Comic Fodder

A Masters in DC Universe, a Minor in Wildstorm - Part 1

Not long ago my lovely and very patient wife said to me "I want to read Infinite Crisis". I never asked why. Jamie has certainly picked up my comics, usually asking for recommendations for a graphic novel or trade in between those books without pictures. I suspect her interest in the DCU may have been triggered by the Justice League Unlimited cartoon and tiring of my tendency to drop phrases like "Bottle City of Kandor" into casual conversation.

It was when she had been going through my George Perez-era Wonder Woman collections, and was asking a lot of questions, all of which has answers that included phrases like "Pre-Crisis" and 'Post-Crisis" that a phrase I'd heard for years finally dropped from my wife's mouth:

"You need a Masters degree in DCU to keep up with this stuff," she said.

So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I pondered Jamie's request to pick up Infinite Crisis. "You can't just pick it up and read it," I shrugged. "It won't make any sense."
"But I thought you said it was one of DC's biggest comics in years."
"It was. But I think a lot of the folks who bought it and didn't like it were coming at it without enough context. I think they were buying it because they thought they had to."
"So what do I need to read in order to catch up?" she asked.
"Twenty years of DC Comics," I shrugged. "Maybe fifty."
"Okay, what do I really need to read?"

A challenge! A syllabus in quick and dirty DCU reading! What did you need to know to make it through Infinite Crisis?

the trouble begins...

I sat up through the night, pouring over my collections. Each comic I pulled off the shelf merely pointed me back towards yet another comic I'd missed during a previous attempt. Did it help or hurt to share the back-up features in the Power Girl trade?

Bleary-eyed, and punchy with DCU-overload, the next morning I handed my wife a list of the 23 comics I thought would get her where she needed to go, plus 15 more comics she could read as reference material.* The list, of course, was incomplete, and would require a breakdown of when to insert certain chapters from the Infinite Crisis Companion into Infinite Crisis. Before all was said and done, I had to add a Titans/Outsiders and a Wonder Woman collection I'd somehow overlooked.

There were questions, of course, along the way.
"Who is that giant lady?"
Rita Farr. She's in the Doom Patrol.
"I thought you said the Doom Patrol died."
They did.
I don't know.
"What happened to Hal Jordan?" took up half an hour one sunny Sunday afternoon. I am now planning to turn my monologue into an off-Broadway one-man show. The on-stage costume changes will be a show-stopper.

It is this seemingly impenetrable wall of resurrected heroes, Multiple Earths, legacy characters and a fractal spiral of expanding storylines reaching back to 1938 that is both the DCU's greatest asset and its kryptonite. Readers of DC comics are expected (and rewarded) for having knowledge of decades worth of DC Comics, whether they actually read the stories in question or not. All others must check their understanding of narrative structure at the door (though Marvel Zombies will certainly get a leg up).

A Masters in DC Comics is gained not just by continuous study of the comics crossing the path of the comic reader at the local comic shop, but Googling names, keeping at least one window open with Wikipedia at all times and sleeping with a copy of the DC Encyclopedia beneath their pillow so that the origin of Captain Compass might be absorbed by osmosis during the sleepy-time hours.

The simple fact is, when you're reading a DC comic, you never know when the brain of Dolores Winters is going to show up in someone else's body. So you better know who the heck Dolores Winters is, and how her brain misplaced her body. And what's significant about that particular body she's borrowed.

DC no longer leaves you the "Editor's Notes" that once filled in the details for readers. These days, rarely does a comic script stop for appropriate exposition lest the comic become page-after-page of a character's convoluted history. Instead, reading with an eye toward continuous preparation and cross-referencing has become a hallmark of DC fandom.

The reading becomes enjoyable scholarship, which DC is learning to feed. Archive Editions for the tweed coat and leather elbow-patches set, and Showcase Presents for the student on a budget. The Chronicles editions are for the armchair historians, and timely reprints of stories for readers who weren't yet born when the stories first hit the rack at the Piggly Wiggly. It's entirely probable that DC may be relying entirely too much on the mental vault of Mark Waid, the interwebs and their readers' goodwill as comics continue to be released with esoteric characters in situations recalling comics that were a creator's favorite in the mid-1970's but which haven't seen a reprint since (see Identity Crisis). Marvel may be on the right track with their Marvel Universe Handbooks. DC's interest in reprinting their 70's era handbooks is a step in the right direction, but an updated version is what's truly needed. Or is it?

Many comic readers state that the DCU is impenetrable and (very reasonably) are unwilling to spend the time or money attempting to garner a toe-hold in understanding the adventures of a character who may have been in print since FDR was in office. And thus, there's that ring of the academic to the DCU, as publishing histories of DC's stable of characters becomes as important as the characters on the printed page. Find a DC fan, and they can usually tell you the name of Captain Marvel's original publishing company and what fate befell that publisher. The elements of the publishing history become a meta-text for what's on the page, and inevitably this leads to DC's characters finding themselves in bizarrely written situations concoted to address and atone for the decisions of the editors and writers. At some point, all of the history, the reboots, the changing writers and publishers become as large as the characters themselves, and one crosses from comic reader to comic geek.

