Wednesday, October 7, 2015

TL;DR: Dark Knight III, Dan Didio's DC Comes Full Circle and Being Okay with Frank Miller in 2015

To recap, the three tricks in Didio's book have been (1) to revisit already well-established and popular works in comics and (2) the universe-wide reboot.  The third (numero three) trick is one Marvel has taken a real shine to, and that's keeping one name on the marquee with replacing the character that built the brand and/ or completely changing that main character.  But I'm not getting into that one today.*

We've seen tricks numbers 1 and 2 over and over in ways I cannot believe haven't become a punchline on the internets, but the contents of the actual comics isn't really what's on the minds of the comics internets on any given day.

Bam!  Zap!  Pow!  Comics aren't just for kids!

DC Comics has been trying to plug the dam when it comes to sales since about 12 months after the New 52 reboot, the atomic bomb version of the trick #2 rebooting, revamping, universe retouching he'd been doing since Infinite Crisis led to One Year Later just over 9 years ago, and which he just revisited with Convergence and the seemingly disastrous "DC YOU".**

In the 1980's, DC's bold direction under Jeanette Kahn and Pual Levitz allowed for a creator-driven environment to produce a few seminal works of comic-dom that truly did alter the landscape and bring capes and tights comics along with the audience as they should have aged out.  Superhero comics weren't in college classrooms as assigned material in 1985, but by 1995, at least Watchmen was known worldwide, and for more than 20 years, the comic was held up in "best books of the last X number of years" lists and found mentions in magazines your parents would read when doing that sort of thing was something humans still did.

I still find it baffling that anyone actually bought any of the Before Watchmen (Trick #1) stuff that DC put out in the wake of the 2009 Watchmen film (which, by 2015 standards, was neither very good and a bit of a financial disaster with a worldwide gross of $185 million).  What weirded me out was that the comic was always about Moore's writing and Gibbons' art.  It was always intended to be a self-contained, singular work, and my joy for the thing never made me want to see a Watchmen that was by anyone else, or, indeed, more Watchmen.  I didn't need a universe of any hack writer DC wanted to trot out to try it, and everything I wanted to know about Watchmen I felt had been placed between the covers and was the intended frame of the creators, two meticulous folks at that. 

Didio has overseen multiple Crises at DC (Trick #2), rebooted the universe in soft and hard ways multiple times in the past 10-12 years, and has possibly exhausted this stand-by with the disastrous Convergence event which left no one happy, from readers to accountants.  DC managed to alieante their new readership and utterly failed to capitalize on the potential for drawing on old readers with it's usual short-sighted decision making, now accelerated to the cancellation of multiple series seemingly before the second issue has hit the stands (the pre-orders don't lie, I guess).  

Which brings us back to DC's need for a hit.

After Batman: Holy Terror became a political liability for DC and Miller walked off with the book to get published elsewhere, I'd be curious to know exactly how outrageous Miller's demands really were in order for him to take WB's filthy lucre.  He basically was unable to finish Holy Terror at DC and he basically got bored and left All Star Batman and Robin once Hollywood came calling.  But Didio, like some sweaty studio chief from a sappy movie, no doubt wiping his brow with a handkerchief, looking at hapless ol' Jim Lee across the table and muttering to himself "we need a hit... we need a hit..."

And so they made whatever deal they needed to in order to try to recapture some of that afterglow from Miller's mid-80's opus, The Dark Knight Returns, a book that kind of f'd up the comic book industry just as much as it kicked superhero books in the ass and showed them what they could be doing (a lesson that 99.9% of the industry took as "so, we gotta make our characters real tough guys who don't take no shit from no one!").

DC is going absolutely bananas with this one, trying to swing for the same sales fences Marvel has enjoyed with their Star Wars launch.  There will be hundreds of covers, tie-ins, etc...  We're not just selling one copy per potential customer, we're selling 5.  And I suspect, given how the hype machine works at DC, it'll work.

That is, if the current crop of comic readers aren't already ready to give DC the finger on this one.  Didio hasn't always been the best at figuring out what would actually get kids into comic shops (note, he really likes writing stuff like Metal Men and OMAC and other stuff that's at DC that hasn't ever actually been popular).  And, that market DC brought in with the New 52, they don't either care or understand the impact of Miller and Dark Knight Returns.  The kids kind of actively hate that comic and everything that Miller tries to do, draw or say.

