What comics should Doomsday Clock blame for making superhero comics‘dark or grim’

DC’s Doomsday Clock is pushing the idea that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons Watchmen is the root of all evil by essentially turning superhero comics into dark, grim and gritty comics. In a sense Geoff Johns (the writer and architect of Doomsday Clock) is sort of right as without Watchmen there’d have been less ‘grim’ superhero comics but only because the superhero comics industry follows a trend.

But this version of history is ignoring the fact that ‘grim and gritty’ was by the time of Watchmen’s publication in 1986, very firmly established. Before I explain it’s best to explain what ‘grim and gritty’ actually is. TV Tropes establishes it as…

A Tone Shift that seeks to make a work of fiction more serious, cynical or gritty.

Superhero comics have always had those elements in them from the early days of Superman beating up slum landlords to the JSA hanging around with kids in the 40’s New York ghetto but for most of the time superhero comics were just escapism, especially in the 50s when after the introduction of the Comics Code anything ‘edgy’ in superhero comics were neutered for years. Yet tonal shifts started happening at DC in the 60’s when in response to Marvel’s more neurotic heroes some of their heroes became ‘darker’. Best known of all these is Batman who went from this…

To this..

In the course of the 1960’s.

The idea of making a character ‘darker’ was a simple, sometimes lazy, shorthand for making superheroes more ‘realistic’ and was such a trope in the world of superhero comics that Moore and Gibbons actually satirise it in Watchmen.There’s even a few lines of dialogue from the older characters in the book mentioning about how the younger heroes are more violent, darker, than they were. Problem is that if you only read Watchmen on a single level this will pass you, so if you read it purely as a simple superhero story you won’t notice the different levels. This appears to be the problem with Johns in that he’s not read it, or gets how superhero comics would get ‘gritty’ when they needed to.

The wave of grim and gritty Watchmen was really talking about was the post Frank Miller Daredevil phase.

The impact Frank Miller’s work on Daredevil is somewhat lost today but he took a character who’d artistically soared when the likes of Wally Wood or Gene Colan had drawn the book, but was at best a second rate character clinging onto his own book by their fingernails. Marvel’s then Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter threw an incredibly young Frank Miller onto the title first as artist, then as writer/artist giving Marvel their first real auteur of the 1980’s.

The problem wasn’t Miller’s work which was superb, it was the stuff that tried to be Miller that was on the whole, poor and problematic, as was the work which initially followed Alan Moore’s early American work. Heroes start becoming ‘darker’ in stories where all the creators have taken from the work of Miller and Moore is the violence, and on the whole the work is awful. One exception is Steven Grant and Mike Zeck’s Punisher miniseries which at least tried to do more than just have senseless violence.

And here’s where we get to the point. Johns should be protesting and complaining about but that would mean dissecting his own work, which includes Blackest Night; a story featuring zombie heroes coming back from the dead to do what zombies do.

DC Comics should also turn in on themselves to study their part in creating their own problems with works such as Identity Crisis or the entire failed revamp which was The New 52.The issue with degrading art or going for the lowest possible option often doesn’t lie with the originators but with the copycats who aren’t talented enough or willing, to create something new from inspiring works. Instead they’ll mine certain elements and everyone digs violence and rape right?

DC dug themselves a hole. Doomsday Clock is an attempt to dig themselves out that hole while throwing shite at Moore and Gibbons for having the audacity to create something great that gave DC plaudits and cash, but because DC allowed creators lesser than Moore and Gibbons to turn out lesser material in an attempt to make people think they’re buying something like Watchmen because there’s a hero beating someone’s face off in graphic detail. So when you read Doomsday Clock realise that it’s the act of a company trying desperately to absolve itself of blame and making you excited about it.

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What I thought of Crisis on Earth X

The superhero team-up is getting to be commonplace nowadays with both Marvel and DC films throwing heroes together with a variety of success, but it is to the world of television that we should look for what is by far the best example of how to do a superhero team-up and that is the four-part ‘Arrowverse‘ story, Crisis on Earth X.

