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Friday on Oa

I get a lot of mileage writing these columns by thinking about what I have been reading during the week that’s new, and pondering all the changes I have seen in mainstream superhero comics since I was young, and tracing the arc from then until the new thing I’m reading now.

This week I was reading about Green Lantern, so as you may well imagine, there are a LOT of changes to talk about.

The trigger was the three ‘Sleeper’ novels by Christopher Priest (with Mike Baron and Michael Ahn co-authoring the first two with him.) These were part of the mostly-good series of DC and Marvel superhero books from iBooks that were packaged by the late Byron Preiss.

Kyle Rayner, fan pinata.

On paper, this seems like a fun idea for a trilogy; each book focuses on a different Green Lantern, fighting a menace that reappears throughout the years to bedevil Alan Scott, Kyle Rayner, and finally Hal Jordan and John Stewart and Guy Gardner, who end up doing battle with a possessed Justice League. And mostly it IS a fun idea. So what’s the problem?

Continuity.

Which is to say, the obsessive fan-oriented continuity that has come to dominate the superhero mainstream. There is so much history, so much clutter and BS surrounding the actual plot where Priest and his co-authors are forced to recap and footnote and explain — well, they’re NOT forced to do it, but I’ll get to that — that in the end it really cripples the thing.

Now, it’s not really the fault of the authors. They do the best they can and mostly, the first two books work all right. I don’t have the giant mad-on for Kyle Rayner that many GL fans seem to and Baron and Priest have a great handle on him and his relationship with Jade; as well as the uncomfortable awkwardness Kyle has with Alan Scott, there’s an understated “Meet The Parents” vibe between the two that is great fun.

The second book was an interesting departure, since it wasn’t a strict continuation of the first part of the trilogy, but rather is set largely in the early years of Alan Scott’s Golden Age heyday.

Alan Scott, father figure.

That one’s mostly a good time too. There’s some continuity stuff that bogs down the first two books, but really, it’s the third one where it all falls apart.

To begin with, let’s look at this cover.

Hal Jordan. Classic. At least on the cover.

Okay. That’s Hal Jordan in the classic GL outfit, in a classic GL pose, flying around in the classic GL setting, outer space. One could be forgiven for thinking you are going to get a classic GL story. After all, the Alan story was told mostly in flashback and set in the 40’s.

Except, no, this story is set in the ‘present day,’ which happened to be during that really ill-advised era when Hal Jordan was the Spectre. So Priest has to somehow write a Hal Jordan Green Lantern novel starring the Spectre. The fact that he pulls it off at ALL is something of a miracle, but my Gawd he has to really twist the story into a knot to make it happen.

I am trying to keep this spoiler-free, so I won’t get TOO into it, but long story short, Priest has to de-power Hal from being the Spectre, make him mortal, get him a power ring, put him in a situation where he can TEMPORARILY be Green Lantern again, team up with the other Green Lanterns to beat the bad guy, and then go back to being the Spectre.

The part of the book where Hal is Green Lantern and fighting the good fight is a lot of fun and written with great verve. The downside is that it takes most of the front half of the book to set all that up. By the time I got there, I was too busy being irritated at the superhuman effort Priest was making to preserve our precious “continuity” to enjoy the ride.

Because, really, why bother? Who cares? For crying out loud, these are NOVELS, the story’s not even in the regular monthly comic. Where, by the way, Hal is Green Lantern again anyway.

Let me stress, again, that I really don’t blame Christopher Priest. He did the best he could to make a silk purse out of the sow’s ear that was handed to him in terms of Hal Jordan’s then-current situation.

No, I blame the fans that DC was trying to mollify with all the name-checking and referencing and recapping and footnoting and so on. For Christ’s sake, give it a REST already. I ask again — who cares about all this? Who is it that goes over these stories with a microscope checking them for ‘mistakes’?

Sorry, folks… it’s us. We created this monster and now we have to live with it.

