Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Multiversity: The Just

Multiversity: The Just depicts a world of superheroes that’s all style and no substance. At least, they haven’t had to have substance for quite a while, but that is due to change. Based, in Grant Morrison’s words, on the reality TV show, The Hills, The Just has TV-style captions that introduce a large number of characters of Earth-16, some very familiar from mainstream continuity, and some variations on characters we’ve seen before.

In tone, this ends up resembling Kingdom Come and its sequel in many ways. The characters are mainly second-and-third generation superheroes and supervillains, but unlike the setup in Kingdom Come, where the super-powered godchildren wreak havoc, these no longer do much of anything besides capture the public attention and play-act past battles as a kind of stage-acting while robots built by the first, and late, Superman solve every imaginable problem. The two main characters are the sons of Superman and Batman, calling to mind the ongoing “Super Sons” feature set in an indeterminate future, published in World’s Finest during the Silver Age.

Befitting the concept, the story arc is very simple but the surface details many. A list of annotations covers the details:

Sister Miracle, Sasha Norman is the daughter of Mister Miracle, Shilo Norman.
Megamorpho, Saffi Mason, is the daughter of Metamorpho, Rex Mason.
Megamorpho commits suicide, much as a similar character, Element Girl, did in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.
As soon as that reference is made, “Neil Gaiman’s Sandman” is mentioned explicitly, reinforcing the theme in Multiversity that comic books describing one Earth exist as publications in other Earths.
The Atom, Ray Palmer, is the only “adult” from the Silver Age seen in The Just.
Damian Wayne is now Batman, wearing the same outfit seen in three Grant Morrison stories set in an apocalyptic future. Alexis asks him if he believes in curses, which possibly reinforces his association with Doctor Hurt, who, as the Devil, gave Damian enhanced life span and invulnerability in those stories.
Alexis Luthor is Lex Luthor’s daughter. She is dating Damian, but
Superman is Chris Kent, using the same name as the adopted son of Superman and Lois Lane who existed between Infinite Crisis and Flashpoint.
Offspring, Ernie O’Brian, is the son of Plastic Man, Eel O’Brian, and was part of the aforementioned Kingdom Come continuity.
Kyle Rayner is the only Green Lantern in this reality.
Wally West is the Flash.
Connor Hawke is the Green Arrow. Cissie King-Hawke is Arrowette.
Kon-El is Superboy. He is beginning to turn into a Bizarro.
Jakeem Thunder is the owner of the Magic Thunderbolt.
Natasha Irons is Steel.
Garth is Aquaman.
Artemis is Wonder Woman.
Pieter Cross is Doctor Mid-Nite.
Bloodwynd, no secret identity.
Cynthia Reynolds is Gypsy.
Holly Dayton is Menta.

As in the previous issues of Multiversity, comic books, in particular the Ultraa story that will end the series, are haunted, bringing a threat from across the Multiverse. It is this infection that causes Saffi to commit suicide. Alexis Luthor takes control of Jakeem Thunder to attack Earth-16. This is another thematic connection to Kingdom Come, in which Luthor plans treachery by controlling that story’s lightning-bearing superhero, Captain Marvel. And as in the previous issues of the series, there is an unresolved threat as of the last page, with the Superman robots wreaking havoc under Alexis’ control, and an Multiversal invasion set to begin.

The basic pattern is clear. The one-shot issues of The Multiversity show us a new world, show more signs of a huge cross-Multiverse threat, refer forward to the very comic book issue that will end the series, and end on a cliffhanger of imminent doom. The concept is not without appeal, but if the pattern isn’t varied much, then we have three more issues before the finale with, like The Just, more style than substance.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Justice League #34

The best team stories are the ones where different characters all have a different role to play in some way that's more sophisticated than whether their superpower is to communicate with sea life or run very fast. Justice League #34, "Unlikely Allies," is a fascinating phase deep into a very deep strategic game with several players representing several different sides. We can't actually see who has what planned, but in this issue, Geoff Johns gives us a glance at a few players' cards.

