Comic Fodder

What's Wrong at Both Marvel and DC?

Let me start with the caveat that I have high expectations for my comic stories; they are more expensive now, and there has been a long history of development to get the comics field to a point where we can have great art accompanied by intelligent stories that can entertain and/or educate us, or at least make us stop and think about things. If I want popcorn, I can go to the movies. If I want popcorn comics, there are a ton of places I can already go. When the Big Two start talking about doing great things, it needs to be more than talk. You can't promise me Citizen Kane or Batman: The Dark Knight and then give me Van Helsing or a third Mummy sequel. Let’s keep it real.

There is a relatively new situation going on at both companies. DC has a rather different method of planning stories, in that tons of people cram into a room and plot out the direction of a title or character for a year or three. Marvel tended to be a little more free-wheeling, but lately they have adopted more of the meeting syndrome as well, to mixed results. The one big change to all of this recently is that both companies are trying their hand at crafting an in-depth meta-story involving the entirety of their respective shared universes, but the results are not going well.

Take a look at Grant Morrison's work on the Seven Soldiers of Victory. Darkseid is a human-looking guy in those, but in the rest of the DC universe for the past few years (and all other times before that), he has been his usual rocky, craggy self. Now all of a sudden, Morrison gets to write his stories again, and Darkseid is in human form again, with still no real explanation. So instead of recognizing that he is writing in a shared, organic universe with other people's creations, he resurrects an old story idea of his and plows through with a sledgehammer to all continuity written anywhere by anyone else, just so he can continue to write this thread of an idea he had many, many years ago. It reminds me of a quote from one of Jim Carrey's movies: “Let's do all the things that you wanna do!"

It didn't bother Morrison any that he left Marvel and the X-Men in such a horrible shambles that they had to retcon his entire Magneto storyline into the idea that we had somehow gotten another Magneto clone loose to destroy New York, and everything else didn't happen, except he took Jean Grey off that table so nobody else could play with her for a few years. He is on course to do something similar with DC, but with a little damage up front already in place, with the whole, Orion-dies-three times thing. Everyone bent over backwards to say it wasn't his fault. That's nice, but maybe if he bothered to pay attention to the other comics being written, he could have adapted his story, or gotten involved in some mediations to prevent the cluster-(censored) that we readers got stuck with, all during what was supposed to be an event that would knock our socks off. The worst of it is, after all of the big meetings that DC has had to determine the future course, they still messed up their continuity worse than anything else in recent memory, proving that their editors are all over-paid for little work or value added.

While I like both Morrison and Bendis, for they have written a ton of good stuff, Bendis has fallen into the same trap, and both of them sound like glorified hype machines when they give interviews about their projects. They give some good-natured trash-talk and suggest each will demolish the other, and this is the biggest story of the year, blah blah blah.

In the case of Bendis, it has been the Secret Invasion. More than three years ago, he started off the New Avengers with an unknown party hiring Electro to spring Sauron from the Raft. That led obliquely to a Savage Land caper where people impersonating S.H.I.E.L.D. agents were up to no good with vibranium. Bendis promptly dropped the Electro part, and did not mention the Savage Land plot at all for the next three years. Rather than have his heroes investigate an obviously important case, he had them drop it like naive first-timers, and we were supposed to forget about it. Then, years later, he reveals that this was all part of an elaborate plot by the Skrulls, and oh, isn't Bendis so brilliant and devious and visionary? No. He's not. He broke several rules of storytelling, dangling out his first couple of stories and not giving the reader any chance to guess at what was going on. Then, unlike any other mystery writer in the history of mankind, he dropped all references to the events like they never happened, leaving the readers to wonder why the veteran Avengers were acting like retarded recruits, not following up on Electro or renegade S.H.I.E.L.D. agents.

Erik Larsen once gave an interview once where he told us that he had been planning to write the Hulk, and there was an encounter with Galactus. That gig fell through for one reason or other, but he did get commissioned to do a few issues of Wolverine. Larsen did not take the time to consider his character and dream up a good story for his readers. Rather, he dusted off his Hulk idea, inserted Wolverine, and gave us a story where Wolverine encounters Galactus. It was incredibly bad, and I put it back on the rack, and have a permanent hole in my Wolverine collection, because Marvel did some mindless outsourcing to an unimaginative hack who couldn't be bothered to work for his money and come up with a new idea. Not that Larsen has always been a hack, but in this particular case, he was devastatingly lazy, and did not even seem to realize what he was telling us when he revealed this in his interview.

Bendis and Morrison remind me of Larsen. With both of these writers, we have a case of someone getting stuck on an idea and getting away with writing a few things, and then waiting, biding their time until they could get enough influence over enough titles to carry out the rest of their plan. We are dealing with two large stories that are consuming more than their fair share of shared-universe comic pages (not quite as much at DC) to play out an old, old idea by a tired writer who keeps his ideas in the back of his head, waiting for the chance to plug them in wherever he can make them fit.

