Comic Fodder

Making the DC Universe a Single Story

The release of Grant Morrison and Doug Mahnke's "Final Crisis: Superman Beyond 3D" is another chapter in a saga Morrison seems to have begun writing with his run on Animal Man, way the heck back when I was still in High School. Just as Animal Man was revisited by the interdimensional yellow aliens in "52", Superman's side-journey here parallels (or actually IS) the same wasteland Animal Man passed through in his journeys.

Meanwhile, Geoff Johns has been spending the past two years busily planting seeds in Action Comics, Green Lantern, JSA, and his other work (Final Crisis: Rogues' Revenge) that isn't just bringing up similar themes, but is tied together in a way that allows for the stories to interweave to a terrific extent, and give off a much greater feeling of a shared universe.

Azzarello and Chiang explored the effects of the control certain writers have over the spirit of the DCU in the post "52" story "Dr. Thirteen: Architecture and Morality". Unfortunately, as the story headed towards its conclusion, Azzarello's points regarding the loss of neat ideas to editorial direction began to swerve distinctly into sour grapes territory. What had been a keen observation of the tragedy of loss of bizarrely creative ideas (even spawning a vampire-Nazi-Gorilla in the progression of the story), spun into what seemed to be a bit of whining on Azzarello's part due to some creative spat that seemed to have occurred with the Waid/ Rucka/ Morrison/ Johns team, and Azzarello's belief that the foursome had too much power in the halls of DC.

While all creators should be hired for their ideas and what they can bring to the table, DC editorial has a tough job, as they must act as the judge for what may be an exciting new creative direction, how this will impact other plans put into motion, whether this will effect continuity, and guessing how the fanbase (the people putting money in their pockets) will react.

The frustration that led Azzarello to write "Architecture and Morality" in some ways shines a light on what must have been the business practices at DC and elsewhere in the years prior to Infinite Crisis. I recall being surprised in the years running up ti Infinite Crisis (and Didio's editorial reconnoitering of the DCU) regarding how many writers prided themselves on (a) not reading anything else but their own work, and (b) their utter disregard for continuity and the rest of the DC and Marvel U's as a whole. Anything which got in the way of their position of storyteller was written off as fanboy wanking, and should be disregarded as such.

Countdown in Crisis

At this point, there's no question that Countdown (to Final Crisis), the year-long weekly series has been seen as a critical and narrative failure (it seems that the series was still selling 65,000+ copies a week in its final months, which equates to 260,000+ copies a month. Which hardly seems like a financial disaster.)

Even Didio seems relieved for the fan negativity regarding the project to have ended.

But was DC wrong to have tried to create a narrative "spine", as they so lovingly tried to call the series? Rather than condeming the series, which could be viewed as a stand-alone, the answer may be to look not just at the narrative failure of the series, but the attempted tie-in's (Arena? Really? Yikes.), and forcing of on-goings into participating.

Some series were completely hi-jacked to accommodate Countdown (see "Flash: the Fastest Man Alive"). Others gamely tried to shoe-horn in events from Countdown without a simple "red Skies" approach. Supergirl met Karate Kid and 1/3rd of Triplicate Girl. Busiek's Superman gamely played along with the go-nowhere Jimmy Olsen storyline, giving Jimmy the most exposure he'd had in years. Other series actually seemed to be building more anticipation for certain storylines than the storylines deserved. Readers may remember that Karate Kid and 1/3rd of Triplicate Girl were left in the past at the conclusion of JLA/ JSA cross-over, The Lightning Saga.

But none of it hung well together.

Then again, with a rotating cast of writers, supposedly under the guidance of Paul Dini, the series wound up reading more like a game of telephone or a botched version of the 80's experiment "DC Challenge". Further hampering the series was DC's post-52 decision to feature only C-Listers and former A-Listers who'd lost their sheen (see the "Challengers" section of the series).

It didn't help that the series felt as if the writers themselves had absolutely no idea how to plot the series, with shoddily constructed characters. But the denouements of almost every storyline were entirely anticlimactic (did Harley and Ivy even have any sort of third act? Was seeing Jimmy Olsen beat up by Darkseid really the point of his story?).

With Countdown, DC asked its fans to take a certain leap of faith. The DCU would now act as one story, with all the series serving the core storyline, like tales of the various knights of Arthur's table in their various adventures.

To his credit, Didio was as quick to react as it seems an editor whose just put a huge matzah ball on the table can be. By the 6 month mark, DC had already admitted this wasn't working, and when the 26th issue hit, the rest of the writers of the DCU were no longer beholden to the events of Countdown. Given production schedules, that MUST have meant DC recognized their mistake by the second or third month and put damage control into place.

Meanwhile...

