Wednesday, May 08, 2019

The Additive Approach

This morning I read #5 of Geoff Johns' (latest) Shazam series (rooted in the character's current cinematic continuity). In so doing I gained insight into GJ's approach to characters that hit me like, well, a bolt of lightning.

How "Shazam Blam" is not the name of some band, I do not know.

Fantastical Shazam has always been an odd concept to try to fit into the regular DCU.  If regular is a word that can be applied to the home of Bat-Mite, Jonah Hex, Wild Dog, Kanjar Ro, Swamp Thing, Starman, and Green Arrow.

Or even JUST Green Arrow.

So just as he did with his renovation of Aquaman, Johns has focused on expanding the "subuniverse" to which the character is native.  As he gave Aquaman seven undersea kingdoms to immerse himself in,

That's for those of you who only saw the movie.

so too has he given Shazam the Seven Magic Kingdoms to thunder around in.

Eh, why bother to come up with a new idea? I mean, what are the odds that the public is going to be paying attention to Aquaman AND Shazam at the same time...?!

This is a bit pat and predictable, but in Issue #5, where Billy's siblings Freddy and Mary are sentenced to death in the Wildlands, a place of talking animals where humans have been hunted to near extinction, Johns does his classic trick of hitting you in the face with something you obviously SHOULD have seen coming but didn't (because he lulled you into a false sense of security by being pat and predictable).

Pictured: Pat and predictable

In the Wildlands, we learn that tigers, having betrayed the cause during the Great Animal Revolution, are essentially political prisoners, considered untameable and unworthy of integration into animal civilization.  Including this one:

Who is cruelly stripped of his clothes (the symbols of being civilized):

"I just had this suit tailored."  There is only ONE tiger in the DCU who would say that (or, for that matter, say anything):

the clothes-conscious Tawky Tawny, one of Billy's best friends from the Golden Age.  

This is a great test passed. If you can't make the likes of Tawky Tawny and Mr. Mind work, well, then, you probably shouldn't be messing with Shazam in the first place.  That sort of inbuilt weirdness and whimsy is part of what keeps Shazam from becoming just another grim and cynical superhero.

And what kind of terrible person would want that?

This is classic Johns' character revivification in action: pare a character down to its core historical characteristics recognizable to the public, embrace those aspects of the character, and built outward from them.  But with his introduction of Mr. Tawny in the Wildlands, I finally noticed something unique in his approach to bringing back characters....

A regular writer working on a such a character usually says

"What can I change about the character to make them fit into our existing universe?"

Geoff Johns, however, asks a different question:

"What can I change about our existing universe to make the character fit into it?"

His approach isn't subtractive (lessen the character), it's additive (expand the universe).  A simple example is "the emotional spectrum" for Green Lantern, which, in retrospect is just a logical rearrangement and extension of concepts that were already in the DCU.  With seven colors. And seven emotions. Because... seven.

Geoff Johns, I publicly dare you to bring back the eight-themed Octopus;
WITHOUT chopping off one of his tentacles to make it seven.

I've criticized GJ for his awkward storytelling before. Oh, sure, there is almost always an ultra-clever reveal, but too often motives are vague and the plot is some variation on 'then it gets even WORSE and now our hero(es) can't possibly win, except, now they DO, for no discernible reason other than that it is time for them to do so, and um, is this story over now or-- OH LOOK something mysterious is happening elsewhere that must be the beginning of another story!"

Literally every issue of JSA.

But with this reintroduction of Tawky Tawny, I've decided to let go of my annoyances at GJ's storytelling. Because Johns ISN'T a storyteller; he's a mythmaker.  He (re)creates the worlds and characters that make great storytelling POSSIBLE.  

People talk a lot about Great Writers and the Great Stories they write and how Nothing Else Matters If The Writing is Great.  If you ask me, great writers (and great stories) come and go.  What do you REALLY remember better: individual stories about heroes or the characters and the world they inhabit?  Stories are told once.  Characters and their worlds, however, go on; I tip my hat to writers, like Johns, who make sure that they do.  


John C said...

I feel like my problem with Johns (which he may be finally overcoming, given his Aquaman and Shazam franchise changes) is that he has generally made claims of "back to basics," but really wanted "his" characters to be some amalgam of the version of the character he was familiar with immediately post-Crisis (or sometimes generic Silver Age) and whatever media property has stricken his fancy most recently. So, you get Highlander Hawkman who has been every hawk-themed character, Green Lanterns starring in NYPD Blue, Flash in CSI: Central City, and so forth.
And, often as not, he'd ditch any world-building that might have helped, thinking particularly about the way Steve Englehart modeled the Green Lantern color schemes.
As to stories only getting told once, though, I think Martha Wayne's pearls would like to have a quick word with you...

Toddmichael said...

I have to admit, your line "If you can't make the likes of Tawky Tawny and Mr. Mind work, well, then, you probably shouldn't be messing with Shazam in the first place." is quite frankly the best summation of what I think it takes to do certain characters, the whole Marvel Family mythos. (I just can't call him Shazam.)

Scipio said...

" I think Martha Wayne's pearls would like to have a quick word with you..."
A QUICK word would be fine. But I've been watching those damned pearls fall for 70 years now. I think by law any Batman property should be required to post the original two-page "Who He Is And How He Came To Be" and speak of it no further.

