Comic Fodder

Blogging "Countdown": 3

Hey Ryan,

You're right, this is a lot of work and we should probably consider replacing this at some point with the LOLSuperPets concept I kept trying to sell you. I'm guessing I'll be ready by mid-July. But until then...

I want to start with this from your last post:

To some extent, this notion of managed continuity can be applied to comics, as it's invariably the mistakes and oddities that most often draw reader attention to the process of the comic's creation rather than simply accepting the narrative at face value.

Yes, yes, yes, and I would argue that this is not at all bad. You compare the "mistakes and oddities" to the transparency of television and film, and you're right to note that the Superman mythos feels a lot more like sausage-making than Scorsese does. We see the process of editorial in superhero comics, we interact with it; we know who Dan Didio is, and many fans have an opinion of the job he is doing (me, all I know is that his name has a lovely cadence).

Comics are an open form, and that's not necessarily because current management is falling down on the job... times were that having Stan and Jack appear in Fantastic Four was an added reason to buy the book. Matthew Pustz does a good job of explaining how the twin communities of comics producers and comics fans interacted over the years and ended up producing a medium that is as much about producer-consumer dialogue as anything else.

Whether it's representing creators directly within a comics fiction, or just wacky "imaginary stories", I'll simply say that I don't think comics continuity is any more broken than it's ever been -- if anything, fandom brings a more critical eye to a more carefully-managed continuity than it ever has before -- and that comics gave up any interest in seamlessness or transparency a long time ago.

On the contrary, the fictional universes of superhero comics exist in a state of awareness with their own processes of production: they wear their mechanics on their sleeves. Other fictions have existed in a similar way: it's called metafiction, and you can see it in Tristram Shandy, or If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, or Adaptation.

But it's different in superhero comics: metafiction is something different and clever in novels, or film, or television. In the DC Universe, it's standard operating procedure, the way things are. We expect comics to show their means of production and revision: to answer your question, yes, continuity is definitely part of the story.

In fact, in Countdown, it is the story: I'll lay all my cards on the table (early) and let you know that, in comparison to the consistently frenetic and, in my opinion, deliciously well-executed 52, I think this story is pretty much a yawner so far. The pacing is drab, the characters say things like "What does it mean for the universe... when a GOD DIES?" without a whiff of Morrisonian self-consciousness... God.

But that doesn't mean I'm going to stop buying Countdown. It's important, good, and desirable when comic books are well-executed and aesthetically pleasing, but for me that's not necessarily a requirement, and deep down (take a hard look, it's therapeutic) I suspect it may not always be for you either.

What's important is that there is progress in history, that something is happening in this large-scale serial form, this "universe" or "multiverse," that is new and consequent. In a form in which the main characters must stay the same over time -- despite his variations across dimensions, "Superman" as a canonical figure will not age or die, and we both realize that -- the drama, the rising action and progress of the comics universe, the cause and effect, is not so much character-based as world-based. I would argue that the main "character" of the fiction we are following is the fiction itself, its continually-evolving set of parameters and boundaries.

And that, in the end, is (I think) the best gambit for superhero comics as a form. Fandom worries a lot about new readers and easy accessibility to comics mythos, but the "new readership" for Batman is just fine: they're watching Batman Begins. Take a look at Marvel's investor relations page: count how many times comics are specifically referenced. It may be fewer than you think.

We are not reading the publications of comics companies: we are reading the publications of cross-media licensors who deploy their characters to blockbuster movies, TV shows, video games, and also comics. In this ecology, comics are in most cases a product for adult afficionados with enough disposable income to not blink at the $3.00 price of a color pamphlet: afficionados who have been with the form long enough, and care enough, to find the complex unfoldings of the fiction compelling.

The differentiator, the thing that the comics universe provides that the TV show, video game, DVD does not is the sense of being connected to something large, complex, and laden with history. Something through which fans can engage in this messy, communal negotiation of a fictional space, the negotiation that we call "continuity." Given this, the fact that comics sales are eroding without actually plummeting actually seems fairly successful within a larger corporate strategy.

I'll leave it at that for now... I missed some of your questions, but I figure we'll get there soon, when we start actually talking about the comic! That's going to happen next time, I promise. And here's what will make it stick: I want to talk about everyone's new favorite ambiguous postcolonial superbaddie, Black Adam. First word that pops into your head... go.

Best,
Jason

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Jason lives in Austin, Texas. This post is reprinted from www.earthx.org.