Comic Fodder

Blogging "Countdown": 6

Hey, Jason!

I have to apologize for taking so long in responding to your last post. I've been remiss in my comic-blogging duties, and have only a giant, fire-breathing, car munching dinosaurmobile, the Transformers and the celebration of our nation's independence to blame. I hope you set off some nice firecrackers and ate a hot dog in the name of liberty.

I can't help but note that you claim not to judge me for liking Countdown, and yet you come by my place of work dressed in black robes, a barrister's wig and waving a gavel at me with the words "Countdown" enscribed in the hammer's head. Sure, you're otherwise friendly during those visits, but I detect a hidden meaning...

It seems the story of Countdown is progressing, and the events of this week are tying together some of the disparate threads of the series while acting as that central backbone for the DCU.

Before we talk about that, however, I wanted to discuss a comment you'd made in your last post

but if the superhero as a figure is more than a really awesome vehicle for complex self-referentiality -- if it is, as most people agree, a vehicle for understanding conflict, ethics, and social ideals in popular culture -- then DC is currently being lapped big time by a Marvel Universe generating very culturally provocative stuff in Civil War and beyond. It's because of this that I find Black Adam really fascinating....

Remember when I said I was a bit concerned about superhero comics being written by fanboys creating an echo chamber?

Marvel possibly does a better job if hiding it, but characters in both the DC and Marvel universes spend a lot of time worrying about what other superheroes are up to, reacting when a supervillain shows up or springs an insanely intricate trap around our hero when a .38 and a bullet would do (see: Hush). What readers infrequently see are characters interacting with any sort of world which resembles the one in which you or I live. Of course, one need only pick up a copy of Showcase Presents: Superman to see that wasn't always the case. And, yes, once again I'm going to the well with Superman as my example.

While readers might be hard pressed to get more than a page or panel out of Superman actually hanging around the offices of the Daily Planet these days, there was a time in which Superman wasn't defined by his relationship with Batman, the JLA, and other caped folks, but by his uniqueness in a world of ordinary people and his relationships with those same, ordinary folks.

What's remarkable about the Silver Age portrayal (versus or more "realistic" depictions of characters today) is that Superman is constantly at work for one do-gooder cause or another, usually performing feats to astound the slack jawed yokels of Metropolis by juggling lions of bending buses in half or some such, all of which collected gate for orphanages, kid's charities and whatever cause Weisinger dreamed up that week. In fact, in the most recent Showcase Presents: Superman volume, Superman is busted by the IRS for not paying up to Uncle Sam for all the sunken gold, etc... he'd recovered and handed over to kiddie charities (important tax tip, readers: you must claim found treasure on your 1040. Man, those guys could spin a yarn...). Today the assumption is that Superman barely has time to hang out with his supposed pal, Jimmy, let alone make time for anything but the latest incarnation of Zod to wreak havoc upon Metropolis.

For the most part, writers avoid much in the way of talking about events which reflect the real world, which seemed surprising in the years immediately following 9-11. With as obvious as a target as we had in bin Laden, not so much as a picture of Cap punching bin Laden in the snoot, nor a single two-page spread in Look Magazine detailing how Superman would deal with Al Qaeda or wrassle with the entire Axis of Evil.

I'm not sure I have ample evidence to back this up, but it seems as if the DCU that readers saw in the post Crisis on Infinite Earths-era may have lost something when the editors hit CTRL+ALT+Delete and decided to give readers an all new history for the characters they'd known for years. Somehow the move from a Superman surrounded by co-workers at the Daily Planet and GBS and the multitude of stories which surrounded those characters grounded Superman among those very human characters and gave a bit more urgency to the Clark Kent persona. The fanboy as writer often seems more interested in the interactions of those super characters amongst themselves, endlessly repeating the once-special "team-up" stories to a point where the norm is that the interaction most characters seem to have is solely between other spandex heroes and the villain of the month.