Aside from the classic heroes whose interests are presumably aligned, we have front and center Lex Luthor, who has been teased as a good guy in stories going back to the Sixties. This always ends with him turning out to be a very dark agent practicing duplicity or a self-interested party capable of serving the greater good when it serves his interests. We've seen the former in 1961's Death of Superman and Kingdom Come and the latter in Final Crisis, Injustice: Gods Above and many other stories. Since Forever Evil, it's been hard to decipher Luthor's game plan, but we know by the end of JL #34 that he is masking his true intentions and is allied with Owlman. This makes it more tantalizing to re-read the scene where he asks Wonder Woman to use her lasso on him but she does not, because he has apparently engineered that interaction very carefully to seem like a conflicted figure in order to keep her from actually using her lasso and discovering his deception.

That revelation, however, isn't the "bwah hah hah" revelation of evil that it might be in a simpler story. Owlman was possibly being forthright in Forever Evil when he proposed an alliance with Dick Grayson against the stronger members of the Crime Syndicate. While we can't expect the best of Owlman's desire to take possession of the super-powerful offspring of Ultraman and Superwoman, he may have some endgame in mind that is not entirely at cross-purposes with the Justice League.

What makes it credible that the moderately-evil characters in this ongoing story might be allied with the heroes is the looming threat of a purely-evil menace as discussed by Cyborg and seen in Justice League #34. The sentient ring from Power Ring, now fighting for control of Jessica Cruz, has indicated that its intention is to lure the being who destroyed Earth 3 to Earth 0 so it can take possession of Superwoman's child, the very same objective that Owlman has. It is unclear, though, how these three sides square off, except that it is unlikely that they are all aligned. Owlman probably does not crave destruction for its own sake, and would prefer to be as powerful as possible on some Earth or another. Luthor, no  doubt, would like that same outcome for himself, a vision that could place them into alliance or eventual conflict.

The spare information we have about the really evil characters is that some unknown character is helping the Anti-Monitor find worlds to consume, which is feeding him energy for an anticipated battle with Darkseid. Darkseid, the conqueror of Earth 2 and would-be conqueror from the DCNU's earliest stories, Final Crisis and countless previous works, has nonetheless been allied with our heroes against the Anti-Monitor in COIE. The win our heroes need to engineer may involve playing the two evil forces against one another. This story is likely to play out on a grand scale over the coming months, with tie-ins galore, certainly including Earth 2, likely the Green Lantern/New Gods Godhead miniseries, and possibly Multiversity, although in the past Grant Morrison stories have maintained separation from other plans other than a few minor points of tie-in.

The heroes see a deeper game, with Batman and Superman planning to snare Luthor, but perhaps not nearly as deep as the game really is. Johns is setting up one of his epic crossovers such as we've seen done – usually quite well – over the past 7 years. Among other mysteries that he's keeping secret is the identity of the character who is allied with the Anti-Monitor. Johns has a flare for going "big" with his villains, which makes me wonder if he'll bring Superboy Prime, one of his regulars from pre-Flashpoint, into this story, or perhaps Volthoom from Green Lantern lore, although he has also used characters as obscure as Nekron and Qull of the Five Inversions, and could possibly draw from just about any story in DC's past, but it is more Johns' style to use an existing character here, whether prominent or obscure, than present us with someone totally new.

The main upshot is that we are approaching a story on a grand scale and this issue is an important one on that path. The action scenes in JL #34 and even the revelation of Captain Cold's duplicity seem like minor sideplots while the grand design moves forward. We know, in the main, that good will prevail, but there could be some wonderful sound and fury along the way.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Retro Review: All Star Comics #3

The DC Universe Begins
One of the most pivotal early events in superhero comics was the debut of the Justice Society in All Star Comics #3. This not only introduced an important staple of comics, the superhero team, but it also helped define the medium in revolutionary ways that current readers may not appreciate because the changes it ushered in have become so pervasive. It is informative to note how the title All Star transformed from issue #1 through #4 and onward, and how creative and influential All Star #3 was.