Contrast this with what Kurt Busiek did for his new Marvel title at the time, the Thunderbolts. Busiek's original idea was to have villains in disguise get accepted into the Avengers one by one, slowly replacing some of the other heroes who left, retired, etc. Then, several months later, the only real guy left, Captain America (with an emphasis -mine, not Busiek's- on Steve Rogers still being with the Avengers all this time), uncovered the plot, realizing that he was alone on the team with a bunch of bad guys. Great idea, yeah? Except Marvel decided on the massively lame Heroes Reborn concept, which ruled out Busiek’s idea. So Busiek changed it somewhat and came up with an entirely new team stepping into the gap to fill the void caused by the absence of the Avengers and the Fantastic Four. Note that the overall concept only had a slight change, but the thought and effort that went into making a good concept was not a simple cut-and-paste like Larsen had done. Everyone remembers the Thunderbolts now; how many remember Larsen's Galactus/Wolverine story? (Especially in any positive light?)

Let's take a more contemporary example of how to plan for the future and plot out long-lasting changes that actually make for good stories along the way: Geoff Johns. Johns has collaborated with Alex Ross to take a look at the events in Kingdom Come, and to incorporate many hints that seem to be herding the DC characters towards something resembling that timeline. What effect the crossover of the Kingdom Come Superman into "New Earth" will have on the ultimate outcome is still unknown, but Johns has crafted a gripping narrative that honors the future-continuity of Kingdom Come and pays homage to it, while not necessarily making the Kingdom Come mini-series the ultimate destination of the story-telling. He has done all this with less than half the hype and promotion, and maintained a little mystery as to his direction of the story without gushing about all of his cleverness and intrigue and surprising the reader, which Bendis does way too often. He gushes about surprising us, not actually surprising us, because he doesn't. See the disgustingly obvious attempt to make us think Iron Man was a Skrull, for example.

Johns has been successful at this in other places too, from his reboot of Hawkman and help in reconciling some continuity problems with that character, to his neat retcon of Black Hand's role in a new ring Corps and the future prophecies over in the current Green Lantern titles. He has also brought the Legion back into relationship with Superman after a too-long absence, making them a little more relevant to the shared universe. Each of these things, he has accomplished in four to twelve issues of each title he writes. Contrast this with Morrison, who needed seven mini-series and two bookends just to lay the foundation for Final Crisis. Contrast Johns with Bendis, who needed a mini-series and two entire series for several years now just to do the setup for what is essentially a decades-old re-run of a DC Manhunter story (see point #2 on the Secret Invasion review). Remember that the next time Bendis tries to tell a comics reporter, "this has never been done before!" Even Keith Giffen has mentioned in the past that tons of things had been asked for and tried in the past, but the answer was always no. For some strange reason, Marvel always says yes to Bendis, and he gets to do his thing.

Bendis only appears to be more plodding and long-suffering than Morrison, but this is really only because Morrison had to wait longer to start Final Crisis. Morrison actually had his plans long before Bendis had his, but Bendis was in place sooner, and is already near the end of Secret Invasion. Morrison actually has run into additional problems that nobody knows about. For example, he did not have the chance to have input into the Batman title for very long, whereas Bendis has had the Avengers titles as a playground to insert his plans into for a long time. As a result, instead of multiple years to introduce Jezebel Jet, and turn her into a convincing love interest like Silver St. Cloud or Selena (or geesh, even Sasha from Checkmate!), he had to tell us she was his love in two issues. Oh sure, he introduced her back in Batman 656, but with not nearly enough screen time to make her believable. Most readers do not give two cents what happens to this poorly-introduced, rushed-relationship character whose presence is so sudden purely as a plot point, obviously and artificially injected into the storyline as a foil. We also have to suffer through the revelation of yet another figure from Batman's past whom somehow knows all about him, and thus poses a grave threat, as if we hadn't just been introduced to Hush not that long ago. With Hush at least, we were given a little bit of a build-up. The only oblique we got for Batman's new nemesis is a poorly-done reference to the earlier League of Batmen story.

One of the common problem elements with these writers is that they are not writing comic stories: they are doing serial TV shows. You can see the chapter cliffhangers, and the "season" plans evident every time you pick up one of their books. To compound the problem, they keep trying to have their artists depict things in a movie-style cinematic way, which does not mesh very well with the television-style writing, which proves especially disconnecting with the Batman R.I.P. story. In R.I.P., we keep getting these big splashy cinema portraits, but the necessary TV exposition is never given, so you have to sometimes go back and re-read the last couple pages, or even the previous issue, to connect all of the dots. This is not a pleasurable task like referring back to a previous part of Watchmen to catch a brilliantly-hidden hint; this is tediously making up for poor writing to catch the main point of the story.

