Wednesday, August 07, 2013

A few link-inspired thoughts about the state of DC Comics/The DC Universe.

I haven't been doing much in the way of link-blogging here of late, and when I do see something elsewhere that I think could deserves some extra attention, I generally just post a link on my twitter account now.

I did read a big, excellent essay the other day though, one that was big enough and excellent enough that I wanted to link to it here. If you haven't already, and you care even a little bit about superhero comics (and the industry that revolves around them), I would strongly urge you to check out Tim O'Neil's monster 4,000-word post about DC Comics' current crossover storyline, "Trinity War."

O'Neil discusses the state of DC in 2013 versus that of DC in the late '90s, and compares and contrasts them with the state of Marvel comics during the same time periods. He compares the first half of "Trinity War" to the just-completed Age of Ultron, and Geoff Johns' crossover-writing skills to those of Brian Michael Bendis. He compares the religious and mythological cosmology of the two fictional, shared-universe settings. And I think he does so not only at great length, but with great insight and pretty damn great writing. It's about as thorough and solid a post on these subjects as one could hope to read.

O'Neil highlights the rather recent "Trinity War" tie-in issue Constantine #5 (which I covered here), and notes that The New 52 DC Universe has been structured into one that both John Constantine, the chain-smoking occultist character created in the mid-1980s by Alan Moore and Steve Bissette who starred in an incredibly long-running monthly series that spent most of its 15 years of existence being published through DC's mature readers Vertigo imprint, and Captain Marvel, an extremely inspired Superman knock-off created in 1940 by C.C. Beck and Bill Parker to star in superhero comics aimed at children, can now co-star in the same stories.

But in order to make that possible, DC had to subtract the edge off of the Constantine character and add edges to the Captain Marvel character, so that the two meet in the middle, sans much of what makes them interesting characters in the first place (The image at the top of this post, in case you're wondering, is from that book; that's Constatntine imbued with the powers of Shazam, ripping the head off of a demon using the strength of Hercules).

O'Neil notes that the original DC Universe was sort of grandfathered together, when later editors and writers tried to make a bunch of characters and concepts never meant to be together (Captain Marvel, for example, was created by a rival publisher of DC's, that the latter rather for forcefully acquired, and was thus never really intended to have adventures in the same version of the United States that holds a Metropolis and a Gotham), one of the things I've always found most charming and challenging (in a good way) about the DC Universe, and, incidentally, one of the things that the New 52 reboot explicitly did away with. He cites an old crossover story from the James Robinson and company Starman book and the Jerry Ordway Power of Shazam book, in which two extremely different characters from two extremely different books met, and their differences provided a spark to the story, whereas now there is little to know real difference between most of the books in DC's line; tonally and visually, there's so little difference between Constantine and the "Shazam" back-ups in Justice League, that there's very little friction between the characters (and what is there is what we readers who know the characters' history bring with us to the encounter).

In discussing the late '90s DC Comics, O'Neil rattles off a list of books DC was publishing simultaneously, including Lobo, The Spectre and Impulse, noting that they were all set in the same universe, but were extremely different books in terms of their tone, point-of-view and even, to some extent, genre. Sure, they weren't as different as, say, Saga, Optic Nerve and All-New X-Men are from one another, but you had a violent, dark comedy; a serious, dark, supernatural storyline that meditated on religion and was only an F-word and a topless scene away from being a Vertigo book, and a light-hearted, all-ages superhero book that veered that could veer between sitcom and straight comedy, depending on the writer. Yet Batman and Superman could appear in all of 'em (and all the other books O'Neil mentioned in that paragraph), and all of those characters could cameo in Bloodlines or have a Final Night tie-in issue or whatever.

Having Constantine in the DC Universe is hardly a big deal, despite the border erected between Vertigo and the DCU a while back. Constantine got his start in the pre-Vertigo Swamp Thing, a book that guest-starred Jack Kirby's Demon and Superman and Batman and Lex Luthor and The Justice League and so on. The characters could move from book to book, but the books themselves were very, very different, so that when Justice Leaguers showed up in, say, The Sandman or the Grant Morrison-written Doom Patrol or Alan Moore and company's Swamp Thing, it was exciting precisely because those books were so different in tone and visual identity from Justice League of America or JLI the the Super or Bat books of the time.

Anyway, give O'Neil's piece a read. It strikes me as a pretty good diagnosis of what, exactly, is wrong about much of the DCU line at the moment (aside from poor costume design and the counter-productive continuity reboot, which are the thorns that continue to stick in my eyes when I read these books) and, therefore, offers an implied prescription for fixing the line, should many (or any) DC Comics executives give the piece a read.

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I've already seen this linked to several places, but I first heard about it from the guys at Robot 6, so here's their post on it: Artist Ilias Kyriazis and writer Scott Lobdell put together an awesome pitch for a new Doom Patrol comic book that never went anywhere, and shared the basic concept, make-up of the cast and some fully-realized character designs.

While it's hard to judge a non-existent comic book by its pitch, and, based on what I've read lately, I would be very wary of a "Written by Scott Lobdell" credit on a comic book, I have to say that the book both sounds and (especially) looks awesome.

