Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Evaluating Syncretism

When I studying Classics in college, our mythostructuralism professor, Christian Wolff, taught us about syncretism, the cultural process of reconciling various version of a myth or merging native mythic belief systems. Sometimes, the different versions of a myth coalesce into one larger story, making for an even grander story.

Comic books, being myth, also experience syncretism. In an ancient society, the need for mythic syncretism would arise as the borders of the society expanded to incorporate formerly independent groups. It could be either a friendly process or the result of conquest, and in either case syncretism was used to help ease the transition to a new unity. That yellow-fanged earth mother figure you guys worship, oh, well, that's...umm.. Juno Gingivitis; yes, it's just another... "aspect" of one of our gods. Welcome aboard!

In comic books, the friendly version is the impulse to reconcile different interpretations of a character. Bob Kane's vampire-slaying Batman, the Batman fighting on a giant cash register, Denny O'Neill's James Bond/Sherlock Holmes version, Paul Dini's guardian of Gotham, either of the Frank Miller Batmen--viewing these as one character takes a syncretic mindset. In fact, it's the very basis for what Grant Morrison has been trying to do with his run on Batman (with debatable success).

That syncretic mindset is a little more ingrained in DC readers than in Marvel readers, by the way. It's out of necessity; DC's characters have been intepreted more broadly and with greater variation than Marvel's more tightly on spec characterization of their (originally) coherent literary world.

But the unfriendly version of syncretism is the need to integrate the beliefs of conquered peoples into your own. You don't want to insult the beliefs of anyone involved, but sometimes too many gods can spoil the broth.

And DC certainly has done its fair share of conquering peoples, such as Charlton and Fawcett. Now with increased connections with Wildstorm, the incoporation of the Dakotaverse, and the usurpation of MLJ characters, the DC Universe truly is a multiverse.

How well do you think DC has managed the process of syncretism? They didn't know quite what to do with the Charlton characters after they acquired them. In the beginning, it seems they were being positioned, as ruder and edgier than the DC characters, as the "Marvel" types within the new DCU. Read Crisis on Infinite Earths again, and you won't even recognize Blue Beetle, except by the costume. At some point, this reversed, and the Charlton characters became more lighthearted (in no small part due to their inclusion in the less than grim JLU).

Fawcett, well, the case could easily be made that the DCU never has successfully integrated those characters. Unable to take them at face value, DC has either insisted on making them hokily square or *snort* dark and edgier.

The Wildstorm "integration" has gone much better because, in fact, while the Wildstorm in now clearly part of the large DC multiverse, it is just as clearly "walled off", so that character interactions can take place in a controlled environment. Usually, the problems with characters from different universes interacting isn't that the characters aren't commensurable. After all, the Punisher has met Archie. It's not that the characters can't be made to work together; it's that the worlds they inhabit cannot be the same world. It's not that we can't picture Superman and the Shield together; it's that we can't imagine that a character as amazing as the Shield wouldn't be turning up all over the place in Superman's world.

The literary concept of the shared universe is already a tough one, and the more "worlds" you add to that universe, the tougher it gets. And the job is about to get a lot tougher... .

How well do you think DC has managed the process of syncretism... and how well will it?


Anonymous said...

What an awesome post! And the question posed is one I've wondered about before. I really love the Blue Beetle stories in the DCU, but would I prefer him in a Charlton exclusive world (or E4 to be specific)? Dang, I find that one hard!

But I do think stories worked better when the JSA were on E2, and the Wildstorm separation seems to work well- so I'd say having a multiverse which reflects this is the best general policy to have.

But how far should this extend? Do we want to go back to a time when Green Lantern and Superman inhabited different worlds altogether? Should the creations of different writers and artists be walled off from others?

In light of this, I'd say that DC has chosen the more difficult path in forcing all of their characters to inhabit the same universe. That doesn't mean that it should never be done.

I feel that the Charlton characters, with their small number of characters, and lack of fame (unlike Captain Marvel) or even a long history of publication, made the best transition. Perhaps because the DCU was gaining characteristics more in line with what Charlton was getting into with the Question backups in Blue Beetle. A more "realistic" sort of world.

Fawcett's characters seem to have been stifled, though, and I fear the same may happen to the other characters scheduled for introduction into the DCU. But I have faith that decent writers can make the idea work and repair any damage that's been done.

-Citizen Scribbler

Gus Casals said...

I remember being ecstatic at that exercise of public syncretism that was the first Crisis... the concept of the unified universe.
Time, of course, has shown us otherwise. Except for the earths 1 and 2 merger, and early Blue Beetle and Cap Atom ( their JL stints )it was a whole mess. It killed the Fawcets, and generally created confussion and diluted characterization here and there.
Given the modicum of success that Wildstorm and to some extent, Tangent, have generated, I wish the Milestones and MLJ were kept separated, with ocasional contact.
Of course, the previous try with Shield, Fly and the like in a separate universe flopped, so what do I know about business...

Anonymous said...

"It killed the Fawcets,"

I couldn't agree more. Anyone trying to make the Marvel Family darker and edgier should be shot. They've really raped that entire universe of characters in the past 10 years or so. Sexy evil Mary Marvel my ass. That's like making the Punisher wear braids in his hair and traipse through a field of dandelions giving candy to bunnies.

rap said...

