Sunday, 6 May 2007

52 Wrapup 2 - on continuity and multiverses

Well, today is New Comics Day and Countdown is here!... if you're in the US. Over here, New Comics Day is Thursday, and so I won't be able to post about Countdown until Friday (unless someone posts a torrent in the meantime - rest assured that if they do, I shall still be buying my copy as normal). In the meantime, let's talk some more about 52.

As anyone with even the most cursory interest in Big Two superhero comics will now know, the ending of 52 involved the return of the DC Multiverse - one in most respects identical (or near-as-dammit) to the pre-Crisis one, even down to the numberings (Earths 2 , 3 and from the looks of things 17 are the same, S becomes 5 and X becomes 10).

The multiverse is one of the most controversial elements in the DC 'universe' (the idea of a multiverse within a universe is one about which it is probably best not to think too much). This series of back-and-forth essays by Marc Singer and Jim Roeg illustrates most of the more interesting arguments for and against the multiverse (the less interesting arguments boil down to 'It's hard for new readers to understand', which can be disproved simply by pointing to the thousands of small children who had no problem understanding the comics at the time).

(For those of you who never read the original Crisis on Infinite Earths, Matt Rossi's posts at Howling Curmudgeons are the best thing ever written about the series, and should give you an idea as to whether it's your thing or not).

The interesting thing, to my mind, is that not all multiverse or alternate reality stories are equally controversial. Nobody complained, for example, about the recent Red King Rising story in JLA: Classified (or if they did, it was more because Dan Slott went from 'script' to 'plotter' after the first issue, and penciller/dialoguist Dan Jurgens doesn't seem to have quite understood the plot, leading to some bits that didn't work) despite it having six billion alternate universes.

No, only a particular type of multiverse story gets the fans wound up and claiming it's too confusing, and it's perhaps worth looking at the origins of the DC Multiverse to see why it's so hated by a vocal minority of fans (and loved by another subset).

The multiverse was first shown in Flash 123, when Barry Allen (the second of the four Flashes DC Comics have published) vibrated so fast he ended up in another world, where he met Jay Garrick (the first Flash). In his original appearance, Allen had been inspired to become The Flash after reading about Garrick in a comic - this story was written to explain how Allen was reading comics about Garrick while both knew Superman and Batman. It was simple - Allen knew the Superman of Earth-One, while Garrick knew the Superman of Earth-Two.

There followed stories which showed that, for example, Captain Marvel lived on Earth-S, the Freedom Fighters lived on Earth-X, and so forth. But it was the Earth-One/Two split that certain fans brought up , and to this day they talk about the multiple Supermen being 'confusing'.

I suspect that a lot of this dislike was based, not on any sense of confusion, but rather on what, for want of a better word, I can only describe as an ideological distaste. For some reason love of superhero comics and other forms of fantastic fiction seems to go hand-in-hand with wanting to put the stories into some form of order. This seems to be an almost primal drive - my nine year old niece visited the other day, and I let her rifle through a box full of comics I no longer wanted and take any that took her fancy. At first I thought she was getting them at random, but she spread them on the floor and started sorting them by title, asking questions like "Does Green Lantern Corps go with Green Lantern?" and "Should I put Batman Detective Comics with the ones that just say Batman?"

But while most comics fans manage to keep this to a healthy level, some fans get entirely too obsessed with the minutiae of shared-universe 'continuity' (everyone will of course put 'too obsessed' at a different level - just assume I'm talking about those other comics fans, not you or me, we would never be like them). Roughly speaking, there are three possible attitudes to take if two comics featuring the same characters contradict each other. The first is to embrace the contradiction and use it as a jumping-off point for a new idea (as writer Gardner Fox and editor Julius Schwartz did in Flash 123). The second is just to ignore the contradiction and hope it goes away. The third is to insist that one version is the one true correct real version, and try to explain away the contradiction.

