(DCnU Continuity Series: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5)
The end is nigh! The skies have turned red! Worlds will live! Worlds will die! Nothing will ever be the same again!
No, it's not another post about Crisis on Infinite Earths, which I covered two entries ago. It's true, it keeps popping up, and with very good reason. No, this is the fifth and, swear-to-God, final part of my discussion of continuity in comic books prior to the midnight launch of DC Comics' "New 52" initiative with the one-two punch of Flashpoint #5 and Justice League #1. Herein, I'm going to try my best to tie together all the disparate ideas I've brought up in previous sections. If you need a refresher course before we begin, well, that's what the links at the top of the page are for!
Before we pick up where we left off, I figured I'd state, as you've probably heard elsewhere, that the initial orders for DC's "New 52" are in and they are very high. SpecificallyJustice League #1 appears to have pre-orders in excess of 200,000 copies, and six other titles have pre-orders in excess of 100,000. This appears to be encouraging news for the relaunch event. My opinion? Wait six months, take a look at sales figures across the line. Then we'll talk "success" or "failure." (And then we'd probably also be talking "Marvel Relaunch," but as yet, that's neither here nor there...)
In part four, I reviewed a key issue plaguing the industry, and one that's become increasingly tied to the concept of an overall continuity: the proliferation of the "event comic," which began in the early eighties in such series as Marvel's Contest of Champions in 1982 (thought I forgot about that one, huh?) and in earnest with DC's--yes, here it is again--Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985. As the years passed, the concept of doing some large event involving multiple heroes combating some larger threat became all but inextricably linked to the larger continuity, of bringing up elements from past stories. Some were meant as homages, like Marvels, while others like the Spider-Man "Clone Saga" were meant to conjure a grander mythology rooted in the past, akin to what was being done on television at the time with Fox's The X-Files. Many were editorially-driven, or even fostered at higher levels, to produce more riches for people like Marvel's then-owner, Ronald Perelman.
After the speculator boom went bust in the mid-nineties, events such as Zero Hour and The Infinity Gauntlet fell out of favor. Artist Joe Quesada, whose ironically-named-in-retrospect Event Comics had been outsourced the newly-minted "Marvel Knights" label, became Marvel's editor-in-chief in 2000. With company president Bill Jemas, he overhauled the entire line and established a four-year period with minimal crossovers. If there were events that united disparate parts of the Marvel Universe, they were in a series of their own, like Jim Starlin's Marvel Universe: The End and Infinity Abyss, or in a regular title, like Kurt Busiek's "Kang War" in Avengers. The events of the past would seem to be quite dead in favor of a more "new reader friendly" mentality that brought the company back from bankruptcy.
When Jemas left the company in 2004, Quesada must have remembered the name of his former company (the one that produced Ash and Painkiller Jane--oh, what modern-day classics everyone remembers) and events returned with a tragic vengeance. Today, it's not unusual to see three or four events occurring in the Marvel line at one time. Right now, "Spider-Island" is occurring in Amazing Spider-Man and related series and one-shots; the X-Men are going through a Schism; and everything that remains, mostly in the Avengers' corner, is at the mercy of Fear Itself. Take a look at the average month's output from Marvel, and you'll see it's an amazingly incestuous grouping. Twenty-four tie-ins to Fear Itself, eleven to "Spider-Island," and just a couple to Schism, all in the month of September.
It's hardly been any better down the street at DC, where for the last three months, the fallout from the latest crossover event, Flashpoint, has effected a record number of spinoff miniseries to tell all the extra stories in that particular "alternate-universe" story. I nearly choked while drinking a glass of milk as I looked at the double-page spread in the first issue with a checklist of the first two month's crossovers. May: two books. June: twenty-two books! (Twenty of them were the all-important, collector's-item first issues.) They decided to take it easy on poor readers the final two months, with only eighteen books in July and nineteen in August. Keep in mind, too, that this spate of new issues was released in addition to all of the books that DC regularly published, so as to not disturb those series' ongoing--er, hastily-concluding storylines.
