Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A Tale of Two Johns

Actually… I’m only going to talk about one Johns… one Geoff Johns to be exact. More to the point, I’m going to talk about why his writing confuses the hell out of me. His writing is good, prolific, consistent, generally in character, and it might just be indicative of the very trends that are killing superhero comics.

On the one hand, Johns gives the readers and collectors so much of what they want. Lately, he tends to write characters that are in sync with their mainstream tradition and continuity. Whether or not you like his stories, you rarely read a Johns story and have those obnoxious fanboy thoughts like, ‘wow, Superman would not do that.’

His run on Green Lantern has been incredible, and the whole Sinestro War saga was one giant orgy of awesomeness that made fanboys and fangirls scream ‘Holy geez, this is what I’ve been waiting years to read!’ His run on JSA appeals to fans of all the JSA mainstays as well as to anyone who likes the fan-favorite Elsewords tale ‘Kingdom Come’. The ‘Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes’ arc in Action Comics was a nice breath of fresh air for fans of the pre-Zero Hour Legion, and didn’t bore people to tears like ‘The Lightning Saga’.

Yes, fellow fanboys, Geoff Johns gives us everything we want. And that’s the biggest problem with Geoff Johns. He represents everything that makes superhero comics continuity heavy, inaccessible, and fundamentally alienating to the new or casual reader.

Let’s be honest: Comics are a huge frakkin commitment. Even if you only pick up a few books a week, you know deep down that you spend time on Wikipedia trying to piece together the bits of minutiae and continuity that are piled high in the monthly superhero book. And while the average geek, myself included, actually enjoys that kind of stuff, it annoys most people. Even the most convoluted of serialized fiction in other media doesn’t require the depth of historical background it takes to understand the ‘Sinestro Corps War.’ Even a child could explain the finer points of ‘Lost’ in a few minutes. It’ll take a bit longer to explain why that Daxamite has a huge glowing green worm inside him… or to explain what a Daxamite is for that matter.

The greatest threat to superhero comics is their relegation to status as collectors’ items rather than literature. Sure, the characters live on in TV, film, and cartoons, but I believe that superhero comics could once again be a bastion of mainstream all-ages entertainment and myth-building. But at present, most of them are, at worst, publicity stunt crossovers and events that get stuck in collectors’ long boxes while they wait for money day. At best, they’re Geoff Johns style fan fiction. And neither of those things is something a casual or new reader could pick up and enjoy without completely geeking out.

I’m picking on Johns at the moment, but we all know that even our favorite writers, from Simone to Morrison, are guilty of the great sin of superhero comics: They write books for themselves. They write the comics they’d want to read, full of sex, violence, and nigh incomprehensible references to ages-old continuity. DC and Marvel shouldn’t need to keep launching separate imprints to market to new readers and kids. The whole genre needs to be accessible to these groups, because the 20, 30, and 40 somethings stuffing bagged and boarded copies of ‘One More Day’ and ‘Secret Invasion’ into their long-boxes won’t be around forever.


Anonymous said...

You guys couldn't even get through 24 hours without bagging on comics? What hope is there for the rest of us?

(btw, I'm going to give you guys a hard time until this is the king of all blogs like I was promised)

Anyway, I think this issue is inflated by continuity whores like ourselves. When I was a kid I read a coverless issue of Iron Man--which was the second part of a two-part story a millionitty times. It didn't matter that I didn't have the first half. There was a cool guy in armor fighting this other guy with a whip! Awesome!

Per my blog response to Ben's post yesterday: I cut my comic teeth on events like Crisis and Secret Wars II. It didn't matter if I got every reference or inside joke. It was big, big, big and cool.

Contrarily a friend of mine stated he couldn't get into 52 b/c of all the continuity. 52. Y'know, the series that was its own continuity.

Listen, comics either appeal to you or they don't. You're either going to get over the hump or you're not. That's what back issues and trades are for.

I used to hate on the kid imprints, but frankly they're better comics than most of the adult stuff and it lets parents cut past the "is this good for my kids" crap without needing to sift through aisles and aisles of soft-core manga, etc.

There's still a continuity to them though. There's a continuity to most cartoons too. They're just not as essential or nearly as confusing as you're presenting them (I think, although it's a valid ongoing argument).

What does it matter if I understand what a Daxamite is? If I'm already accepting what a Green Lantern is, Daxamites are the least of my suspension of belief.

In short: I disagree. Heh.

But think about it, what was your first comic? Did it stop all the action so you could understand it or was it just so awesome you had to buy another one to get more of the story?

Nate said...

hey, all comics these days are lifelong fanboys writing for lifelong fanboys. It's an insane post-modern form of entertainment that is very different than Bob Kane getting a stable of artists create some radical new idea of a guy in a bat costume, or Stan Lee making "real world" heroes for the 60's.

Johns embraces the straightjacket of past continuity and somehow always manages to take us somewhere new. Busiek does the opposite, he embraces the old, hits it from a different angle, and brings a tear to our eyes.

I love em both.

But Johns writes a book that fanboys are always talking about on Thursdays. The man has made GL cool for the first time I can ever remember. He's made me into a Guy Gardner fan. You hear that? A freakin Guy Gardner fan!

Whatever he's doing, it's awesome.

(geez this is a long comment)

Now on the side of re-introducing characters to a new generation-- check out the new Spider-Man cartoon. I think it does it perfectly.

Allan said...

The second the writers you named stop writing for "themselves" and start writing for the "people" is the second I stop reading comics.

Comic books as a medium may in fact be an ultimately doomed enterprise (at least in the way we know it today), but the same could be said about film and television.

It is changing technology that is going to shift the paradigm, not the self-indulgences of the creators. The mathematics are simple, the people who want to read comic books will, those who don't, won't. All your suggestion would do is risk alienating the small audience that already exists in favour of a theoretical one that probably doesn't. With the status quo, at least, we get to have some good geeky fun until we finally die out.

HappyGuy402 said...

"...we pledged to write a blog that didn't piss and moan..."

And then, precisely ONE post later, the Golden Age came to an abrupt halt, a babe strangled in its crib.

Am I right?

Devon Sanders said...

Nah, Happyguy, not right at all...

"We pledged to write a blog that... expressed our love for the wonderful medium of comics, to call foul when a book deserves it and praise a book when it is awesome."

And that's what we did.

BIG MIKE said...

I love comics. I wasn't trying to piss and moan or anything like that. Believe me, I enjoy the writing of Geoff Johns and the other writers I mentioned a lot.

But I think the survival of the medium that we all love is an important issue that the community should discuss, and I don't think it's out of bounds to ask whether or not fanboy culture, from readers and creators alike, threatens that survival.

wrath said...

I think there is a balance in there somewhere, James Robinson touched on a lot of Continuity in starman that at the time as a 17 year old casual comic fan meant nothing to me, however he Kept his story grounded in Opel City (for the most part) and character driven and it kept me interested,

well that and Tony Harris