Thursday, September 01, 2005

Johnsification

If you watch all those cleaning, reorganizing, and remodeling shows on TV (and I do, because it's much easier than cleaning, reorganizing, or remodeling), then you learn that "everything in your house should have a place, and if it doesn't, it shouldn't be in your house."

That's some of the spirit that's been behind the "Character Donation" series the Absorbascon has been doing jointly with Seven Hells. That, and, of course, anti-Marvel snark; we're only human, ya know.

A similar impetus drives the "Rungs of Villainy" and "Dynastic Centerpiece" series. By analysizing the mytho-structural context of function-driven identities in comics' Manichean etho-sphere, we deepen and enrich our understanding of the artform, its conventions, and, perhaps, how it reflects ourselves and our society. Or maybe it's just funny. Take your pick.

Anyway, we are just following DC's lead, I guess. They've got their writers taking all the "old" characters lying around, rearranging them and using them in new and interesting ways. If you sent yourself a tachyon-email to about 10 years ago and told your past self that the Calculator and Cat-Man would be breakout characters of 2005, your past self would just laugh and delete it.

So many who read comics -- or, at least, those who write about reading them -- seem to think that creativity is about creating new characters. They fall over for every trendy little "Girl 13" or "Fallen Angel" or "Breach" some frustrated novelist pulls together (no offense meant, really, to those particular characters; replace them with others in your mind, if you want!). They make fun of icons like Superman and Batman, as old, empty, tapped out. Some people always want what's new and different, not because it's necessarily better, but because they are people intrinsically dissatisfied whatever is or went before, and who think the grass is always greener on the other side of the origin. They keep "small press" small; all those new characters they revere one minute are abandoned when the new flavor-of-the-month comes along ("Dude, aren't you reading 'Pistachio Girl and the Sprinkles'? I've never read anything like it!").

They're the same people who can read Ayn Rand without laughing or puking (ain't that right, JP?). They worship individualism and independence, failing to see that greatness can be achieved only in a larger context than us, the context of society as a whole. People disconnected from their society don't really amount to much, I think. If a man living alone on the moon makes a masterpiece, who gives a flying? He is a tree, falling in a forest.

So it is with comic book characters disconnected from the larger context of their "comic book universe". DC toyed with this idea in the original JSA and early "cross-pollination" between titles, but Marvel first carried it to its logical conclusion: anyone in Marvel might interact with anyone else in Marvel, tune in to see it! Of course, putting them all in Manhattan was overkill, but that's a different discussion.

And what are DC's best writers doing lately? Ellis, Simone, Morrison, Johns, et al.; they're revitalizing existing characters from DC's stable -- it's enormous, nearly ENDLESS stable of characters. So many that DC actually could give away the 365 characters that Devon and I will nominate as "donations", without it causing more than a slight bump in their overall storytelling. Making up new characters for the DCU, at this point, isn't a sign of creativity; it's a sign that you lack the creativity to do something new with any of the existing characters.

.I'll label this process of creative re-use "Johnsification" after its greatest practitioner, who takes broken pieces of DC's past and turns them into some fine-looking mosaics! His use of Ian Karkul to explain Obsidian's powers; of the shared Egyptian basis for the Hawkman, Dr. Fate, and Captain Marvel myths; of a common explanation for Hector Hammond and the Shark, which ties them to Hal through his USAF and sci-fi connections; these are merely a few recent examples. And what fun it all is, delighting longtime readers while enticing and amazing newer ones!

That's a "trend" Seven Hells and the Absorbascon are happy to join in on! We'll suggest "Johnsifications" ourselves from now on, and label them as such, proposing groupings and connections of existing DC characters we think would enrich the mytho-structural context of the DCU's etho-sphere.

Or that would simply be fun.

25 comments:

totaltoyz said...

I wholeheartedly agree with your conviction that it is far more creative to do something new and interesting with old characters than to create new ones out of thin air. I would, however, suggest a different term for this process: Englehartion!