They tell us that all of the crossovers outside of the main series aren't essential. However, if you've been following this blog, you've seen commentators like Jay Boaz say that's not precisely true, particularly in the case of discovering Loki's motivations during Marvel's Siege event that all but required fans to purchase the Siege: Loki tie-in. I've also ranted about how Marvel's Fear Itself is not written straightforwardly but rather in such a way that it directs fans to other series that are really the only way they'll even see a few of the members of the villainous ad hoc team called "The Worthy." (Not all of the members were shown obtaining their hammers in the main series, and the appearances of some in the main title have been scarce at best.) Flashpoint is a little bit better at this, but really, just take a look at how many series are out there and it's easy to see DC doesn't want you to buy "just" the core event miniseries. If they did, why publish the rest?
Most intriguing is that, outside of the uber-event called Flashpoint, DC seems to be actively attempting to distance themselves from a tightly-knit continuity, but using just that device in order to get there. Meanwhile, Marvel's new editor-in-chief Axel Alonso and his staff continue to push the idea that continuity is not only a good thing, that it's what the readers want to see. And I think to myself, when so many of Marvel's titles are now $3.99, which amounts to 1.53% of a minimum wage earner's weekly paycheck (computations derived from Von Allan's brilliant article about why the average person isn't buying comics for themselves or their kids)...is that what fans really want? Or is Marvel Comics just completely out of touch with the current economy that they want to take their fans' last dimes? What's more likely, a fan spending beyond his means to get every part of Fear Itself, or the fan looking at the number of books, looking at his budget, and saying screw it all, he's quitting comics altogether because everything's just too tied together for anyone to get one coherent narrative from one title? If you ask me, there's been far, far too much of answer "B" over the last several years that explains the very reason most of Marvel's line currently costs $3.99!
Another detail that has been glossed over in recent times is that both Marvel and DC have in fact been hard at work at "rebooting" their characters on a nigh-annual basis. If you don't believe me, take a look at Spider-Man. In Civil War he unmasked, then they kept that status quo only through "Back in Black" before clearing the decks with "One More Day," which led to the two-year-plus "Brand New Day" with its whirlwind of creative teams before one writer emerged with an altogether different status quo in "Big Time." At DC, the Flash has had more changes, with Wally West being retired during Infinite Crisis in favor of Bart Allen, who lasted all of a year before he was replaced, again, with Wally, who lasted another year-plus before the powers-that-be decided to return the previous Flash, Barry Allen, who then zigzagged around a few short series before Flashpoint hit, at which point he'll again be changed in various ways. And to use my dear old favorite character, the Hulk, after Bruce Jones crashed and burned, Peter David came in for a year, then was replaced by Greg Pak, who told a story on an alien world for a year before Greenskin returned to Earth for a big event. After that event he went away and Marvel replaced him with a Red Hulk, who remained in the spotlight for a year before the real Hulk was depowered and Banner spent nearly a year in a separate book helping to train his own son, after which for the last year Hulk's been cavorting around with a group of gamma-enhanced beings. And in October, Banner and Hulk will separate and all traces of the previous status quo will disappear. Anyone else getting whiplash?
It's like the big companies have too much happening, and that no sooner do they introduce a new status quo, than something else happens and they must abandon those elements before they have a chance to fully explore them. Sometimes it's sales-related, or sometimes it's just that seventeen different writers have dibs on a single character and they take turns pulling rank. Frankly, it's depressing and confusing.
Similarly confusing--and getting back to my key point about continuity--is Marvel's practice in recent years of splitting up their product lines and essentially cannibalizing their base. Under the guise of "providing something for everyone," they have introduced, at first, multiple Spider-Man and X-Men titles in the same universe, and then they did themselves one better by launching alternate continuities. There's the one that started it all, the Ultimate Marvel Universe, which as of this week will be home to a new, multiracial Spider-Man in the wake of Ultimate Peter Parker's death. (In this way, Marvel could have all the publicity associated with killing their most popular hero and replacing him with a minority while keeping "Joe Public" ignorant that the traditional Spider-Man was alive and well.)
There's also the "Marvel Age/Marvel Adventures" Spider-Man in a specially-designated "kids' line" of comics where every issue must be a standalone story. I could say a lot about the concept of a separate line of Marvel comics aimed at kids--it's probably a whole other article. (Although, well, I kinda like Sophia "Chat" Sanduval. We'll leave it there.) Right now I'll just say that I didn't need a kids' line of comics when growing up. I read Amazing Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Fantastic Four and many more at a tender age. I may not have understood every last nuance or every bit of subtext, but reading those stories, I feel, helped me reach higher and ultimately helped me in the long run. Establishing a separate line just for kids doesn't do them any favors and in fact shows a marked lack of respect toward the younger generation. Doesn't anyone remember comics, the mainstream monthly ones, were once for kids? (DC, by contrast, has their "DC Kids" line established with many Warner cartoon properties, including whatever DC animated series is currently airing. Hardly the same thing, although yes, they're dabbling with the "Earth One" series of original graphic novels.)
