Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Crisis Strategy

In last week's "Permanent Damage" column, Steven Grant takes the historical approach to analyzing the issues surrounding DC Comics' mainstream superhero line, which include, but are not limited to: underwhelming sales, erratic editorial management, dissatisfaction among the existing fanbase and a failure to attract casual readers.

In a nutshell, Grant argues that DC essentially created comics fandom by acknowledging the Golden-Age versions of their characters and incorporating them into the "DC Universe" with titles such as Justice Society of America. This, in turn, is where he sees the root of the problem that led to ostensible deck-clearing exercises like Crisis on Infinite Earths and its many successors, including the current Final Crisis: With their fanbase dating back to the 1940s, DC has effectively become unable to jettison that part of its history, and has been caught in a self-perpetuating circle that forces the company to incessantly acknowledge those proto-versions of its properties - which, ultimately, can only be done through the addition of "parallel earths."

Hence, Grant says, the publisher's long tradition of producing excessively self-referential comics that are frequently impenetrable to anyone but the most committed hardcore fans. The solution he proposes is sweeping.
Shut it down and start from scratch. A clear editorial vision of what specific characters should be. [...] No "old continuity over in a parallel" universe [sic] to seep in. Don't refer to old continuity. Everything new again. Who wouldn't come by, even those who'd protest the loudest, just to see what happens next? [...] After a year or so, it would be the new status quo and everyone would start getting along just fine.
Now, as Grant himself is aware, the idea isn't new. Marv Wolfman had something very much like that in mind for Crisis on Infinite Earths when he first came up with it; for that matter, no week probably goes by without somebody calling for this sort of thing in some Internet forum or other. And on the surface, it certainly seems reasonable. Still, there are a couple of problems with this approach.

First up, how do you prevent creators from referring to "old continuity," or even just sneaking in references, let alone for any substantial length of time? Have there been any major creators at DC who don't cherish some wacky bit or other from the company's Golden- or Silver-Age origins? Quick experiment: Enter the creator's name and the term "pre-crisis" (both, don't forget, in quotation marks) in your search engine of choice, and see what comes up. If you're going to ask Grant Morrison or Geoff Johns to stop referencing beloved stories from those periods, for that matter, there's bound to be heartbreak, and you might as well not hire their services in the first place. Consequently, I don't think Grant's proposal is realistic. It didn't work the first time, or the second, or the third. And for the very same reasons it failed then, I doubt it's ever going to work - even if it were a cure for DC's woes.

And that, incidentally, is a pretty big "if." Is it really the validation of "old continuity" and the presence of "parallel earths" in the DC Universe that renders their comics inaccessible? I'm skeptical. "Parallel earths" also exist in Marvel's fictional world, for instance. There are dozens of them, and they've been an established part of the Marvel Universe for decades. And yet, they don't seem to be hampering the accessibility of the publisher's line in the slightest. It may have seemed that way at one point or other in the past, which resulted in calls for the Marvel Universe to exorcize its baggage and do its own Crisis-style clean-up. But Marvel always ended up resisting the notion, stopping just short of it a few times with quasi-reboots like "Heroes Reborn" or, more recently, their Ultimate Marvel line of titles - the former an experiment with a built-in back door that ended after a year, the latter a wholesale reimagination launched in addition to the existing Marvel Universe rather than as a replacement.

Nonetheless, the mainstream Marvel Universe line seems in perfect health today, in terms of accessibility. So much so, in fact, that the purpose of the Ultimate Marvel books has become increasingly flimsy over the last couple of years, necessitating an upcoming shake-up. So Grant has the right idea, I think, but his emphasis is off. It's not "old continuity" per se that stands in the way of DC producing accessible superhero comics. Rather, it seems to be a matter of the basic storytelling approach to your line. Sure, the rigid decree of slowly building, "decompressed" stories, tailor-made for Marvel's then burgeoning program of paperback collections and steering clear of time travel, parallel earths and any kind of convoluted backstory resulted in much wailing and gnashing of teeth for the first few years of Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada's tenure in the publisher's driving seat. But Marvel continues to benefit from it to this day. Even if the formula is no longer as strictly enforced as it was back then, accessibility remains the guiding storytelling principle in virtually everything Marvel does.

