Thursday, April 09, 2015

The Bridwell Migraine

I have a headache.

It's not just any headache. It's a very rare and particular kind of headache.  The kind that you can get only from reading certain comics. I have a Bridwell Migraine.

Most of you, I assume, have no idea who E. Nelson Bridwell was. He was, by all accounts, a nice man. And he worked for Mort Weisinger and anyone who worked for Mort Weisinger -- the J.Jonah Jameson of Earth-Prime-- deserves your love and understanding.

He did some pretty neat things. He worked on the Batman Anthology and those wonderful DC 100 Page Super Spectaculars that gathered up lots of classic old stories. and exposed an entire generation of readers like me to the glories and terror of Golden Age comics. He created the Inferior Five, one of the earliest superhero parodies and wrote for Captain Carrot and the Zoo Crew, a later parody.  He co-created Angel & The Ape and the Secret Six.  Biggest contemporary keeper of the Superman mythos, he's the guy who sat down and actually made the Kryptonian language follow some sort of pattern rather than just being randomized squiggles.  For you fans of the Justice League International, he's the co-creator of Fire and Ice (or, as they were originally known, Green Flame and Ice Maiden).   Heck, he wrote the initial run of the Super-Friends comic book, which reintroduced the Awesome Human Flying Fish; that ALONE qualifies you for comic book sainthood.

Even if you look like a Bond villain.

And yet....

these great accomplishments are rooted in the same Bridwellian ability that also makes him a name of dread and terror: E. Nelson Bridwell was the original Continuity Cop.  He loved comics, cared enormously about ironing out apparently inconsistencies in stories, and was obsessed with having disparate and distinct DC own IPs interact with one another.  Also, he couldn't write his way out of paper bag.

The ancients, you know, didn't really think in terms of people being 'good' or 'evil'.  Rather, they thought of people as 'ordinary' and 'great', with great people being capable of both great good and great evil. In this sense, E. Nelson Bridwell was clearly a great person, for, while he responsible for some wonderful DC products, he was a guilty of great 'artistic evils'.  Here's a small example:

The person responsible for this perverted doggerel should be deprived by civilization of access to
fire, word, and any writing implements for life.

You'd almost have to be a serial killer to have written these.

When Bridwell writes a story, it's like someone emptied a box of Heroclix on the table and said, "Use all of these." In this case, they include Flash and Jay Garrick, Blockbuster, Batman, Earth-2 Robin, Bulletman and Bulletgirl, Superman, The Shade, Mr. Scarlet & Pinky, ibac, Green Lantern and Alan Scott, Ibis the Invincible.Wonder Woman, Dr. Light, The Penguin, Hawkman and Hawkgirl , Johnny Thunder, The Weeper, Green Arrow, Spy-Smasher, the Joker,  King Kull, King of the Beast-Men, Queen Clea, Mr. Atom, Brainiac, the God Mercury, the Wizard Shazam and Captain Marvel.

Yes, that's Blockbuster, Queen Clea, The Penguin, and Ibac, palling around like the cast of "Friends".
Only E. Nelson Bridwell would do such a thing.

Yes, Mercury in swimming trunks, riding the Batmobile through space, with Jay Garrick in the backseat.
Or,as Bridwell called it, "Tuesday".

I remember reading this story when it came out in 1971.  Even as a little kid I knew it was disturbed  and way too full of STUFF (although I got a kick of meeting characters new to me, like The Weeper). As kid you are used to things not making a lot of sense to you, but trying to read this multi-issue as an adult gives me a Bridwell Migraine. 

 It's one of those stories typical of giant crossover-casts, where there is a Big Bad who secretly arranges for subsets of mix heroes to sequentially fight subsets of mixed villains in various locations.  The heroes keep beating the villains at these seemingly random encounters and say 'yay, we have won!", then you cut away to the Big Bad going, "Ha, they think they have won, but little do they realize this is but one part of MY plan to win!"  This then happen 8 to 80 times in a row.  You know the drill.

That's Pinky beside Inappropriately Condescending Robin.
You may not recognize him because his hair has been turned into diamond. It's hard to explain.
I would ask Batman to explain, but he can't talk, because his jaw has been turned into steel.

Let's put Bridwell aside for a moment, because I could pick on him and this story all day. Bridwell is an early and bright red example of a  phenomenon that would come to take over comics: the continuity-obsessed fanboy author.  

Such authors aren't as interested in telling new stories as they are connecting or reaffirming old ones.  They aren't trying to expand the literary universe, they are trying to fill in what they perceive as gaps. They are less creators than they are repairmen of continuity cracks, apologists for the dumb aspects of the stories they treasured as children, colorists intent on re-tinting the candy-color characters of our youth into an adult-friendly sepia-verse.  They idolize their heroes too much; they revere them too much to handle them directly, and prefer to leave them in the original packaging.  