What's the theory behind a "kids' line," anyway? Is it that things have been going on for too long in the mainstream comics universe that it would be impossible for a child to grasp the history? That they should prefer a purified, simplified version of a character's history? Refer to the points above.
It's true that Marvel Comics in particular has done a number of things, mainly early in the company's renewed existence in the sixties, that violated established yet unspoken rules about characters in ongoing fictional series. They allowed the teenage Peter Parker to graduate high school, proceed through college, and get married. Reed Richards and Sue Storm married and had two children. Even Bruce Banner married Betty Ross, who herself became a divorcee over the intervening years. These steps aged the characters, some might say in so doing alienating the younger fanbase. Heck, Marvel editorial interfered in Peter David's tale in which Betty Banner was to give birth, instead having her suffer a miscarriage. (Later, of course, new editor-in-chief Joe Quesada would enthusiastically endorse Greg Pak's plan for the Hulk to have, essentially, an adult son in Skaar, in the aftermath of World War Hulk.)
Oddly, Marvel had it both ways for the longest time in keeping Peter Parker in his adolescent role as a photographer instead of exploiting his scientific aptitudes. Being a photographer has almost become as much a part of Peter's identity as is being Spider-Man. However, it seems he's finally doing a little growing up in Dan Slott's "Big Time." We'll see how long that lasts; it's hard fighting nearly fifty years of continuity.
Over the years, Franklin Richards, Reed and Sue's first child, would have an especially problematic history, shown at different ages at different points, and even temporarily aged to adulthood at one point! Although the Richards children reinforce the "family" status of the Fantastic Four, many of the other dramatic changes to characters have been undone, such as Spider-Man and the Hulk's non-divorce divorces. (Once, there was a plan for Spider-Man to again become a teenager under Howard Mackie & John Byrne. Thank goodness Marvel didn't go that far.) By this reasoning, it's only a matter of time until Marvel edits out Skaar, likely by killing him so nobody ever references him again. That's just the way it goes.
All of the above finally brings me to my grand statement about Flashpoint and the "New 52" initiative. It's interesting that what we've got is the marriage of one of the most complex and intrusive narrative devices in all of so-called "event" comics with sixty-one related comics over four months (or to make it appear as drastic as it is: fifty-nine books over three months), all set as prelude to a different kind of event, one not tied together with one overarching story but instead of a line-wide relaunch of characters and concepts.
Like Crisis on Infinite Earths, Flashpoint aims to reboot continuity, to simplify and streamline elements from seventy-six years of ongoing adventures. What Marv Wolfman was unsuccessful at, Geoff Johns and Jim Lee have succeeded in doing: namely, relaunching all titles under the main DC Universe umbrella with a new first issue. Although not necessarily relaunched from word one, DC has stated their intent to begin each series at an easily-accessible point. In this way and a few others, I consider Flashpoint to be most appropriately labeled an "Anti-Crisis," doing in reverse much of what the original eighties Crisis did.
Follow me here...
Two titles--Justice League and Action Comics--will both begin five years in the past, establishing new origins for the League and for Superman, respectively. With the seventh issues of those series, and the first issues of all the rest, storytellers will pick up as if the first superheroes were introduced only five years ago. Certain events will remain canonical--that is, they will still "count"--and I'd guess that they'd be the most popular storylines readily available in graphic novel collections. The stated aim is that DC wants their heroes to not seem as experienced, to be earlier in their respective careers, so they might actually risk failure.
Except in a very few cases (mainly the Batman and Green Lantern series of titles, both best-sellers prior to September), continuity will be radically changed and/or simplified. Superman's parents will both be dead, and his marriage to Lois Lane will be no more. Firestorm's component halves, Ron Raymond and Jason Rusch, will both be high school students (whereas originally Ron was a few years older than Jason, and both had graduated high school). There will as yet be no Wally West. And most strikingly, since DC announced these new heroes will be the first generation of such characters, that statement signals a substantial change, for it means the Justice Society of America must undergo a major change if they return. Last weekend at this year's FanExpo Canada, we learned just what that change was: the return of Earth-2 as a home for the earlier generation of superheroes! (Could Earth-2 be just a harbinger of alternate Earths to come?)
