Jan 28, 2016

Chasing the Starting Line

Chasing the Starting Line: Five Sequels
Travis Hedge Coke

With a Frank Miller and Klaus Janson (and a load of other folks) following up on The Dark Knight Returns (serializing now! buy!), and Alan Moore’s tin-eared Glory reinvention refreshed in my head by a student who wanted to know if an issue thereof is worth any real money, sequels and catchup comics, nostalgia and re-indulgence comics are thick in my head and storming.

In terms of serial characters and perpetuated universes, “sequel,” loses much of its meaning. Is every Batman comic after DKR a sequel to it? Is the next Frank Miller Batman comic a sequel to DKR? For most, neither is true, but they do, certainly, follow up on it. Year One, which was the next comic Miller did that featured Batman is incredibly affected by DKR, as are non-Miller bat-comics coming on the heels of DKR and even Bat-comics published today today. But, no; Batman is a serial character, by invention. There is a slipstream of stories with Batman in them of which all of those are a part, but some are sequels, some are just the next comic in the sequence, and some are neither one nor the other but still connected. “Sequel,” in terms of comics, is a matter of intent and marketing, and of expectation.

The Dark Knight Strikes Again

While Year One was definitely a followup to DKR, the sequel was The Dark Knight Strikes Again or DK2. You can tell, in part, because the covers don’t say that. The same way DKR is properly titled The Dark Knight, this one’s covers say DK2. It’s branded. They want to make it clear.

But, DK2 (or DKSA, if you prefer) was not what anyone expected. I still don’t want to accept that Frank Miller’s post-DC audience isn’t his DC audience, because he’s goddamn Frank Miller, but the way the rush of vocal critics came forward with DK2, talking as if Miller had done nothing since his bat-comics of the Eighties (just as, right now, many a message board poster is talking as if Miller has done nothing since his bat-comics of the Eighties, except other bat-comics), means that, yes, for these people, that really is the only Frank Miller. He wrote a few years of Daredevil, did a handful of Batman comics, and the rest of the time, they keep him in a fridge somewhere, to be thawed out like a cyborg warrior after a long spaceflight.

DK2 was a sequel to DKR, not a sequel to what people remembered of DKR, or what they’d gotten used to. Miller is weird. Frank Miller does not get near enough credit for making flat out weird comics, but he does, and does it beautifully. But, given fifteen years, people had gotten used to DKR’s weirdness, they’d actually forgotten most of it. Remembered was Batman punching Superman. Forgotten was Superman absorbing energy from flowers and the earth. Remembered was Batman with a tank. That the tank fired rubber bullets was forgotten. Batman breaking bones was remembered. Ronald Reagan wandering off his train of thought onto jellybeans and then worrying about Batman’s affect on the national consciousness, forgotten.

DK2 was cartooned loud, deliberately garish, openly political and there was humor on every page. A lot of people had forgotten how funny DKR was, or they’d never got the jokes (or never read it, just seen posters and knew it was “important”). To be fair, sometimes it’s hard to genuinely read a comic like DKR, post-fame, because what you’re reading, instead, is the fame. DK2 was everything DKR was, turned up to eleven. Operatic, freewheeling, silly, dramatic, brutal and big and unrelenting and wild. But, it seems that a very vocal section of the readership did not want that; they wanted nostalgia. They didn’t want a comic that made them feel like a kid again, they wanted a comic that talked down to them, a paternalistic pat on the head. They saw Batman tell concertgoers to put on masks and help him dismantle the American government and its brute squad.

The Kingdom

Mark Waid’s followup to Kingdom Come, the hit he had with Alex Ross, reads to me like he had a list of amendments and corrections, and I love it for that and many other reasons. The Kingdom is a fantastically, fiercely comic-booky comic. A miniseries comprising a two-part framing story and a handful of stories focusing on characters and occurrences usually only tangentially connected to the wraparound plot, it can be read as a novella in stories or any of the comics can stand on their own (and stand strong).

The framing story concerns the Kingdom Come Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman going back in time to stop a killer who is murdering Superman then going back in time to the previous day, to kill him then, and the day before that to kill him, and so on, so that there’s still another for him to kill (until Superman’s birthdate). The pudding held by this crust range from a daughter feeling unappreciated by everyone, including her famous and famously distant father to a waitress in the big city for the first time and the heir of Batman and Talia al Ghul finding his feet in a world that doesn’t necessarily like a conquering bastard.