One of the reasons the Justice League film failed was it pulled characters from the comics in a pretty generic ”bad guy looks to take over the Earth” storyline. Crisis on Earth X uses an old JLA storyline from 1982 written by Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas called Crisis on Earth Prime as the basic inspiration of the storyline which was given away from their marketing material a few months back. They also take a few things from Grant Morrison and Frank Quitley’s All-Star Superman

As well as elements of Alan Moore’s Superman stories, especially this…

Essentially they dip into the history of DC Comics, nick what they want, adapt it to the storyline and spit out something that works beyond what the limits of telly budgets should do. By using mainly second tier characters (thanks to the restrictions imposed upon them by the film arm of Warner Brothers) the producers have carved themselves a superhero universe unafraid of not just embracing the soap opera elements of serialised superhero comics, but the political aspects that often get buried in superhero comics.

The plot revolves round an alternative Earth where the Nais won WW2, and the Nazi counterparts of Green Arrow and Supergirl, along with Prometheus, Reverse Flash and Metallo along with hordes of disposable Nazi soldiers invade the Earth of our heroes not just to expand the Nazi empire but to steal Supergirl’s heart and place it into Overgirl’s (the Nazi Supergirl) body as she’s dying as she’s soaked up too much solar radiation. The stakes essentially are high so virtually every superhero (along with various sidekicks and partners) in the Arrowverse comes together to fight the Nazi menace. That is a lot of costumed characters!

It should fall apart. It is simply too big for a TV series to do but ambition, along with a nice script that gives everyone their little, or big moment and although there’s some heroes not included in this (Elongated Man, Martian Manhunter and the Arrowverse Superman) this somehow makes a gigantic cast work in 162 minutes of television, as well managing to propel all four series (Supergirl, The Flash, Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow) on in terms of characterisation and plot.

There are faults. There’s a bit too much crawling around in air-shafts in one episode, Supergirl is effectively written out the action for nearly two episodes, and some of the supporting cast vanish after episode one. In the final showdown the ambition overtakes the budget as the effects of an army of super-powered Nazis who happen to have a space/time ship on the civilian population falls down as they couldn’t get the masses of extras. However all the big actions set-pieces still outdo anything the Justice League film did, and matches much of what Marvel splash billions on.

But the positives outweigh the faults. Having Nazis as the baddies is more relevant in 2017 than it was in 1982, and this element of politics of having a diverse squad of heroes made up of of men, women, straight, LGBT, white, black, Muslim, Jewish, Hispanic, etc heroes beat Aryan white supremacists into the ground. In the era of Trump, Brexit and increasing white nationalism across the west it is nice to see Nazis being hit, and hit a lot. Crisis on Earth X works and to think it’s based off a 35 year old comic only people like me remembered makes it deliciously fun. I mean, the sight of The Flash and The Ray (a second tier DC superhero played by Russell Povey who pops up out of nowhere) fighting the Red Tornado will give old DC fanboys like me more fun than we’ve had in ages. Even seeing the Crisis logo is a nice buzz.

Does this wash away the taste of Justice League? yes. Does it give Marvel a few tips? Yes. Does it respect the comic source material and wallow in the fact? Yes. Is Crisis on Earth X perhaps the best example of a superhero team up outwith of the first Avengers film? Yes. This is a joy from the minute it starts to the end with its flaws being weak enough to ignore.and you can sit down and enjoy this as a wonderful letter to the superhero comics of the past as well as showing how to do superheroes in the present.

What I thought of Doomsday Clock #1

There’s a song by Pulp called Bad Cover Version.

How it relates to Geoff Johns and Gary Franks’ Doomsday Clock #1 will become clear very, very soon but first a quick recap as to what Doomsday Clock is. It is the sequel to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons Watchmen. It looks like Watchmen, it has characters from Watchmen in it, and it looks like it in design but every page reminds me of how good Watchmen was and how much of an unpleasant aftertaste Doomsday Clock leaves.

Johns starts this as the world of Watchmen faces imminent nuclear destruction and as he throws out Moore-esque prose but something isn’t quite right. Moore told the story of Watchmen using the world as it may have been in 1985 and restricting himself to a world where costumed heroes were real and one superhero was the most powerful thing in the universe. In Doomsday Clock, Johns throws in 2017 references such as Brexit or the American president playing golf during a crisis (imagine if Moore had chucked in mentions of Thatcher and Reagan to make it really obvious) to spell it out for the reader because Johns doesn’t seem to trust the reader.

