Monday, May 10, 2010

KryptoColumn: Wrapping Up New Krypton

Please forgive the long Superman column. My colleague from Comic Fodder, Travis Pullen, got married this week. But being a responsible chap, while on his honeymoon, TPull didn't want to just let the weeds grow at Comic Fodder and asked if I could pitch in. This column is in the style I wrote for Comic Fodder, so its a bit longer than what I otherwise would do here at The Signal Watch.

So, yes, this is a repost of the work I did for TPull at Comic Fodder.

The Set-Up

In 2006, DC Comics made a sweeping editorial decision to change the direction of their Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman comics (and to a lesser extent, Justice League and Justice Society).

It's fairly clear to anyone who picked up Justice League, Justice Society, parts of Countdown (I know, I know), and related Superman titles that DC did start with a master plan. At the time, Geoff Johns was writing Action Comics and Justice Society. Characters like the Legionnaire, Star Man, appeared from the 31st Century. Simultaneously, Triplicate Girl and Karate Kid had popped up as well in Countdown and the pages of Supergirl.

Ah, Karate Kid. Traveling 1000 years into the past to die stupidly in a terrible series.

In those first Action Comics issues, Superman headed for the future in a pretty great story called "Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes".

Superman has some kooky friends.

Rebuilding the SuperBooks

We'd soon get General Zod, Ursa and Non released from the Phantom Zone (a la, "Superman II), and a version of Brainiac fit for the modern Superman comics. Along with a version of the Kryptonian bottle city of Kandor.

All of this meant that a status quo imposed in 1986, that Kal-El was The Last Son of Krypton, would no longer have any relevance. Kryptonians were running all over the place, and elements of the Silver and Bronze Age were back in play, discarding the faux-Kandors, non-Kryptonian Supergirls, and half-baked Zods that had appeared in numerous forms over the years. Rather than continually try to cram a square peg into a round hole in bringing back classic concepts, DC finally bit the bullet and recognized some things just work. And while it would be painful to take the slings and arrows of a fandom raised on the Byrne/ Wolfman version of Superman, if the story worked...

Apparently smarting a bit from how the Super-books had lost focus during the pre-2006 shake-up, editor Matt Idleson and his writing staff had decided to remind readers of the expansive supporting cast that had once been a large part of the Superman comics and the DC Universe. We've seen the return of much of the classic Planet staff, The Guardian, Jimmy Olsen received some spotlights, and the Legion has returned with some of the continuity intact from prior to 1986's Crisis on Infinite Earths.

I've read a lot of Jimmy Olsen. If they wanted him dead, they just needed to leave a trail of Skittles leading off a cliff somewhere.

The Grand Experiment...

Its hard to say that DC did the job particularly smoothly. When they chose to roll Superman out of his own titles and replace him with Mon-El of Superboy and Legion fame, and an all-new Flamebird and Nightwing in Action Comics... well, a year was a long time to sustain the stunt they were trying to pull off, which I'd guess was build momentum for new characters for their own books (see: the success of Batwoman in Detective earning that character her own title).

There was nothing wrong with World of New Krypton, the maxi-series where DC placed Kal-El for 12 issues. It just didn't seem to justify the stunt. Nor did the stories of Mon-El and the Guardian in Superman or Nightwing and Flamebird in Action seem well plotted enough to withstand a year's worth of comics. Readers absolutely felt taxed, and the whole thing had an odd feel of editorial mandate superseding sensible writing.

The oddest part of the whole mess is that over so many titles, and over so much time, elements seemed to get dropped or forgotten. At some point, John Henry Irons duked it out with Atlas (who had been fighting Superman), but for months, nobody mentioned that fight again. Krypto got a big public build up with a great cover by Alex Ross, and has since been relegated to crowd shots. Jimmy Olsen, one of my favorite characters, was apparently shot to death and disappeared, and we've had maybe one panel of the Daily Planet staff idly wondering if Jimmy has stepped out for coffee...

Its been a mind-boggling experiment in telling a sprawling and interwoven story across several years and several titles... but it also demonstrates the difficulty of doing so.

But it kinda worked

As Last Stand of New Krypton wrapped up the penultimate chapter of the saga (in its own mini series, Adventure, Action, Supergirl and Superman titles), and it actually read surprisingly well if you've been bothering to read every single darn Superman book since 2006, there's no question that (a) this was way, way too complicated for the pay off, and (b) that this sort of long form storytelling was going to take some more work to figure out. It's difficult to ask anyone to wait on your schedule, and to afford all the separate pieces to put the story together (let alone identifying what they should have been picking up from various points around the DCU). Not to mention, replacing your most iconic character in his own books for a year: perhaps not the best gamble for growing your audience.

During this whole fight, the piano player never quit playing his merry, old-timey melody

All that said, with March and April's Last Stand of New Krypton, the pay off for readers finally arrived. Plot threads that had seemed like extraneous and shelved ideas by the creative team came back together, from the re-appearance of Zod to the partnership between Luthor and Toyman.

