Tuesday, April 26, 2022

The Death of the Justice League

It’s been done before, better. Much better.

Twenty years ago, Joe Kelly’s “Obsidian Age” arc gave us the death of the Justice League. The six-issue story, building upon many issues that preceded it, showed the Justice League being defeated and killed by another league of super-beings. The story was structured around two intertwined narrative threads that initially alternated issue by issue, odd-even, between the past and the present, with prophecy and the interleaved narrative challenging the reader to guess where things are going, and even where they’ve been. I have written about that story before and won’t try to reproduce here a tally of its merits, or even its faults, which surely exist.

Then today, there was this story, 2022’s Justice League #75, with “Death of the Justice League” emblazoned on the cover. Guess what happens inside? Spoiler alert: It’s the death of the Justice League. The cover needn’t have tipped you off, though, because DC’s promotion of the event has already detailed this, down to the fact that Black Adam would be the one survivor. So as you read, page by page, you know what is coming, exactly. There is no drama on any single panel of the issue. It doesn’t matter if Batman can get to Pariah’s machine to stop it (whatever that machine does). It doesn’t matter if Jon Stewart can summon a ring-powered army. It doesn’t matter if Green Arrow’s arrow does something. He will not be cooking chili as a celebratory dinner. We already know this. There is no drama.

In fact, I was at all points during this issue more certain about how it would end, and what would happen on the next page, than I often was about what was happening on the page I was actually reading. What does Pariah’s machine do? If the Dark Army isn’t fighting as themselves, what does that mean? When someone’s utterance is cut off mid-sentence, what were they trying to say? How can Aquaman and Aquawoman fight Doomsday fist-to-fist? These are details that I wanted to have clarified, but that never were. And they never mattered. Ultimately, Pariah had wave-your-hands-and-it-kills-Superman power. Why? Did he always have that? Did it come from his machine? Did the machine give him that power because Green Arrow failed to stop it? Or did that just not matter? This is the correct answer: None of it mattered. The Dark Army didn’t even actually do anything except fight the heroes to a draw for way too many pages of unimportant busy-ness on the page before someone waving their hands around did the one and only important event in the whole issue, and that was an event that we already knew was going to happen.

It was flimsy story telling that seemed like an imitation of better storytelling with not enough effort to make a pretense of being good storytelling.

Not only is the issue predictable, but so is this: As April 26 goes on, fan and professional reviews will appear online calling this a great issue. It will get ratings of 10/10, 9/10, 8/10, and perhaps 11/10. There will be false claims that this issue had drama and emotion, when it had zero of those. Reviewers will be impressed by the last cast of characters, even though there isn’t a single page worth of those characters exhibiting any personality. This was a visual spectacle, and in that, I will acknowledge the one thing that impressed me as interesting: The deaths of Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman visually echoed the death of Barry Allen in Crisis on Infinite Earths. their faces peeling away to bone, in a series of minipanels. The homage is not deep, but this act of borrowing, borrowing though it be, was imaginative.

 “Pop will eat itself.” Andy Warhol said. Food looks a lot better going into the digestive tract than coming out. Anyone looking to have an engaging experience reading about the death of the Justice League today should put down today’s “new” Justice League #75 and pick up 2001-2002’s Obsidian Age. 

I’m more interested in the source of the automatically-positive reviews than in anything Williamson put on the page. I suspect that it’s this: Positive reviews end up with higher click counts, and psychology’s study of classical conditioning tells us that a rewarded behavior will be repeated. Drama has been replaced by the presence of eyeballs on pages. It is mere gaze. Storytelling is dead. And that is the true death of the Justice League. 

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Press Pause

I started this blog almost 13 years ago. It formed out of a few different motivations:

1) To continue the discussion that many of us had been having in DC Message Boards, where seemingly random deletions, bans, and uproars made some quality conversation just disappear. This was initially focused on Grant Morrison’s Batman run; I wish that some of the older discussions posted there could have been preserved.

2) To reconsider the history of DC comics from the beginning. One of the first comic books I ever owned was a 1974 JLA-JSA meet-up, which was a confusing thing for a new reader! Those stories indicated that there was a vast, cosmic backstory of DC that I didn’t know and couldn’t possibly learn much about by reading new comics. It was only around 2008 that I really caught up on some of the oldest stories, which became fascinating for me in a sort of sociological sense, as Golden Age stories generally weren’t written for adults, but they presented me with an explanation for how DC’s characters began and became American mythology that later drew my admiration.

