Death to Canon

April 28th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

A large part of the appeal of superheroes is the ongoing narrative. Like soap operas, wrestling, and movie franchises, people like to drop in and see what’s going on with a character. While there are Elseworlds, What Ifs, dreams, alternate universes, and house shows, there’s a clear series of stories that are “real.” You can trace the biography of Clark Kent from 1938 to 2010, and buy books that tell that story from the beginning. Regular reinventions re-tell his origin, but with rotary phones replaced with touchtone phones, and then newspapers replaced by the internet, and then the internet replaced by newspapers again.

This has expanded from a biography into a mythology. It’s not enough to have Clark Kent from ’39 to ’10. You need to know Clark Kent’s place in the DC Universe, and how he relates to thousands of other characters. There is a narrative, whether on a small scale or a macro scale, that you can follow from A-Z. Superman died [mumble] years ago and this is how it affected Blue Beetle. Peter Parker fought Norman Osborn in college, and here is how that affects the Marvel Universe. Stories that do not fit into that narrative are either handwaved away in favor of the new interpretation of the character or deprecated and consigned to the realm of “imaginary stories.”

The idea of “real” stories is one that Marvel and DC both have wholly embraced. It is the stuff that runs in the veins of big events, and the reason why comics fans claim that they hate events but buy them anyway. “I want to know what happens! This matters!” You want that next chapter in the ongoing story, you need to know what happens to Peter Parker in Civil War, and you want to know the effects of Secret Invasion on the greater Marvel Universe. You’re invested in the narrative.

That investment leads to the immediacy that drives the direct market. You can go to the comic shop every week and get an update on whichever universe you prefer. If you don’t have that immediacy, that lust for the periodical, you have no reason to hit a comic shop and can just order the completed stories a few months down the line and read them at your leisure. DC’s recently stated wish to push back against trade waiters and emphasize the monthly comics (a move I find, frankly, idiotic and backwards) is their latest attempt to maintain their stranglehold on that market. These are the lifers, the ones who go in, buy their comics, complain, and buy them again the next month.

Series that don’t tie into the narrative sink like rocks. Barring aberrations like Deadpool’s current status, who ride a bubble of interest until it fizzles out, anecdotal knowledge says that niche books don’t sell. Recent casualties: Blade, Blue Beetle, Captain Britain & MI-13, SWORD, and Brother Voodoo. Books like Runaways and Agents of Atlas are repeatedly relaunched, repositioned, and revamped in an attempt to keep readers. Runaways in particular was changed to tie directly into the greater Marvel Universe for its second volume.

Those books get cancelled because retailers know that readers want important stories, so they order accordingly. Who cares what happened in Runaways? Is Spider-Man even in that? And The Mighty? Who is that? Is Green Lantern ever gonna guest star? “Save ______” campaigns, barring the amazing dedication of Spider-Girl fans, rarely work. The books get resurrected, retailers order a couple extra copies at best, since the last series failed, and then we’re left right back where we started: “Save ______.”

Simple question: why? Why are the books that are “real” considered more “real” than the others? In the end, the only thing you get out of reading a “real” story is a different set of fake information about a fake character. Both results are equally fake. You think somebody who only ever watched The Dark Knight cares that Batman once fought a dude with eyeballs where his fingertips go? Or that Spider-Man getting married matters more than that time Venom drove a truck in the Spider-Man cartoon? No, because here is the truth: all stories are fake stories. Granted, there is a certain amount of pleasure in following a character’s ongoing adventures, but let’s be real: all stories are fake stories. Being part of a string of fake stories doesn’t make it any more real than the other fake story.

So, why is Amazing Spider-Man more real than Spider-Man Noir? Easy: Marvel says so. Or DC says so. Or whoever. They have a vested interest in keeping their captive audience, for lack of a better phrase, so they maintain something approaching a canon, a group of stories that are “real.” Those other stories, Elseworlds and What Ifs and whatever, are fake, and you don’t need them to know what’s going on. If you buy them, that’s great, but look–Siege is what you need. Buy Green Lantern because it’s important.

My least favorite question in comics is “Is this in continuity?” That’s a frustrating question, especially when recommending a book to someone. There is the implication that stories that are in continuity matter more than ones that don’t, when that is undeniably false. I read Spider-Man comics for a few years without ever picking up Amazing Spider-Man.

Nowadays, I think the thrice-weekly Amazing Spider-Man is a great book, one of the most consistently good cape books on the stands. It has had its low points, its dips in quality, but the overall package is good. Last January, it was moving about sixty thousand units.

