Saturday, November 03, 2007

Why I'm not reading Death of the New Gods

I really like Mister Miracle and Big Barda and Orion and, as a glance around the joint will attest, I'm awfully fond of the DC Universe in general. You know what one of my favorite non-Jack Kirby Fourth World stories of all time is? Cosmic Odyssey, written by Jim Starlin. And yet, I just can't bring myself to try an issue of Death of the New Gods, an eight-part series written (and drawn) by Jim Starlin, which promises to close out the saga of Kirby's New Gods characters and give the original Mister Miracle his first extended shot in a spotlight since...when, 1996?

Why is that?

I think a large part of it is that Death Of... is part of the larger, line-wide story DC's been telling lately, mostly through Countdown. That's where New Gods and other Fourth World hangers-on have been seen getting killed for the last six months or so, although a few of the New Gods characters have also played pretty big roles in Amazons Attack!, a book so bad I still can't believe DC published it. And part of it is just how poorly DC's handled the New Gods characters for the last few years. I remember during convention season in '05, reading Dan Didio answering questions about the relative lack of New God-age or Darkseid in Infinite Crisis, and the intimation was that there was a plan. In fact, the characters did seem to be missing altogether for a while in the DCU, conspicuous in their absence, and then all of a sudden they were everywhere again, with little thought to why or wherefore.

The Grant Morrison-penned Seven Soldiers: Mister Miracle series was ignored just about everywhere, and it was unclear how it fit into the larger DCU (Were Shiloh Norman and Scott Free both Mister Miracle now, or what?). Jeph Loeb was constantly using Darkseid in Superman/Batman, and it appears he and Orion and others are in the current arc of the now Loeb-less series. Metron and others popped up in Blue Beetle. Lightray was in Kurt Busiek's "Camelot Falls" storyline in Superman. Big Barda joined Oracle's team in Birds of Prey. The Female Furies were in issues of Hawkgirl and Firestorm the same week, looking completely different in each sereis. Countdown is and has been completely lousy with Fourth World characters, including the death of Lightray early event that was pretty much ignored everywhere else.

In short, DC seems to have a plan, but to not be following that plan all that well, which is something I as a reader find extremely frustrating, a worst-of-both-worlds kind of scenario, where you get the sense you're reading about editorially mandated plot points jammed clumsily into stories where they don't really fit, and the creators responsible for trying to make the mandates work are kind of flying by the seat of their pants, serving someone else's plot rather than a story they want to tell.

Beyond that, however, is the fact that death in the DCU has been so devalued, that the idea of a huge chunk of that fictional universe being (clearly temporarily) destroyed couldn't be any less dramatic or appealing to me. I mean, they brought Ice back to life, it's not like they're going to leave Jack frigging Kirby creations dead. They brought Jason Todd back to life, without much of a plan or story to tell with him (Under The Hood, Countdown, a cameo in World War III, that one issue of Teen Titans and that one Nightwing arc don't cratively justify undoing portions of the last 20 years worth of Batman comics, do they?). Why would anyone believe that they're actually going to permanently kill off the New Gods?

My disinterst is further compounded by the fact that DC is being so upfront about how meaningless and unimportant Death of... and the related Countdown books really are. I mean, they're calling the book Countdown to Final Crisis; other titles are called Countdown to Mystery and Countdown to Adventure. How about just some mystery, adventure and a final crisis? Why must we readers shell out time and (a lot) of money just to mark time until Final Crisis?

If the creators of Final Crisis, Grant Morrison and J.G. Jones, were at all involved in Countdown/Death of the New Gods, the investment of time, money and interest might make more sense. But they're not; Morrison's not co-showrunning Countdown, and Death of... isn't "based on concepts and ideas by Grant Morrison" (as the credits for Metal Men, Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters and The All-New Atom read). Starlin, Paul Dini and the small army of people involved with the Countdown story are merely moving pieces around the board, getting ready for Morrison to do whatever he wants in Final Crisis, something that will almost certainly involve a continuity reboot of some kind—at the very least, it will involve resurrecting Barda, Lightray and the other major New Gods, if they're not brought back to life before then.

Didio promises as much in this week's "DC Nation" column: "And while we may be closing the book on the Fourth World, fear not: soon, very soon, I will be able to tell you more about Final Crisis and the coming of the Fifth World."

Which reminded me of this seven-year-old comic, also by Morrison:

Check out Metron's dialogue in the second panel in particular. "When the Fourth World universe of us New Gods is made complete and put away the gods of the Fifth World will arise from this planetary cradle."

The return of the New Gods in Final Crisis (again, if not sooner) is as inevitable as their deaths in a book entitled Death of the New Gods, which makes watching that death not seem all that dramatic, unless you're the sort who wants to know how they die, or what a dark Mister Miracle looks like, or how well-suited Starlin is to draw Kirby characters (not as well-suited as Mignola, from what I've seen).

Of course, knowing the ending before you get there is endemic to superhero comics, isn't it? For the most part, when The Joker breaks out of Arkham, we can be fairly certain he's going to fail to kill Batman, and get sent back to his cell by the time the story's over. When Lex Luthor develops a new device to finish Superman once and for all, we know full well that Superman will survive and triumph over his foe. But we read anyway, interested in how it turns out the way we know it will end up turning out. And, while The Joker won't kill Batman, he did kill Robin that one time, and cripple Batgirl that other time. Luthor was elected President of the United States, something readers didn't see coming. At their best, superhero can still surprise jaded, cynical, adult readers who grew up reading them, which is why the comics industry, as represented by The Big Two, continues to focus almost exclusively on catering to jaded, cynical adult readers who grew up reading them.