What I think gets lost in that shuffle (and this may be just me) are the human elements, the Jimmy Olsens, the Lois Lanes and the Perry Whites. Without those characters in the picture representing us, who, exactly, is Superman fighting to protect? Who are any of the superheroes fighting to protect? Or are the stories of supposed heroes of the DC Universe really about struggles that would matter much to the average reader, let alone the average citizen of the DCU? Outside of a a sky filling with planets, how were the citizens of the DCU really affected?

You brought up your interest in Black Adam, and I wanted to consider the final issues of "52", World War III and Adam's appearances in Countdown as a reference. The story of Adam is pitched as a tragedy to the readers with the build up and eventual fall of the Black Marvel Family in the pages of 52, and the ensuing carnage which carried over to a four issue wrap up series, World War III, which was to detail a war, one would assume. However, what readers received instead was a four issue "catch up" session with the storylines and characters which simply never made it into the pages of 52.

I can't really think of a more clear example of how superhero comics, of late, have come to ignore the humanity which they're supposed to be protecting. It seems that as long as our heroes come out of any event relatively unscathed, there's a status quo that can be returned to and the (in the case of World War III) hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives which were supposedly lost are mostly forgotten and go unmentioned. It's been all of a few months since World War III, and already the hundreds of thousands dead in Bialya go unmentioned in any of the DCU books I'm reading.

Surely there's more story left to tell.

It strikes me that titles like Authority, which seemed conscious of the the devastation their characters were participating in and commented upon through the very callousness of their leads (even when, no doubt,many readers bought it because the characters swore and kicked ass), dropped off the charts a bit after 9-11. With actual tragedy on the shores of the US, massive loss of live was not something taken lightly, at least for a while. It seems those lessons are fading away, and that its once again all right to rack up a body count and level a major city with little to no afterthought as to how they might actually work to serve the narrative.

I follow more Marvel than I let on, and I certainly followed Civil War. Many readers seemed to believe that Captain America throwing in the towel was a cop-out, but I still feel now, as I felt then, that Cap's decision was the only logical choice a supposed self-appointed defender of those who can't defend themselves could make. In a lot of ways, Civil War was a fairly long meditation upon the realities of responsibility for power. I won't dwell too much on the tricks Marvel used to turn Tony Stark into the "bad guy" of the series, or that Spider-Man's reveal felt a bit trumped up, not to mention the punishment for that reveal. But, Spidey aside... Cap was right for throwing in the towel..

Comics shouldn't be just about musclebound clods in tights pounding the dickens out of each other, no matter how complicated or convoluted the story manages to be, or how much fannish delight readers like myself might take at seeing some of those events unfold. Countdown is increasingly fannish, increasingly inward looking for DC (I mean, the Monarch? Really?), and that seems to be set up to reward fans. And, I think as we've discussed, in a lot of ways that's not all bad.

But is it possible that in order for DC to break out of the mold, that they may need to take a sharp turn in the manner of Marvel and truly shake up the universe? Despite the hype, Marvel wasn't actually making any social commentary with either Civil War or the Death of Cap. But they did bother to apply some real world logic to the likelihood of superheroes showing a bit more responsibility than donning a pair of tights, stealing into the night and punching some guy lifting TV's off a truck.

Clearly this isn't the direction Countdown is headed, not with blue, taught-bodied lady aliens joining forces with 90's style power suited men of mysterious motivations, salmon-colored transdimensional aliens killing the Joker's daughter and entirely too many people knowing the real name of the Red Hood. So the question then becomes: how heroic are the super-heroes when they're all running in circles chasing after a macguffin which matters to nobody outside of the locked room murder mystery of the story?

Really, what does it matter to Sally Public of Keystone City that the Joker's Daughter jumped dimensions (intentionally? unintentionally? Can we not just bring her back?) and was shot dead in an alleyway?

Anyhow, this was a seriously rambling rant. And I need to quit using Superman as my only example.

Not sure if this helps. Looking forward to hearing from you!

-Ryan




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Ryan is your resident reviewer of DC Comics. He keeps his comics and himself in Austin, Texas. He likes Superman.
ryan@filmfodder.com