3) To continue both of those “present” and “past” threads of discussion, breaking down new comics of interest to me (quite often, by Grant Morrison) and writing Retro Reviews of older works – sometimes old favorites of mine, sometimes as I was reading them for the first time – of particularly significant value.

About four years ago, those two threads merged in my analysis of Final Crisis, a work that concluded only weeks before I began the blog, but that I didn’t feel ready to break down in subatomic detail until giving it obsessive levels of attention in late 2017. It was an enormously gratifying study for me, and felt like I took a bit of a risk there because I didn’t really have enough understanding to write the third part until after I’d already posted the first two parts.

Along the way, I took some considerable detours in topic, including the TV show Mad Men. I also have written quite a few drafts – even some extremely long and heavily-researched unpublished ones – that are sitting in my folders, so distant in my memory that I’d feel unqualified to finish them now.

It seems crass to be, in this online age, motivated by sheer numbers of clicks and likes, and I don’t want to convey that exact equation, but to be blunt: If I spend a good part of an hour working on a post for each person who eventually reads it, that feels like I’m speaking to an empty room. (E.g, if I spend 50 hours thinking about a post, then 153 people end up reading it.) And that’s how things are trending. I’m sure there are good reasons for this – there are reasons for everything. I could consider a shift in focus, spreading links in different places, but this is all meant to be fun. There are just about no DC titles that haven’t lost my interest at some point or another in the past few years and some top sellers have been aggressively off-putting to my taste. In a few cases, I’ve thrown down my money and held my nose while reading the issues of a pivotal event that I didn’t really like at all. In others, I’ve bought the first issue and regretted that I used my dollars to “vote” for creators creating something like that. Then I check online reviews and those works have 4.8-star ratings that tie The Dark Knight Returns. It’s hard for me to justify reading depressing, cluttered, subpar works in a life where good reading (viewing, etc.) material exists in overwhelming abundance.

Some comics that others have enjoyed have always – for decades now – seemed too inconsequential for me. Last year, I binge-watched Friday Night Lights and felt like it did an excellent job of something that so, so many mentor-and-sidekick comics had always done poorly. The mentor gives the sidekick an inspirational 30-second speech and then they’re ready to fight super criminals? Maybe someone reads that and finds it exciting. I find that it’s trying, with a pointed lack of effort, to do something that Friday Night Lights did with real effort and real conviction.

And increasingly, some of the news about the comics industry has been hard to stomach. A century ago, Proust advised us, “Never meet your heroes.” Well, that really undermines the point of a genre that is specifically about heroes. And there’s probably nothing in the news now that isn’t in a careful reading of several decades ago. Maybe Fredric Wertham hit the nail on the head.

2022 will make 50 years since I first walked out of a “news” store with a new comic book in my hand. It’s been a good run and it’s not over. For all I know, I’ll soon be strongly motivated to blog about some new comic book. But right now, I’m not sure what that comic book will be.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Warworld Saga – Then and Now

Superman has been here before. Phillip Kennedy Johnson’s emotion, darkly lavish Warworld Saga has Superman facing a time in his life that he’s never seen before, but the setting is familiar. As the saga reaches its midgame, it’s an interesting time to look back at a previous epic-length story that covered a bit of this ground before, how they compare, and how they differ.

In 1989, the creative minds behind Superman took a big gamble, moving the hero off-planet for an unprecedented span of time. That storyline, aptly referred to by an early issue’s title, “Superman in Space,” had Superman serve a self-exile from Earth for a whopping 13 issues, plus a bit of the issues before and after. Crossing three titles, it was a full six months in which Superman was not seen on our planet in his solo books, years before the death storyline, before any comparable story had removed a signature DC character from their main setting for so long.

