Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, it’s time once again to ask, “Are you ready for the thing called love?” It’s many-splendored, you know. All you need is love, so I hear; and if you are all out of love, you may still be able to make love out of nothing at all. Some say love, it is a river which drowns the tender reed. Others counter that love is a burning thing which makes a fiery ring. One fairly unimpeachable source asserts that love is patient and kind, it bears, hopes, abides, etc.
All that aside, however, I imagine that everyone reading this post feels that particular kind of love we call Fandom. Obviously fannish impulses are not always patient and kind; obviously fandom must take a back seat to more meaningful loves like friends and family. Still, it seems to me that fandom’s affections come from a very sincere place. At some point in our past, our hearts were touched by the charms of Star Trek, Wally West, the Cincinnati Reds, whatever — and somehow we felt better. For whatever reason, we wanted more. Fandom can turn ugly, but at its heart is hope — namely, the hope that whatever-it-is can give us that same lift again.
So today I write in appreciation of us fans. Not that we are always right; not that we always agree; but that we can each point to something which (as my parents would say) keeps us off the streets.
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Some fan contributions get relatively big audiences. Robb Pratt’s minute-long Superman Classic may be short, but it’s packed with Fleischer Brothers homage. It boasts everything one might expect from a traditional Superman setup, including Lois-and-Clark banter, a phone booth, and Superman punching a gigantic menace. “I’ve always loved the music from the Saturday matineé [Superman] serial,” Pratt explains, “and I figured that a short that was animated to this music could be a pretty cool piece.” From that, apparently, the rest proceeded naturally: designing Superman as an amalgam of various Super-actors; casting former Superboy John Newton and his wife Jennifer as Supes and Lois; and setting the piece amidst Hugh Ferriss’ “Metropolis of Tomorrow” designs. Michael Daugherty’s “Metropolis Symphony,” written in separate movements over the course of five years (1988-93) and premiered in its entirety in 1994, came similarly from the composer’s love of Superman and his world. The Nashville Symphony’s recent performance (paired with the train-inspired “Deus Ex Machina”) has been nominated for five Grammy Awards. I’m also reminded of James Cawley’s Star Trek fan films, which ended up getting him a small cameo in J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Trek relaunch.
To be sure, the “Metropolis Symphony” and Superman Classic are concerned primarily with creating (or recreating) a particular tone. Cawley’s productions seek similarly to evoke the feeling of original Trek, but they also pride themselves on getting the details right. Naturally this includes the Enterprise’s various ‘60s-era rivets and switches, but it also encompasses continuity. The heretofore-unproduced “Kitumba” (written for the failed ‘70s revival) had to be reconciled with what later Trek series had to say about Klingons. Cawley’s team is also producing an epic called “Origins,” the non-Abrams account of Cadet Kirk’s first meeting with Fleet Captain Pike.
Of course, most fans aren’t Disney animators, prolific composers, or even persistent fan filmmakers. Until the Internet came along, I suspect most of us were content simply to visit our particular passions on our more tolerant friends. In the late ‘90s, when I had considerably more free time, I would work on “What Did Obi-Wan Know And When Did He Know It?”, an attempt to predict the plots of the three Star Wars prequels. (In my mind, Anakin’s wife had to be a fellow Jedi Knight, because how else would Luke and Leia inherit so much power?) The predictions were revised occasionally to take Episodes I and II into account, and while I liked the prequels generally (gasp!), I’m still a little bummed that Beru wasn’t one of Padmé’s handmaidens, and that Anakin wasn’t crippled and scarred in the volcanic wastes of post-apocalyptic Naboo.
Still, that’s life as a fan: trying to play by the rules, while never quite knowing when they’ll be rewritten. Where corporately-owned superhero comics are concerned, the “rules” — i.e., the continuity — can go back decades, predating not just creative teams but whole editorial staffs, but being fresh as yesterday to longtime fans. Every now and then I try to imagine a statute of limitations for a particular story or narrative element (ten years? Twenty? Thirty?), but it never works. I have been reading DC’s superhero comics for so long that being new to them is almost impossible for me to imagine. It’s much easier for something like Crisis On Infinite Earths to draw a bright line between old rules and new….
… except, of course, when the old rules start coming back. Longtime readers of this space may remember my take on the “Post-Crisis Crisis,” which essentially revised COIE to take into account then-current continuity. Sometimes the work had been done for me, as in the “Crisis” issue of the JLA: Incarnations miniseries (and I freely appropriated Grant Morrison’s JLA: Earth 2 version of the Crime Syndicate to replace Earth-3’s), but in my version, a time-lost Wonder Woman was killed saving Superman from the Anti-Monitor.
At the risk of being immodest, I think it holds together reasonably well for what it is — an outline of a continuity patch, with only the barest, most obvious bits of theme or meaning. Even if DC had produced such a thing, in the pre-Infinite Crisis years when it put out JLA: Year One and the aforementioned Incarnations, it would (ironically enough) end up as out-of-place as those miniseries have become. That doesn’t mean I like those miniseries any less, and it doesn’t mean I’m embarrassed by my own efforts. Again, that’s just how these things work. In the first few pages of the new Suicide Squad collection, one panel shows Wonder Woman in 1951 as part of the Justice Society. It’s an obvious mistake for 1987, when the only WW was one of the world’s newest superheroes — but since John Byrne made Hippolyta the Wonder Woman of the Golden Age, it’s not necessarily a mistake anymore. The rules change, and we adapt appropriately. That probably involves some mix of love, stupidity, and/or insanity, but I choose to be positive about it.
Now, let’s be clear: love of continuity is surely not the only factor keeping the superhero-comics reader going. However (leaving aside whether one can change it on a whim), both fans and professionals alike start from the same continuity base. To me it’s not so much a level playing field as it is a shared connection, and that makes it special. For example, I always like seeing forgotten elements from ‘70s DC like the old Wayne Foundation giant-tree building or Josh Coyle and the rest of Clark Kent’s old WGBS-TV colleagues. At the very least, they tell me that DC’s memory is as long as mine.
This is not to say that I’m amazed DC remembers its past — that would be beyond silly. Its current business model practically depends on institutional memory. As well, it takes a lot more to make a good story than a few old references served with a wink.
Nevertheless, references and continuity have their places. They can remind us that a shared superhero universe is larger than we might have imagined. They can reawaken our own memories we might have pushed back in our minds. It’s not necessarily about making us feel like kids again, but it does help justify all the reading we’ve done since then. (Assuming, of course, that we need that kind of justification.)
Most importantly, though, this type of interactivity encourages us to become more than just passive info-absorbers. Fandom isn’t fact-checking, nitpicking, or even serious criticism, although it can involve any or all of those things. Fandom is relationships — both with the work and, by extension, with the folks who produce it — and relationships require respect. It is, in fact, a bizarre love triangle, where both fans and pros try to prove that they know what’s best for these characters, and each group would be lost without the others. For us readers, I think fandom is largely about exploring our favorite fictional universes, hoping that we never grow tired of the journey no matter how much of the lands we chart.
So as we approach this Valentine’s Day, by all means cuddle up with your sweetheart, plan that romantic encounter, or (as I did for so long), set up camp at the intersection of Bitter and Jaded — but take some comfort from whatever it is that stirs your fannish passions. I might pull out those old Silver St. Cloud issues of Detective Comics, or maybe revisit Kismet and Eternity, the star-crossed couple at the center of JLA/Avengers. Fandom helped me get through some pretty lonely years, so it’s only right that I give it some love.