In May, DC's line of Superman titles; Superman, Action Comics, Supergirl and Adventure Comics is on hiatus while DC releases The War of the Supermen, also billed as "The 100 Minute War". Issue one has already provided additional insight into some of those left over plot points (what's happening with John Henry Irons, for example). And by Superman #700, we should see a new creative team taking The Man of Steel in a new direction.

So did DC screw up?

One gets the feeling that DC's periodical division is of the opinion that this sprawling, long form narrative would serve the monthly side of the business. With the significant sales drops, that experiment likely will not see a repeat. In March 2010, Action Comics sold 29,460 copies. In March 2009, Action was selling 47,079 copies.

However, these days the stories from monthlies live on in trade collections. It will be interesting to see if, collected into a few volumes, the story won't find a second life. It's not too hard to see how this project might read better as a series of books rather than dealing with the constraints of the monthly system. Unfortunately, as DC tried to make assumptions that their readers were picking up series from Superman to Justice Society to Countdown, events referred to within the story will certainly be left out, such as the death of the time-transplanted Karate Kid.

In short, if DC planned for readers to follow what they were doing with the time-lost Legion storyline, they needed to clue readers into the fact that it was happening at all.

Don't touch Brainiac, Superman. You have no idea where he's been.

However... I believe I did read most of the tie-ins. In comparison to the sloppy continuity wreck that was the pre-Infinite Crisis world of Superman comics, I'll forgive some of the seeming rudderless-ness of Action and Superman of the past year in exchange for the scope of vision DC has employed in getting to The War of the Supermen.

This IS a strong disagreement of the super men!

So if the sprawling, series-spanning epic becomes too much for readers, what is the answer?

DC has a similar experiment underway in the Batman titles, but to be truthful, you can likely have skipped Batman for the past year and been none the poorer for it. I'm not reading Red Robin, Batgirl, Azrael or Gotham Sirens, and as long as I read Detective and Batman and Robin, I feel like I'm keeping up.

It would be a shame for editorial to go back to the idea that continuity doesn't matter, but it certainly doesn't seem the case that they're ready to quit minding the store again at this point.

Coming up, Lois's co-wokers watch her cavort with a guy who is not her husband.

In conclusion...

As a final note, Superman editor Matt Idleson participates in a column at the Superman Homepage wherein Superman fans can write in and ask questions. In the column, Idleson does a bit of a mea culpa, openly admitting that not all choices were great.

I think the drop in sales mostly tells us that readers didn't really cotton to the idea of Supes being replaced in his books. That's actually a portion of the reason we took the WAR event, which was slated to run monthly starting in June, and shifted it into May as a weekly event. We want to make sure we tell as satisfying a conclusion to the New Krypton stuff for the readers that have remained with us, while also shortening the length of time the story will take to tell.
For those of you who follow comics journalism, its kind of unheard of for editors and writers to not blame the fans when things go poorly, or to shrug and say they'll try harder next time. this reader, anyway, was impressed.

We'll see if War of the Supermen can complete the multi-year story begun by Geoff Johns. And it will be very interesting to see what the new creative teams have in store for June.


Fantomenos said...

Funny you should bring this up at this point, since I've had a few things I've been ruminating on as well.

I read "Batman and Robin" and that's it for the bat-books, and feel like it tracks just fine. I'm kinda a Morrison fan-boy.

But, I recently picked up the "Lightning Saga" trade at the library and was just totally lost. I may not be as hard-core (Corps?) as you in the DC universe, but I'm pretty good, and I just had no idea what was happening. I felt like some pages must have gotten lost in the middle, but if this wasn't readable in trade, god help those who were reading the floppies.

Meanwhile, the Boom!Kids! Muppet Show comic has been a delight, and I heartily recommend it.

Oh, and that line about the piano player was magnificent.

Ransom said...

This, to me, seems to be one of the problems with being a casual reader of comics these days. To fully appreciate this story, not only must one obtain the mini-series itself, but also all of the issues from regular or related series which are implicated or affected by the mini-series. Just knowing which issues to pull and where to find them is a chore. This would not be so bad, perhaps, if these types of major crossover events were rare, but it seems like there is always some universe-shattering, purportedly game-changing, epic mini-series in play in which dozens of titles are referenced. How is one to keep up?

The League said...

I'd say "Lightning Saga" required reading of the previous JLA and JSA issues, and probably whatever was going on in Superman at the time. And maybe those two disastrous runs of Flash after Infinite Crisis.

There were also hints of some old school Legion stories (I mean, mid-60's old school), so it would have helped to have just read the Showcase Presents of Legion as I'd happened to have done.

Whatever experiment DC was trying at the time flat out didn't work. I think they had some great intentions and were trying for a solid, cohesive universe, but in the wake of trying to cram everything in the DCU under "Countdown", that whole notion got scrapped.

