Day 7: I’m tired and cranky
Therefore, I will do a little obvious ranting. (Warning: spoilers for major events from the past four-ish years in the DC and Marvel Universes, primarily Batman. Will post a list of Batman books tomorrow, in chronological order, that will encompass the reading that can be done to fully understand this post. It will be a good jumping-off point for Batman fans who want to read the comics but don’t know where to start.)
Speaking of obvious, it is obvious that I love a good story. I wouldn’t have a book blog and spend a good chunk of my time watching DVDs if I didn’t. But I am not the kind of person who can just turn the TV on randomly and get sucked in. I’d like to think I have standards; if I don’t, at least I have a preference. I like beginnings, middles, and endings.
Those who don’t read comic books then don’t understand the attraction. They are unaware that, especially in the last two decades, the graphic novel–the published story, or story arc–has become a significant part of the industry, if not a major focus. They probably see comic books as soap operas–ever present, easy to pick up and put down (or turn on and off) when one feels inclined.
And in some ways, and for some titles, this is still true. But there is a less of a sitcom, Simpsonsesque return to the default at the end of an issue, or a storyline. While the storylines themselves are able to be read on their own, many become a part of the whole, the canon. It becomes difficult, then, to start over–or “reboot”–the characters’ mythologies. The writers are now charged to write standalone arcs that are expected to follow the continuity and, if possible, become that next building block for the overall canon.
There are many places where this gets tripped up in the modern Marvel and DC continuities. Characters are ripped from their own ongoing storylines to participate in “crossover events,” where a set of titles (or, lately, EVERY title) comes together to tell one story. Writers have problems balancing popular characters with multiple titles–the most prominent example, and the biggest butt of jokes, being Wolverine of the X-Men, who at one time was in what had to be five titles at once. Considering that the universe is supposed to move together as a whole, this made little sense, even to the Wolverine fans who loved seeing their favorite character spotlighted. But quality over quantity doesn’t always sell books as much as throwing in an appearance by a beloved character.
Another problem, the one I wanted to speak to specifically, is that it’s difficult to take the long view. As I argued in my feminist theory thesis paper, comic books are, in some ways, reflective of the time and society in which they are published.* You cannot take the long view when you’re trying to do something relevant to the real world–and comics, right now, are more “of the real world” than they ever have been, even when magic and mutations are involved. The companies trip themselves up trying to rectify continuity errors, shrink casts of hundreds, and make profits right now, so that the industry has a future. The future, it seems, can be worried about later.
But many of these gambits fail. In the X-Men universe, the complaint was that there were too many mutants (there be a genetic basis for most of the characters’ powers). The universe was expanding, perhaps too far. Rather than playing the storyline, and therefore the X-Men in their entirety, to its inevitable end of a world where the mutants become the dominant genus, Marvel instead decided to de-power many of the characters with the wave of a hand–literally the proclamation of the mutant Scarlet Witch, whose words “No more mutants” changed the entire universe.
This may have worked a decade or two ago, but the reality-based foundation upon which modern comics lie made the storyline gimmicky, a quick fix to get the universe back to a workable size. Writers with an eye, ear, or hand for what could please the fans, quickly turned to metaphor: What does it mean to have an essential part of your identity forcibly ripped from you? In this, they salvaged part of a failure, but the bad taste of it all still lasts in the readers’ mouths. After all, the most popular mutants somehow managed to keep their powers.
DC has had slightly more success with its recent crossover events. DC once had a multiverse, which “collapsed for good” in 1985–except, like Marvel, the popular characters continued to exist despite continuity problems. In some cases, this worked: Helena Wayne (Huntress), the daughter of Batman and Catwoman from a parallel Earth, was successfully rebooted as Helena Bertinelli (Huntress). But with other characters like Power Girl, a Supergirl from a parallel Earth, the writers floundered, giving her one unpopular origin after another until finally, when the continuity errors needed to be fixed as a whole again, her original origin was returned to her. She was an anomaly; this is why nothing ever stuck. It was as clever a move as it could be, written into a corner as they were.
