Sunday, January 01, 2023

Welcome to the Gilded Age

Yesterday, I was asked by a commenter, in response to my post on Geoff Johns reintroduction of Wing, the Crimson Avenger's sidekick (originally, valet/chauffeur)::

I wonder if anyone has an answer to this question: does anyone even want all these sidekicks? One or two of them might be entertaining, I guess, but is there anyone who was saying "you know what we need more of: Golden Age sidekicks"? What is Johns's game?

Of COURSE I have an answer to that question! It ain't called "The Absorbascon" for nothing.  

I would have thought "Johns's Game" would be obvious based on everything else I've written about it.

Or, for that matter, everything HE's written.

But sneaking what is obvious in retrospect past you is one of the hallmarks of Geoff Johns' work.  

Pseudonymously, Geoff Johns writes fan-fic about Benoit Blanc and his precocious tagalong niece, Héloïse Grise.

I have covered this in pieces in other posts, but it bears repeating, I suppose.

The last 20 years has been a Manichaeistic battle for the soul of the DCU between Didio's Dark Forces (writers of the grim & gritty and feet of clay) and Johns' Bright Brigade (champions of heroic idealism).  Didio lost; Johns is now trying to make sure that loss actually, several years later, starts to result in a DCU of a different tenor, hence the Dawn of the DCU (an image of new light, you'll note).  

Didio hated "legacy characters", and famously wanted to kill off Dick "Nightwing" Grayson, who is the ORIGINAL kid sidekick, the personification of legacy characters.  It's no coincidence that Dick Grayson now is the centerpiece of the Dawn of the DCU. It's no coincidence that the Justice League is on sabbatical so that the Titans et al. can see some more time in the light.

Okay. Maybe I should have chosen a different metaphor in that particular case.

It's perfect timing, too, as the James Gunnification of DCU Entertainment promises to align DC's intellectual properties (what you and I call "characters") in a more consistent and coherent (if not unified) way across properties. Johns is offering just the kind of broad plan and vision that Gunn is looking sell on the hustings.

Johns's Game has several dimensions to it, but they all bear his trademark expansive approach.  

One is spatial: the multiverse has been reintroduced. Not ambiguously, as it was in the wishy-washy Hypertime concept. Nor in a limited and un-useful way, as in Morrison's Multiversity art project.  No. It's the Big Ol' DC Multiverse, Bigger and Ol'er than Ever, with numbered earths for everybody, and all of it introduced by (who else?) Barry Allen, the character who introduced the ideal of the multiverse into the DCU to begin with (the one so synonymous with the concept of the multiverse that DC killed him off WITH it in "Crisis on Infinite Earths").  

NEVER forget that the last person Barry Allen sees before he dies is Batman, his face covered in custard. Remember the Creped Crusader, people.

One dimension is temporal; DC's iconic heroes must be shown to be mentoring potential future heroes as part of their legacy in the future. They must also be shown to be inheritors of traditions of costumed heroism and that very concept of apprenticeship from past generations of heroes.  

[Batman #135, btw]
Tom King killed off Alfred Pennyworth.
Geoff Johns would have HIRED him for a two-year run on "Batman Family".

This is why Johns is reconnecting the current DCU to the Golden Age.  Characters are being inserted in the Golden Age to help anchor the present to the past.  Present Ollie Queen turns out to have been the Golden Age Oliver Queen after all.  There actually WAS a Golden Age Aquaman and won't HIS connection to modern Aquaman be interesting to learn about.  The Golden Age JSA exist on an earth of their own (Earth-2, natch), but a version of them also exist in the past of Earth-0.  There are forgotten kid sidekicks who will be rescued from limbo by Stargirl, a legacy of a Golden Age hero, and Red Arrow, the kid sidekick of a current iconic hero (who is ALSO a Golden Age hero).  It couldn't be any tighter or clearer.  The concept of the "kid sidekick" is being reintroduced to reassert the importance of legacy and the need to pass along the traditions of heroism.

"They might want to hit the deck; it's going to be oomphy."