Much of the editorial policy of DC over the last few years seems to have been driven by people who take the third point of view - let's call them the Linear Men. DCU Executive Editor Dan DiDio has been vocal about his dislike of certain concepts, as have some of the more prominent writers in DC, notably Judd Winick (who claimed he'd been annoyed at the decision to kill Jason Todd 20 years ago, and that this was why he'd brought the character back from the dead). Steve Flanagan describes a typical Geoff Johns comic fairly (if a little harshly) when he says

"Geoff Johns is a different sort of fan. You can picture him holding a comic in one hand while frantically making notes with the other about the “facts” the issue contains. He seems determined that the school notebooks he filled with screeds of information about the Legion of Super-Heroes in the 1970s and 1980s should not go to waste. Now, it is in the nature of the DC Universe these days that writers have to make choices about which versions of past continuity to adhere to. But it is foolish to draw attention to this unavoidable weakness, and downright perverse to base your whole story on asserting your preferred version of continuity over all the others. Johns is interested in exerting control over an imagined world more than in telling stories that can stand up on their own. "

These people (and I am not suggesting that this is the actual view of DiDio, Johns et al themselves, merely that they produce comics which are of this tendency) want there to be one, real, true Earth, with one real true Superman, Batman, whoever. After all, they want their comics to matter. How can you be sure you're reading about the real Superman, not some faker from another dimension? Deep down, many have not learned the lesson Alan Moore taught in Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? - "This is an imaginary story. Aren't they all?"

Mark Waid and Grant Morrison, on the other hand, are very much of the first point of view (I originally wanted to deal here with the concept of Hypertime, created by Morrison and introduced to the DCU by Waid in The Kingdom, a miniseries that has a lot of resonances with 52, but that's probably going to be its own post). The new multiverse seems to be an elegant compromise between these two factions - one linear 'real' universe where all the currently in-continuity stories happen, and 51 others, all clearly delimited, out of the way, and definitely not to be confused with the real New Earth.

So, any bets on how long this will last? 52 is not very many, and before too long they'll run out of Earths. I suspect, actually, that the status quo will be changed again within two years. We'll see...

Incidentally - Grant Morrison's interview at Newsarama is interesting reading (as are all the 52 wrapups) and confirms the structural simillarity between 52 and Seven Soldiers that I spoke about the other day is deliberate. Newsarama are also running guides to Countdown characters to get new readers up to speed.

Tonight or tomorrow I'll post my thoughts about Countdown (since I started typing this it's been torrented, so I'll get it pre-purchase) , and some time in the next few days I'll return to the subject of multiverses, multiplicity and Hypertime.


Steve Flanagan said...

Thanks for the quote (harsh? me? Pshaw!).

In a move packed with irony, DC deleted "This is an imaginary story, aren't they all?" from the current reprint of Whatever Happened To The man of Tomorrow. See here. A career at the Ministry of Truth awaits DC's reprints editor.

Andrew Hickey said...

That link didn't work properly... but yeah, I knew they'd cut that from the new "Alan Moore DCU stories" trade (along with equally stupidly collecting everything he did for DC *except* Swamp Thing 20 and a couple of text pieces...)

I've been much harsher about Johns' writing myself in the past, but 52 has made me warm to him ever-so-slightly (mostly for the scene with the Question saying "Shazam!" to see if it'd work, which is one of the better touches in the series and apparently his...).

I discovered your blog a very short time ago, BTW, after you did the Alice In Sunderland thing which (despite my criticisms) I was *very* impressed by...

Steve Flanagan said...

I'll try it en clair:

Anonymous said...

The thing i'm just waiting for is the first parallel world/universe to be 'destroyed.' Just to, you know, show how powerful some villain is.

Andrew Hickey said...

Oh God, you can just imagine it, can't you?
G'Nort gets super-rabies and starts using his power ring to destroy entire universes, saying something 'badass' like "I'm a very bad dog!"
A team consisting of Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel and some powerless C-lister like Guardian go out into space to fight him. G'nort knocks out the 'big guns' straight away (because he's 'badass') but then Guardian draws on hidden reserves of strength:
"I'm a very bad dog!"
"And I'm going to have to put you DOWN!" (punches him on the jaw).
In the ensuing fight, Guardian dies horribly, but he gives the powerful characters a chance to capture G'Nort, who is placed in The Houdini Memorial Revolving Door Prison And Escapology College, on his honour not to try to escape again. The last page is just a slow zoom in on G'nort's face:
"Guess what?"
"I'm STILL a very bad dog".
And then there's a four-issue miniseries with everyone standing around looking sad about Guardian and conveniently forgetting all the people on the alternate earth that was destroyed, culminating with someone 'taking up the mantle' and becoming the new Guardian...