Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Crisis to End all Crises

Talking about 25 year old continuity patches is pretty much the definition of inside baseball for comics people - the kind of comics stuff that people who don't read comics probably imagine comics nerds talking about all the time. But it's fun, for all that. I wonder, though - and there's no research or anything more than the most generalized kind of assumption to back up this assessment - whether or not that kind of continuity wankery holds any appeal whatsoever for younger readers. And by "younger" I'm not even talking about kids, I'm talking about readers who may be just a handful of years younger than me, who were born long after the Crisis and have no personal connection to old-school continuity as a living pastime similar to, say, statistics and sabermetrics in baseball. Readers for whom the phrases "pre'-" and "post-Crisis" have about as much personal resonance as, I dunno, Doc Savage and the Shadow did for me.

Of course, there are still tons of people who do still get off on the idea of continuity porn for its own sake, or Geoff Johns' would be out of work - but really, how many of the people who like his revisionist work on Green Lantern really remember the "old school" Green Lantern, and remember why there was no Oa in Earth 2's universe and why Krona was responsible for the creation of evil? I'm not saying that there aren't many readers who do know the answer to these questions, but I also think that it's likely that there are many readers who read and enjoy contemporary superhero books who might not know, and might not even really care, so long as the story in hand now is cool and functionally legible. When I started reading comics, continuity was a challenge, and that meant it was part of the fun. People always like to talk about "jumping on" points, but every single book I started reading and got hooked on as a kid was entered "en media res" - I had no idea who anyone was, but you picked it up as you go along, and were hopefully inspired to go back and pick up what you might have missed. That's how direct market retailers made their hump, after all, in the days before TPBs were a "thing." There are a number of bloggers I read and follow who love superhero comics but don't appear to have any affection for continuity in and of itself - it's even become a kind of dirty word. (Or at least, it was before Grant Morrison became the post-Crisis Roy Thomas - shhh, don't tell.)

Oh well, that preamble came out far more decrepit and complaining than I initially intended. My central point is a simple one: I love the original Crisis. I think it's a great story that, in some respects, takes the idea of the superhero as far as it can possibly go in one particular direction. But is it a story that has any appeal two and a half decades on, now that all the continuity tangles of the seventies and eighties are just a dim racial memory among the members of the Nerd Tribe, and subsequent events have rendered the category of "post-Crisis" functionally meaningless?

For someone without any - or minimal - prior investment in that kind of storytelling, Crisis probably looks like a solid wall of white-noise: hundreds of characters with unfathomable motivations bouncing against an archaic status quo in the pursuit of solid and distilled self-referentiality. When you put it like that, it sounds crazy. But that's the appeal, at least for me. This is why - perhaps the main reason, other than sheer nostalgic lethargy - I still like and enjoy superhero comics, long after I realized I should probably feel guilty about it. It's the scale. Few things in the history of media can really compare to the kind of mass and scope of superhero narratives at their hugest and most sprawling - and yeah, most confused and self-indulgent. For something like Crisis, it's not necessary that you're expected to know who all the nobodies are - really, who did? I mean, I'm sure there were some people who did, but I still don't know who the hell many of those guys were outside of their Who's Who entries. It's more the principle that every nobody - from Anthro to Dolphin - carried his or her own history and adventures in his or her back pocket, so that even if you never cared to, you could - in theory - follow every different character down their own distinctive rabbit hole into undreamed worlds of intricate backstory. And all of these characters were all together to do something so big that it beggared the imagination, something on the kind of scale reserved for only the most mind-expanding and bizarre sci-fi and fantasy novels. Hundreds of garishly colored adventurers journey to the beginning of time to reboot the universe from scratch with the help of the avenging angel of the Old Testament God - wow! Sign me the hell up!

If you've ever read Homer, there's something similar in the kind of incessant intertextuality used in The Iliad and The Odyssey. In both of those books you've got also got huge laundry lists of characters who show up, sometimes only for a couple lines, say or do something, and disappear soon after. For those not up on their classics, it can be pretty bewildering - many of the characters in his sprawling cast would have had some resonance for Homer's listeners / earliest readers, but the significance of many has faded with time. In many instances, entire myth cycles have been lost or absorbed by subsequent traditions - Joe from Crete might have had a huge local cult and his own elaborate creation and apotheosis cycle - but oops, no one in his tribe knew how to write so that's all gone, save for a brief reference to another great Cretan King fighting with Agammemon at Troy. Myths didn't have to be consistent - in fact, few myths were ever consistent. Most myth textbooks reflect this in some fashion, so that even if you read, say, Edith Hamilton's version of Hercules, you know that there are any number of variations and alternative interpretations that survive in the cultural and literary record. The fun part is that anyone who just wants a good story can pick the version that most pleases them. One thing I remember distinctly from every Classics class I ever took is that every one of my professors repeated, in as many words, that there was never any such thing as "the definitive" story of Hercules or any of these gods and heroes, just variations based on regional preferences and historical tradition. And if you really get a kick out of Hercules, you can become a professional classicist and study all those different versions, and they're all valid, and they're all interesting. Or you can watch the movie and enjoy it for what it is, and that's the Hercules that exists in the culture at this moment.

