|All the covers scanned in here are, of course, by Adam Hughes.|
I still have an experience-defying, logic-distorting fondness for the idea of the densely-populated, more-or-less internally-consistent superhero universe. There were all too many childhood days spent marinating my soft, slow brain in the minutiae of Marvel and DC's fantastical, immersive meta-narratives for anything else to be true. How many different versions were there of Atlantis or Asgard, and how could they all be reconciled one with the other? How could it be that a series of quite different 30th centuries had been shown to exist? Why did the almost-end of the world in one comic appear to have had no influence at all upon all of the others issued in the same month? The superhero book offered all the pleasures of academic study without anything of a student's responsibilities. All that was required was to read more comics, and to think about comics more.
As such, it was the very lack of close-focused precision and absolute clarity which helped make the Big Two’s comics so involving. Much of what made these stories compelling was the fact that - for all their other intense virtues - they didn't always make sense. As time passed and more and more tales were lobbed into the common pot, a host of different influences combined to suggest radically different takes on what was supposedly the same basic, all-encompassing story. Not just stray details, but the fundamental principles soon appeared up for grabs. Was Uncle Ben actually working with the burglar who killed him? Were the Legion Of Super-Heroes nothing but a pack of uber-privileged snobs? What did the Amazons do at night if they found themselves in need of a cuddle or even a kiss? The undeniable presence of ill-defined and openly contentious threads in the broader tapestry opened up the space for the reader to become creatively involved. The energy of the comics drew the reader in, while the shared universe and all its various strengths and weaknesses anchored that entertainment in a host of enigmas. Instead of passively consuming each tale as it came, the superhero fan learned to interrogate and even condemn what they read in terms of the greater context. What was being shown on the page, it seemed, was not necessarily the truth and nothing but. The real facts about a superheroic world could lie somewhere behind the texts which claimed to describe it, and it was the fan's job to come as close as they could to the most convincing version of events.
Yet there’s long been a desire on the part of some fannish professionals and spreadsheet-minded managers alike to do away with the possibility of depth and variety and confusion in the shared-universe superbook. The very mass of material which allowed them to work out their own preferences has somehow become seen as barriers to anyone else seeking to find their own way in the cape'n'chest-insignia worlds. To long for difference and discrepancy to be definitively excised is to destroy much of the corporate-owned superhero's appeal. For in all that historical jumble of different styles and values and genres lies the friction which keeps pulpish fiction firing off against itself in unexpected, reader-enticing ways. Like all the very best of pop culture, the superhero comic has flourished when it’s been most open to the widest range of influences and the most intense degree of debate. It’s at its best when it’s at its least pure, its least banally sensible and directed and over-simplified. But when its inspirations and content alike are dramatically constrained to a literal-minded core of what’s considered editorially acceptable, its quality and – ultimately – its reach beyond the hardcore fan becomes seriously impaired. Even if perfectly adapted to the demands of a specific niche in today’s market-place, such a conceptually unambitious, neurotic conceit is unlikely to prove flexible enough to prosper in anything but the most constrained sense.
As such, it's notable that every attempt to kick off a superhero world from scratch has soon run out of steam. From the Ultraverse to the Ultimate Universe, attempts to create rigorously well-wrought, tightly-policed backdrops for costumed crimefighters to fight in front of have traditionally lacked the magic to capture the reader’s imagination over the longrun. The capacity for endless renewal within an apparently unchanging context is all too often absent, which leaves the question of why - beyond the potential profits - they exist at all. They have their bright moments, of course, but they all too often lack the critical mass of combustible discrepancies, stylistic influences and complex continuity necessary to constantly generate forward momentum. Though we're always being told in the 21st century that the superhero is a commodity designed to be constantly rebooted, it's notable how rarely the effort actually works when the shared universe it belonged to is left behind. To abandon a rich backstory is a very dangerous thing to do, for a superhero is often simply the most blandly generic of figures when isolated from the context of a long-lived fictional environment. To remove that intricate shared-universe with all its detail and possibilities is to run the risk of liberating a costume and a set of super-powers from one of the key ingredients which made it interesting in the first place.
