Friday, April 25, 2008

Countdown and Death of the New Gods: A fanboy rant

Well, so that's over.

I want to be be clear here as this post begins: Will this post come off as fanboish, and all that fanboyishness implies? Yes.

For readers who are not following the DCU, two years ago DC Comics launched a series entitled "52", a weekly series, each issue encapsulating a week in the life of the DC Universe. While interesting, its not clear that 52 managed to fulfill its goal of giving the reader an eagle's eye view of the DCU and the new status quo following Infinite Crisis.

Selling almost 100,000 copies every week seemed like a pretty significant success for DC, and so they followed with "Countdown".

I have a number of issues with the current administration at DC Comics, but many of them can be boiled down to two points:

1) DC has seemed far more interested in "stories" cooked up as editorial, status-quo-changing ideas rather than as organic tales with a natural arc from point A to point Z. It seems as if Didio and Co. are much more interested in where the characters will end up, rather than how they managed to get there. Which, correct me if I'm wrong, is sort of the point of telling a story.

Instead, DC has determined finishing points for their characters and don't really seem to care whether or not plot points B-Y make any sense, or occur in any particular order. Or, whether its a satisfying read with an engaging narrative arc.

Countdown has not been the only offender.

2) Unable to convince the DC A-list writers and artists to get on-board with this cockamamie scheme, Didio rounded-up a team of writers that never met an idea of Didio's they didn't like. It's my guess that Dini may have plotted the original Countdown story, but it was this team of writers that put words in the character's mouths and came up with the execution of the action. Unfortunately, these were mostly DC's B and C-listers. The guys who seem willing to take on 2nd and 3rd tier books and who are asked not to mess up the character too much until someone else takes over the title in order to boost sales.

In my opinion, the issues you'll see in the rant below trickle out of the above two issues.

The concept behind Countdown was that it would act as the "spine" to the DC Universe, and idea I've always felt was a pretty good idea. A central book which would reflect and define the events of the DC Universe. I now see that idea was not one of my better ones.

The troubles started with the absolutely abysmal cross-over "Amazons Attack!", which was supposed to be a major event, I guess. Unfortunately, it was terribly executed, made no sense, and reflected how little thought had really gone into Wonder Woman by the DC powers that be with the Infinite Crisis re-launch.

Add in the side-events, such as the death of Bart Allen, and Countdown was a colossal trainwreck this year for the DCU. The idea of tying the books together didn't really work. And shouldn't work over the course of a year. At best, that's a one month event editor's should try every year or two. If not less frequently.

Marvel's Civil War may have succeeded far better for one single reason (aside from the writing, and there being a point): Something explicit was happening in the Marvel Universe, so each character had an opportunity to react to it. Countdown chose to be a story of covert happenings and occurrences on other-dimensional versions of the DCU Earth. From the first issue, there was never anything for the characters in the other books to actually react to. Certainly there was no sense that anything was "Counting Down".

One of the funnier things, to me, about the whole Countdown debacle started when I was writing for Comic Fodder. Contributor Jason C. had proposed we write a series of alternating articles, ostensibly about Countdown, but to never actually discuss Countdown in the articles. "Because", he explained, "Countdown isn't about anything." I think I understood at the time, but Jason C. has a PhD, and I do not, and so it was that every few weeks upon closing an issue of Countdown, Jason's words would come back to haunt me.

For a sampling, go here and here of what was to be a year-long meta-joke, that only ran 6 installments.

Structurally, Countdown broke down almost every issue to show you what was going on with some aspect of the "Countdown" story. There was a storyline featuring a rogue Captain Atom as "Monarch", forming a trans-dimensional army to do... something. With a character called Forerunner, who was... supposed to do something...

The "Challengers" were supposedly hopping from Earth-to-Earth across the DC Multiverse in order to find Ray Palmer. There was a mysterious tattoo we were supposed to learn more about, that looked like the symbol of The Atom. The Challengers were made up of Donna Troy (DC's answer to the lifeless student council president), Kyle Rayner (the fifth wheel of the GL Corps), Jason Todd (who should have stayed dead), and a Monitor.

The Monitors were supposed to care about people jumping from world-to-world, but why they cared was never made clear.

Darkseid was up to... something.

For some reason Karate Kid and part o Triplicate Girl from the Levitz/ Giffen era Legion was there. And had Space Herpes.