Don’t even start with me about how it was necessary to explain this or that point before putting Hal Jordan in a Green Lantern story with Alan Scott and Kyle Rayner and Guy Gardner. Because the same fans that would have allegedly screamed bloody murder over that have had NO PROBLEM reconciling ‘regular’ Marvel and ‘Ultimate’ Marvel. They’ve managed to cope with Brian Singer’s version of the X-Men and Joss Whedon’s and Fox Kids’ and whoever it was that did X-Men Evolution. They’ve done just fine accepting God knows how many iterations of Batman and Superman and Spider-Man without freaking out. It simply was not necessary to bog down these books with a lot of obsessive-compulsive pseudohistory. But Priest did it anyway, because — I assume — he felt he had to. Whether it was because an editor ordered him to, or it was part of the licensing agreement with DC, or even if he was just trying to anticipate his nerd audience, I don’t know. But the fact remains that it’s there, a great big undigestible lump of summarizing and recapping in the middle of what’s supposed to be a grand adventure, and it really hurts what was otherwise a fun idea. And it’s ONLY there because fans have made such a fetish of it for the last couple of decades.

Why? When did this get to be such a big goddamn deal that we had to spend page after page of story establishing and clarifying and otherwise taking up perfectly good space with a history lecture? For crying out loud, I know fans who demand comics writers work harder at reconciling superhero history than they ever did themselves on a REAL history midterm.

Look, let’s clear this up before the comments section catches fire — yes, I understand that stories and characters need to be consistent. I’m okay with that. But there is ‘consistent’ and then there is ‘scary obsessive.’ I think all of you out there reading this know the difference and if you don’t then you need to get out more.

Continuity as comics fans understand the concept, which is to say, documenting the fictional history of the world in which your story is set — you guys, it started as a lark. It’s just for fun. Done right, it can be an entertaining game, like the pseudo-scholarship of the Baker Street Irregulars or the Wold Newton fans or the novels of Gregory Maguire.

Because I knew somebody would wonder who Gregory Maguire was.

But in comics, any more, it’s almost never done right, and certainly not for FUN. Instead it’s become deadly serious, this horrible ball-and-chain that we’ve all somehow agreed stories have to drag around behind them. It’s what leads to exercises in obsession like Green Lantern: Rebirth or the original Crisis. It’s reached the point where it’s what stories apparently have to be ABOUT for us to accept them.

Except they don’t.

Really, they don’t.

I refer you to All-Star Superman, New Frontier, the Ultimate line of comics, the DC animated shows from the Bruce Timm era… there are all kinds of fan-favorite projects out there where the creators said, essentially, “You know what? Screw the continuity geeks. No one will care if I reference all the crap that came before it or not. Let’s just do something good. We’ll use what worked and toss the rest overboard.”

You ARE all aware that the DC universe as we know it today started exactly that way in the late 50’s with Julius Schwartz, right? “Hey, let’s do superheroes again. We’ll do the Flash but it’ll be a new version.”

By all means, let fans track the fictional history of superheroes, let them index and argue and postulate and explain all they want. It’s what fans do. It can even be fun, in a goofy, giant-nerd kind of way.

But for God’s sake, can we quit demanding that creators do the same? Because when we make them obsess over it, it’s just not fun at all.

See you next week.

30 Comments

Speaking of All-Star Superman, have you read #4? It’s a great done-in-one story. I’ve thought about the monster that is continuity recently and it really pushes creators into a corner like you said. It’s harder and harder for writers to just write good goddamn stories when they feel they have to include references to a characters entire history.

Amen, brother. I have a love-hate thing going with continuity, and the hate mostly comes when I look at either Donna Troy or Hawkman.

Apparently, comics fans reached into Christopher Priest’s poor defenseless mind and forced him to write a bad story, or write an ill-conceived story badly. You admit you have no idea whether the story was conceived due to editorial mandate, or a licensing conflict of some sort, or Priest’s own decision to try and anticipate potential criticism. But somehow, it’s still our fault the book was bad. Bad fan! Bad! No comics for you! I’m ashamed of comics fans for making Christopher Priest into a bad writer! Because, for some reason, writing something poorly can’t actually be the writer’s fault.

