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Friday on the Third Rail

Recent developments in superhero comics and TV reminded me of this conversation from a fan gathering I attended, not too long ago.

I’ve tried to reproduce it to the best of my recollection, but since several of the participants are normally quite erudite and respected I think you’ll understand why I avoided using their names.

*

“Wow. David E. Kelley must have a career death wish.”

“Huh? Why?”

“Wonder Woman, dude, he’s doing the new Wonder Woman. Don’t you pay any attention to the TV news?”

“Not when it’s about Wonder Woman. Hell, I hardly pay attention to who’s writing the actual book.”

“That’s my point!”

“There was a point? I must have missed it.”

“Dude, Wonder Woman is where careers go to die. Anybody who works on that character is lucky to get out with a whole skin.”

Could this expression have something to do with Ms. Palicki fantasizing about firing her agent?-- okay, that was mean.

“What are you talking about?”

“No, he’s right. Wonder Woman is the third rail of comics. No matter how successful you are, Wonder Woman will destroy you.”

“Oh, come on, people have been successful on Wonder Woman.”

“Since 1945? Who?”

“Names!”

“Lynda Carter!”

“Well, obviously George Perez. Phil Jiminez. Uh… Gail Simone… Greg Rucka… ”

“I don’t mean quality. I mean sales. I mean buzz. I mean marquee value.”

“Talking about sales then versus sales now is a false dichotomy. Nothing in comics sells like it used to. It’s all aimed at overweight nerds like us. And we’re dying off. Usually without reproducing.”

“Oh, that’s cold, man.”

“Harsh truths. Face it. When was the last time you had a date?”

Ladies, seriously, would YOU want this man to father your children? (Image by Mike Manley.)

“Well, there was She-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named…”

“That carnivorous plant you used to be married to doesn’t count.”

“Hey, at least I was married! What is with all these cheap shots? Did someone run over your dog?”

“He’s still bitter because of the time that rollerblade chick shut him down in Chula Vista.”

“Never gonna let me live that one down.”

“Nope.”

“No, seriously, though, look at the record. Wonder Woman’s like this albatross DC has to drag around behind them forever. The estate says they have to grind the book out till the end of time or they lose the rights. It should have been canceled years ago. Instead it’s become this sword people fall on. Now it’s at the point where every couple of years someone comes along and says ‘no, no, I can make it work.’ And then they don’t and they get fired, or they flee screaming. Look at this thing with whatshisface, the Babylon 5 guy…”

“Straczynski.”

“Yeah, him. Comes in with the flashy new costume thing and big news splash about how it’s a whole new day and he does what, three issues? Or the other guy, the other TV guy….”

“Heinberg.”

“Yeah, what a train wreck that was. How many years did that story take to come out?”

“I don’t know, because I don’t read Wonder Woman. I told you.”

Not either writer's finest hour.

“But it didn’t kill their careers. Heinberg did a bunch of cool Marvel stuff, he does TV still. And Straczynski had a friggin’ national bestseller of a graphic novel. Why should they stick around and do a monthly slog on a book no one is buying?”

“Wait, I can’t tell. Did he refute your point or make it?”

“You’re all wrong anyway. Wonder Woman still has merchandising, they still put her in movies and cartoons, the book’s ongoing, she’s around. The real third rail of comics is Aquaman.”

He WISHES he had Wonder Woman's success.

“Hey, I like Aquaman!”

“Dude, you’re clearly the only one.”

“Aquaman can be successful…”

“Really? Name a time it sold. Hell, name a time it was a buzz book… name a time it was a fan press darling like the Perez Wonder Woman or Gail’s or Strac– Strik– Babylon 5 guy’s.”

“Uh…”

“I’ll tell you when. It was when he had a cartoon. I was there in ’67 for the Superman-Aquaman Hour and it friggin’ rocked. That show and the Adam West Batman led me to comics but it was the comics from that cartoon that held me. Back then Batman was Gardner Fox and Joe Giella doing these bloodless puzzle things but Aquaman, The Flash, Justice League… those books were cool, they brought me back to the drugstore rack every chance I got.”

My first Aquaman. And my second. Canceled.

