become desensitisation as we connect with events that could otherwise be lost to the statistical hum of loss and despair.
This empathetic re-calibration is only one of the ways by which heroes of the street provide context for heroes of the skies. The moral and practical challenges faced by a hero who is, at the end of the day, a guy wearing a mask provide the sense of a world where all the problems aren’t cosmic. Though the families, sidekicks, lesser antagonists and love interests sharing the pages of the bigger heroes regularly pop their heads around the door to point out that people still have to deal with the balance of their savings account, these can all too often turn into the deflating farce of lecturing Captain America about his failure to understand MySpace. It doesn’t feel like a genuine, proportional response of a people to the contrast between their genuine, day-to-day life and the epic life-and-death escapades of the upper level heroes.
Just knowing the setting thrums with underground martial arts tournaments, local crime waves, botched arrests and personal vendettas assures that those battles to save the universe seem that much bigger, because they have something to rise over. Equally, the battles to save the neighbourhood seem that bit less outré, a bit more verisimilitudinous, and closer to what we as readers need to deal with ourselves.
Variety is the spice of a shared universe. For example, the editorially beloved multi-tier crossovers allow the fictional universe to feel larger by accommodating characters who would not have any normal reason to interact, and then making them interact. The key to this working, though, is having characters that would not ordinarily interact. When everyone’s on the same playing field (roughly speaking) a crossover appearance or shared villain feels only natural. Of course they work these problems out together: they’re the same problems. The real question in such circumstances is why the Flash isn’t always using his super-speed to help Superman out of jams. When instead the major players like Superman or Thor are standing shoulder-to-shoulder against a threat with guys like Daredevil or Rick Flagg, the sudden realisation that a particular problem involves everybody feels a little unique and remarkable.
Seriously, this was GREAT.
DC used to be the exemplar for this kind of storytelling. In the early 2000s, whilst Marvel was reinventing itself with the Ultimate Universe, DC was pulling together the disparate threads of its history, and presenting a world where all kinds of weirdness thrived, whilst still placing its traditional heroes and villains front and centre, exemplified when 52 (the comic that gave that number the weight DC now trusts it to possess) perfectly matched the adventures of divine tyrant Black Adam and a renegade island of super-scientists with disgraced PI Renee Montoya and a powerless Ralph Dibny staving off suicide. It was a great period of DC Comics, and a great time to be a comic book reader.
Now, the situation is reversed. Marvel has reshuffled and reassessed, repackaging its ongoing universe into a unified, but diverse tapestry. DC has tried its hand at throwing out the old and stripping back to a simplified version of the new with the goal of attracting new readers. The Ultimate Universe grew so successful that the majority of its best ideas were retrofitted back into the Marvel Universe proper, leaving the UU to dry up a little, but making the Marvel Universe much stronger for it. DC hasn’t just created an alternate version of the universe to play with though – they’ve jumped in with both feet. Where can they go if that experiment fails?