You seem to be having an argument with an imaginary “us” — all comics fans collectively, all of us obsessing over the tiniest minutiae of continuity and screaming bloody murder when comic books fail to observe strict adherence to some all-important chronology — when that collective “us” doesn’t include you, it doesn’t include me, and it doesn’t include anyone I see posting here or on the dozen or so other comics blogs and web forums in my RSS feed. You even name a number of comics that fans adore which have nothing to do with any grand scheme of “continuity”…and yet still, you insist “we” are all to blame for bad comics and books produced by Marvel and DC because we supposedly demand slavish obedience to that false god. Except, apparently, when we don’t.

Is it possible that writers who come along and say “I urgently need to do a miniseries to explain why Dr. Light acted this way in one story and acted differently in another story thirty years ago” might be responsible for his own decisions? Because I don’t remember signing any petitions demanding that story be told. And I know for a fact that I did not make Christopher Priest a bad writer. He got that way without my help, honest!

I’m pretty sure editorial mandates forced that…I seem to remember him commenting on how difficult it was to make it work on his blog awhile back, but I haven’t visited the site in awhile.

And Priest isn’t a bad writer…he’s done a fair share of decent stuff (Deadpool, Falcon), not great, but decent.

I think that now the blog is hosted on CBR, it has a much wider audience now, too, abd these articles are more useful, because they reach more of the hardcore fans. Just because you’re preacing to the choir, doesn’t mean the message isn’t important.

only…. i doubt that there would be as much freakout and charm about seeing reiterations of minor, rarely used, or one shot characters in new “alt” works if continuity werent somewhat high up on the list. you guys spend as much time bitching about how people behave over random aspects of comicdom as those fans do actually being annoying about it. really? here you are complaining about how all this is supposed to be fun, but you are also sapping the fun out of reading comics day in and day out with snide columns like this, or taking every second you can to look down on the general products of Marvel or DC. i didnt really notice this until recently, when after i would read some of the things i bought i took a look at how you guys reviewed them or what you had to say for the week. it seemed i had fun reading some of the stuff and doing just what you suggest: letting go and just enjoying myself. after taking a poke around here, though, the shine on my week lost a little luster.

does all that sound a bit bitchy? maybe. but im just trying to give you the same advice you spend so much time pounding out: LET GO AND RELAX. jeeez. sometimes you are great. sometimes you bring us all down.

I dunno. It seems silly to preface an opinion column with the disclaimer that ‘it’s just my opinion.’ But what I keep coming back to is this — over the last thirty years there has been a pretty clear transition for mainstream superhero comics from a wide, general-audience entertainment medium to a narrow, specialty, aficionados-only kind of a form, run by hardcore fans for hardcore fans.

I think putting out work that has great hunks of it there for no other reason than to placate your hardcore-fan audience — whether that hardcore group is out there reading the book or working above you in editorial — but either way, putting that stuff there as opposed to entertaining a more general audience, probably is going to hurt the work. I don’t think it’s a great leap to suggest that it hurts comics too, or to make the point that when creators QUIT worrying about that sort of thing, we get better stories and it doesn’t seem to hurt sales nearly as much as people think it might if they don’t demonstrate their facility with ‘continuity.’

Sorry if that’s a downer, but, you know, marketing to that specialty mindset seems to be where Marvel and DC are right now. We don’t publish the stuff, we just comment on it.

One good thing I can say about Frank Miller’s DK2 is that he wanted to use Barry Allen and Captain Marvel and by God he did it.

RAB: …and yet still, you insist “we” are all to blame for bad comics and books produced by Marvel and DC because we supposedly demand slavish obedience to that false god.

Well, somebody’s buying Geoff Johns comics…

Greg, don’t let ‘em get you down. Your column has quickly become one of my favorite things on this here internets.

K: but you are also sapping the fun out of reading comics day in and day out with snide columns like this, or taking every second you can to look down on the general products of Marvel or DC.

