Thursday, September 17, 2009

On a weird way to pay tribute to the Firesign Theatre

Ever since Alan Moore "revealed" (by which I mean "Made up") that Swamp Thing was not Alec Holland at all, a popular method of reinvigorating a character has been the Everything You Know Is Wrong play. As opposed to the standard reboot where everything is rewritten from day one or simply started over, this maintains that all of the past adventures of the character had happened, but a basic fact or series of facts about the character was not known or misunderstood, one that puts the adventures in a different light.

In the case of Swamp Thing, the results can be spectacular. In other cases, downright embarassing, like when marvel tried to tell us that the Peter Parker we'd been reading about for over a decade was in fact a clone, and the REAL Peter Parker had just returned. Most of the time, as things do, they tend towards the mean, with some people liking the new version and some preferring the original. Rarely do these changes last long-term, as another person will have a new idea a few years later, or someone will decide that the original idea was the stronger one after all, and you end up with alternate characters littering the literary landscape like spent shell casings in the battle against cancellation.

Geoff Johns has been using an array of tricks in his quest to sort out many of the heroes of the DC Universe, including Hawkman, Superman and many of his villains. The most famous character, indeed his magnum opus, is Green Lantern Hal Jordan, who had to be pulled back from a chasm of poor choices that included him going mad, killing off any of his fellow Lanterns and generally renting the entire GL Corps asunder, and then die, solely for the purpose of introducing a new Green Lantern that DC hoped The Kids Would Dig. Well, suffice to say it was a long 15-odd years as DC tried to get readers to love the new boy. Over time they would slowly bring back the GL Corps, more and more of the trapping s that they had initially decided would not be needed, only to have the fans (in both their protest and their silence) tell them that yes they did want them thank you very much.

So Johns used a number of tricks to help Hal recover from this seeming insurmountable blockade. He introduced the idea that Hal was not acting under his own accord, but was under the control of a sentient embodiment of the universe's collective fear, an emotional elemental if you will. He brought back Sinestro, Hal's greatest enemy, he finished the job started in Final Night and Spectre, and brought back Hal Jordan to the land of the living, hale and hearty and a hero again. He then revealed that the characters killed in hi bad period were in fact "only mostly dead", and they were found alive as well, wiping that crime off the record. To say that fandom has welcomed these changes happily is an understatement.

Over the last four years, Johns has been building towards this year's big DC event, Blackest Night, running now in DC books everywhere. He's created seven more corps, six controlled by a color in what he calls the "emotional spectrum" and one created by Death itself. They're now in war against each other, and will eventually (we assume) team up against the Black Lanterns. One of the concepts he introduced in that first Green Lantern Rebirth story is that each of these emotion powers have a living avatar, a "color-mental" if you will. In Yellow's (fear) case, it's Parallax, the being that made Hal do all that nasty (it was of course really a man named Kevin Dooley, but I, as the saying goes, digress). The green avatar is Ion, a concept created dring the Kyle Rayner years. Other avatars have been vaguely mentioned, and same have not yet been revealed. The avatars work best when they are hosted by a living being, as Hal did to Parallax.

In issue three of the Blackest Night mini, it's suggested that the Golden Age character The Spectre is not, in fact, an emissary of God's wrath as he has been described for all these decades, but may be the Red (rage) avatar. I will say that if I'm reading and interpreting that right, I don't care for the idea of retconning the origin of the Spectre. Reducing him from an emissary of the The Presence to an avatar beast of rage is a hell of a drop. It also flies in the face of FAR too many stories where Spectre has directly spoken to or received orders from The Presence.

Also, considering how much work Greg Rucka has done with the character of late, I wonder how he feels about being told that Everything We Know Is Wrong about a character he had just done such a good job of updating. Not to mention the aforementioned exemplary series by J. M. Dematteis where a certain Hal Jordan was the host of the Spectre, in an attempt to atone for the actions of Emerald Twilight. He was able to change the Spectre's mission from vengance to redemption. If all he was doing is channeling an avatar of Rage, how does that help redeem oneself, or anyone?

Now in almost all of these massive retcon moves, there will be stories that patently Do Not Make Sense anymore with the new rules in play. If Blue Beetle's Scarab is in fact NOT a magical artifact but a millenia-old piece of alien technology, then why did the wizard Shazam want to keep it on the Rock of Eternity where many other magical items are kept, for example. And in most cases, depending on how successful the new story is, you have to just accept that those stories don't count anymore, or that they just happened in a slightly dfferent way. The better the story works for you, the less important those discrepancies become. But if you're dead-set against the change, the slightest quibble become hide-bound evidence that said story CAN'T be right, and MUST fall.

If you're going to make changes to the Green Lantern Mythos, it's only fair to assume that any GL character might mold to fit the new shape of things. But pulling in the Spectre seems a bit offsides. He's been around LONGER than Green Lantern (he prevmiered some months before the Golden age GL) and has never been portrayed as anything other than as an emissary of God (under assorted names and euphemisms). Choosing to take a character with that much history who no one has asked for a change to strikes me as over-reaching a bit. It doesn't ALL need fixing.

The same holds true for the Phantom Stranger - that unsettling "He will face the truth about his existence" line worries me that he too will fall under the pen of Johns. One of the lasting allures of the Phantom Stranger is his undefined quantity. Is he the Wandering Jew? Is he some Silver Surfer-like gentleman, trading his life to serve Himself in trade for saving a life? Is he Longinus the Roman guard? The fun is not to know. Like the Joker and the Grinch, any attempt to define the character limits them, makes them less than their potential. So to suggest that Stranger himself is not fully aware of his origins is, IMHO, a reduction of the character.

These are two characters who have been around as long as or longer than Green Lantern, whose stories are almost wholly unconnected to the GL mythos, and changing them to serve the narrative seems akin to breaking up nice furniture to feed the fireplace. Wasteful.

Now it's very possible that I'm mis-reading this. I hope I am. Because if I'm not it could mean reducing one (possibly two) characters from having Godly connections to something much less in comparison. I'm not going to rail and whine about it...much...just make clear that I don't think either character needs much tweaking, and certainly not just to flesh out an event, good though the event is.

The Blackest Night series has been magnificent so far. There's every chance that at its end we'll see the return of several DC heroes who fans felt passed well before their time. For some, maybe even many characters to get returned at the expense of two more might be a price I'd choke on.


  1. Amen, man. I completely agree with you about the Spectre. Without a doubt, the Spirit of Vengeance is one of the most powerful entities in the DC Universe, and even though he (it?) is usually sidelined at the beginning of every major DC event nowadays, the simple fact of the matter is that the Spectre is the Wrath of God and should be regarded as such. Geoff Johns does a great job writing the Spectre, as evidenced in his ancient Day of Judgment miniseries and Green Lantern: Rebirth. That said, it seems that he respects the Spectre's status in the DCU, and I don't think he would ret-con anything about the Spectre's origin story in an attempt to enhance his ever-evolving Green Lantern mythos. Well, I mean, I sure hope he wouldn't. Great post.


  2. The original has disappeared, but if you're not familiar with it, here's a fanatically long history of the Clone Saga written by the assistant editor on the Spider-Man comics at the time.