Saturday, February 22, 2020

"May God bless and keep Dan DiDio..."

In Fiddler on the Roof, the rabbi is challenged to give a proper blessing for the czar of Russia (who was no friend of their Jewish community), to which the rabbi archly replied, "Of course: 'May god bless and keep the czar... far away from us!"

Well, likewise, may the gods bless and keep the czar of DC Comics, Dan DiDio, who has presided for 10 years over a vibrant period of the DCU.  And I mean that in the same way real estate ads describe dangerous and distressed neighborhoods as 'vibrant'.

Vibrant, like Hub City. And we all know the source of this rot.
We've known it for years yet we don't do anything about it.

Some of that vibrancy is inherent to our times; although the intellectual properties owned by the comic book industry are now powerful currency, that doesn't always help the bottom line of comic book publishers. Some of it, however, lies squarely at DiDio's feet.  Not only do many DC readers feel this way, it appears DC's masters did, too. DiDio was posting on DC's behalf and meeting with creators Friday morning and "no longer with DC" by Friday evening, which doesn't sound like a conscious uncoupling to me.

Pictured: conscious uncoupling.

A lot of great things happened at DC during DiDio's tenure, such as the amazing work on Hanna-Barbera properties like the Flintstones, Snagglepuss, and Scooby-Doo.  Dan DiDio could have stopped lots of creators from doing interesting, innovative, thoughtful, and entertaining work, but he didn't.  The pattern of his decisions suggest that he was very receptive to change and experimentation.

Which was, perhaps, the problem.

Our flaws are often merely the flipside of our virtues and I suspect that was the case with DiDio.  In the same way that DiDio didn't stop good things from happening, he didn't stop bad things from happening, either.  By bad things, I mean things like:

  • the Destruction AND THEN Befoulment of Wally West (I don't even LIKE Wally West and I know how very wrong that all was);
  • nerfed Bart Allen's unique personality, aging him up to become the Flash, and then vanishing him 12 months later;
  • Tom King and his Crimes Against Batman (does anyone REALLY need ME to expound on this, when the entire internet has it covered?);
  • the unpardonable MESS of "52" and "Countdown", which really just should have been renumbered as continuations of 1985's DC Challenge;
  • preventing Batwoman's wedding because "heroes aren't supposed to be happy";
  • driving out steady professional types like Greg Rucka, Len Wein, Mark Waid, and Geoff Johns (writers interested in what they can do for a character) and handing flagship characters to idiosyncratic 'auteurs' like Brian Michael Bendis, Grant Morrison, Tom King, and Scott Snyder (writers interested in what they can do to a character).

People have been describing this as 'the end of an era', which it is. But that isn't the "DiDio Era"; it's the "DiDio versus Johns Era". Like some sort of real-life Anti-Monitor and Monitor, DiDio and Johns have been waging a barely disguised universe-threatening battle over whether the DCU would be positive or negative.

And you know which one you'd swipe right on.

You can trace it through nearly everything that's happened in the last 10 years. The New 52 versus Rebirth.  Wally West the symbol of hopefulness versus Wally West PTSD-crippled mass murderer.  Dark Multiverse versus the Metaverse. Eventually, Johns, realizing that his power over DC's characters in mass media gave him greater influence than DiDio's power over them in comics, left DC Comics for DC Entertainment.  And without Johns to counterbalance DiDio's negativity, DC Comics became sour enough that readers finally started to spit it out rather than swallow it.

Dan DiDio doesn't seem like a bad person who wants bad things to happen to damaged heroes.  But he does seem like a dumb person who thinks that is what makes comics interesting.  Like many (so, so many) creators at DC, he's infected with Marvel-Envy, thinking that DC's characters need to be overwhelmed, unhappy and put-upon, damaged, distressed, disturbed, and alienated to be, ya know, COOL and popular like Marvel heroes.  Totally blind to the fact that historically, DC's characters were cool in a different way; they were cool precisely because, despite personal adversities, they were NOT any of those things.

DiDio's not bad. He's not even bad at his job, I think. He simply doesn't get DC.  Here are a few examples.

