There isn’t just one proper way to make or enjoy comics. Some creators love collaborating “Marvel style,” whereas other prefer detailed scripts. Some fans love sprawling epics, whereas other would rather one and done stories. Beyond that, there is no proper way to construct a comics universe, deal with continuity, or equip a company’s creators to do the best possible work. There isn’t one right way to do any of this.
Having said that, it seems to me like DC is doing all of these things in my exact wrong way right now, and the recent loss of James Robinson may signal the end of DC telling the type of stories that I like to read.
Robinson, for the uninitiated, is a British writer who has been writing for DC, relatively consistently, since 1992. He is best known for crafting “Starman,” telling the tale of the legacy character Jack Knight, from 1994 to 2001, as well as stints writing “Superman,” “Justice League of America,” and, currently, “Earth 2,” among others. His stories tend to be large in scope, and feature a wide array of characters, many of whom have gone almost forgotten. He has a real knack for finding humanity and depth in forgotten characters, and is one of the best rehabilitators in all of comics.
And it is due to his status as a rehabilitator that Robinson has been such a valuable commodity at DC. He was part of the revival of the Justice Society of America with Geoff Johns, a project so successful that it set Johns up to do all sorts of incredible things at DC. In fact, Johns takes a Robinson-like approach to much of what he does, where he takes characters with a rich past and updates them for modern times.
But Johns does something that Robinson never does, which is that Johns chooses to treat certain aspects as canon, and equally eschews or changes whatever it is he feels isn’t necessarily worth saving. “Green Lantern: Rebirth” is a masterful example of what Johns does so well – he took a messy mythos with lots of characters and created a streamlined version of that world which, by almost all accounts, tonally, creatively and commercially changed the Green Lantern books forever.
It is the Johns approach that directly led to the New 52: “hey, let’s take a look at our line and excise everything that isn’t really working, simplify things and make them easy jumping on points!” And so, while the Batman and Lantern books were in good places pre-“Flashpoint,” those got left alone. Just about everything else went through the Johns/DiDio/Lee filter, and came through changed, some significantly, others insignificantly, but all came through different than they entered.
Even with very capable people like Johns on big name books, the effort fell flat all over the place. These characters that have passionate and knowledgeable fans – and while these books might have been more accessible to my mother, the aspects that built them this passionate fanbase was left behind on the racks of Barnes and Noble and in the longboxes of your local comic shop.
The character that keeps coming to mind, for me, is a Johns favorite, Superboy. From inauspicious beginnings during the “Reign of the Supermen” to heartbreaking death in “Infinite Crisis” to celebrating resurrection, Kon-El has been a character that has inspired great loyalty from readers and anchored “Teen Titans” during its most recent glory days. A character with a rich tapestry of at his disposal – connections to the Kents, Superman, the Bat-family, Wonder Girl, Lex Luthor, and more – Connor Kent was a vital and fun part of the DC Universe.
But post New 52, just the skeleton remains; still a clone, still a Teen Titan, but nothing else is there. On one hand, I applaud the balls it takes to do toss away nearly 20 years of stories for a roll of the dice – comics needs more creators willing to do revolutionary things. But the larger part of me sees the lack of continuity tied to these characters as a huge problem going forward, and those cracks are already beginning to show.Continued below
Similarly, unless he was handed to Johns, or Robinson, or Scott Snyder, or maybe Jeff Lemire, I don’t think anything could have saved Hawkman from being yet another bungled character in the New 52. Hawkman is the poster child for retconning [retroactive continuity – that is to say, changing the character’s past by just writing things out/changing them in current times], and it took less than a year for Hawkman’s origin to get muddled once again. Somehow, the character is even less defined, either in his skillset, motivations or history, in the New 52 than he was pre-“Flashpoint.” The character’s origin, no matter how you slice it, is weird, and convoluted, and pretty dumb at times.
But that is where someone like Robinson used the thrive. Robinson is the type of writer who can come in and tell a new story – one that really doesn’t require past knowledge – that still has lots of richness and texture to it. The type of book that rewards older readers, while grabbing new readers. The types of books that DC used to publish month in and month out. The books that have all but disappeared from the DC Universe.
Continuity has been a dirty word at DC for a few years now, for reasons I’m still not entirely sure about. Sure, no one wants to read the equivalent of the genealogy of David month in and month out, but I honestly don’t understand why DC – or anyone, for that matter – wants to completely abandon its history. This isn’t the movies; I get why the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes films don’t reference the Basil Rathbone series. But in comics, you can have your cake and eat it, too – you can give the mythical new reader stories that are easy to jump into, while still rewarding longtime fans.
