Monday, September 24, 2007

Same old complaining, brand new example

While flipping through some Green Lantern comics in a search for images to illustrate some silly post or another, I was a little surprised to see this:


You know what that is? It's part of an extensive two-page timeline chronicling every significant event in the history of the Green Lantern franchise, going all the way back to the dawn of the Oan race (ten billion years ago) and stretching all the way into the 58th Century. It's from 1998’s Green Lantern Secret Files and Origins #1, and compiled and written by Scott Beatty, a very talented comics writer who’s pulled a ton of this sort of research-oriented duty, and is currently providing the back-up origins in Countdown.

I knew JLA Secret Files and Origins #1 had a League-specific timeline (written by Phil Jimenez), as did New Gods Secret Files and Origins #1 (John Byrne). I'm not sure, but is it possible that these timelines were included in each of the first round of Secret Files and Origins specials? I don’t have ‘em, but Superman, Batman, Flash and Wonder Woman also had specials that year.

Either way, even if it's just those three, when coupled with the timeline at the end of Zero Hour, the post-Crisis history of the DC Universe is pretty rigorously laid out, in easily accessible books. (Certainly if my own longboxes have them, these timelines have to be floating around DC HQ too, right?)

As I've ranted and raved about pretty much non-stop since, I found the continuity rejiggering of Infinite Crisis* kind of galling because having a second continuity house cleaning Crisis is counterproductive (essentially de-streamlining the original, making the fictional universe unfriendly to newcomers and diehards alike) but, more so, because the specific changes didn’t seem particularly well thought out, or even agreed upon.

Over a year later, what they are exactly, and how they effect the characters and settings and stories is largely still up in the air. Certainly next to nothing has been done with those changes, which would have at least made the case for the changes. But, say, it didn’t give us Wonder Woman: Year One or a new Secret Origin of the Justice League or anything.

The big changes were trumpeted in IC itself—Wonder Woman founded the League again, Batman caught his parents’ murderer again, Clark Kent was Superboy again (despite the fact that DC apparently can’t use that name).

But I've yet to see any of these either explored or exploited for the sake of new stories.

Wonder Woman being a founder has only been touched on as background noise in Brad Metlzer's JLoA, where he stuck her in some flashbacks she otherwise wouldn’t have been in.

The Batman collar of Joe Chill hasn't been mentioned again since IC. Unless resolving that issue was supposed to be part of the motivation for Batman being slightly less of a paranoid psychotic asshole now, which lets some of the steam out of the character development he received previously in IC.

The tweaks of the Superman origin has just been hinted at, again as background noise in a Metlzer story and in coy musings over whether or not Superman would ever execute someone in Superman #666. What’s demonstrably changed has been laughingly minor—Jor-El had a beard now, maybe?

Beyond those changes, exactly as I've phrased them, as broad and unspecific as "Wonder Woman was a founder" may sound, nothing's been done to hammer out any of the details, or even seemingly agreed upon. Even a simple matter, like whether Wonder Woman found the League instead of Black Canary, or in addition to her.

This 52 back-up origin implies that Wonder Woman was there but Canary was not. According to this 52 back-up origin of the League, the First Five were still the First Five, and Trinity were said to come later, though they’re also called “co-founders.” Brad Meltzer’s JLoA has Wonder Woman there instead of Canary, but then it also mistakes Aquaman II for Aquaman I, and perpetrated the conclusion of “The Lightning Saga.” Black Canary implies the two women were both there at the beinning, while the most recent JLA Classified issue, the one kicking off “The Ghosts of Mars” story, has Wonder Woman present for a cameo by the heroes that would form the League, but not Canary.

The overall impression is that no one at DC really knows what the history of their universe is anymore, and that the canonical history of what stories “count” and which do not, which was carefully managed, at times maniacally so, over a course of decades isn't really important anymore. As an editorial and creative entity, the company seems to be just thrashing and flailing about out of sheer desperation, flying by the seat of its collective, metaphorical pants.

