O Say Can You See: The Greatest Patriotic Super Heroes of All-Time
This post is about world-building. Ideally (and at the risk of being too cute), world-building would be what you made of it. The notion of a shared superhero universe implies a certain level of consistency, which at best offers a rich, textured backdrop and at worst becomes a tangled thicket of details. Naturally, each reader’s level of involvement will vary, and these days readers have quite a few options. Today I’m trying to sketch a general picture of how those options affect the stories themselves, and vice versa.
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Over the years — over the decades, really — it has been suggested that I read too many comic books. These concerns are not insignificant, and over the decades I have tried to deal with them appropriately.
However, while talking about DC’s Big Events with a friend on the way to the movies, I got a new perspective on the way these stories are received. Basically, my friend had seen Identity Crisis on a list of all-time worst comics and wanted my thoughts, because he had enjoyed it. Similarly, he liked Blackest Night not so much for the nonstop carnage, but for the sense that there were consequences.
Trying to be brief (I hear you snicker), I explained that in fact, Identity Crisis and Blackest Night were pretty much the bookends for DC’s constant-crossover period of 2004-10. During that time, DC messed with beloved characters major and minor, leaving frustrated fans in its wake. In this respect Identity Crisis was one of the worst offenders. It took two otherwise-innocuous Justice League spouses and revealed that one (Sue Dibny, married to Ralph “Elongated Man” Dibny) had been raped years ago by the villain Dr. Light, and the other (Jean Loring, ex-wife of Ray “The Atom” Palmer) had gone criminally insane and killed the first. Wrapped as they were in an emotionally-manipulative narrative, these events added to the list of superhero comics’ misogynistic tropes. My friend agreed that superhero comics have not treated women well.
That said, he comes from the perspective of an irregular trade-paperback reader, one step removed even from the regular trade-waiters. It made me realize just how close an every-Wednesday reader like me can get to these characters, and consequently how that nearness affects my reactions. Apparently, when Identity Crisis was originally published I liked it up to a point — although I know many of you did not, and for good reasons — and my biggest problems originally had to do with its (lack of an) ending.
In hindsight, though, at least some of my reaction to IC comes from my feelings about Sue and Jean as ongoing concerns within DC’s shared universe. (This may be moot: as far as I know, neither they nor Dr. Light have been so much as mentioned so far in the New 52. Maybe they just don’t exist anymore?) Without diminishing the larger sociological concerns, killing Sue was a fundamental change in the Elongated Man’s basic setup, because his solo adventures featured her pretty heavily. (Sue also showed up in his later Justice League adventures, working the monitor boards as a League administrator.) Indeed, two years after Identity Crisis, Ralph’s subplot in 52 ended up reuniting them in death as “ghost detectives.” This didn’t necessarily stop them from appearing in future stories, but no one did anything with it, and now their New-52 status is nebulous.
As for Jean, she spent some time in Arkham Asylum before becoming the new Eclipso, turning the Spectre evil (temporarily), and then being depowered and killed. For his part, the Atom traveled the Multiverse after Jean’s incarceration, returning towards the end of Countdown in 2008 after failing to save a parallel Earth from a killer virus. He’d been through a lot with Jean already, so perhaps it was easier for him to move on, even after her final criminally-insane-god-of-evil phase. In the New 52, Ray Palmer appears in Frankenstein, Agent Of SHADE as a SHADE physicist, not as the Atom; and again, I’m not clear on whether “now” he’s had any history with Jean.
Still, under the old rules, those were two well-established superhero couples altered pretty significantly. All of it could have been reversed (Ralph and Sue especially, since all they needed were new bodies), but there wasn’t much urgency to do so.
And that’s the thing: the more dedicated you are to the weekly habit, I suspect the more you want to see particular characters and situations; and vice versa. Someone who only occasionally picks up a DC collection may see the characters only in the context of those particular stories. For example, while Identity Crisis presents the Elongated Man and the Atom (and their spouses) as well-established characters, for purposes of that story all the occasional reader needs to know is that they are well-established.
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Indeed, this matter of context may relate to a larger shift in the size of “storytelling units.” This may take some explaining, because I’m not sure I have it figured out myself. Back in the Golden and Silver Ages, single issues often contained multiple stories. For example, December 1959’s Action Comics #259 included a 13-page Superman feature, a 7-page Congorilla story, and a 7-page Supergirl story. Each stood alone, and each (almost by definition) either introduced something new or did something new with existing elements. Thus, you’d expect the three stories in Action #259 to add three new “ideas” — characters, locations, objects, plot elements, etc. — to what would become DC’s shared universe. Accordingly, as stories got longer, extending into multiple issues and even across multiple titles, you’d expect the frequency of new ideas to decrease. This is not to say that there would be no new ideas, but that they would be downplayed in favor of other elements like characterization and pacing. Again, Identity Crisis was designed specifically to play off those pre-existing elements — an old Justice League of America arc, two Leaguers, and their spouses — so that the characters’ fates would resonate with the reader. IC introduced new ideas (like a new version of the Calculator) and arguably took Ralph and Jean in new directions. Overall, though, its effects were destructive, ultimately leading those characters nowhere.
