Sunday, February 24, 2013

In Praise of Decay

I'm a fan of the work of Jane Jacobs, godmother of the neo-urban movement, who gave the U.S. and entirely new way of looking of cities that flew in the face of almost all contemporary wisdom at the time she wrote her seminal work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  A lot of my friends are also urbanists, city-design types, mapmakers and transportation planners.  It's one of the reason that the fictionpolises of the DCU are one of the recurring themes here at the Absorbascon.

One of the underlying principles of Jacobs' work is that the renovation (or gentrification if you prefer that term) downtrodden areas of cities cannot happen until the area hits a certain low point, it's "bottom".  Once a neighborhood is nearly abandoned and the property values are at fire-sale levels, it's ripe for developers and gentrifying homebuyers to use a little money on purchase and a lot on rehab or construction... and for that to happen to not just one spot in the neighborhood, but lots of them.  I currently live in one such revitalized neighborhood, Columbia Heights.

Columbia Heights wasn't so much a dangerous area, just... abandoned.  There wasn't enough here for even criminals to be interested.  

Columbia Heights 2004



Columbia Heights 2011




That's just one commercial corner; similar photos could be shown of all the nearby residential and mixed-use streets.


That's what this is. Or it's Two-Face hideout.


And before moving here, I lived on U Street from 17 years, which has a similar history.  Part of this 'hit bottom' principle is that well-meaning attempts, usually by local governments, to forestall the degeneration of a neighborhood actually prolong the problem.  By preventing the natural socioeconomic forces from degrading and then revamping a neighborhood, the 'biomic succession' by which a crappy, abandoned area becomes the new hip place-to-be can't take place.  

Which brings us to the DCU.  There are many characters that, like neighborhoods primed for gentrification, have hit bottom, became ripe for revamping and then roar back to vitality when some creators do a refresh.  Vibe is a great example.  Animal Man.  Doom Patrol.  Heck, the Bronze Age Batman (as much as I make fun of him) is the result of Batman having descended so far into camp (e.g., "Bat-Hulk') that he was ripe for Denny O'Neil's remake of him.  

Gosh, the list gets longer and longer, the more you think about it.  Wonder Woman.  Dial H.  Superman.  Aquaman.  The Legion.  Supergirl.  Barry and Hal had to DIE before they hit bottom and could be revitalized.  A case could be made that the entire DCU itself is 'neighborhood' that got rundown and the New52 is its gentrification (which some people think, like real gentrification, robs the original place of too much of its native charm).

What I really want to talk with you about isn't those revamps; it's the efforts to prevent the characters from hitting bottom that delayed their revamps.  For me, the most obvious example is: the entirety of Bronze Age Batman.  But that's just me.  

Shazam and Aquaman experienced about 20 years of such stop-gap efforts that you could argue actually delayed the characters from a proper revamp.  There are others.  Hal Jordan's 47 careers changes. Every version of Hawkman after the Bronze Age (except Palmieri's).

What characters do you think are currently receiving this treatment?  Being prevented, by well-meaning but misguided attempts to keep the characters afloat, from 'hitting bottom' and then getting a decent and dramatic revamp?



Comments:
Bart Allen. He was just fine as Impulse, then Geoff Johns decided to make him the new Kid Flash, and it only got worse from there.
 
I'd actually say Superman. The character's been on a gradual but inexorable slide into irrelevance for decades (at least since Dark Knight Returns), and every subsequent reimagining of him has stalled this decay rather than reversing it.
 
I wonder if the problem with Superman is that he fits better as a supporting character much of the time. Superman occupies a niche in the superhero hierarchy (the one everyone else looks up to, the one who saves the day when nobody else can), and it's a valuable niche, but it doesn't always lend itself to good comics. Sure, it's possible to write around his lack of physical or emotional weaknesses, but that's simply not a problem you have with most other characters.

It's something like the problem with movie sequels: if the original movie was The Hero's Journey (and it often was), what's left to accomplish on The Hero's Next Journey? This particular hero has made his journey already, you'll find more fertile ground with the some other unjourneyed hero.
 
I'd suggest that Hawkman needs to hit bottom, and soon. The new 52version seems highly unfocused--a hero who's been active long enough that he's considering quitting at the start of his series (but no one else has heard of him till recently), a crypto-linguist, a semi-amnesiac, and now a Thanagarian exile with a backstory that seems to have been swiped from Starfire.
 
I'd agree with Superman. I'd hoped he was going back to more of his Golden Age incarnation, but that got wiped pretty quickly. I prefer that he be more limited, not omnipotent. Supergirl, too.

The Atom is ripe for a revamp, and Ray has been held back by multiple failed interpretations (Ryan Choi is another matter). Leave out Jean Loring.

The Red Tornado needs a reboot. I did like the Inferno, Torpedo, Volcano idea, but it wasn't handled very well, except for the clever names.

The Metal Men could be a really interesting concept if they were rebooted as a AI/Terminator liquid metal group that slowly gained sentience. I'd make the actual metal business be codenames, not their makeup.
 
Denny O'Neil didn't remake Batman. Go back and read some Frank Robbins stories before the O'Neil era. Batman was crime fiction, not camp.
 
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