Now, when I argue about this with myself, as I've done here in front of you guys, like, dozens of times already, I like to point out to myself that, "Hey, maybe continuity doesn't matter. Maybe great stories is all that matters, and DC editorial has made a conscious decision to emphasize individual stories over collective history."

That’s a legitimate worldview, or “universeview,” I guess, for DC editorial to take.

But DC's storytelling doesn't reflect that decision at all, and not just because the quality is so often lacking. Take a look at just at Countdown, and a few of stars of DC’s biggest, best-selling and, for better or worse, line-defining series.

When talking about Countdown: Arena earlier this month, I mentioned that Countdown player Captain Atom-as-Monarch is a character and story arc that's 16 years old, and has been spread out over the course of five miniseries and an ongoing during that time.

Eclipso? See 1992'sEclipso: The Darkness WIthin, the short-lived Eclipso monthly, the second-to-last volume of The Spectre ongoing, Identity Crisis, Day of Vengeance (and it's godawful Judd Winick/Ian Churchill lead-in story from the Super-titles) and now Countdown To Mystery.

Jimmy Olsen? He's exhibiting powers, knowledge and relationships from before Crisis On Infinite Earths, so we're talking the Jimmy Olsen adventures of the 1950's through early '80s here.

Donna Troy? See dozens of stories spread through several Titans titles, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, DC Presents: The Return of Donna Troy, and Crisis.

Jason Todd? There's seminal Batman arc "A Death in the Family” from the 1980s, yearlong Batman story arc "Under the Hood," and maybe "Hush" and an arc of Nightwing (Or are we all just pretending the Bruce Jones-written Nightwing run never happened?)

That’s just some of the main players in a single DC ongoing. Clearly the company hasn’t chucked the idea that their stories need to continue from previous stories, only that they need to agree amongst themselves and with their readers as to what previous stories there are, as the rejiggerings constantly shift what’s part of the DCU’s canonical history and what isn’t.

Essentially, the company wants to tell continuity-dense stories based on trivia spread across decades, but they don’t want to define and master that trivia.

And, to get back to my point, that’s what made seeing these old Secret Files & Origins timelines so frustrating.

It would have been so easy for Dan Didio and some high muckety-muck editors to meet with some of their bigger, world-building writers and talk about the direction of the fictional universe, in the process busting out photocopied versions of all these timelines and simply crossing out a line here, writing a character name in there.

If they weren’t completely overhauling continuity in their rejiggering, but simply tweaking some details (More of a Zero Hour than a Crisis on Infinite Earths), then this wouldn’t even take much work. After the changes were decided on, Scott Beatty or Phil Jimenez or a freaking intern could take a red pen to these timelines and retype them for future reference.

For example, Jimenez’s JLA timeline covers the ten years of DCU time that passed from the formation of the League to the reformation as the Big Seven, dream team line-up under Grant Morrison and company. It’s a damn thorough two pages, slotting every line-up change and seminal event—death, marriage, new HQ, company-wide crossover—along the time line, squeezing at least a brief mention every single JLA story in there.

Updating it would mean merely adding two or three years (“One Year Later” and the year or so that probably passed since The Watchtower was built on the moon), summarizing the last volume of JLA, and then making whatever changes to history occurred.

The first sentence that says, “Justice League of America forms (with Martian Manhunter, Flash [Barry Allen], Green Lantern [Hal Jordan]…)” could either have “Black Canary II” replaced with “Wonder Woman,” or “Wonder Woman” added. There. Question solved, problem resolved.

DC didn’t even have to publish these updates, so long as the editors and writers were all apprised of them. Although, publishing them in Secret Files and Origins specials or annuals or something would have been smart. Imagine a JLoA Secret Files and Origins #1, with a new time line, a Meltzer written ten-page story, lots of filler material, and pin-ups by Meltzer’s buddies and admirers in the industry, with text letting new readers know things like who the hell “Jeckie” from the future is, or why anyone should give a shit about Geo-Force or whatever. Looking at how every other comic with the words “Justice” and “Meltzer” on it sold over the course of the last year, I’m pretty sure a SF&O special, even one with precious little Meltzer-created content, would have done pretty well for DC. And, if it included an updated timeline, a lot of fan rage would be quelled, and a lot of future errors by writers and editors would have been prevented at the outset.