The book probably wouldn't be possible in the New 52, would it?

Of the characters starring in it, I think the only one that has been introduced so far is Changeling, who went by "Beast Boy" and was red. Maybe Bizarro exists too (I know he's featured in September's Forever Evil series/event, but I'm not sure if he's been introduced in the Superman books over the course of the last two years or not). I suppose a version of Tefe may be in the Swamp Thing series too, but I haven't been reading it, and, even if there is a version in the book, it can't be that version.

I don't think this series would work as a New 52 one, anyway, as if you divorce those characters from their histories (Particularly Changeling/Beast Boy, Robot Man and, in her usage here, Platinum), it wouldn't be all that interesting. If just introduced cold, the characters have no personalities or histories; there's no conflicts or shared experience between Robot Man and Changeling; there's no legacy of the Doom Patrol to live up to or live down; Robot Man, Changeling and Platinum would all lack a history of strained relationships with the various teams they've been on over the years.

I sure wish they wouldn't have rebooted continuity though, and simply did something closer to Marvel Now!: New series with new #1s by various creators. This woulda made a fine addition to a DC Now! line, I assume.

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In his link to the same post, Tom Spurgeon wrote, "people always love unsold pitches," and he's right.

I remember me and about 90% of the comics Internet were super-excited about that Wonder Woman-as-a-young-princess-on-Paradise Island pitch Tintin Pantoja made public a few years ago. Or hey, remeber Ben Caldwell's Wonder Woman pitch? Lois Lane, Girl Reporter? Renae de Liz's Amethyst?

Even the biggest names in super-comics occasionally have awesome-sounding pitches that go nowhere, like, for example, Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo's pitch for a new Aquaman series (that's a Ringo sketch of Aquaman above, although not one connected with the official pitch), or the now rather infamous proposal by Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Tom Peyer and a pre-Ultimates Mark Millar to revamp DC's Superman line, with each of the four writers taking over one of the four Superman titles that were then on the stands?

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It occurs to me that I've seen so many blog posts from creators along the lines of "Hey, here's this totally awesome, all-ages comic that we pitched DC, but they passed on" extant, and enough interest in many of those projects (particularly the rejected Wonder Woman ones), that DC could quite easily commission a miniseries or trade paperback collecting "imaginary stories" based on all of these pitches. Like, maybe Lobdell and Kyriazis won't get to do an ongoing Doom Patrol based on their pitch, but it would be cool if DC let them do a 20-page story with those characters as part of a Rejected Proposals Cavalcade trade or something.

I think there's probably also potential for a book on the subject, from a third-party publisher (i.e. not DC Comics, but, like, a real publisher of real books), if there was someone with the interest and sorts of connections in the comics industry and the time to work on things, like, interviewing Mark Waid at length or securing original sketching from Mike Wieringo's family and tracking down a lot of these artists and asking to republish their work.

Just imagine a big art-filled, prose, non-fiction book containing the sketches and general proposals like any of the above and interviews with the creators involved about the process of pitching, dealing with rejection and what they did next, focusing on fairly radical re-workings from folks at Dean Trippe's level of the comics industry totem pole of popularity to things like Paul Pope's rejected Kamandi and Ross Campbell's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pitch to Dark Horse (That's an early Campbell drawing of Donatello above, by the way) to more famous comics-that-never-were by top industry talent, like Alan Moore's Twilight of the Super-Heroes (was that it, or was it just Twilight, and my memory is just adding ...of the Super-Heroes to distinguish it from those vampire/werewolf books and movies) and Alex Ross's proposed Kingdom Come prequel series The Kingdom and the aforementioned Morrison, Waid and company Super-reboot?

A collection of proposals might be a little on the dull side, but a collection of interviews about those proposals, and using them as a sort of history of the mainstream comics industry, through the roads it didn't take or refused to take? Filled with sketches and art from so many incredible artists? That would be a hell of a book to read.

Someone should really get on that.

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As for the Paul Pope Kamandi proposal, if you're unfamiliar with that, I'd suggest you check out this disheartening, depressing quote from Pope about pitching a Kamandi series with Brian Azzarello that was shot down.

In the quote, Pope refers to a meeting with "the head of DC Comics." I'm not sure who that is, but whoever they are, I sure hope they are no longer the head of DC Comics, because I can't imagine someone in a position of power at a comics company getting a pitch for anything from Paul Pope, who I personally believe is one of the most talented comics artists working today and whose style is someone unique in that it seems to be the sort that appeals to readers whether they're coming at comics through the gateway of American superheroes, European comics or manga, and who gave DC the successful evergreen Batman: Year 100 (and some great Vertigo stuf), and Brian Azzarello, who not only gave DC a whole library of popular evergreen trades in 100 Bullets and the original graphic novel The Joker, but has gone on to improve and sustain the sales of Wonder Woman (of all things) and even consented to doing some of the company's dirtiest work, like Watchmen spin-offs.

