Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Neverending Crisis

Allow me to begin this entry to explain my absence to those who want to know where I was for the last ten weeks. I survived a plane crash in Tasmania where I lived with a family of platypuses. They taught me their language and how to comb the riverbed for invertebrates and lived like a monotreme for weeks until a pair of Slovakian tourists found me. After a brief altercation where I tried to smite the husband with my nonexistent spur we quickly made up and they took me back civilization so here I am. Yeah, that was a bold-faced lie but it is a more interesting account than the truth. Anyway, let us get to the main topic of this entry.

I make my disdain for the New 52 no secret. It was a horribly rushed and horribly executed reboot for several reasons but my biggest problem is that the powers that be left the Batman and Green Lantern franchise (relatively) untouched, which opened some gaping plot holes. That is not to say I found some parts enjoyable: Earth 2 by James Robinson and Nikola Scott grabbed my interest because of my appreciation all things related to the multiverse and I genuinely like these new takes on golden age stalwarts like Jay Garrick. Wally West fans may eviscerate me for saying this but The Flash is much more enjoyable than it has been since Infinite Crisis ended seven years ago. However, I believe that the reboot was a complete waste because if the sales figuresfor March 2013 are any indication, DC is back to where they started in July 2011. Only five of the twenty top selling books are DC titles and all them are either a) written by Geoff Johns or b) part of the Batman franchise. If the intent of the New 52 was to generate long-term interest in their non-Batman titles, then it was a spectacular failure complete with awe-inspiring fireball. Not only did the New 52 fail to attract a new audience, it alienated many longtime readers of their books.

I came across an interesting topic on Comic Bloc Forums where a member asked, “What if DC undidall the reboots and returned to the pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths [multi]verse?

“Let's call a duck a duck. DC has pi$$ed off a whole lot of readers over the years, and their endless reboots and retcons have chased away longtime readers... myself included. My pull has gone from over 30 books a month (almost 100% DC) up until post-Flashpoint, and I am now reading quite a few Marvel books again after a loooooooong absence. For me, that spells things out plainly.
So, let's undo all the "fixes" they have attempted over the years. Put someone with some idea of how fans' brains operate in charge and have them helm the project. Make it a grand event. I would like to suggest creating a single title for just that purpose. If DC chooses to let fans in on the significance of the book or not, leave it up to them. They could just tease with something along the lines of "Read this series! It will have long lasting and grand implications in the end." You get where I'm going.
Also, so as not to cheese off readers post 1985, make it a universe/time-spanning epic. Pick out the characters that are proven winners/have a significant fan base. Get Booster Gold and Rip Hunter to gather up Batwoman, Blue Beetle (Jaime), Barry Allen, Bart Allen from pre-Flashpoint, Donna Troy, and whomever else is worth carrying over to the pre-COIE Universe, and have them journey to put things right. This way the readers can have their cake and eat it, too. We've got the multiverse back, we can bring in newer, fan loved characters, and spin the rest off on another Earth in the Multiverse.

I vote "Yes!"”

My answer an empathic, “NO!” No, no, no, NO! Bringing the old Pre-Crisis continuity is an incredibly terrible idea for several reasons, the biggest on being that twenty-seven year passed since that Crisis ended. The world has seen five American presidents during that time (Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, Bush Jr., and Obama) and so much has changed culturally since then. I doubt that DC could or even wants to convince Roy Thomas to pick up where he left off on All-Star Squadron and Infinite Inc. or bring Gerry Conway back on Fury of Firestorm. Then there is the fact that DC attracted a substantial fanbase during the post-Crisis era and that would be a great betrayal to them and the removal of Donna Troy and the aforementioned Wally West is still a sore spot for them. No, I do not believe that returning to the pre-Crisis multiverse is a wise idea, neither is bringing back the post-Crisis universe, and hell, I do not event want the pre-Flashpoint universe to return. I simply want a blank slate and bring every character back to basics without any of the continuity baggage DC wants to bring with every reboot.

Imagine the DC universe as an old house with many good memories but the air tastes a little stale after fifty years, the stairs creak whenever you walk on them, and the plumbing and wiring need a little work. Crisis on Infinite Earths comes around and tears down the walls and removes the furniture. The “builders” remove a few support columns (Wonder Woman’s membership in the Justice League, the existence of Superboy as Superman when he was a boy) and leave the plumbing and wiring untouched. They bring in some new furniture and repaint the walls but problems begin to arise. The house is structurally unsound, the plumbing is starting to leak, and the electricity periodically shorts out. Zero Hour and Infinite Crisis attempt address these problems by plugging the leaks with duct tape and hastily solder the wiring. The builders bring back some of the old furniture out of a misplaced sense of nostalgia and assume everything will be fine. Years later, the pipes begin to break and a week does not go by without a fuse getting blown. The builder’s answer is to knock down all but two of the other supports (Batman and Green Lantern) and replace the superficial damage, which leaves us with a wreck of house that is one summer breeze from total collapse. Sometimes the sensible thing to do is to demolish the house and rebuild from the still-intact foundation.

