Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Geoff Johns versus Aquaman

Make no mistake. I will not like everything that Geoff Johns does with Aquaman. But I am confident that he will do right in setting the character back on track. Why? Because the evidence is clear that Johns understands the three steps to re-establishing an iconic character.

1. Acceptance of the Essentials

Geoff Johns respects the essence of a character's myth. What is the essence of a character's myth? Isn't that act of deciding what a character's essence is subjective? Perhaps. But on the whole "essential" means the elements mostly commonly associated and accepted by the wider public as part of the hero's mythos-- not just the parts the writer happens to like.

The main point here is that Johns does not begin with the presumption that the character is essentially... stupid. He does not think, "Whoa, this character's basic story is ridiculous, and now it's totally broken." Why? Because, regardless of exactly how he terms it, he looks at the characters as mythic. And, as a serious student of mythology knows...

myths are always ridiculous.

Myths are full of trickster spider-gods and holy castrations that birth goddesses and people turning wine in water. A billionaire who beats up muggers as a hobby? Ridiculous. The world's most powerful being contents himself with living as a bullied milksop? Ridiculous. A princess created out of clay by an ancient immortal, magical, and scientifically advanced sisterhood and imbued with superpowers by Greek gods, who, coming to America to fight our enemies foreign and domestic and teach us that male aggression can only be tamed through submission to the happy controlling bondage of women's power of love, meets a lookalike war nurse with the same name as hers whom she can immediately pay to move to South America so she can assume her identity? Really, the word "ridiculous" simply does not cover it.

Geoff Johns does not shy away from the essential ridiculousness of the characters he tackles. He embraces it He accepts that the ridiculous essence of the myth is part of what makes it powerful, part of why the characters persists, long after more "realistic" characters have been forgotten and abandoned.

2. Incorporation of the variations

Well, where I was taught this concept we didn't call it "incorporation"; when talking about myths, we called it "syncretism". Regardless of what you call it, it's a step beyond just accepting the essential myth. It's accepting the value of the essential myth-- and all the variations of the myth that have arisen, even when they seem to be in conflict. Its highest expression is the attempt to reconcile the variations of a myth, into one larger, more powerful version of the myth.

Like it or not--or like how he does it or not-- this is exactly what Johns does. Sometimes there's a quite of hand-waving, even to the point of literary legerdemain. But generally, since the outcome is "mythically desirable" to the public, they happily suspend their disbelief of whatever means Johns uses to get them where they want to be.

3. Expansion of the mythos by extension or elaboration

Timid writers fear adding any new to a mythos, sometimes out of overwhelming respect for the character. This is particularly true for writers who started as fanboys. Brash writers contradict or at times throwout the existing mythos, trying to turn the character they've been given into a different one (e.g., Peter David on Supergirl). Respectful but bold writers keep older essential elements, but do not hesitate to add appropriate new ones (which we'll call expansion by extension) or extrapolate older elements into new directions and territory (which we'll call expansion by elaboration).

A simplified way of looking at it. is that the writer asks himself or herself:
  1. What are the top ten things "everyone knows" about this character and how can I best make them work together?
  2. How can I make the" other stuff" part of that and make it cool?
  3. Once that's done, how can I make the story bigger or deeper in way consistent with what I've put together?

A brief look at John's treatment of three classic characters, all of whom he brought back from utter extinction, shows his application of these principals.

For Hawkman, he focused on essential elements (Shayera as Hawkgirl and the relationship with her, the reincarnation and connection with ancient Egypt and history, the museum setting, the Thanagarian connection), incorporated variations and history (e.g., quickly merging the blond Golden Age Hawkman with the black-haired Silver Age Hawkman into the brown-haired modern Hawkman, putting all of Hawkman's rogues gallery back into play one by one, bringing back Golden Eagle), and expanded on the mythos (e.g., creating a new and unique fictionopolis for Hawkman to replace the vague and unessential Silver Age setting of Midway City).

For Flash, he re-established the essentials (Barry Allen the slow and methodical police scientist, his relationship with reporter Iris West, his friendships with Wally and Hal, Central City and its Rogues' Gallery, bringing Capt Boomerang back from the dead), incorporated variations (e.g., keeping the "speed force", the West-Park family, Max Mercury, and Jay Garrick, re-setting Bart Allen and making him Kid Flash), and elaborated on the mythos (e.g., making Barry the generator of the speed force rather than its recipient, creating co-worker characters for Barry, putting a new spin on the Reverse Flash's powers).

