Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Death of Heroism and the DCnU Rebirth

The Justice Society of America, the first team of superheroes in comic book history, drawn by Alex Ross. (Hat tip: It's a Dan's World.)

I've written before about comic book superheroes as ancient gods that still survive in our culture.  They represent our most enduring grasp of right and wrong, the archetypes that come to us across the ages (see my post on Ur-memory of those ideas here), incredibly across thousands, perhaps even millions of years.  Looking at Green Lantern on a lunchbox or backpack, that seems an absurd assertion.  Perhaps we tolerate this pantheon of pagan deities in an era of mainstream Millennial religions precisely because the ancient gods have dwindled down to figures in comic mythologies that we tell children and youths; and these myths are not taken that seriously.

Yet the archetypes embedded here still have weight.  They also constitute serious commercial interests. That raises the question of why these archetypes over the past twenty years, and especially in the last ten (when DC has been under Dan Didio's leadership), have been undermined?  Why is DC Comics, the original classic superhero comics company, so preoccupied with the breakdown of heroes and heroism?  Why are their heroes dying?  Why are their characters being wiped from existence or rebooted in ways that taint them?  What does it mean when their core values are stripped from them?  Why are they being benched and sidelinedAnd why are the Outsiders, classic Titans, Justice Society, and Doom Patrol the key casualties in this reboot?  I've commented on the JLA-centric generational and Bat-commercial aspects of the reboot which left the JSA, Doom Patrol and Titans out in the cold here; and my posts on what the Titans and Doom Patrol signify are here and here.  There's a good series of posts this week on what fans are losing as the DCU dies, over at It's a Dan's World (here).

The classic Titans are the heart of the DCU, challenging the legacy concept by being non-JLA heroes on their own terms; attempts to force them into a JLA legacies vision floundered or were undermined.

Superheroes are big business.  And making them less heroic reflects that spirit of hard-headed enterprise.  It wasn't always so.  The erosion of heroism began seriously with Alan Moore's Watchmen (which I've blogged about here).  A review of Grant Morrison's Supergods includes Morrison's criticism of the Watchmen and similar ambiguous, broken heroes (like V in V for Vendetta?), who killed and broke laws for a higher good that only they, by virtue of their superhuman perspectives, could perceive.  Morrison complains that with the Watchmen, Moore imposed his agenda on his characters:
"I chose to see writers like Alan Moore as missionaries who attempted to impose their own values and preconceptions on cultures they considered inferior—in this case, that of superheroes. Missionaries humiliate the natives by pointing out their gauche customs and colorfully frank traditional dress. They bullied defenseless fantasy characters into leather trench coats and nervous breakdowns and left formerly carefree fictional communities in a state of crushing self-doubt and dereliction. Anthropologists on the other hand, surrendered themselves to foreign cultures. They weren’t afraid to go native or look foolish. They came and they departed with respect and in the interests of mutual understanding. Naturally, I wanted to be an anthropologist."
Morrison has a point: Watchmen's preachiness rests on the characters' neuroses.  And yet, despite all the justifiable criticisms one could level at Moore for his attacks on heroism, perhaps best incarnated in his never-published Twilight of the Superheroes, he still seems to me like Robespierre in the French Revolution: "sea-green incorruptible."   Moore was genuinely concerned with how heroes would act in a world that had lost its moral compass.  That is legitimate.

By comparison, Morrison, with his stint on Batman, turned the character into the company's biggest, bestselling juggernaut.  And with that lucre earned, Morrison is now turning to rebooting a Depression-styled Superman, dressed in jeans and short sleeves, in September.

Superman's Perspective by Keron Grant (Hat tip: It's a Dan's World.)

The DCnU reboot evidently stems from three sources, firstly and above all, a complex, bitter and long-running lawsuit by the heirs of Superman's creators to regain copyrights over that character.  The fight was so ugly that Siegel and Shuster, who sold their billion-dollar creation for $130, famously cursed DC's use of the character.  In 1978, Siegel wrote of the Superman movie:
“I hope it super-bombs. ... I hope loyal Superman fans stay away from it in droves. I hope the whole world, becoming aware of the stench that surrounds Superman, will avoid the movie like the plague. The publishers of Superman comic books, National Periodical Publications Inc., killed my days, murdered my nights, choked my happiness, strangled my career. I consider National's executives economic murderers, money-mad monsters.”
The blog devoted to this matter continues: "Siegel was working as a mail clerk by the time he wrote that press release, earning just $7,000 a year, and Shuster was legally blind."