If you're a DC comics executive and Paul Pope and Brian Azzarello say they want to do an original graphic novel about kicking your ass, but, in order to do so effectively, they first need to kick your ass for research, I believe it is your duty to respond, "Certainly, gentlemen; I just ask that you not hit me in the teeth or eyes, and, should I lose consciousness, please stop delivering blows until I can be revived."

The saddest part isn't that there exists a DC comics executive who didn't do a cartwheel and should "Callooh Callay!" when he heard Paul fucking Pope wanted to do a cover version of some Jack fucking Kirby for them, but that the executive (reportedly) responded by saying, "We don't publish comics for kids. We publish comics for 45-year-olds."

Which, okay, yes, if you look at what DC publishes, that seems fairly accurate (Actually, I think they publish comics for 20-45 year old males, to be more specific). But yeesh, to say it out loud, to a guy whose work seems perfectly positioned to bringing in newer readers?

There is a difference between "comics for kids" and "all-ages" comics, of course, and, for a good example of "all-ages" stories featuring DC Comics characters, DC comics executives could just look at, let's see, every single cartoon based on their characters created in the past 25 years or so. Almost every single one of them, even the ones that skew younger, like Teen Titans, have been of the sort that have been smart, stylish and well-made enough that adults could enjoy them, and they contained nothing so harsh that kids shouldn't be allowed to watch 'em.

The fact that the only multi-media cues The New 52 seemed to take came from Batman: Arkham Asylum and ...City (the video games) instead of any of those many, many cartoons continues to kinda sorta blow my mind.

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By the way, this is a joke from Batman: The Brave and the Bold, the Batman series that seems targeted toward the youngest viewers, but which also is full of characters and Easter Egg references that only DC's extremely old or extremely invested fans would get.

"All-ages" doesn't mean you can't also insert extremely dirty jokes, you just have to be smart and clever about it.

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That same DC executive followed up with, "If you want to do comics for kids, you can do Scooby-Doo," according to Pope.

Please take a moment to pause with me and imagine a Paul Pope Scooby-Doo graphic novel.

Awesome, huh?

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Of course, if DC really believed they were publishing comics for 45-year-olds, then why don't they just go ahead and make their line for mature readers, so we can have swearing and nudity and adult concepts, instead of their weird NC-17 ultraviolence and gore, but PG-13 attitude towards nudity, sex and language...?

And maybe the stories could be a little more adult, and deal with emotional content beyond the difference between justice and vengeance...? More existential, mid-life crisis stuff, less guys with laser-rings blowing holes in one another's heads.

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So it looks like long-time comics-makers Evan Dorkin and Sarah Dyer were involved in the creation of a DC Nation short featuring The Metal Men, DC's animation-ready heroes who were previously prominently featured in several episodes of Batman: The Brave and The Bold.

I haven't seen much more than clips of any of the DC Nation shorts (no TV, you see), but, like those I have seen on YouTube, it seems pretty kid friendly.

I haven't seen The Metal Men or Plastic Man show up in The New 52 yet (beyond a cameo one-panel appearance by Plas in Justice League International #1), so I guess we can't do a 1-to-1 comparison between the DC Nation cartoon versions (seen by a lot of eyeballs all over the world) and the New 52 versions (which would be seen by, I don't know, between 20,000-100,000 sets of eyeballs, maybe).

But the Batgirl of The New 52 is a heavily armored vigilante who fights serial killers like her own brother and the gross-looking new version of The Ventriloquist. The first installment of the "Amethyst" feature in the first issue of Sword of Sorcery (which was canceled within eight months of its debut), featured a couple of high school boys threatening to rape a schoolmate. The only issue of the new Animal Man I've read so far was last week's annual, in which the character is drinking heavily and trying to cope with the death of his son (Hey, remember when Grant Morrison killed A-Man's family and brought them back to life in his meta-commentary on superhero comics that ended with a rebuke of such things as killing off a character's family as needlessly dark, the writer restoring them all to life? Twenty-three years ago?)
Compare these to the DC Nation Batgirl in Super Best Friends Forever, or the Amethyst and Animal Man of those shorts. Sure, those are all all-ages and played for laughs, but there's gotta be a happy medium between all-ages cartoons and grown-ups only comics, right?

It just doesn't make a whole lot of sense to have a cartoon show called Young Justice on the air, featuring a team composed of characters like this that look like this...
...and then publishing comics like this...
...or this...
instead.

...does it...?

4 comments:

David Lee Ingersoll said...

Dear DC Executive,

I was a 45 year old male when you rejected Azzarello and Pope's Kamandi pitch. I would have bought that series. I haven't bought one issue of the Nu52. Figure it out.

David page said...

even sadder when you consider they brought in the young justice version of artemis just to kill her in her first appearance in teen titans.

Akilles said...

(Reads about all the rejected pitches.)

Well...
...
Excuse me, for a moment...

(Goes to an imaginary place.)

FUCK YOU DC!!!!!!!!!!!!!

(Torches the companys logo in a rebellious manner, throws it to a stack of horrible comics ppublished by the company.)

SallyP said...

Heck, I'm an old lady and I would read that Pope/Azzarello book!