There must a be a middle ground somewhere, and I think DC is working their way back to it. Why this is so hard for them when Marvel has done it for 40+ years, I have no idea.

The Morrison Batbook has been great in that its clear everyone else had some tough choices to make. And I'd really recommend picking up those Batwoman Detective issues when you have the opportunity, because of what I'd read, its been the most successful other batbook (Streets of Gotham is surprisingly messy for what it is).

And I heartily endorse the Muppets comics. We pick those up, as well as Boom's Scrooge and other Disney reprints.

The League said...

Ransom, I agree. To Fantomenos' point, you can't pick up any single part of the story and find an entry point, and that's not good.

Unfortunately, it seems that in trying to make up for the pre-2006 lack of cohesiveness, DC overshot by a country mile.

The story never should have Criss-Crossed JSA/JLA, Countdown, etc...

I imagine after issue 700 of Superman, we'll see the experiment draw to a close. However, it does raise the question of how DO you pull off a big event for a line like the Superman books, which have three or four titles released every month?

Simon MacDonald said...

I would characterize myself as a hard core comics fan, not a casual one. Still I tend to shy away from a lot of the major characters like Superman and Batman as they generally require you to pick up way too many issues to get the full story.

That being said, the up and down run on Batman & Robin seems to be self contained. Mostly because I don't think Morrison really cares what is going on in the other books.

That Brainiac storyline read well in trade but it hasn't convinced me to pick up any of the Superman titles full time.

I much prefer books I can get the full story by purchasing just one title like: The Walking Dead, Invincible, The Unwritten, Chew, Elephantmen, etc.

If you like the BOOM! books you should check out Fraggle Rock by ASP as well.

The League said...

I think DC would do well to start creating "reader maps" for people looking to follow comics. I love that the Superman comics restored the "shield numbering system" to let you know where you are. But I've been shocked they haven't put volume numbers on the spines of the collections. The storyline branding for the Superman collections has been AWFUL.

I may do a quick post later this week to lay out what you sort of need to read in what order. Its a bit of a mess.

Ransom said...

I have to agree with Simon. There is something to be said for a universe or mythology that is contained to one monthly title, like "The Walking Dead," which was recently greenlit as a series on AMC, if you can believe it. Of course, the crossover problem goes back to my days as an avid collector. I tried to get all the "Secret Wars II" crossover issues back in the day. I failed. I just wish it was a bit easier to obtain everything at once. Do any of the online retailers offer the ability to pull, or buy all at once, all the crossover issues in a mini-series, in one fell swoop? I found that when I gave my most recent comic shoppe owner any discretion in selecting titles for my pull list, he added too many unrelated titles.

Simon MacDonald said...

@Ransom you should listen to CGS Episode 814 where Louise Simonson apologies for creating the company wide cross over. I actually got the see both Louise and Walt at that con.

I try to stay away from the big events now and trust podcasts and guys like Ryan to help me find the gems.

horus kemwer said...

I read Batman and Robin and that's about it on the list of relevant titles for DCU cross-over issues. I agree that's it's basically self-contained, but doesn't this just show that one should be able to maintain within-title continuity AND allow for the occasional crossover WITHOUT having to worry about universe-wide continuity?

Maybe I've just never followed enough titles to notice or care about any universe-wide discrepancies. Nevertheless, as someone who's more writer/creator focused than character focused, it seems to me that the stories are on average way better when there are no (or minimal) editorial constraints designed to ensure some universe-wide master plan goes through.

I mean, can anyone think of a single high quality stand alone story that came out of a large-scale crossover event?

The League said...

Once you have a shared universe, I think you HAVE to have a shared continuity. Zero Hour and Infinite Crisis were necessary to explain why DC's former editorial policy had allowed for countless discrepancies. At some point, when DC wasn't managing universe-wide continuity, it could make for dissatisfying reads as writers tromped all over each others' work, character arcs, and the occasional death, etc... Its sort of dissatisfying not knowing if a character is dead or not, because you watched them tragically die, but they're eating cheeseburgers with Captain Atom two months later in a different title.

In a way, I'd endorse a pecking order amongst writers and managed by editorial.

Batman and Robin is adhering to continuity (back to stuff from when I was reading Batman in middle school), but the major difference is that it seems the Bat editors informed their non-Grant Morrison writers to either follow or get out of the way. I can't help but feel the Superman books were likely planning to follow the same path until Geoff Johns jumped ship from the Superman titles.

In general, I do agree. A single writer telling a single story makes for better comics. I don't think there's anything wrong with the occasional multi-title cross over, but the Super-experiment just got out of control.

As per stand alone stories, its hard to say. I can name some I enjoyed (both of Johns' Final Crisis spin offs), but your mileage will vary.

Paul Toohey said...

As a novice Comic Reader, I like that the iPad comic reader apps allow you to search by Story Arc, and tells you all the corresponding titles.