He wanted to KILL Nightwing / Dick Grayson. Who thinks that way? Is there a more beloved character in DC comics?  Who even comes up with the IDEA of killing the Sensational Character Find of 1940, let alone pushes it so hard that Geoff Johns simply flat-out REFUSED to do it?   
Do NOT mess with Dick Grayson,
'cuz he'll make it look like an accident.
He wanted the Spectre to kill Shazam because Shazam "doesn't fit in with the rest of the DCU".  Is Shazam a unique and unusual property? Yes. But if you can't even imagine that he can be made to work in the DCU somehow then your view of the DCU is too narrow for you to be in charge of it. 
Well, Dan, Billy's still working within DC.
And you're not.
He gave the Phantom Stranger an origin. As Judas the Discipline. I can think of nothing that so clearly shows how deeply someone doesn't understand the DCU as that.  He managed to besmirch the Phantom Stranger, Western Civilization most awesome character, as a damaged, tortured, fuck-up tied to a particular religious system.  That's a tragic level of stupidity, right there.   
Dan DiDio not pictured.

At the 2019 San Diego Comic-Con, DiDio showed how little he gets readers:

“We do these Facsimile Editions where we reprint older issues of comics including all the old ads and stuff…and in some cases these are selling more than the new comics with these characters. People are more interested in buying the stories from 30 or 40 years ago than the contemporary stories, and that’s a failure on us. We should be focused on moving things forward, always pushing the boundaries and finding new stories to tell. That’s how we’ll survive and grow this industry.”

DiDio assumes that people fall back to reading older stories because the new ones aren't "moving things forward, pushing boundaries, and finding new stories to tell."  What he really means is that people are reading old comics because we aren't forcing them to forget about continuity and the history of who the characters are and what they are like.  The perceived antidote is to wrest by force the idea of what those characters are from the dead claws of nostalgia.

You're too late, Dan; it's been done.

But the way to get people to focus on the tree's seasonal blossoms isn't by tearing up the roots.  People don't read comics starring characters who've been around for 80 years because they are aching to move things forward and push boundaries.  Nor do they read them simply out of nostalgia.  They want to read stories that depict familiar characters in familiar ways but in a new story or a new situation.  The value of character familiarity and consistency is that, for both the creator and the reader, the focus can be on the story and its plot.

Which often require a LOT of focus.

It seems like the modern assumption for why a comic book isn't more popular is that something is wrong with the character, so the character must be changed.  Does it ever occur to anyone that maybe your stories just suck?

Truth hurts.

Two of my favorite series this year have been Sholly Fisch's Scooby-Doo Team-Ups and Matt Fraction's Jimmy Olsen.  That's certainly not because Scooby-Doo or Jimmy Olsen are favorite characters of mine.  It's because those (really good) writers took those characters at their ridiculous face value and wrote stories that, rather than try to change the characters, actually take full advantage of who and what those characters are.  I wish more modern writers would give that a try and stop wasting everyone's time trying to put Their Stamp on the characters.

Sassy Sombrero Superman never really got the chance he deserved, though.

If you want to write comics where you can do anything you want with the characters, then create those characters.  But iconic, flagship characters are worth more than any individual creator; Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman are known much more broadly than anyone who writes or draws them. They always have been and always will be.  So preserving and cultivating the character should be the priority, rather than indulging the writer. Heck, you could probably pick one and switch it to on-spec writing. "Hey, everyone; submit us a story for Heroperson that colors between the lines of their existing world."  You would get 12 interesting stories a year, from different perspectives, memorably unique, none of which had to be part of an 'arc' or 'change the character forever', and it would probably show more continuity that DC can manage with its golden stable of auteurs.   The reason that doesn't happen is that DC is convinced the creator fame is what lures readers to buy comics. Well, I guarantee you anyone reading Superman or Legion now is doing so despite Bendis not because of him.

Although he was great in Human Centipede 2.

Not understanding such principles is at the core of DiDio's failure. DiDio's leadership at DC often went awry because it didn't combat these negative and chaotic tendencies.  I am no fan of Marvel's Stan Lee, god knows, but I like that Lee wasn't hampered by being a fan of comics; he simply published them.  He was enough of a realist to know that, in his own words, "comics survive not on change but on the illusion of change", something that DiDio wasn't woke enough to understand.

If I like Stan Lee more than I like thee, then,
it's fair to say I don't like thee very much.

I am told that Dan DiDio loved comics; but loving something doesn't mean you know how to do it well. Now that he's no longer in charge, a new era can begin.

My question is: will this new era (with or without the new '5G' timeline) be a repudiation or a repetition of DiDio's mistakes...?


John C said...

