Monday, April 06, 2015

Brainiac wins

You may have noticed I'm reading a lot of old comics lately, specifically, Martian Manhunter stories. I have to drink up those espressos of comic book crazy, because of the comic-drought: the two-month regular-comics hiatus caused by DC's move to the West Coast and the concomitant Convergence event.

And now Geoff Johns can finally sleep at night.

I won't follow Convergence slavishly; it seems too much like a fanboy 'X versus Y" exercise to me.  But I'll be getting some spotty issues, just to see some old friends in them (like the Legion, who've become rarae aves in the New52, which we're not supposed to call it anymore).  

There are certainly criticisms to be made of DC for needing anything even remotely like a reboot so soon after loudly creating the "New52"; I hear  them, acknowledge them, and accept their validity.  That said, I'm (comparatively) happy that DC (sort of) realizes their mistakes (which we're not suppose to call them). and is willing (under business duress and public pressure) to so something (although we don't really know what and it's probably the wrong things and/or not enough).  

I'm delighted that DC has built in a diegetic reason for the shake-up.  I've never really forgiven them for stupidities like Doomsday the Living Plot Device or the ersatz COIE (Crisis on Infinite Earths) Cast (The Monitor, the Anti-Monitor, Harbinger, and Pariah, or, as I like to think of them, Al, Peg, Kelly, and Bud).  

Krona is Buck, in case you were wondering.
Or maybe Marcy.

So instead of creating some crazy crap to make all this Convergence stuff happen, DC is just using the crazy crap they already have around. Specifically, Brainiac.

This is pure genius; why? Because Convergence is an exercise in fan fiction, in giving in to the obsessive hoarders of comic continuity and cannon. And because Brainaic is the symbol of geeky, obsessive collectors.

You can make him as scary looking and as powerful as you like, and lord knows DC has  tried over the years.  

Apparently a 12th-level intellect lets you make Sixth-Grade puns.

But, at heart, Brainaic is still this:

Bottled cities lose value if they aren't kept in the original packaging.

 A geek.  A hobbyist. A collector of miniatures. An ant-farm manager.  A guy who builds ships in a bottle.  Who's so lonely he talks to a monkey.


Even when they dress up Brainiac's motivation as "I MUST HAVE ALL THE KNOWLEDGES", it's just making him a trivia geek rather than a collectibles geek.  The effect is much the same.

He's an Android; of course.

Brainiac is us, people. At least, the part of us that it more interested in preserving comics in whatever we deem their 'classic' state of affairs.

Using Brainiac as the diegetic version of us obsessive fanfolks is, therefore, clever and appropriate. Regardless of the outcome of the story, the very existence of Convergence is proof that "Brainiac" has won.  


CobraMisfit said...

"You may have noticed I'm reading a lot of old comics lately..."

Lately? HA!

That said, this post is spot on. Braniac is the ultimate collector. He needs Veteran Metropolis, the Rare of Gotham, and the Chase variant of Apex City. And all so he can look at them on his shelf. Not play with them, just HAVE them.

Egads, the meta of Convergence burrrrrrns usssss.

Also, Braniac, you have a 12th-level intellect, yet you use phrases like, "This super-hard metal stopper...."? Come on, man.

John said...

Guys,'s twelfth-level intelligence, not twelfth-level eloquence.

One of the problems I have with this trend of driving the story through meta-fandom came through in Infinite Crisis, though: It casts us--the customers--as the enemy.

After all, the core premise of Infinite Crisis was that Superboy-Prime (a former real-world comic book collector trapped in the early 1980s, remember) was horribly wrong for objecting to the House That Frank Miller Built and his idea on how to fix things were childishly destructive without any regard for who it hurt. Not even Pantha, who upwards of three readers might have found interesting! (Think about all of the atrocities going on during and in parallel to Infinite Crisis, and yet Superboy-Prime was somehow the most troubling.)

Brainiac is a very good comparison. I just don't know that DC has the maturity to do such things without being mean-spirited or failing to realize that they're just as obsessive about their pet ideas.

Redforce said...

I am not a comic buff, but I feel odd for not knowing that it was Braniac who originally shrunk Kandor.

Redforce said...

Hm- and in that sense, it is the same as the Giant Penny- long since disconnected from its original origin through continuity shifts and shake-ups by way of becoming an Iconic Symbol.

Dashing One said...

This had dawned on me before - but excellent way of summing it up!

There's a similar thread through Multiversity - the Gentry seem to represent the worst parts of fandom (make it darker, add some sex for no reason, kill some people off) and the last issue included a scene where online criticism was literally used as a weapon.

This stuff is nice in small doses and handled subtly - I can get behind Convergence because it's admittedly just "Hey let's toss all these characters together before we put them back in the toy box for a while" and has been marketed as such.

