Friday, December 04, 2009

Geoff Johns Under Consideration

I’ve been reading a lot of Geoff Johns comics over the past few months. At this point, I’ve gotten through the first six volumes of his Teen Titans run, the first two volumes of his recent Superman run and the first four volumes of his Green Lantern, with the Sinestro Corps War waiting next. The success of Blackest Night has brought John even more to the fore of comics discussion than ever before, and has also started a fairly serious backlash against him and his work.

Blackest Night, which quite literally resurrects barely living DC characters in the service of a gory, over the top nostalgic, but violent superhero epic seems to embody all the characteristics that critics of his work point to as his weakness. I haven’t read the work, I’ll check it out once I catch up to that point in his Green Lantern run, but let must just address some of the general criticisms surrounding the series.

One is the incompatibility of superheroes and the dark, violent subject matter of Blackest Night, previous Johns works like Infinite Crisis, or even Morrison’s Final Crisis. I think Morrison’s strong reputation within the critical community makes critics take a moment like Talky Tawnie battling an evil cat soldier of Darkseid of Final Crisis and embrace it as an encapsulation of the absurd joy of the DCU, as filtered through their own perception of Morrison as a cool writer who isn’t bound by nostalgia. Johns scripting the same moment would likely be criticized for dragging a ‘children’s character’ through the dirt and grime of realistic, or over the top, violence.

I think that’s a valid criticism, I love DCU stuff, but sometimes I’ll look at a serious scene consisting of a bunch of people in outrĂ© costumes standing around and it feels off. The goal of the writer should to wrap you up in the world of the story so that you accept it, but then I’ll be like why is there a woman with green fire popping out of her head here? It’s goofy, and when played poorly, superhero comics can feel like the adolescent males power fantasies of personal empowerment and scantily clad beautiful women that critics claim them to be.

And, I think the reason that Johns is so often criticized for his work is that unlike virtually all the other big names out there, he’s never done a significant creator owned work. Because Morrison does works like The Invisibles or We3, we realize that his whole world isn’t the DCU, and the superhero work is just one of his many interests. But, Morrison never denigrates the superhero work that he does, and it’s just as thematically central to his overall worldview as his creator owned stuff. But, other creators, like Warren Ellis or Garth Ennis, make a big deal of only doing superhero work as a way to promote their more serious work, to pay the bills. That means that even if Ellis uses the same characters and situations as Johns, there’s an inherent ironic distance to the work, we know he’s not being totally emotionally sincere or invested in the work, and so we’re not either and can appreciate it as “just a bit of fun.”

But, Johns is fully invested, he’s crafted a series of large scale epics in the DCU, and personally overseen the rebirth of a wide variety of characters. And, I think more notably, he’s created a very personal, auteur feeling body of work over the course of his time there. Johns has carved out of his own corner of the DCU in the same way that Morrison did, and it’s exciting to read all his titles as part of one continuum, to recognize the way that Infinite Crisis played out in Teen Titans, or seeing the way that stories from 52 led into his Superman stuff.

There’s people who like stories to be short and self contained, who view a season long box set of a TV show as a burden to be slogged through, rather than a joy to watch unfold. I love massive stories, and the DCU is one of the longest running single stories in the history of the human race at this point. I’m seeing Johns reference stuff that I read in Showcase Presents Legion of Superheroes in his Superman stuff, and that’s exciting. But, Geoff has also carved out his own corner of the universe, telling one long story over the course of his DC work. Geoff’s work all links together, and that makes it a much more rewarding experience than if he’d just written a bunch of disparate stories.

I think one of the core fallacies of art criticism in general is the idea that the most personal stories are the ones set in the real world, with characters who resemble the author, and events obviously drawn from real life. ‘Realism’ is synonymous with emotional authenticity, but I don’t think that a verite approach is necessarily the best way to represent our emotional experience of the world. If you look at someone going through a breakup or other traumatic event, it’s not the outside that’s interesting to watch, it’s what’s going on internally. And, genre, particularly over the top superhero epics, can be a great way to represent traumatic emotions in a dynamic way.

Grant Morrison talked about doing this with All Star Superman, using it as a way to process his own feelings about getting older and processing the death of his father. Is that your immediate take away from the book? No, but it’s that grounding of real emotion and experience that makes the book work and feel real in a way that most Superman stories don’t. I think that’s the best way to do genre stories, to infuse them with something real and then spin that real emotion into something wild and exciting.

I think it’s a mistake to assume that just because Johns is writing with other peoples’ characters, his stories aren’t personal. There’s a consistent set of themes, and worldview, set up throughout his work, a belief in strong, self dependent heroes who will stand up to corrupt authorities and reassert a strong morality that seems to have been lost in society. People accuse his work of being nostalgic, but I don’t think it’s necessarily nostalgic for another era of comics, it’s nostalgia for another era of heroism. For all the violence of his comics, Johns is essentially reaching back to a pre-Alan Moore era of DC, when heroes were heroes unambiguously.

This desire is represented in two characters, Superboy Prime and Hal Jordan. In Infinite Crisis, Superboy Prime is railing about exactly the stuff I was talking about earlier, that desire to return to a more pure era of heroism. Johns presents him as the voice of DC readers, but based on his work, he’s the voice of Johns himself. It’s just that Superboy Prime is a corrupted character, he doesn’t have what it takes to be a hero, and that failure corrupts him into the insane character we see at the end of Infinite Crisis. He’s not meant to be a hero, therefore he has to become a villain.