The two earliest memories I have of Didio at DC (as an editor of some sort) were his assertions that "fun books don't sell" (because if there's anything superhero fans hate, it's fun, I guess) and that his vision for the DC Trinity was Superman and Batman as the extremes and Wonder Woman as philosophically between them (because "iconic moderation" is totally a thing). And I know the former thought continued up until recently, because one of those Hanna-Barbera books was pitched as a mainstream DCU story--I forget which character--but Didio saw it as insufficiently grim for superheroes and offered up a kids' cartoon character, instead.

So yeah, he's not exactly an optimal leader. And that doesn't even get into his crappy management skills, inability/disinterest in stopping harassment, "competing" with his writers for stories, and a bunch of other things that should've gotten him fired years ago. Unfortunately, the Twitter roundups of writers talking about how great Didio is makes me think that he already has a high-profile job lined up where a writer might need his goodwill; either that, or he's surrounded himself with self-absorbed writers who only care that he gave them work.

I disagree on comics needing to only pretend to change, though. That was how television imagined itself, too, until Twin Peaks and Babylon 5 showed that you could have non-resetting plot advancement over time outside of a soap opera. Today, even the Arrowverse has managed to keep plugging along with characters changing for eight years and shows that don't push the ball forward are laughable. Plus, if you want to be a pro-continuity person, continuity without change is why we now get a reboot every few years, trying to revise everybody's origins so that Batman doesn't need to be a senior citizen to manage all the Robins' history. The reason that the JSA works so well (no matter how much Didio resisted and resented them) is that, in introducing the Silver Age characters, they were free to live their fictional lives.

cybrid said...

"Tom King and his Crimes Against Batman (does anyone REALLY need ME to expound on this, when the entire internet has it covered?)"

Well, I haven't paid attention to "contemporary" goings-on at DC for over twelve years now (I'm here mostly for your discussions of pre-Crisis stuff) and a quick Google search of "Tom King" and "Crimes Against Batman" yields almost nothing, so, while I don't "need" anyone to expound on the topic, I certainly wouldn't MIND if someone felt like doing it. :-)

Bryan L said...

Firstly, let me echo your sentiment: Scooby Doo Team-Up was BRILLIANT. If Sholly Fisch masterminded a Hanna-Barbera comic-book universe, I would abandon the rest of DC without ever looking back. Jimmy Olsen is a great book, but it doesn't fill the Team-Up void. But it's still better than virtually every other DC title.

Secondly, as you often do, you perfectly encapsulated the problem with auteur (I frequently refer to them as "super-star" writers). Doing things TO the characters rather than FOR the characters is something I've struggled to articulate for years.

Thirdly, the fact that established characterization allows writers to focus on plot rather than misapplied "characterization" is an old problem with me. Comics, at their core, should focus on plot and storyline. They are a heavily visual medium and I simply can't read Bendis' work any more, because it's page after page of stilted and unfocused conversation. I'm sure that's much easier to write than actually coming up with a story, but I don't care to pay for it.

Scipio said...

Cybrid: "Tom King and the Crimes Against Batman" is the name of my next punk bank.
In short,Tom King has been working out his PTSD problems using Batman and Wally West, making them appear increasingly broken as people. This is not popular among fans. It's consistent with DiDio's 'heroes don't get to be happy" philosophy which is also not popular with fans.

Anonymous said...

What gets me is how Geoff Johns has been in charge of, what, at least three major events where the theme was, "the universe is too grim and gritty and we need to fix that". (Final Crisis, Rebirth, and Doomsday Clock) All that was required at any point in this was for writers to write better stories, not to blame the bad writing on fictional characters.

Dan Didio was at the helm when Superman lost most of his powers, was hated and feared by the masses, got a bad haircut, rode around on a motorcycle, and got into fights with cops. That's not Superman, that's Wolverine.

There are three things essential to a good Superman story, and in a good week, "Supergirl" on TV hits all three effortlessly:

- Superman cares about EVERYONE, be it strangers, criminals, or even his sworn enemies.
- Superman tries to inspire people to be the best versions of themselves.
- Superman uses his powers creatively.

The Didio era doesn't have much of that in it. How do you get Superman wrong and consider yourself worthy of helming DC Comics?

