Tuesday, March 20, 2012

TL; DR: On DC, Superman, Didio and Reboots

  • Infinite Crisis
  • One Year Later
  • Bart Allen as The Flash
  • Superman's Silver Age reboot
  • Wally West as The Flash
  • Final Crisis
  • Barry Allen as The Flash
  • Wonder Woman's soft reboot with pants
  • Flashpoint
  • New 52
  • Five Years Later

I would love to have heard the conversations that occurred between Dan Didio and Paul Levitz in the years before Levitz was shown the door and Didio and Lee became co-publishers.

At some point, I have to think Levitz was beginning to detect a pattern in Didio's planning and plotting.

What I'm getting at is that beginning in 2005, Dan Didio has more or less been playing the same card, over and over and over.  The one trick he has had up his sleeve has been the reboot (and I've guessed he was going to "reboot" Watchmen as well with prequels for a couple of years before they actually went ahead and did it).

Under Didio's supervision, DC was never particularly tied to continuity.  That was when we saw the rise of editors like Eddie Berganza who weren't even trying to maintain continuity in the Superman line of books, and were, instead, focusing on 6 issue arcs with new creative teams brought on every few issues, many of whom seemed baffled by their assignment in Newsarama interviews.  The interviews always read basically the same:  I'm a semi-hot writer, DC is offering me money, I don't know anything about Superman, but I am told he's the first and greatest.  And:  For Tomorrow.

At one point around 2005, it seemed the Superman books suffered from a near constant state of soft reboot as each creative team came and left.  All of that left the Superman books a mess, with the number of Superman titles tumbling from 4 to 2 on the stands.  And so it was that Infinite Crisis felt very welcome as it came along beginning in 2005 and ending in 2006.

But here's the interesting bit - it came along not all that long after the Superman books, recognizing what a mess they'd become, had attempted a soft reboot in just the Superman titles with an explanation of a "time storm" as Superman briefly swapped places with Wildstorm's Mr. Majestic (see Superman No. 201 from March 04).  Likely this was done to merge Mark Waid's well received Birthright into the Superman mythos, an origin which didn't paint DC into multiple awkward corners the way the Byrne/ Wolfman mythology had done, and enabled for Lex to have had contact with Superman at some point in his youth (considered a necessary part of the lore by many Superman fans, and which had become popularized on TV's Smallville, which had millions of viewers versus the comics 10's of 1000's.).

It wasn't enough that DC then began to align their universe to bring us Infinite Crisis (a comic which got us where we needed to go, but which didn't actually work as a story).  In order to modernize, rewrite the DCU and bring it up to speed and, I suppose, compete with Marvel, DC introduced the One Year Later concept. DC had the opportunity to redefine their universe, but apparently nobody told the talent and editorial actually working on the books, who clearly grappled horribly with the situation, and who were writing stories to get us back to a familiar status quo within 6 months.

In all the ways that mattered, One Year Later was a failure and a forgettable blip that could have, with proper planning, shuffling of titles, etc... gotten the DCU to the point Didio seemed to be seeking.  Instead, it had the feel of a random reshuffling of parts instead of a concentrated effort from a single point of leadership.

It also led to the Flash debacle, with Bart Allen briefly appearing as The Flash for 13 issues before being killed (an unpopular move to end an unpopular series which had replaced a well respected, if moderate selling title).

Superman was rebooted again, and I can attest that folks at the Superman Homepage, many of whom had grown up with the Byrne version, were very confused.  The confusion was not helped along by the production problems in the Superman office (which never received an explanation) as DC mainstay titles like Action Comics disappeared from the shelf for months and DC waited until October of 2009 to release the first issue of Superman: Secret Origin, which was intended to replace Man of Steel as canon.

All that said, its hard not to look at the build up to Final Crisis, with Didio's personal touch on the DCU of the utter debacle that was Countdown to Infinite Crisis, a year-long, weekly series that went absolutely nowhere, included a dozen spin-off titles that went nowhere, not the least of which was the offensively executed Death of the New Gods, which was a creative and narrative mess and actually served to contradict and screw-up mainline DC books as well as the actual Final Crisis title.

Final Crisis hit in July 2008, and ended in approximately March 2009 -  six months before Superman: Secret Origin arrived.  I bring this up partially because (1) Final Crisis was announced well before it saw print, leading many to speculate about massive production problems, not the least of which may have been Didio misreading the script for the first issue of Final Crisis and spoiling it so badly for Morrison with all his extra mini series, etc...  that some suspected Morrison didn't want to do the series now.  (2)  I still think Final Crisis was intended to be the end of the DCU before what Didio hoped to be his reboot of the entire thing.

Really, the end of Final Crisis is screaming to be the plausible end of the DCU in a typically Morrisonian way.  I really don't know how else to read it.  It both reinstitutes the multiverse in a big, big way and takes every single character of the DCU and puts them in stasis for safekeeping.  That's how it ends (after Superman, the first great DC superhero, saves the DCU with a song in the key of life).