For Green Lantern, he stopped the "GL-of-the-decade" cycle by restoring the GL essentials (test pilot Hal Jordan, the importance of fearlesness/willpower, Carole Ferris, refurbishing the Lantern foes, revitalizing the Corps and the Guardians), incorporated variations (e.g. finding off-world roles for John Stewart, Guy Gardner, and Kyle Rayner) and elaborated on existing elements into new territory (e.g., taking the existence of a ring of a different color (yellow) and the association of "willpower" with the "green" lantern and extrapolating those into other color rings with their corps and own associated mental states).

Lest you think I'm just a Johns-nut, I have to confess I do not like all of the results of what Johns has done. The GL Corps bores me, the Flash's stories are still achingly slow, and Hawkman has still not found a stable place in the DCU. But there is no question that Johns has done the (apparently) impossible in getting these three characters (each of whom has been completely written off as toxic, irredeemable, and, well, dead) back on track.

Similarly, it's important to point out that Johns is not the only writer who takes this approach. Kurt Busiek and, of all people, Grant Morrison do as well. Taking this three-pronged approach to mythic revitalization doesn't mean doing it perfectly. Busiek did wonders with Superman in almost no time at all; however, his work on Aquaman was less successful because, I think, he mis-identified what the essential elements of Aquaman were. Morrison seems to take this approach (he masterfully boiled down Superman's origin and did essential characterization work on Jimmy Olsen and Lex Luthor in All Star Superman, and has steadfastly tried to incorporate outlying Silver Age and Bronze Age variations into the Batman mythos); he's just undone by his inability to weave it all into a coherent whole (or, for that matter, a coherent story, or even coherent sentences). If you take a look at other good writers working on revitalizing existing properties (such as Levitz on Legion), you'll be able to spot the approach.

How exactly will Johns apply this approach to Aquaman? He's already given us some clues, such as his revitalization of Mera (acceptance), the recasting of her homeworld as a other dimensional penal colony for former Atlanteans (incorporation) and creation of the new Aqualad (an extrapolation of the conflict between Aquaman and Black Manta). Time will tell how he will apply it further, but for now it appears that Aquaman is in good hands.


Bryan L said...

I think my biggest problem with Johns is that he's compelled to fix things that don't necessarily need fixing. Hawkman's reboot was absolutely necessary. I'm fine with Hal Jordan's rehabilitation, because elminating him originally was stupid (I don't care for the character, but he should have just passed on his ring and possibly hung around as a mentor). So yeah, if it bugs you, Geoff, fix it.

Barry Allen, though, is a repair job that nobody needs. It's an unappealing revamp that actually looks worse than the existing situation (kind of like Kenny Rogers' facelift). I read the first six issues or so, but dropped it because it's unbearably dull (much like Barry Allen).

And yes, I'm familiar with the popular refrain that "He's a CSI, that's not dull." But writing him compellingly as a CSI is going to take a LOT of work and a LOT of research, and that's pretty rare among comic book writers. Actually, the same is true of Hal Jordan as a test pilot, which is why he ended up with a string of weird jobs prior to his initial removal.

Bryan L said...

Oops, I forgot:

All that said, Aquaman needs a revamp. If Geoff can do what he did for Hawkman, I'm thrilled.

Scipio said...

Sounds to me more like it's Barry Allen/Flash you don't like, Bryan!

Bryan L said...

I can't see why you'd jump to that conclusion. I mean, I devoted several paragraphs to running down Barry, as opposed to two sentences on Aquaman, the topic of your post. Oh, wait ...

Joe Slab said...

Awesome work! I am envious of you ability to put into word your thoughts about what works and what doesn't when reinvigorating a character.

I am linking you up @aquamanshrine on twitter. Check it out!

Scipio said...

Thanks, Joe!

Anonymous said...

you're so smart.

Anonymous said...

One thing that Geoff sometimes seems to get, and other times seems maddenly clueless on, is the folly of killing off characters. If you need to make room for a new Aqualad, give Garth something important to do in Atlantis. If you want Jason and Ronnie to be the new Firestorm pair, it's not necessary to kill off Martin Stein or Gehenna. And put Kal-L on new Earth-2 already, where he belongs.