You know their names as well as I do.  They are more to be pitied then censured; most of us placed in the same position would naturally do that same thing.  But it's helped contribute to polarization in writing styles at DC. You have the Fanboys, who are too afraid to play with the toys and can't write for anyone who doesn't already know and love the characters, and the Man-Boys, who don't know how to play with the toys without breaking them, can't put them back in the box and can't write for anyone who does already know and love the characters.  But they are a subject for another day.

The point is DC editorial is CAUGHT between these, the Scylla and Charybdis of Continuity, and Convergence is the result.  And just like Scylla and Charybdis... we'll have to see what survives and comes out on the other side. 


CobraMisfit said...

Mercury on the hood of the Batmobile in space simply makes any day brighter.

But yeah, Fandom helps power the machine of comics, and it's a necessary fuel. But, like all propellants, too much in the wrong place with the right spark can blow things to kingdom come.

Heck, I know for a fact that if someone handed me the controls for Booster, I'd want to fill what I saw as gaps. Much to someone else's dismay/detriment.

Bryan L said...

Ah, Bridwell. Even though I knew his stories weren't very good, I devoured them as a child. And yes, 100-Page Super-Spectaculars still stand as the finest value in comics ever conceived. I grabbed every one I possibly could.

I can't really criticize him, because I'm pretty sure I'd do the exact same thing in his circumstances. I'm always looking for explanations, juggling things around, and reading between the lines to make comics line up, even though I know all the pieces will never fit together.

I will say he had a good run on SHAZAM, probably for the reasons you cite, Scipio. He wanted to leave the good Captain and his cast in their original packaging.

Anonymous said...

Holy smokes, those poems are Double Dactyls, the nerdiest of poetic forms.

Anonymous said...

Also, here's a lovely painting entitled "Sirens Scylla and Charybdis". I don't normally go for abstract art but great Caesar's ghost:

I'm still on the side of, don't belabor continuity, tell good stories first and think about continuity later. When I was a kid, it bugged me that Bob Haney did a "Brave and Bold" where Batman and Wildcat teamed up -- different earths y'know -- but these days I think I'd quietly note the inconsistency and then read on without letting it compromise my enjoyment of the story.

And try not to make changes so sweeping that continuity forces your changes on other writers, such as killing characters. Wreck the Batmobile if you like, or put Robin in the hospital with a broken leg; it doesn't really prevent Batman from having a car or a sidekick in the other guy's comic.

Slaughter said...

I have no idea how two Speedsters somehow turned the Bat-Mobile into a space vehicle, and why Mercury is standing shirtless in space (I presume because he can - would't [b]You[/b] stand above the Batmobile shirtless in space if you could? I know I would), but that's awesome for some reason.

Anonymous said...

2 days since an Absorbascon made an appearance in Convergence Nightwing / Oracle and no mention of it??

An Absorbascon blew up a one-sided bridge in Gotham City in order to discourage "disharmonious rebellion!" How often do we get to see that?

Scipio said...

How can an absorbacon blow up a bridge? That's like shooting down a plane with your iPhone.

John said...

Sniff. That doggerel is going to be my wedding song! It's probably the best use of a Green Arrow villain in DC history, too! And you have to appreciate how the characters are all staring at it in disbelief.

Bridwell's problem was that he couldn't plot, I think, though I have to admit I lived for contrived crap like the crossover story as a kid and it's still way better than Crisis on Infinite Earths (Auntie Monitor appears, heroes kill her, lather, rinse, repeat, with assorted loud declarations of intent and occasional casualties for a dozen issues). Given the constraints and the cookie-cutter plot, the writing itself is actually not bad; Appropriately-Condescending Robin should've gotten his own book as one of DC's rare characters who understood their genre and its tropes without being goofy about it. I love how jaded he is about it all, which makes sense, because he grew up immersed in it. Plus, that was a great costume for its time.

All that said, though, I think the problem at DC is that they think they have Scylla, but really have Charybdis. "One more reboot and the mosaic will be perfect," they swear, while their "talent" is already deciding that Ra's al Ghul is really Thomas Wayne, that Metron was a founding member of the Justice League instead of Aquaman, or Captain Atom secretly mentored every major DC superhero and everybody loves him, dammit. And both camps miss the point that continuity is meant to make the stories seem, continuous, rather than fill reference books. Not that I don't love my reference books...

Mark said...