Now, at this point I barely have a testable hypothesis about the relationship between story length and “idea generation” — to say nothing of specific writers’ styles — so I won’t go much further. Nevertheless, let’s postulate for the sake of argument that the rate of idea generation has in fact decreased. (We might also assume that DC’s shared universe reached a sort of “idea saturation point” where its creative folk relied just as much, or more, on pre-existing elements.) Additionally, every time DC relaunches its superhero line, more often than not it does so in order to “simplify” its shared universe. In other words, it declares certain ideas off-limits. In 1986, the Superman relaunch eliminated the Superboy career (including Luthor’s Smallville childhood) and virtually everything about the Silver Age Krypton; and the Wonder Woman reboot rebuilt the character practically from scratch. Both incorporated new “ideas” (as I am using the term), but both emphasized that they weren’t looking immediately to recreate the old status quos. I don’t fault any of those creative teams for the break, but I do think that drawing that kind of line requires you to start cranking out those new ideas — because you’ve walled off a lot of the old ones. Still, the net effect would be significant drop in the amount of available ideas.
And that brings me to the Lazarus Pit. Talking with my friend about Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies led to the original comics version of Rā’s al Ghūl, and specifically to how he stayed immortal, whereas in Batman Begins he arguably was not. I presume that Nolan and company didn’t discuss the Lazarus Pit in Batman Begins for at least two reasons: because it might have diminished Ra’s’ death, and because it simply was “too magical” for the kind of movie they wanted to make.
Even almost a year later, a similar situation exists with the New 52. By cutting itself off from decades’ worth of storytelling material, its creative teams must naturally come up with new ideas; but today’s storytelling rhythms may not carry with them the same burdens of creation. For example, the first six issues of the current Justice League were heavy on character interaction (not surprisingly), and featured Cyborg’s revised origin, but apart from the brief introduction of author-turned-villain David Graves, there wasn’t much new.
Granted, that arc was pretty much a reintroduction to the whole superhero line, and it might not have wanted to overwhelm hypothetical new readers with DC-intensive details, so we may be inclined to give it a pass. Indeed, some of the new takes on very familiar characters, like Aquaman and Wonder Woman, have significant implications for the New-52’s shared universe. How does the Amazon in Demon Knights square with Wonder Woman’s Amazons? Might WW’s Greek pantheon have something to say about the Red, the Green, and the Rot? Did Aquaman’s “Others” ever meet Batwing’s Kingdom? These are the kinds of questions which shouldn’t affect the merits of individual stories, but the more you read, the more they crop up.
Thus, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, I think you need a nominal amount of world-building even if you’re getting away from an allegedly-overcomplicated world. Consider the Firestorms Of Many Nations, created by the Firestorm Protocols in Fury Of Firestorms: Russia, France, and India each has one, in contrast to our “unsanctioned” heroes Ronnie and Jason. This week’s FOF #11 also mentions the Justice League (presumably the JL International, which guest-starred a couple of issues back), so you’d think the two groups would have more interaction, even without the old Firestorms’ histories with the old JLA. Moreover, since this week’s Superman deals with Russian attempts to create a version of the Man of Steel, that naturally made me wonder what those might have to do with the Firestorm-fueled Pozhar. The New 52 is fairly interconnected already, mostly through the big-name characters and groups, and there have been some explicit crossovers (Animal Man/Swamp Thing, I, Vampire/Justice League Dark, “Night of the Owls,” etc.), but I’m not sure how much of that extends organically to the world itself. Actually, with Dan Jurgens leaving Superman for Firestorm, I may get some clarity on the Russian superhuman program yet. That’s the kind of thing which gets my nerd brain going, and it’s also the sort of connection I might not have made if I hadn’t read those single issues on the same day.
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Obviously there’s a lot to unpack in this sort of discussion, including story format, “writing for the trade,” and persistent concerns about continuity and accessibility. A long view makes a difference, too: it’s easy for me to see decades of Silver and Bronze Age continuity as a relatively consistent shared universe with plenty to explore. If nothing else, the appearance of consistency helped sell me on that shared universe. However, preserving DC’s universe (in whatever form) as something vibrant and viable is clearly harder than it looks. Sometimes it inspires stories like Identity Crisis, and sometimes its caretakers are compelled simply to start over. Not everyone reacts to such measures uniformly, and I’m not suggesting a single solution today.
Nevertheless, the New 52 can still do some rudimentary world-building, and at least create that appearance of consistency, while it is still young enough not to get bogged down in its own continuity. Most of the books have been telling their own discrete stories, free of crossover requirements, and as the first wave of New-52 collections rolls out, I suspect shared-universe concerns aren’t foremost in readers’ minds. That’s fine, of course. Continuity started out as a fan exercise, so the fans should help decide how much weight to give it. Going forward, though, the New-52 books are operating under a different set of rules, and therefore creating a different sort of shared universe, than their predecessors did. Whether that shared universe inspires the same sort of reader loyalty remains to be seen.