But instead, once Final Crisis ended, the book and the massive after shocks it should have left, went ignored completely in the DCU.

Something... happened there.  That was not what somebody had in mind when they planned the book initially.  I have to think DC just rolled it out because...  sales and money.  Not because it made any sense any more.

Somewhere in the aftermath, DC revamped Wonder Woman for no reason, and attempted to relaunch the character by giving her pants.  The comics fans argued the suit, the general public failed to recognize an iconic, highly licensed and well-known trademark.  Another reboot, another misfire.

In September 2010, Diane Nelson took over at DC Entertainment.  Dan Didio and Jim Lee were made co-publishers.  Levitz was shown the door and allowed to contribute books, but clearly kept out of the loop, debuting a Huntress comic clearly written for the Old DCU shortly after the Nu DCU premiered.  Friends, yes-men and supporters suddenly found themselves in jobs such as "Editor in Chief", and in September 2011, we got the DCU hard reboot.

After multiple soft reboots, after a few attempts at hard reboots, we now have our Nu DCU.  This is the DCU that Didio long dreamed of making.

In some ways, I can only imagine the sales pitch Didio and Lee made to Nelson, quoting figures from the 90's comics boom for her, pointing to disgraced Marvel Editor and architect of the Scarlet Spider debacle, Bob Harras, toiling in DC's collections department.  "Levitz is old school," you can almost hear them say.  "We have Jim Lee, who sold, like, a million X-Men comics and Bob Harras on our staff, we can bring back the 90's".

And so they are trying to do so.

The one other thing I always suspected Didio had up his sleeve was the Watchmen reboot.  Frankly, I'm shocked he cashed that in so early, but it'll keep DC in the spotlight for a while longer as the long game of the DCNu plays out.

Its a shame.  For the last seven years or so, DC actively became much more about managing their continuity than doing what Marvel was doing whilst beating the crap out of DC, and that was working to build a cohesive Marvel U.  Perhaps too cohesive, as I quit reading Marvel once it felt like I had to read too many ancillary books to keep up with their major events, even as they were running the prices of their titles to ridiculous levels.

What DC hasn't worked to do is cultivate talent or work to build loyalty to any of their characters.  How could they expect for anyone to begin to understand or like Superman with how many reboots in the last decade and more than a year of Superman comics in which he wasn't even in his own titles (see:  New Krypton) and then a year where he failed to appear in Action while walking the Earth in Superman?*

Its just... dumb.  And it reeks of bad logic, a lack of  leadership and vision, poor understanding of character and story, and a disregard for the audience you're courting.

I understand sales are still okay for DC.  I expect that many, like myself, were going to give DC six months on a lot of books.  But I also know DC did manage to pull in a lot of new readers with the effort, at least pulling over Marvel readers who weren't necessarily hyped on DC.  No telling if it'll last, but what I would say is this:

I remember the 90's.  I remember the short sighted silliness that went with Image's first wave, some of Marvel's excesses that put the company in bankruptcy, junk like the Malibu books and the undeniably bad wave of exploitative comics that gave comics its bubble.  Stuff that individual, vocal internet folks will still wax rhapsodic about, the way you do not want to get me started on The Heckler.  But none of that stuff ended up working for the longterm even if it momentarily gave some folks a pay day or heyday.

But its not a longterm strategy.  And you can feel the gears turning and popping from behind the scenes in every issue of every DC book.  That shouldn't be the case.

What concerns me is how much the content being created reminds me of that period, a period in which, if I can be honest, I didn't read superhero books all that much.

Also - this is it, I suspect.  This is the DCU that these guys really, really thought the DCU should be.  This is what multiple crises couldn't produce, One Years Later, soft reboots, and pants on an Amazon couldn't muster.  This is the new state of the DCU, and while in many ways it looks familiar, there's also a bit of a "oh, that's it?" sort of feel to it all.  "I thought you would, you know, at least paint the walls.  Yes, I see you removed the Kents.  Sure.  But...  yeah.  I don't quite get what you're doing with that yet...  Five years?  You'll tell us later?  Oh.  Okay.  We have to guess until you can think of what fills in the blanks?  Ah.  I see."

I'm patient.  I can wait for the next reboot.

*oddly, Roberson's wrap-up of JMS's clumsy mess of a comic turned out to be some of the best Superman comics of the past 15 years.


Gerry said...

I think the big difference between what they are doing and what was done in the 90's is that back then, the focus was on artists, with almost an open disdain for writers. Now we have writers who are actually respected and as a result we get actual content beyond pretty pictures. The good thing about the reboot is that there's a wide range of books. But yeah, soon, there's going to be another big change coming. I'm guessing there will be a major shift to non-superhero books. We probably won't have multiple Superman and Batman titles. We'll see more sci-fi books instead, Ironically, Image is building up a really nice stable of books over there. So, maybe it is just like the 90's.

The League said...