Hence the large chunks of Claremont-esque exposition such as above which means the story doesn’t unfold as a mystery (which is one of the many ways one can read Watchmen) but as conventional superheroics influenced by the post-Watchmen/Dark Knight ‘dark’ comics that poured out like a pissy golden stream from 1986 onwards.

This is the odd thing here. Johns has publicly said the entire idea of DC’s Rebirth relaunch is to flush the ‘dark’ comics introduced by Moore and Gibbons away for something more cheery, yet the problem with ‘dark’ superhero comics wasn’t Watchmen, it was from people like Johns trying to be Alan Moore and failing. It was the reams of imitators who read Watchmen and only took the grim stuff and violence (and compared to a book like Punisher or Wolverine it isn’t as violent) out of it and thought that’s what made it so good. It isn’t easy to forget or disconnect from Moore’s vision when this happens.

Rorschach was the most popular character from Watchmen but he’s dead, however fanboys want to see him fight Batman, so he’s back! But not quite.

The obvious candidate is Rorschach’s psychiatrist from Watchmen #6,   but he died in #12, unless of course Johns is going to make him not dead making his small human sacrifice in Watchmen pretty useless and Johns wouldn’t be that on the nose surely?

Oh…

Anyhow, this Rorschach is springing a jailbreak in order to try to find Dr. Manhattan who we assume, will then save the world from the aforementioned nuclear destruction but not before we’ve been treated to a few pages of the sort of stuff Johns seems to think Watchmen was about.

This seems to me to be Johns having his cake and eating it. There’s no real intellectual weight here, and Johns seems to be just throwing in things that makes it all feel Watchmany, but like a saccharine kiss it doesn’t feel true.

By the time we get to Adrian Veidt (complete with cat) acting like Dr. Evil and a brief taster of Clark Kent and Lois Lane in the ‘proper’ DC Universe the idea of Watchmen as a complex, multi-layered book that can be read in many different ways is flushed away for the promise of Ozymandias and Rorschach fighting Batman, and Dr. Manhattan and Superman throwing planets at each other.

There’s a lot of good reviews of this quoting things like ‘it adds to the Watchmen universe‘ but that of course is shite. It didn’t need to have anything else said and if it did then why not try to do something original, new and different rather than be an imitation that’s got it all wrong?  Sure Gary Franks does a good job and as a simple superhero story this isn’t better or worse than many out there however why can’t Johns do some self-reflection and create something that deals with why superhero comics became dark, miserable and the home of ”fin-headed rape” as Warren Ellis once put it? After all in the 21st century he’s played a major part in making superhero comics what he’s now trying to correct and I’d be genuinely interested in seeing Johns test himself as a writer.

Doomsday Clock is not a test. It’s a bad cover version and a last desperate roll of the dice from a company devoid of ideas hoping to cash in on the last big thing it could cash in on. Sure, it may be devoid of an artistic soul and be the equivalent of an own-brand box of cornflakes but it’ll give a core of fans what they’ve fantasised over in some cases for decades.  There isn’t any reason for this comic to exist except to make money and give the impression that DC is still artistically challenging by wrapping itself up in the trappings of what Moore and Gibbons did but like any sad cover version it’ll let you down.

Superman died 25 years ago

1992 was actually a bloody good year. Things were nowhere near as depressing as 2017 but as the Justice League film vaguely entertains people and DC’s piece of Watchmen necrophilia, Doomsday Clock, is due to be released it’s worth looking back at those days 25 years when DC Comics killed off Superman in an event which summed up those times in comics.

Some context; 1992 was a year when comics were still caught up in a massive wave of popularity, and the speculator bubble hadn’t yet spectacularly burst so things that had been building up since comics became noticed by the mainstream in the mid to late 1980’s were now in it’s late capitalism phase. By 1992 Image Comics were a very, very, very large thing with Todd McFarlane’s Spawn proving itself to be simply gigantic in terms of sales which left Marvel and DC trailing in their wake. Marvel decided to pump out mountains of new titles each with variant/gimmick covers (sound familiar?) while DC also did variants, their main tactic was the Big Event and the biggest of the Big Event was the death of Superman. To say DC milked this is an understatement. When Superman #75 was released it came in the standard cover not to mention the bagged edition which came with a Superman black armband.

There was also the scare platinum edition which was exactly the same as the bagged edition but a different colour…

Comic shops were rammed full of people buying the issue just because they thought this was a special issue, but of course us fans knew that it was a gimmick and that Superman would be back. He was back within the year.