Why does DC need more characters?

(They don't.)

Anonymous said...

Can anyone really argue that DC did a good job with the Fawcett characters? I don't think it's entirely their fault- I think Captain Marvel's time has passed, at least in the marketplace. Although you could get a decent Capt. Marvel comic, it won't sell, won't last, and will be ignored in favor of a more desperate and wholly inappropriate "dark version."

As for the Charlton characters, didn't they disappear in the '70s? DC brought them back, introduced them to a new generation, and has kept them as part of their universe for over 20 years.

Blue Beetle, The Question, and Captain Atom all had ongoing series in the '80s. They ended up cancelled (despite critical acclaim for the Question), but I don't think that's because DC mishandled them. After all, Blue Beetle and Capt. Atom ended up on the Justice League for several years. The characters were sort of dormant for a few years after that, and Ted Kord and Vic Sage were killed off, so you could say DC hasn't treated them well lately. Originally, however, I think DC tried their best.

Contrast that with Marvel's dismantling of the Ultraverse, in which entire creative teams were changed, and sub-par writing and art showed up in several titles.

As for Wildstorm, I can't really judge. Non-integrated, the titles have met with little success in the last 5 years. Maybe integrating the Universes will help.

Anonymous said...

DC had control of the Fawcett characters for almost 35 years before Mary Marvel got darkened. They were the most popular superheroes of the late 1940's and much of that success was probably due to the times and C.C. Beck's writing. After Binder died that was probably it for Captain Marvel. If there was a demand for the character he would have had a successful ongoing series pre-Crisis, not small features in World's Finest and guest roles in DC Comics Presents and Justice League of America.

By the 70's rolled around comics readers were used to identifying with the heroes and didn't need the proxy of a Robin, a Jimmy Olsen or a Billy Batson to get involved with the comics.

Also, Captain Marvel was just too similar to Superman powerwise to compete. At least Captain Atom had a different set of powers. When he was walled off in Earth S there wasn't as much of a need for a Superman comic for young readers as DC was pretty good about making the Superman titles appropriate for younger readers. I remember being turned off by the brutality of Batman in the 70's but enjoyed Superman stories.

When the universes became merged captain Marvel didn't work in a universe where he wasn't the alpha hero.

Verification word apidipsi. Uncle Marvel's mistress in a notorious Tiajuana Bible.

Anonymous said...

I think they did pretty well with Charlton's chars. I have to agree that Fawcett got bungled, though there have been some good stories with Captain Marvel. (I was pretty happy with the series that ran in the 80s-90s.)

password unticant, which I will theorize is the secret code language for Unitarians.

Anonymous said...

As much as I enjoyed "Monster Society of Evil" and "Billy Batson/Shazam", the characters are portrayed as whimsical and humourous. I don't think kids aren't going to be attracted to that unless the comedy becomes more slapstick or more cruel.
Verification word "Turem", a city visited by Conan in Thomas and Buscema's "Curse of the Crocodile God", Sept 73.

Anonymous said...

Wether well done or poorly done, that syncretism is the DCU tradition out. However, it is on an individual character basis that the question should be applied. But even then, if a character falls flat, it is always the fault of the writer and editor. The premise is still as viable as it was in the initial incarnation.

When I was a child or 1983, I had no idea that JSA was on a different planet than JLA. I understood there were old character and new characters mostly because some looked old and others looked new.

Given continental proportions, it is foolish to think that the DCU is crowded. I am in the same world as you yet we have never meet. Detroit has issues that have little or no effect on Miami. So Superman and Batman are neighbors and occasionally run into Capt. Marvel.

A greater problem than Syncretism, but a ramification of it, is redundancy. Martian Manhunter, Captain Marvel, and Captain Atom have no real point in a world with Superman. Until one is able to realize that the other three are able to undergo character change Superman can’t. So, syncretic redundancy can be an asset.

I like the recent changed to the Captain Marvel story and also enjoyed POS. I don’t like Monarch but Captain Atom wasn’t doing nothing and it is a hell of a story of him becoming Monarch and making war on the Monitors on E51. Who can’t love Ted Kord? He would have done well to stay in Hub City. I realize now that DC Question is a direct contrast to Charlton Question. You illustrated well how, in the end, Plastic Man has suffered from greater DCU inclusion. But all syncretic character contribute to make DC huge and I like that. ---Ray

Anonymous said...

The thing that rankled me the most about the aftermath of the Crisis on Infinite Earths was the attempt to integrate the Marvel Family into the DCU proper. As others have pointed out, Captain Marvel (who is, after all, "the World's Mightiest Mortal") is pointless now that he shares a planet with Superman. I'd argue that it invalidates the reason for his existence; why does Shazam need to create a champion for a world that already has Superman, Supergirl, the Martian Manhunter and about 50 Green Lanterns?

Ordway's "Power of Shazam" series was a good attempt, but it too suffered from the need to operate within the larger DCU. To my surprise, I didn't care for "The Monster Society of Evil" much; while it was a step in the right direction, it was a bit too dark and strange to suit my perception of the Marvels. "Billy Batson" is by far the most enjoyable thing DC has done with the Marvel Family since they acquired the Fawcett characters, yet it's still not quite what I want.