From the debut of the comic book medium through early 1939, comic books contained many short features, unrelated to one another in plot and theme, ranging from one panel to a few pages. It was taken for granted that each feature in an issue inhabited its own fictional world, the same way that we may take for granted that two novels written by two different authors inhabit two different fictional worlds unless it is specifically brought to our attention that the novels share a single fictional world. Comic book features might continue in subsequent issues of the same title, but there was no single fictional world shared by any two features until 1940 when Marvel Mystery Comics #8 brought the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner together in a crossover story. But before and besides that story, we might presume that a stack of ten comic books told us of not one, nor two, nor merely ten fictional worlds, but potentially dozens. All of these title characters – clowns, cowboys, tough guys, warlords, and mystics – lived in their own world with their own cast of subordinate characters, and they all shared a title with numerous other features.

Until Superman. About a year after the runaway success of the Superman feature in the title Action Comics, the title Superman (I use italics carefully to distinguish the title from the character) was launched to exploit the character’s popularity by giving readers a single title full of Superman stories. What is important to note here is not the creative significance – there was none; Superman stories in Superman read just like those in Action – but the marketing significance. This was a move to play up the commercial aspects of a popular character in order to drive more sales. And it worked. Superman now had a second title, so his dedicated fans could follow him in two titles.

A commercial strategy

This idea was too good (that is, too profitable) to apply only in the case of Superman. All American and National publication companies looked for other features popular enough to merit a second venue. The idea of Superman was copied to the most popular character from Detective Comics, and so in early 1940 the title Batman was launched, less than a year after the Caped Crusader had debuted in Detective #27. But even before this, the idea of giving popular features a second venue sprang out of 1939’s New York World’s Fair Comics, a one-shot issue that rapidly evolved into World’s Finest Comics. This title, which many years later hosted a monthly team-up feature starring Superman and Batman, began as an anthology of features which had, for the most part, proven their popularity in another title first. It was a sort of dream team of features, giving Superman his third title and many other characters, including Batman, their second. (And note that the title’s wording is not a reference to Superman and Batman being the world’s greatest heroes, but is telling the readers that its features were the world’s best features… while retaining the wording of the now-long-since-complete World’s Fair.) Like Superman, it was a strong commercial strategy, and DC soon sought to exploit it further by creating another best-of title.

All Star Comics

Enter All Star Comics. DC now examined its lineup for another set of features popular enough to merit a second title, searching among the features that already appeared in Adventure Comics, Flash Comics, All American Comics, and More Fun Comics. The first two issues included appearances of a tough guy named Biff Bronson, a U.S. military team named Red, White, and Blue, and a costumed hero named Ultra-Man, whose adventures were set in the year 2240 AD. The balance of those first two issues’ stories, however, featured characters who would go on to be known as the Justice Society, but as of All Star #2, they still inhabited their own fictional worlds. It wasn’t that the Flash operated on “Earth Two” in a different city than Green Lantern, Batman, etc. It was that they all operated in their own separate worlds. Aside from the Human Torch–Submariner crossover in Marvel Mystery Comics, every feature was set in its own fictional world.

The editors of All Star had, at this point, a challenge. They wanted to select the features popular enough to merit being in the All Star lineup, but they had no specific information as to which features were popular. Editorial ads in All Star asked readers to send in letters telling them which features they liked best, and these letter campaigns were used to help determine the lineup. Based on these letters and/or their intuitions, the editors tuned the lineup from issue to issue, and a few common characteristics began to emerge. The features in All Star #3, for the most part, had a lot of characteristics in common with Superman and Batman. Most of them wore flashy costumes. Most of them had catchy action names that was distinct from their secret identity. Most of them fought evildoers.

What had happened, quite subtly, by the time of All Star #3, was that the superhero genre had been defined without anybody really planning it with an order from on-high. Instead, the readers, by explicitly and implicitly voting for their favorite characters, had selected a lineup for All Star that looked a bit like a team. This wasn’t Stan Lee and Jack Kirby staring at their storyboards and drafting a team by concept. This was a disconnected process involving many creators, many editors, two initially-separate publishing companies, and untold readers shaping the lineup of All Star Comics, and then editor Sheldon Mayer and writer Gardner Fox had an inspiration.