Spider-Man Noir is honestly one of my favorite Spider-Man stories. The writing was on point, the art was excellent, and it all came together very well. As far as Spidey stories go, it hits all the notes to make it a classic. It shipped thirty-one thousand copies.

Why the discrepancy? One is real, the other is not.

The problem with this system is that quality does not matter. Avengers Disassembled and Ultimatum were deck-clearing exercises. Everyone hated Spider-Man: One More Day, but it sold 150k. Identity Crisis was a terrible mystery and Blackest Night ended when a ghost popped up in the last issue and told everyone how to beat the bad guy. But, since these books are important, they sold gangbusters. Add a logo or a banner to a low-selling comic, script a tie-in to the important event, and watch the sales jump while people see what’s going on with the greater continuity. And then watch them fall once the continuity cop stuff is over.

Death to canon.

I hate the way it’s used in comics. Rather than having stories that matter, treat every story like it matters, Elseworlds or no. You can still do the ground-shaking status quo events, you can do sequels, and you can do long-running series. In fact, the way Marvel collects its events already does this. If you go to the store to buy Annihilation, you have Annihilation Book One, Annihilation Book Two, and Annihilation Book Three. They contain several stories from a variety of writers, but all tell the story of the Annihilation Wave. House of M has been collected into several softcovers. And in the bookstore, these books do not have any primacy over Spider-Man Noir or Agents of Atlas.

What’s important is the story and the creators. Not the canon, not the format, not the wrapper, not the company that made it. The story and the people who created it are the only ones that matter in this equation. By removing that fixation on the canon from the situation, comics fans can find themselves dozens of new books that are just as good, and sometimes better, than the canon-centric titles they buy in droves and talk about online.

We get the comics industry we deserve. By focusing only on the Universes, you miss the good stuff. I shifted my perception and found a wealth of books I would’ve otherwise ignored that rocked my socks off. I’m a firm believer in liking what you like, but at the same time, if I ruled the world? Comics would be a whole lot different than they are now. Fake stories are fake stories, no matter what anyone says. Once I started treating them like that, I started liking comics a whole lot more than I did already.

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Annihilate Your Type If You Violate

April 22nd, 2010 Posted by david brothers

I quit the Avengers books. Bendis’s plotting was dragging, Dark Reign was bugging me, and I was honestly bored since some point around the middle of Secret Invasion. Billy Tan on art didn’t help. I also quit pretty much every DC comic. I love Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, and Amanda Conner’s Power Girl, and I check in on Batman & Robin once in a while (when Quitely and Stewart are on art, mainly), but that’s where it stops.

I didn’t quit Marvel’s cosmic books.

Over the past four years, Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, with a strong assist from Keith Giffen, have quietly carved a stale and stagnant corner of the Marvel universe into a vibrant and fascinating sub-franchise. I’m not particularly a sci-fi guy, but DnA have written some frighteningly consistent books over the past four years, ones of such great quality that when you get an issue that’s merely “good,” you feel a little disappointed.

Ed Brubaker’s Captain America is a consistently good comic. Good, but a little too much of the same thing, month-in, month-out. You run out of things to talk about. Not so for this cosmic stuff. DnA plugged several shake-ups into their plotting, keeping their heroes rocking from status quo to status quo without feeling jarring. It fits together almost like a series of movies. You can hop in wherever you like, though some points are obviously better than others. But that’s okay. I’m here for you. Let’s talk about lame characters gone good, terrible concepts turned interesting, and nobodies turned heroes.

Let’s talk about outer space.


It began with Annihilation. An army of bug monsters from space, the Annihilation Wave, set about the destruction of all that is not them. The story is one thing. What’s important here are the characters.

There is Thanos. He was born on Titan, Saturn’s moon, to a race of godlike beings. He was born twisted and deviant, and lusts after the personification of Death. He’s committed genocide and attempted omnicide to gain Death’s favor, to no avail. When Death senses the Annihilation Wave coming, she describes it as “something wonderful.” Thanos allies himself with Annihilus so that he can partake and impress his love.

Drax the Destroyer used to be strong and dumb, an outer space version of the Hulk. Then, he died. When he came back, he was lean, smarter, and less strong, but doubly lethal. Drax was created for one reason, and one reason only: to destroy Thanos. The need to wipe Thanos off the face of the universe is in his genes. That is his goal, and when faced with his target, he can’t help but pull the trigger, and damn the consequences.

Before Drax was Drax, he was Arthur Douglas, father to Heather Douglas. On a trip through the desert, the Douglases witnessed Thanos landing in a spacecraft. Deciding to preserve his secrecy, the Mad Titan blasted their car. The blast instantly killed Heather’s parents and accidentally threw her clear. Thanos’s father took Heather to his homeworld and trained her to be one of them. Now she is Moondragon, a master martial artist, telepath, and scientist.

