Monday, November 1, 2010

What’s going on at DC?

Given the political climate and timeline, you would be forgiven if you thought this post might be about the mid-term elections tomorrow. It's not. Instead, once again, I am dumbfounded by the editorial decisions being made at DC. There will probably be spoilers ahead, though not very big ones, but I'm telling you now.

On the one hand there's Batman and all of his titles. After the cock-up that was the "death" of Bruce Wayne, the past year has been filled with hints that he may well be coming back, including Tim Drake discovering "evidence" that he was not really dead but lost in time, and the really solid clue of a mini-series entitled "The Return of Bruce Wayne" which followed the adventures of an amnesiac Bruce Wayne bouncing in time and continually running into a bat motif. The mini-series was kind of interesting, featuring some very fine art and one-off stories about a nameless, memory-less do-gooder bouncing around in time. That kind of changed with issue #5, wherein Grant Morrison brings back his ridiculously confusing cast of characters from his run on Batman before Bruce "died.

There's also the impending threat of Batman's return, slowly being hinted at in another mini-series, Time Masters: Vanishing Point, wherein Time Master Rip Hunter, Superman, Booster Gold, and Hal Jordan go off to thwart Bruce Wayne's return, fearing that he is a trap deployed by Darkseid. Apparently, Bruce's bouncing through time has caused him to accumulate "omega energy" that will cause him to erupt with Earth-shattering energies upon his arrival at the time when he was sent off on his jaunts.

I suspect that the two mini-series were intended to conclude coincidentally, but sadly we are currently at issues #5 and #4. The last issue of The Return of Bruce Wayne is scheduled for 10 November, while the last two issues of Vanishing Point are not due until December. Meanwhile, in the latest issue of Batman and Robin, Bruce Wayne is back, in the Batman costume, surprising Dr. Hurt and his cronies as they plot against the new Batman and latest Robin. And then DC also had a series of one-shot issues dealing with Bruce's return across the Bat-verse, following him as he decides what form his return to the living would take among his peers and "family."

Thus the scorecard: in the mini-series about his return, Bruce Wayne is not back yet. The associated mini-series to stop him from coming back is behind the main one (so they really can't prevent him from coming back?). In continuity, he's back in costume, and in a coincidental series of one-shots, he's back but not in costume (actually in a different costume, as the Insider…but all of the superheroes he deals with recognize him anyway). So, what's the big deal? It's just comics right?

The big deal is that this was supposed to be an Event. DC had fooled the mainstream media into writing stories about the demise of Bruce Wayne, leading to an increase in sales. A bit later, DC is bringing him back with the same expectation. But if regular readers of the comics are totally lost about his status, I can't imagine what the casual reader might feel. I'm not even sure if the casual reader might want all of the dreck associated with the Event. But if they did walk into a comic book store and tell the clerk to give them "the book where Bruce Wayne comes back," what is the appropriate response? "He's not really back yet?"

You'll notice that my explanation of why this has happened does not involve anything about telling a good story. That's how high my cynical meter has gotten—I'm nearly 100% convinced they came up with the idea and figured out how to make money off of it rather than having a good story and marketing that. Or perhaps they figure it's enough of a good story to say "Bruce Wayne was dead and now he's not." But if you wanted some depth to this ridiculous breadth of paper being used to tell the story, it doesn't exist. It's not very good and feels contrived and predictable. Again, someone who is not a comics fan might say "So what?" The sad thing to me is that the stories did matter, to me personally and to the audience at large. And I lay this deficiency at the feet of the editorial decision-makers at DC.

And then there's Superman. At the beginning of the summer, DC brought a new writer to Superman, J. Michael Straczynski, veteran of genre TV and many year at Marvel Comics. A lot of people have a great deal of appreciation for JMS (as he is called in fan circles so that there won't be repeated embarrassed misspellings of his last name), but I've never understood the ardor his name can provoke. Apparently, DC getting him away from Marvel was something of a coup, and his work on Wonder Woman and DC were going to set the world on fire. I've already written about Wonder Woman earlier (, and I had considered writing a similar post about JMS's upcoming work on Superman. But I decided that I was being too much a cynic and to give it a shot. And now it's been four months.

The premise of the year-long Superman story arc "Grounded" is that Superman no longer feels connected to the common man since he spends all his time fighting supervillains and global threats. What about individuals, the sick, the hungry, the helpless? Why didn't Superman do things for them? So Superman decides to walk across America, talking to people he meets and helping out where he can. If there's a major threat somewhere, he'll fly off to take care of it, but then return to the exact spot he left off and continue to walk. On its face, it's an interesting premise, especially since it circles back to what Superman was doing in the earliest issues of his own comics. It also sticks its tongue out at years of continuity but in a thoughtful way—how does anyone not notice Clark Kent is missing? How will his marriage to Lois survive his being gone for (another) year? And the life of this character has consisted of slowly increasing power levels since, metafictionally, each threat had to be more dangerous than the last. What would be the reaction to the equivalent of a god walking among them?

I thought that the idea could lead to some interesting stories, if the audience were given a methodology to box away reminders of Superman's abilities. The idea of the common person interacting with Superman could result in powerful storytelling, but it would become saccharine and repetitive over the length of a year. And in truth, the first couple of stories in the arc were better than I might have hoped. I'm not sure it's an entirely realistic depiction of what would happen—I would expect packed streets and stampedes of people trying to get close enough to him to ask a favor and desperate people weeping as he passes them by. The premise sets up the expectation that he could address anybody but perception is that he can help everybody. And that's just not possible. There's a conflict for you to write about. (DC used to do a letters to Superman issue every year at Christmas-time, where Superman actually did read letters and try to fulfill wishes of people begging for his aid, but they seem to have gone away in the past few years). At any rate, it seemed to me there were a limited number of stories about Superman among the people and that it would take an extraordinary storyteller to get more than a few issues out of it before it got morose and perhaps just boring.

DC fooled me. After three issues, they have already had a fill-in issue. After some months bally-hooing the arrival of JMS and this ground-breaking story, someone has fallen enough behind that the story had to take a break. It's not exactly a sign of good things to come—I've got no faith another one won't be required down the line. And, sadly, the fill-in wasn't a very good story, with puerile characterization and the emotional weight of Garfield the Cat. So what?

I guess part of my rant comes down to being sold a bill of goods. I was told to expect a years' worth of this story and I got three months before it got stuck. If there has been a catastrophe, say the illness of one of the creators, I could understand and forgive. But this doesn't seem to be the case; instead it appears to be crappy planning, again, on the part of DC editorial. And I fell for it, again, expecting something better…expecting what I was told would happen.

The comics industry innately breeds cynicism in its regular readers. We are told that in this issue, some dies or that, laughably, things will never be the same. But with one exception now, they ALWAYS come back, and things ALWAYS go back to being the same. And long-time readers just accept that. This time, twice now (three times if I include the ongoing Wonder Woman and her new clothes storyline), I was told I would get good stories. And I expected things would eventually be the same when those stories were done. But what I got was bureaucratic ineptitude. Let me at least read the stories, in the order they are intended, so I can see if they are good or not….

DC's batting 0 for 2 with these storylines, and Wonder Woman is still at bat.

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