Blast from the Past: Virtual World News

Came across myself on Long Story, Short Pier this evening, and now have a nostalgia for the days when I got to write all day and blog much more often. I can’t promise I’ll become a more frequent blogger, but I can get off my ass and import my archived back posts — I’ll do that soon. In the meantime, the least I can do is get Kip Manley the post he’s been looking for.

Originally published: Mon, 26 Sep 2005. I publish this with apologies to Geoff Johns: this conversation speaks more to a malaise my brother and I shared at the time than to his work, which I actually like a lot.

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Not just for MMOGs anymore.

Was having a conversation with my little brother a while ago, and we came upon comics writer Geoff Johns as a topic. Both of us buy a fair share of his work (he writes a lot of books). We buy them faithfully, but often do so with the lack of a familiar passion, and we found ourselves asking why.

Anyone who has bought comics regularly knows the sense of inertia that keeps one purchasing a book in which one has lost almost all interest. You hold out hope that a new creative team will improve things, or else you just aren’t proactive enough about removing comics from your subscription list. But Johns’ work doesn’t fit into that category: we choose to buy his comics, and read them with interest. I’ve actually dropped his JSA before, just to pick it up again. They’re perfectly readable comics.

But there’s a sense of aesthetics, of pleasure (or, sometimes, of provocative displeasure), that drives most of our comics purchases. A sense that the authorial voice here is a distinct signal. But this is a different experience, strangely becoming more common: engaging with a comic not for its creative voice but for its neutral voicelessness.

We noodled on this for a few minutes, until Adam said, “I don’t know, it’s kind of like reading a newspaper. It’s not like the newspaper is inspiring, but you need to read it to see what happens.”

Which is exactly it. These comics don’t introduce any noise to the signal of the DC Universe. But they transmit it faithfully. Virtual world journalism, reporting the news of the DC Universe as it evolves.

Academic Review of DC One Million

In 2005, I got a nice email from a university journal asking for a review for a forthcoming edition on comics. I wrote a review, and it was officially accepted into the journal and all that. I never heard anything further after that, and now have learned in 2008 that it was never actually published. (Does that happen often?) (Is there an emoticon for a sigh and shrug?)

So, without further ado, the review I wrote on DC One Million.

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Morrison, Grant (writer), Val Semeiks (penciller), Prentiss Rollins (inker), Carla Feeny (colorist), John Costanza (letterer), et al. DC One Million (Trade Paperback Collection of DC One Million 1-4, Green Lantern 1,000,000, Starman 1,000,000, JLA 1,000,000, Resurrection Man 1,000,000, and Superman: Man of Tomorrow 1,000,000). New York: DC Comics, Inc. 1999. ISBN: 1-56389-525-0.

Near the end of DC One Million, Superman is preparing to leave the year 85,271 to return to his home in our time. He tells his descendant, the Superman of the 853rd century, that hed rather defer a meeting with the futures Superman Prime, who happens to be himself, now millennia old. As our Superman takes his leave of the future and its Supermen, his descendant says, Theres only one Superman (201).

This exchange, amazing yet reasonable in context, is a testament to the ability of superhero comics as a genre to contain the fantastic and situate it as part of everyday physics, but is also a by-product of the emergent complexity of Superman as a character and icon. At the moment you read this, Superman, created in 1938, is nearly seventy years old; and, Superman is, as always, a young professional in Metropolis. Umberto Eco posited that Superman was a mythological figure, outside of time, and a figure of romance, subject to the vicissitudes of causality, at once. This paradox can be stated in more material terms: Superman participates each month in ongoing dramatic adventures, and Superman carries stable cultural meanings as a symbol within contemporary global capitalism. As a character and brand at once, his ontology is in perpetual conflict, his world a battleground between contradictory impulses to both novelty and stasis.

We can complicate this world still further by noticing that Superman and Batman coexist in the same imagined space. Their mutually troubled chronotopes engage in persistent serial dialogue with one another, and with those of Wonder Woman and all the other heroes published by DC Comics, Inc. Their shared fiction is a conglomeration of marketable properties which presents itself in the form of a large-scale serial narrative. This structure, referred to by its owners, producers-for-hire, and audience as the DC Universe, must maintain enough dynamism to keep its readers buying periodicals, while at the same time maintaining loyalty to its real purpose: a stable for licensable cross-media intellectual property.

