• Longform 

    Why James Robinson Leaving DC Matters

    By | May 28th, 2013
    Posted in Longform | 29 Comments

    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.

    //TAGS | Multiversity 101 | Multiversity Rewind

    Brian Salvatore

    Brian Salvatore is an editor, podcaster, reviewer, writer at large, and general task master at Multiversity. When not writing, he can be found playing music, hanging out with his kids, or playing music with his kids. He also has a dog named Lola, a rowboat, and once met Jimmy Carter. Feel free to email him about good beer, the New York Mets, or the best way to make Chicken Parmagiana (add a thin slice of prosciutto under the cheese).


    • SKruger

      I honestly agree with EVERYTHING you’ve said here. As a 28 year DC reading veteran, I have been dropping more and more DC books. Specifically, this is the first time in all my years that I am NOT reading Legion of Super-Heroes (I am on of those disenchanted Legion freaks), and I dropped a Lantern book (Red Lanterns is a horrible read). I’ll be sharing this article with many…

      • Brian Salvatore

        Thanks for reading!

    • A-freaking-men brother!

    • Adam Black

      I was able to relate to so much of what you said it tugged at my heart. It does hurt in a way to not even be able to know what the hell DC is doing. The Redhood & The Outlaws book #20 has Roy in it?? I just don’t get it anymore. I quit buying books because of the characters and started buying the writers. On the notion that I may not know THESE characters so much anymore but I know I’ll get a good story from Robinson, Morrison, Azzarelo, Snyder & Manapaul. I wasnt aware of Robinson leaving until this article but I suppose theres another book I wont be buying if the next writer isn’t one I love to death. Thanks for the words.

      BTW the Justice League/X-Men comparison was spot on.

      • Brian Salvatore

        Thanks! I was thinking about expanding the JL/X-Men thing into a future article, so maybe I will now.

    • Dennis N

      Can we at least bash Scott Lobdell?

      • Brian Salvatore

        I won’t stop you…

      • Shallbecomeabat

        Oh yes, please! What a hack! And now he has writing duty on both Speeman titles… its a sad world

    • Rhi

      Yes! I completely agree!

      The massacre of Superboy (as I so not overly dramatically call it) still kills me, gets me right in the heart. Oh and nice X-Men/JL comparison.

      • Brian Salvatore


    • vjj

      The question now becomes. Does DC self-correct, or will it literally implode with the cancelling of most if not all of it’s titles.

      The DC Universe needs another reboot, both on the comics page and in their editorial rooms. Geoff Johns, Jim Lee, Bewb Harras, Diane Nelson, and Scott Lobdell all need to go. New writers with the freedom to write are what DC comics need.

      • Brian Salvatore

        I think the big problem is that there isn’t a clear direction with what DC is supposed to be anymore. It used to be that you could open up just about any DC book and there was a certain feel and tone to it that made it a DC book. That’s gone now, and with it most of what I, personally, craved from my DC books.

    • manhamster

      I’ve sworn off, for the time being at least, both DC and Marvel. I liked Marvel because they put on a show, but when I wanted to read a good story I would look at DC. It always felt there was more grease-work involved to make the characters more well-rounded; more literary mixed with the pulp. I don’t think Identify Crisis would have worked with Marvel. Honestly when they started putting Wally and Kyle on the back burner, I started walking away from the DC line.

      I dunno considering that DC is part of Warner Bros, I wonder how much of this is due higher up interference. With the Marvel movie successes could there be pressure to make these comics viable movie material.

      • Brian Salvatore

        I think there is interference there, but I don’t think Warner would be doing things like pushing out writers; maybe they are mandating more “movie-friendly” books, but the hiring/firing/pushing out has to happen at the editorial level, I’d think.

    • alex

      Here’s the thing though, pre-reboot, how many books were you reading from DC? How many of them were actually good? I can think of 4 maybe 6 books? Maybe? DC wasn’t really pushing out many good quality books. Now, even if E-2 somehow went to shit, and I don’t this DC will let it fully go that way, we will still have over 20-25 great books that everyone should be reading. Not to mention that we are getting a BG series, a question series, a red robin solo and quite a few other books fans have been calling out for. Robinson is a loss, yes. But who knows who they put on the book now, maybe it somehow IMPROVES?

      • DavidMultiversity

        Whoa, 20 to 25 great books at DC? I think you’re reading different comics than me.

      • Can you name even 10 great books coming out of DC right now?

      • Brian Salvatore

        I was reading about the same number of books pre/post New 52, but I think that the New 52 has painted themselves into a corner that they can’t get out of. At least in the past, there were clear pathways to new and better stories – those pathways are gone.

        And 20-25 GREAT books? You must have a different designator of great than i do – and that’s ok!

        • alex

          Lets see:
          E-2 (for at least the next 3 months)
          Red hood and the Outlaws
          JL (for the shazam backups alone)
          Demon Knight
          Dial H
          Green Team
          Batman and …
          All Star Western
          Green Arrow (issue 17 onward)
          There’s twenty books that I either buy in trade form or singles. Not to mention great titles like I, Vampire, OMAC and the first trade of Voodoo that are excellent, now cancelled books.