I will argue that! (here goes)

The 90's was also the breeding ground of the writers movement, with Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, Neil Gaiman and others taking off at Vertigo and making their way into comics. The focus on just the art was what led to the collapse of those comics or their diminishing and continued publication beyond any sense of reason (see: Lady Death). But comics like Preacher, TransMet, Invisibles and especially Sandman are all still collected and respected.

I would actually say that Didio has greater disdain for writers than any of them if you look at the track record. I still think he screwed around with Morrison during Final Crisis, but gave in when he saw how Batman was selling. But he drove off Mark Waid, sidelined writers like Cornell and Roberson and seems to keep folks employed just because they toe the DC party line. I would argue that very, very few looked at the lineup of creators for DCNu and thought "these guys are an all star lineup of writing talent", and when I see Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee and Bob Harras' other buddies from the 90's who haven't really been working in comics (and nobody really missed them), then I can't agree that writers are king.

I don't think its a question at DC of "what's more important, writing or art?". I think its a question of "do not screw with the leadership or lose your job at the only game in town". So you hire writers who haven't been getting work and you can keep them on a short leash.

The migration of writers to IDW and Image (including, I might add, Grant Morrison) is something worth noting because it tells you that DC and Marvel aren't capable of supporting anything but the top-down editorial machinations, including at the once great and now flailing Vertigo.

Gerry said...

Touche on the writers of the 90's. I hadn't forgotten them. But the hype of the early 90's, was the artists. I'm thinking of the Image group. But yeah, Vertigo was a big deal as well.

Either way, I think what we're seeing from the whole industry right now, is a shift to a new generation of writers. The Snyders, Hickmans, Spencers, etc. Didio might hate writers, but he likes money. Leifeld has been shifted around already, probably because the numbers aren't working out. In time, it will all be sorted out. In the meantime, we still have some good books to read. I guess for me, it's not a big deal because I sort of stopped caring about continuity, partly for the same reason you stopped reading Marvel books. I'd rather have more variety than have to read multiple titles to get what's going on in one story.

The League said...

See, but I don't see that. I see a DC echoing stories from the old continuity in a watered-down form, that more or less requires that you know the old continuity (or never gave it up in books like the Bat-titles and Green Lantern, making up a huge chunk of the 52). I see them building a new continuity and using C-list writers to do it.

Scott Snyder is doing well at DC, as is Lemire, but how is it respecting the other writers when you cram The Court of Owls down the throat of the other bat-books because people sort of warmed to it in Snyder's title? Hasn't the cross-over always been the bane of the writer's existence at DC and Marvel?

I DO care about continuity because I don't like reading books in which nothing matters and I can remember what happened with a character 5x better than the people writing the book. Weisinger was actually far, far better about this than any DC editor of the last 30 years, but he did it while still telling multiple episodic stories per issue. Mort may have been a jerk, but he didn't fail at storytelling.

With the Infinite Universe, DC has the opportunity for continuity to not matter, but they do it on Earth 1 instead of spread out, and its meant that we were forced into 3 major reboots of the DCU between 2005 and 2012. That's... @#$%ed up. That's an F letter grade for success in other mother storytelling medium (its what killed "Dallas"!).

I'm not sure we DO have some good books to read. DC has made their books about their business decisions, and I can't separate what's on the page on a beat-by-beat read from what I can see as far as the machinations behind the scenes are doing to the stories (ex: watered down, limp cross-overs within 7 issues of all the DCNu? WTF?).

That said, I am picking up comics this week and I picked up comics last week. The thing is, I am literally now down to Superman and Action comics at this point as far DC monthlies go.

Gerry said...

You feel what you feel. I'm not gonna take that away from you. But at the end of the day, the only thing that does matter is the stories being told, not what's going on behind the scenes. I agree that spreading the court of owls around is just more of the same. For me, I don't really care. I'm only going to read certain creators. Snyder can do no wrong by me at the moment. Lemire as well. I'm enjoying Wonder Woman but Azzarello can sometimes lose steam. I still like Supergirl and Batman and Robin. But really, I barely notice what publishers I'm reading. It looks like I'm picking up more Image books lately though, and that might be a sign of things to come. The big two will always do things like this and go back and forth between reboots and what not. It's part of the game.

The League said...

Forgive the type-o here: That's an F letter grade for success in other mother storytelling medium (its what killed "Dallas"!).

That was supposed to read "That's an F letter grade for success in any other storytelling medium (its what killed "Dallas"!)." What a mess.

For the record, I will pick up trades of the following: Wonder Woman (I cannot quit her), Batman, Batwoman, Swampy, Animal Man. I may pick up Batman & Robin when it hits paperback.

But, YES: I am also looking much harder at Boom, Image, IDW, Dynamite and others and pick up a few things from all of them. And I am picking up Punisher, Cap and Daredevil collections. I DO think Boom! raised the game for everyone, and the smaller imprints are working hard to take advantage of the editorial quagmires at the Big 2.