The mechanisms of this balancing act are too manifold and intricate to discuss completely here. They include practices of willful selective causality, fragmentation, and oneiric history, with names like retroactive continuity, Elseworlds, and, importantly here, alternate futures. The fiction of the DC Universe cannot have a real future or endpoint: an ending, in this ecology, is not a resolution of patterns of action and conflict, but rather the foreclosing of market potential. Instead of an ending, the universe generates speculative futures, imaginary projections ahead in time, that allow the parameters or conflicts of the universe at the present moment to play out. These speculative futures allow progress in the narrative without the bother of actual change: they allow the reader a resolution that the real fiction will never be allowed to provide.

One such alternate future is presented in DC One Million, a crossover event taken on by several of DCs serials in 1998. One Million takes as its premise the fact that the various comics published by DC, if allowed to continue, will reach their one millionth issues sometime around 85,271. Through the convention of time travel, the DC heroes of that time the Justice Legion A, consisting of implausibly direct descendants of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and other familiar heroes are able to travel to 1998, and our Justice League of America is given the opportunity to change places with them. A concurrent plot generated by the immortal villain Vandal Savage and the tyrant sun Solaris leads to a conflict across the eons, which keeps all the DC heroes busy for a couple of months.

One Million is partially a discrete story and partially a corporate directive: a coordinated event involving the work of dozens of DCs artists and writers for hire, but with core concepts created by Grant Morrison, who with Val Semeiks and Prentiss Rollins generated the four-issue miniseries in which the main story events occur. Morrisons work stands out for considering the DC Universes structure from a critical perspective (Craft 142), and in One Million he presents a vision of the future that, as an extrapolation, highlights the unspoken paradoxes of the DC Universe as an ecology for intellectual property more than it does the rules of cause and effect that ostensibly govern the universe as a serial fiction. One of the members of the Justice League asks logically, What are the chances of an identical JLA arising hundreds of centuries from now? (7); the degree of similarity between this future of the DC Universe and its present seems a stretch even within the loose reality of superheroes, and yet, given the real rules of the DC Universe Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman must maintain the iconicity, the brand equity, that makes them viable in a market it makes perfect sense that, within the parameters of this corporate fiction, the year 85,271 will bring us more of the same Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.

By then placing our icons in direct dialogue with their bizarre and yet entirely contiguous far-flung future, Morrison brings the ironies of alternate futures in this system to light not only to the audience but, in typical Morrison fashion, to the characters themselves. Morrison often brings to superheroes a level of awareness of their own fictionality, and when Batman protests, Im trying hard to find my free will in all of this (201), or Aquaman asks, Is this the real future or another of those possible futures? (34-36), they seem as much jaded about the practices of their fiction as flummoxed by the existential challenges of time travel.

As Morrison spins futures, presents and pasts in simultaneity and lends characters a sneaking suspicion of their own status as fictions and products, he takes advantage of the fact that this fiction is constructed in comics, a semiotic system that, in its juxtaposition of image and text, reveals the contingency of both, and allows an impressive range of representational play. At the end of One Million, our ageless Superman Prime has embedded the past within the future, recreating the Krypton of his birth within a tesseract, a fold in space that presents itself to the world of the 853rd century as a flat window to somewhere else a window very much like a comics panel. As Superman steps into the panel of the past while the heroes of the future watch, he turns and winks. In the transition, a layer is collapsed, and we are dramatically placed at the same point of perspective as the audience of the future: we gaze into the tesseract/panel, and inhabit a moment of complexity and ambiguity where past, present, and future dramatically coexist. Later, in a retelling of the moment, Green Lantern muses, Some things you cant put into words, man (204).

Works Cited

Craft, Jason. Fiction Networks: The Emergence of Proprietary, Persistent, Large-Scale Popular Fictions. Diss. University of Texas at Austin, 2004.

Eco, Umberto. “The Myth of Superman.” The Role of the Reader. 1962. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979. 107-24.