SallyP said...

I never thought of applying Syncretism to the mental gymnastics that I am capable of performing when it comes to reconciling the various versions of characters in the DC Universe, but I'm awfully glad that you thought of it.

I'm actually rather proud of DC for at least trying to bring other universes into the fold. I remember when Marvel bought out the Prime character and others, and just let them fall by the wayside rather than figure out a way to incorporate them into their superhero world. Rather a waste, really.

Andy said...


The picture is actually in the alternating ad up top, but it is a new toy and his name starts with a V!

...and ends in an "ibe"

Justin said...

There are times that I feel even Superman suffers for living in a shared universe. That mythic resonance of being "the first, the best superhero" is diminished somewhat when there was a whole Golden Age that he had no part of, and there are heroes who have one of his powers but better (i.e. the Flash).

Superman seems a much more mythic figure in something like the first two Superman films (or hell, even Superman IV when ALL THE NATIONS OF THE WORLD are willing to take him on as a sponsor when he addresses the UN) or All-Star Superman, where he is pretty much THE GUY. Compare that to Smallville, which puts him on about equal footing as Green Arrow and Cyborg.

I'd argue the Batman myth suffers as well. Morrison's Batman writes "nobody's ever done this before" about his war on crime, which might have been true about the weird vigilante who debuted in 1939, but not so much the guy who learned how to box from Wildcat.

That said, I hate the idea of keeping them out of the JLA. I suppose my solution to the DC shared universe problem is to keep interaction with the DCU down in solo books. Second-tier heroes who fill specific functions and don't have their own books like Zatanna and Plastic Man are okay as guest stars, but Superman #924 can't have Superman hanging out with Green Lantern or Aquaman. That way, the Justice League is a HUGE DEAL when everyone is in the same room.

Scipio, I can't remember if I made this up or if you wrote something to this effect and I've forgotten, but I think of Marvel's Avengers as the cast of a medical show, with a few major stars surrounded by secondary characters, each one filling a specific role in a well-honed dynamic. The Justice League, though, is like if Zach Braff from Scrubs, Sandra Oh from Grey's Anatomy, George Clooney from ER, House MD, Dick Van Dyke on Diagnosis Murder and a few others all got together for one massive show. The all-stars might not fit together as smoothly for the purposes of characterization, but it would be something to see.

Gene Phillips said...

Hah, the palsied hand of coincidence. A month or two before reading this post, I too posted about a "Christian Wolff," and again the subject related to myth & literature, but 'twas a Wolff of a different era:

The following is from a short book-review I did on a collection of essays about Ernst Cassirer:

'On a side-note, another essay touches on the contributions of German philosopher Christian Wolff (1679-1754), said to have been as eminent in his time as Kant and Leibniz. What I found interesting in the recounting of essayist Ernst Orth was that Wolff apparently had a "threefold structure" through which he endeavored to "establish principally the basis of all human orientation as far as it can be grasped rationally." Wolff's three disciplines are said to correspond to *cosmologia,* "theologia rationalis,* and *psychologia rationalis.* As a devotee of Joseph Campbell I recognized a close resemblance between these categories and the four functions of Campbell, the biggest difference being that Campbell's fourth category, the *sociological,* has no parallel in Wolff. There's no knowing whether Campbell knew of Wolff's categories and decided to add on the sociological function with which many academics-- not least those of the cultural studies discipline-- have been so preoccupied. But it's an interesting tidbit.'

All the theorizing about Joseph Campbell is mine, should it not be clear.

I've some further thoughts on your subject of myth-syncretism but probably should use them to feed my own blog. Keep it goin'.

Diabolu Frank said...

Segregation now! Integration never!

As a kid indoctrinated into the "one universe" theory, I was all for everyone being on the same Earth living one clean, Post-Crisis history. As I've gotten older, I've realized all that does is heighten everything that I hate about the DCU and rob characters of creative opportunities. How many legitimate Superman comics have been released since "Man of Steel?" DC strangles much of its mythology in the crib, and can't even get their greatest icons right most of the time.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

What about the original act of DC syncretism: the golden age merger of All-American Comics with National. That brought together Green Lantern and the Flash with Batman and Superman, back in yonder days. The JSA, the first "pantheon" comic, brought together characters from both companies into a single group and a shared universe. Kinda. As much as golden age comics did that sort of thing, anyway.

Syncretism works best when the new elements complement the old, filling in gaps, right? So the Ted Kord Beetle kinda worked, since DC didn't have anything like him, and Cap'n Marvel doesn't. Though it's funny -- the Marvel Family did bring one very successful element to the DCU: Black Adam. The DCU never had an "evil Superman." He fills a niche. The other Marvels, not so much.

Except for Hoppy, the Marvel Bunny, who is wicked awesome.

Anonymous said...

C.P.T. is an old, posibly insulting, certainly critical, expression "Colpored People Time'; usually defined as slower. In the context used here it's funny as hell and a slap-back to the racists that employ the term.