Wednesday, June 30, 2010

On the analysis of a minor change in a major character

N.B. - In the interests of full disclosure, I should clarify that I’m writing this column before I’ve read the actual issue and storyline on which I am commenting, basing my opinions solely on what has been released and leaked since last evening. This is so that I can work from the same position of no knowledge that the rest of fandom is at. Indeed, “the position of no knowledge” may be fandom’s favorite, place and show going to “missionary” and “doggie style so we can both watch X-Files”. A second, actual review of said comics and stories will follow.

Okay, you’ve all seen the new costume by now.

Okay, you’ve likely all laughed your ass off and spouted your vitriol on the Twitter.

Okay, now let’s calm down and look at this rationally.

Okay, as rationally as comics fans can.

Of the section of fandom that’s seen the new costume design, I’ll warrant about…35 percent actually read the attached articles, as opposed to those who just saw the picture and assumed the thousand words underneath were ancillary. They just flew off the handle, landed at their keyboards and screamed “childhood rape”. So for those people, here’s what those words said.

JMS’ story is based on what science fiction fans refer to as a Change War. You go back in time, change one little detail that will snowball forward and eliminate or cripple your enemy’s power base. It’s the kind of thing Booster Gold is fighting in his title. It was the plot of the last weekly title, Trinity. It’s EXACTLY what the Justice Society of America has been involved with in their book as we speak, with the final issue of the story coming out today. It’s the same plot idea behind the new Tom Strong mini series. Hell, JMS wrote a Real Ghostbusters story that did the same thing, where the guys go back in time and bust the three ghosts before they can scare Scrooge straight. So this is not a bold new idea. But like all, ideas, great things can be done with it, depending on who’s at the wheel.

Now in Wonder Woman’s case, the “one little detail” isn’t all that little. 20 years ago, Paradise Island was destroyed. Princess Diana was smuggled off the island to keep the line of Amazons alive, and now in the “present” of this wildly alternative timeline, the Amazons are a ragtag handful of warriors scattered across the globe. That’s present in which we pick up the story.

To summarize, the claim that JMS has changed Wondy’s origin and continuity is largely misleading. He’s writing a story in an alternate timeline in which events of her life are wildly disparate from the norm. It almost certainly cannot connect to the rest of the DC titles, as it would require that timeline being referenced in all the other books. It’s going to be a stand-alone story about Wonder Woman’s attempt to get her proverbial life back. Any appearances by Wonder Woman in other DC titles (and there will almost certainly be some, if only in Brightest Day and JLI:GL) will be of the “classic” Wonder Woman, and not the one we’ll be reading about in this series. That could be confusing for some readers, so odds are it won’t be done much. I’m rather curious to see what the rest of the DCU will be like in this book. Will she still be a founding member of the JLA? Will there be too many other heroes at all? Will the Max Lord incident have happened, or just end very differently? Since this is a story about Wonder Woman, I don’t know how much time will be dedicated to those questions, but I’d like to see some, at least. Part of the fun to such stories are the differences to the world made by the change.

I think the endgame of the story is fairly easy to predict, at least in broad strokes. Wonder Woman will return to mainline continuity, largely unchanged. The events in said story will have never occurred, save likely for Wonder Woman remembering them. We may see some minor tweaks to the cast, points in her life seen from a new light, but ultimately, we’ll have what Alan Moore described as “The Illusion of Change”. Like Bruce Wayne’s current apparition and return, we get a chance to enjoy something different, get reminded about what we liked about the character in the first place, and then get them back.

JMS was just recently directly involved in a storyline very similar in theme to this one. Namely, One More Day in Spider-Man. A minor (yet to be explained) change in Mr. Parker’s past was made, resulting in his marriage to Mary Jane Watson having never occurred, resulting in a great deal of his past adventures occurring in ways of varying variance. The way the story was finally done was so unacceptable to JMS that he left the book. I don’t know if this will happen or not, but played properly, but if he chose to, this story could be a massive “So there” to Marvel, a plot that screams “HERE’S how you do this story, you clods.”