Hal Jordan, on the other hand, is meant to be a hero, that is his destiny, so Johns configures an elaborate scenario with Parallax as a way to absolve Jordan and return him to his rightful place as the force of will that drives the DCU. Jordan has done things as terrible as Superboy Prime, but that wasn’t his true self, and when he’s returned to life, he feels like a person out of time, a hero in a world that’s grown corrupted and weak. So, he shines as a beacon to the other heroes, and thanks to the way Johns writes him, is continually able to flaunt the rules and still maintain his favored status, because he’s just that good.

What separates Jordan from Superboy Prime? It seems to be the ability to overcome fear via willpower. Superboy Prime is corrupted because he doesn’t have the inner strength, Jordan has that strength and it makes him a hero. But, they’re both essentially reaching for the same thing. All of Johns’s stories take place against a backdrop of legacies, of heroes struggling to live up to the legends that came before them.

His Teen Titans depicts a new generation of heroes trying to live up to the storied reputation of their predecessors, and by extension, you could argue it’s Johns trying to live up to the legacy of Perez and Wolfman. He’s playing the same riffs, and continually referencing those old stories, seemingly as a way to show that this new generation of heroes can do their own version of Terra or Trigon just as well as the original.

Teen Titans is in some ways his most forward thinking work. His recent Superman run feels very conservative, a deliberate evocation of the iconography and setup of the Donner films. Admittedly, All Star Superman uses a similar classic setup and works, but reading “Last Son,” it felt very run of the mill, very much back to basics in a boring way. I liked that I knew what was going on, but on some level, I feel like it’s a testament against the strength of a comic if you can pick it up and find nothing at all surprising in the status quo or approach, no change.

But, Teen Titans did a good job of building a new set of characters and letting them grow and change over the course of the run. And I think it’s a perfect example of the way that a crossover should work. Crossovers have gotten such a bad reputation because they’re overused, and generally disrupt plans for a title rather than enhance them. But, seeing Teen Titans link into the overall Infinite Crisis gives the story so much more scope. The entire fifth trade has a sense of apocalypse hanging over it, an imminent doom that is hitting these characters very hard. Because the series doesn’t have to carry the primary narrative strain, it can focus on the characters, and the Connor/Cassie stuff there was fantastic, a great culmination of their relationship. It’s a story that couldn’t have been executed as well if it wasn’t part of the Infinite Crisis crossover.

And the reason that it integrated so well is that it’s all part of the Geoff Johns corner of the DCU. Morrison has his own pet characters, Rucka has his, and Johns most definitely does. And, within the world he’s carved out, there are very specific authorial tendencies. You can argue that Johns is not as strong a writer because he doesn’t do creator owned work, but you can’t argue that he doesn’t do personal stories.

Teen Titans has a lot of retro elements, but feels more progressive than Green Lantern. At that point, he probably didn’t have the authority to resurrect Barry Allen, so he’s got to work with the new Flash, and he makes him into a compelling character. But, it feels inherently conservative to bring Hal Jordan back and have him show the new guys how it’s supposed to be done. The stories are generally solid, but I take issue with the politics of the book on that level.

But, again, I think people who say that it’s evidence of Johns as a nostalgia guy might be ignoring the fact that these characters are personal to him, to resurrect Hal Jordan is not just about bringing back a character, it’s about bringing back an idea that matters to Johns. His morality and notion of personal responsibility may have been heavily influenced by Jordan and Barry Allen, so wouldn’t bringing them back be the most personal story he could tell?

I think that it’s perfectly reasonable to criticize Johns, I go back and forth between really liking Green Lantern and thinking it’s just a bunch of nonsense aliens shooting colors at each other with no emotional component. Similarly, Titans can be great in its low key moments, but get bogged down in boring fight scenes. So, you may ask why even read superhero comics in the first place if I don’t like fights? It’s not that I don’t like fights, it’s that the fights have to mean something beyond simple spectacle. The act of fighting in a superhero comic needs to be a way for the characters to express what they’re feeling and to play out the emotional conflicts that plague them at their core. That’s what the best superhero comics do, and Johns isn’t always there, but he hits enough to make his stuff worth reading. He's nowhere near a Moore or Morrison, but his work has a lot of exciting concepts and the kind of craziness you can only get from comics.

Next up for me from him is The Sinestro Corps War, the end of Teen Titans and some more Superman stuff. Then, in a little bit, I’m going to go back and tackle his JSA run. Anyone have any particular recommendations on where to go next with his work?

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Third Age: Episode Three: 'Static' and More Self Promo

Sorry for not posting much substantive content in the past few weeks. I've got a bunch of Decade and Year wrap up stuff in the works, but for now, it's time for more about the projects I'm working on. First off, the third episode of The Third Age...

This is my favorite of the first three, and if you haven't checked it out at all yet, this is the perfect time to go back and watch from the start, since the first three form something of a unit.

Also, you can check out a writeup of the upcoming Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods on Wired. Enjoy some words from me, as well as a couple of exclusive clips of Grant speaking about our world vs. superhero worlds, and the George Bush administration. Exciting to see it getting so much publicity, it's always weird to see yourself turn up on the sites in your RSS feed.

What he says about the Bush administration is particularly relevant in light of the rapid deterioration of the Obama administration and his insanely misguided decision to send more troops to Afghanistan. We as a nation cannot have it all, we have to prioritize and it's sickening to watch people prioritize spending billions more on killing people in a futile war when we can't get a health care bill, or to go to war in service of 'freedom' with an army that doesn't allow openly gay people to serve for a country were gay people can't get married. Really strange stuff, and Obama is making no effort to be a leader and make a change happen. With this decision about Afghanistan, he's ensured that I'll be seeking out a third party candidate in the 2012 election.