Doc said...

The way Englehart modeled color schemes? What do you mean? Issue#s

John C said...

Doc, I'm not quite sure (it's been a very long time), but I'd start the search at the original Green Lantern #200, the issue setting up the book's Post-Crisis agenda. I know the issue was exposition-heavy and all the relevant characters would've been involved.
If I remember correctly, the short version is that blue (like Guardian skin) was psychic power, red (like Sinestro's skin) was passion, and yellow (the "necessary impurity") was a physical factor. Blue and yellow blend into Green Lantern green. Red and Blue blend into Zamaron purple.

Bryan-Mitchell said...

A simple example is "the emotional spectrum" for Green Lantern, which, in retrospect is just a logical rearrangement and extension of concepts that were already in the DCU. With seven colors. And seven emotions. Because... seven.

I have to disagree. The emotional spectrum is moronic. Will power is an emotion??? Why do the colors correspond to our western way of splitting up the colors (other cultures and languages have historically split up the color spectrum differently into fewer colors) Indigo isn't really considered a separate color Why are the colors limited to what humans can see? (didn't they introduce ultraviolet or something really stupid? )

Scipio said...

I would say... "simplistic" rather than "moronic". It's not sensical, it's mythic. Myths are often stupid, but they resonate with us precisely because they are vast simplifications designed for our specific culture.

Anonymous said...

About "will" being an emotion, I see the emotional spectrum a little differently. "Will" is not an emotion, but sort of a constant that can coexist with and strengthen all the other emotions. But the middle of the spectrum -- with Anger / Greed / Fear to the left and Hope / Compassion / Love to the right -- is a place of emotional balance, with no particular emotion dominating ... and in that area, Will is the dominant factor. That's what makes green such a useful color to build a corps out of, it doesn't require its wearers to bend in the direction of any particular emotion.

About Shazam (I still bristle at not calling him "Captain Marvel"), I say he's not a comic book character at all, but a comic STRIP character. The distinction in my mind is that comic strips tend to be straight forward with the action, and don't waste a lot of time with the stuff that makes comics a little too much of a slog at times. To put it differently, Mister Tawny requires explanation in a comic book; but in a comic strip, he simply is and we're all fine with it.

Not that you couldn't find the right comic book writer to do Shazam, and indeed I think I have. Presenting Christopher Hastings of Dr. McNinja fame. Just read a couple pages and I think you'll feel a Fawcett City vibe about the whole thing: things simply are how they are, all sorts of superpowered weirdos and big action.

Bryan L said...

@Anonymous: I really like your interpretation of "will." It makes a lot of sense as a mediator for emotion, rather than a separate emotional category. I found it helps me to accept the whole "will" thing if I define it another way, as determination, resolution, commitment, drive, etc. As you point out, it's more of a way to shape and control the other emotions, than an actual emotion.

Anonymous said...

I too think that multi colored Lanterns are stupid. Mainly because they made Sinestro yellow.
Thing is, Green = Will, okay, Will = fearless, okay, the more willful and fearless Green Lantern becomes the stronger ring kicks ass. It goes from within Green Lantern.
Now Sinestro, his ring is Yellow, Yellow = fear, okay, but unlike Green Lanterns Sinestro's ring doesn't become stronger when he is EXPRESSING fear, but when he is INFLICTING it on someone. The ability to make terror is what required for yellow ring to work, it's powers comes OUTSIDE therefore Sinestro must have costume of different color, not yellow.

The only thing Johns done right with Lantern mythology is removing yellow color weakness, this is very convoluted and creates stupid situations like in Reign of Supermen where Hal was as strong against Mongul as Batman or any other non-powered superhero, and what angered me most is that it was comic done by Green Lantern writer, not Superman writer, I thought you guys suppose to elevate heroes n their books.
It's same as Superman not being able to fry circut of rocket because it's covered in lead. Leave that in the past.

If only there was no Geoff Johns influence on the movies, and in DCEU there will be just Green Lantern and Sinestro in non-yellow costume and that's it, just like they did just one (dead) Robin (at least what originally Zack Snyder meant, instead of what they did by adding Jason Todd mention in Suicide Squad intros).
I have nothing REALLY against One thousand Lantern spectrums or Batfamily populaton being bigger than population of planet Earth, in comics, where things always grow and expand, but I'd like to avoid that foolishness in the movies, at least for once. Sometimes less is really more.

I'd also liked if they called Captain Marvel by his name within movies (btw did you see one Scipio?) , and also if Freddie's SHAZAMavatar had red caped instead of white, it makes sense even more considering that he is Supes fan.

But anyway, spectrum Lanterns is stupid.

Dick McGee said...

""I just had this suit tailored." There is only ONE tiger in the DCU who would say that (or, for that matter, say anything):"

Pfft. Kamandi's Prince Tuftan knows truly civilized tigers wear togas for formal events, and his legions of loyal soldiers look damn spiffy in their legion uniforms.

Slaughter said...

This post is so good, I'm adding to my folder about writing.

GJ is a expander of the setting, a worldbuilder extradionarie. And he often uses things that exist before to build a grander world. I'm all for that.