I realize I'm treading unpleasantly close to that hoary "superheroes as modern myth" canard - but I think, if we look at myth as something that simultaneously accumulates and sheds complexity over the course of multiple generations of retelling, we might actually be onto something interesting. The companies themselves have figured this out, for the most part: the version of the character that pays the bills is the simplest and most streamlined iteration thereof. Whichever are the traits that remain constant through multiple successive reboot,s those are the traits that are most important. There are still lots of people who love playing the old connect-the-dots games with continuity that was obscenely convoluted before they were even born, but . . . those aren't the readers who pay the bills, not anymore. Creators and editors regard continuity as their servant, not the other way around, and they have decades of negative reinforcement in regards to the potential consequences of putting the carriage before the horse in this particular transaction.

So, those of us who still care about things like Crisis in and of themselves - are we becoming the equivalent of Classics professors, delighting over minutiae while the vast majority of readers are content simply to enjoy what they enjoy while leaving the under-the-hood stuff to the nerds? Or am I creating a false dichotomy based on an erroneous reading of current trends in organized fandom? You tell me, I'm genuinely curious to know your opinions.

What I do know is that this year Crisis on Infinite Earths is 26 years old, meaning that lots of people who can drive, smoke, drink alcohol and even rent cars were born and came of age in context of a fictional world that has long since mooted the events of Crisis, in such a way that they might even be unintelligible to someone without a Masters degree in the DCU. I love that book because of its scope and sweep, all the things that seem to be de-emphasized even under the auspices of supposedly massive crossover stories like Final Crisis and all of Marvel's unerringly quotidian crossover events (since House of M, at least, which was large in scope but doggedly small-scale in execution). They just don't make 'em like this anymore.

I love the cosmic: I've never made any bones about that. As much as I have enjoyed Abnett & Lanning's cosmic stories these past few years - and they are very good at what they do - they still suffer somewhat from their general refusal to step back into the kind of widescreen metaphysical exploration in which Starlin and Englehart specialized. They like vaguely paramilitary space opera, not Heinlein-esque metaphysics. You don't get many shots of Eternity and Death conversing on the nature of reality with Adam Warlock, or the SIlver Surfer having to negotiate between conflicting embodiments of abstract metaphorical concepts. It's all very squarely physical in nature, with armies clashing and spaceships exploding and interplanetary politicking. To be fair, their last event to date - The Thanos Imperative - began to tease more strongly in the direction of Starlin's work, initiating a more direct engagement with the metaphorical concepts that have traditionally served as the thematic ballast for Marvel's cosmic books. But with the general consumer apathy towards Marvel (and DC's) cosmic lines, it seems unlikely that these threads are going to be resumed anytime soon, leastwise by naturalistic writers such as Bendis and Brubaker who seem constitutionally unable to adopt the cosmic "voice" in any of their work to date. (For Petes' sake, the current Infinity Gauntlet storyline in Bendis' Avengers seems to be building to a procedural squabble between Steve Rogers' Avengers and Iron Man's Illuminati. Where's the Living Tribunal when you need him? ) I hold out hope for Jonathan Hickman's Fantastic Four, but in terms of laying the groundwork for forthcoming stories his run is still in its formative issues.

There just isn't enough cosmic in the comics these days, and it doesn't look as if the people currently responsible for making the comics have it in them to make the same kinds of stories I liked when I was growing up. If that's the case - well, so be it. There's no law that says they have to continue to make stories like the original Crisis and The Infinity Gauntlet for as long as I want to read them. I just feel a little sad, as if the industry and readership that supported those kinds of stories just doesn't exist anymore, and the creative climate that encouraged stories in that vein is long gone. It seems as if more writers these days grew up reading Raymond Chandler than Isaac Asimov, and while that's certainly a broad generalization there's still enough truth in that observation to sting. I shouldn't have to tell you which one I prefer by a long, long ways.

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