The news reports at the time tell the story of a massive possibly profitable comic for collectors and this piece is all about the cash.

And this piece featuring former Marvel editor Jim Shooter and John Byrne hits the nail on the head.

The death of Superman was always a cheap gimmick; probably the cheapest and biggest in an era of cheap gimmicks, but it gave DC enormous publicity, not to mention when the speculator bubble burst, it’d picked up enough readers for it to sail through the worst days of the 90’s in better shape than Marvel who came close to going out of business.

At the time I was working in the industry in Bristol in the vaguely legendary Comics and CD’s on the Gloucester Road, and we had so many copies of this we thought we’d have to eat them. We had boxes upon boxes of them. Some we even had shipped sea-freight (I need to do a blog about how comics were shipped to the UK in detail soon) to us, and we shipped them back to the US where dealers had run out. It was lunacy. In 1993, DC Comics broke Bruce Wayne’s back and gave us a new Batman and the lunacy carried on.

In 1994 the comics bubble finally burst. The speculator boom imploded, comic companies died, shops went bust, and as said even Marvel teetered on the brink yet here we are 25 years on still talking about a cheap gimmick and how the ripples from that event can be seen today.  Last weekend in Kilmarnock I sold a set of the death of Superman that had been lurking for 25 years in a box somewhere because for all the horrible blandness of the comics, they’re still a part of history that’s still ongoing and we have no idea how it’ll end.

Sexual abuse and the comics industry

The Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse scandal continues to unfold to depressingly Savile-like proportions as the scale of sexual abuse in the film industry starts to unfold. The film industry is hardly unique. This is fairly common across most industries I’ve worked in, and I imagine most people have at some point seen something, or worse, been the victim of this sort of abuse. This is also true of the world of comics.

I’ve been in and out the industry since the early 80’s and you don’t hear the stories or rumours until you’re sitting there late at night at conventions when a few beers have opened mouths or just basically as part of the rumour mill all relatively enclosed industries have. So I’ve heard stories such as the one about the shop that shared premises with a pornographer that built a studio upstairs in the shop, or the one about the comic shop owner who would try to groom any young female customers he liked, or a whole load of stories of shop owners and con/mart organisers who were paedophiles and in some cases ended up convicted ones too. I personally saw one dealer at a convention try desperately to pay girls to sleep with him. In this case he was laughed out the convention, but this isn’t a one-off situation as I’ve heard other people doing the same crap over the years.

There’s lots of great wee stories about comic-related people that often verge into something horrible, but sometimes darkly funny. However there’s these stories which swirl round the scene and this is just in the UK but because the UK has such a small industry compared to the US the scale ramps up. Take example the stories that have circulated around Julie Schwartz. Schwartz was the man who shook up DC Comics in the 1960’s and 70’s by pushing what they did kicking and screaming into the modern age.

His position in comics is astonishing but those stories were from more than one person. Then there’s there’s what happened to writer/editor Janelle Asselin who has been a victim of threats and abuse in all her years in comics, especially when she spoke out. As she admits, the industry is a boy’s club…

Asselin also helped break the story about Dark Horse Comics editor Scott Allie, who was accused of assaulting women at conventions which is something that sadly doesn’t shock me one bit.

Things are getting better. More women are getting involved in comics but the old attitudes remain and while the big superhero publishers like Marvel and DC are essentially boy’s clubs this isn’t going away. The point is that when stories like Jimmy Savile or Harvey Weinstein breaks it should be an excuse for industries to be more open about what’s happened in the past and what is happening now, but there’s still a silence about this. Worse, there’s people who are victims being threatened or furthered abused mainly by fans of the person involved or of the publisher as they pile on the accuser.

Now I only know bits and bobs. I’ve not been full time in the industry for two decades, and I’m only sneaking back into it now, but there’s people out there who are allegedly ‘journalists’ who can help by trying to expose what’s going on but far too many of these people have one eye on themselves getting a job higher up the greasy pole, so will play along and help keep silent.

We’re hitting a potential watershed. This might be a chance to put the industry’s house in order and I hope people now come forward to ensure that abusers are exposed, even imprisoned for what they’ve done. It won’t be easy but this is a prime chance to change things and frankly, I don’t think we’ll get a better chance.

