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...?