Well, the name at the top says “Comics Should Be Good.” And considering 90% of everything is probably crap, I’m sure it can’t be helped when someone here stumbled upon a crappy comic. Considering Marvel and DC publish a helluva lot, then they must therefore publish a helluva lot of crap.

I’m not saying comics can’t be fun. Sure they can. But bad comics are not fun. Unless they’re “so bad they’re good” comics, but you don’t see a lot of those around anymore.

Exhibit One: Infinite Crisis. If fans didn’t obsess so much over continuity, no one would have bought it. I assume part of the “fun” of Infinite Crisis and its myriad spin-offs is trying to reconcile the continuity. I try to avoid that, but it seems like a lot of people enjoyed doing it. So I think that even if Greg is preaching to the choir, it’s still something that needs to be said every once in a while.

i guess my case in point is this:

http://the-isb.blogspot.com/

i read HIS blog, and he can take a comic (lame or not) and seem to enjoy the hell out of it. sure, most of his reviews are old ones but every once in a while he will talk about a recent one that tickled him. the point is, despite the hyperbole (itself being hyperbolic its so bad) he manages to find a lot of fun and amusement and doesnt often whip out complaints about continutity or such. when he does its sometimes a one or two second aside, and sometimes an excuse to say something smarmy but amusing.

as compared to a lot of what ive read HERE of late, where it just tends to fall flat. sometimes the article doesnt even truly seem to talk about a comic but instead falls to complaining in the same way, about the same stuff, every time. saying something once in a while may be okay, but quit being so negative about it. so godawfully negative. it reminds me of the nerds that stand down on the “indie” side of the comic shop and try to look down on everyone else as if they are somehow better. nevermind that they are standing in a comic shop and the second they set foot out that door, all they are is another utter dork.

as i said, sometimes you guys are good. sometimes you guys just seem to be miserable. comic BLOGS should be good, too. and when the writers HERE seem to quit caring about actually paying attention to that and fall back to mostly complaining (easy, cheap writing) then i feel it needs to be pointed out too.

so challenge: FOR A SOLID WEEK why dont you only write about issues that have made you happy. im not saying you cant point out some flaws in the works, otherwise you wouldnt be reviewing, but running PR. just pick some of the things that you have found to be worthwhile and point them out. after all this seems to be the premise of the blog to begin with. as opposed to only picking out the things that are horrible. and EXTRA challenge if you can actually dig up some stuff from the big two that you think deserve praise and tell us why. i keep seeing asides to some books in places (like Manhunter for example, or Thing) simply saying “this is good, please read it so it doesnt get cancelled” with NO FURTHER EXPLANATION WHY. and you know what? i look at those books and have zero interest in them. so stuff like that on the net doesnt really do much to help encourage me to read them.

i realise that it IS fairly common that you guys do point out good stuff. but i see more bad on here than not. so just spend a week. see if just one writer focusing on the good doesnt make it makes a better blog.

“why isn’t the media focused on the GOOD news coming out of iraq?”

Bill, that “Geoff Johns” cheap shot directed toward RAB was really unnecessary. I totally get RAB’s point and I’m not exactly a continuity-obsessed Geoff Johns fanboy myself.

Hatcher undermines his own argument about blaming the fans for Priest’s obsessive-compulsive continuity writing by citing all the examples of how fans are willing to accept out-of-continuity alternate universes. If he himself admits that fans can accept a bunch of different versions of X-men, Spider-Man, Bruce Timm cartoons, Ultimate comics, etc., how can he then come to the conclusion that they’re too close-minded to accept works that buck continuity? If anything, the fault lies with the editors and comic writers who, despite having evidence that fans will buy good work even if it’s outside continuity, still feel the need to obsess over continuity anyway. Christopher Priest writes confusing, continuity obsessed work because he’s a confusing, continuity-obsessed writer, not because the fans made him that way. Quesada and Jemas created a continuity-bucking and cutting-edge alternate Universe because they are continuity-bucking and cutting edge comic executives.

Fans have proven their flexibility. If Didio, Priest and Johns can’t match that flexibility, it’s their own fault.