Teaching and Learning with Fanfic

Catcher in the Rye Cover

In Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins analyzes the practices and contexts of young people writing Harry Potter fanfic, and makes an argument that fanfic communities provide opportunities for situated learning (an extension of arguments Jim Gee makes in What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy). This made me want to find out if anyone is actually implementing fan fiction writing as part of a curriculum.

This article gives a good overview of the practice and its potentials. The scholar cited in the article, Rebecca W. Black, outlines the really cool connections between fanfic practices and best practices in literacy instruction in her own article, although at the end she issues the disclaimer:

In presenting these brief examples, it is not my intent to hold this writing community up as a pedagogical model that we, as teachers, should aspire to. Nor am I suggesting that fanfiction should be incorporated into classrooms as part of the curriculum, in fact, I am certain that importing fanfiction into schools would detract from its appeal for many fans.

This took the wind out of my sails somewhat. I can certainly see the logic in the “in school == toxic lameness” argument; I remember when we had to listen to “relevant rock” during 12th grade literature class, and that pretty much ruined Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” for me. But surely that was more an issue of presentation than of substance? Surely there are ways to allow students to practice fanfic without ruining their fandom?

It’s interesting to think about the Venn diagram that covers popular culture fandom and fan fiction production, the overlaps and gaps. Certainly fan fiction practices tend to coalesce around contemporary popular narratives, but Harry Potter isn’t the only narrative with devoted fans, and I’m always very interested by the more fringe-y fanfic satellites out there. To wit: Catcher in the Rye fanfic, evidence that interventionary engagement with a narrative can happen with old-school assigned reading, just as it can with the shiny fun stuff.

A lot of the descriptions on the Catcher fanfic index state that the given story began as an English assignment and turned into fanfic because the assignment went well. So there you go — maybe you just need to invert the practice a little, and the kids will be all right.

Infinite Crisis and the Narrowcasting of Superman

This decision in favor of Jerry Siegel’s family is a thrilling and weird thing… Superman isn’t entirely controlled by his corporate owners any more. That frightens some people. There are some pretty fascinating message board threads that side with Time Warner/DC fairly unilaterally: who are these creator people, to insult Mother Corporation?

It’s a good time for an official shake-up, I think. Superman is in an interesting place. The Scottish Superman is the best Superman storytelling in years… actually, I can’t think of better. And Superman in mainstream continuity is, well… weird these days.

There are lots of Supermen these days. There’s “our” Superman, who is supposed to be canonical, but he’s kind of second-string these days, subordinate to the collective, the many Supermen who are deployed to satisfy various publics and demographics. With him, there’s the aforementioned Scottish Superman; Ultraman, the criminal Superman; haunted older Superman from Kingdom Come (who is the best looking Superman, in my opinion). There was an older future Superman who looked a lot like the haunted older Superman; he was also haunted, but I think he was different. There’s the original Superman, from Action Comics #1, who made a to-do about how superheroes these days (including “our” Superman) were terrible pale reproductions of older, better superheroes; he was beaten to death by a Superboy that indulges in a very personal fascist fantasy of the past (imagine a twisted Pleasantville) and slaughters people. Seriously.

The last two Supermen, along with “ours,” co-starred in a thing called Infinite Crisis. In the dissertation I talk about how “Crises” in DC Comics are opportunities for iterations and revisions of the ongoing comics narrative to engage in dialogue with each other. These dialogues form a metanarrative, an embedded commentary on how the narrative and its characters are unfolding. As you can imagine, the particular metanarrative of Infinite Crisis is pretty juicy.

If Superman is the American dream — the dream of immigration and urbanism; the figure of world-changing American strength, judiciously and justly applied; our country’s folklore as consumer brand — what happens to Superman when the dream is in trouble? When many of us struggle with the thought that our country is, intentionally or not, representing nightmarish things, both to ourselves and to the world? When our strength is badly applied, to the misery of others and ourselves? When our myth of ourselves is dysfunctional and fragmentary, with our leadership and media badly spackling over our disillusion and generating sad, incompetent propaganda? What happens to one of the most powerful advertisements of our national culture at that time?

