Wednesday, September 15, 2010

In a genre built out of trivia, there’s no such thing as a trivial matter

I came across two news (“news”?) items on the Internet today that really sort of shocked and surprised me, to the extent that news/“news” items regarding shared universe super-comics can shock and surprise someone.

The first was an innocuous enough-seeming post hyping the bi-weekly limited series Justice League: Generation Lost on DC’s Source blog.

Those of you who read and remember my “Comic Shop Comics” posts will know that I’ve been reading and rather enjoying that series regularly, and having just read the eighth and ninth issues of it, it is now the Judd Winick series I have read the most consecutive issues of since…2005, when I read the issue of his Outsiders in which a victim of childhood sexual assault dispassionately began to beat a rapist to death after the rapist attempted to sell five-year-old Lian Harper into sex slavery (Don’t worry, Lean was saved, and lived…until she died in an earthquake five years later). That was the moment when whatever good will Barry Ween and Pedro and Me had generated began to get outweighed by the weight of Winick’s awful, awful superhero writing, and the dark, broken light bulb appeared over my head (cutting my scalp on its jagged edge), signifying the arrival of a bright idea—Hey, this guy writes awful, ugly comics, and I don’t have to read ‘em!

But I liked weekly(-ish) comics, and I liked the JLI characters so I tried Winick’s Justice League: Generation Lost #1. And it wasn’t bad. So I picked up #2, and have been proceeding with caution since. I’ve expected to start hating it at any moment all along, and thus haven’t added it to my pull-list at my local shop, but have been reading it off-the-rack, just waiting for it to plunge from not-that-bad to Why God, why?!

Is that point around the corner?

I don’t know. I didn’t really read Alex Segura’s post hyping the upcoming issue #11 on The Source very closely, I noticed it had a quote from editor Brian Cunningham and there was a pencils-only splash page of “Ice Unleashed” which looked fie, if not “amazing.”

My Blog@Newsarama colleague Troy Brownfield did read Segura’s post and Cunningham’s quote closely though, and noticed a problem, which he posted about here.

You can go read Troy’s post (don’t worry, it’s much shorter and less rambly than mine!), as it will make more sense in context, but the gist of it is that Cunningham refers to Ice’s initial introduction as the Super Friends series from the 1970s, where Ice was originally introduced as Icemaiden…and he notes that she had an absurd origin. (Above: The Icemaiden from the Super Friends comic book. Those comics, by the way, were non-canonical in terms of official DCU continuity)

Troy points out that the Icemaiden from Super Friends is a completely different character than Tora “Ice” Olafsdotter, from the Justice League comics. Icemaiden joined the Justice League after Tora/Ice’s death, appearing on the line-up immediately preceding the Grant Morrison/Howard Porter/John Dell team (Icemaiden appeared briefly in the “New World Order” arc of JLA, fleeing the Justice League satellite with her teammates as the disguised Hyper Clan destroyed it).

(Tora "Ice" Olafsdotter)

(Sigrid "Icemaiden" Nansen, being menaced by tentacles. Wait, surely I can find a less exploitive image of her than that somewhere on the Internet...)

(Hmm, on her knees and in chains probably isn't much better, huh?)

(So, um, this image of her falling out of her costume is the most heroic and dignified image of her I can find on the Internet. Well, at any rate, please note that she has blue skin. That's one good way to tell her apart from Tora/Ice, who does not have blue skin)

There’s some commentary from commenters at both The Source and Blog@ but, so far anyway, no one from DC has popped up to explain what’s going on.

Did Cunningham simply confuse when Ice made her first appearance? If that’s the case, then it doesn’t seem like a huge deal, just something kind of embarrassing for a dude who edits a book starring the character to bring up on his own. But since he mentions that character’s origin and the fact that Winick would be creating “a credible and tragic origin that doesn’t negate what we already know,” well, then it sounds like the stories are being confused, and that is a big deal.

See, Generation Lost’s entire premise is one of nostalgia and trivia, building on the narrative arc of these decades old characters’ fictional histories. It’s a next chapter of a group novel that’s already been written, and the old stuff is much less flexible. This is, after all, a series about a half-dozen characters popular from a 20+ year old comics run reuniting to deal with a threat that surfaced in a five-year-old (or so) series of event comics, which has been given new urgency by the last year or so’s worth of Green Lantern and Blackest Night comics. Take away exacting fealty to the plot points of past comics, and what are you left with in Generation Lost? Just some clichéd if readable superhero action-adventure scripting, some uneven, generally sub-par art, and some really nice Cliff Chiang covers.

In other words, not a whole lot.

Troy ends his post by asking if fans can keep this stuff straight, why can’t editors? It’s a fair question. I’ve always assumed there was a lot more to editing a DC comic book than simply knowing the characters and their histories extremely well, but man, this seems to suggest there’s less. (Even if you don’t trust Wikipedia or the Internet in such matters, there’s always the DC/DK-published The DC Comics Encyclopedia: The Definitive Guide to the Characters of the DC Universe. Flipping to the I’s, I see Ice and Icemaiden are both included, their entries complete with their first appearances, secret identities and origins).