It is interesting that Robinson’s departure dovetails with the cancellation of the current run of “Legion of Super-Heroes,” a book that is 90% continuity and 10% story. The last 3 years of “Legion” stories have been under the pen of Paul Levitz, an old-school Legion fan and writer who is responsible for some of the best LoSH books of all time. Levitz, while a fan favorite in some corners (read: Legion fanatics) never did a great job or writing stories that seemed accessible to anyone other than the lunatic fringe of comics fans. I feel bad saying this, because Levitz is certainly a net-positive in the world of comics, but the Levitz LoSH run is a classic case of continuity gone awry, and he has probably damaged the series and its popularity more than anyone at DC over the past ten years. His “Legion of Super-Heroes” #1 in the New 52 was an uncrackable puzzle, essentially just a continuation of the pre-“Flashpoint” series which was faltering after only 16 issues.
In years past, even if it wasn’t Robinson answering the call, DC would bring in someone like him to take over the Legion titles. They would want people to be able to pick up the issues without having read 40 years worth of 30th/31st century stuff, but with enough winks and nods to the past to keep fans happy. DC has seemingly entered into a binary situation: either you throw it all away, or you make it so inscrutable that no one can enjoy themselves.
DC still has very capable writers – you won’t find me bashing old guard scribes like J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen, or 90’s vets like Gail Simone and Peter Tomasi, or even new blood like Justin Jordan Charles Soule – but the writing of comics has changed so significantly in the New 52 that it makes me incredibly depressed to read the solicits each month. Don’t get me wrong, DC has some great books still coming out – “Wonder Woman,” in particular, shows how a self-contained story can still work in the New 52 – but the solicits seem to be hollow versions of iconic books and characters.Continued below
Why is that? Because the writers are all writing with a hand tied behind their back – they are writing without the history and purpose that some of these characters have exhibited for nearly 70 years. Again, I’m not calling for more Levitz-like miasmas – I just want writers to be able to write the best stories they can. And by neglecting what made these characters so great, they are not allowed to do that.
For instance, let’s look at “Justice League” – the Johns-helmed flagship book of the New 52. By rewriting the team’s history, lineup, and purpose, the book has become something it never should have – it has become the X-Men. The Justice League – a name that seems to suggest unity and fairness – are feared by the government and misunderstood by a large swath of the population, often times confused for their enemies. The X-Men have a wonderful history, and have produced some of the best comics of all time – but that isn’t to say that everyone should be the X-Men.
The Justice League always existed as a team that the public believed in and counted on. The Justice League had initiation ceremonies and tests to pass for membership; it had a place where it honored its dead in statue form; it was a team full of hope and promise. And when a new writer came on board, they had all of this history to play with. It was easy to do a “the world turns on the League!” story, because of the implied trust that could be lost. It was fun to bring in new members, old members, and legacy members. The team itself – the unit of members, past and present – was a character in the book. Scratch that, it was the character in the book. And that character is totally absent from “Justice League.”
Which brings me back to Robinson. Robinson’s main character in “Starman” was never really Jack Knight – it was the idea of Opal City needing a Starman. His main character in “Justice League of America” was the history of the Justice League, which is why it didn’t matter that Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, Hal Jordan, Barry Allen, Arthur Curry, J’onn J’onzz and Diana Prince were nowhere to be found. His main character in “Superman” was Krypton. His books are never just about what is happening on the pages, but rather how the pages fit into the jigsaw puzzle that is the DC Universe. But even if you didn’t know anything else about DC, his books made for very enjoyable puzzle pieces, beautiful and interesting on their own.
You could argue that the New 52 is a puzzle, too; you could also argue that DC doesn’t need books that reference the whole, as long as the individual pieces are good; you could even attempt to convince me that continuity can be just as poisonous as a lack thereof (I presume Multiversity EIC Matt would take that position). But you can’t convince me of any of that, and ultimately, I’m the guy making the purchasing decisions in my life. And while the New 52 might seem like a great thing to some people, it seems like a bummer to me. And with my favorite writer walking away, DC’s once firm hold on my fandom is slipping perilously close to the edge. Unless big things change, in a big way, 2014 seems like a world where I’m buying less DC books than non-DC books.
That doesn’t sound significant, but in my 25 years of buying comics, that has never happened. The kid with Superman, Batman and Captain Marvel painted, by his father, on his bedroom walls; the college student whose first ever pull list said “everything Green Lantern appears in. EVERYTHING;” the married guy who dedicated one shelf of the one collective bookshelf he and his wife owns dedicated exclusively to DC graphic novels and collected editions; the father who bought his infant daughter a Wonder Woman onesie; that guy won’t be buying many DC books anymore. A lifelong DC fan doesn’t recognize the company anymore – the puzzle I loved has turned into a Magic Eye poster. And as a guy with a lazy eye, I don’t see shit.