Axel-In-Charge: Navigating the "Civil War II" Landscape, Bringing DMC to Marvel
So what, exactly, does a chief creative officer do? Well, if the chief creative officer in question is Geoff Johns, then one of the most obvious answers is “write a whole heck of a lot of comic books.”
Johns is writing three ongoing monthly books for DC Comics, all of which happened to ship this week. While reading them all doesn’t exactly give one a copy of his job description, it does give one a sense of what he’s doing at DC, what he’s not doing and what’s different from his role at the publisher than when he was merely its most popular and prolific writer.
As regular readers know, I’m an ardent, even avid, follower of Johns’ writing, and, whether you love or hate it, I think you’ll agree he’s always exhibited some obvious strengths — aside from being popular with direct-market consumers (which is, naturally, the greatest strength a publisher like DC could hope for in any writer at the moment).
Johns is extremely enthusiastic about the DC Universe, its heroes, its villains, its history, its supporting characters and its most influential, classic stories. And he’s often able to make his enthusiasm somewhat infectious (that is, for a lot of people not caring about Hal Jordan probably comes pretty naturally, but when Johns is around not caring about Hal Jordan can get a bit more difficult).
He’s almost uniquely skilled at taking the most complicated narrative knots of DC continuity and coming up with storytelling compromises, quick fixes and fat-cutting to streamline characters and stories, rather famously saving some hopeless causes (Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern franchise, Hawkman, Hawk and Dove, etc.).
And he’s quite good at making characters “cool” again, generally by recrafting them more like Batman — giving the heroes a dark attitude and an aptitude for ruthlessness and/or violence, turning formerly fun and goofy villains into scary (but still colorful!) psychopaths, expanding supporting casts, making settings and cities as individual as Gotham City is.
So if chief creative officer meant The Guy In Charge of Making a DCU Character Bible and Setting the Tone and Direction for the Entire Line? Johns would be good at that. Hell, Johns would be hella good at that.
Oddly, though, he became CCO not long before DC decided to reboot its universe and its history, which stripped Johns of some of his greater strengths. He’s not the guy who comes up with fresh, new, mass-marketable characters or takes on characters (at DC, that’s probably Grant Morrison), he’s the guy who convinces skeptical fans to be greater fans, who demonstrates why the status quo isn’t so bad, that it just needs a few tweaks here and there.
Watching his work on Justice League, Aquaman and Green Lantern over the course of the past year has been very strange then. The first two are complete reboots that break entirely with everything that came before; the folks at DC probably don’t like to hear the books referred to thusly, but the shorthand is too precise not to use: The books are Ultimate Justice League and Ultimate Aquaman. Meanwhile, Johns’ Green Lantern has continued on the same path it’s been on for the past several years, with Johns simply not mentioning the things that the reboot might have made confusing; a sort of “if it hurts to do that, don’t do that” approach.
More strangely still, Johns isn’t writing the characters as if they even exist in a shared DC Universe. For example, six of the seven leads in Justice League appear in their own books (or lines of books), but they seem like entirely different characters in Justice League than in their solo books. That also goes for Green Lantern and Aquaman, despite Johns writing those characters’ books himself.
Looking at the books he’s producing then, and the New 52 DC line in general, “chief creative officer” really only seems to mean “Dude Who Writes a Lot of Books.”
This week, the book that received the most attention was undoubtedly Justice League #12, the one with Superman and Wonder Woman kissing on the cover. (Perhaps you’ve already heard something about this one?) DC’s PR team gave the issue a big push, rightly guessing a hook-up between two of the most recognizable superheroes would be the kind of thing the mainstream entertainment press would want to cover. (The story, and its coverage, reminds me a lot of that garnered by the “Archie Marries …” stories, but hell, it’s nice to see superheroes kissing making the papers for once instead of superheroes temporarily dying being the thing that generates the headlines, you know?)
Perhaps because of the reboot, the kiss and the idea of a relationship seem just as empty as Archie marrying one of his love interests in an alternate future. It goes back to that Ultimate Justice League thing — this isn’t the “real Superman” or “real Wonder Woman.” They might eventually become the real versions, but they’ll do so gradually, and, if so, then this story might end up feeling more real in retrospect. But at the moment, it seems no more important than buzz-cut Aquaman being betrothed to warrior queen Wonder Woman in the world of Flashpoint.
I don’t think it helps that this will be awfully out of left field to readers of Superman’s two books or Wonder Woman, where the characters haven’t reacted (in fact, Wonder Woman has thus far presented no indication it even takes place in the same universe as any other DC book).