All of this serves to create a far more insular industry run by and supported by the geeks. The geeks, with their Masters in DC lore can create a comfortable zone in which to tell and rebuild their stories and characters. The new generation of kids finding a copy of Action Comics at the drug store becomes a notion to be dismissed as the demographic becomes the young male with disposable cash and an existence so devoid of a life outside of comics that it seems perfectly reasonable to talk at length about the absolute awesomeness of Super Turtle. Of course, the comics are written to reflect what the writer would want to see in a comic, and the wall between readers new and old becomes a self-perpetuating problem.

So what does DC owe to the new readers to help them overcome the gap? The Multiple Earths is the big, flashing target of DC lore. While there's no doubt as to the complications the Multiple Earths bring about, it's but one course worth of material, and certainly not the entire curriculum. Further, Marvel is rapidly heading toward multiple Earths with the Ultimate line, dimension hopping titles like Exiles, the Squadron Supreme/ faux-DC world, and even our friend The Spectacular Spider-Ham.

The demographic of who is "getting into comics" is a complete mystery to this reader. How? Why? These are questions for the folks at DC's marketing department. But just as important as who these folks are in a direct market environment, is who is coming in and why they aren't buying.

Next: Getting onboard today, tomorrow, and what is DC doing?

Wow. I'm really long-winded. Surely I did something wrong here. Questions? Comments? Come on, I can take it.

* Jamie's DCU Reading

This list is meant to be read in order. Please note the key beneath the first section, indicating levels of importance to the overall story arc.

1) Crisis on Multiple Earths: The Team-Ups Vol. 1 p. 5-56*, 164-188*, 138-163 (b)
2) JLA: The Greatest Stories Ever Told Vol. 1 p. 4 -6 (b), 59-76 (a)
3) Crisis on Infinite Earths*
4) History of the DC Universe*
5) Legends (b)
6) New Teen Titans: Who is Donna Troy? (c)
7) Zero Hour (b)
8) Final Night (c)
9) JLA: Tower of Babel - Vol. 7 (a)
10) Identity Crisis (a)
11) Teen Titans/ Outsiders: The Death and Return of Donna Troy (c)
12) Prelude to Infinite Crisis*
13) Power Girl p. 3 - 78 (b), 79 - end (a)
14) JLA: Crisis of Conscience - Vol. 18*
15) The OMAC Project*
16) Superman: Sacrifice*
17) Wonder Woman: Mission's End (b)
18) Villains United*
19) Rann-Thanagar War (a)
20) Day of Vengeance (b)
21) Infinite Crisis* (please note: Infinite Crisis includes story sections which are enhanced by numbers 22 and 23... I will be updating Jamie's list when my copy of Infinite Crisis arrives so that she may break up her reading accordingly)
22) Superman: Infinite Crisis*
23) Infinite Crisis Companion*

* - required
a - heavily referenced during Infinite Crisis or a key moment in DC history
b - would enrich reading of IC for backstory
c - tangentially related, but in DCU narrative arc toward Infinite Crisis

Reference Material:

DC Comics: A Celebration of the World's Favorite Comic Book Heroes
The DC Comics Encyclopedia
Crisis on infinite Earths: The Compendium
Superman Chronicles #1
Batman Chronicles #1
Superman Vs. Lex Luthor
Man of Steel Vol. #1
Batman: Year One
Wonder Woman: Gods and Mortals
Green Lantern: Emerald Dawn
JLA: Year One
Green Lantern: Rebirth
Adam Strange: Planet Heist
Death/ Return of Superman Trilogy

Wow. That was...interesting. I agreed with most of what you said. But how do you really feel about continuity? How do you view the DCU right now?

-- Posted by: Anonymous at February 8, 2007 1:51 PM

Wow, anonymous. Those are a loaded, loaded couple of questions. And a complete answer is a blog post unto itself. I think I come down pretty firmly on the side of continuity. I think it's important to maintaining the integrity of the characters and stories in a serial-narrative format.

As per a view of the DCU: That's a little broad, but I think DC has provided a mixed bag in the OYL delivery, but with the talent involved, I'm optimistic. Mostly I'm optimistic that DC and Didio seem interested in strong editorial stewardship of the titles. I don't think there's anything wrong with DC trying to get their properties back to something resembling the most recognizable versions.

Anyhoo, I'm not entirely certain I answered your question. I'd suggest going back through some of the Commentary posts and checking out the OYL commentary from early January.

-- Posted by: ryan at February 8, 2007 5:26 PM