In his corner of the DCU, seemingly unwatched by editorial eyes, Johns had secretly been building to the Sinestro Corps Wars from Issue 1 of the current Green Lantern and GL Corps series. By the time the actual war hit, not only did it seem like a natural evolution of two series, the war was of a mammoth, epic scale that couldn't be contained to just the two GL titles, spinning off related one-shots (that actually added to the story).

Didio and others seemed pleasantly surprised that fan reaction was so positive. There hadn't been editorial mandates forcing other books to participate (and in other books, no mention was made of the war). It hadn't spun out five 8-issue limited series. The success simply happened.

And, one is left to wonder, had not Morrison's Batman and Johns' Action Comics not suffered from artist delays, would those books not have more quickly advanced their respective storylines? Were writers not doing the job exactly as they were hired to do, and creating and re-imagining whole worlds inside their books without interference from the Countdown event?

When I was a Kid: The Uncanny Stylings of Chris Claremont

You'd never know it from my columns today, but I grew up as an X-Men nut. In fact, Thursday night, after leaving my X-Men collection untouched for years, I was at a sale at Austin Books where I picked up Uncanny X-Men #169 and #171, completing a run that now stretches uninterrupted from 168 - 300.*

Who was the writer on the vast majority of those issues of Uncanny? (you can say it out loud) Chris Claremont.

Claremont may not have always had the most natural sounding dialog, but the man knew his characters, his world and had carved out a unique landscape within the greater Marvel U. His voice remains profound within the pages of not just how every writer after him has had to approach the X-Men, but in how the rest of the Marvel U relates to the X-Men. He fleshed out dozens of characters, conflicts, etc... all building upon one another in an ever increasing sphere.

This all predates the 6-issue run. Claremont, like many writers on projects longterm back in the day, took advantage of the monthly format with no concern regarding how the story would fit into a collection, but rather how it would fit into the X-Men's world.

And sales were astronomical for years. (if anyone ever wants to talk 80's-era X-Men sometime, I'm your huckleberry)

He also launched New Mutants and the original X-Factor, keeping the X-Universe within a certain framework. For me, and I assume many other readers, X-Men ended when Claremont initially left the series circa 1992. Without Claremont's singular voice steering the X-books, the world of the X-Men became immediately unweildy and contradictory, with characters and conflicts that didn't fit the world of X-Men, or reflect the voice Claremont had employed for so many years.

Other writers would occasionally co-opt the X-Men for gust spots, etc... but the single, co-ordinated direction of Uncanny X-Men and its ancillary titles of the time gave the Marvel U if not a spine, then surely a powerful limb or two.

And this seems to be, post "Countdown (to Final Crisis)" the preferred method of strengthening the DC line of books. But nobody ever accused 80's era X-Men of exactly defining the direction of the Marvel U so much as propping up their end of the company.

Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen?

For anyone paying attention, DC's current direction is primarily being driven by Geoff Johns. Morrison may have been given an enormous opportunity with "Final Crisis", and it is spawning actually pretty decent spin-offs (I'm digging Rogue's Revenge, and Superman in 3D-land), but once Final Crisis wraps, the only pie in the DCU Morrison will really have his finger in will be Batman (and there's nothing wrong with that).

Didio seems to be taking a step back from the curious egotism that seemed to lead to "Countdown", publicly stating one multiple occasions that Countdown didn't go very well (I'll leave you to do your own research on that). The why's-and-wherefore's aren't entirely unimportant as it makes it difficult to know WHY the experiment failed. It's not impossible to imagine a world in which DC hadn't rushed to get the job rolling, had coordinated a team of writers with more invested, and hadn't caused the freight train pile-up that was the shift from "Countdown" to "Final Crisis".

Could it have worked?

Company-wide cross-over events generally do not work very well. Honestly, I can't recall one that seemed as if it succeeded (curiously, Our Worlds at War from 2001 showed some hints of the possibility). Perhaps in a much smaller company, such an attempt could work. And I'd certainly be willing to hear about success stories at any of the 90's-explosion companies.

The single hand of an editor would have to be supremely powerful within an organization, and would take planning the event a year or two our before a single issue hit the stands. And I don't think companies like DC and Marvel work that way. Even when Marvel claims that's the case with an event like "Secret Invasion". There are always simply too many loose threads as all of the ancillary titles come out. Again, if Secret Invasion is a masterfully crafted cross-universe romp over at Marvel, let me know. Marvel may have cracked the code.

Creative Hierarchy and The Architects

As it stands, Geoff Johns has as much or more creative control over the DCU as he's carefully shoring up the characters in his titles and laying concrete groundwork for other creators to work from. He's redefined a good chunk of the DCU (the first glimmer of the possibility coming from his Hawkman run, defying the belief that the character was irretrievably damaged).