Steve Englehart perfected this process in the swingin' 70s! Twas he who took the Beast from the then-cancelled X-Men and made him a different and interesting character. He took a loser villain like the Swordsman and made him one of the most interesting members of the Avengers. He took a one-time teen romance heroine, Patsy Walker, and made her a vital supporting character in his Beast series and later a super-hero in her own right, the Hellcat! And at DC Comics, he brought musty old Bat-villains Deadshot and Hugo Strange out of storage, dusted them off, and pretty much did for them what Geoff Johns has done for the Calculator and Cat-Man!

Okay, I admit Englehart should have left Minister Blizzard where he found him. Nobody hits a homer every time at bat.

Brian said...

First, a haiku (even though it's not Haikuesday):

Scipio's a nerd.
"Manichaen etho-sphere"?
We love him anyway.

[Yes, I know what Manichaeism is. Perhaps the snootiest way of saying "good guys vs. bad guys" EVER. Silly classicist]

Anyway, onto Johnsification. While I agree with the theory in spirit, there's a fine line to walk -- between "re-envisioning" and "reboot," really.

In my mind, any given hero (hell, CHARACTER) has exactly four great stories (at best): his beginning, his greatest failure, his greatest triumph, and his end. Anything else falls into the realm of "at most neat." I'm not saying that there aren't GOOD stories that exist outside the realm of the Big Four, or that the Big Four stories must be preserved in obsidian tablets buried in a titanium tomb for all time, but the SPIRIT of the big four has to be persistent. It's what makes the character THE CHARACTER. The problem is, any sort of immortal icon like Superman, Batman, Spider-man, etc. can have, AT MOST, the first two of those stories. If Supes has already has his greatest triumph, it's all downhill from here. And because he's an icon, he can't have an end. That's why people latch on to the new and the self-contained. You can get all four of those stories in there without worrying about a character's inherent immortality getting in the way.

How does all this relate to Johnsification you might ask (assuming you're still reading)? If done right, Johnsification MUST retain the spirit of a character's Big Four. AT its best, as you put it, it takes the broken pieces, finds the interconnections and colors that match up properly, and makes a big pretty mosaic out of them. At its worst, it changes the story of a character so much that the character becomes effectively someone else, and not the character you signed on for in the first place.. It's the pitfall that comes along with the hurricane of Ultimate, Year One, whathaveyou titles.

Anyway, you're right, some EXCELLENT stories can come out of this, and not just because of the overlap of the Campbellian hero-tropes. But it's important to keep in mind that welding too many things together might have the unintentional effect of diluting or altering a character's Big Four Stories to the point where the character himself changes.

Although, in some cases (*ahem*Green Arrow*ahem*) that might not be a bad thing...

Brian said...

Oops, just realized I wrote the Haiku wrong:

Scipio's a nerd.
"Manichaen etho-sphere"?
But we love him still.

jnr said...

heh. quite a manifesto you've got going here. very funny, very clever.

and i totally see what you're getting at, here. but i think that i'm glad your, um...Ultimate Solution wasn't implemented in, say, 1967. or 1979, for that matter. i can think of a few dc characters i'd be missing. though i suppose you could argue that neil gaiman could have created death playing by these rules. umm...by retconning phantom lady? [grin]

raises a few interesting questions. while i am absolutely in favor of revitalizing two-dimensional characters, sometimes this process (as it's currently implemented) seems to invoke some strange destruction-must-precede-creation mechanics. personally, i'd be sad if in order to create clayfaces 2-4, or however many clayfaces we're up to by now, the original clayface had been scrubbed from continuity.

and if you're one of those people (like me) who sometimes sees a superhero's powers as reflections of their personalities or inner states, or connected to their psyches--the reason the ogres and demons in japanese stories are often more interesting characters than the ogres in ours; oni are usually human beings transformed by out-of-control inner states), you're also suggesting that there could be no time or state of mind or mood that couldn't be *best* conveyed by rummaging through the continuity toybox, and filing the serial numbers off of some hero or villain that no one has done anything interesting with lately. don't know if i quite buy that. i reckon it would be possible ninety-nine times out of a hundred. but not a hundred times out of a hundred.

and eventually, only characters with really silly names would be left to johnsify.

look forward to seeing the list you come up with, though. i've got one myself, i have to admit.

***

can't say i've ever thought of myself as a frustrated novelist. but i suppose you could make a fair case for that.

Marionette said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Marionette said...

