Friday, May 22, 2015

Looking for a super path: DC at the turn of the century

You don't know you're living in a certain Age until it's over, and nowhere do you see that better than with DC Comics. The publisher has been there since the start of superhero comics and the Golden Age, and is a clear thermometer of certain eras – you can pick the start of the Silver Age by an issue of Showcase.

The line into the Bronze Age of comics is less well delineated, but can still be seen in issues of Brave and The Bold and Jimmy bloody Olsen. After that, it gets a bit more confusing, with talk of Platinum or Aluminium Ages, but that just sounds stupid. I like to think of the eighties as the first great Post-Modern Age, and the nineties as the Ironic Age, although I'm concerned that this sounds just as fucking stupid.

Whatever the case, around the turn of this past century, DC Comics were running out of steam after the injection of new thrills in the 1980s, and the enormous sales success that came with Superman's death. Even if the company didn't really know it, it was casting about wildly for a new direction to take the comics in. Some kind of new tone and feeling for the 21st century.

Fortunately, they had a few options.

The first path was the Morrison path.

In the late nineties, Grant Morrison had overcome superhero fatigue by going epic, pushing the iconography up front, while still holding onto the silliness of superhero nonsense.

His JLA run was deceptively simple, gathering together the biggest and most popular heroes again to fight bad guys on the cosmic scale, and made it look really easy. The uninspired rip-offs of his ideas that followed showed just how hard it was, although they also inspired other slices of genius - Warren Ellis took things even wider and crazier with his Authority and Planetary comics.

The problem was, Morrison made it all look too easy, and it really wasn't, as subsequent uses of his strange characters has proven. His heroes are still the same square jaws that were running around in the 1960s, but had weird, idiosyncratic twists that were often overlooked when they went out into the greater playground of the DC Universe.

Morrison's style – of forward-thinking, heritage-embracing, day-glo optimism -  certainly influenced other corners of the DC Universe at that time, with writers like Tom Peyer digging the same attitude in Hourman, and still does, with the recent Dial H For Hero comic by China Melville proudly showing off its Morrison influence.

The second path was the Johns path.

By the year 2000, Geoff Johns was still the relatively new kid on the block, but showed a talent for superhero fun and games with Stars and STRIPE, and the fairly well-received Day of Judgement crossover comic

His long Justice Society of America run set the platform for the themes Johns would explode all over the DC Universe – it had even more of an eye on history, but was not afraid of naked melodrama, with grieving heroes crying in the rain, and limbs ripped from bodies on a disturbingly regular basis.

It's a diluted form of the superhero carnage in London seen in Alan Moore's Miracleman, with shock value that was always slightly pulled back. Following the example of James Robinson's Starman comics, Johns lathered on the personal angst to cover up this shortfall, and found a huge audience who liked to see superheroes call each other by their real first names.

The third path was the Waid path.

Just as the real heroes came up with a third option when offered a monstrously dire either/or decision, Mark Waid's comics took the best ideas of Morrison and Johns, and made them their own.

He even got there first, with both of the other creators openly acknowledging his Flash comics as major influence, and it is arguably the most influential DC comic of the nineties, with his legacy ideas carrying across to every single major character in the universe.

By the time this whole millennium thing was winding up, Waid was still perfecting his own ideas about the tone of the DC Universe, with interesting mis-steps in the Kingdom Come spin-off series. It wasn't long before he got his chance to create a definitive Superman origin with the Birthright comic, and Waid had a strong editorial hand, capable of weaving his ideas out amongst the wider multiverse.

And there were loads of other smaller, less well-trodden paths, with odd and strange comics published by the company that didn't fit into any category, and could have inadvertently sparked a new renaissance.

Imagine a DC where the dark, savage and warm humour of Ennis and McCrea's Hitman comics set the tone for the big crossovers, and the joyous carnage that would result. Or imagine if Giffen's marvellously crazy nineties work had the popularity of the things he did a decade earlier, and we were still all reading Vext comics. Or where Miller's second Dark Knight was actually celebrated for the joyous piss-take that it is.

Or just imagine a world where Peter Bagge's strange little Sweatshop and Yeah! Comics that DC put out at the time turned out to be massive successes, spawning a new golden age of situational cartooning and comics about pop stars in space for the company.

But you have to just imagine it, because Johns won, of course, setting the tone of years of DC adventures on the macro-cosmic scale. It was his style that caught the eyes of both editors and readers, leading to bigger and bigger comics, more events, more rebuilding of the universe, and another bloody Superman origin.

The success pushed other writer to follow John's style and it was most obviously emulated by Brad Meltzer in the brain-searingly popular Identity Crisis comics, which took all that crying in the rain to the logical extreme, even if nobody really wanted to see the Elongated Man sobbing over his dead wife.

It worked out all right for DC – they sold shit-tons of comics on Johns' name. And Morrison and Waid and all the rest still did their own thing, in their own corners of the universe. Everyone got what they needed, even if it wasn't always in the portions they wanted.

While it could be argued that the new film where Batman and Superman out-angst each other is the ultimate development of Johns' style, it really all reached a peak with the New 52 initiative, where the main editorial credo seemed to be 'Do it like Geoff'.
But his Superman and Justice League aren't clicking like they used to, and that's only fair. It's another new decade, and time for something new.

DC knows it too, with some slightly more experimental comics coming down the pipeline – including, hilariously, a new Hitman spin-off – and we won't know for years what has really caught on. It could be something unexpected, or it could be another revival of past glories. It should be fun seeing what happens next.

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