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.

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