This is the implicit story of Infinite Crisis — the story of Superman falling apart, breaking apart. His American story is one that cannot cohere. His conservative meanings — truth, justice, and the American Way — are outdated ideals (original Superman), beaten to death by a figure that manipulates those meanings towards oppression and horror (homicidal Superboy). It’s a narrative born of a culture watching cultural memes of the Greatest Generation being mobilized to justify Abu Ghraib. “Our” Superman stood around a lot and watched it happen. He managed to win the fight at the end, of course, because a psychotic Superboy beating his progenitor to death and getting away with it is a pretty terrible superhero story.

Infinite Crisis was a couple of years ago (I’m a slow blogger), and while there have been some great Superman stories since then, none have represented a moment where “our” Superman — or any other — has symbolically declared, “I am canonical.” Superman is narrowcast now. We all can pick the one we like and run with him. And that’s cool: in some ways, it works better. But I can’t help but be sad for “our” Superman, the canonical figure we used to all agree on, now something of a placeholder, holding a spot for a common understanding of cultural ideals and fantasies that no longer exists.

Blogging Countdown: 5

Ryan, you know it’s totally OK to like Countdown: no one’s judging you, really. I’m warming to it, I guess. I like that blue lady from Earth-34, which is I guess where X-Men villains from 1995 live in this new multiverse.

Well, this has been a big week, and a surprisingly good one to talk about fanboys, something of an idee fixe of your musings last week. Wally West and family got pulled back home from Speed Heaven; the Legion of Super-Heroes is all up in modern-day DC business again; it’s a good time to have been reading this stuff for an unhealthy length of time, or to have a love of Wikipedia.

“Fanboys” are kind of a constructed constituency, though, aren’t they? I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone who self-identifies as one; “fanboy” is the Other, the emblem of habits and behaviors within comics fandom that we may find undesirable.

Specifically, you quite nicely situated “fanboy” as a figure of insularity, echo-chambering, preferring signal over noise:

What I would throw out there is that there’s always a huge risk when editors and writers are the comic fans themselves who’ve crossed a line and are fanboys writing fan fiction rather that acting as custodians of the DCU’s mega narrative.

In this argument, “fanboy writing” is understood as the practice of writing superheroes for self-pleasure rather than for the pleasure of a larger audience. I, comic book writer, tend to Green Lantern in certain ways out of a strong feeling of cathexis for him, and that is my prime mover, rather the pleasures of any imagined neutral audience, or the long-term health of Green Lantern as a character that speaks to the culture at large. “Fanboy” in this case is a motive, or a practice, rather than identity: the practice of privileging an internal dialogue — superhero fans talking to themselves about superheroes, fictions referencing themselves rather than worlds or ideas outside.

If this is the case, I would argue that, in the case of the DC Universe, we haven’t just crossed the line: we’ve left it far, far behind. That isn’t always a bad thing. From the reverent nostalgia that has become the modus operandi of Justice Society and Justice League (take a drink every time you read the word “tradition” in those babies), to the systemic self-analysis we’re seeing in Countdown, most of the best-selling stuff in the DC Universe is very embedded in the universe’s own mechanisms and history. Navel-gazing is currently a selling point, and as you’ve noted, the complexity it generates is pretty tractable.

I personally don’t think the fan-driven culture of superhero comics needs to beat itself up too much about its own fannishness. If “fanboy” is a signifier for myopia and echo-chambering, which it seems to be, then it’s all over the place, from Ocean’s 13 to the PlayStation 3. The fact that comic book fans are so self-reflective about their self-reflection actually seems quite responsible.

I’m going to turn on a dime here, though, and admit that the current fanboyish pleasures of the DC Universe are, for me, guilty ones. This complex self-reflection is fascinating to me as material for research, but if the superhero as a figure is more than a really awesome vehicle for complex self-referentiality — if it is, as most people agree, a vehicle for understanding conflict, ethics, and social ideals in popular culture — then DC is currently being lapped big time by a Marvel Universe generating very culturally provocative stuff in Civil War and beyond. It’s because of this that I find Black Adam really fascinating…

… but that’s a topic for next time. I’m headed to the beach, as you know, so I’ll cut this particular missive short and save up my hot air for the beach house.