While crafting a meta-story is not in itself a bad idea, it is hard to do in cinematic style. The most comfortable place for that is TV. It can be accomplished in comics, but it takes more cohesive planning and better story-telling than either of the two companies are managing. Geoff Johns proves the exception because he is not doing a hyped "special event" outside the normal monthly titles. Instead, his narrative is crafted within each title, with organic implications for other places in the shared universe. Other writers are free to take some of those implications and run with them, incorporated into the other titles, and most of the good writers do so, which makes for a natural meta-story in collaboration with the massive number of other creative people who are playing in the same sandbox and borrowing the same toys, which might be affected by the changes implied in his titles. The end result is a gripping narrative with meaningful events and character growth. With the Bendis and Morrison titles, we get hyped marketing that the characters will be changed forever... until their next event which shatters all of your preconceived notions, ad infinitum.

I'll take the quiet, compelling stories by Johns over the rushed, poorly coordinated, continuity-trashing re-runs and years-long holdover ideas of the others. If Marvel and DC want to give us better stories, they need to have their editors start doing their jobs, and reign in the writers; the job of the editor assumes monumental importance when you try to elevate the playing field to crafting a meta-story. It is an ambitious goal, and they need to plan better if they want to be successful. Otherwise, we'll be stuck with what we're getting right now.

I don't know about you, but it's not quite good enough for me. ____________________________________________________________________

Tpull is Travis Pullen. He started reading comics at 5 years old, and he can't seem to stop. His new joy is to post responses to anything Ryan posts, amazingly fast and with a longer word count. He would have finished sooner, but his girlfriend made him stop to eat dinner and watch TV.

Travis, I'm not going to disagree with your points on Bendis. Honestly, I've not really followed any of the Avengers in its Bendis incarnation, and haven't loved what I have seen.

I do have to back up my guy Morrison a bit, especially when it comes to the editorial mess at DC that preceeded Final Crisis (ie: Countdown). I understand the desire to hold Morrison to the fire for discrepancies between other series and Final Crisis, but all evidence suggests that, mostly, Didio got greedy. Rather than rehash the mess that was the confusion upon the release of issue 1, I'd just comment that as a reader, I'm moving on. I recognize the mistake as editorial. And in many ways, I am glad they took the editorial hit rather than ask Morrison to "fix" his story to match Countdown. I think Morrison's only real mistake was trusting Didio and Co. to touch the material before Final Crisis was released.

BTW: he does hold some sort of ceremonial editorial position at DC, but clearly it wasn't enough to enforce his "dont touch the New Gods" mandate he'd requested for the calendar year prior to Final Crisis.

I'm still intrigued by the "human" Darkseid and Co. Until I get an answer that I find unsatisfactory, I have a hard time passing judgment or coming to conclusions about the modus operandi of Gods.

And, to throw fuel on the fire:
As a guy who was a big X-fan (Uncanny issues running from 168-320), I thoroughly enjoyed Morrison's X-Men as the logical extension of the X-Men I grew up with, rather than the post-Claremont tendency to swim in circles and/ or tell stories that had little to nothing to do with the X-Men as mutants. (I include Whedon's run in my list of "meh". Great dialog and character moments, but what did all that have to do with the X-Men as mutants? And, really... didn't that final issue just kind of not make sense?)

I think the idea behind making Morrison an editor and/ or architect of the DCU was that other writers could have drafted behind him, riding on his heels. Its when other folks aren't ready to move at Morrison's pace or deal with his status quo changing decisions when the trouble begins.

-- Posted by: Ryan at August 7, 2008 1:22 AM

Ooh, them's nearly fightin' words, "meh" for Whedon! heh

No, one of the great things about the medium, like all art, is that it is subjective, and one person's trash is another's treasure. I absolutely loved Morrison's take on Batman when he did JLA, for example. But I'm somewhat relieved to see we are not clones of each other. Despite our mutual fancrush on Johns, we finally found some areas where we disagree a little bit. I kept reading your columns, nodding my head, and going, "Hey! Me too! I agree with that completely!"

-TP

-- Posted by: tpull at August 7, 2008 2:04 AM

I don't get what you mean by retarded recruits. What exactly are you trying to say or are you just trying to be funny? Maybe you could have come up with a better description without hurting people.

-- Posted by: mary at August 8, 2008 10:19 AM

I don't have anything to contribute as intelligent as Travis, but Secret Invasions is a reason to avoid any titles written by Bendis. What a waste of my money has that series been!