Of course the other side of the coin is what I like to call Thomassination after Roy Thomas, who made a career of bringing old characters and stories to light and using them to create the dullest stories imaginable.

"Oh look, in Star Spangled Stuff #387 (published in 1947) Captain Hippo says he is off to the dentist, but next time we see him he mentions that he has just come back from the doctor's. I must write a three issue adventure of The Pre-Avengers to explain this apparent inconsistancy!"

My verification word today is ooskpji. Isn't that a rude word in norweigan?

David J Oakes said...

You had me until "Johnsification". (And I proudly use "Manichean" to describe superheroes.)

Johns gets credit for doing it right now, but not first, and certainly not best. And for a lot of it, not at all. Thomas linked Karkul to Obsidian. Dr Fate and Blue Beetle intersected in the Time Masters mini. The various Egyptians have crossed paths, though not to the same level of detail. And I want to say the Shark and Hammond were linked even in the days of Broome, buty I am willing to give that one to Johns, if I must. If we have to give it a name, let's go with "Englehartion". Or "Thomasian", though I will be the first to agree he got pedantic by the end.

And if Catman and Calculator are the poster children for this new return to the toy box, "Johnsification" is even less appropriate. Simone is simply writing Catman as he was originally envisioned, an Evil Batman. To her credit, she is getting some great emotional depth out of his later abuse at the hands of writers who only saw him as another Silver Age Silly. (Twenty years from now, Ted Kord will be the coolest guy in the DCU. Start counting.) And the new and improved Calculator, direct rip-off of Oracle, was Metzler. If anything, Johns Modus Operandi is the opposite of "Bring back an old character and make them cool again". Johnsification is "Kill an old character, usually in a derogatory fashion, and then bring in a hip, new, young, kewl fanboy reinterpretation for the 1990s and say it's a love for the history". He just happens to be lucky in that the "old" characters he gets to kill off now are last generations "new" characters, so it looks like he is undoing the "failures" of the post-Crisis universe. By giving us 1986 all over again...

Scipio said...

See?

This is fun already!

Julio Oliveira said...

You know talking about the First Clayface, I have a guess that the Hush villain is actually Basil Karlo pretending to be Tommy Elliot. That would explain why he hates Batman so, why he is so good at acting like Tommy Elliot even if he isn't and why Clayface III(?) works with him.

The problem with Geoff Johns being the "King of Continuity" is that he isn't really... in more than one occasion he completely ignored continuity in favor of one him that is completely stupid (I am the only one that hate the fact that rings of the green lanterns are now animated by the exposition fairy like some sort of twisted Pinocchio?)

Also about the confirmation words: I think this is all a conspiracy to power up a powerful summoning spell to call Mr. Mxyzptlk and other imps from the 5th dimension

Devon said...

In the world of wrestling there are "stables." Stables are usually comprised of singles wrestlers who, for one reason or another, can't make it on their own. So what do you do when you have talent you believe in? "Stable-ize" them.

"You! The wiley veteran wrestler in the corner who just may be past his prime! Act as these young boys' mouthpiece."

"You! The young energetic guy. You have no mic skills but you can "go" in the ring."

"You! What do you do? You're seven feet tall? You're going to be the young guy's tag-team partner. He'll cover up your weaknesses and when things look bad for him, he'll tag you in and make you look like a hero."

These groupings have been going on for years and with great deals of success. The Rock benefitted immeasurably from "stabile-ization." Look at how well it worked for him.

So, just imagine if you took someone like Jason Blood (The Demon) and made some kind of connection with Brother Blood in an effort to make them stronger characters.

Scipio said...

Sh! Save it for the blogs, Devon!

Julio Oliveira said...

Considering that since Brother Blood desire the powers of Trigon, Ravena's father, and Etrigan is from a entire different hell, maybe they can team up with Ares in his new Lord of Hades role, and other 4 guys and form the League of Seven Hells, what do you think, Devon?

Devon said...

That was a "gimme." I have a million of them.

Fran├žois said...

That theory is completely absurd.
All your dearly beloved old characters were new, years ago.
If we follow your reasoning, we don't get any new character after, what?, the 70's, the 80's? When do you stop the clock?

I do think there's a problem with many superhero fans, that they don't want anything new. They want a rehash of characters they grew up with and like to see 'adultified".