"most of us placed in the same position would naturally do that same thing."

Yeah. As much as I'm in the "chill about continuity" crew, I'm honest enough to admit I would totally do that.

"continuity is meant to make the stories seem, continuous"

That's a self-justifying construct. Continuity was not a hallmark of the Golden Age. Sure they had a shared universe, but a shared universe existed so characters could interact, which was not a frequent occurence. It wasn't created to write The Never-Ending Story.

And creating one continuous, seamless narrative universe wasn't on anyone's mind in the Silver Age. A company that didn't realize their Wonder Girl was a teenaged Wonder Woman cannot be said to have had a master plan.

The DCU isn't Middle Earth or Hogwarts - it isn't a fictional world created by a writer with a singular artistic vision; writers who INTENDED to create a whole fictional world. And it isn't even like a daytime soap opera, which may have a team of writers but only produces 1 episode at a time. The DCU had hundreds of comics every year by dozens of writers a year multiplied by decades - it's crazy.

No one is calling for random changes in the middle of stories or making arbitrary changes - that's just hyperbole. The point is to recognize that over decades things change and sometimes better ideas come along. The Orb of Ra is not some brilliant origin for Metamorpho - it's a recycled, cliched trope common to the era (why the governments in the DCU don't post guards around all ancient temples, i do not know). The GL ring not working on yellow probably made great sense to a kid in the 1950s - but it's just stupid by modern standards. And the same applies today. I'd rather DC tomorrow just "forget" that whole Trinity of Sin nonsense than for them to waste stories to unexplain it all.

Continuity could have been a fun exercise for fans - speculating on unseen stories to connect seemingly inconsistent narratives. Instead over the years it has turned into a nasty gotcha game. Fans scream CONTINUITY ERROR like they are old-timey Baptist preachers decrying sin. And it's just about as productive.

Continuity fetishizes chronology and says no matter how crappy, short-sighted, or poorly-executed an idea is it must rule for all time - unless you come along and make everything even more convoluted by telling a new story about that crappy old story. That feels like storytelling OCD.

I think DC has proven the reboot method doesn't work either. They made nearly all the same mistakes in the new 52 that they did following COIE.

So were left with the middle ground, which could work if all sides unclenched and found some equilibrium between the nostalgia and the new.

cybrid said...

This story can only be JLA #135-137 (which per the GCD Bridwell only plotted; Martin Pasko did the writing), one of the annual JLA/JSA crossovers that frequently included a third set of heroes in the mix. Those stories by definition had gigantic casts and a big crisis that required two or three super-teams to solve it. That formula was set into place by Gardner Fox who as you may or may not know created the JLA. Crisis on Earth-Two, Crisis on Earth-Three, Crisis on Earth-S, without stories like that there would have been no Crisis on Infinite Earths and DC wouldn't be in the mess it's in now to begin with. Which may or not prove something.

Here's the #135 story description:

"King Kull begins his newest conquest plan on Earth-S as he freezes both the wizard Shazam and the Pantheon of Gods and Goddesses on the Rock of Eternity. Only Mercury was able to escape, and the wizard sends him to both Earths 1 and 2 to get the JLA and JSA to aid them. The villainous group of Earth-S's IBAC, Earth-2's Clea and Earth-1's Blockbuster and Penguin are defeated by both teams, as well as the Squadron of Justice (SoJ), but that is only part of Kull's full plan defeated."

I speak with complete sincerity when I say that explains a lot, doesn't it?

"Blockbuster, Queen Clea, The Penguin, and Ibac"

Who's the little guy?

That scene at least makes more sense for the Penguin than him blasting at Firestorm in Crisis on Infinite Earths. But then, few things don't.

cybrid said...


"A shared universe, like any fictional construct, hinges on suspension of disbelief. When continuity is tossed away, it tatters the construct. Undermines it." -- Peter David

John said...

Mark, you're taking me pretty seriously out of context to get that argument out of me. Also, that's the definition of continuity, not a justification.

My point was that it's not meant to be some sort of database of the One, True Narrative. It's things that make your story seem--a word you quoted from me but completely dismissed in your argument--like they follow from earlier stories, whether they actually do or not.

The intelligent response to "some people use science to do bad things" isn't "then we should hide and ban science as a Great Evil" or to scream at scientists whenever they have a new idea and it's not to excuse and venerate the people who live their lives in ignorance. It's to police what's done with science.

The excuse for dismissing continuity is always one of "some of it's bad" or "a good story is more important." But the former is exactly the obsessive bean-counting approach to continuity that they're railing against, just with a different view of what continuity "should" be, and the latter presumes that we're getting better stories,

Scipio said...