This is the legacy that Grant Morrison confronts as he joins the creators who are revamping Superman to further separate the character as a property from the claims of the Siegel and Shuster heirs. It's even more strange to see George Perez join these ranks, although he did a great job on the post-COIE Wonder Woman.  If that legacy didn't bother him, one would think Perez would have something to say about what has been done to the Titans - his Titans.

Tiny Titans #17 (Aug. 2009).

The other two reasons for the reboot are the advent of digital publishing as the major platform for pulp fiction; and Co-Publisher Dan Didio's personal dream to revamp the DCU.  Of these three reasons, the publisher's concern over Superman is at least comprehensible (if reprehensible), from a big corporation's point of view. The second is also understandable, and DC can be lauded for facing the fact that the entire publishing industry is undergoing a revolution. But the last, Dan Didio's personal dream, if true, is the most dubious.

The classic Outsiders, depicted by Jim Aparo. (Hat tip: It's a Dan's World.)

Didio's recent run writing Outsiders was contrived and deliberately simplistic.  It made me wonder how on earth this man rose to the top of the company in the first place; why he is given such respect; and how he acquired the power and credibility to be allowed to engineer a huge Millennial reimagining of this fictional universe.  I can see him firing a junior writer who produced the same material he created for the Outsiders, which led to the title's dismal sales, complaints from a dejected fanbase, and cancellation this summer.

Now to be fair, criticism of Dan Didio and co. is running pretty high right now in some circles because of this reboot.  I saw Chuck Dixon quoted on one board, who apparently said that Didio was a "directionless gladhander with a ouija board."  I've also noticed Marvel creators lining up to chide Didio for his misguided attempts to turn DC into a Marvelized universe with Marvelized, gritty, contemporary characters.  This is seemingly being done to lure Marvel's bigger fanbase - all to the detriment of DC's classic vision of heroism. 

DC's creators hit back that DC's entitled fans feel they own the company's characters, yet haven't the faintest idea what they (the fans) really want; nor do they understand what it takes to make the characters evolve into something bigger and better.  The people marshalling this big change evidently take a dim view of their established audience. Yet strangely, they don't give the new audience they wish to attract much credit either, apparently assuming that they are a jolt-seeking videogame generation who can only absorb simplistic sentences, cheesecake females, grimdark drama, and endless pages of wordless battle splash scenes which are easily translated into equally unchallenging action flicks.

I find it difficult to see these classic teams ploughed under, especially the Titans, especially for these reasons.  I take the long view: I think that the new DCU as conceived by Dan Didio, Jim Lee, and (most regrettably) Geoff Johns in DCnU's apocalyptic form can't be anything but a set up for a 2012 crossover event.  Even if it isn't, DCnU is a symptom of how our symbols and core archetypes are under pressure.  Millennial values are in flux: there is no baseline.  Dan Didio and his colleagues will preside over this chaos for awhile longer.  I think they will unwittingly herald something larger that they did not envision.  Their monied understanding of ever-more-fractured heroes (with a side order of war comics, sex, horror, magic and mystery) is not the one that will shape these mythological symbols for decades to come.  Rather, these creators' limited, retro-90s, Marvelized understandings of the DCU will push through the storm to the other side.  When a new generation of comics creators revives the JSA, the Doom Patrol, the New Titans and the Outsiders, DC will have found its soul, consciousness, heart and independent spirit once again.

Doom Patrol in its 1980s' reboot.
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  1. I find it bizarre personally Geoff Johns hasn't managed to stem the flow of this tide. Especially considering he made his name on titles that nailed the DC difference, like Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E., Flash and JSA.

    As for Titans I've split the problem in two. The new book is a whole new thing in my eyes, and the case of my Titans and what DC is doing with them is another. They should be togetherand you should still be getting great stories from them. Some say the well is dry but what about the Fantastic Four? They're sitting near the top of the charts at the moment with a more limited roster, and they don't count an alien princess in their ranks, let alone a cyborg!

    What DC needs is the flagship title restored. Marvel is fixing Spiderman and DC needs to find theirs. Personally for me that is Superman but as Superman gets pulled into darker stories the less like Superman he reads. If Grant recaptures this like he did in All-Star then maybe tptb will see the error of their ways, but as a fan whose stuck by DC through dark and dim as my #1 publisher, it just doesnt feel like one of us knows who DC is anymore. Them or me - and If I dont then pretty soon my wallet wont either.

    For me I don't think I ca

  2. Didn't Johns say in a sales call that Time Warner came down on DC due to flagging sales, and warned them that something wasn't done there would be terminations, and that Didio's response was to panic and hit the reboot button?

    That aside, I generally agree here. The question is how many, if any, Marvel fans buy into this after the #1 sales blitz. How many stick around.


