[This column was first published on 23 June 2006, and you can find it here (the Wayback Machine found it, yay!). As always, the comments are fun, with T. making a strong appearance, being contrary as usual! I hope I can keep linking to the original versions, because the “new look” CBR versions are yucky. We shall see!]
I get a lot of mileage writing these columns by thinking about what I have been reading during the week that’s new, and pondering all the changes I have seen in mainstream superhero comics since I was young, and tracing the arc from then until the new thing I’m reading now.
This week I was reading about Green Lantern, so as you may well imagine, there are a LOT of changes to talk about.
The trigger was the three ‘Sleeper’ novels by Christopher Priest (with Mike Baron and Michael Ahn co-authoring the first two with him.) These were part of the mostly-good series of DC and Marvel superhero books from iBooks that were packaged by the late Byron Preiss.
On paper, this seems like a fun idea for a trilogy; each book focuses on a different Green Lantern, fighting a menace that reappears throughout the years to bedevil Alan Scott, Kyle Rayner, and finally Hal Jordan and John Stewart and Guy Gardner, who end up doing battle with a possessed Justice League. And mostly it IS a fun idea. So what’s the problem?
Which is to say, the obsessive fan-oriented continuity that has come to dominate the superhero mainstream. There is so much history, so much clutter and BS surrounding the actual plot where Priest and his co-authors are forced to recap and footnote and explain — well, they’re NOT forced to do it, but I’ll get to that — that in the end it really cripples the thing.
Now, it’s not really the fault of the authors. They do the best they can and mostly, the first two books work all right. I don’t have the giant mad-on for Kyle Rayner that many GL fans seem to and Baron and Priest have a great handle on him and his relationship with Jade; as well as the uncomfortable awkwardness Kyle has with Alan Scott, there’s an understated “Meet The Parents” vibe between the two that is great fun.
The second book was an interesting departure, since it wasn’t a strict continuation of the first part of the trilogy, but rather is set largely in the early years of Alan Scott’s Golden Age heyday.
That one’s mostly a good time too. There’s some continuity stuff that bogs down the first two books, but really, it’s the third one where it all falls apart.
To begin with, let’s look at this cover.
Okay. That’s Hal Jordan in the classic GL outfit, in a classic GL pose, flying around in the classic GL setting, outer space. One could be forgiven for thinking you are going to get a classic GL story. After all, the Alan story was told mostly in flashback and set in the 40’s.
Except, no, this story is set in the ‘present day,’ which happened to be during that really ill-advised era when Hal Jordan was the Spectre. So Priest has to somehow write a Hal Jordan Green Lantern novel starring the Spectre. The fact that he pulls it off at ALL is something of a miracle, but my Gawd he has to really twist the story into a knot to make it happen.
I am trying to keep this spoiler-free, so I won’t get TOO into it, but long story short, Priest has to de-power Hal from being the Spectre, make him mortal, get him a power ring, put him in a situation where he can TEMPORARILY be Green Lantern again, team up with the other Green Lanterns to beat the bad guy, and then go back to being the Spectre.
The part of the book where Hal is Green Lantern and fighting the good fight is a lot of fun and written with great verve. The downside is that it takes most of the front half of the book to set all that up. By the time I got there, I was too busy being irritated at the superhuman effort Priest was making to preserve our precious “continuity” to enjoy the ride.
Because, really, why bother? Who cares? For crying out loud, these are NOVELS, the story’s not even in the regular monthly comic. Where, by the way, Hal is Green Lantern again anyway.
Let me stress, again, that I really don’t blame Christopher Priest. He did the best he could to make a silk purse out of the sow’s ear that was handed to him in terms of Hal Jordan’s then-current situation.
No, I blame the fans that DC was trying to mollify with all the name-checking and referencing and recapping and footnoting and so on. For Christ’s sake, give it a REST already. I ask again — who cares about all this? Who is it that goes over these stories with a microscope checking them for ‘mistakes’?
Sorry, folks … it’s us. We created this monster and now we have to live with it.
Don’t even start with me about how it was necessary to explain this or that point before putting Hal Jordan in a Green Lantern story with Alan Scott and Kyle Rayner and Guy Gardner. Because the same fans that would have allegedly screamed bloody murder over that have had NO PROBLEM reconciling ‘regular’ Marvel and ‘Ultimate’ Marvel. They’ve managed to cope with Brian Singer’s version of the X-Men and Joss Whedon’s and Fox Kids’ and whoever it was that did X-Men Evolution. They’ve done just fine accepting God knows how many iterations of Batman and Superman and Spider-Man without freaking out. It simply was not necessary to bog down these books with a lot of obsessive-compulsive pseudohistory. But Priest did it anyway, because — I assume — he felt he had to. Whether it was because an editor ordered him to, or it was part of the licensing agreement with DC, or even if he was just trying to anticipate his nerd audience, I don’t know. But the fact remains that it’s there, a great big undigestible lump of summarizing and recapping in the middle of what’s supposed to be a grand adventure, and it really hurts what was otherwise a fun idea. And it’s ONLY there because fans have made such a fetish of it for the last couple of decades.
Why? When did this get to be such a big goddamn deal that we had to spend page after page of story establishing and clarifying and otherwise taking up perfectly good space with a history lecture? For crying out loud, I know fans who demand comics writers work harder at reconciling superhero history than they ever did themselves on a REAL history midterm.
Look, let’s clear this up before the comments section catches fire — yes, I understand that stories and characters need to be consistent. I’m okay with that. But there is ‘consistent’ and then there is ’scary obsessive.’ I think all of you out there reading this know the difference and if you don’t then you need to get out more.
Continuity as comics fans understand the concept, which is to say, documenting the fictional history of the world in which your story is set — you guys, it started as a lark. It’s just for fun. Done right, it can be an entertaining game, like the pseudo-scholarship of the Baker Street Irregulars or the Wold Newton fans or the novels of Gregory Maguire.
But in comics, anymore, it’s almost never done right, and certainly not for FUN. Instead it’s become deadly serious, this horrible ball-and-chain that we’ve all somehow agreed stories have to drag around behind them. It’s what leads to exercises in obsession like Green Lantern: Rebirth or the original Crisis. It’s reached the point where it’s what stories apparently have to be ABOUT for us to accept them.
Except they don’t.
Really, they don’t.
I refer you to All-Star Superman, New Frontier, the Ultimate line of comics, the DC animated shows from the Bruce Timm era … there are all kinds of fan-favorite projects out there where the creators said, essentially, “You know what? Screw the continuity geeks. No one will care if I reference all the crap that came before it or not. Let’s just do something good. We’ll use what worked and toss the rest overboard.”
You ARE all aware that the DC universe as we know it today started exactly that way in the late 50’s with Julius Schwartz, right? “Hey, let’s do superheroes again. We’ll do the Flash but it’ll be a new version.”
By all means, let fans track the fictional history of superheroes, let them index and argue and postulate and explain all they want. It’s what fans do. It can even be fun, in a goofy, giant-nerd kind of way.
But for God’s sake, can we quit demanding that creators do the same? Because when we make them obsess over it, it’s just not fun at all.
See you next week.