Kingdom Come was in Ross’ then-mind-blowing style, cleanly painted, everyone realistically aged, allusions and visual references peppered throughout without much regard to thematic unity, held together by his semi-realist naturalism. The Kingdom was done in a variety of styles, often much thematically tighter, with no bid towards realism or naturalism. Even nostalgia is treated un-nostalgically, in The Kingdom. While Kingdom Come positioned the younger generation as brutes and idiots, The Kingdom gave us an array of social positions and types in every generation. Some of the youth were thugs or dopes, but some were heroes, some were just folks. Like any real generation, they couldn’t be boxed up neatly to justify nerd rage at how the new stuff sucks and is all bad and unheroic and where are the true heroes?

And, as if to make it worse, The Kingdom introduced us to Hypertime. And, once Hypertime, always Hypertime. (“Eat it, granddad!”)

Hypertime is why someone can go back in time, a day at a time, and kill Superman each time. It’s why we can read about a Superman whose secret identity isn’t secret and a Superman whose married to Lois, one married to Wonder Woman, one who is blue and electric, one who is graying at the temples and one who’ll never gray at all. It’s why DC Comics cannot, ultimately, own and regulate Superman, because someone out there is doing fanart, someone is doing satire, SNL skits, or thinking Superman in their head. If I pitch a story, in this article, wherein Clark Kent debates supporting his union to affect change in ways Superman cannot, that story will continue to live in someone’s head, in some small way, even if DC’s legal department contacts the Comics Cube at has Duy take it out of this column.

Hypertime, at its simplest, is the condition of reading and remembering. Sometimes stories stand in opposition and you can say, clearly, “this is version X, this is version Y.” Sometimes you didn’t read the stories between story X and story Y and so they feel like sdifferent worlds completely, even though there is a smooth causal transition. Sometimes you love stuff from one version so much, you apply it, in your head, to the other version, even though the authors did not. Sometimes they do, even though the continuity in which they are working doesn’t make that reasonable. It all counts. It all happens. There is what you like, what you don’t like, but there is no “it doesn’t count.”

Hypertime was so anti-nostalgia people are still pissed off. If Kingdom Come was a handshake and a pat on the back, The Kingdom was the “down low, too slow” that, if you can’t laugh about it, might stick in a grump’s craw.

Revolutionary War

And, then there are followups that come way later as a nostalgia bid and are unafraid to be just that (and hopefully more). Andy Lanning and Alan Cowsill put together a cool selection of talent, most of whom had worked on the earlier comics, to revisit the Marvel UK imprint decades after it had stopped being published, to wrap up some outstanding plot concerns and blow up some buildings and wreck some worlds while at it. Following the The Kingdom model of two-parter for framing and interrelated one-offs between, Revolutionary War put the focus on 90s imprint stars like Dark Angel and Motormouth, peppered with appearances by British-centric characters from the normal Marvel Universe like Captain Britain and Pete Wisdom, and the occasional Wolverine namecheck, because, hey kids, it’s Wolverine!

Unlike The Kingdom, this comic was not following shortly after, and unlike DK2, it wasn’t following something widely acclaimed and hugely successful. The Marvel UK imprint was canned with most of the ongoing titles not finishing and many plot threads had been unaddressed in any form for a couple decades. What it had was love, gumption, and talent. The people working on Revolutionary War wanted to be there. It was a big, silly thank you to an era and a celebration of what made Marvel UK different from normal Marvel. Even the people who looked like superheroes, really weren’t; they were soldiers, kids, the unlucky, the enslaved, and the damned. It was an era of sneers and smiles, a generation of big jackets, magic shoes, and guns so big gods might weep to see them.

They were silly children’s comics, often with a child’s cartooned understanding, yes, but what became highlighted in Revolutionary War, too, is that sense of maturity that came from being outside the slipstream of Superhero Americana. Having superpowers and headlining a title didn’t make you a hero, but killing didn’t make you a bad guy, either. Motormouth tells the kids she’s raising, “Once upon time, there were two happy friends called Motormouth and Killpower… Killpower was brilliant at shooting people and Motormouth had a scream that could explode heads. Your Uncle Killpower had only just been created in a lab by some bad people called Mys-Tech, so he was just a big baby then, really. Isn’t that nice? Plus, Motormouth had magic shoes that could get them out of any trouble. Their evil foes Mys-Tech wanted the sneakers but could never catch them… it was brilliant, hilarious fun.”