Ignoring The Source suggestion that this might lead to a new costume (it looks like Ice’s tank top is exploding off in that image, part of which you can see above, and her neat-o page boy is turning into a pointy icicle afro), there are at least two other less-than-thrilling suggestions about the character’s possible future.

The first is the promise that the character will be going “from pensive, shy flower to elemental badass.” Perhaps this time will be different, but Ice was already darkened and bad-assened in the ‘90s, just before she was killed off in 1994, remaining dead and off the board until she was resurrected through a combination of magic and herbs or something in Birds of Prey in 2007, which coincidentally returned her to her JLI-era costume and personality.

In other words, “Dark Ice” didn’t really work out all that well for anyone. (Above: Dark Ice. You can tell she's getting edgier and more bad-ass by the amount of cleavage pictured)

The second is Cunningham’s reference to a possible new origin for Tora/Ice to replace or update her original, “absurd” origin.

What origin is that? Tora is a princess of a long lost race of magical Ice-people who live in a secret mountain homeland in Norway. That is, magical ice princess has magical ice powers. That’s hardly an “absurd” origin story, particularly by the standards of super-comics (Ice’s on-again, off-again boyfriend Guy Gardner’s origin, for example, is that he was chosen as the back-up Green Lantern for Hal Jordan in case Hal Jordan ever couldn’t be Green Lantern. Oh, and then he was a retroactively geneteically-engineered human/alien hybrid with the ability to transform his body parts into weird weapons via magic tattoos. And then he wasn’t anymore, because that was stupid.)

By the way, the last time Judd Winick attempted to fix an origin story that wasn’t the least bit broke? That would be the troubled 2006-2008 limited series Trials of Shazam!, which effectively left the Captain Marvel and the Marvel family so toxic that they’ve been barely touched in the year since it wrapped up, as if DC was letting the radioactivity of Winick’s changes wear off.

So no, I’m not very excited about the future of Justice League: Generation Lost.


But enough DC Universe trivia, let’s look at some real world trivia: Quick, which Ohio city beginning with the letter C did Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster collaborate on Superman in?

You did say Cleveland, right?

Because J. Michael Straczynski said Columbus in this particular post in the long, fairly healthy comments thread about one retailers disastrous attempts to try and use JMS’ Superman-walking-around storyline to promote Superman and comic in general while, naturally, selling some comics of his own.

If you haven’t read the story JMS was commenting on at all, please do—It’s one of those stories that is no doubt incredibly frustrating, even maddening, if you’re involved with it, but is actually kind of hilarious in a “Ha, ha, comics is soooooo fucked up” kind of way if you’re not.

Straczynski, by the way, really does know what city Siegel and Shuster did their Superman-making-up in, as he came back a little later down the thread to say it was just a stupid typo and to note that Ohio has far too many big cities that begin with the letter C (But, sadly, no Calebopolis…yet).

His mistake was enough to make me temporarily question everything I knew about Siegel, Shuster and Cleveland though, as I briefly entertained the possibility that JMS was right and my memory was wrong. Like, maybe they were born/grew up around Columbus and then moved north to Cleveland later…?

This sort of real-life trivia is perhaps a bit more important to me than it is to others, as I am a lifelong Ohio resident (Well, I went to college in Pennsylvania, but still…), and grew up east of Cleveland before relocating to Columbus for about a decade and then returning east of Cleveland again…I thought I knew my comics geography pretty well, and take a certain amount of pride in it.

I can forgive JMS the mistake though, as I’d be hard-pressed to name three big cities in many other states myself. I am pretty curious about Superman #703, the Superman-walks-around-Cincinnati issue, as from what JMS says Superman actually spends most of the time around Cleveland…?

Because Cincinnati is about two hours south of Columbus, and Columbus is about two to two-and-a-half hours south of Cleveland, so that’s a good four or five hours difference between cities…by car. Walking, it’s…I don’t know, really, really far? Is Superman super-walking?

Once the Columbus/Cleveland confusion was cleared up, I was still a little shocked to hear just how badly DC screwed over this retailer. Not that it’s was there job to help him with his own personal marketing efforts or decision to celebrate their book or anything, but in that they didn’t publish the book on time, thus ruining whatever he had happened to have planned in the first place.

Like, the absolute bare minimum DC had to do was just keep a shipping date, and they couldn’t even do that much. That is sad. And hilarious. Tragicomic? Let’s say tragicomic. DC and poor Kendall Swafford’s entire experience with Superman #703 is nothing short of cosmically tragicomic.

JMS explains the reason for his delay, explaining that he was very ill, which is, of course, pretty terrible for JMS, and is certainly an explanation, but not really an excuse.