* Well, in actuality, the rejiggering wasn't even a single, clean, definable event in a single book, but a slow, agonizing process spread over several books over the course of several years. There were the Superboy punches leading up to it, which rejiggered a few isolated aspects, like whether Max Lord was an evil human being or a decent cyborg, and whether Jason Todd was dead or alive, there was the creation of “New Earth” in ICand the alterations of the time lines of all 52 Earths in the new, unknown multiverse that was revealed in 52 #52.

7 comments:

googum said...

I have the Batman Secret Files with the timeline...somewhere, and it's helpful and interesting. But man, did a lot of stuff happen 'last' year! Best guess, everything from Knightfall to Batquake happens in roughly a year, Batman-time. Busy.

sudoku said...

I am a huge DC continuity buff, but the minor "rejiggering" of Infinite Crisis hasn't bothered me at all, and I actually prefer DC's editorial decision not to define anything unless necessary.

The original Crisis included lots of changes for change's sake. For example, Superboy was removed from continuity arbitrarily. Jason Todd was changed from an acrobat to a street thug for no particular reason. When other writers wanted to reference these stories or concepts, huge problems arose, and it's not like the changes had been made for good reason. Even Duela Dent was briefly removed from continuity for no good reason (she had been retired for years), until another writer showed up and wanted to use her. What was the point of taking her out to begin with? It didn't lead to better stories - it was just a line on a chart.

The whole point of the Infinite Crisis rejiggering seems to be to open up almost everything for writers to reference, if they so desire. Beast Boy and the Doom Patrol, for example, now have memories of multiple histories. The changes to Superman and Wonder Woman's histories open up "lost stories" that can now be referenced and expanded upon. (I have no idea why the change was made to Batman's history.)

I'll admit the Black Canary discrepancy is weird (and the only change that's really causing problems). I'd love to see a silver age style cover with Wonder Woman and Black Canary throwing blows with some sort of headline announcing a fight to determine who gets founder status.

(At any rate, JLA Year One is definitely incompatible with the Meltzer flashbacks, as Year One focuses on the fact that Superman, Batman, and the rest of the world see the new League as amateurs (until they [spoiler!] save the world in the final issue). If Batman and Superman (and Wondy) were founders, the story makes no sense. I prefer to think of Year One as an equally valid alternate timeline, but one that is distinct and separate from the current timeline.)

As for those Secret Files and Origins timelines, they're awesome, but they're not as clear cut as you might think. They make sense on their own, but compare the Batman timeline to the Teen Titans timeline. In the Batman timeline, Dick Grayson is Robin for only about 2 years, whereas in Titans he is Robin from age 12-19. Try to line up the Titans timeline with the Justice League timeline and the Titans are founded 3 or 4 years earlier than the League!

The truth is, when you try to map out everything on a chart, it doesn't work. Why make an arbitrary decision on a timeline, for example, saying that Superman never met Orion, if, a year down the road, someone wants to write a story referencing their first meeting in JLofA? Just let the next writer to use those characters make that decision.

I guess I see the Infinite Crisis changes as an attempt to open up possibilities rather than close them off.

PS: love the blog!

snell said...

Caleb--thank you for crystallizing my thoughts better than any of my violent rants have ever seemed to do.

Re: the Superman changes, yeah, they have been referenced. Last year's Superman annual had him meet Mon-El and put him in the phantom zone, and various comments during the abysmal Lightening Saga told us that Clark did spend some time as a youth in the 30th century with the Legion.

Sudoku: your point is well taken, but there is a difference between allowing writers freedom for future stories, and allowing writers to directly contradict current continuity with neither explanation or consequence.

Sure, we shouldn't forestall tellings of past stories with rigid declarations. But once we've established a fact (eg, Aquaman I is dead) you don't casually ignore that fact (JLA #12), either because you don't care what other writers did or can't be bothered to look it up. This is, for better or worse, a shared creative universe, that demands at least some respect on consistency amongst your creative teams. It's the equivalent of having Bobby Ewing turn up in the shower, and having the whole last season not really happen.