She’s telling that fairytale while holding her legs up to her chest, on the floor beside a child’s bed, Killpower dead, everyone wrecked. Their lives, including the children, scarred irrevocably. It’s a bitter scene, and a goofy one. But she’s not whiny about it.

If Revolutionary War let something really shine it’s that these folks were, unlike their normal Marvel counterparts, not whiny. They suffered, they grieved, they laughed, drank, fought and saved, but they weren’t angsty about it.

The Authority

The first twelve issues of The Authority, Warren Ellis, Bryan Hitch, and Laura Martin made sure everything stayed loudly angst-free. While most superhero comics had become melodramatic soaps full of trauma where heroes would spend issues fighting each other in training exercises or over lovers and worry about villains or dangers that rarely presented themselves as anything beatable, the Authority beat up all the villains. The Authority didn’t sweat anything. They just won. And, looked good doing it.

The Authority put a tired old woman in charge and never had her tolerate anyone’s bullshit, and the Engineer - a young, geeky woman - was probably the most powerful person in the room, no matter what room, or who was in it, and she smiled broadly to fly, under her own power, to the Moon, on a mission to save the Earth. The Authority was such an aggressively carefree comic it didn’t even bother to spell out that it was a followup to Ellis’ Stormwatch run (drawn, in small part, by Hitch) that had just ended, featuring all of but two of the Authority team as extra governmental agents. Even readers who knew, or should know better, likely forget that Jenny Sparks, Jack Hawksmoor, Apollo and Midnighter weren’t just always that team, or that Ellis did not actually create Swift, for either title, but inherited the character along with the rest of an overly-large Stormwatch cast he mostly trimmed away immediately.

Stormwatch was about cynicism and consequences. The Authority charged in the face of world powers and even killed God when God was on the wrong side. The finest people in Stormwatch usually lost, but The Authority always won. Stormwatch ended with the death of the best and brightest, but The Authority gave us three women and four men, roughly half of whom had spent significant time homeless, two of which were openly gay at the time, and let them stomp all over ugliness, brutality, and stupidity every single issue. While beloved by fans and, apparently, those in charge of WildStorm at the time, Ellis’ Stormwatch was never a big seller, nor was it much of a critical darling. The best way you could follow on it is to strip it down, make it seem completely new, completely fresh.

Devil By the Deed

Matt Wagner is often an exemplar of what I call total comics. Total comics are comics that are executed at all levels with exceptional care and multilevel synchronicity. line art, colors, words, lettering, characterization, pacing and more come together like perfect cogs and weights in a godly machine. But, it wasn’t always that way.

The Grendel that we saw published in those early Comico issues had some artistic flourishes, and some interesting use of tangents to join shapes, world-building by relating incidental objects in a scene. But, like the story itself, it doesn’t come to a head. Grendel does not finish serializing and when it is revisited as Devil By the Deed, there is a uniform, distinctive sensibility. It is not told, illustrated, or paced in the fashion of any other comic that was coming out at the time. Devil By the Deed was its own thing and it was, and is, total comics.

It’s that meta-story that, I think, becomes more interesting, without ever cutting down the brilliance of the comic itself. This is a comic so good, that goes beyond the good original so exceptionally, it becomes the new standard and the earlier incarnation is virtually forgotten. Of course, it’s meant to do this. That is the goal. It isn’t a sequel or a retelling, it’s “how it really happened.” It’s the truth, while the earlier, unfinished comic is the story. The same characters, same basic story, Devil By the Deed is not a retelling of Grendel or a sequel, but somehow a sequel to the telling. The matter that is being revisited is less the characters or world and more Matt Wagner, human being and comic book author. While Grendel was just a comic, this is the reality of Hunter Rose, and the perfection and the limitations, it is, even, the strengths found and honed in limitations.

1 comment:

Tony Laplume said...

Astute analysis of DK2. Glad there's at least one other reader who appreciates it.

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