My first Aquaman. And my second. Which turned out to be the last one for a while.

“So, 1967. That was, what, Cardy?”

“Cardy and Aparo. Steve Skeates was writing it, I think.”

“And the buzz on it was so great that they canceled it.”

“And nobody’s made it work since. Case closed.”

“Peter David–”

“Peter David wrote it like a blond Sub-Mariner. Grim ‘n’ gritty.”

“No, no, that’s crap, I get so tired of hearing that, it’s just not true. All Peter David did was incorporate the history of the character and fold in his own Atlantis book stuff.”

THIS IS NOT 'Just a blond Sub-Mariner' DAMMIT!

“And again, it was so successful that they canceled it. Seriously, how many reboots of Aquaman have there been?”

“Uh… counting from when? Golden Age, then Silver, then 70′s fake Marvel, then 80′s with the blue suit, then the mini where they undid the blue suit and went back to emo fake Marvel, then Peter David, then Larsen, then Veitch and then… damn it, I know I missed one…”

“More than one. Dan Jurgens took a swing at it in there somewhere.”

“Between emo fake Marvel in the 70s Adventure strip and the Peter David one, there was that one with Shaun McLaughlin.”

The forgotten 1990s book that was actually pretty good.

“Oh yeah. Okay him. And, uh, Sub Diego and Sword of Atlantis and now Brightest Day. How many is that?”

“I lost count.”

“Whatever. The point is, nobody can make the book go.”

“So? It’s not a third rail, it doesn’t end careers or chase people out of comics.”

Pause as all consider this definition.

“Okay, I got it. Here’s your third rail. Following Grant Morrison.”

“What? I don’t get it.”

“Grant Morrison comes on a book and then people try to keep it going afterward. They tank it. The end.”

“Oh, come on.”

“Seriously. Rachel Pollack on Doom Patrol? Chuck Austen on X-Men?”

“Okay, yeah, Doom Patrol, but what about Animal Man? JLA? Peter Milligan and Mark Waid did all right there.”

“They did okay by completely ignoring what Morrison did. Grant Morrison always breaks the toys before he puts them away. He left Animal Man in a place where you literally couldn’t tell stories about Buddy Baker any more that didn’t feel anti-climactic. There was nowhere left to go after he became a self-aware comic character and talked to his own writer. And JLA, same thing, he ended that one with everyone on the damn planet getting superpowers and flying into space to fight the cosmic bad guy. You can’t go anywhere from there either, everything after that is anti-climax almost by definition. It’s a total mess if you’re the new writer. All you can do is reboot, pretend it didn’t happen and start over.”

Where DO you go from here? The repercussions of those events make any further serial storytelling pretty damn hard...

“Okay, so you don’t mean just be the next guy. You mean actually try and follow what he did. That’s true of lots of writers. Why isn’t trying to follow Frank Miller a third rail? Or trying to out-Moore Alan Moore?”

“All right then, just say that trying to follow up on the previous guy’s run is the third rail.”

“Uh-huh. And you know why it is? Because of fans like you that piss and moan about the new guy being sucky, even though the poor bastard never has a chance. He tries something new and you want it like the old guy did it. So he tries to do that and he gets sneered at for not being the old guy. You want it the same, but different. There’s no pleasing you guys. All you want to do is sit around and eat pizza and bitch.”

“What, you have a problem with pizza now?”

“I forgive you for saying that because I know you’re still bitter about–”

“Don’t say it!”

“–rollerblade girl.”

*

I don’t know if we ever did figure out what the third rail really was. Maybe it’s actually just hot girls on roller blades.

See you next week.

16 Comments

from the sound of the conversation the third rail seems to who to some fans which characters need the right team to prove why like wonder woman and aquaman why those two are big guns. plus the conversation seems to think Grant morrision once he gets a hold of a character makes it so toxic for others to play with .

Rachel Pollack’s Doom Patrol run became quite good too once she had started to ignore Grant Morrison’s run and started to make it her own. Then it got canceled which goes to show world (or at least comics fandom) sucks.

I’m still trying to figure out who got shut down by a rollerblade girl in Chula Vista….