Unfortunately, DC's editorial policy seems to be to let "name" writers do whatever they want, without worrying about continuity, and they'll just declare it as "correct" later. It's wiki-nuity. Dan Didio continues to try and cover for Meltzer by insisting that it was Aquaman II in JLA #12, even though that makes no sense.

Contrast that with this example I stumbled upon while re-reading recently: Secret Origins #14 (1987) presented the backgrounds of Suicide Squads past and present. Well, they made a post-Crisis goof: they showed Wonder Woman in a panel with the 1950's JSA. Someone pointed that out in a letter (remember those?) in Suicide Squad #4. The response? They admitted they goofed.

Wow. I guarantee that wouldn't happen today, even if they still had letters pages. They'd concoct an elaborate story about why it wasn't a goof, maybe even spin-off a mini-series about it to justify they were right. Or they'd stonewall and insist it wasn't a goof, that now WW was in the JSA, and "don't worry about an explanation, you annoying nerds."

Anonymous said...

Gotta admit, I enjoy the blog - but these constant posts about continuity goofs have become the equivalent of listening to someone argue on his cellphone about how vastly inferior Diet Coke is to Coke Zero. I'm sure it matters, but it can't be worth the flying spittle.

Save those minutes and draw us another Ice Cream Social!

Patrick said...

The point is that we shouldn't be arguing about continuity. It wouldn't take very long for some sort of spreadsheet with pertinent facts, so any writer/artist can check on the current status of a character, what they should be wearing, etc. It's all the laziness in regards to continuity. (Especially Aquaman in JLA #12!!! Meltzer lost all credibility, the little he still had after the Lightning Saga anyway).

Anonymous said...

Meh. I'm sure having each story and series vetted by Continuity Accountants armed with spreadsheets and flow charts would please some of the more...er...invested fans, but I doubt it would lead (ultimately) to increased sales or even (dare I say it) more creative or better-written comics.

Hell, I'll refer to my last Anonymous Post - there are a thousand blogs pointing out and discussing all the little bloopers and continuity errors, making mountains from these mole hills. But how many Justice League Ice Cream Socials have we seen? I'd rather the time and energy in comics (as in this blog) be spent in producing something entertaining and thought provoking.

...yes, I'm aware it's not an either/or proposition, but I find it takes a certain quality of attention to get all riled up about this issue. Past a certain point, the return on that emotional investment (Diet Coke! Diet Coke!) disappears.

Caleb said...

Googum,

Yeah, I think he was more than entitled to take a year-off after IC. Like, no sooner has he recovered fro a paralyzing spinal injury then his city is plunged into a post-apocalyptic no man's land.




Sudoku,

Thanks for the response, you raise some intresting points. I wasn't reading DC comics prior to COIE, so I never experienced that frustrating period firsthand. In retrospect, it sure seems like that rejiggering was cleaner and clearer then the latest one, but that could be a seeing-the-past-through-rosy-glasses kind of thing.

The changes that bug me the most are the Wonder Woman/JLA ones, simply because that entails throwing out a lot of good stories and replacing them with not so good ones. The most irritating changes of all appeared before IC though, in the form of the Superboy punching Max Lord evil or Jason Todd back to life though.



Patrick,

Yeah, like I said, even if we don't get our own copies of spreadsheets and timelines and model sheets and what not, at the very least, you'd think, like, Eddie Berganza would, just so he could be like, "Oh yeah Brad, looks like Aquaman actually died two months ago. That other Aquman is actually his son and he's never even met Martain Manhunter."



Anon.,

Well, I did try to telegraph the repetive, probably annoying nature of this post in the heading.

I doubt I'll stop ranting and raving about DC continuity any time soon, as this blog is an outlet for that, sparing my neighbors from hearing me screaming about Aquaman and Wonder Woman to myself, but your point is noted.

Next art-related post is scheduled for Friday night. The ice cream social won't return till next summer, but it will be twice as big and twice as often (my paln is do every leaguer ever, and I think I have about 60 more to cover).