It's time to stop spending $3.99 on crap, and stick with the better $2.99 comics. The higher price may kill off the industry, and discourages newcomers...

-- Posted by: Tony Jazz at August 8, 2008 12:47 PM

No meaning to hurt anyone, Mary. I do write in a very sarcastic manner, and the internet is the worst forum for being able to successfully convey that in writing.

The example was to point out that the Avengers are supposed to be very experienced, and should not act like performers who are having their first day on the job, and cannot perform their duties in an optimal capacity. That's a rather large mouthful, so I shortened it to two words, but I was not directing vitriol to any real-life group or person. We're talking comics here.

That said, it is not my responsibility to determine how you choose to interpret my words, and any pain you may feel is pain that you have chosen to create and accept. I have absolutely no power over you at all. The fact that you have added some extra, imaginary intention to two words out of the entire article proves my point; the fact that the extra meaning you are implying is negative and hurtful is of your own creation, not mine, so please do not attribute malevolent intentions just because you chose to suggest it might be that way. Thanks,

-TP

-- Posted by: tpull at August 8, 2008 6:59 PM

Hey Travis,

Great essay. I liked it so much that I quoted it and referred to it in my own blog and crafted my own essay based on what you put forth here.

I invite you to read the extended version on my blog fanboywonder.blogspot.com but my short answer is below.

The problem as we see it has been a long time in building and certainly not entirely the fault of either writers Morrison or Bendis—although they are certainly a large symptom of the problem.

In a nutshell, comic book storytelling, its storytellers and comic book fans have come to take themselves WAY too seriously.

It wasn’t so bad when “comic books” first became “graphic novels.” Everyone wants a little respect, comics fans are no exception so it was nice to have our art form recognized and respected at long last.

However, as fans became more “sophisticated”—or at least older—the Big two publishers—DC and Marvel seemed to lose sight of the actual storytelling—“characters” became “properties” and publishing took a back seat to movies, media and merchandising.

So comic books have found themselves relegated to the “kids table” at their own banquet. Consequently, there’s been much less “adult supervision” by DC and Marvel’s parent companies and so long as the books were published and they didn’t lose too much money, big corporate didn’t care.

Thus the comic book star system grabbed hold of the industry with a python-like grip.

The star system had been born long before this current “Secret Crisis” to be sure but “talents” like Mr. Morrison and Mr. Bendis have helped fuel this star into a “supernova” of hubris at the same time that comic book galaxy is dramatically shrinking.

Cheers,
FanBoyWonder

-- Posted by: FanBoyWonder at August 11, 2008 11:11 PM

Climb on board the bandwagon, FanBoyWonder, there's plenty of room! Thanks for the compliment. Now, how long until I turn smug myself and become the very enemy I oppose? (must...last...another...few...seconds...)

-TP

-- Posted by: tpull at August 11, 2008 11:30 PM

All right. I'll bite.

I'm not sure I understand the logic of the argument.

"However, as fans became more “sophisticated”—or at least older—the Big two publishers—DC and Marvel seemed to lose sight of the actual storytelling—“characters” became “properties” and publishing took a back seat to movies, media and merchandising."

A) DC and Marvel have exploited their properties for movies, media and merchandising since Clark Kent first pulled off his glasses in dramatic fashion. Superman made it to radio by 1940, and to the Fleischer cartoons before WWII. Both spawned lines of toys, etc...

B) If writers are writing for their own little bubble, how does it follow that they're writing for anyone but themselves and their comics audience?

C) I don't understand how anyone is taking themselves TOO seriously as a writer. Well, perhaps Mark Millar, but he's his own story. But I'm honestly not even sure what that means.

Morrison and Bendis have their faults, to be sure... But when I look at the alternative, with utility players (and Didio certainly has a stable of them that pop up whenever he needs a fill-in, etc...), I'm simply not impressed with their work. I can point to a number of Bendis or Morrison works I've enjoyed. But i can't think of a single, say, Adam Beechen story I'd rush to put in someone's hands.

The Star system has had side-effects that have hurt the comics-industry, but it seems unlikely that putting large events in the hands of a writer that can move comics on his or her name alone is harmful.

-- Posted by: Ryan at August 12, 2008 12:34 AM

Hey Travis,

“Ranger McFriendly” has already tapped me on the shoulder so I’ve made myself at home on the smug wagon.

BTW....Sorry it took so long to respond but I kept closing my eyes as I typed—especially when I felt particularly pious. :)

And Ryan… “I'm not sure I understand the logic of the argument.”

Sdjhdj hkhkld (oops sorry…my eyes closed on me again while answering)…We’ll you just don’t “get it” ….Don’t you know who I am? ;) :)

Cheers,
FanBoyWonder

-- Posted by: FanBoyWonder at August 12, 2008 8:13 AM