A couple of quick comments: DC now owns Wonder Woman outright, so the old story about the Marston estate is no longer valid.

All you need to know about Aquaman is included in this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vLeLbPezMfc

There is nothing I don’t love about this post.

This is officially my favorite post that has ever run on CSBG.

Well done Greg Hatcher, well done.

*slow clap*

Travis Pelkie

April 2, 2011 at 1:43 am

What made me squeal was that I HAVE that Scourge of the Sea Big Little Book. Not sure HOW I got it, but I have it.

Um, yeah, I should talk about the rest of the column, and bypass the “squealing” bit again…

Is it maybe more that Wonder Woman and Aquaman SEEM cooler than they are, and whenever someone backs into the character and tries to get a new take on it, they either run into the fact that “there’s no THERE there” or they just get caught up in how convoluted the mythology is, and can’t make things work?

I wonder what there is in particular about Morrison’s stuff that “breaks” the toys even more than Miller or Moore. But yeah, anyone who follows them really has to come up with a whole new angle. Is it that they tease out all the logical conclusions of the characters?

Another Morrison point — some of his stuff is so cool/weird/whatever that people don’t even TRY to follow up. Most of the Seven Soldiers stuff hasn’t been followed up on, unfortunately. (I want a Morrison/Mahnke Frankenstein ongoing, but that’s a different matter.) Yeah, Zatanna’s got an ongoing, but Morrison did seem to not do to much to her that couldn’t be folded into a new interpretation or easily ignored. Klarion’s appeared a few times since, but the others, not much. Shining Knight and Manhattan Guardian both could be really cool books, if someone could pick them up and run well with them.

Tom Fitzpatrick

April 2, 2011 at 6:00 am

The only way anyone could follow-up on the Morrison/Case’s run on the DOOM PATROL, is if, the original team goes back to the same book for another run.

Simple, eh?

The third rail sounds ominous.

Greg’s heard me say this many times before but here I go again. The only real “problem” with Wonder Woman and Aquaman is that DC steadfastly insists on aiming their series at the “middle-aged overweight fanboy” crowd instead of retailoring them to appeal to their true audience: children. Little girls love Wonder Woman, as anybody knows who had young female relatives during the Lynda Carter era, and the ’60s Aquaman–who rules a magic kingdom, talks to animals and is surrounded by a loving family–remains popular among same when they come to my house and make a beeline for my shelf of Showcases. But no, every DC character must fit their narrow little paradigm lest it disrupt their precious Universe.

I think I’ve figured out what goes on with Wonder Woman, and it took watching fan reaction to the TV show to get it.

The problem is, the character is perhaps forever broken insofar as no one quite knows what to do with her and probably hasn’t since Marston died. Goofy adventure heroine (Kanigher), action adventure heroine (Sekowsky, 60s Diana Prince Wonder Woman), Steihem era feminist icon, Greek version of Thor (Perez) it goes on and on… Even the ’70s TV series went from 40s period comic book kitsch to a 70s spy show with some superhero action. Wonder Woman is less a character and more an amalgam of what people think might make the character work and the ideas keep changing.

But, here’s the thing, what’s worse every fan has their own idea of what Wonder Woman should be like and what’s on screen or in the comics never quite equals the picture fans have in their head of what Wonder Woman should be either. So the character keeps changing but never quite matches up with what fan expectation in their head, because the fan expectation has no consensus on what Wonder Woman should be: uber-feminist, Xena but with red white and blue, action hero, Lynda Carter-more-than-Lynda Carter…

The result is you have two spinning wheels that never quite match up. It happens to an extent with every comic character or popular culture character, but with Wonder Woman the velocity of the spinning on both wheels is even greater.

For the record, my favourite version of Wonder Woman is still the Lynda Carter TV show (both versions). If the new David E Kelley TV show, while vastly different has some of the fun of that I’ll be happy and if Palicki is just as charming as Lynda Carter that’s an even bigger bonus.

The problem with Wonder Woman, Aquaman, etc, isn’t just that the audience is overweight middle-aged men, it’s that the books themselves, almost all of them, have NO audience anymore. The majority of these readers don’t seem to want to read anymore, they want to see their old stories recycled and retold and reflected again and again. Whether it’s a reboot, an Ultimate line, Elseworlds, new cartoon, tv show or film, each character seems to have a steadfast recognizable continuity that needs to be either retold or at least acknowledged, even if it goes off into another direction.