Jimmy Olsen (one of my favorite characters of the Silver Age) was involved, probably to revitalize Jimmy as a character. Unfortunately, the writers seemed to hate writing Jimmy, and never bothered to give us a reason to like Jimmy or care.

Harley Quinn and Holly Robinson, two characters who've never been that popular in the DCU, were death marched through a nonsensical plot that I'm embarrassed to even describe, and came off as equally grating and useless to the entire Countdown story.

Speaking of useless, Flash villains Trickster and Piper shared a storyline that was supposed to give off the same spark as the movie "The Defiant Ones", but came off more like "Fled".

And, of course, the character self-immolation DC felt was necessary for Mary Marvel, the only non-whiny female teen in the DCU (well, I guess we have Misfit now over in BoP).

A few things:

-It seems that none of these storylines would have been approved by DC as a 6-issue mini-series, so why they were part of DC's YEAR LONG, 52 issue event is a mystery.

-It seems that having a writer who was passionate about any of the stories might have been to the overall story's benefit. Instead, rotating through writers every week... didn't work. I can't shake the feeling the lack of enthusiasm stemmed from the D-list level of characters, and, of course, the fact that the story made no sense.

-Somehow the series lasted 52 episodes, and yet we learned nothing about the characters. How does that even happen? The one character who actually HAD a character story-arc was Mary Marvel, and her awakening was literally magically infused.

-The characters carry a person with a deadly virus all over the place instead of just quarantining them. Plus, if you're familiar with how diseases spread, kids... pretty much the whole JLA/ JSA and the DCU should have been infected as Karate Kid should have been contagious before showing any symptoms. Plus, when, where and how did he get infected?

-The plot was not just all over the map, it was across 52 maps. Not a single storyline had a satisfying conclusion. In no way did the events of the final seven issues or so really tie into the first 40+ issues. Instead, our protagonists just stood around watching events unfold on Apokolips, on Earth-1, on Earth-52 and sort of through the whole series, really. Aside from mindless brawls here and there, did anybody actually DO anything in this series?

-The whole Morticoccus thing was just awful. As was Brother Eye/ OMAC. What was I supposed to get out of that? Where in continuity Kirby's ideas came from? From frikkin' Karate Kid?

Oh, DC. Do you ever write these things down, sleep on it, and look at it in the morning to see if they make sense before you start writing the script? Because it sort of feels like the whole story was the result of cramming for finals on too much coffee and No-Doze.

I'm inclined to believe something pretty major happened at the DC offices somewhere around week 15 when they realized readers were staying away in droves. It can't have helped that writers on other books were having a bear of a time trying to tie back into Countdown in some way, when the story wasn't really much of a story.

Unfortunately, DC was more about saving face with keeping the weekly machine going, rather than actually fixing the problems of Countdown. Or someone grabbing the editor and asking him if he actually asked what the story was before the damn series got started.

To add insult to injury, DC launched several companion series, many of which I began reading, and stuck only with "Death of the New Gods" through to the end. I am sad to say I was not enjoying Steve Gerber's work on Doctor Fate prior to Gerber's death, but after the very straightforward and interesting idea of Kent and Inza Nelson plus helmet was tossed to the side, I'm afraid yet another adaptation of the Fate idea just wasn't working for me. At all. Nor did "Countdown to Adventure", that Lord Havok series, or whatever else they were throwing my way.

In truth, "Death of the New Gods" reminded me why I'm not much of a Jim Starlin fan. Starlin has a reputation for the cosmic, but when simultaneously reading Kirby's original work, side-by-side with this series, Starlin comes up far, far short in understanding the characters, dialog, and energy that Kirby put into the original work.

Like Countdown, Death of the New Gods seemed largely plotless, and the reveal of the murderer wasn't just disappointing, but a smear on the work of Kirby and the many writers who have come after in an attempt to keep Kirby's flame alive.

Countdown could have been easily read and enjoyed without Death of the New Gods, but would have left An early issue or two of Countdown, and Issue 2 of Countdown feeling a bit out of place. Not that the conclusion to Death of the New Gods and the events of Conclusion match up in any satisfying way...

In truth, Countdown and Death of the News Gods each turned out to be enormous disappointments. And the worst part is, because I took a risk, week after week, believing DC had a plan in mind, I was going to get something out of all of this when the story wrapped up. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. Which means I'm out a lot of money for collecting both series.