I can enjoy a comic with Batman, and I can enjoy a comic with an all-new character. Doesn't matter. Only the quality of the comic matters.

Julio Oliveira said...

Is not that you can't create new characters per se, is that considering the huge saturation, on all spectrum of the archetypes, nowadays, unlikely the 80s or the 70s, is quite a waste creating a new character since they are ones underdevelopded that do the job just fine.

Take "Breach" for example. Is basically a take on Captain Atom. And its funny since with the creation of Breach we now have Cpatains Atoms on all absolute positions of the emotional range: we have Dr. Manhattan, that have so little emotions to the point of being a little autistic; we Captain Atom, that have emotions like a baseline human; and now we Breach, that have emotions like of a rageful psychotic murderer. Do we need a psychotic Captain Atom? Could we do ONE story with these walkers taking over Captain Atom and them get this plot out of your systems and return to the status quo? We could, and Bob Harras lost a golden opportunity in doing just that instead of creating a new character that didn't even fly under anyone radar.

Chris Griswold said...

He wanted to sue Captain Atom, and they wouldn't let hih. Thus: Breach

Scipio said...

"Only the quality of the comic matters."

Oh, not for me! If I want to read quality literature that stands alone, I can read "real books".

What I, and many people in our myth-starved society, want is to read quality stories that contribute to an overall mythology.

That's why there are more people who follow Star Trek or Star Wars or Lord of the Ring or Harry Potter or etc. etc. than who read the annual Anthology of Best Short Stories. Not because the sagas are good, but because they are sagas.

A cameo looks nice to wear on your blouse occasionally, but to decorate your wall, you really want a tapestry...

Jim Roeg said...

Scipio - I've always loved The Absorbascon, but after this post...I love it MORE!! Your point about serials/sagas goes to the heart of why I read comics.

Tom Curry said...

I think the recent interview w/Devin Grayson at Comics Foundry informs this discussion, because it sheds light on the interplay between the DCU (the mythos of Manichean archetypes of blah blah) and DC Comics (the licensing source.)

It's at: http://www.comicfoundry.com/modules/wfsection/article.php?articleid=150

Read both parts, but here's the excerpt that turned up on Fanboy Rampage....

"[T]here’s a huge difference between working in the comics medium and working in the comics industry. The medium, when you begin to explore it, quickly reveals itself to be capable of handling almost any kind of storytelling. It’s great for pulling readers into the emotional life of a story and has a powerful, interactive aspect not precisely mirrored in any other type of fiction. I really feel like it’s still evolving as an art form and is open to a tremendous amount of redefinition and growth. The industry, on the other hand – by which, by the way, I always mean the mainstream industry, since that’s where my experience lies – is one of the most limiting and circumscribed producers of fiction going. Though richly layered with decades of creator contributions and sometimes so archetypally pure as to survive almost any embarrassing mutilation, most mainstream superhero characters work not at crime-fighting or entertainment so much as at marketing. At the end of the day, Superman has to go sell Underoos and Batman gets his head planted on the top of a Pez dispenser. It is difficult to even begin to explain the ways in which this fundamental truth necessarily dominates and regulates character and story development. No one ever mentions it, but it is the financial driving force of the industry and ultimately influences every decision ever made about a superhero comic book. The next time you catch yourself balling your fists in frustration over a story line and yelling 'Why don’t they just – ' I can almost guarantee you that the answer is 'toothpaste.'"

Scipio said...

Thanks, Jim! And your blog, Double Articulation, is extremely thoughtful!

Scipio said...

[Yes, I know what Manichaeism is. Perhaps the snootiest way of saying "good guys vs. bad guys" EVER. Silly classicist]

No, Brian; the snootiest way of saying "good guys vs. bad guys" is "Zoroastrianistic".

But I wanted to take it easy on you all...!

Mike Loughlin said...

After reading this post, I have seen the light; no longer will I buy any comic book not bound by crossover, nor any that does not go out of its way to dredge up a near-forgotten relic of a superbeing and make him HIP and HAPPENING and NOW, man NOW!!!

Thank you Scipio. I once was blind...

Scipio said...

Excellent!

It's always good to see ones efforts pay off.

You're welcome!

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