Peter David? The guy who rewrote Aquaman's origin to have him raised by porpoises...?

SallyP said...

I can forgive a lot to a man who writes "Blubbety Glubbety".

But yes, it has to be a delicate balance to come up with new stories, that can co-exist with continuity without being slavish to that same continuity. And then the next writer comes along and destroys the whole thing. And then the next writer comes along and restores it, and destroys the one just before...and why the hell do I read comics anyway?

Mark said...

"The excuse for dismissing continuity is always one of "some of it's bad" or "a good story is more important." But the former is exactly the obsessive bean-counting approach to continuity that they're railing against"


Only if the POINT of change is continuity. You are assuming everyone cares about continuity as much as you do and so their desire to write their story must be a desire to change continuity (as opposed to writing a story and needing to disregard bits of continuity that impede their ability to tell that story).

And if I'm misunderstanding your point, then I apologize. But I don't see where you are making a "seem continuous" argument.

I've said continuity has a role to play and no one is advocating changing things willy-nilly month-to-month. I'm perfectly happy with the illusion of continuity - provided it is an illusion. That illusion should be rooted in the meta-narrative of the characters and in their relative relationships. Superman is from Krypton, Wonder Woman is an Amazon, and Batman's parents were murdered and they all used to hang out together in the Justice League. But if every 20 or 30 years, writers want to reimagine Krypton, I'm not going to lose sleep over that. The Silver Age stories about Krypton are not some perfectly realized works of literature that must remain forever untouched. I don't need an entire mini-series to explain the history of the "weakness to yellow."

Comics are allegorical and the resonance of certain allegories change as the culture changes. I enjoy a shared universe and I like the idea of characters with history. But storytelling and characters should always be primary and secondary (and reasonable debate can be had about which should be which). However, continuity should always be tertiary - not unimportant, not disregarded, but tertiary.

John said...

Scipio, it occurs to me that DC is facing a lot of the same problems that companies have with licensed properties. Stories can't make too much progress without conflicting the movies/toys/whatever (Marvel's original Star Wars comics), but they need to make some progress or risk boring the audience to death (Thundercats comes to mind).

Given that DC has been progressively digested into the larger Warner organism since the '70s, that doesn't seem out of the question. You mentioned yourself that it sometimes seems like they're scrambling to pretend they're the dog wagging Arrow's tail, rather than the other way around.

Mark, if you're going to create strawmen to argue against, then hand-wave about "not wanting things to change all the time" while asserting the evils of continuity, then this isn't a discussion worth having. I don't even understand how "continuity makes things seem continuous" is any more confusing than "blue things look bluish;" there's no subtlety to be argued.

Plus, where are all of these wonderful, allegorical works that come out of dismissing history? I've yet to see one. Every story I've seen held up under this ideal is actually the writer slavishly asserting his own version of continuity, boring with no stakes or just tired, or both.

This is why I stand behind my earlier assertion of laziness. Writers keep telling us that it's too hard to write a good story that's based on the previous writer, but left to their own devices, they still don't produce anything new except a new history to explore in detail; it's just their continuity, rather than a shared vision, which strike me as pure ego.

It's also disingenuous, because a writer could just as easily self-publish, today, if they really wanted to be free of the shackles of continuity. Yet they still want to write for major properties, because those properties have the weight of history behind them.

Stories about continuity aren't as interesting to me as they were when I was a kid, just like I no longer rush out to buy science-fiction technical manuals (though I acknowledge that some readers enjoy them as much as I ever did and some can be entertaining), but the idea that continuity shouldn't be one of the most important tools in the toolbelt is like saying that writers shouldn't bother with a supporting cast or a setting.

(I could've sworn I said something about stepping away from this...)

cybrid said...

Ah, but the only reason Peter David was able to change Aquaman's origin is because DC, and DC's readers, had long since stopped caring about continuity in the first place. Why go against the flow?

I would not be surprised to learn that DC outright TOLD him to write a new Aquaman origin and he wrote an arguably ridiculous one in order to prove a point that went right over everyone else's heads. I'm not saying that's what happened, I'm saying I wouldn't be surprised if that's what happened.

Even then, IIRC, Aquaman still ended up having Aqualad as a sidekick, marrying Mera, becoming ruler of Atlantis, and so on, so, really, utterly rewriting Aquaman's origin had little if any effect on the rest of his life to begin with. Raised by an old guy in a lighthouse, raised by porpoises, he turned out exactly the same either way.

All of that aside, I repeat.

"Blockbuster, Queen Clea, The Penguin, and Ibac"

Who's the little guy? The GCD doesn't say.

