Saturday, July 16, 2011

On the scariness of the phrase "giving them a rest"

In case you haven't heard, DC is revamping its entire line of books.  The entire DC lineup is starting over with new Numbers One, with many books going away, and others taking their place.  And like everything else in the comics industry, up to and including the ratio of cadmium yellow used to make orange in the baxter-paper titles, it has been the cause of much consternation, a word which here means "yelling and screaming on the basis of no evidence whatsoever".

Many of the arguments being made are perfectly reasonable.  The frooferau over Barbara Gordon returning to the role of Batgirl has been a heated one.  But hot on its heels is the seeming apparation of the Justice Society of America.  There is no new JSA title in The New 52, and Dan Didio has gone on record that they plan to "give the characters a rest".

Power Girl has also vanished along with the JSA.  While a popular character for many reasons (OK, yes, for two in particular) she seems to have also been pushed to the side for the nonce. But people are taking too far a leap, assuming that "don't appear in a book" equals "No longer exist in the new DC continuity".  The one statement that has sent the largest number of panties into a twist is Grant Morrison's statement which describes Superman as "Earth's first superhero".  People are taking this to mean that there were no costumed characters before this, and since in this new continuity, the heroes only appeared less than 10 years ago (so it's been inferred, anyway), this means there were no heroes to form the JSA.

I think Grant Morrison's statement has been largely taken out of context.  Grant has long said that Superman should be the sun source for all superheroes in the DCU.  It was a central theme of Final Crisis - The extra dimensional beings that we perceive as the Monitors peered into our world, and saw Superman, not as a physical being, but a perfect image of heroism, what Plato described as the "Form" of the Hero.  At the climax of the tale, Superman is the last living creature, and re-builds the universe from memory, so that literally as well as figuratively, "It all started with Superman".

And here's the thing. HE'S ABSOLUTELY RIGHT.

Yes, there were characters in costumes fighting crime before him.  Zorro first appeared in 1919, for example.  But Superman was a paradigm-shifter, he was a game-changer before the term had been invented, let alone used to death.  Comics were a curiosity, an experiment before two Jews from Cleveland created him.  When he was published, you could actually hear that sound effect of the Enterprise going into warp drive coming from the comic publishing houses of New York.  It was the sound of an industry kicking into gear.

So yes, literally, It All Started With Superman.  And the character should remain at that point in comics.  He is the best of us, he is the best we can be.  And that is, I think, what grant is trying to say.

Now, how does that allow the existence of heroes before him?

Rather easily, really.  The important word in Grant's quote is Superhero.  Like he did in the real world, Superman's appearance raised the bar, changed the definition of the idea, indeed CREATED the word.  I see no reason to think that there couldn't have been heroes, Mystery Men, Caped Crimefigters, what have you, in the past, even before the JSA.  When Superman comes along, he just jumps it all up to another level.

Look at Grant Morrison's greatest work, Watchmen(*)  There were heroes before Dr. Manhattan appeared, but when he did, the whole definition changed.  And if you read the book carefully, you realize that the original Mystery Men of the 40s were inspired to get into costumes by the adventures of a guy in tights in a new comic book.  So even here, It All Started With Superman.

Besides, Mr. Terrific is getting a new book, so not all the members of the JSA are gone.  He's a legacy character, taking the name of the mystery man from the JSA era, so this at least suggests that said character could still have existed, which in turn opens the door for the rest.

But there's an elephant in the room when it comes to the JSA, one that even its fans find hard to wave away.  The timeframe of modern comics keep moving forward - the "Sliding Seven" to which I've discussed in the past.  But the adventured of the JSA cannot be updated - they are tied firmly and inexorably to World War II and cannot move.  So while the start of Superman's career is anywhere from seven to ten years ago from this moment, The JSA's heyday was going on seventy years ago.  That's as many as seven tens! The farther back it gets, the more tenuous an explanation that they were kept young and vital by magical feedback from one of their last battles becomes.  So while there's no reason that the JSA couldn't have existed in the 40s, the idea that 90% of its members are alive, healthy and actively fighting crime today becomes a stretch, even in a world where Martians fight crime and eat Oreo-analogues.

Geoff Johns tried to set them up as a training ground of new heroes, a repository of experience and history. It was a GREAT idea.  Use the organization (and the book) as a way to bring new heroes into the fold, make sure they get the right start and the right training.  In the Batman: The Brave and the Bold cartoon, batman is one of those heroes trained by the JSA. Wildcat taught him to fight, and the others taught him strategy, etc.  It's a great idea.  It just never caught on.  The fans wanted to read about the old (and all that that implies) members of the team, and not these "young boys", to use a pro wrestling term.  So the old guard kept on fighting, and the new folks got used less and less, and ultimately, things remained largely the same.

Many have pointed to a panel in the first issue of the most recent Justice League run which was supposed to show various moments of past and future history of the team. One of them was a new version of the discovery of Earth-Two.  Many have pointed to Geoff Johns' ability to play the long game, and suggest that that may be a look at the NEW continuity, in which the JSA's adventures occurred on a parallel Earth.  That's all well and good for preserving the stories, but it doesn't eliminate the whole seventy years of time issue.

My hopes on the JSA are fairly optimistic. I am wholly confident of their place in history.  It's entirely possible that in Today's New DCU they still exist in the capacity in which Geoff tried to create.  We may not see them all the time.  Like The Challengers of the Unknown, they are the Grand Old Men of the hero industry, called in as advisors when events occur way above the experience and pay grade of the heroes of today.  We shall see.

(*) Calm down.  This is a callback to one of the greatest internet running gags in existence, which started on the message boards on Newsarama.  Some guy posted a message asking "Will Grant Morrison ever write anything better than his masterpiece ,'Watchmen'?"  The regulars immediately broke into two camps, either thinking this was the most illiterate boob ever to set fingers to keyboard, or realizing they were in the presence of prank-greatness.  Myriad posts appeared correcting the fellow's "error", and he calmly replied that THEY had it wrong, that they were confusing Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, which is easy, since they're both British.  It was brilliant.