K-

Why isn’t their room for both? Does everything have to be an agreeable lovefest? There are plenty of positive reviews here, and when there is criticism here it’s constructive and fully explained. I like the blog you pointed out but I like what these guys do too. I don’t think they should accept ANY challenge to be more “positive” and sunshiney. Personally I’d never even make such a demand on a blog to change their style to what I as an individual think is superior, it’s kind of audacious and holier-than-thou. I’d just quit reading said blog.

“why isn’t the media focused on the GOOD news coming out of iraq?”

because they hate America.

From what I understand, the problem with Priest book is less obsession with continuity as much as a real bad editorial call, that decide they need to do a Hal Jordan book using the current status quo around the time. I can see how one might think this is the same thing, but it isn’t. This has more to do with lack of editorial vision (by an editor that is probably to obsessed with continuity, I guess). Even if they really believe that those books should take place in the usual Green Lantern continuity, I think it’s pretty obvious that the only way to do one centered in Hal Jordan would be to set it in the past, by starting with Hal/Spectre they obviously shot themselves in the foot from the beginning.

T, im not saying they have to be sunshiney. im saying that lately, they have slipped into a droning litany on why they think comic nerds are ruining comics. and franky, id like to see if its even POSSIBLE for them to let go of that for a single week.

K: nevermind that they are standing in a comic shop and the second they set foot out that door, all they are is another utter dork.

If reading comics is so horrible that you feel it puts an unbearable social stigma upon you, don’t read them, then.

T: Bill, that “Geoff Johns” cheap shot directed toward RAB was really unnecessary.

Of course it was. Still true, though.

Is my beret showing?

If reading comics is so horrible that you feel it puts an unbearable social stigma upon you, don’t read them, then.

I’m not even in agreement with K, but I just want to point out that you totally missed his point. He didn’t say they put an unbearable social stigma on him. He said that no matter how superior comic elitists may act for not purchasing certain comics, they should get over themselves in the eyes of the noncomics fan they’re all equally geeky, whether they’re reading Grant Morrison or Geoff Johns.

the word “because” should appear after “themselves” in the last comment.

Mister Intensity

June 24, 2006 at 8:15 pm

I wouldn’t put in Bruce Timm’s shows as an example of “screw the continuity geeks” since he pretty much gave in to them towards the end of Justice League Season One.

“Dear Lost, I just saw Boston Legal last night. It was very good. I think you should do something like that. You have become too much about a bunch of people on an island. So, for a week, I’d like you to try to be a legal comedy/drama.”

Forgive me, but I’m a little confused.

The location of Dr. Watson’s war injury is a trivial bit of continuity; it doesn’t impact any of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Obsessing over that kind of thing is a bit odd.

Hal Jordan as the Spectre is a major character development that has tremendous impact on stories. Why shouldn’t fans and creators take serious notice? Why does this rate as “scary obsessive” and not needed consistency? What would be considered needed consistency, if not this?

“Dear Lost, I just saw Boston Legal last night. It was very good. I think you should do something like that. You have become too much about a bunch of people on an island. So, for a week, I’d like you to try to be a legal comedy/drama.”

Exactly. I’ll never understand how people can get upset with critics for criticizing. That’s the whole point.

It’s not that weird, really. If you don’t like to read about people criticizing comic books, then that’s cool by me.

You’re just not gonna like this site, then. That’s all. Which isn’t a big deal or anything. It isn’t going to be everyone’s cuppa tea.

Filipe’s got a really good point here, and I concede it freely:

“From what I understand, the problem with Priest book is less obsession with continuity as much as a real bad editorial call, that decide they need to do a Hal Jordan book using the current status quo around the time. I can see how one might think this is the same thing, but it isn’t. This has more to do with lack of editorial vision (by an editor that is probably too obsessed with continuity, I guess). Even if they really believe that those books should take place in the usual Green Lantern continuity, I think it’s pretty obvious that the only way to do one centered in Hal Jordan would be to set it in the past, by starting with Hal/Spectre they obviously shot themselves in the foot from the beginning.”