Geoff Johns is no Roy Thomas.  He's not trying to connect to the Golden Age to save the past; he trying to connect to the Golden Age to save the future. In fact, that's exactly the plot of his new run on Justice Society of America, isn't it?

Starman's face is only partially shown, lest his glory eclipse his contemporaries

One dimensional is financial.  This isn't mere nostalgia. It's good business sense.  The direct market era saw the aging of the comic book buying population and, in the long run, if you lose KIDS as part of the audience for comics you will run out of adult audience.  

Didio had his own answer to this problem and it was characteristically reductive: kill off the old characters and replace them with ones that had been created under HIS aegis, for a New Glorious Era; the "5G Plan" that was the final straw that got him fired.

He was disappeared, really. I think the Shadow Demons got him, which, of course, would be comic book irony since, like him, they represent the forces of darkness in the DCU.

Johns' plan is characteristically expansive. One of the reasons to connect with the Golden Age is because the Golden Age knew how to do something that most people have forgotten--how to write superhero comics for kids without pandering.  He's reintroducing the concept of "kid sidekicks" -- let's call them "heroic apprenticeships" to update the idea -- for the same reason the Golden Age introduced them: to give kid readers an in-story character to identify with (rather than the hero, who is a character to aspire to). 

I wonder whatever became of that kid.  Probably got killed off by some cynical writer of a later, darker era.

Do you think it's coincidence that David, the Boy Thunder, from Mark Waid's "previously untold story of Superman's kid sidekick" has just been revealed in World's Finest to be... Magog, the personification of the loss of heroic idealism in Mark Waid's Kingdom Come, the falling domino who leads to its dystopia? It is not a coincidence; Mark Waid is part of Johns's Bright Brigade.  This is part of showing of the breakdown of the heroic apprenticeship system, of the failure to establish legacy leads to disaster in the future.  

Just as failing to instill a love of heroic ideals --and the salable intellectual properties DC owns that represent them! -- will be disastrous for today's children (and tomorrow's comic books sales).  And the answer isn't simply to pump out a bunch of coloring books and Underoos or conflict-free goo-goo Justice League Babies books.  It's to make regular, mainstream superhero comics with a broader audience, including younger readers, in mind.

I know some (all?) of you don't understand my postings of Sims games with DCU characters. But it's not without reasons. 

"You see, son, archery takes focus, strength, and patience."
"You GOT this, Ollie!"
"Ugh. Archery sucks."

The makers of the Sims games, over the years, could have given in to pressure from their existing audience to become increasingly inward-looking in their product.  Instead, at every juncture where they might have had the game become deeper but less accessible, they have chosen instead to try to make it broader and more inclusive, sometimes to the disappointment of some present players.  But as a result, the base of players has only expanded and diversified with time, and, by opening the game up to easy modding, the player-base is free to deepen the game in ways that it wants to without corporate interference.

Clearly, that's easier to do in a game where the players tell the stories  than in comics where the corporation has to. But the analogy is clear.  Left to its own devices, fandom (of ANY kind) will crawl up its own *** and become withdrawn and increasingly inaccessible.  The actual guardians of the objects of fandom --who are not the fans, no matter what we think-- have to make sure that they aren't pulled in along with them.  

Johns's game isn't fan-pandering nostalgia.  It's not squeaky-clean Silver Age fluff.  He's trying to initiate a new Golden Age when comics were unafraid to be "childish" in their idealism,  unapologetic about the need for young and old to face the evils of the world, when they were accessible to a broader population and not just comic shop denizens.  

John's is starting the Gilded Age of Comics.


Bryan L said...

With any luck, once Johns finishes cleaning up DiDio's mess, he'll get around to dealing with Bendis and King's fallout. Although I suppose both can simply be stuck in their own universe now. King's Human Target clearly already is. Handy, that multiverse thing.

Anonymous said...

... Insightful!