And as much as creators like Azzarello might not like what the creators like Johns are doing to hem in their ideas, it's necessary for the stability of the DCU to move together as a single story. And that, really, should be the editorial mandate Didio and Co. should be concerned with. The herculean effort Johns has put into his titles to straighten out years of misfires, reboots, conceptual oddities and creator ego strokes shouldn't have been necessary.

An understood hierarchy within the organization isn't something that should be written off as somehow unfair, as much as it should be trumpeted as a team effort. Something like a football team. Yeah, the quarterback is going to get much of the glory, but without the line to support him and offensive backs making superstar plays, the team isn't going to win any games, let alone a Superbowl. But that doesn't mean the quarterback doesn't have some say in what play is being called in the huddle.

No doubt writers do not like being penned in, but to an extent, that's their job. They know what the gig is when they sign on. And not to echo Kirkman's recent rant, but there are opportunities for creator-owned opportunities if they feel like doing their own thing. And I hope they do, because I like new stuff, too from writers whose work I've discovered elsewhere.

So what are they doing now...?

I agree with the current approach DC seems to be taking, learning from the success of the Sinestro Corps War. Let each title/ line build its own world and stories, and if those stories can spill out to the greater DCU, then bully.

But don't weigh down series with unnecessary cross-overs (and hope that all the continuity blocks fall into place).

It's essentially the model of the 1980's. I'd point to Mutant Massacre as an example of how Claremont built an event within a few core titles, and if other titles wanted to come and play, they were more than welcome to do so (although the Thor connection baffled me then as it does now). Claremont's world was so carefully crafted of the era, that such an event seemed to have resonance, and spilling out to certain other parts of the Marvel U seemed completely natural.

As per Morrison's Final Crisis: It's stand-alone nature is helping to tell a new story of the DCU, one from which writers will hopefully be able to work in years to come. And they've managed to do it without red-skies crackling across the backdrop of every DC comic (including Morrison's Batman) for the duration of the series.

What's amazing is that Morrison's ability to return to a few touchstones throughout the various chapters of his career with DC have afforded him the rare opportunity to expand upon certain themes such as the Limbo of forgotten heroes (and Azzarello thinks he doesn't care...). He may not have built up the same foundations for the DCU going forward, but he's certainly charted the outer reaches of the DCU in a consistent and entertaining way. And, no doubt his take on the New Gods will be the most important since Kirby finished "Hunger Dogs".

It's an object lesson in how things can and can't work in dealing wirters who are defining the DCU, as the lead in with Countdown was THE prime example of what-not-to-do when dealing with the Architects.

In closing...

I really need to find a new topic. That's my conclusion after writing another column.

Please do not hesitate to send in ideas.

Otherwise, I'm going to write a lengthy "Why Superman is Awesome" column next week.

Like it or not, too many writers AND too many editors getting involved does not for a cohesive universe make. It's most likely not a mistake that Stan Lee and Kirby (and Ditko, etc...) managed to create a universe that lasted. The groundwork was solidly layed by justa few master craftsmen with a coherent vision of how their world would work.

In many ways, the strength of the Batman and Superman books is similarly still founded on the strong, single vision of those books through decades of careful stewardship and only a few creators allowed to come to play. Siegel and Shuster weren't just the creators of Superman, they also stayed on the Superman books in various capacities for years, with Siegel staying on for what amounted to decades. (And certainly one can't discount the input of editors Weisinger and Schwartz in the creative directions of their day...)

It can't hurt for DC to look at this kind of commitment to their superstar writers and push the envelope of the DCU.

*I can't believe I just wrote that like it makes me cool...


Questions? Comments? Hate mail?

Come on, I can take it.

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Ryan is an Op/Ed columnist for Comic Fodder. He keeps his comics and himself in Austin, Texas where he manages the long running blog League of Melbotis.

He likes Superman.

You can reach Ryan (aka: The League) at theleague.cf@gmail.com

I concur with your conclusion that giant company wide cross overs with multiple editors never work. However I can think of an example of when a single editor can pull together something wonderful. Please don't demonize me for this but the earliest beginnings of the Valiant universe up to and including Unity was simply amazing. Each issue was a one and done story, the continuity was extremely tight and it was all controlled by one man, Jim Shooter. I guess it takes a real "strong personality" to oversee a cohesive comic book line.

Sadly, Shooter was ousted, they increased the number of books dramatically and things went to hell. Eventually leading to the sale of the company to Acclaim entertainment who wanted to turn the properties into video games.

By the way, I'm an old X-Men fan as well. My unbroken string of issues goes from 198 to 300+.

-- Posted by: Simon MacDonald at September 2, 2008 9:18 AM

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-- Posted by: tney prbhqexz at September 17, 2008 1:09 PM