The irony of DC trying to cash in on the comic that brought my generation along on comics when we should have outgrown them as kiddie-faire hasn't escaped me.  After all, Didio and Lee are the guys who happily took me by the shoulder and politely kept walking me toward the door as I tried to stick around at the comics party.  A huge number of the folks my age aren't around anymore for the event, and if they are, I'm not sure we're the "let's collect all 150 covers" audience that DC has cultivated since 2011.  We're kind of the "wait for the trade" guys at this point.

A lot of this is my impression, and I still expect sales to be extraordinary, but you still have to wonder.

When it comes to Miller himself, a couple of people sent me an i09 article where you can see Miller's own art including Superman's winkus ensconced in the red shorts. People want me to be mad or something, but...  why?

True deal:  All Star Batman may have made me a little uncomfortable, but I also liked it for what it was in the same way I like David Byrne covering Whitney Houston or Death Metal Christmas songs.  If you seriously got hung up on Batman using swears, or that maybe the idea that Batman's life is a tad unorthodox, I think you're kind of missing the point of what Miller is trying to do - and that's draw these characters out to their logical extremes instead of letting them feel like safe, dad-like characters.  When, really, all of these people would have to be half-insane to do what they're doing.  They're not the types to reign in their dysfunction and express it on message boards, they're people crazy enough to put on colorful suits and go force their viewpoint on the world by hitting things.

I may not agree with or particularly embrace that interpretation (and Miller and I have very different politics), but it's a lot more valid use of paper and ink to explore the characters than the 1000th mystery revealed about Gotham or the Wayne Family that we didn't know before!   Sorry, Court of Owls fans.  I don't want it all the time in my comics, but every once in a while, a good break down of the barriers is good for comics.  (example: The Dark Knight Returns).   And I sure care alot more about it that than the milky storytelling going on over in Superman where his identity is revealed.

Now, Miller may surprise absolutely no one by making a somewhat controversial comic, but in what I'd consider to be the faux-edgy world of comics of the past 5 - 10 years or so, a kick in the ass one direction or another would be welcome.  And sometimes that includes letting Miller run roughshod over your no-penis-outline expectations for a cover.  Seriously, when was the last time DC did anything half this interesting?

Now, I'm of course mildly wigged out by the name of the series and I am well aware this whole thing kind of stinks of fiasco.  The Master Race is not subtle in its connotations, and teaming him with Azzarello who sometimes seems like the kid who gets too excited at parties and winds up throwing up cake (you know, metaphorically) to begin with may be an odd fit for a creative team, and as the watchdog to keep the comic actually publishable, he may be an especially odd choice, but at least its not Warren Ellis.

But this is it.  This is literally the last version of Trick #1 I can think of Didio playing before he's forced to rip himself off or debase All Star Superman.  Dark Knight and Watchmen were the golden children of the DC publishing line, perennials that helped support their publishing line in thin times, and they've exhausted Watchmen.

Where to go from here?

As always, DC as a company continues to be far, far more interesting than their comics output.  Nowhere else can you see the internal forces at work so clearly as at DC as the company flails about to look like it's doing okay in a resurging marketplace while their titles fall further and further down the charts.  Their greatest creative and marketing triumph of the last few years seems to be letting crazy ol' Frank Miller back in to fart around with Batman again like he did 30 years ago.

We're trying to reclaim the lightning in a bottle.  Again.  Just as DC has done for 20 years.  Sure, they try new things, but it never takes too long before they remember DKR and Watchmen, and then they're right back there trying to reclaim 30 year old magic and cancelling anything and everything else, and regurgitating deconstruction rather than getting the point and moving on with those lessons in tow.

Goddamn.  It all just stinks of folks who've forgotten how to do what they're doing so much it hurts to watch them go.

*trick #4 is letting Grant Morrison be Grant Morrison and getting the hell out of the way and pretending like DC understands what it they're publishing when the last few things he did seemed like damming indictments of DC itself

**I wrote and deleted a column on the problems I saw with the "DC You" effort based on what DC seemed to think that meant, deciding it was too mean-spirited and just needed to give it a chance.  I think it was less than a week after I abandoned the post that I heard the thing was more of a fiasco than I'd have predicted and was already on the junk heap.


Stuart said...

Regarding your assertion that this is Didio's absolutely last nostalgia play: I expect before too long we'll be seeing a re-do of "Reign of the Supermen."

The League said...

You know.... They might. It would make a lot of sense as a way to bring Superman back in the New 52 with a more traditional status quo. But every time I think they'll do something like that, they don't, so... probably just four dudes punching each other over Metropolis while Superman sits in a grave somewhere.