Sunday, February 11, 2007

Keeping Company

There's a project I'd love to get off the ground, but I can't really see myself having the time to make it happen: a list (or index or wiki or whatever you kids use nowadays) of the companies and organizations in the DCU. So I'm going to talk about it here; maybe someone will take the ball and run with it.

When talking about comic books, we often focus on the main characters. But as important in its own way is the world that is built around them.

In the early Golden Age, superhero comics were often like stripped-down bare-stage plays. Who cared what Clark Kent's boss's name was? He's just a mechanism for setting Superman into action. You can read the entire Starman Archive and not know what city Starman lives in, because it's never mentioned. Anything other than the main character was a potential distraction and treated as such. Try and imagine reading a superhero comic book today in which essential supporting players and the host city aren't even named; it just wouldn't happen and if it did, you'd be darned puzzled by such a "strange" artistic choice.

This changed as the Golden Age blossomed. As characters become stronger and more popular, they no longer need a empty stage in order to stand out. Writers started fleshing out the supporting casts, and natural impulse led them to develop (consciously or not) the Dynastic Centerpiece model we like to talk about here. To some degree, this works and is good. But things can be carried too far ... .

Creators started to use the stage scenery as a mechanism to magnify the central characters, and supporting casts, conditions, and cities grew like weeds. From the spare stage of Greek tragedy we got in the early Golden Age, the height of the Silver Age gave us an overwrought opera production, whose baroque stages dripped with Supercats, Wonder Tots, and Bat-Mites.

Tales of the Bat-Signal!

The Many Loves of Lang Lang!

Wonder Tot Meets Nubia!

Okay, okay; Wonder Tot never met Nubia. But that's only because no one thought of it.

The whole thing went a bit over the top, enough that even the long-standing characters with powerful iconic voices had trouble being heard of the loudness of their scenery.

Part of moving from the Silver Age to the Bronze Age was backing away from character-specific scenery in favor of broader contextual backgrounds for the entire DC "universe". Less time was spent detailing "The Adventures of Commissioner Gordon's Pipe!" and more on exploring the Justice League and the Justice Society, its counterpart on "Earth-2" (a mechanism for placing current "continuity" in the larger context of old comics stories).

When Marvel came crashing onto the scene in the Silver Age, it taught DC (or reminded it of) the value of giving characters individual personalities and of placing them all into the same overall context, a "universe" where any character might potentially interact with another. DC had explored these possibilities already, but it had a post-hoc flavor to it. Yes, big characters might appear together frequently, but some major scientific or sociological discovery in one title (say, a secret city of superscientific gorillas or an attack by an alien armada) would be virtually ignored in every other. Marvel helped DC understand that readers were interested not just in the characters but in the entire world that contained them.
Mythbuilding creators get this. Comic books, Star Wars, Buffy, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, professional wrestling, soap operas: their value lies not primarily in the intrinsic worth of their individual episodes (Lord knows!) but in providing an epic/mythic universe in which those episodes take place and contribute richness and meaning. That what many readers are looking for: not mere stories (which one can watch in Lifetime movies or read in SF anthologies) but myths.

Many people crave not merely entertainment, but context, framing devices to help us understand and connect with the world around us, particularly when that world is complicated. They will create them, whether it's through ancient aetiological myths, Bible stories, medieval epics & ballads, or Batman: The Animated Series. People may not be able to take the whole world in with their minds, but it becomes easier to know what to do when you can simply ask yourself, "What would Jesus/Superman/Brian Boitano do?"

I think that is in fact what many people condemn as "geekiness": not reading such stories per se but using them as a framework for understanding the world. Well, you know what: screw them. They're mostly people who have given up on understanding the world, who have no need for a moral or conceptual framework because they don't make moral decisions or choose their ideas; they let others do that for them. Much easier to float through life on the wave of humanity, pausing occasionally to laugh at guys speaking Klingon or debating Supergirl's hemline. Which is too high, by the way.
Meanwhile, back in the Bronze Age, DC's attempts at building little worlds around each character and building one world around all of it had been started at different times and were hard to reconcile. When it all seemed to have past the point of diminishing returns, DC decided it would be easier to start fresh, and reboot itself with Crisis on Infinite Earths.

The putative housecleaning of Crisis on Infinite Earths cleared the stage for many characters, particularly ones like the Big Three. Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman were stripped of as much baggage as possible and put on to bare stages to begin their stories anew in what I might as well call the post-Crisis "Iron Age". Over the last 20 years, a slow realization seemed to develop that too much had been lost; the bathwater may have been dirty, but darned if some of its babies weren't cute.

As broader, brighter elements -- none more stunning than the JSA, which had been shunted off as an embarrassing relic at the beginning of the Iron Age -- began to return, everyone seemed to realize we were in a new world, one which DC formalized through the exercise of Infinite Crisis, and which I'm currently calling the Platinum Age, because it shines like silver but ain't as cheap.

