Let me start with a confession. I love DC Comics. My comics-reading life began in 1992 with, oddly enough, a cross-over event called “Eclipso: the Darkness Within.” It reestablished the somewhat loopy notion of Eclipso as an all consuming id and, I vaguely recall, an opposite of The Spectre. It also introduced me to a would-be Superman named Lar Gand. I was intrigued by him and followed into his own spin-off series that resulted from the cross-over.
The “Eclipso” event would also show me the death of Starman Will Payton, but that story is for another day …
In the first issue of Lar Gand’s book, “Valor,” the editors used the back page to mention his “future adventures” with the Legion of Superheroes. Intrigued, I saved up some coin and hit up the comic shop that was handily on my bus route, Comic Heaven, to investigate this Legion.
And for those of you who LLL, you know how funny this might be.
For the rest of you, the Legion is an old comics concept. Older than the X-Men. Older than Doctor Who. Older than JFK assassination conspiracies. You might want to check my math, but that’s over fifty years! Starting as a one-off concept for a Superboy story in the pages of “Adventure Comics,” the Legion expanded from a superhero fan-club from the future to a full-fledged on-going story of the 30th Century, with multitudes of characters, worlds and ideas. For most of its run, the Legion advanced in more-or-less real time with its readers. By the mid-seventies, the Legion were in their early 20s and getting married off. By 1985, they were nearing 30 and, wait, you know what, I’ve written about them before.
The point is this: I came into comics with a title known for two things: convoluted continuity and a penchant for rebooting said continuity.
Y’know, kind of like the rest of DC Comics these days. That’s the trouble with being a fan of the characters held in trust under the DC label: the characters keep shifting under the sands of perceived obsolescence .
In the wake of DC’s recent string of constant crossovers and a company-wide reboot that saw the DC Universe I grew up with replaced with something that is supposed to appeal to a younger market, I found myself reading only two books: Batwoman and Wonder Woman. Yeah, you might notice something in common about those titles. Another thing they share is their distinctiveness against the rest of DC’s output. In the big revamp, most DC books grew to look a little samey. They also told similar stories. These two books, meanwhile, looked and read nothing alike.
Batwoman was written by J.H. Williams and W. Haden Blackman with art by Williams and various others. Williams is, without, a genius who designs page layouts like no one else in comics today:
The book tells the story of ex-socialite Kate Kane, a woman inspired to done the cape and cowl after a chance meeting with the Batman turns around her, in part, her destructive post-adolescence. In the first few years of adopting this identity, she came to love it and pretty much wanted nothing else in her life until she met Gotham City Police Captain Maggie Sawyer.
Oh, there’s also some business about her life being foretold in the Book of Crime, a society of shape-shifting monsters and her murdered sister returning as part of a plot to resurrect the Gorgon Medusa. She also gets really mad at her father, who has been training her younger cousin to be her sidekick.
The plot was complex, challenging, and told at a pace that crawls in comparison to most superhero books. But, it was singular amongst the DC stable. Batwoman never participated in the company-wide or line-wide crossovers. It’s overall arc reaches back to material that predates the reboot and it treated a character who could easily be played for cheap titillation with a great deal of dignity and respect. I expected to be cancelled by issue 12 and read monthly to show support. It made it to issue 23, much to my surprise, when the hammer came down.
Last week, Williams and Blackman announced they would be leaving the book with issue #26. In response, DC Comics announced Marc Andreyko would be taking over with issue #25, replacing the two issues already delivered by the team. The writers cited last-minute editorial interference as the motivation to depart. DC, in turn, stated the creative shake-up was to refresh the character and take her in a new direction.
With Batwoman #25, Kate enters the Batfamily as part of the year-long “Year Zero” event running across the Batman titles. It will also be the first issue of Batwoman I will not read. No offense to Andreyko, who has his own DC cult classic in the form of Manhunter, but bringing Kate closer to the Batfamily means a lot of the qualities that kept me reading the book will disappear. I could be wrong — I’d like to be wrong — but I expect that samey, unofficial house style to creep in.
Distinctive books with full-fledged worlds and characters are not DC’s joint these days … and, to be honest, I’m not going to decry it. It’s their prerogative to do so, just as it is mine to not buy their books and clutch my Starman Omnibi to relive the stories that brought me comfort and enjoyment as teen. That’s what these books are supposed to be, right?
Instead, I will decry the more insidious problem of corporate controlled superhero comics: the continuity itself. Remember, I’m a Legion fan. I breath obtuse, obscure continuity, but I think it’s the noose that will choke the superhero comics dead. Instead of telling good stories with characters new readers might recognize from the utterly fantastic cartoons based on DC’s characters, the company seems hellbent on reinventing everything while waving the banner of fresh continuity to appeal to what Alex Pappedemas calls “the Myth of the New Reader.” The side-effect: all the books look kind of the same these days. There’s not a distinctive thing about them. They’re written toward crossover and “big event” stunts. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for quieter comics like Batwoman.
Only in superhero comics would a book that features a resurrected Medusa attacking the Gotham docks be considered “quiet.”
That’s not to let Marvel off the hook. They publish some pretty awesome and distinctive comics, but they also chase the continuity crossover event whale. It’s the unfortunate economics of the industry’s current business model. Events sell comics. The difference at Marvel: it currently allows the people behind the more distinctive titles to be distinctive. Hawkeye, by Matt Fraction and David Aja is, in my opinion, the best book on the rack today. It looks and reads like nothing else. It’s premise: this is what an Avenger does when he’s not being an Avenger. The main character is something of a screw-up, but means well as he protects a building from a gang of “Eastern European” criminals who wear jump suits and are fond of the word “bro.”
Each issue tells a complete story, while building on ideas from previous issues. It features cheeky cameos from other characters in the universe, but never requires you to pick up another comic book to get all the details. Its focus on Clint Barton and Kate Bishop, two very human heroes who go by the name “Hawkeye,” is a brilliant examination of people who fight along side the gods, but still argue about what to get on their pizza.
This isn’t the only book they have like this. There’s also Superior Spider-man with it’s radical, but brilliant twist: Doc Ock becomes Spider-man, but does it in the most logical fashion. That prompt, friends, will get me to do something no one else has ever managed to get me to do: read a Spider-man book. Of course, some fans won’t read it because of how Doc Ock ended up becoming Spider-man. It’s was a silly stunt to alter continuity, but you know what?
All it does is get in the way of cool people telling cool stories about cool characters. It forces them to participate in company-wide crossovers that boost sales for a quarter, but lose steam because the readership is not homogenous. They won’t read books they don’t like, not matter how much you try to make them look like books they do like.
Sadly, DC has exactly one distinctive title left, Wonder Woman, and I wonder how long it will before she’s revamped to better fit the company-wide edict of the Continuity Comics Crisis.
Oh well, the great thing about comics is that there’s always plenty of other stuff to read. While the DC Superheroes fall to darkness, my interests head elsewhere. You heard of Locke & Key?