I'm disheartened at one major detail I haven't heard much about in the "New 52": namely, while there are 52 books out there, there's not a truly original character, team, or concept in the bunch. Even the most "original" of the group, Batwing, is predicated wholly on the existing concept of Batman. Now, really, couldn't DC have produced some original concepts that don't hinge on existing corners of their universe for the grand relaunch? Or are they out of good, new ideas? Maybe Alan Moore's right and maybe we're just retreading everything that came before ad nauseam. In which case, I say: BAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRF.
Time will tell if DC is truly successful in establishing a successful relaunch of their line and if they are able to sustain sales and reverse the trends that placed Marvel ahead of them in sales on a regular basis since the early seventies. I think the new line's success will be heavily impacted based on whether DC decides to keep having large-scale events that link the titles together. (I'm not the only one who feels this way.) Keeping the books largely unconnected and running their own storylines independent of each other would set DC clearly apart from Marvel. It'd be a battle of ideology between those who believe series should be deeply interdependent and those who believe each series should stand on its own merits. (The ideological split seems fait accompli when you ask: When's the last time DC published a "Who's Who"? When's the last time Marvel published one of their "Official Handbooks"? I rest my case.) With "event fatigue" setting in heavily down the street, I don't think I have to tell you--and it breaks my heart to say this, being a lifelong Marvel Zombie--who I'd be rooting for. (If for no other reason than it might cause my favorite company to extricate their heads from their posteriors.)
My other sincere hope is that this is the last storyline we'll ever see from DC that directly emphasizes continuity. Flashpoint was odd in that Geoff Johns & co. created a second, twisted timeline in order to facilitate a finished third timeline--heck, a whole other multiverse, if Earth-2 is any indication. It's like they had to stress how bad things could get before they settled on a happy medium! It may be too much to hope for, but I've certainly had enough of relaunches and the umpteenth attempt at retelling the origin of, say, Superman. The best continuity I can wish for in the "New 52" is akin to architect Grant Morrison's view, what he has called "super-consistency": a fidelity of the core concepts that make the characters and their accompanying situations work. Keep the same elements everyone's familiar with, but at the same time, not be slavish to every little story that's been published over eight decades. If the ongoing adventures are faithful to the spirit of the characters and entertaining in general, those two qualities go a long way toward overcoming any lapses in continuity.
With DC all but doing away with the ongoing continuities of its characters, I have to ask: can ongoing numbering schemes be far behind? Marvel is already using a variation of this idea in relaunching key series every time a creative team turns over. We've seen it with Iron Man, we've seen it with Thor and Captain America, and now we're seeing it again in coming months with Incredible Hulk and various X-Men series. What if DC decides to abandon long-running numbering schemes in favor of relaunching, either as creative teams change, or as major storylines change, or even just once a year, in the way that television shows change seasons? It's an idea some others have had, but I think it has some merit in the current sales climate, even if I disagree fundamentally with the idea of constant relaunches. (I much prefer to see a book with a high numbering scheme as it denotes a sense of history, but alas, I appear to be in the minority here.)
Over the years, fans of superhero comics have become indoctrinated to the pitfalls of continuity. When they see several events happening at one comics company at the same time, the first question asked is often "How do these things fit together?" (Take a look at some of Comic Book Resources' threads discussing what order events such as Siege, World War Hulks & other stories fit together. Or don't.) It'd be nice if the companies simplified continuity, untangled events so fans didn't have to concern themselves with how everything fit together. And maybe DC's "New 52" and this "Anti-Crisis" is the first step along that path. Truly, fans should think less about what stories fit in DC's new five-year plan, and more about just fondly remembering the stories they enjoyed, and forgetting the stories they didn't.
Bottom line: If you liked the original story, then for you, it happened. And if that fact alone doesn't allow you a sound night's sleep (or day, for the vampires in the crowd), then get in the Mark Gruenwald Omniverse frame of mind. There's gotta be a DC Universe somewhere out there where Flashpoint never happened. And maybe, just maybe, DC will return to that universe one day. But if not...!
To paraphrase MST3K: "Just repeat to yourself it's just a comic; I should really just relax."
(DCnU Continuity Series: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5)