But a difference that doesn’t MAKE a difference doesn’t really count, you know?

It’s not a question of snootiness. I own and enjoy lots of mainstream Marvel and DC books, I’m probably the biggest Marvel and DC devotee that writes for the blog. I had no problem keeping up with the story as published and I enjoyed the first two books okay. That’s not the point.

The point was that I was baffled at WHY the third book was done that way. It doesn’t make good economic sense. It’s certainly not snobbery to make the judgement that they shouldn’t be writing for guys like me, particularly in a NOVEL meant to reach a mass audience in a BOOKSTORE. This is a great opportunity to just tell a straight-ahead adventure story and introduce new readers to the world and the characters, and the decision was made to NOT do that, to instead do one so thoroughly bogged down in DCU lore that the story practically got buried.

So Filipe’s got a good point. He’s bird-dogged the genuine complaint, except I have to think that the reasoning behind that decision has something to do with placating a fan market that they are worried about losing. Why else do it? Who’s a continuity-obsessed story for, if NOT the hardcore fans? And all the OTHER continuity-driven stories out there? Who are THOSE for?

I really do think Marvel and DC are producing superhero books that are largely by and for a hardcore fan market, and that it has reached the point where it undercuts the entertainment value of telling a story in the first place. Now you tell me, if that’s not an effort to appease a hardcore base than what the hell IS it? How do you get to a place where that’s what your main business is if it’s NOT selling?

It’s all very well for readers here to grumble that “I’M not one of those guys, Greg, don’t bitch at ME about it.” But that’s missing the point. I AM one of those guys, I’m steeped in the history of superhero comics, I have an embarrassing amount of trivia I carry around in my head. But I’m not the audience they should be going after, because that hurts the story.

So if you’re NOT one of those folks demanding that your hardcore fan needs be catered to, good on you, you’re not the problem. But those fans must be out there, because A) they keep doing books like that and B) those books must sell or they would stop doing them, you know?

“T, im not saying they have to be sunshiney. im saying that lately, they have slipped into a droning litany on why they think comic nerds are ruining comics. and frankly, id like to see if its even POSSIBLE for them to let go of that for a single week.”

I don’t think it’s everybody. I think it’s mostly me. I fear for what superheroes from the big two are turning into, and the way that comics by-fans-for-fans has insured they are becoming actively hostile to ever opening up a new audience. I’m the one that’s always snarking off about that. The other guys all blame Geoff Johns.

But you are on. I only do one a week anyway, but for you, this coming Friday, I will talk about new work from Geoff Johns I like a lot.

Well, not JUST for you. My wife thinks I’m getting a bit too crabby lately in the column too. It’s very possible. Crabby is my natural condition. NOT being crabby takes a little effort.

We need to have a blog-o-sphere wide crossover event to bring back the light-hearted Greg Hatcher. That should quell any blog reader’s complaints and be the first step in creating a blogiverse that will appease old and new readers alike.

continuity is killing comics

Greg:

I don’t think the fans demand that the continuity be there, per se.

I think there is a serious disconnect between what the publishers think readers want, and what the reading audience (not comics fans – the READING AUDIENCE) wants.

The reading audience – be it for comics, novels, what have you – wants a self-contained story that isn’t always brand name (be it character property or creator), that is priced affordably and is a one-time purchase. Readers are sick of media tie ins, sick of never ending sagas or book after book featuring the same character(s) by the same author (What – don’t you know how to write anything else, Author X?). They want something “new”* to their experience that they can’t find anywhere else.

* (“New” being subjective to that person, of course.)

And sadly, none of the mainstream entertainment industries – be it film, tv, book publishers or the comics industry – seemingly want to provide that.

Hence, the inevitable jadedness and disdain for all of it.

Sad, but true.

Even sadder, is the fact that there is so much good stuff out there, and that the reading audience can’t find it – oft times we don’t even know it exists. Some of the reason for that in part because we’ve been bombarded with so much crap from the mainstream media, that we’ve programmed ourselves to tune it all out.

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