That said, I notice that Geoff was careful to not kill off Kyle or Wally when bringing Hal and Barry back; he seems to understand that heroes can choose to be colleagues rather than rivals. That's a pretty good way to minimize fan anger, and of course it fits right into the Dynastic Centerpiece model.

And, one more thing I'd like to see: Arthur Jr. returned to life. I may be in a minority there, but Arthur Jr's murder was mostly a matter of shock value, and it's tainted Aquaman ever since. No matter what good things they do with Aquaman, he's still got a dead son on his conscience. Find a way to undo it, perhaps with a White Lantern Orpheus quest of some kind.

SallyP said...

Frankly, the thought of Geoff Johns doing Aquaman has me tickled pink. I LIKE Aquaman! I like his giant sea horse, and the octopus, and thata whole talking to fish thing. I hope that he's brought back in all of his orange and green shaven glory.

And while Johns may have his ups and downs for the most part, he really DOES do a darned good job in writing these stories because I get the impression that he genuinely loves the characters. Just like us.

Gene Phillips said...

Good reference to the mythic patterns, Scipio. I'd like to see someone build the gimcrack mythology of Atlantis into something formidable, but aside from David's ATLANTIS CHRONICLES (which read much better than anything he did on AQUAMAN), there isn't a lot for Johns to build upon.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

So what are the essentials of Aquaman?

Breathes water, okay. Talks to fish, yeah. Has an ass-kicking octopus sidekick, absolutely.

King of Atlantis, maybe not. Magical hoo-har, nope. Half-human, half-Atlantean, not necessarily.

How should he be revived? What's worth keeping? Aside from Topo, of course.

Scipio said...

King of the SEA. Atlantis was added later. Atlantis is a very little place compared to the sea.

Most of Aquaman's pre-Atlantis adventures don't take place on the bottom of the sea. They take place at the INTERFACE of the sea and the land/air. Aquaman is the hero who guards that interface.

If Aquaman were real, you would NOT want to be a Somalian pirate or a transmarine drug smuggler.

Imitorar said...

"If Aquaman were real, you would NOT want to be a Somalian pirate or a transmarine drug smuggler."

Or an oil tycoon: .

Anonymous said...

My description of the Johns formula is a little different, though I think you'll agree there are similarities:

1) Figure out what was initially cool about the character, and focus on that.

2) Come up with threats that challenge the hero, physically and also thematically. (There may well already be an arch-nemesis who is a perfect fit.)

3) Explore contradictions within the character.

Points 1 and 2 are pretty obvious with Hal Jordan and Barry Allen. Number 3 was something Geoff did very well with Hal: Geoff had Hal causing international incidents because he feels his authority as a GL, coupled with his anti-authoritarian streak, puts him above the law. (And to Geoff's credit, he also made a good case that Hal was more basically decent and just than a lot of the folks he was running afoul of.)

Two more examples of Geoff showing he "gets it":

- The JSA. With Robinson's help, Geoff transformed the "old fart brigade" into titans that remain perhaps the mightiest generation of all. Plus they're a society, charged with guiding the young as any society must.

- When "Kingdom Come" Superman showed up in JSA (#10 I think), there was a scene I love that really gets at the heart of why Superman is the man. KC Superman is generally sullen and angry, and all of a sudden he has an outburst and is punching his way out of JSA HQ. The assembled heroes try to stop him, but cannot; and nobody (including the reader) knows why he's so angry. Then we realize he's not angry at all; he heard a young girl about to jump off a building, and he's just trying to reach her in time. Of course he saves her, because no matter what personal hell Superman is going through, he'll be there when you need him. (Grant Morrison later homaged this same jump-happy girl in "All-Star Superman", and not enough people realize where the original scene comes from.)

Beta Ray Steve said...

I hope Johns has learned from his JSA/Kingdom Come Superman debacle. Bringing on KC Superman was a shock, but his arc wasn't resolved for over 2 years. There were good, interesting things going on but I was close to dropping it before Johns left.
I think characters like Aquaman suffer greatly from decompression, when you have 5-6 issue arcs, you're only getting 2 stories a year. If you don't like the way a story is going, are you going to remember to come back 5 months later? Or invest $15 in the rest of the arc, just to keep the collection complete? Keep stories short and make them count.

Whatever they do, they must follow my First Law of Reboots: Make it last 10 years. Nothing can screw up a character beyond repair like being rebooted every 3 years.

Anonymous said...

...I have my doubts about Johns' reliability in matters like this.