The relevance of that story to Johnson’s current one is in the time they both spend on Mongul’s Warworld. While “Superman in Space” was a much longer storyline than this one, it devoted considerable prelude to many preliminary events and adventures before getting to Warworld, a place first introduced in a 1980 multi-issue arc in DC Comics Presents. It also gave large parts of its issues – including one entire issue with no appearances of Superman at all – to the supporting players back in Metropolis, developing those characters in a way that set up the subsequent Triangle Era’s storytelling that made Superman just the lead character in an ensemble cast.

In the early issues of Superman’s exile, he teleported from one venue to another, visiting no fewer than six different planets, spending some time in three different spaceships, and otherwise menaced while in deep space by alien amoebae, an asteroid bombardment, and one star that he got too close to. Some of these were full-fledged adventures, others more momentary experiences to get the man reflecting on his past sins and his traumas. In the big picture, what that storyline did was take the post-reboot farmboy Superman and give him just a pinch of the space-faring worldliness (universeliness?) of his Bronze Age self. It was a success for developing the character, though certainly a failure of his plan to remove himself from any situations where he needed to handle his powers responsibly.

Almost half of the story, however, involved Warworld. Quite unlike the premise of Johnson’s story, 1989’s Superman was taken there alone and against his will, picked up while unconscious by the pilots of a scavenging spaceship and auctioned off as cargo.

At that point, however, the stories to a considerable extent converge in theme. Superman awakes to find his fellow captives looking to pilfer items of value from his person. His powerful physique leads his captors to choose him as a contestant to fight in Warworld’s combat arena. And he finds, among Warworld’s captives, a surprising and important link to Krypton’s past. Though a mere captive, he becomes a symbol of resistance and hope that upends the social order of Warworld from the bottom up. These are all shared between the 1989 story and Warworld Saga. For that matter, those themes are mostly shared by the 1960 historical fiction film Spartacus. And if you want to trace these things further back, there’s the 1950 film Ben-Hur and the actual slave revolt in Ancient Rome. Perhaps equally stirring, the screenwriter of Spartacus was the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, and the public success of that film helped to end blacklisting, a triumphant irony of which Trumbo was surely aware.

Warzoons Scavenge Superman, 1989 and 2021

And so, some of the moments and images of the 1989 story are being repeated now. This is neither borrowing nor homage but sequence. Warworld was characterized a certain way in the past, and so was Superman, and so the stories have to cover some common ground. Not every reader of Warworld Saga has read the 1989 Superman titles, nor will many who have remember them 32 years later with crystal clarity. But revisiting the older story is worth it, to see how they align but more importantly how they don’t.

The 1989 Superman was a man who exiled himself because his psychological vulnerabilities made him recognize that he was a danger to the people of Earth. His values, sense of self, and identify were still being shaped. He was near the beginning of a career in which a Kansas farmboy was way out of his element. It was only in issue #22 of Superman, vol 2 – John Byrne’s last issue – in which his execution of the Pocket Universe Phantom Zoners began Superman’s cycle of uncertainty and regret that led to his self-exile in the hands of other creators. Along the way, he suffered a rather disturbing psychological breakdown, operating under a different identity, unbeknownst to himself, during a fugue state. Imagine how you’d view a local police officer who did that – probably not someone whom you’d wish to see remain on the job. In 2021’s context, for his earlier mistakes, he would already have been cancelled. (In fairness, Superman was beset by extraordinary hardship, psychic invasion, and actual voodoo before breaking down in the way that he did.) 1989’s Superman was unsure of himself, what sort of code of conduct he should follow, whether or not he had the needed self control, and moreover was ignorant even of the facts of his Kryptonian upbringing, with those prerecorded messages from Jor-El only going so far. This was a Superman far from the super-capable demigod of the immediately preceding pre-Crisis era. The Superman in Space story of 1989 sought to take that flawed hero and rebuild him, taking him a few steps back towards the demigod Superman of 1985. This was a story of redemption and growth through trial, missteps, and improvement.

In these respects, the 2021 Superman comes to Warworld on completely different terms. He is in some ways even more self-possessed than the 1985 Superman ever was. He knows exactly who he is, and he came to Warworld not by accident but on a mission. He came not alone but with a team. He came not turned inwards on his self but on the needs of others. He may have miscalculated – badly – on the matter of tactics, but he hasn’t wavered for a millisecond on the intentions of his mission. That’s not where the 1989 Superman began. It was where, at the story’s end, he arrived.