  3. @Dan thanks for your comment - I guess I am waiting to see if this is going to be like that episode of Dallas where Bobby wakes up and it was all a dream. To me Flashpoint and what comes out of it is so obviously an Elseworlds story, but DC is toying with the fanbase by insisting that it's *not* an Elseworlds story. That must be driven by sales concerns more than anything. Readers can safely ignore Elseworlds dramas b/c they don't have an impact on continuity. But if this is 'real' then 'everything changes (in a flash).' The most interesting premise about Flashpoint, debates about rebooting aside, is the idea that a villain could change the timestream and thereby change the world and the fates of everyone in it. That is a cool idea. BUT it means that the DCnU must arise from a full or partial victory of that villain over DC's heroes. Now if DC focussed on that story more than Jim Lee's tiresome 90s designs with straps and buckles, high collars and jet boots, I'd be more inclined to wonder where they are going with the DCnU. If DCnU rests on the victory of a villain, how can it become mainstream DC continuity? Doesn't that go against the whole superhero narrative? Therefore I think there must be a part two to this convoluted nightmare.

  4. @J yes, I think there are several people holding their breaths on either side of the question of whether the reboot is any good or not. Someone on Comic Bloc mentioned that waiting for the reboot to fail so that heads will roll and along with the reboot may not be any good in terms of getting the DCU back, because if the reboot fails, there may not be a DC left to pick up the pieces.

    Who knows how much they have really staked on it, what they have planned for the 2012 crossover (I'm convinced this is build up for that), and what their Plan B is. Wouldn't you love to know what their Plan B is? Or Plan C? D?

  5. On the other hand, if the reboot *is* good, they have no reason *to* go back. I don't think this is an Elseworlds gimmick story. As discussed before, I think it was mandated by Time Warner that they do something, and Didio's response was the reboot.

    In reply to Dan, you said "If DCnU rests on the victory of a villain, how can it become mainstream DC continuity? Doesn't that go against the whole superhero narrative?" When we've seen many times, from Didio to the spoilers about the release of Games, that it's not just Didio, but all of them who don't give a flying leap about the superhero narrative. Judas Contract, Cry for Justice, over at Marvel the death of Gwen Stacy, the list goes on and on.


  6. J, I hear you. I keep thinking of this line from Aeon Flux, where Goodchild says: "This is all wrong." I would agree that Judas Contract was an important step in that direction, along with COIE, although they had their precedents. There were still enough things in those stories that were still OK. But over time the ratio between what was OK in these heroic stories and what was not grew in favour of the latter.

    It's true that grimdark themes and the corruption of heroes are legitimate subjects to explore. Moore proved that masterfully with Watchmen. There are evil people in the world; there are also 'ends justify the means' scenarios that can properly reflect in pop culture and art.

    But the willful destruction of characters, the deliberate ruination of good in heroism, the manipulation of audience expectations of how the narrative should go, the cheapening of the whole genre, the simplification of story-telling, the compromise of characters and the triumph of evil over good, the shades of gray, the double standards against certain characters and favouring others - and so on - all add up to something rotten in the state of Denmark. For me, the double standard between Raven and Terra is a prime example of what is wrong. But there are many others - Roy Harper swinging dead cats, Terminator as anti-hero, even the sidelining of Wally West in a 4th wall decision - these decisions are fundamentally wrong.

  7. Oh, no arguing the wrongness of it. Agreed on that. I just don't think it's meant to be an Elseworlds. If sales bomb, then I don't think we'll get the old timeline back without some of the new stuff incorporated into it (Barbara Gordon having legs, for example.) Maybe that was the plan all along....before Time Warner started being all threatening. Like Marvel's Age of Apocalypse.


  8. I don't think Flashpoint/DCnU were meant to be an Elseworlds epic either. That's the point. They SHOULD BE and TECHNICALLY ARE Elseworlds stories; Flashpoint reads like an Elseworlds, looks like one.

    I said if Flashpoint went through as an Elseworlds, everyone would just ignore it this summer except a few diehard collectors. You know - timestream changed - this is what the world could have been like. So what? Yawn.

    So to make it sell, DC had to say that Flashpoint was real and the set-up to the real new DCU. Unfortunately, that meant they have to follow through and make what is obviously an Elseworlds story into the real thing. I find that highly ironic, for two reasons. One, a fake story becomes the real story. That's typical Millennial mind-bending.

    Two, Flashpoint's similarity to another source that I won't name. Who knew that that source would form the basis of the whole new DCU? Supremely ironic, isn't it?

  9. Saw this on dA: http://n8twing.deviantart.com/art/Young-Justice-Meet-DCnU-Titans-252560165

  10. I wish DC would give Walko an Untold Tales of the Teen Titans book to draw and write. I think a lot of people would buy it.