Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Excuses, excuses...

Yes, I know it's been a while...
Since I last posted, my life has been full of unpredictable events. I've had to travel to Wales, London, the Lake District and York, had my in-laws fly over from the US, had a friend die suddenly, seen Leonard Cohen, had a famous TV presenter pretend to know me, been threatened at gunpoint by a soldier... leaving me not in the most coherent state to post my thoughts on Batman. By the time I got any free time, the comics on which I wanted to comment were *so* yesterday to the rest of the blogosphere.

Equally important was the fact that I didn't want to comment on the Dan DiDio pecking party that was going on for much of the last few weeks. As many of you may have gathered I am not a wholehearted supporter of DiDio's editorial regime, but nor do I think it's been all bad. For every bad decision (letting Judd Winick write anything at all) there's been an excellent one (letting Grant Morrison essentially have free run of the DCU).

DiDio's job is pretty much guaranteed to make him one of the most hated men in comics, at least among the comic blogosphere, and there's been an undertone in many of the posts of "Well, Jimmy Palmiotti is the kind of person who'll recognise the genius of my proposed twelve-issue series about an alternate world where Zatanna and Barbara Gordon are lovers but they're both cats! Damn you DiDio for turning down Pussies Of Prey!"

Anyway, DiDio's job appears safe for the forseeable future, and I've not had a major shock to the nervous system in nearly four days, so I'm going to talk about comics.

Specifically, I'm going to talk about Grant Morrison's big epic story featuring the New Gods going up against the big guns of the DCU, where we see a world where evil has won, that doesn't tie in properly with the weekly comic it was meant to tie in with.

I'm referring of course to Rock Of Ages.

One of the big criticisms people have had of Final Crisis is the way it doesn't quite tie in with Countdown To Final Crisis, and it's true that that could have been handled better. However, the two comics are doing fundamentally different things. Final Crisis is an attempt (and, I believe, a largely successful one) to create art (pop art, but art nonetheless) - it's written to stand up to repeated readings, and the intention is presumably that it will remain in print indefinitely, outside of its context.

Countdown, on the other hand, was an attempt to create comics-like product that would keep people going to the comic shop. The Countdown trades will presumably go out of print within six months or a year or so. In those circumstances Morrison is absolutely right not to alter his work because of continuity issues created by others.

Rock Of Ages here provides a point of comparison. When it came out originally, it was contemporary with a four-week DC crossover called Genesis, which I reread last week in preparation for writing this post and have already forgotten - it was a John Byrne thing and DC might as well have just put out a circular saying "John Byrne desperately wants to be the next Kirby, but in fact he's a less-good Jim Starlin" as that would have had the same effect as actually publishing the story, and at less expense.

Anyway, both stories deal with the New Gods, and while Morrison's story pays lip-service to the crossover (mainly by putting in a few pages at the end of the first issue, not reprinted in the trade), reading the two stories back to back is a very confusing experience, as everyone in Morrison's story is being told who this 'Metron' fellow is directly after just spending four issues doing some ... stuff... involving godwaves or something with him.

The interesting thing here is how much light Rock Of Ages sheds on Morrison's writing methods, and on his take on superheroes and the New Gods, when compared to Genesis.

In Genesis, it's explained that all superheroes are in fact demigods, created by a Godwave that now threatens to destroy the universe for rather poorly-defined reasons. They have to team up with Darkseid and then against him, there are double-bluffs and stratagems and so on, and it's just like every other 'cosmic' crossover ever created.

But that reveal, that the superpowered people are demigods rather than humans, much like every other Roythomasism that's tried to tie all superheroes together (the meta-gene, homo magi, etc) is a profoundly dispiriting idea. Superheroes, in this view, are superheroes just because they were born special. You can never be as special as they are, in their special specialness - they're just *better* than you. You're disgusting, aren't you? Why don't you just die?

(To be fair, Byrne does make a half-hearted stab at having the non-powered heroes say things like "We mustn't be downhearted - we must fight on regardless!", but still the ideas that remain in the memory (to the extent that such an unmemorable story remains in the memory at all, and I feel here like the protagonist in Memento, trying to reconstruct a story that's slipping from my grasp even though I read it only this weekend - "I must have read a big cosmic crossover recently, because I have a profound feeling of ennui. If only I could recall what it was...") are the ones about how superheroes are really gods).

This message - that some people are just born special and better than everyone else - is at the core of Joseph Campbell's 'hero of a thousand faces', which thanks to George Lucas is now the accepted formula for every piece of mass entertainment (which in turn is why I go to the cinema maybe every couple of months, if that).

The formula can be used well - Neil Gaiman uses it passably, though the more you read of Gaiman's writing the more obvious his use of it and similar formulae becomes - after all, if it was incapable of being used well, it wouldn't have become a formula - but more often it gives us dreck like Superman Returns.

"But Andrew!" the three of you who've read this far are shouting "Doesn't Grant Morrison also have an unhealthy obsession with this misbegotten formula? He sometimes goes back to its Jungian roots, but All Star Superman, which you like so much, is a hero's journey if ever I saw one. Death of the father, journey through the underworld, death and rebirth motif, it's all there, isn't it?"

To which I can only respond by analogy.

The I-vi-ii(or IV)-V chord sequence has been the basis of innumerable terrible songs over the years, and one or two decent ones as well - it's the sequence used in every doo-wop song and bad ballad ever. That sequence or a slight variation is used in Duke Of Earl, Blue Moon, I Will Always Love You and a billion other songs you know. It's a cliche, and even though it's been used well in the past, I could perfectly happily go a lifetime without hearing it again.

But Brian Wilson, in the song The Warmth Of The Sun, managed to make something new. He started that progression in C, went through the first two chords, then *started it again*, a minor third up, going through the changes again before returning to the original key and finishing the progression. A twist as simple as that can turn something from the most obvious of cliches into something quite extraordinary.

In the same way, it's possible to use the hero's journey as something to build upon, to twist, to play with, and come out with something interesting. If you take it as a description of what other people have done (as, to be fair, Campbell appeared to intend it) rather than as a prescription of what you must do, you can get something interesting out of it. This is what Morrison does.

While sometimes, in Seven Soldiers for example, Morrison does fall into the trap of the hero just being born special (though in Seven Soldiers this is mitigated somewhat by the fact that there are *seven* 'unique' people, and actually many more playing important roles), more often he focuses on normal people, or on people who are special not because of any powers but because of their character. The occasions where he has most obviously written a hero's journey - things like The Invisibles - have been ones where the journey is clearly subordinate to other elements (few people would say that Jack Frost's growth as a character is anything like the most important element in The Invisibles).

And so in Rock Of Ages, straight after John Byrne has revealed that Wally West and Eel O'Brien were just born special and better than the rest of us, Morrison has Darkseid - as powerful and 'special' a being as exists in the DCU - destroyed by Green Arrow, Batman and the Atom, three people who have no powers other than their own intelligence (yes, yes, I know, Ray Palmer had the metagene and so on - it doesn't matter. He got his powers from his own scientific knowledge, he wasn't born with them).

And the way in which they defeat Darkseid is something I'm going to go into a lot more in my next post, because this one's grown into something of a monster already. I've got most of that post written (this was a much longer post that I've split up), and I *hope* to have it up tomorrow, but given my recent history I'll probably be kidnapped by sentient alligators or something, so no promises.

If anyone's still reading this, I recommend you go and read Andrew Rilstone's recent posts on Dave Sim - as always, Rilstone is writing some wonderful stuff over there.

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