I was under the understanding that DC Comics were written a good six months before they arrived in comics shops—a tidbit I learned from a letters page in a comic from the early ‘90s or so—but I guess that’s no longer the case? That six months has shrunk to a matter of weeks now? Jeez. I assumed JMS had his entire Superman-walking-around story finished in script form before the first issue saw publication. Why wouldn’t he? Why would DC want to start publishing a story arc that wasn’t even finished being written yet?

If that sort of schedule is more common than the six month lead time I remember form my youth, then it’s really no wonder so many DC books look rushed these days—they are rushed.

It’s really a shame in the case of JMS’s Superman-walking-around storyline, too. I don’t know if it’s any good or not—I haven’t read a single positive review of it, every panel of it I have seen posted here and there with reviews has made me cringe, and Eddy Barrows is one of my least favorite artists, so I haven’t been in a hurry to jump on it—but it’s certainly marketable.

The publisher should easily be able to get a bunch of local press with each and every issue of the storyline, as local TV news goofballs crack a few jokes about Superman visiting their cities on the 11 o’clock news and daily and altweekly newspapers review the issue or interview JMS or Barrows or the editors or whoever. This storyline is tailor-made for local mainstream media coverage.

Of course, to plan that sort of press, you have to have the issues actually come out when you say they’re coming out.


James Figueiredo said...

I didn't think it was possible for me to be even more depressed about DC's current handling of the JLI characters, but you just proved me wrong. Thank you SO much, Caleb. ;)

Also, this whole clusterfuck caused by the shipping of the Superman book is pretty depressing too.

I think I need like, a bowl of chocolate and some puppies now.

collectededitions said...

I was trying to think of another instance of editorial confusion like the Ice issue, and when I thought of one, my immediate thought was, "No, that's too trivial." But as you say, this is an industry built on trivia, and indeed comics thrives on bringing in readers and hooking them for life with the promise of continuity, that what we read today about our favorite heroes will matter and affect them into the future.

My example was this: in the back of the Blackest Night: Black Lantern Corps Vol. 1 hardcover, there's a Black Lantern sketchbook, and Robin-villain King Snake (Sir Edmund Dorrance) is mis-identified as King Cobra, and then the origin given is rather ridiculous, some conflation of the origins of King Snake and Copperhead, I think.

King Snake is very, very minor (but used correctly) in the Blackest Night: Batman story to which this refers, but it surprised me at that moment that no editor caught that gaffe; I read King Snake's original issues, and Ice's -- maybe that particular editor didn't. Maybe it's unreasonable for fans, when there's so many of us and so few of the editors, to expect them to keep it all straight; I'm sure put on the spot there's a lot of DC trivia I don't know, too.

But, I think mistakes like this speak to a broken contract (real or assumed) between comics companies and fans, that if we keep coming back for the continuity, they'll get it right. Most of the time, I think, it happens; here's instances where it doesn't.

The bigger question is whether Segura had it wrong himself, or whether the actual issue is wrong -- and if the latter, if it'll get fixed before press. Any chance Newsarama will get a chance to ask Segura about it?

SallyP said...

Caleb, this whole kerfuffle over Ice's origin being mixed up with Icemaiden's has me in a complete dither.

I rather like the JLI:Generation Lost book, not necessarily because of Winick's writing, but because it features a set of characters that I am VERY fond of. Winick on the other hand, can be quite good, or really really horribly bad, depending upon his mood apparently. Putting him in charge of some of my favorite characters has me quite nervous.

But seriously...what DOES an editor do anymore? I would think that keeping the characters straight would be an essential part of the job. Oh, and making sure that the writer doesn't do anything stupid. Like turning Mary Marvel into a monster for example. SURELY they wouldn't pull the same ridiculous stunt with Tora...would they?

hilker said...

But seriously...what DOES an editor do anymore?

In his post about Superman: Earth One this morning, Ian Sattler writes "I’ve literally read it three times," as if this is extraordinary.

The Ice situation reminds me of Bob Haney not realizing that Wonder Girl stories were "imaginary" and making her a charter member of the Teen Titans. Luckily, that's never caused any continuity problems.

Troy said...

In today's DC Legacies #5, there's another moment wherein Cyborg refers to Ultra the Multi-Alien as "Ultraa" (two a's, and a totally different character). Sigh.

Eyz said...

I used to really like Winick's writing..but...turning Ice into a badass?! Aren't there enough "badass heroes" around? Can't we have just ONE nice all around girl?

LissBirds said...

Why does every female character have to be a bad ass to be accepted? Why does every female character have to have the same personality and run around half-naked? It's okay for some heroines to dress that way, but let's have some variety, no?

And what happened to nice?

What happened to a variety of personalities--you know, "realism?"

And why does EVERY superhero have to have a tragic, dark origin?

Argh! And yet I'll still buy the book anyway. *sigh*

Nice observations, though, Caleb. I really enjoyed your post.