To return to the character of Helena Wayne briefly, it is the Batman canon that inspired this post. I find myself, three years after the last major continuity fix, still angry about some of the decisions made in the Batman books. I truly wonder if DC had something else planned and then talked themselves out of it. It is these types of decisions that upset me the most, because to me it is a sign that the comic book companies are too focused on the little picture while giving massive lip service to the long view.
Here’s what I saw, as a fan: In 2002-2003, Jeph Loeb wrote and Jim Lee drew the “Hush” storyline, which is probably the biggest reason I got back into the major titles (having been before that more interested in series that come to an inevitable end or standalone titles that made the graphic novel so popular, such as Sandman or Watchmen). Having been ducking my head in and out of comics over time, I did not expect to see any change. I have spoken of this before in this blog, that “Hush” shocked me. Although the Batman universe was not shaken to the core by the events of “Hush,” there was enough of a change–the reveal of Batman’s true identity of Bruce Wayne to his nemesis/lover Catwoman–that I was taken aback, and suddenly believed in the ability of comics to add real content to its canon. I wanted it desperately. I wanted the long view.
Ultimately, I was teased and then disappointed, and this is why I wonder about the decisions that DC made. After the literally universal-altering reveal of the “Infinite Crisis” storyline, there was a time-jump of one year in the major titles and a standalone series, called 52 (weeks), filling in the missing time.
The Catwoman “One Year Later” storyline, everyone knew, was that Selina Kyle had a baby during that as-yet-unrevealed year. Fans were thrilled that the baby was named Helena, and the reasonable expectation was that the baby was the result of the intimacy between Bruce and Selina in the “Hush” storyline. Would this baby ultimately be a new Helena Wayne? Would she then take the mantle in a decade or two from Helena Bertinelli, fulfilling her multiverse destiny? The long view!
But this did not just fulfill the long view, but also the canon. Batman had once been seduced–raped, really–by his nemesis Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter Talia, and the result was a long-ignored baby, unknown to the Dark Knight, whom Talia supposedly gave up and was never spoken of again. The baby was considered to not be canon, but with the rumors of Catwoman’s baby came rumors of the return of Talia’s child.
How wonderful! It was a retcon of brilliant proportions. The boy child, who had been dismissed by later writers, could come back into the picture. Talia, who had always been extremely possessive of Batman, would of course bring her son back into play. It would result in, at the very least, years of power plays between two of the most popular of Batman’s love interests (Talia having been brought to newer fans’ attention by the animated series). It would aid in the molding of a softer, kinder Batman, who had been criticized in the past decade for getting too dark and who was supposed to have mellowed dramatically during the missing year.
Due to school taking up the majority of my time and financial constraints, I could not keep up with all the exciting things DC was doing. But I couldn’t help myself–eventually I had to sneak a look at the reveal of baby Helena’s father’s identity.
It was not Batman. The Talia’s son storyline (which I reviewed on here with lukewarm praise) was not a bad read, but it was nothing that shook my world the way that “Hush” had. As a fan, I was completely disappointed. I felt, and still feel, that the writers took the “easy” way out. Their world did not have to be altered–at least, not in any significant way. Talia’s son might just disappear again, a failed experiment.
The missing year itself was a problem, because the three Big Heroes (Batman, Superman,and Wonder Woman) should not, by their very natures, “take a break” from their responsibilities (look how well that worked for Superman Returns). But I suppose that will have to be another post in itself.
Ultimately, my preference will be the stories that end. But for a brief moment, I was a true fan: dazzled by the possibilities of the long view in a well-ordered world. But maybe at this moment I am a true fan as well, criticizing the writing but unable to stop reading.
*My primary example in the paper is Jean Grey; Jean, at her inception, was expected to be a “modern woman”: able to fight crime–well, perhaps–but also shown using her powers to cut corners in housework. She is expected to look good and turn men’s heads. She is in no way ahead of her time.