Imagine being the child of the greatest hero in space. Now, imagine being the genetically-grown kid sister of the heir to that legacy. And then, imagine that heir dying, and being the only one left alive to continue the family business. Phyla-Vell of the Kree, daughter of Mar-Vell, better known as Captain Marvel, knows exactly how that feels. Her father was a hero. She is nowhere near as popular. When Moondragon, her girlfriend, is kidnapped by Thanos, she’s forced into the spotlight.

The Silver Surfer, Norrin Radd, is a former herald of Galactus, the world-eater. He has little interest in seeking out worlds for his former master to find, but once Annihilus’s forces begin attacking Galactus’s heralds in an attempt to secure and weaponize Galactus himself… well, the Surfer is forced to make a decision.

Ronan the Accuser is a Kree warlord with a giant hammer. Desperately loyal to his people, even when placed on trial for treason, Ronan is forced to battle his own government to prove his innocence and expose the rot inside the Kree empire. When you are accused of a crime by Ronan, it is best to simply take what’s coming to you.

Unless you are Gamora, the most dangerous woman in the universe. She is Thanos’s adopted daughter, and part of a race with the unlikely name of “Zen Whoberi.” Thanos raised her to eliminate the Magus, the evil aspect of Adam Warlock. She worked with and for Thanos for years, and betrayed him when he revealed himself to be a threat. Lately, she’s been mind-controlled and her reputation has diminished. With the aid of Godslayer, her newfound sword, she wants to get back out there and make people fear her name once again.

Adam Warlock is the messiah. No, really. He’s here to save us all. The problem is that at some point in the future, he becomes the Magus, a religious demagogue, and works to enslave the universe. His loyalties shift and blur because of this, making him particularly untrustworthy. Messiah or doom–which is it?

Imagine Peter Parker joining the Green Lantern Corps and you have the basic building blocks of Richard Rider, better known as Nova, the Human Rocket. He has more or less the same origin as Hal Jordan, but at the point Annihilation begins, he’s just a foot soldier. He’s five years in to being a Nova Centurion, one of thousands, but forty-eight pages later, he’s the only one left. And since the Nova power is shared amongst the entire Nova Corps, what happens when Rich is forced to contain all of it? What happens when you send a man to war?

That’s all you need to know to get started. The story begins in Annihilation, which is composed of three volumes (Book 1, Book 2, and Book 3). Annihilation tells the complete tale of the Annihilation Wave, as well as laying the foundation for the revamping of Marvel’s cosmic universe. Later was Annihilation Conquest, which told of an opportunistic invasion by a crappy X-Men villain turned fearsome. This was collected in two volumes (Book 1 and Book 2), and told the story of a race that was bent on turning sentient beings into slaves. Annihilation Conquest set up two series. Guardians of the Galaxy was about a group of heroes who banded together to protect the universe from an oncoming threat. The galaxy had been rocked by two incredible threats, back to back, and enough was enough. Someone had to put a stop to it. In Nova, Rich Rider is faced with the daunting task of rebuilding the Nova Corps from scratch and policing a galaxy on his own.

While all this was going on, a mad earthling assumed control of the Shi’ar empire, a race of bird people. Others did not take kindly to this, which led to the War of Kings. The aftermath of the war, called Realm of Kings, left a hole in space, and that hole leads to something akin to hell. In another universe, life has completely defeated death. Lovecraftian elder gods and infected versions of heroes we know lurk in the darkness, waiting for their chance to push through.

At this point, DnA are dragging the cosmic heroes into another catastrophe. Their solo series are on hold for The Thanos Imperative. The Mad Titan is back, pissed, and stronger than ever before. Complicating matters is the incursion of the Lovecraftian monsters from the other universe, but when you pit the ultimate manifestation of life gone wild against a god who worships Death herself… well. We’ll see.

I can’t stress how solid DnA’s cosmic work has been. They’ve taken perennial z-listers like Star-Lord and Nova and turned them into multifaceted, interesting characters. They’ve taken goofy concepts like Annihilus and the Phalanx and made them into believable threats. And they have done it month-in, month-out, since 2006.

That kind of dependable quality isn’t anywhere else in comics right now, save for Mike Mignola and John Arcudi’s BPRD. This cosmic stuff where the great stuff is hiding out at Marvel right now. There have been a few mis-steps. CB Cebulski’s two-issue Darkhawk miniseries was perfect deleted scene material and entirely missable. Some of the art has been questionable, but never for too long. But, if you don’t read Marvel, or you don’t read this part of Marvel, you’re missing that good stuff. Get familiar.

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