Eventually the fascination for the conceit of the shared superbook fades, or so it does for most of us. Even if the fondness itself for the idea, and the flicker of hope it persistently inspires, remains, the comics themselves rarely focus on the world behind the fisti-cuffs. Yet there have been periods in the sub-genre’s history when the strengths of a common fictional backdrop have been played to, and the memories of those brief highpoints are sweet enough to keep a certain degree of curiosity alive. (*1) But there's been all too few editors and writers who've proven capable over the years of putting all that complexity and absurdity to work in service of a compelling story rather than a hypeful sales gimmick. Eventually the lesson gets learned: there's no point in buying into these wonderlands as a whole when their fundamental virtues are so little attended too. Substance is all too often sacrificed for cheap effect, while coherence is repeatedly waved away for the inconvenience it might cause the poor editors and writers concerned. As such, the superhero universe is typically - if not exclusively - revealed to be a threadbare, unconvincingly stage-set against which supposedly shocking plot twists and empty-headed spectacle are projected.
*1:- For example,; The Marvel Revolution of 1961 to mid-1966; Marvel in the period from 1974 to 1977; DC from 1983 to 1988; Marvel from 2000 to 2004. Of course, there have been individual books, and crossovers too, which have been excellent through the past half-century. To suggest anything else would be ludicrous.
There are undoubtedly a few notable professionals who possess both the ambition and the skill to make a world of superheroes - rather than a world of superheroes fighting one each other - convincing and enthralling. But the relatively small number of them merely emphasises how little the industry as a whole has cared for anything much beyond than the big explosions and the melodramatic reversals in recent times.For all the laudable exceptions, and for all the undeniably good work, the sub-genre hasn't prospered as it might have since the middle of the last decade beyond the sales ledgers. The key question of what it would like to live in an absurd and yet alluring universe packed to the gills with super-folks is largely pushed aside in anything but the most facile manner. (*2) So too is the light that such a conceit might throw on real-world issues. What’s left is all too often a narrative with less depth and charm than a 1970's Saturday afternoon TV wrestling bout, with a similar degree of desperate attention being paid to the business of spicing up a great deal of nothing with supposedly shocking violent excess.
*2:- "Largely" isn't meant to be read as "Solely". We can all list books which have done this job in a splendid manner. From JIM to Secret Six, from Demon Knights to 2011's Daredevil, the exceptions exist even as they are very much exceptions.
Yet that nostalgia for stories which use a shared universe for something other than brawling never quite looses its power. After all, a line of comics which really did try to exploit the scenario of a planet constantly convulsed by a class of superheroes would be something to experience. And just for a moment in the summer of 2011, the announcement of the New 52 suggested that this time, a reboot on DC's part might actually prove to be an enticing prospect. Soon, the reader was assured, inventive storytelling, diverse subjects and ethical substance would all arrive grounded in a carefully-shaped, inspirationally-informed example of world-building. A year and more, we were informed, had been spent ensuring that this new version of the DCU would be coherent, compassionate and thrilling. Perhaps this time - the vestige of a childhood fascination suggested - something wonderful might be created from all that potential. Perhaps the previous high-points of the superhero book’s existence had been studied and learned from. After all, the sub-genre had been in existence for almost three quarters of a century, and a series of nascent shared universes had first appeared in the first few years of its history. From the Marvel Family to the Justice Society and onwards, the idea that everyone in a costume undertook their adventuring and off-duty hours alike in the same world was long-established. Surely DC wouldn't have announced how brilliantly well-worked and exciting its new line was going to be if it hadn't been investing an impressive degree of corporate-funded hours into learning from the past? The constant reiteration that the New 52 would feature an impressive range of diverse content and style seemed to suggest that such had been so.