SallyP said...

I'm not going to buy all the Convergence stuff either, but gosharootie, it WILL be nice to see some old friends for a change. There was no reason whatsoever to put all those wonderful characters on the shelf...or kill them off.

So, I guess I'm happy that DC is finally acknowledging that one of their main strengths IS their Continuity!

Blessed, blessed Continuity!

Bryan L said...

"Who's so lonely he talks to a monkey."

We've all been there. Which only serves to underscore your point.

Scipio said...

"There was no reason whatsoever to put all those wonderful characters on the shelf."

Not enough shelf space, Sally. :-D

Unknown said...

Speaking of the Convergence: Am I the only one who finds it odd that DC is doing five, count them, five issues set on the pre-Crisis Earth-Two, and Roy Thomas isn't involved in any of them??

Anonymous said...

Roy Thomas isn't a young man any more; he's going to be under 24-hour medical observation to make sure priapism doesn't do him in.

Anonymous said...

That description of DC's turnabout was spot-on. I think they'd earn a great deal more respect and leeway if they weren't always with the "what? mistake? no we meant to do that all along." But if they had that level of self-awareness, they probably wouldn't be making the mistakes in the first place.

I don't know if I'll read the main series, but I'm slightly more optimistic about the Convergence minis. The antagonists in the stories are mostly Elseworlds type characters so it feels a little less fan fiction-like than if they were doing the whole Helena Wayne v. Helena Bertinelli type set ups. The real danger for DC is that they are making the same mistake they always make with these line wide events: they create a template (1st issue, villains, origin stories) and force every book into it. Problem is that there are only so many sustainable variations on a theme so that even the "pretty good" books feel mediocre because you've been reading that same story again and again. How many variations of "we're trapped in a dome" can exist? Fortunately, I long ago gave up any compulsion of buy events. So I'll pick and choose based on characters and writers. The comic equivalent of a TV reunion special.

And I for one am glad Roy Thomas is not a part of this. Aside from the fact that his work has not aged well at all - his characters literally narrate themselves through the story - his weird fixation with making every Golden Age story "count" presaged a generation of writers with screwed up priorities.

Scipio said...

"- his weird fixation with making every Golden Age story "count" presaged a generation of writers with screwed up priorities"

An important observation, and one that I will be following up on.

John said...

Personally, I still prefer Roy Thomas to the people who have tried to follow in their footsteps. His work mostly reads to me as an academic exercise in even-handedness: Every story matters, even if it wasn't correctly reported.

Writers since have played favorites, trying to create or re-create the past to suit their personal view: Marv Wolfman threw a hissy fit over "non-serious" DC books, James Robinson's version of the Golden Age, Geoff Johns's "big twist" for Superboy's origin, Grant Morrison's adaptation of minor stories into year-long arcs, and so forth. It's all ego-driven, that their preferences were more important than anybody else's work.

Blaming them on Roy Thomas would be like blaming Hypertime on Gardner Fox, because he introduced the parallel Earths that later got abused.

Bryan L said...

"It's all ego-driven, that their preferences were more important than anybody else's work."

Wow. That sums up a LOT of the last 20 years or so of comics.

Anonymous said...

"Every story matters, even if it wasn't correctly reported ... It's all ego-driven, that their preferences were more important than anybody else's work."

The only person a story needs to matter to is the reader of that story. And if the reader needs some external factor - like continuity - to derive enjoyment from the story then their hobby is really fandom itself rather than fandom being a by-product of the hobby of reading comics.

A certain amount of consistency is necessary in any serialized fiction but when you stretch that demand for consistency across decades things get strange. The kinds of stories that you can tell and the kinds of people who can appear in those stories have changed radically from decade to decade. The craft of comics has changed - advancements in coloring and printing opened up new possibilities. The standards for writing (dialogue, juxtaposition of word & image) are, on average, far higher.

To say that the CHRONOLOGY of a story trumps the QUALITY of the story ignore all of that. Worse, it defies logic. There is no human endeavor where the axiom "the first idea a person has is always the best idea" is true. The better idea should win (and Johns' idea for Superboy WAS better because it opened up new and richer storytelling opportunities).

And when you impose all of that on DC it gets even stranger. Marvel at least built its universe on the notion of creating an interconnected continuity. Those writers (Lee, Kirby etc) INTENDED for their work to be a foundation others would build on. But Golden Age and Silver Age writers - not at all. Those writers weren't creating a "shared universe" or building continuity. In the Golden Age, it was not exactly unusual for names, costumes, powers etc to change across issues. DC's movement to continuity was reluctant, haphazard, and imposed by changing expectations of the fans. And to take those early stories - works for hire, products of their time, written to meet a deadline - and impose on them the burden of continuity is to expect them to hold a weight they weren't built to and cannot carry.