All Star Comics #3

Whereas All Star #2 and all comic books before it, besides Superman, contained many separate features given a few pages each, All Star #3 had a framing story, placing the starring characters into a rather pedestrian dinner banquet, during which, each character told the others of a previous action story. The solo stories, besides Johnny Thunder’s, are illustrated and several pages each, almost exactly like the solo features seen in All Star #1 and #2, and in all of the other comic magazines before them. The difference is the framing story that occupies 3 pages at the beginning of the issue, 1 page in the middle, 2 pages at the end, and 1 to 4 panels at each transition when one hero’s story has ended and the next is about to begin. Therefore, there is a framing story of about 7 pages which is, arguably, the beginning of shared continuity in DC comics. The events in that story are as follows:

• Johnny Thunder sees comic books for sale and wishes that he could attend the meeting of the Justice Society that is about to begin.
• That wish and several others are granted, giving him a disruptive presence at the Justice Society meeting.
• It is explained that Superman, Batman, and Robin cannot attend because they are particularly busy while the Justice Society meets.
• Johnny Thunder proposes that each of the heroes in attendence tells a story about one of his past adventures.
• In the middle of the nine stories, the Red Tornado crashes the meeting, then leaves because her pants are torn.
• A message from the FBI arrives. Flash runs to Washington to learn more. He returns with a request for the whole Justice Society to go to Washington to receive an assignment. This becomes the basis of a shared story in All Star #4.

The nine stories that make up 90% of the issue are themselves unremarkable. It’s the 10% of the issue that makes up the framing story that changed comics by creating a shared universe for what had previously been twelve separate features. However, continuity established in All Star #3 is different in many ways from DC continuity as it has come to be known:

1) Action scenes are solo, just as in previous comics. Shared scenes are conversation-only. This remained true for most issues of All Star.
2) Shared scenes have a distinctly humorous and childlike tone, aimed at child readers, like Johnny Thunder's solo features and completely unlike Spectre or Hawkman stories.
3) Continuity did not extend to solo features. Justice Society stories were ignored by, and contradicted by, other features until the Sixties.
4) Fourth wall narration, especially in All Star #3.

Indeed, the characters thrown together in the Justice Society just barely make sense as a unit. How do the Spectre, a grim avenging angel with almost limitless powers, and the Atom, a college sophomore with a weightlifter's body and a knack for running into crime fit into the same team? They don't. Johnny Thunder, despite the awesome powers at his disposal, was purely a joke character, stumbling in and out of misadventures because he was unaware how his thunderbolt worked. These continuities don't fit together, so it made sense that nobody took them very seriously as a shared fictional universe. Later in the series' run, when the characters were placed into action stories together, the tone became simplistic and campy, and not long afterwards, the entire line of characters went out of publication. It wasn't until the Seventies, with considerable reimagining of the original material, that the JSA became a lineup of characters that fit into a shared universe in the modern sense. The Golden Age Justice Society was entertainment with very little consistency in plot, continuity, or characterization. It was written for kids and provided a decade of entertainment for kids.

Because Justice Society membership was a commercial consideration to give popular characters more exposure, the Justice Society – after only 3 issues – had a "rule" that whenever a character gained their own solo title, they would become only an honorary member of the Society. This removed the Flash and Green Lantern from the lineup, just as Superman and Batman made only rare and cameo appearances, because characters with other titles didn't need the extra exposure of a place in All Star. This sort of consideration followed Superman and Batman, twenty years later, to the Justice League, with those two characters often missing adventures for the actual reason that those characters already had enough exposure in other titles.

It should be noted that a feature referenced another feature one time before this: Ma Hunkel decided to become the Red Tornado after being told by kids about the Green Lantern. That appeared a couple of months before All Star #3, but because the kids were aware of Green Lantern's secret identity, they were referring to Green Lantern as a comic book character they read about, not a superhero in their own world. Over a year later, Wildcat was also inspired to become a costumed hero because kids told him about Green Lantern, but in that case, also, the kids were referring to a comic book. An early Batman story referred to Superman as a fictional character in their world. A single DC continuity that was shared across all of the major solo titles would not appear until the Sixties. Not until 1977 would the Justice Society get its first origin story, a classic by Paul Levitz in DC Special #29. It is perhaps less apt to say that All Star #3 brought a shared universe into being than that it planted the seed of a shared DC Universe. Many years and many changes later, that seed had grown into something greater. When we consider the billions of dollars of revenues that the genre has generated and the deep societal role that the superhero genre has grown into, we can look back at All Star Comics #3 as a place where this tremendous thing started to grow.