(Scipio, if you're looking for a series idea, how about a "Three Things" series, where you offer your thoughts on the three elements that are almost mandatory for a good story about a given character. Here's my three for Hal Jordan: brave and dedicated bordering on the foolhardy, an unorthodox thinker in battle but otherwise kind of dim, doesn't solve things just with the ring.)

Scipio said...

"What gets me is how Geoff Johns has been in charge of, what, at least three major events where the theme was, "the universe is too grim and gritty and we need to fix that". (Final Crisis, Rebirth, and Doomsday Clock) All that was required at any point in this was for writers to write better stories, not to blame the bad writing on fictional characters."


cybrid said...

Thanks for the reply, Scipio. :-)

If "the entire internet has...covered" King's Crimes, I can probably locate detailed discussions of them somewhere if I can just maintain interest long enough to AND oops, it's gone. It'll be back, though. ;-) Thanks again.

Dave said...

I have no real love for DiDio (I always regretted not pushing him into traffic at a Wondercon about ten years ago ...), I couldn't disagree with you more about those horrific Hanna-Barbera books (which tried to lade layers of meaning and metaphor onto characters that could never handle those burdens--that Snagglepuss travesty is the worst example of that) or Bendis on Superman. I found his act at Marvel tiresome, but was surprised at how much I've enjoyed what he's doing with Clark. Is it what Wait or Busiek (or Pasko or Maggin) would have done? No. But I still find it an entertaining book, and that's all I can ask for.

Ursolin Waxoh said...

Scipio, your post is very well argued as always, and I can't really find faults in your reasoning. However, remember - "when the gods want to punish us, they answer our prayers".
Consider - and tremble!:

- who else is celebrating Didio's firing? The Rob is. The Rob agrees with you on the direction of DC comics:

- Didio at least was a comics guy. There's a chance whoever comes in next is not. There's a chance the new DC will be someone who doesn't care about comics at all except as a some sort of content farm for movies and videogames.

- And then there's this:

Ursolin Waxoh said...

Sorry, the last URL was wrong - this is the grave threat I wanted to mention:

Scipio said...

What greater symbol of hope can the DCU have than the idea that Rob Liefeld might see something correctly?

"Didio at least was a comics guy. There's a chance whoever comes in next is not. There's a chance the new DC will be someone who doesn't care about comics at all except as a some sort of content farm for movies and videogames."

I have considered this recently. And I have come to an unexpected conclusion: GOOD.

What did "Didio is at least a comics guy" get us? 20 years of trying to remake comics to his own tastes. What does a content farmer in a suit care about? That the properties maintain recognizability with the public in a consistent way across platforms.

Bring on the content farmers, I say.

John C said...

Honestly, "content farm" sounds perfect for a comic book company. DC has often tried to focus all its attention on the same handful of characters and stories (basically, everything trends toward the early Silver Age with more embellishments, sometimes the mid-Bronze Age) to its detriment, with literally thousands of other characters they could market to a wider audience. As a "comics guy," there are risks Didio was never going to take. But as a proving ground for bigger-budget productions, there's a lot more flexibility.

Though in all fairness, I suspect Didio may have been starting to realize that, albeit too little and too late. For all the cliched ploys (DCeased, Metal), quirky ideas like Jimmy Olsen and Dial H for HERO have been poking their heads out, too, for the first time in decades. That's what farming for content looks like.

And Ursolin, to be fair, We Got This Covered has apparently been boldly predicting the impending demise of the Arrowverse since Barry Allen showed up, with all the rumors in this case seemingly traced to Ethan van Scrivner claiming that DC would close shop, and he's probably one of the few people in the industry I'd consider a less-reliable source than Rob Liefeld. So...grains of salt, especially when Warner Media desperately needs to compete with the MCU.

Dave said...

Part of the problem for me with DC and the DCU over DiDio's term was his shoving "hot" characters down our throats, whether we wanted them or not. I'd like to see a two- or three-year moratorium on anyone using Harley Quinn or the Joker. Do we really need five Harley books every month? (If there aren't that many, it sure seems like it.)

I'll stipulate both that this isn't unique to DC (Marvel's been overexposing Deadpool, Mary Jane, Gwen Stacy, and Spider-Man forever) and that playing a hot hand subsidizes (far better) things like SPJO and Dial H (I'll exempt Marvel from that, because--outside of the annotated Marvels--I can't think of anything from the House of Ideas that wasn't a blatant ripoff of something DC did the previous year or even worth reading), I'm beyond tired of seeing those books on the stands.