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Thinking About the DCnU: Continuity

July 5, 2011

For quite a while now, the DCnU, DC Comics’  massive rebranding and retooling (don’t say reboot or they’ll forcefully correct you) of their entire line, has been the biggest news in the comic book industry. Everyone’s eaten up every piece of information DC’s given out thus far, and not all of it has been met with approval. Apparently, it’s even sparked a protest at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con. Sad, I know, but it’s true. So over the next week or so, I’ll be doing various posts about my personal thoughts about the DCnU and what it means for DC and comic books in general. While my time reading DC is shorter than my time reading Marvel Comics (6 years compared to 15), all of this does mean quite a lot to me as well. At least, as much as comic books can. I won’t be out there on the picket lines, but here I’ll say my piece.

So let’s start off with continuity, that awful, horrible elephant in the room that DC and Marvel keep wishing they could ignore. Because comic book people are under this bizarre impression that continuity just muddles up what makes characters iconic and great. It’s the desire to write stories free of continuity that hold to characters’ iconic nature that spawned the All-Stars line. And it’s the reason why characters’ origins are constantly getting revamped in stories like the famous Crisis trilogy. Geoff Johns, the current Chief Creative Officer of DC Comics, is particular fond of revamping origins and stories, and his work on characters like Superman, Green Lantern, and Aquaman has been touted as the model for the DCnU. That makes perfect sense, since he and Jim Lee are the two primary architects of the DCnU.

Now what’s the problem with all this? It’s the same problem that came up with Spider-Man and One More Day. If you constantly retell origins and keep characters spinning their wheels in the same place because you want to preserve their iconic status, then they stagnate. They become flat characters who only grow within the narrow confines the writers allow, and especially with DC, those stories will be partially retconned away anyway come the next, inevitable revamp. And come on. If you include all three of the Crises, Zero Hour, and the Silver Age, they’re pretty bad with that. At least the Silver Age kept everything else in existence, though. And it brought us far better characters.

But that’s their excuse. They say that these revamps are for the sake of telling good stories for new generations of comic book readers. Well, it’s fairly subjective as to what constitutes a “good story.” For example, most people loved the Brand New Day stories, and I thought they were fluffy garbage. But let’s say there is an objective standard to which all stories can aspire. The characters are still becoming flat. How much has Superman really changed in the last decade or so? Not much. And now, a lot of his personal growth, which included his marriage to Lois Lane (though I’m not 100% sure that’s going away), will be washed away to keep him young and hip. And any changes won’t be logical growths in his character as a result of building on previous experiences; they’ll just be replacing what we currently know of him. To me, that’s like patching up the characters instead of letting them grown and develop over time.

And that does mean letting characters get old. DC shouldn’t be so afraid of characters aging a bit. I mean, Wally West is probably going to lose his kids, Superman will probably lose his marriage, and if Green Arrow’s younger, he definitely couldn’t have fathered Connor Hawke, who’s already an adult. Round characters age, but flat characters stay forever young. And unfortunately, flat characters eventually grate on many people’s nerves. There are people who still like flat characters, and some flat characters, if they’re funny in their flatness, are endearing. But you can’t expect us to continually connect and like characters who never truly grow from their experiences and change as time goes on. I mean, I’m going to grow old, and it’s hard to sympathize with characters who stay perpetually young and in the same kinds of trouble they’ve always been in. And in a Marvel connection, it’s hard to continually stay sympathetic toward Peter Parker when every time the guy catches a break, something bad happens to snatch that away. Characters have to win sometimes to make the readers feel like their emotional investments are paying off, and those winnings can’t always just get erased in subsequent stories to return them to their iconic “status quo.” Again, that’s spinning their wheels.

Then there’s also some of DC’s bizarre continuity choices here. They’re picking and choosing which of the old stories count. That means they can completely recreate the characters however they like and ignore some beloved stories. Then some of these characters won’t even be the ones we have grown to care about. True, that goes counter to the idea of characters not changing, but again, it’s not growth, but replacement. The Teen Titans won’t be the same characters I’ve loved ever since I started reading DC. Red Robin, Wonder Girl, Kid Flash, and Superboy will suddenly not even know each other anymore. And Teen Titans was my first DC book, so I have a strong investment there. Will I even care about these new characters who suddenly have no memories of hundreds of issues of adventures they’ve had together?

On the other side of the spectrum, in order to restore characters to their iconic statuses, a few are getting “fixed.” Brightest Day did a lot of that work for a few characters, but the biggest issue is Oracle returning to being Batgirl. DC assures us that her time as Oracle will still have existed, but it has the strong potential to cheapen all of that character development. Gail Simone is handling the book, and she is the seminal Oracle writer, so if anyone can handle that, it’s her. That doesn’t mean I’m not worried about it, as Barbara Gordon really did blossom as a character far more as Oracle than Batgirl, in my opinion. But the other issue here has nothing to do with continuity. It has to do with Oracle’s status as an icon for people with physical handicaps. Ryan Sohmer and Ryan Chan captured that problem perfectly in Gutters #147. Oracle was such a great, empowering icon, and it does send across a bizarre message that you can just wash that away.

So no, I don’t like anything that DC’s doing here continuity-wise. It’s just bad storytelling, to be perfectly honest. I may like the stories that come afterward. I did finally come back to Amazing Spider-Man for Big Time, and Dan Slott is hitting that out of the park (I hope you actually read this post, Dan, since the only time a comic book creator ever read my blog before, I was totally ripping poor Dan a new one). But even still, I have this bad taste in my mouth that comes back every so often, and I think the same will be there with the DCnU whenever I remember what DC used to be. I don’t know if this is how fans felt just before and after one of the previous reboots, but even Crisis on Infinite Earths wasn’t this extensive. Only the Silver Age matches this level of reimagining, and that was an admitted resounding success. It just makes me sad that the writers are so concerned about icons that they’re inadvertently committing major writing mistakes in the process.

At any rate, the next post will be about the new titles themselves, which look like they’re going to work, and which look like the DCnU architects were being a tad optimistic about.

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