Scipio said...

"I'm saying I wouldn't be surprised if that's what happened."

I would; since pretty much every time Peter David gets a hold of something that's what he does: guts it from the inside and stuff a completely different character into it. Remember when he decided Supergirl was an angel?

That's the kind of thing continuity it supposed to protect us from.

cybrid said...

Okay, I'm no longer sure what your point is/was but Supergirl had been gutted well before Peter David got his hands on her. Much like Hawkman, much like Aquaman, DC had brought her to a point where nothing that anyone did to her backstory could possibly make any difference.

And I can but presume you don't know who the little guy is. Fair enough.

Anonymous said...

The core premise of Supergirl is "Superman's cousin from Krypton"; ditch those particulars and you don't have Supergirl any longer. I can't fault Peter David for taking the remnants DC had left him with and trying to build something viable out of them.

That said, yeah, Peter David's rarely happy unless he can put his own spin on things.

Unknown said...

The little guy is one of the physically-weak male subjects of Clea's Atlantis.

John said...

Given the number of stories about Peter David quitting over differences in vision or trying to slip jokes past his editors, I would also be very surprised to learn the Aquaman overhaul was editorially-imposed.

There are quite a few writers who insist that continuity is top priority...but only when their vision of history is being strictly adhered to.

One of the reasons I defend Roy Thomas (and Bridwell, and the rest of that crowd) is his even-handedness when dealing with the past rather than giving us yet one more unrelated founding roster of the JLA and complaining when someone else changes theirs.

cybrid said...

Thank you, Dalle.

Anyway, my original main point was that, in this storyline, Bridwell was pretty much filling in blanks on the metaphorical Mad Libs that was the annual JLA/JSA crossover. He told exactly the kind of story that he was expected to tell on that occasion. So there's not much point in using this as a typical example of Bridwell's writing style when that's exactly what it isn't. It's a typical example of any writer of a JLA/JSA crosover (at least pre-Crisis). The theme even crossed the published/animated barrier into Super Friends, and when Bridwell wrote the comic book adaptation, he of course mostly followed the formula that the cartoon was following. Unless I'm wrong.

He definitely didn't follow it in that one early story where Wendy and Marvin defeated the villain who'd defeated the JLA and every other super-hero on the planet, in a plan that would've done the Silver Age Batman proud, but that's something else.

The bizarreness of Batman & Robin (and the Penguin and the Joker) being juxtaposed with Greek gods and extradimensional tyrants is part & parcel of Batman being a member of the JLA. Always has been, always will be, and no JLA writer can escape that. Of course, the JSA itself is the product of throwing every available DC/National golden age hero of the time together (the ones that had their own titles were excluded) without any thought whatsoever as to what the likes of the Atom and the Sandman were going to contribute to a team that had the likes of Doctor Fate and the Spectre on it.

Gardner Fox repeated that strategy, except Green Arrow didn't make the original cut, probably because Fox wanted a core group of seven. Strange though it may seem to some, Green Arrow was every bit as significant a figure as Aquaman at the time, because as I'm sure everyone here knows, Aquaman and Green Arrow didn't get Silver Age overhauls because, like Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman, they never disappeared (from Adventure Comics, while the big three, of course, had their own titles). They'd been published uninterrupted from the forties and into the fifties, while the Flash, Green Lantern, and others hadn't. Jay Garrick and Alan Scott and the rest had vanished while Oliver Queen had stayed the course.

And the "Big Bad secretly arranges for subsets of mixed heroes to sequentially fight subsets of mixed villains in various locations" plot was, for many years, virtually the only kind of plot you would ever see in a super-team book. During the golden age, Leading Comics and the Seven Soldiers of Victory used it every single time, and if the JSA feature in All-Star Comics ever dispensed with that formula, well, it certainly didn't do so very often. It's How Things Were Done. The JLA coasted for years on that same basic structure because back then, DC knew better than to fix what wasn't broke.

So Scipio's griping about a story that had no chance of being written in any other way is my point, I guess.

cybrid said...

Oh, and whatever else one can say about Peter David's work at DC, he's usually quite scrupulous about continuity in his work at Marvel. I can but presume that's because Marvel values continuity and DC doesn't. If DC sets low standards, why should he trouble to exceed them? Certainly it would be more professional for Peter David to give his absolute best to a project no matter what but anyone who's read more than a few of his Star Trek novels knows that he just doesn't roll that way all the time.

Unknown said...

I recently came across a quote by Dean William R. Inge:

"There are two kinds of fools: One says, This is old therefore it is good. The other one says, This is new therefore it is better."

I didn't know he was a comic book fan.