That doesn’t mean that it can’t be good (Ultimate Spider-Man), but more often than not it ends up a mish-mosh of random crap (Smallville). The biggest problem with this is that books like Wonder Woman and Aquaman have either jettisoned or mutated everything that made those properties recognizable over the past half-century. All you’re left with are a few villains and characteristics (i.e. invisible plane, talking to fish) that don’t impress anyone.

Starting completely fresh (or as fresh as you can get with established superhero properties) is the only way to go. More animated series for children probably works for both WW and AQ.

As the blog’s resident PADdict, I feel compelled to point out that Aquaman sold well all through his run, and didn’t tank until after he left. It was Jurgens’s Aquaman DC cancelled.

1. Wonder Woman is one of the hardest comic book characters to write, let alone write well. That said, I have a pitch…!

2. McLaughlin Aquaman is my favorite Aquaman. Coincidentally, it was my first Aquaman. I’m sure David’s is fine– I’ve read a few of the early issues, and they’re perfectly solid comics– but it’s a little too far afield of the previous Aqua-stuff, and a little similar to Namor, c’mon. I won’t be buying the upcoming Geoff Johns run. (That said, I have a pitch…!)

3. It is possible to follow Grant Morrison, it’s just that no one can apparently be arsed to try. He finally managed to make X-Men comics readable, and they immediately jettisoned 90% of what he accomplished with the title. The Seven Soldiers stuff has mostly been ignored– look how fast they made Guardian a white guy again. I just don’t get it.

4. Revamp fatigue is what happens when characters like Wonder Woman and Aquaman get “bold new directions!” every time a new writer or artist comes up to bat, because that’s the only way to make them sell in the short term. No long-term solution has been found, so the revamps come faster and more furious, yielding diminished returns each time. The trick is finding a subgenre that perpetually works. Batman is a versatile character, but his main milieu is weird crime action/mystery stuff. Superman’s subgenre is sci-fi romance/adventure. Green Lantern lends itself well to space adventure. Wonder Woman and Aquaman haven’t found boxes they can neatly fit into yet– though personally, I think Aquaman is perfect for fantasy adventure, and Wonder Woman can work well with– no foolin’– anthropological action and adventure. It is, after all, about “man’s world.” Also, monsters.

Gasp! Choke! Thanks, guys! In defense of that series, it sold great, then it sold crappy, then it was selling well again when it was canceled for editorial reasons. I’ve talked about that stuff elsewhere. I was forced, FORCED I tell you, into the coal mines of television.

But one never knows, do one?

Ok, that was funny. Since the post was just bait for readers to behave like the characters being satirized in the comment section, I am going to weigh in on Aquaman and Wonder Woman.

First, I know a fairly large number of people who love both characters. Not one of those people could find a comic shop on a bet, but they exist. The problem is less with either character than marketing them to the faithful 300 thousand. It wouldn’t shock me if Adrianne Palicki had a longer run playing the character on TV than any comic creator aside from Marston. I’d wager an Aquaman show would do fine targeted at the surfer-stoner demographic rather than the geek one.

Second, the thing that all three of “third rails” have in common is that none of them really have an ur-text that stands on its own. Say what you want about the Lee-Kirby and Lee-Ditko Marvels, but they provide a universal touchstone. The same is true of Frank Miller’s eighties work Batman. Grant Morrison tells stories that depend to some degree upon a meta-textual knowledge of the history of the property that he is writing. Marston commands less fidelity than any Golden Age creator. Aquaman has radically different Golden and Silver Age versions without a clear point of demarkation between them. Both have adaptations that loom large over their comic incarnations, but really do not hold up especially well.

In other words, working on any of those properties means satisfying expectations that exist primarily in the mind of each individual consumer. Pretty difficult.

Third, I would love to see a list of “emerging third rails”. It seems like properties get progressively more difficult with each muddled mantle passing and botched revamp.

“They did okay by completely ignoring what Morrison did.