Best,
Jason

Blogging Countdown: 3

Hey Ryan,

You’re right, this is a lot of work and we should probably consider replacing this at some point with the LOLSuperPets concept I kept trying to sell you. I’m guessing I’ll be ready by mid-July. But until then…

I want to start with this from your last post:

To some extent, this notion of managed continuity can be applied to comics, as it’s invariably the mistakes and oddities that most often draw reader attention to the process of the comic’s creation rather than simply accepting the narrative at face value.

Yes, yes, yes, and I would argue that this is not at all bad. You compare the “mistakes and oddities” to the transparency of television and film, and you’re right to note that the Superman mythos feels a lot more like sausage-making than Scorsese does. We see the process of editorial in superhero comics, we interact with it; we know who Dan Didio is, and many fans have an opinion of the job he is doing (me, all I know is that his name has a lovely cadence).

Comics are an open form, and that’s not necessarily because current management is falling down on the job… times were that having Stan and Jack appear in Fantastic Four was an added reason to buy the book. Matthew Pustz does a good job of explaining how the twin communities of comics producers and comics fans interacted over the years and ended up producing a medium that is as much about producer-consumer dialogue as anything else.

Whether it’s representing creators directly within a comics fiction, or just wacky “imaginary stories”, I’ll simply say that I don’t think comics continuity is any more broken than it’s ever been — if anything, fandom brings a more critical eye to a more carefully-managed continuity than it ever has before — and that comics gave up any interest in seamlessness or transparency a long time ago.

On the contrary, the fictional universes of superhero comics exist in a state of awareness with their own processes of production: they wear their mechanics on their sleeves. Other fictions have existed in a similar way: it’s called metafiction, and you can see it in Tristram Shandy, or If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, or Adaptation.

But it’s different in superhero comics: metafiction is something different and clever in novels, or film, or television. In the DC Universe, it’s standard operating procedure, the way things are. We expect comics to show their means of production and revision: to answer your question, yes, continuity is definitely part of the story.

In fact, in Countdown, it is the story: I’ll lay all my cards on the table (early) and let you know that, in comparison to the consistently frenetic and, in my opinion, deliciously well-executed 52, I think this story is pretty much a yawner so far. The pacing is drab, the characters say things like “What does it mean for the universe… when a GOD DIES?” without a whiff of Morrisonian self-consciousness… God.

But that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop buying Countdown. It’s important, good, and desirable when comic books are well-executed and aesthetically pleasing, but for me that’s not necessarily a requirement, and deep down (take a hard look, it’s therapeutic) I suspect it may not always be for you either.

What’s important is that there is progress in history, that something is happening in this large-scale serial form, this “universe” or “multiverse,” that is new and consequent. In a form in which the main characters must stay the same over time — despite his variations across dimensions, “Superman” as a canonical figure will not age or die, and we both realize that — the drama, the rising action and progress of the comics universe, the cause and effect, is not so much character-based as world-based. I would argue that the main “character” of the fiction we are following is the fiction itself, its continually-evolving set of parameters and boundaries.

And that, in the end, is (I think) the best gambit for superhero comics as a form. Fandom worries a lot about new readers and easy accessibility to comics mythos, but the “new readership” for Batman is just fine: they’re watching Batman Begins. Take a look at Marvel’s investor relations page: count how many times comics are specifically referenced. It may be fewer than you think.

We are not reading the publications of comics companies: we are reading the publications of cross-media licensors who deploy their characters to blockbuster movies, TV shows, video games, and also comics. In this ecology, comics are in most cases a product for adult afficionados with enough disposable income to not blink at the $3.00 price of a color pamphlet: afficionados who have been with the form long enough, and care enough, to find the complex unfoldings of the fiction compelling.

The differentiator, the thing that the comics universe provides that the TV show, video game, DVD does not is the sense of being connected to something large, complex, and laden with history. Something through which fans can engage in this messy, communal negotiation of a fictional space, the negotiation that we call “continuity.” Given this, the fact that comics sales are eroding without actually plummeting actually seems fairly successful within a larger corporate strategy.

