Does "Hellboy in Hell" Finale Signal the End of Mike Mignola's Time With the Character?
Here is what you need to know going into this week’s post: I sat down with a list of DC’s current and upcoming superhero-universe comics, and rearranged it into a big chart. Now I have to make that little factoid exciting. Join me, won’t you?
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The watchword of any shared universe is “consistency.” Superman’s adventures in Superman and Action Comics may be produced by two different creative teams, and they may even take place in different timeframes, but they be must at least coexist peacefully both with each other and with the rest of DC’s superhero line. That’s part and parcel of corporately-controlled superhero comics, regardless of any tension with a professional’s creative freedom.
And make no mistake — that tension helps those comics remain vital. There is a certain satisfaction in reading a well-crafted, well-executed, otherwise-unremarkable superhero comic, but the real thrill comes when a creative team is able to coax the new and unexpected out of the familiar and established.
A shared universe imposes a framework on all those disparate, distinct interpretations. That framework can be loose or confining, connective or ad hoc, or some combination thereof. In theory, though, its existence allows those interpretations to meet and bounce off each other, perhaps even creating something entirely new as a result. DC has been field-testing this concept from the Justice Society forward, so it’s not going away anytime soon.
Naturally, there is also marketing value not just in such all-star teams, but in the shared-universe model itself. Accordingly, the New-52 relaunch gave DC the opportunity both to rebuild its shared universe and to rework its creative lineups. None of this is new information. I continue to be frustrated at DC’s apparent preference for top-down control over a more organic approach which favors creative freedom. Still, I have been intrigued by the ways in which DC has connected the New 52 titles.
Thus, the chart:
Why did I do this? Not because I was bored — I do an eBay search for the too-expensive Target Exclusive Wedge Antilles X-Wing Fighter when I’m bored — but because I wanted to see just how interconnected the New-52-verse has become. In making these connections, I was pretty liberal, counting spinoffs, crossovers, and past and future guest appearances. If it seemed calculated to generate interest in another title (that maybe a reader wasn’t already getting), I was inclined to count it. Accordingly, I have probably missed some connections, and/or made too much of others, but by and large I think the chart is fairly defensible.
Not surprisingly, the book with the most direct connections was Batman. For purposes of this exercise, we can probably treat Batman and Detective Comics as the same title, but just to be difficult, I did not do that. Instead, I considered Batman as the hub of the Bat-family, with Detective connecting to it. Basically, I figured that the New-52’s hypothetical new readers would start with Batman first and branch out to the book for which DC was named.
Accordingly, Batman connects directly to seventeen ongoing titles, which means the greater Bat-realm reaches into over one-third of the New 52. Detective, Batman And Robin, Batman: The Dark Knight and Batman Incorporated star the Darknight Detective, and he is a major influence in Batwing, Batgirl and Batwoman. Members of the extended supporting cast star in Birds Of Prey, Catwoman, Nightwing, Red Hood, Teen Titans and Suicide Squad; and 19th-Century Gotham City features prominently in All Star Western. Batman is also a regular member of Justice League and may well continue in Justice League International; and he just wrapped up a two-part guest appearance in I, Vampire and another in Hawk & Dove. If you buy DC’s comics hoping to catch a glimpse of Batman, odds are good you won’t have to look very far.
Somewhat surprisingly, the next-most-connected title is Justice League, with nine direct connections: Justice League International, Justice League Dark, Aquaman, Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Flash, Wonder Woman and Green Arrow. Most of these are pretty obvious, except perhaps for Green Arrow, which gets the connection because he guest-stars (and possibly joins) in an upcoming JL.
More interesting, though, is the extended JL family. JLI connects to Batman (and soon to Batwing, although the chart doesn’t reflect that), to Green Lantern Corps through Guy Gardner, and to Blackhawks through, well, the United Nations. In May, OMAC will appear in JLI, and JLI crosses over with Firestorm. JL Dark connects to DC Universe Presents and Hawk & Dove through Deadman; to I, Vampire via their upcoming crossover; and to Animal Man through May’s guest-appearance by John Constantine.
Thus, both of the ancillary Justice League titles are working hard to connect themselves with the larger superhero line. In terms of world-building, Justice League International may be the more “important” book, because only it is currently telling Justice League stories set in the present. Justice League just wrapped up its introductory five-years-ago arc yesterday, and the putative members of Justice League Dark still haven’t come together fully. In other words, the present-day DC Universe has a Justice League, and we have a good idea who’s in it, but so far it’s been defined in a roundabout way by the debuts of Justice League International and the team no one’s yet calling JL Dark. In fact, the JLI has the official sanction which still eludes the original League.
Even moreso than the Batman titles, the four Green Lantern titles are pretty much carryovers from the pre-relaunch lineup. GL: New Guardians and Red Lanterns are new titles featuring the recently-established “Rainbow Corps,” while Green Lantern picks up where the pre-relaunch book left off and GL Corps swaps out Kyle Rayner for Guy Gardner. As mentioned above, the latter two also connect to their respective Justice League books, while New Guardians gets a crossover with Blue Beetle and a Red Lantern is set to appear in Stormwatch.
May’s crop of new titles includes Ravagers, a book set to spin out of the “Culling” crossover involving Legion Lost, Superboy and Teen Titans. Of course, Superboy and Teen Titans were already somewhat interconnected, thanks to Superboy writer Scott Lobdell using the Boy of Steel in Titans. From what I understand, Static is also set to join the Titans, although it may not happen until after his own book ends its run.