Waid may not have paid a whole lot of lip service to specific points in Grant’s run, but he didn’t ignore it. Same League, same character dynamics established in Morrison’s run, etc.

It is possible to follow Grant Morrison, it’s just that no one can apparently be arsed to try. He finally managed to make X-Men comics readable, and they immediately jettisoned 90% of what he accomplished with the title

Yeah. They could’ve easily kept things going in the New X-Men manner once the school was rebuilt. I mean, Chuck Austen’s two New X-Men issues didn’t fail because Grant’s such a hard act to follow…

OK, Hatcher, did that conversation really happen or did you just make it up to show your points about comics and their fans?

In any case, it was entertaining. :) Here’s my opinion on some of the points:

-I keep hearing that comics are written “for the aging comic geek fandom” (to which I proudly belong.) If that is true, however, why are comics today filled with such utterly juvenile stuff as graphic violence, stripper-like costumes, etc? I’m convinced it’s the opposite- mainly in DC Comics’ part, but definitely present in other companies- they’re trying to sell the comics to the sex-and-violence hungry college-age crowd, with everybody else second, if considered at all. Books aimed at younger (or more intellectual) fans come across often as more like token efforts than any sincere programs. Oh they will CLAIM they are taking everybody in consideration, but it’s PR BS. Even when they manage to put out a good book without such elements, if it doesn’t sell enough they’ll either, add the cheap stuff, or cancel it and then kill off the characters ignominiously as if it were all *their* fault (see: (Kid) Flash, The (second) Atom.)

-There isn’t a SINGLE character that cannot be made a success if the right writer is found for it. If they had told me back in the 70s that SWAMP THING, for example, was going to become one of DC’s biggest hits for a while, I’d have laughed. Same for SANDMAN, STARMAN, etc. But let’s face it- these things are trial-and-error, and characters like Aquaman can have a dozen remakes and still ‘not work’. That’s life, folks , and not just in comics. Maybe Aquaman will be the biggest character in 10 years and we all will look like idiots for having doubted it. Reed has a point, though, in that trying one reinvention after another rarely works; it just makes the company look desperate.

“It is possible to follow Grant Morrison, it’s just that no one can apparently be arsed to try. He finally managed to make X-Men comics readable, and they immediately jettisoned 90% of what he accomplished with the title.”

If that is considered “readable”, I don’t want to see what the rest of the X-crement looks like. That stuff was wretched.

*******

RE: WW and Aquaman:

The real problem is these two characters are steeped in proper classic mythology as mythic heroes, where as pretty much the rest of the DCU is a modernized Superscience Hero. Clark and J’onn are aliens, as is the technology of the GL Corps. Batman is the epitomy of the science hero, training his mind and body to be the ultimate weapon against crime and having all kinds of tech toys. Same with Green Arrow and Arsenal and Red Robin and Oracle and Huntress and the like – they’re all pushing the limits of the human ability and/or working with technological gadgetry of some sort. Flash’s speed powers are based in quantam forces. Steel is basically Armored Hero who idolizes Superman. Superboy from the Teen Titans is a clone – science based hero. Cyborg is obviously a science hero. And so on.

But Diana’s enitre existence is grounded in magic and Greek Mythology, and Arthur is Atlantean, which has its own links to Greek Mythos. Thus they stand separately from the rest of the DCU Pantheon. And it’s hard to take that mythos and place it within postmodern times. Only when the writers focus away from the “standard superhero fare” and take it to that place of mythological power, as Perez’s run on Wonder Woman (and Greg Rucka’s for a time as well), does it make logical sense, but even then it’s removed far enough that it doesn’t necessarily appeal to the regular readership of Big Bad Boys And Their Techno-Toys. You almost have to have an appreciation for classical literature and mythology to get into Wonder Woman or Aquaman, and frankly, each passing generation has less and less interest in anything to do with literature, including the writers involved with their books.

Now, is there a way to bring Diana and Arthur up to current times while holding on to their roots? *shrugs* I think there is, but I don’t see DC making any headway in that direction any time soon, and even if someone ‘figured it out’, it would still be hard going for the general readership to notice and support, sadly.

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