DC’s Doomsday Clock shows how DC have ran out of ideas

DC Comics bring out a comic next month where Watchmen becomes part of the mainstream DC Universe. Written by Geoff Johns and drawn by Gary Frank, Doomsday Clock is a 12-issue series telling the story in all its gory detail.

1980’s nostalgia is all the rage, and seeing as DC have mined Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns to an inch of its life, the other other jewel it has left from that era it hasn’t mined is Watchmen. That for years was protected but after the disastrous Before Watchmen anything was on the table, or to be precise, dragging Moore and Gibbons creation kicking and screaming into the DC Universe was the last roll of the dice for DC. I say that because I imagine jobs are riding on this being a hit and having sat in marketing meetings I’m also aware of what it looks like when a company rolls that die for the last chance. Doomsday Clock is that last chance.

This weekend is New York Comic Con, and a preview of the first issue was released. I present it here as sort of evidence for the prosecution. First thing that strikes me is that Gary Frank really is a fine artist. Second thing is that Geoff Johns isn’t the writer he clearly thinks he is. Take this panel for example…

On the surface it seems fine. Except the book is set in the 1992 of Watchmen’s ‘universe’ so terms like ‘undeplorables’ and ‘echo chamber’ are a 21st century term, and one that came into common usage this century respectively. Basically from the off Johns makes the script too on the nose, too unsubtle about what he’s trying to do and we don’t get an idea of the moral and political grey porridge that was Watchmen, but we’re being informed to think in binary. I have no idea how we’re supposed to think about the return of one of the very dead characters from Watchmen.

Actually I do. Rorschach was the big fan-favourite so it makes sense for Johns to bring him back, because you just know he’s going to fight, then team up with Batman.He’s a character who Johns said is the most fun character he’s written. Moore makes it clear just what Rorschach is here…

Everything in these six pages points to a paucity of imagination, a lack of understanding of politics or ideologies beyond that of a typical American liberal, and the fact that as the last roll of the dice for DC, it has to bathe in the nostalgia of the 80’s in such a way it doesn’t give people another Watchmen, but what some people think Watchmen should be which is a superhero story.

Johns isn’t without talent. He can write but rather than forge his own original idea (And as a very, very senior figure in DC he can do whatever he likes) but instead we get this which looks to ignore the main thing that Watchmen was which was a satire/criticism on not just comics as a medium, but the industry. All the subtly dense discussion of humanity, morality and politics replaced by fan-fiction wankery and superheroes punching each other. DC are packaging nostalgia, but they’re not providing anything new, original or giving themselves new titles as good as Watchmen.

And who would create that for DC when they see what they’re doing to Watchmen anyhow?

RIP Len Wein

Writer, editor and comics creator Len Wein has passed away at the age of 69, which is far too soon. He leave behind a massive amount of not just important creations (Swamp Thing with Berni Wrightson and Wolverine with Herb Trimpe and John Romita Snr to name the two big ones) but some truly great comics work. For me, my first exposure to Wein was Justice League of America #100 and this great Nick Cardy cover.

Wein wrote the JLA from this issue to #114, and these remain some of my favourite superhero comics ever not just because they’re enormous fun, but for me, these were the first superhero comics I read that even had a hint of doing something more than just stringing together fight scenes. It remains a vastly underrated run.

His Marvel work in the 70’s helped entertain me massively, especially the joy filled fun that was Marvel Team-Up.

A nice fun run on Amazing Spider-Man,

And a long run on The Incredible Hulk which is where Wolverine first made his début.

It’s worth noting that if Wein hadn’t brought Wolverine into the new X-Men in Giant Size X-Men #1, the revamped X-Men might never have gotten off the ground and failed and Wolverine would be a minor character that once popped up in a few issues of the Hulk’s title.

Instead though, Wein made the masterstroke of sticking Wolverine into the X-Men and unleashed a massive fan-favourite for decades to come.

As an editor he’s responsible for helping Alan Moore and Gave Gibbons Watchmen into the world.

Overall Wein gave comics more than he’s probably appreciated for. Without him DC may never have hired Alan Moore in the first place and all that British talent DC mined from the 80’s to today. Wein changed the mainstream comics industry in the US and UK massively and his passing is a loss. Yes, we can dwell upon shite like Before Watchmen and later work, but let’s not dwell there and choose instead to remember his work for helping kids like me have some entertainment over the decades…