When then purpose of a story isn't to, you know, tell an actual story but rather to invent a fictional reason why 40 years earlier a company changed Sandman's costume and supporting characters - it is hard not to think that someone hasn't lost their sense of perspective.

Daniel P said...

"The only person a story needs to matter to is the reader of that story. And if the reader needs some external factor - like continuity - to derive enjoyment from the story then their hobby is really fandom itself"


You speak of comics as if they are an infinite series of stand-alone stories. That has not been true since the 1960s.

DC sells SERIALIZED fiction. It is a SERIES. It is not an aggregate of discrete events, it is a CONTINUUM--which means "continuity." Since each series is based on the events of a person or group, it is only LOGICAL that those events connect...that what happens in issue 2 should not contradict what happens in issue 1. Otherwise the illusion of the invented reality is shattered.

What you are arguing for is a season of Star Trek where fans MUST accept that Spock can be a white, male Vulcan in episode 1 but then a green, female Ferengi in episode 2--just because you think next week's episode will be "better" that way.

DC fans *invest* in the created universe, in the lives of the characters they follow. NO ONE adds a title to their pull list because every established fact will be randomly dispensed with each issue because of the writer's whim. They commit because they can reasonably expect future issues to build upon the established continuity in previous issues.

Ultimately, you're just arguing for "New Coke" and blaming the customers because they don't like the taste.

Anonymous said...

"connect...that what happens in issue 2 should not contradict what happens in issue 1. Otherwise the illusion of the invented reality is shattered"

Get a grip. I'm assuming you didn't read the post because clearly no one is talking about issue 1 to issue 2 changes or changing things fron issue to issue on a whim or changing from episode to episode between TV shows. If you think that writers in 2015 should be bound to follow plot points and character rules established in 1945 or 1965 regardless of the quality of those ideas - fine, then admit own that. But don't hide behind some outraged "hogwash" argument about monthly continuity.

John said...

Anonymous, I'd argue that's what Roy Thomas tried to do: Bridge the gap from disjoint stories of the past to the serial, interconnected fiction that was emerging and has become dominant. Every one of those disjoint stories got us here, so even if Superman and Batman couldn't participate in a particular story, for example, there's surely someone who could have been there, with so many minor characters available, instead.

Writers have stopped doing that. They have a pick-and-choose mentality. Writer-X grew up in the '70s, so his Justice League works out of a geosynchronous satellite and there is no Martian Manhunter, and maybe there never was one. Writer-Y grew up in the '80s, so the Martian Manhunter is the "heart and soul of the Justice League."

Those are great approaches to the DCU for fans, but when you're paid to continue someone else's work in a serial narrative, it's ego, and it makes it harder for other writers. And we know that, because of all of the reboots to fix exactly all of these problems that keep mysteriously returning!

"Quality over continuity" suggests that the weight of history harms storytelling. That's what lazy writers say, just like lousy drivers complain about traffic regulations making it harder for them to drive their way.

Granted, DC went through a phase in the '90s when continuity was too important. They had the weird idea that everything needed to hang together precisely and writers seemed to need to refer to obscure details to prove they knew their stuff, but--again--that didn't come from Roy Thomas, who frequently implied (or made explicit) that the stories he was referring to didn't occur as they were written, because they could never fit into the past of the status quo.

Scipio said...

I wouldn't pin this all on the writers; I can blame them for liking the parts of DCU and its history that they like.

It's the editorial mode that ALLOWS them to do that. Editorial doesn't care whether your current stories align with past ones, only whether they align with the current editorially mandated crossover event.

And, of course, most editorially mandate crossover events are now driven by the need to fix inconsistencies in the DCU caused by...
editorial not caring whether current stories jibe with previous ones.

As for the other debate above on the relative virtues of 'continuity/canon', we are to some degree in violent agreement.

Most people agree, "Story B should not be completely inconsistent with Story A that immediately preceded it." Most people ALSO agree: "A story set in 2015 should be shackled to statement made in a panel in a story made in 1941."

The problem is: each story is linked to the one that precedes it which over time shackles them more and more. When and how do links get removed or broken and who decides what and where they are?!

Those are the details in which the devil dwells. In the absence of clear guidance (or control) from editors, fans and writers have to decide for the themselves, leading to the very situation we are in.

Scipio said...

sorry: 'should NOT be shackled" I meant.

Anonymous said...

Yet another Anonymous stepping into the ring (I'm the one who made the Roy Thomas priapism joke if you need to come up with some shorthand to reference me) ... I have given up on enjoying or even wanting continuity, because what I want is this month's comic to be good on its own merits. If that means Bruce Wayne is living in Wayne Manor in one comic, and in another comic published on the same day Wayne Manor is the new Arkham, if they are both good stories I will refuse to give a damn. If there is some way to reconcile the two without hurting either story, that's slightly better, but the instant continuity interferes with the quality of a story, I will show continuity no mercy.