Sadly, of course, DC's line-wide audience-grab seemed to reflect little of history's lessons. Beyond the hucksterish series of announcements from the project’s anointed ringmasters, the whole process turned out to be mostly nothing more than stuff and nonsense. If this was a shared universe, then the material that was being commonly used was characteristically cliched and thinly-thought through. Indeed, there was little evidence in most books that much beyond a few obvious common props had been developed. No risk there, then, of too many intriguing ideas striking the reader beyond the question of who's going to stab who next. Even mildly-intriguing contradictions require a degree of coherence and depth to generate them, and for those not entranced by the likes of devilish psychopaths and Image-esque teen heroes, the pickings have been slim.
Despite the efforts of some particularly able and inspired editors and creators, the New 52 was - by unlikely chance or most likely purposeful design - predominantly aimed at a market of boy-minded fans. The presumption seemed to be that they'd on the whole prefer thin and undemanding storytelling, content that was focused on blokeish-noir superheroics, and little in the way of subtext beyond the ethics associated with the rightly-vengeful indomitable hero. With the dramatic conventions of this fresh start proving so repeatably threadbare and predictable in practise, the fact that the supposedly carefully-constructed universe didn't actually make a great deal of sense simply became all the more obvious. For all the talk of how meticulously it had all been worked out, it was clear that things were often either being made-up out of dirt'n'spit as the days progressed, or messed up when some bright spark had a brainwave and caught the eye of power with it. In several of those books where the foundations had been admirably laid, ad-hoc changes based on editorial whim seemed to become more and more common. In those comics where the creators were effectively winging it anyway, ad-hoc changes were still arriving to muddy up things further. With little of depth in the shared universe which most creators could tap into, the snaring of the reader relied more and more upon the likes of very sharp and pointy objects being thrust right through our heroes' bodies, or the pouring of ammonia into the eyes of elderly supporting characters.
Of course, it's all very well to make up a universe as you go if you've only a few books to play with and a team of geniuses to churn out the work. When Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and their various colleagues were quite literally inventing the modern idea of the immersive superbook in the early-to-mid Sixties, they were putting prodigious skills and decades of experience to work in an environment which by necessity encouraged initiative and imagination. To attempt to do the same with a line of 52 monthly comics in the absence of the requisite number of workhorse geniuses in both the creative and editorial departments is a very different thing indeed. (*3)
*3:- It's worth mentioning that the first 16 months of the New 52 has seen many of its best storytellers either leaving the company or being sacked by it. As such, the overall quality of the line for anyone not into the body-horror of it all has actually diminished as well as coarsened over the period.
For every book that showed heart and craft in the New 52, half-a-dozen more revealed nothing more worthwhile than deconstructed storytelling and a smug measure of pseudo-sophistication comparable to that present in a first-wave Image title from the early Nineties. Even the promise that stories would be largely self-contained and cross-company Events rare was soon proven to be something of a considerable fib. To those who dearly wanted more than the New 52 ever intended to deliver, the whole business was a considerable disappointment. This was, after all, an all-or-nothing gambit, and even a partial success would leave neither the resources or the will to try for another approach. That the New 52 raised sales substantially was hardly a significant achievement. Any team of managers who'd been given that unprecedented degree of resources ought to have been able to do so. That nothing that's been creatively accomplished couldn't have been attained with just a little thought in the old DCU merely intensifies the sense that a great deal's been thrown away has been thrown away for very little return.
Yet the very fact that a shared universe has been sloppily constructed can, with no little irony, throw up the kind of reader-intriguing contradictions and confusions that we've been discussing. The chances of that happening in the New 52 as a whole remains sadly limited, because the comics themselves are so threadbare in the world they describe and the cliches they obsess upon. But there were undeniably a few titles where the presence of an inspiringly different kind of storytelling yielded fascinating results when it came into contact with the norms of the new order. The most fascinating of these has proven to be Gail Simone’s Batgirl.
to be continued;