Johns has been there before. Remember in the JSA series 15 years ago, when Kingdom Come Superman showed up? He observed how the main DC universe didn't go all grimdark like his home universe, and Obsidian of all people persuaded him that the Justice Society made the difference, by being there to guide the next generations. (JSA #10)

I don't really have an interest in seeing those old sidekicks in action as sidekicks, but I don't mind seeing them inserted as a historical note as the successors to the WWII era JSA. And their relevance to the current generation would be that they are the guides and mentors, like Ma Hunkel was in the aforementioned JSA run. It's just necessary to install them, and maybe that's really all that's happening here.

- HJF1

Scipio said...

"It's just necessary to install them"

Johns plays the long game, man, and is achingly consistent. And, in the long run, like the JSA... it's winning.

Dave said...

Kathy Kane = Black hair.
Bruce Wayne, Sr. = Black hair.
Bruce Wayne, Jr. = Red hair?

I know these stories were/are Alfred fanfic, but what's the deal? I'm hard-pressed to think of another red-haired recurring character in SA Gotham, unless Ferd Burfle vactioned there.

Bryan L said...

Recessive genes. My parents had black hair and two of my siblings had bright red hair. My uncles used to kid my parents about it. And yes, we've all done DNA testing at various points and we are actually siblings (none of us doubted it).

Anonymous said...

I prefer a DCU with optimism and less grimdark nonsense. My main concern, however, is that we’ll see a return of arm-ripping, supporting-character-killing, Pantha-head-rolling ultra-violent Geoff Johns. Why haven’t we heard of all these Golden Age sidekicks? I hope the answer doesn’t involve mutilation and death.

- Mike Loughlin

cybrid said...

I wonder how much this will play on the "endangerment of minors" trope, which has emerged now and then in recent years. I don't know if people back in the forties thought it was all THAT big a deal in the first place, though.

Anonymous said...

Well, I hope that this truly is optimism and not a fakeout to camouflage Johns' need for gorefests every other page when he really gets going.

Mr. Morbid's House Of Fun said...

"Left to its own devices, fandom (of ANY kind) will crawl up its own *** and become withdrawn and increasingly inaccessible. The actual guardians of the objects of fandom --who are not the fans, no matter what we think-- have to make sure that they aren't pulled in along with them."

Facts good sir, pure 100% facts.

I'm enjoying his JSA revival work so far, and those lost 13 GA characters do seem like fun additions to the DCU, so I'm all for it myself.

Loving his Junkyard Joe series as well right now. At first I thought it was a rejected GI Robot pitch project, but probably not. Either way, I'm digging it and the world he's creating at Image as well right now.

Anonymous said...

"Well, I hope that this truly is optimism and not a fakeout to camouflage Johns' need for gorefests every other page when he really gets going."

I'm thinking about those gorefests and reassessing in a post-DiDio world. Like, how much of that was DiDio? Was Pantha's head the price to be paid to spare Dick Grayson's?

And, I swear there's a Superman storyline that Johns mis-wrote because he was forced to. I say this because all the pieces were there for a better resolution but he didn't go there. This was when Superman met a hero named Ulysses from another dimension; he lived on a satellite with 6 million people (symbolic number) and they wanted to teleport up 6 million humans (more symbolism) to live in their paradise, except they were really intended to be used for fuel. Superman and Ulysses fought; the satellite was damaged; it blew up and everyone on it died. That's a bad Superman ending. Much better ending, and I think it's in tune with what Johns generally prefers to do: use the satellite's teleporters to send all its inhabitants to a habitable world, where they can start again as farmers, and build either heaven or hell. That's how a good Superman story should end, and the pieces were there but went unused. I sense an editorial mandate.

I think I saw it in other writers in the new 52, like Peter Tomasi writing an out-of-tune Superman sometimes in the "Superman and Wonder Woman" comic. (Remember when people thought Superman and Wonder Woman would be a couple people would love?)

- HJF1

Redforce said...

So, in a sense your Sims posts, seemingly only tangential to this blog and significant mostly as a distraction, actually WERE significant and culminating in this post to make an important point. In other words, something we all should have seen coming that was hidden in plain sight. Like Johns.

Well played.

Anonymous said...

@Redforce: Except that Scipio honestly does a better job than Johns does.

Hank said...