The problem with Death of the New Gods, I think, is not just how predicatable its ending is (they all die and, eventually, all come back), but just how prosaic everything leading up to it seems. Maybe Starlin has brougth the cool and cosmic craziness missing in the earlier parts of the story that I've read (In Countdown, Birds of Prey, etc.), but so far we've just seen an unknown killer (who looks like Infinity Man), blowing holes in people's chests (I was struck by the fact that this week's JSoA features an unknown killer stalking and killing minor DC characters. And that the first JSoA arc had the exact same set-up. And that the first JSA arc, when James Robinsin and David Goyer relaunched it in 1999, had the exact same plot as well).

Even worse? Countdown gave an explanation for what lies on the other side of the Source Wall.

In Kirby's mythology, that was a pretty big game-ending mystery, right up there with the exact formula of the Anti-Life Equation. The other side of the Source Wall was some big secret the gods were always trying to discern, but it could never be breached, and those that tried and failed were imprisoned forever in it (Although some, like Ares and Darkseid would escape). Coutndown has come out and told us what it is. Not ultimate knowledge, not God, not a tantalizing never-to-be-revealed Maguffin, but just the multiverse. If Darkseid had ever breached the wall, he simply would have found himself on Earth-15, the place where Jason Todd became Batman. Or Earth-3, the world that's like "Earth-2" in the Anti-Matter Universe or like Earth-3 in the old, pre-Crisis multiverse, only slightly different.

That's it. That's the big mystery. Man, would Metron and Darkseid be pissed if they found away around the wall and ended up meeting Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew for their troubles.

What's lame about this, other than solving a mystery posed by Kirby that was better left unsolved (It's like when we finally found out who killed Laura Palmer; after that, there's nowhere to go but down) is that a) It doesn't make any goddam sense (The Source Wall and the Source obviously existed long before the current iteration of the multiverse, which is about a year old at this poing) and b) Jason Todd, Donna Troy, Kyle Rayner, Good Monitor, Bad Monintor, Captain Atom, Monarch, Forerunner and apparently Ray Palmer have all been jumping around the Multiverse, somehow crashing the Source Wall without even realizing it, and thus doing something that Darkseid himself has never been able to do, no?

Why is DC turning something as crazy and potent as Kirby's Fourth World saga into such mediocre super-comics? I think I have a clue. In reading Didio's column this week, I was really struck by this part, in which he talks about how he first discovered Kirby's Fourth World comics:

I remember picking up my first MISTER MIRACLE; it had an incredible two-page spread where our hero was about to be crushed in a pair of giant pliers. Certain death, but Scott Free wasn't called the greatest escape artist for no reason. No sooner than the cylinder he placed himself in was crushed, he was found standing and smiling behind his two closest friends (and no, I still have no idea how he made it out of there alive). Okay, as silly as it sounds, I was hooked.

Did you hear that? The "Okay, as silly as it sounds" part? Man, it doesn't sound silly at all, and to kind of confess sheepish embarassment at it is tantamount to confessing not really getting what it was that hooked you (and plenty of others, young and old, in the first place).

It doesn't sound silly; it sounds awesome!

If a pair of giant pliers sounds silly to you, how are you going to take seriously a planet called "Apokalips" With a K, ruled by an evil god named "Darkseid," which has the likes of Vermin Vunderbarr on it? How can you take seriously the Black Racer, or an escape artist named Scott Free? That "silliness"—or gonzo, stream-of-conscious pop mythology made on the fly—is what makes the Fourth World characters, like just about everything else Kirby created, so appealing in the first place. It's not something to feel guilty for liking, and made darker, more adult and more realistic in order to feel less guilty about; it's something to be celebrated, magnified and multiplied.

It's just six words, but, whether he meant it or not, I think Didio let slip one of the main problems with the current state of the DCU. One of its main architects and caretakers, the one behind so many of the other architects and caretakers, too often forgets what he liked most about it himself as a kid, and wants to make the universe he oversees something that would appeal to him now, if he'd never read comics as a kid. He seems to regard DC Comics as they were back in the day as a guilty pleasure. But what's there to feel guilty about? Why can't they just be a pleasure?


Jacob T. Levy said...

Well said!

I've never really cared about the 4th World-- the gonzo pop mythology stuff left me entirely cold, and I've pretty much always just seen the New Gods as souped-up aliens with goofy names. I liked Scott and Barda (and Knockout) as characters and could accept the Fourth World as their backstory. But as frontstory, with a handful of exceptions (Great Darkness Saga, Rock of Ages, the Suicide Squad on Apokalips, and the early Byrne Superman on Apokolips), I always found the whole thing ridiculous.


But if you're gonna use 'em, use 'em as what they are. I'd rather have them stay in the background waiting for a very rare appearance in the DCU, but still let them be the kinds of characters they are and the 4th World the kind of setting that it is. Putting the New Gods through their own round of "darkest before the dawn" Identity Crisis-style misery is just tedious.

John said...

It seems to be from my reading of that page you posted from Countdown #26 that there's more to the Source Wall than being just a barrier between multiverses. C. Everett Monitor refers to the Source as something that can be compromised, so the Source must be something that is separate and distinct from any of the multiverses, something that remains unknown and is possibly unknowable. There's also the question of whether the Source Wall is unique to the mainstream DC Universe, or whether each multiverse has its own Source Wall, or even the mind-bending possibility that all the multiverses share the same Source Wall, which is intriguing but frankly beyond my capacity to visualize. So the question of what lies behind the Wall remains a viable one, in my opinion.

Adam said...

Man, that Countdown page...even if that was the official Source Wall explination, is there any need for it to be so confusing and...boring? I mean really, I almost found myself skimming and it was only one page.