The goal in the Platinum Age (at least, I hope) seems to be to merge the best elements of the previous ages, such as
  • the deadly seriousness of the Golden Age ("Oh, look, Robin; another pile of dead bodies."),
  • the personalization and whimsy of the Silver Age (*Chuckle* "Brainy suggests we have Protty disguise himself as a young Krypto so that Superboy will never realize that Jimmy Olsen was once his baby-sitter on Krypton, which might upset the time-stream!"),
  • and the cosmos-spanning, satellite-filling crossover context of the Bronze Age ("I couldn't make the League's adventure against Star-Breaker because I was visiting my mother on Earth-2!" *Editor's note: See "The Canary Cries At Midnight!", in Supergirl 123).

The ratio and nature of that mix you prefer pretty much defines who you are in the universe of DC fans. In the Platinum Age, some readers are shocked to see decapitations and rapes, because they thought we were returning to the innocent Silver Age. Others are displeased by the new existence of dogs in capes. Some resent "being forced to buy other comics" to fully understand the broader context of the comics they regularly read; others rejoice in projects like 52, Brave & Bold, and Justice League Unlimited, books where the entire DC Universe itself is the star. The most I can say to people who are utterly astonished that an entire universe wasn't reconfigured exactly to their liking is "relax, find the parts you like and enjoy them, and don't stress about the rest."

This is rather a long way round the barn to this point: one of the contextualizing things that I most enjoy is seeing companies and organizations mentioned in various titles. It's a nice low-key way of connecting everything that doesn't require lots of cross-reading to get the feeling all your favorite characters are living in the same world. DC knows this: Sundoller, Lexcorp, Stagg Industries, the Sunderland Corporation, Big Belly, Smilin' Bess, Ferris Aircraft, Soder Cola versus Zesti, STAR Labs; these are the background signs that help us know we're in the DCU, regardless of which hero is thrashing which villain in foreground.

Some of these are recent, but I'd love for DC to take advantage of their wealth of history to "revive" even more companies. DC's Golden and Silver Age stories are a wonderland of chewing gum companies, piano factories, chemical plants, radio stations, newspapers, and vague family-owned conglomerates (I mean, what the heck did Ollie Queen make his money in?). I would love for there to be a place or person that collects this all, where every time I could check to see whether Consolidated Corn has every been mentioned before and, if not, to add it to the list. I'm sure that some writers would take advantage of it and drop by whenever they need to insert a tuna processing firm into their current storyline.

Anyone willing to bell this cat?


Renophaston said...

It's far from complete (well, not too far), but the Organizations category at the DC Database Project is probably close to what you're looking for. There are probably others that aren't categorized (I'm going to go looking now). BTW, I love this blog. I have no problem being entertained by the comics, but your posts help remind me that it's worthwhile to keep them in mind even when I'm not reading. Thanks!

Allan said...

"relax, find the parts you like and enjoy them, and don't stress about the rest."

Insert sound of a one man standing ovation here.

And I have to admit I would do evil things to get my hands on that Lois Lane comic.

MarkAndrew said...

I'm still trying to bell MY cat, with hillarious and oft painful results.

So, no.

But damnfine piece. Bonus points for effective use of indenting to make a sub-point seperate from the larger point. I never would have thought of that.

Loren said...

God! You are SOOOOOOO woefully uninformed.


Sorry...couldn't resist. Especially after reading an entry like this that only Scipio could piece together. Another wonderful observation!

Scipio said...


"Lois Lane" 21 is on sale at Ebay for under $20.

Tricia S. said...

Good advice, my problem is not with the violence so much as that DC is not as willing to let go of the bleakness and endless killing of their modern comics. (Hell even Clamp's works are sunny and cheery compared to 80% of DC's comics today).

Allan said...

Thanks Scipio! I'll have to check that out. Me and the Ebay have our issues, but I might be willing to overlook them just this once.

Anonymous said...

Wonder Tot couldn't have met Nubia because she was retconned away years before Nubia was retconned in.

Ollie Queen made his millions in fish futures.

The first JLA/JSA crossover was in 1963.

No Supergirl title has ever gone higher than #80.

Exactly how many dogs in capes are currently inhabiting the DC universe? I think someone should catalog that.

Jacob said...

Sunderland! Ah, those were the days. How long has it been since we heard from Sunderland Corporation?

Now that we're in a post-continuity-verse where everything that ever happened can get referred to, and when Animal Man and Doom Patrol and Sandman and Sandman Mystery Theater have all been re-acknowledged as part of the DCU complete with Vertigo histories incorporated through Superboy punches, and now that Swamp Thing vol. 73 has ended, can't we get Swamp Thing (and Tim Hunter, for that matter) re-acknowledged in the DCU?