          Plus I don’t even read anything related to Green Lateran but I assume that at least 2 of the books within his family are competent.

          So ya 20 books by DC right now isn’t a stretch at all.

          • Brian Salvatore

            I would argue that many of those are good books, but few are great. Earth 2, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow and Justice League Dark are the only ones I would call “great” right now. I also think that some of those, specifically Red Hood and the Outlaws and Ton, are pretty much dreck. But hey, that’s why my article was all about why I, me, Brian, wasn’t happy with DC right now. I’m glad you’re enjoying their books, and I hope to enjoy more of them soon.

            • alex

              No I understand your opinion is that yours, and i am not claiming you somehow have a character flaw because of it, I just find the general hatred toward DC grating. It hasn’t been featured much on this site (one of the reasons I found myself gravitating towards it more and more).

              I do agree a lot of what you said in the article, I do think though we need to wait until NYCC or SDCC to find out exactly why he left. If it doesn’t get answered without resorting to PR speak I will be first in line to start getting angry at the higher ups at DC.

              Also who knows who the new writer is, maybe that person is some super secret indie guy that DC has been keeping in the wings that somehow is an improvement over Jamie.

              Who knows though.

              Keep up the good work though 😀

          • Min

            Some of those books are clearly and objectively not as good as the others.

            I’m not going to say that your definition of great is wrong and misguided but I will say that it is quite wide.

    • I can’t remember the last time I’ve ever been so completely disinterested in the vast majority of DC’s output, and I think this gets at the heart of it. The whole thing feels hollow, throwaway, transitory, without any sense of weight or history or meaning behind it.

      Batman Inc is the only book I’m buying from them currently, which ends in July. This is a book that has been building on the ENTIRE history of Batman, from the Shadow pulp hero, to Batman and Robin’s early adventures, Dick Sprang/Adam West hijinks, Neal Adams serious detective, Frank Miller’s militant badass, etc. It’s doing it in a way that’s thoroughly engaging, inventive, and always unpredictable. I seriously have no idea how it’s gonna end(besides Batman taking down Leviathan that is). I feel like when that issue wraps up, that will just be it for me.

      And that’s ok, because there’s clearly an audience for this thing. Zack Snyder’s overblown, purple prose filled, repetitive, dragged out, dumb as all hell with terrible characterization and character motivation that changes with the wind Batman comic sells 100K+ a month, fans and critics alike can’t wait to get on their knees to appease his work, so clearly it’s working for a LOT of people. They are DC Nu52 fans.

      I’m just not one of them.

      • Brian Salvatore

        There is good stuff still happening in the New 52 – most of it just doesn’t appeal to my specific fan tendencies.

    • AtariBaby

      Sorry to say I’m not reading a single DC title right now, except Wonder Woman with mild interest. I’m reading a few Marvels. There’s some really bitter Marvel statements in comments, but you’re really missing out if you’re not reading Mark “remember when DC was awesome” Waid’s titles and Thor God of Thunder and if you didn’t read Hickman’s FF and Fantastic Four and the new versions of same, you’ve really missed out, my friends. Mostly now I’m seeking out independent titles and finding some really good stuff. DC and its continuous reboots and rehashes are completely uninteresting to me now.

    • This is how bad DC’s offerings look to someone who has been a DC reader and collector since 1985:

      I stopped buying DC books about three months after New 52 launched. That would be bad enough… but I know how to download comics. I know how to get them through torrents and Usenet. I can do that… and I don’t. DC’s stuff is so bad right now, that the old insult “I wouldn’t read that if it were free!” *is actually true*.

    • Gene Femmel

      I actually think Geoff Johns did a good job making DC more accessible to me as a reader.

    • Chris Brooks

      Although I feel your pain, I really like the books I’m pulling. I was actually a Marvel fan up until the New 52. Since then, my list has shifted to Earth 2 (and i’m still digging it with Tom Taylor, and the new “flashpoint Thomas Wayne” in it), GL, Batman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Phantom Stranger, JL3000, Swamp Thing, and even Forever Evil in the midst of it getting long (the Metal Men made it ALL worth it!) It’s sad that older DC fans feel alienated, but I also wonder how anyone could not, for instance, pick up a Jeff Parker Aquaman issue or a Snyder Bat-book and not just love it. Sorry, man. Oh and the only real gripe I’ve had has been the way Superman has been treated (except for the Morrison Action run), but the new Super-books with Greg Pak and Charles Soule are fantastic and how it should’ve been all along… again, coming from a new guy. Although I had enjoyed All-star Superman and Birthright back in the day.

    • Agreed 100%. I’ve only been reading comics since around 2002-2003 (I was about 15), but I have ALWAYS been more of a DC Comics fan. As of now, I only routinely purchase Wonder Woman and Batman now, which is just insane to wrap my mind around considering that there was a point were I didn’t get *any* Marvel books. As far as I’m considered, DiDio needs to retire or be fired. It has just gotten to that point… ugh. Bumming myself out thinking about it.