So the Jemas/Quesada model is proof positive that you don't necessarily need to "start from scratch" to make a line of comics based on a long-standing fictional superhero universe creatively and commercially successful. What you need to do is to Just Not Worry About It. Instead, focus on telling accessible, engaging, attractive stories first and foremost, with the big, sprawling universes and "old continuity" as distant secondary concerns. The trick, in other words, is to not put the cart in front of the horse. A "shared-universe" setting is a backdrop, and a means. It is not, however, an end in itself. Arguably, this approach may be more difficult for DC than it is for Marvel, due to the generational differences Grant mentions, as well as the various major reboots of DC's world, and of their characters. But it's not impossible.

Looking at Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's All Star Superman, Matt Wagner's Batman and the Monster Men and Batman: The Mad Monk or even 52 is instructive, in this context. Each of these recent comics, in its own way, draws deeply on what Grant calls "old continuity," but still remains perfectly inviting to more casual readers of DC's books (e.g., me). They're exceptions, and what they have in common is a refusal to take the characters for granted. Right from the first issue of each series, the creators pull out the stops to remind us what Superman says about humanity, why Batman is a fascinating concept and how we can relate to Renée Montoya or, what do you know, Ralph Dibny. They let us know who these characters are, what they want and why it's relevant to us. I tend to think of it as the "genetic code" of a given concept or character - meaning, if it's not present somewhere in a story about those concepts or characters, then something's wrong. Which, I've found, is precisely what's the case with a lot of DC's books right now. They present the characters as "icons," whose relevance - and worse, the relevance of whose world - is taken for granted, rather than demonstrated.

I noted a year ago that DC's major stories are no longer about anything a casual reader can relate to, and not much has changed. The line's major stories seem to be driven by a Sisyphean challenge to "fix" the DC Universe, "for good." Quite what that means, though, or why the DC Universe is something that's worth being "fixed" in the first place, nobody, including the people in charge, seems to be sure of. Confronted with the criticism of inaccessibility by Douglas Wolk, Dan DiDio, the editor-in-chief of the publisher's DC Universe line, recently clarified that DC's direction is no accident:
My opinion is that [the recent 50-cent primer DC Universe #0] was accessible to the people who understand and read comics and understand the stories and characters and world. We had [DC Universe #0] for the people who are familiar with and excited by DC Comics, whether they’ve been reading them for five years or 25 years.
This admission is nothing short of spectacular. What DiDio says here, basically, is that, yes thank you, the snake is well aware it's eating its own tail, and now could you please shut up and pass the ketchup. Quite what the point is of producing cheap promotional loss-leaders for people who already "understand and read comics and understand the stories and characters and world" and "are familiar with and excited by DC Comics, whether they’ve been reading them for five years or 25 years," Wolk didn't ask DiDio, unfortunately. In the light of this editorial stance, though, you don't need to wonder what went wrong with the marketing of supposed sales juggernaut Final Crisis. The answer is nothing. Everything went just the way DC wanted it to.

The key to producing more attractive comics, therefore, is simple: DC, once and for all, needs to get over Crisis on Infinite Earths. In fact, they need to bury it, and bury it deep - with a strong line of comics that recognizes the strengths of their properties and emphasizes them in ways which allow someone who's just seen Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight to feel welcome. The latter part should be self-evident, really. Given the attitude of DC's current editorial regime, however, which is implicit in the comics they produce and explicit in statements such as the one quoted above, it seems like an unlikely prospect right now. As long as they don't want their comics to be accessible, they're probably not going to be.


Juggling Jason said...

This is an excellent article and as a new reader I tend to agree. But from my perspective, DC is doing great work for casual readers in the darkened nooks of the DCU. Kate Spencer, Huntress, Blue Beetle. It is their flagship brands that are off-putting. However, Marvel isn't doing much to make themselves accessible to new/casual readers with Secret Invasion but are showing how to attract readership with titles such as Invincible Iron Man which is a solid multi-layered yet accessible story about a major Marvel property with a large back story. So basically what I'm saying is that yes you are right. I'm a new reader and Marvel's big guns seem more attractive to me. To find DC books I can enjoy I have to be more of a sleuth.

Jane said...

Great article, I am not a new reader but even I find DC stories to be too demanding sometimes as I need to follow more stories than I would like to be able to follow the ones that I like because of too many side stories and links between them all