Thursday, October 23, 2008


Nina Stone has a thoughtful, outsider's p.o.v.-style review of two recent super-hero comics - Punisher #63 and Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds #2. Her take on Legion is that it is busy, messy, and impenetrable. It got me thinking: even though I think Geoff Johns is one of the best contemporary super-hero writers, I can't think of anything he's done that I could recommend to someone who wasn't already really invested in super-hero comics. He doesn't do "entry level" super-hero comics.

Johns gives his super hero stories their narrative and thematic oomph by positioning and re-positioning various elements of the DC Mythos. But if you haven't already invested a fairly substantial amount of time reading DC super hero comics, most of what he's doing is going to look meaningless (at best).

And, as much as I like his work, I'm not sure that it would be worth doing the "grunt work" necessary to grok it for anyone who isn't still a teenager. For example, Green Lantern: Rebirth sounds like it should be a good jumping-on point for a newcomer to Green Lantern - especially since Johns intended it to be a lead-in to a continuing Green Lantern series which would focus more on the core elements of the Green Lantern Mythos*. However, Rebirth starts very far away from those core elements and Johns' attempt to straighten out Hal Jordan's extremely convoluted storyline won't resonate with people who don't know and/or care** about that storyline.

For me, that's not really a negative. I'm glad that he's writing these super-hero comics for hardcore super-hero fans. As I've said before, I think there's something unique about DC's mythos-centric stories that you don't find anywhere else, and while "unique" doesn't necessarily equal "good", when these stories are done well by someone like Johns, "unique" is definitely an added value.

And because I do place value on their uniqueness, attacking these kinds of comics because they don't work like other kinds of arts and culture stuff rings hollow to me.*** Part of what I enjoy about Final Crisis and other Mythos-centric super-hero comics is that it is a lot harder to get into by picking up a random mid-series issue than it would be to get into, say, House by watching a random episode from the middle of season 4. I don't think that every super-hero comic should work like Final Crisis, but I don't see it as a strike against them when they do.

*This is an excellent series, by the way. If you twisted my arm, it would be the one Johns comic that I'd recommend to non-hardcore super-hero fans.

**I'd note that a lot of the caring would come from people who think the whole Parallax/Spectre story was a completely awful idea and needs to be undone.

***This isn't what Nina is doing in her post, but I'm directing that last paragraph towards people who are making those kinds of arguments.


James said...

One night I met Bob Wayne, DC's VP of Sales, on the Metro North train.

I was basically making the same point as the poster you cite to: that there are a whole bunch of comics which are inaccessible and unfriendly to newcomers.

Wayne's response is that DC (and I guess Marvel too) has different grade levels of comics. So there might be children's comics (like Scooby-Doo), all-ages comics (like Rogers's Blue Beetle), and then comics for super-serious fans (the stuff you're talking about here).

As a marketing & audience research tool, I think this is pretty sensible. There should be hardcore comics for that audience, just like there should be hardcore stuff for other audiences. It may not be my thing, but there's nothing wrong with it.

But part of me thinks: wait, you've created a piece of intellectual property which can only be appreciated by someone with a graduate degree in Comics-ology (or equivalent life experience, such as reading late 1980's X-titles). And yet for all that intellectual effort, it's still pretty much a story about people in tights punching other people in tights. (And by and large, it's not always even a good punching-people story.) The effort is disproportionate to the reward, and I suppose geekiness makes up the deficit.

I'm trying to think of other things like that; the "Pokemon" cartoon may have been the best recent example. It's impossible to appreciate unless you've sunk the time, but even then I still suspect it would turn out to be kinda dumb on its own terms. What the cartoon offers, I think, isn't a story so much as little nods to the kids who have sunk all that time: "Charizard... I know that guy. Look, the characters are saying stuff I already learned. Oh, and they're mentioning this new guy I don't know about, I guess it's time to go buy more products."

I wonder if hardcore fans of any medium are much the same: the goal is to make consumption of (or obsession with) the brand its own reward, with the product itself as a token reinforcement of that behavior.

James said...

Oh, another thought: Tolkien's "Silmarilion."

It is a dry, frustrating book. It is not the kind of work you just hand to a casual reader of fantasy fiction. It's confusing and largely unrewarding, and it takes a lot of effort to read.

On the other hand, having read it, you'll get far more joy and depth out of "Lord of the Rings." The "Silmarilion" gives Tolkien's Middle Earth a huge amount of resonance and depth.

Here, I'd argue, the extra effort to plow through an unfriendly work really pays off.

The same is true with a lot of Dostoevsky's novels, which aren't always easy reading but manage to be pretty powerful once you reach "cruising altitude."

It's been a really long time, however, since I've read "hardcore superhero comics," and I can't say with any reliability whether they're closer to the Pokemon consumerism model, or the Tolkien depth model. My hunch is that they're usually marketed as the latter but turn out to be the former.

Jon Hastings said...

Well, I think there are definitely good hardcore super-hero books - Johns' JSA, for instance - which require and reward having a relatively deep investment in the DC Mythos. But there are also ones that seem to work basically with the Pokemon effect in mind: creating a pleasurable buzz of recognition for longtime fans. The best example of this kind of story is still probably "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" (Granted, that's from almost 30 years ago, but we don't begrudge Hollywood making more gangster movies just because the best one was made almost 80 years ago, right?)

However, I think your Pokemon comparison is off because of time and talent. The DC Mythos has been created and worked on by quite a few talented people over many, many years: Jerry Siegel, Otto Binder, Curt Swan, Gil Kane, John Broome, Carmine Infantino, Gardner Fox, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Roy Thomas, Denny O'Neil, Neal Adams, Steve Englehart, Alan Moore, Doug Moench, John Byrne, Jerry Ordway, Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, Geoff Johns, etc. Not all of these guys were capital-"A" Artists, but I think their work goes way above what would be required if they were merely churning out product. Likewise, Pokemon done by Osamu Tezuka could have been pretty great. (I mean, Akira Toriyama is no Tezuka, but he's still a really good cartoonist and his Dragon Ball is a really good series, despite the fact that it's being published to make money).

James said...

Really? You thought "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" was fan service? I'm not a big DC fan, but I found it fairly moving in parts, particularly the bit with Krypto. I think Moore was basically doing a "Greatest Hits" collection, which has rewards for hardcore fans, but isn't enjoyable only to that group, the way (say) Marvel's "Inferno" was.

Also, I wouldn't say that the DC Universe is all about moving product: obviously a lot of those creators were inspired artists, and the material accreted over many decades.

But I think "hardcore superhero comics" might exist to move product, by exploiting fans' love for all that great old stuff. Perhaps the reward for loyally consuming "Countdown to Final Crisis" is that you'll get to consume "Final Crisis." And if you're a true fan, that's good enough.

I'm still trying to figure out whether "Silmarilion" is any different from "Countdown to Final Crisis" and if so how. It could just be bias on my part, but part of me feels that some themes can sustain very complex treatment, and others can't. (I haven't read "Final Crisis" so it's a lot harder to judge.)

Jon Hastings said...

Whoops - I meant that "Whatever" was not the Pokemon-type, but the better kind of Mythos-centric story.