Anonymous said...

" I'd argue that's what Roy Thomas tried to do: Bridge the gap from disjoint stories of the past to the serial, interconnected fiction ... Quality over continuity" suggests that the weight of history harms storytelling. That's what lazy writers say"


I agree that is what he might have been trying to do but I don't see how that is a worthy goal. It places a concern for the lining up of stories over a concern for telling of stories. I don't see how that can be viewed as "writing." Going back to the Sandman example, if he had, say, used that radical change as a vehicle to explore how circumstances can drive us to transform ourselves, then that'd be one thing - taking a historic fact form the Golden Age serial and using it to explore an interesting idea and add depth to a character. But that wasn't remotely what he as doing. He was arranging dominos for the sole purpose of having the dominos arranged. To explain something that did not need to be explained.

And I know that the "lazy writer" thing is sort of the standard message board trope, but it an argument that assumes its own conclusion - that there is worth in jumping through hoops. Every decade/period contributes powerful, resonant ideas and silly, dated ones. How does permanently attaching the latter make contemporary stories better?

I'm not suggesting that those are easy decision and in picking and choosing, people make mistakes (given the DCU in the Didio years, those mistakes are as likely to have been made corporately as by the guy writing the issue). Sometimes they pick and choose because of nostalgia rather than merit. It gets messy and complicated and every generation of fan takes their turn getting screwed as pendulums swing and carousels revolve.

Maybe picking and choosing is problematic but I have a Churchill-on-democracy view about it - the alternatives are worse. I think ordered continuity for the sake of order diminishes the possibility of great new stories. At the end of the day, in superhero comics I think we have characters who are greater than the literature that created them.

John said...

Anonymous, it's lazy because, when you sign up to write in a shared universe, part of the job is writing within that constraint instead of mewling about "artistic purity" or whatever. As Scipio points out, editors are supposed to tell them to tow the line and do what they're getting paid for, but it's still the writer's job.

It's also a lie, because no story was ever abandoned because it wouldn't fit into continuity. Alternate characters are created and histories are adjusted too often to imagine that's so.

If they want to write whatever they want, they can publish their own line. But they don't want to do that, because building an audience is hard and they want to write Batman (for example) because of his history.

Thomas seemed to like writing in the corners, playing with the constraints. And a lot of what he did was fun. It's what came after, the reshuffling of deck chairs, the wholesale rewrites of history, and so forth, that have been problematic, but I'd blame Frank "I need to write the ultimate canonical origin" Miller long before Roy Thomas.

But I'll leave it there, for now, since Scipio mentioned wanting to discuss exactly this, and it's his blog. We can reconvene there...

Daniel P said...

This is somewhat of a disjointed argument.

"Anonymous" builds his argument on the false notion that discarded continuity was necessarily "bad/silly." Wally West's Flash run was some pretty good stuff. So anonymous's argument is discredited. This is NOT about DC trying to leave behind dumb shit like Artie-Joe-Aquaman.

Second, continuity is only a problem when a writer or editor has "an idea" they want to shoe-horn into title where it doesn't fit. Some writers and editors are/were obsessed with making a mark for THEMSELVES instead of making a mark for the characters they're entrusted with. I speak as much about Kevin Dooley on GL and Aquaman as I do anyone else.

Third, I am officially renaming DC's current era. Out goes "The New52" because we're really in the "MOVIE/TV PITCH ERA." IMO, has stopped making comics as an artform and now are simply producing pitches to movie and tv execs--and, brilliantly so, are conning US to pay for it all. Neither DC nor Marvel care anything about their history or their continuities anymore. They only care about licensing out characters to other media. That's why the keep revamping everything to match the United Nations--this is about attracting foreign theaters and networks. They don't give a spit about the damage this does, or how a 'comic book lover' feels. WE DON'T MATTER. The comics themselves don't matter. Sad to say, folks, but...

...the era of "comic books" is OVER as far as Marvel and DC are concerned. They don't make comics, they make fan-funded ads for pitches and we're too eat up in our hobby to see it.

Which brings us back to continuity... DC doesn't care about its in-story past, its publishing past, or even the medium and customers of the past. We're all DEAD. Long live the FILM audience.

Daniel P said...

It's funny how so many great talents created great stories in the Bronze Age WITHOUT needing to obliterate past continuity.

Roy Thomas, Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Archie Goodwin, Roger Stern, et al... continuity didn't hurt the works of these guys any.

Lamashtar said...

At this point, DC needs to recognize the utility of outside-of-time Brainiac the collector and crazy fix-it Parallax Hal and just keep them around in some fashion. That way, every time the universe needs a shakeup they can drag these two out for a brawl over continuity.