SUPERMAN, ET AL.
Superman has at least five direct connections: Action Comics, Supergirl, Superboy, Justice League, a guest appearance in Swamp Thing #1, and a common (if somewhat obtuse) plot thread with Stormwatch. However, those connections then lead into quite a few other titles. Action connects to Legion of Super-Heroes via the Legion’s recent guest-shots. Legion connects to Legion Lost (as does Superboy, above), and from there to the aforementioned teen-hero titles. Moreover, Swamp Thing connects to Animal Man, which is set to cross over with Frankenstein, which just crossed over with OMAC. Frank will also appear in the final issue of Men Of War, which will basically give way to G.I. Combat.
Additionally, Superman will be fighting the Daemonites, ex-WildStorm bad guys who are currently causing problems in Grifter and Voodoo. Not sure where Voodoo may lead, but Green Arrow appeared in a recent issue of Grifter, which puts Cole Cash two degrees from the Justice League.
Resurrection Man is set to cross over with Suicide Squad. The Flash appeared in Captain Atom #3. The current Challengers of the Unknown story in DCU Presents actually connects to the previous Deadman story through Nanda Parbat, the mystical locale from Deadman’s origin. Thanks to the once-and-future Power Girl’s supporting role, Mister Terrific connects to PG’s upcoming Worlds’ Finest. Naturally, the current Huntress miniseries also leads into WF, and both connect to the upcoming Earth 2 (which seems to have been teased in yesterday’s Justice League).
Demon Knights has also had some clever connections to other New 52 books. The title (not referenced in the book as far as I remember) sounds like “Daemonite,” and in issue #4, Merlin describes himself as a “Bird of Prey” and a “Black Hawk.” Considering its explicit connection to Stormwatch, it is not unreasonable to see other present-day links.
That leaves Deathstroke, The Savage Hawkman and the upcoming Dial H as the only ongoing series not connected somehow to another New-52 title. With Rob Liefeld contributing to both Deathstroke and Hawkman, I expect there’ll be some connections, and we’ll see how integrated Dial H becomes.
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Still, what does this all mean? Such connections are nothing new, even for the New 52 relaunch. Remember, Pandora (also spotlighted in yesterday’s Justice League) made cameos in each of the New 52 first issues, so on one level they’ve been connected from the very beginning. There’s no reason to think Pandora won’t be involved in the inevitable line-wide crossover, either. It could all be smoke and mirrors designed solely to gin up interest in every title, regardless of one’s actual influence on another.
Conversely, it’s tempting to speculate that there really is one macro-story going on behind the scenes and in the margins of the relaunched titles. (Such a scenario would help justify that thousand-page New-52 hardcover. …) If so, it’d be pretty ambitious, along the lines — and I do not make this comparison lightly — of the infamous Countdown experiment from a few years back. For those who came in late, DC sought to leverage whatever momentum and goodwill it had generated from the well-received weekly miniseries 52 into another year-long weekly miniseries. Countdown (later subtitled To Final Crisis) aspired to be the “spine” of the DC Universe, telling its story of parallel worlds and the New Gods in and around events in the ongoing series. However, Countdown turned out to be a mess, and I don’t think DC will try anything like it again.
That doesn’t mean DC’s creative folk can’t try pulling together various New 52 elements into some kind of semi-coherent storyline. Already we know (or can make educated guesses) about
— Darkseid’s aborted invasion of Earth, five years ago (Justice League, perhaps Earth 2);
— secret superhuman-centric agencies (Superboy, Teen Titans, Frankenstein, OMAC);
— Daemonite infiltrations (Voodoo, Grifter);
— potential vampire apocalypse (I, Vampire);
— tensions between the Reach and the Green Lantern Corps (Blue Beetle, GL: New Guardians);
— mysteries from times past (Aquaman, All-Star Western, Demon Knights); and
— quasi-mystical forces at war with each other (Swamp Thing, Animal Man).
Now, I’m not suggesting that DC is going the “Prelude to Infinite Crisis” route, where the seemingly-unrelated threats the bad guys orchestrated were covered in four different prefatory miniseries. Instead, it seems like the New-52 books have each come up with their own set of threats, any one of which could spill over into the rest of the line. Pandora’s presence tells me the inevitable line-wide crossover will probably be bigger than any single danger, big enough to change the way you look at yadda yadda yadda. (And it may lead to another cosmic housecleaning and/or the return of certain familiar characters, elements, whatever — you’ve heard this song before, I know.)
See, I would like to think that DC really is letting its creative people go nuts within the New-52 framework, so that it develops at its own pace and in its own unexpected directions, and the connections which are made (like Animal Man and Swamp Thing, Frankenstein and Men Of War, Demon Knights and Blackhawks) can be justified on grounds other than goosing sales. I don’t believe that’s true across the board, simply because of Pandora; and I don’t think the New-52 as a whole represents DC at its height of creativity. The chart tells me it would be easy to get sucked into buying a good bit of DC’s superhero books, just to catch all the continuity details. However, the practicalities of reading all those comics are something else entirely.
In the end, I think there is a larger macro-story being told in the margins and behind the scenes. It could be the basis for that inevitable line-wide crossover. It may emerge accidentally, unbeknownst even to the books’ editors, writers, and artists. In that respect it may be the kind of thing only an extremely dedicated and/or persistent reader could derive.
Or it could be the kind of thing you only see after you stare at a chart for too long. …