I’ll leave it at that for now… I missed some of your questions, but I figure we’ll get there soon, when we start actually talking about the comic! That’s going to happen next time, I promise. And here’s what will make it stick: I want to talk about everyone’s new favorite ambiguous postcolonial superbaddie, Black Adam. First word that pops into your head… go.

Best,
Jason

Blogging Countdown: 1

Hey Ryan,

Welcome to the chat, and here’s to some fun conversation about Countdown, which is at the present moment what you’ve called DC Comics’ “spine of continuity”: a central, 52-week comics event and core narrative from which the corporation’s serial superhero comics will synchronize themselves for the duration. Countdown is carrying on the “Love Boat” format of its predecessor 52, with multiple independent storylines unfolding in the same periodical, but in the case of Countdown these multiple storylines do seem to point to one core conflict: as we learned in 52, the DC multiverse has been once again reconfigured; what we understand as “continuity” has been once again revised; this is going to cause some interesting troubles for all fictitious parties involved.

Our conversation about Countdown will inevitably spend some time talking about what it means to have a “multiverse,” what continuity is, and why it is. With that in mind, I’m going to start with a digression, beg your forgiveness, and promise that we’ll talk about the actual comic book very soon. Before we talk about Countdown, though, I want to talk for a bit about this continuity thing that is its central topic. I’d argue that “continuity” is often to comics fans what pornography was to SCOTUS Justice Potter Stewart: they know it when they see it, but sometimes the intrinsic definition is tough to come by. I’ll offer two definitions: one appealing to the conventional wisdom, and one appealing to my contrary nature.

1.) Continuity is narrative consistency. You’ve talked in the past about readerly expectations of continuity as consistency, and I think there’s a lot of truth to that: we’re all reading a story that unfolds regularly, and we expect it to make some sense, and for the actions that happen within that story to have consequence. Continuity emerges from the desire of readers that this narrative work honestly as narrative, that cause generates effect and a follows b in a way that doesn’t too badly insult one’s suspension of disbelief. But I’m going to present yang to your yin and argue for

2.) Continuity (forgive me, I’m a recovering academic) is a contingent social contract enforcing a retroactive continuous narrative on a structure that is essentially discontinuous. Superman is somewhere between 28 and 32 years old, and will always be so. Oh, and Superman is 75 years old and fought the Nazis. The consistency we can rightly expect with conventional serial fiction becomes a problem when your main characters must maintain a level of stasis across generations in order to sell blockbuster movies, roller coasters, and grocery staples.

Marvel solves that problem by fudging it, by quietly resetting the clock at regular intervals and being fairly vague about when Professor X and Magneto actually met. DC, on the other hand, actively manages continuity: the Nazi-fighting Superman lived on another planet, and died last year. As of fairly recently, the current Superman is kind of an extension of that handsome kid on Smallvile… ish… and is between 28 and 32. Like the 108 minutes in Lost, the clock of plausibility for this current understanding of how Superman makes sense is now ticking.

Full disclosure: I believe DC a.) fully realizes the implications of definition #2; b.) has evolved this management to a point where the pleasure of watching continuity being actively managed through fiction is a primary — if not the primary — reason to follow the DC Universe; c.) understands Countdown as just a part of an ongoing process of selling the foregrounded and mythologized management of DC continuity, for fun and profit, indefinitely.

I’ll leave it at that and throw it your way. Does this sound at all plausible? Is continuity an achievable consistency, a postmodern groundlessness, or something in-between? And, regardless, why the heck is DC selling continuity management to its readership as a year-long event, and why do we buy it?

Best, Jason

Blogging Countdown: About

I’m trying something new… co-worker and fellow comics nut Ryan and I are getting a blogged critical conversation going. DC’s current event Countdown starts us out, and we’ll follow it as it unfolds over the year. But I imagine we’ll end up on many other topics as well (I’ve already started flying outwards).

I’ll publish my salvos here: they’ll get reprinted along with Ryan’s able responses at Comicfodder. Ryan’s a much more disciplined blogger than I and has been building a nice body of stuff there.