If this were anyone else writing this, I’d be rolling my eyes and walking away, waiting for the next retcon to come around. But JMS is one helluva writer. I have no doubt JMS' story will be well written, and that I will enjoy it. Same with his run on Superman. Both stories are very bold moves to make, a real change from the status quo. In both cases, he’s taking the characters off on their own proverbial spirit quest to get back to a more archetypal interpretation of the character.

But here’s the thing that has be worried.

Many Superman fans have just spent a year complaining about how the Superman titles didn’t have Superman in them. They claimed they didn’t want to read about a bunch of other characters in the books. Those who chose not to read missed out on a great bunch of stories, as I’ve talked about endlessly over the past year. But point is, they wanted to see Superman back in Metropolis, and his books, fighting bad guys and saving the world from alien invasions and the like.

DC has all but admitted they pooped the bed. Some are couching it by saying it was a mistake to do it for a whole year, some said the error lay in taking him out of all the books at once. But the point was the same – a lot of people didn’t want to read non-Superman Superman books.

So what are they doing this time? They’re taking him out of Metropolis for a year.

There’s a definition of “insanity” as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome”. They just got done saying taking Superman out of Metropolis and filling the gap with an opportunity to read about a whole bunch of other characters was a misstep. And now they’re doing it again.

Now bear clearly in mind – I enjoyed the last year of Super-titles, and I FULLY expect to enjoy this year. Paul Cornell is a stellar writer, and seeing what he has planned for Luthor and Action Comics will be a major portion of the next year. Similarly, I fully expect JMS’ Superman stories to be moving, dramatic, personal and the kind of stories you wish they wrote about Superman every day.

I also fully expect a LOT of readers to hear that top-line description – “Superman goes walkabout, Metropolis unprotected, other heroes step up to fill the gap”, think it’s New Krypton all over again, and stay away in droves. JUST like they reacted to the Wonder Woman announcement, picking out the bits they were the most incensed by and screaming “I quit comics forever”. And once again, they will be cutting themselves off from some very good books.

JMS or no, both characters have Big Uphill Battle written all over them. People who like the books are going to have a LOT of work to do to get people to get past those powerful first impressions and give them a try. So get ready for a lot of persuasive speech if you end up liking them.

Now let’s get back to The Costume.

This costume, plain and simple, is a choice designed to do exactly what it has done: spark comment. Wonder Woman has got more buzz in eighteen hours than she has had in eighteen years. Bringing in a hired gun like Jodi Picoult didn't do it; the exemplary work of Gail Simone didn't make a dent in the apathy and inertia of the comics fans.

But change the costume, do something that people can see, and post, and publish and retweet, and you've captured their attention.

The reaction to the new costume in online comics fandom has been 90%+ derision, and not without good reason. It’s a jarring change, from iconic to street thug. Comparisons to 90’s club wear are prevalent, as well as references to synonyms of the word “trollop”. But again, these are comments made not grasping the Bold New Direction of the character. If Wonder Woman were still the Princess of Paradise Island wearing that, it would indeed be laughable. But in this story, Wonder Woman was raised in New York City. So she dresses like a New Yorker. It’s more logical than it seems.

There’s no possible way the costume will stay tho. Just like her history, there are far too many dollars being made on the iconic costume in licensing alone. All the folks making lunchboxes and t-shirts don’t want to hear that costume is going away. Heck, they tried to change Batman’s costume a while back, and get rid of the trunks, making the suit a more monochromic look. Didn’t take – too many t-shirts out there.

This costume is a hot-shot, intended to draw quick and furious heat, in the hopes that people will HAVE to try the first issue, whether out of genuine curiosity or “just to see HOW bad it is”. It will go away.

Dan DiDio has gone on record as being a member of the “no publicity is bad publicity” camp. To continue the pro-wrestling metaphors, his philosophy is that whether the fans are cheering or booing, they’re up on their feet and actively participating. Right or wrong, he wants to see a reaction to what DC is doing, not just a quiet acceptance as the fans pick their books up off the racks.

Mission Accomplished.

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