Last night it was hot, as in at 4 AM it was 29c and heading for a 39c day. Sleep was difficult to find and, not surprisingly, my thoughts turned to comics. I thought of a number of things until I reached the question of why I was not enjoying the current story arc in Justice League. In case you are not keeping up to date with such things, the League broke the Source Wall a while back and that allowed a creature named Perpetua to be released from her imprisonment behind it. Perpetua apparently created the DC Multiverse and now wishes to destroy it (she is also the Anti-Monitor’s and Monitor’s mother).
It can be safely assumed that Perpetua is extremely high on the power scale, having the ability to create and destroy Multiverses is something that even members of The Endless would find effectively impossible (see Sandman: Overture wherein Morpheus almost dies to repair a universe).
I have several issues with the character of Perpetua. For instance, I question the bipedal/humanoid design for such a being wherein they represent a being of such incredible power and they essentially look human (see The Endless who are not what they look like). I dislike that the reason for the Source Wall has been retconned; so instead of being a well of emotional energy as demonstrated in Green Lantern (thankfully, no one seems to be using that rather strange reveal any more) it was a prison. Of course, that relates to my biggest issue which is that the mystery of the Source Wall was revealed at all.
One of the key aspects of narratives that keep an audience engaged is the unknown. Mystery builds suspense and that drives conflict. The Source Wall has been an enigma for decades, an impassable fundamental aspect of the DCU that has represented the idea that some things are simpler incomprehensible to the average hero, that as powerful as some heroes/teams get that there is something on an entirely different level yet again. Or that greed for power/knowledge is destructive (themes are subjective, take your pick).
But I digress. Sort of.
So we have a character who surpasses existing powerhouses such as The Spectre and Galactus by many orders of magnitude. Fine. The fight against impossible odds is a comic book narrative staple. However, this is where the literary allusion in the title comes into play – Grendel’s Mother. In the saga of Beowulf, the titular hero slays the massive monster and everyone thinks the day is saved. However, the saga continues with Beowulf taking on Grendel’s Mother who (in her own way) is more powerful than her offspring. Then what? Typically the hero goes on to fight another foe who is yet more powerful, then more powerful again and so on.
An example of this concept can be easily shown in various TV shows such as Supernatural and Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. In the former, the brothers initially struggle with fairly low level enemies but threats escalate again and again until they’re tussling directly with God. Over in Sunnydale, Buffy initially failed to defeat a single master vampire but by the end was taking on god-like beings such as Glory.
Mark Waid’s run on Flash was excellent but it also suffered from this issue, as does the current television series. Wally/Barry is not fast enough to beat the current problem, so he somehow gets faster. The problem is solved due to this new-found speed. The next problem arises and the Flash needs to go faster again and, after some tribulations, manages to do so. The new problem is solved. Rinse. Repeat. In the case of Waid’s Flash, it got to the point where Wally was casually time travelling and taking on the Anti-Monitor. Where do you go from there? When you have a character so incredibly powerful, where can believable suspense come from? Is someone who can revise history at will and punch White Martians into orbit really going to have hassles fighting Heat Wave or The Trickster?
Taking it back to Justice League, the heroes may manage to defeat a being who casually deals with Multiverses. Great. Hopefully it will make a great story. But what comes after? Does the League go back to struggling to keep Doctor Polaris in check? That’s not to say that the JLA hasn’t had high level quests before (after all, they’ve directly fought Heaven’s army of Angels and 5th Dimensional Imps during Morrison’s run) but those adventures stayed at that relative level for some time and … it made sense for that time. But does it make sense for Perpetua/League of Doom beating heroes to then turn around and sweat to defeat an uprising by Gorilla Grodd or a Khund Invasion.
To link it directly to Beowulf, the heroes have defeated the Anti-Monitor and now are literally fighting his mother. The narrative problem of perpetual escalation/stake raising rears its ugly head for all to see. Who is next to keep the stakes where they are? The Anti-Monitor’s deadbeat father? Perpetua’s father? Perpetua’s grandmother?
Narratives need to make sense in the context of their larger setting, otherwise the suspension of disbelief is seriously damaged. One of the reasons I find the current City of Bane storyline problematic is that is does not just merely ignore the rest of the DCU, instead it recognises that it is there but throws up a really terrible reason why a bunch of heroes don’t just fly in and solve the issue. It is similar to the issues regarding how the US Government simply abandoned Gotham City in No Man’s Land, just ramped up in scale.
In a way, it is a way of changing the setting to fit the story rather than the story to fit the setting. This, to me at least, is not the hallmark of a strong writer. Much like the previously mentioned retcon regarding emotional energy in Green Lantern, it suggests that the writer could not create a suitable tale with the established setting rules … so simply decided to change the rules to suit himself. Geoff Johns was able to establish how the Green Lantern setting worked to fairly minute detail in his run but those rules did not suit his successor so they were abandoned. Not for the purpose of narrative tone or structure but simply, apparently, because it suited the story that he wanted to tell. In the case of Justice League, revelations regarding the origins and nature of the DC Multiverse came out of nowhere to suit the story but not the setting.
Yes, characters grow but that does not necessarily mean in power; instead that growth can be in maturity or wisdom. If they exponentially grow in power from story arc to story arc then eventually you write yourself into a corner. A constant escalation of power and stakes is short term gain for long term pain, which for comics means that eventually you have to somehow reset the character (see Superman who went from blowing out stars with a sneeze to Byrne’s Man of Steel levels) or the entire setting (see Crisis on Infinite Earths).