To sum up succinctly the 1989’s story on Warworld, Superman was thrown into the arena to fight as a gladiator. He won all his matches, but refused to kill his vanquished opponents. (This marked an evolution from his execution of the Phantom Zoners and a rebuilding of his pre-Crisis vow never to kill.) Finally, he beat Warworld’s previous champion, Draaga (Rocky IV’s Ivan Drago, clearly the name’s inspiration, was then only a few years in the past). When he refused to kill Draaga, Superman drew the wrath of Mongul, who entered the ring to kill Superman, which was a massive political error. By violating the strict rules of the arena, Mongul initiated a campaign of unrest against himself. He also had mixed results in fighting Superman, as their three skirmishes in and out of the ring gave them each a close win over the other, then a result ambiguous to the characters but not to the readers when Mongul attempted to kill Superman with a ray blast from his amulet, but Superman was teleported away at the last instant, thus seeming to have died as far as Mongul knew. The two never met within the story again. Draaga himself fought Mongul and ultimately everyone fled the stage of the story – Mongul, overthrown, left to heal his wounds. Warworld itself teleported to some other part of the universe before Superman could return to enforce a revolution.

And in the story’s significant subplot, Superman learns a great deal of Krypton’s history from a Cleric who was on the planet long before the time of Jor-El. The Cleric was himself not a native of Krypton (enforcing the concept in 1989 that Superman was the last surviving Kryptonian). However, there was substantial backstory about Krypton’s evolution and how it went through dirtier and more sordid eras in its past before becoming the sterile world of Byrne’s – and Donner’s – visions. This also introduced the Eradicator artifact, a sort of power ring with a surly mind of its own, which has become an enduring feature in Superman’s storylines. It is intriguing that Warworld Saga also includes Kryptonians who come from a time before Jor-El, suggesting a role that they may play in changing Superman’s concept of his own origins, like the Cleric did in 1989.

It’s a pleasure and informative to re-read first the 1980 DC Comics Presents story that introduced Mongul and Warworld, and then the 1989 story before picking up Warworld Saga. Seen one way, it is one long ongoing story, representing three of the most essential of many Superman–Mongul stories. In Superman’s current stay on Warworld as in 1989, he is commanded to kill for Mongul’s pleasure, and as in 1989, he refuses. This commonality across the decades is true despite the fact that the continuity has rebooted, with the pre-Crisis Supergirl an essential part of the first story, and the Byrne characterization of Superman being an essential element of the second. There are little winks in Johnson’s writing to the past, such as Mongul declaring that he will go conquering “flying his cape from our spear,” just a little less brutal than the previous Mongul dreaming, in Alan Moore’s “For the Man Who Has Everything,” that he will place Superman’s head “upon a spike and goes out to trample a world, carrying it before him, his hideous standard.” 

But, beyond the shifts in continuity – the tweaks in the biographical details and history of the DC Universe – one sees an incredible increase in sophistication from 1980 to 1989 and from 1989 to 2021. Johnson’s first remarkable innovation in this story was when the Phaelosians conveyed that they saw their chains as an honor – a culture of slavery that runs so deep, is so bleakly enforced, that its own victims embrace their subjugation, calling it “wearing iron.” To the same effect, the refrain, “So say the dead” shows Warworld’s inhabitants perversely celebrating the premature and brutal death that awaits many of them. Johnson writes dialogue to the character’s mental world, with Chaytil referring to Superman as “The master of Starro! The master of Darkseid!” and in so doing says much about how existing DC characters are part of the culture of one another, and makes some interesting choices in doing so (e.g., Darkseid but not Brainiac). Likewise, Johnson’s characterization of Manchester Black, of Mac, of Midnight – these sparkle.

I have often reflected on how so many great works from DC emerged in the years after 1985, and set a high bar of creativity and quality that has not often been matched or exceeded. However, looking at this one story – this one place and setting, comparable situations – across 41 years, it’s clear that the monthlies now are capable of greater things than one of the better innovative stories from those very years just after DKR and Watchmen. Even if we suspect that we know where the plot may be going – that Superman will end Mongul’s rule – everything we’ve read so far suggests that the way Johnson gets his story gets to its end will be a pleasure to read.