Hi Scipio :-)
Longtime reader here. The Absorbascon is the best Golden Age Blog I know. I think you have great insight and really know your stuff in regards to Golden and Silver Age Comics. Even when I don't share an opinion of yours, I can usually still understand your valid position.
The only thing I don't get is why you like Geoff Johns. Like Mike Loughlin said above, for me Geoff Johns was always one of those edgy, ultraviolent writers. I admittedly haven't read his JSA, but most of what he wrote in the 20 years since.
His Titans-Run was a brutal murdershow where Deathstroke turned his daughter insane and butchered his butler. His Green Lantern Run brought Hal Jordan and the Corps back- but also turned the GLs from Spacecops into Soldiers killing their enemies. He revived Barry Allen, but as a completely different character with an edgy Marvel/Batman dead parents origin. Batman: Earth One was a gritty, paramilitary edgeshow.
Then Johns made Billy Batson into a mean Brat that taught the wizard that there are no good people, only some who are less worse. His Justice League had a classic roster (and Cyborg) but was also a Marvel/Authority mix, where the League was hated and mistrusted. On his recent work as an Alan-Moore-imitator, the less said the better.
Sorry for the long post, I'd just like to understand your stance. Because to me, it seems like Johns nominally brings back old characters, but usually turns them into modern brutal edgelords. What am I missing here?

Scipio said...

Thanks for speaking up, Hank.

In part, I think readers forget, or don't realize, just how bloody and ruthless the Golden Age actually was. That may not excuse what you view as brutality in Johns' writing, but it may help put in context. Johns is not afraid to get his, or his character's, hands dirty. I respect that, even if there are particular circumstances where I may not enjoy it.

What you are missing here is the Forest, because you are staring at the Trees. As I have said (I think more than once), I'm not unaware of Johns' flaws as a writer, which include problems concluding plots, an over-fondness for certain tropes (dead parents, sets of seven, dismembered supporting cast), and fan-boyish imitation. I've repeatedly pointed them out.

But (as I have definitely said more than once), Johns's principal strength and effect isn't as a storywriter, it's as a WORLDBUILDER. Unlike almost all of his contemporary colleagues, he has an idea what the DCU should look like and how it can work. Unlike them, he's not focused on "HOW CAN I TELL MY STORIES?!" but rather on "How can I make this all work?"

And what the DCU needs is someone who cares about the Forest. In an ideal world, Johns wouldn't HAVE to write any stories; he'd be busy directing others who did.

Anonymous said...

Honestly I think Johns' problem here is that while he wants to bring back some Golden Age stuff like the violence, he goes too far with it and makes even the 90s era of combat seem tame much less the original Golden Age fight scenes. Even characters from the 30s and 40s would react in disgust to what characters in Johns' stories get up to on a daily basis.

As for his worldbuilding, it's a lot flimsier than his storytelling and/or characterization when one decides to perform a close examination on things like structure, accessibility, continuous flow, etc.

Hank said...

Thanks for your answer, Scipio.
You might be right on the brutality, I probably still have the Silver Age in the back of my head.
Now that you put it bluntly enough ;) I think I understand you. I agree, Johns is a good worldbuilder and would probably do well in a directorial role. Perhaps a bit like Roy Thomas who also loved bringing back old stuff and connecting it to make sense in a shared setting (to the point of overdoing it), while his actual writing wasn't all that great.
The contrast to DCs other modern "star writers" is definitely obvious.
So Johns does routinely retcon/twist/reboot established characters, but with different intentions. He does it to build a new, coherent universe, even if he has to a change things from before so everything will fit better. Yeah, that makes sense.
I just thought the problem with Johns brutality and edginess would be that it kinda works against, as you often said, getting the kid audience back?

To the Anonymous above me, I think you're mixing up worldbuilding and writing. Structure, accessibility and flow are features of a story, not a world. Think Tolkien's Silmarillion, great worldbuilding, but a terribly boring read. It's not the world that needs accessibility or flow, but the story that takes place in it.

Anonymous said...

You wouldn't happen to be a fan of Fletcher Hanks' stories?

Scipio said...

Not especially. Their incoherence outweighs their fun value.