So what to do now?

DC Universe Zero comes out Wednesday. Is a single issue, and written by Johns and Morrison. And is 50 cents. So I'll pick that up. I'll pick up Final Crisis, mostly because I trust Morrison.

As per DC's next weekly series... I'm picking up the first four issues. I trust writer Kurt Busiek to an extent, but I'd be foolish after this debacle to keep going back to a weekly series and expect that DC had a master plan in mind if its looking like they really don't.

I might swing a bit to the left, but I believe capitalism works. When i used to write at Comic Fodder, i would always encourage readers to "vote with their dollars". In a way, I did vote with my dollar. I voted that I had confidence that DC had a plan, and I wanted to be on board to see what that plan was. So I took an expensive gamble and I lost.

Do I feel like a sucker: I didn't. Not until that page where the new team of The Atom, Donna Troy, Jimmy's insectoid ladyfriend and someone else decided to front with the Monitors, which I totally didn't buy. At that point, I was left wondering where the hell they came to the conclusion that the people who stood by and watched two worlds die were going to (a) hold anyone responsible for stuff that, really, had nothing to do with the Monitors, and (b) how they were going to do something now, when they hadn't done anything before. At that point, I felt like a sucker, because I realized DC had spent the entire Challengers storyline setting me up for a series that sounds very much not up my alley, and I'd give 12 issues before cancellation.

What DC can do for me:

52 left a lot of hanging threads. The Island of Mad Scientists. Lady Styx. Steel. Do wright by these. (And Infinity Inc. is not, by definition, doing anyone any favors).

If you want to do a weekly comic, think about a new format. It doesn't need to be a year-long. Think anthology. Think classic Showcase formatting. I'd read a weekly book featuring c-list characters, especially if I knew storylines were going to wrap up and not last for 52 issues.

Pay attention to what made The Sinestro Corps War story work in Green Lantern and GLC. Note how it didn't have a multitude of mini-series tied in. Note how the story built out of characters and character motivations, and not just "let's make Mary Marvel Evil".

DC does have an aging audience of older readers who have seen it all. The references to older events in Countdown were interesting, but you can't base a storyline around nostalgia for work that is significantly better than what you're putting on the page. Don't remind me you're nowhere near as talented as Jack Kirby by trying to use his ideas, or that you're not even as much fun as the old Superman's Pal comics by referencing Jimmy's many transformations.

Signs indicate that DC has learned many lessons from Countdown. Heck, the latest DC Nation column read something like an apology for Countdown (not yet online).

So I don't count DC down for the count yet.

If you take a look at the line, the Batbooks are the best they've been since I started reading Alan Grant/ Norm Breyfogle and was wowed by Jim Aparo's Dak Knight. The Superman books are in good hands and seem to be headed in a clear direction, with a new continuity that ties in the best of all the eras of Superman. Green Lantern is amazing. Gail Simone is pulling Wonder Woman out of the gutter, and simultaneously talking to previous authors of Wonder Woman about what made the character work for them. Justice Society is a great read every month. And Justice League ain't half-bad, either. Even the formerly luke-warm Legion series is a page-turner. And I really dug the latest Suicide Squad run.

Count me in for Morrison's work on Final Crisis.

It's too bad the "spine" idea didn't work out, but I understand why it couldn't. I just wish it hadn't set me back so much dough.


Simon MacDonald said...

Originally I hated 52 because of the apparently fatalistic story arcs for some of my favourite characters like Booster Gold and the Elongated Man. However, due to the urgings of Tom Katers over at Around Comics I came back to the series and really enjoyed it. All of the story arcs in 52 had a beginning a middle and an end.

Countdown was a mess. Nothing of what happened made any sense to me. None of the characters involved in it seem enhanced or grown in any way. The whole Black Mary thing makes the least sense of all. If she's gone back to being evil why don't the gods just take away her powers?

Plus as we all know from the previews to Final Crisis the effects of the climatic battle at the end of Countdown lasts for all of a month.

Sheesh...what a waste of time.

Michael Corley said...

Well, that makes me feel better. I read some of these and thought "wow, this doesn't make any sense" and assumed that was because I hadn't read what came before or after. Now I know it just didn't make sense.