The book ended with one of those features that have been increasingly appearing in Johns’ books: sequences of random panels used to “trailer” future events. There’s a page promising a war against Aquaman and the Atlantean army (although Aquaman readers know that Aquaman’s one of the only people on Earth who even believes in Atlantis), that the Cheetah is working with someone and that a traitor will join the Justice League; another page talking about events in 2013; and then a two-page splash showing off the new Justice League of America, by Johns and artist David Finch.
Green Lantern Annual #1 seemed to be a much bigger story, even if it didn’t get covered in as many newspapers. Essentially just a double-sized issue concluding Johns’ current Green Lantern arc, it continues the book’s cycle of slow build-ups to periodic big events (“Sinestro War,” Blackest Night, “War of the Green Lanterns”) by setting the stage for “The Rise of the Third Army.”
For Green Lantern readers, it’s a pretty big deal, as the army refers to a new version of the Green Lantern Corps (the GLC being the Guardians of the Universe’s second army, following their first army of Manhunter robots). So it’s a storyline that goes back thousands, maybe millions, of years in DCU time, and decades in Earth-Prime time, and while Johns commits to some big events in this issue — I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to say that Hal Jordan and Sinestro die (or “die”) and their rings seek new Green Lanterns — it’s noteworthy how hard he commits.
The Guardians go so far in this story that it’s hard to imagine even a writer like Johns being able to walk them back from their monstrous villainy (although a pretty obvious out is provided if the status quo does need reverting to at some point). The event will run through (at least) two issues of each of the four Green Lantern titles, and will seemingly affect other titles as well (it’s the new GL in the ad for Justice League of America, not one of the other four Green Lanterns).
Going back to the lack of connectivity between DCU books, even those written by Johns, this month’s issue of JL has Hal Jordan voluntarily leaving the Justice League, whereas here he’s killed off. There’s perhaps a bit of the old frustration of when does this story take place in relation to that story, a frustration familiar to the point of welcome nostalgia to a lot of readers, but awfully unexpected when the two books are written by the same guy.
The final new Johns book of the week is Aquaman #12, the penultimate chapter of the book’s second story arc, and it’s such a typical Johns book that it could have been written by a computer program that surveyed enough of the creator’s comic books that it’s able to automatically write scripts when a few pieces of data like, say, character names, are filled in.
It’s surprisingly poorly done in terms of blocking and choreography, given penciler Ivan Reis’ usual level of craft and all the Johns scripts he’s illustrated, but beyond that it’s just repetitive in its checklist of Johnsisms demonstrated over the past 11 issues: hard-assed, so-powerful-it’s-kinda-silly Mera demonstrating what a powerful hard-ass she is; a brutal, strong-as-Superman Aquaman brutally dispatching his foes to kill his archenemy; dialogue that 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger would have felt embarrassed to deliver (The best/worst part? Villain: “I guess … this is goodbye.” Hero: “FOR YOU.“); unnecessary splash pages and a character who was introduced just to be killed off finally getting killed off.
I can roll with a lot of that. The particular lameness of many of Johns’ scripts is what I often enjoy most about his writing. Bad comics, like bad movies and bad television, can be fun and funny. But I just can’t get used to seeing things like this …
… and suspending my disbelief that the Aquaman murdering guys in this comic is the same one who sits around a meeting table with Batman and Superman over in Justice League. I know the New 52iverse features more deadly superheroes with pretty lax rules about not killing their enemies, but even if I can accept an Aquaman that aims his trident for the spine rather than the gun, or a Wonder Woman who throws a sword instead of her lasso, or a Green Lantern who literally blows an enemy’s head off with his ring, surely Superman and Batman are still anti-killing, right? Why do those guys even hang out with these take-no-prisoners, freelance soldier types in Justice League …?
In the pre-reboot DCU, they used to do whole big storylines revolving around how mad the superheroes would get when one of their peers kills someone, even when it seemed like there was no other way to stop them (remember Wonder Woman snapping Max Lord’s neck?) or the victim seemed deserving (as when Green Arrow shot Prometheus after the latter attempted to kill millions and succeeded in killing thousands). Now impalings and beheadings are the new knock-out punches.
That increased level of casual violence is, sadly, perhaps the one consistency I see between Johns’ storytelling on his handful of books and the tone and direction of the New 52iverse. Which is, I suppose, fine — DC can pursue whatever audience it wants, and I certainly don’t feel the company has to keep making comics I want to read forever. I just wish the setting was a bit more coherent, with characterization between books being at least as strong as the increase in allowable slain henchmen.