We fans are an anal-retentive bunch that giggle when a writer references an obscure story and weaves into their narrative. We love the smallest mote of continuity because it is somewhat similar to be in on a joke that only a small circle of people know. Unfortunately, the downside to that is that it creates baggage that weighs down a fictional universe and its characters. I recall that Crisis on Infinite Earths writer, Marv Wolfman, intended for the event to end with a blank slate for ALL the characters from an issue of Wizard magazine back in 2005-6. Greg Weisman who helmed Gargoyles and Young Justice explained why this would not work:

“I was working on staff at DC Comics during the publication of the original Crisis on Infinite Earths. In fact, during my very first editorial meeting, I raised the question as to why we weren't starting ALL our books over (with the numerical exceptions of Detective and Action Comics) with issue #1. I remember very clearly a collective groan rising up from the conference room table. (They had dealt with this question for months before my arrival.) On the one hand, they wanted Crisis to be a real sea-change, a true reboot (before we knew that term). On the other hand, if you truly reboot Batman, then Robin doesn't exist yet. No Robin, no other sidekicks either. So no Teen Titans. And at the time, the New Teen Titans was the company's best selling book. So the end result was that some things got rebooted and some did not.  This was complicated by the fact that certain creators came late to the party, and certain characters got reboots too long AFTER Crisis.”

There was a financial dimension to it as noted by the Teen Titan mention but I also believe that a fair amount of writers and editors simply did not want to drop the storylines in their respective titles and so they brought their baggage into the allegedly simplified DC Universe. Hence some of the seminal stories of the Silver Age like “Flash of Two Worlds” still “happened” but not in the way they were written. Similarly, Wonder Woman debuted well after the Justice League in the new continuity so Black Canary took her place as founding member so you those of Justice League of America issues where Wonder Woman demonstrated her superhuman strength or used her lasso? Surprise! That was Black Canary. Then we get to the problem of Donna Troy (AKA Wonder Girl), which evolved into a constant headache for the company because of inconsistent writing and that was only the tip of the iceberg that sank DC’s Titanic.

My feelings mirror Mr. Weisman’s when he says, “So, personally, my feeling on reboots in general is that you either do them or you don't. You've got to be thorough and ruthless about it, or don't bother, because otherwise - long term - you're creating more problems than you're solving.”  We fans have grown so attached to our continuity baggage that it becomes heresy to even suggest letting it go. Reboots are an “all or nothing” enterprise and we occasionally need to discard continuity to create a clear narrative. Young Justice was not an excellent program because of the background history detailed in the series’ bible, it was an excellent program because of Mr. Weisman and his staff’s use of motifs and characterization to create an engaging story. DC’s single-minded focus on continuity and attracting new readers proved too shortsighted plus the overbearing editorial direction has only made the New 52 more of an unsightly mess.

We as fans need to overcome this “separation anxiety” that keeps us chained to continuity and limits our thinking. While I do not care for the emotional and creative baggage that comes with continuity, I believe it is far better to distill it into themes that talented writers can approach from a different perspective. Most people could say that the Silver/Bronze Age Superman was stagnant by the early 1980s but Alan Moore proved that he still had some gas in the tank with “For The Man That Has Everything” and gave him a stunning sendoff with “What Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” Grant Morrison managed to distill the Man of Steel to his core mythology in All-Star Superman and did not need to adhere to continuity to make it one of my absolute favorite Superman stories all time and I only need to look at the oft-referenced page featuring the suicidal girl as an example.

Superman is supposed represent an ideal. He does not look down on humanity but aspires to lift us up and represent the best in us. He genuinely cares for everyone and image of him comforting the girl shows us that be believes that no individual life is insignificant. Yes, as banal as it sounds, Superman is supposed to represent idealism and bringing back the pre-Crisis continuity will add nothing to it and alienate even more readers. DC ultimately needs to demolish the shaky house that is the New 52 and rebuild from the foundation of themes that made its characters great in the first place, hire the talent necessary, and actually let them do their job. But do they have the courage and the will to make such an endeavor work? Recent events leave me with little optimism.