Anonymous said...

Frankly, I think this is by far the best blog about comics in the Universe. Posts like that prove it.


zundian said...

I always thought the Platinum Age was Pre-1938, at least according to the Overstreet price guide.

k26dp said...

Best... post... ever.

Well, at least best post since a couple weeks ago. :)

A couple other franchises that utilize corporate backgrounds to create continuity where otherwise there would be none: the Chris Carter franchises (X-Files, Millinium...) and the Tarantino films (Reservoir Dogs, Dusk Till Down, Pulp Fiction...)

Blockade Boy said...

For some reason, I kept reading your excellent designation for this modern age of comics as "the Plutonium Age." (Now, that's modern!) Anyway, excellent post, as per usual. Your line about people who debate Supergirl's hemline ("Which is too high, by the way.") had me in stitches!

H said...

I've got too many cats of my own to bell, but I can't let this post go without praising you for an outstanding job of tying together the history of why readers like DC Comics.

webrunner said...
Is that what you need?

Scipio said...

No, that's just supergroups. And there are some other lists, but none of companies.

The DC Database Project that Renophaston mentioned is the closest thing. I'll guess I need to rally the troop to encourage the addition of companies. Lots and lots of companies.

gene phillips said...

Scipio, is the "mythbuilding" section something you're quoting from an earlier piece? Is that why it's indented?

Either way, I tend to agree with the sentiments therein.

Scipio said...

No; indented only because it's essentially a multiparagraph parenthetical. It's a "textbook/user manual" thing.

Devon said...

Amalgamated Slaveholdings.

Oh, wait.

That's The Simpsons.

Xanadude said...

(TO paraphrase from The Monkee's movie Head):
Don't never...but NEVER...make fun of Nubia or Wonder Tot. Some of us take our WonderSpinOffs seriously.

Jon Hex said...

If anyone's interested, I have a few shares of Kord Industries I'm selling off.

Justin said...

Re: the last parenthetical paragraph. I think many of those people actually do the same "frameworking" that comics/Star Wars/Star Trek fans do, but they're just less aware of it.

I live in northeastern Wisconsin, and for a lot of people around here, the Green Bay Packers fill that same sort of role. For them, the Packers do not so much play games as they play OUT chapters in a massive saga spanning the franchise's history. Brett Favre, after all, is the Hal Jordan to Bart Starr's Alan Scott.

But sports=physical and comics=cerebral, and sports=mainstream and comics=pseudo-subcultural, so sports fans rarely get called out to defend themselves and engage with their "hobby" on the level that you have with this post.

The sooner diehard sports fans with an encyclopedic knowledge of batting averages realize there is no fundamental difference between them and some Tokien fan learning to speak elvish, the sooner our society can join hands united and buy the world a Coke.

Scipio said...

Wise words,Justin!

Justin said...

Thanks! It would have been my greatest contribution to society and my legacy to the world if I had remembered to spell "Tolkien" correctly.

Carlos said...

... Justin, Hal Jordan is so not analogous to Brett Favre. After all, Favre threw for a touchdown immediately after being concussed. Hal would have dropped like a rock.

On the other hand, Guy Gardner is perfectly analogous to Don Majkowski.

Okay, beams crossing. I've glimpsed the abyss, and the abyss is comparing Kyle Rayner's ass to Donald Driver's.

K26dp said...

I don't know about asses, but Donald Driver is twice the adult.

Justin said...

Carlos, you are correct in that it is not a perfect parallel. Favre, after all, must routinely shake off yellow ceiling tiles falling on his head in creaky old Lambeau Field, and while Hal is (routinely, one imagines) powerless...except from the waist down!, Favre is obviously in command of substantial upper body strength.

My original thought was to go Jay Garrick-Barry Allen, except that Barry's actually been replaced at least twice over now. Favre, on the other hand, simply refuses to retire, and I suspect we shall see him rejuvenated through contrived means soon enough.

Shad said...

I think the database is a great idea, and I have thought in the past about doing something similar for the Archie Universe. However, I don't have the slightest idea how to start such a thing...

faboofour said...

Wonderful article. So good that I hate to see it spoiled with a glaring grammatical error: It should be, "When it all seemed to have passed the point of diminishing returns, DC decided it would be easier to start fresh, and reboot itself with Crisis on Infinite Earths."

Sorry... pet peeve... I'm a big-time Lynne Truss fan...

Raz said...

Y'know Scip, I love reading your blog anyway, but for the point you made regarding people dissing geeks because they've given up on understanding the world...for that point I think this is among the best posts you've ever written, and while it's so simple and obvious I can't believe it never occured to me previously...

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