You Better Be Prepared To Finish What You Start (JMS Wasn’t)

November 11th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

“Tune your ear to the frequency of despair, and cross reference by the longitude and latitude of a heart in agony.


Sometimes the newscycle doesn’t go quite how you expected. Wednesday was one of those days. DC announced a big new push for digital comics, which was clearly meant to open the news day and gain a certain amount of buzz, around 9 a.m. PST. Another post went up a few hours later about J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis’s sequel to the smash hit Superman: Earth One. Buried deep in the post was the news that Straczynski is quitting his position as writer of Superman and Wonder Woman, two major flagship DC titles where he launched major stories to much mainstream fanfare. Instead, Chris Roberson will now be writing Superman with issue 707 and Phil Hester is stepping in to script Wonder Woman as of issue 605. JMS will be working on a sequel to Superman: Earth One.

C’mon, son. Who you fooling? How dumb are we supposed to be?

It’s not hard to tell that this a bait and switch. Why hide the actual news to the point where you’re announcing something entirely different and then slip it in at the end? Why bring the Superman: Earth One announcement into it, especially when it isn’t an announcement at all? The release from DC says “It’s too early to talk art, story or release date,” which essentially says nothing, especially since the Earth One graphic novels were already announced as a series of books last year.

Superman: Earth One is a smash hit, and God bless Straczynski and Shane Davis both for getting that book out there to the masses. I even buy the idea that the sequel was fast-tracked due to the success of the first volume. What I don’t buy is the rationale put forth in the press release that Straczynski is just getting a bit busy, so he’s gonna let a couple of up and comers get their shot at the limelight while he works on the next Superman book to sell a kajillion copies.

When you look at Straczynski’s history of late comics, the delays and art troubles on his current comics, his comments regarding how far behind schedule he ended up, the timeline of when the books were announced and when they shipped, and perhaps most tellingly, his wish to take a one to five year sabbatical from monthly comics, there’s a lot more going on than JMS “getting busy” and putting someone else on.

His runs on Superman and Wonder Woman were announced in March 2010 and scheduled for July, on top of a run on The Brave & The Bold that began in Fall 2009 and Superman: Earth One, which had been announced in December 2009. That’s quite a workload for any one writer. Something had to give, and the first thing was The Brave & The Bold. Issue 36 was scheduled to ship in August 2010, but never appeared on store shelves. Its absence was not particularly notable at the time, considering that Superman 701 and Wonder Woman 601 shipped in July to great fanfare, but in hindsight, it was the first hint that something had gone wrong with Straczynski’s time at DC Comics.

Then Superman 703 shipped a month late. And on top of that, when Superman 704 arrived it wasn’t by Straczynski at all, but an unsolicited fill-in story scripted by G. Willow Wilson and Leandro Oliveira, which was announced on September 17 and rushed to stores in October. The artist lineup also hinted at more scheduling issues, as Wonder Woman artist Don Kramer ended up with a bit of pencilling help from Eduardo Pansica and Allan Goldman for his second, third, and fourth issues, despite being a typically timely artist. Having a mixture of artists in a typical comic is fairly rare; it usually means something gone wrong with the scheduling, and suggests that the scripts were late and Kramer had no chance of getting up to speed.

This supposition is bolstered by explanations Straczynski gave in a Robot 6 comments thread in September, shortly before the Wilson fill-in was announced. He mentioned being too sick to write for two months this year, covering San Diego Comic-con 2010 and Fan Expo in Canada. That means the two months were July and August. He admits to falling behind, causing the lateness of Superman 703, and expresses a plan to be “2 full issues ahead by NYCC” in October. It’s fair to assume that the fill-in creative team was solicited for Superman 704 due to his lateness and to give him time to get ahead again. If you put the puzzle pieces together, it appears that Straczynski’s runs were both behind schedule from the outset, and his sickness exacerbated the lateness.

This may seem unfair to Straczynski, and losing work due to sickness is a truly unavoidable and tragic situation, but that’s just part of the story. Longtime followers of Straczynski know that he has a history of being late or outright not finishing series that he’s started. His run on Squadron Supreme ended on a cliffhanger with its seventh issue. His run on Thor shipped 12 issues in its first 18 months and a total of 17 issues over the course of 28 months. Thor, of course, was solicited and advertised as an ongoing monthly comic. His much-hyped Thor Giant-Size Finale was twenty-three pages long, one page longer than your average monthly comic, which makes it definitely not “giant size.” Considering the events in the story, it wasn’t a finale, either.

Finally, Straczynski stopped writing the The Twelve on its eighth issue of a 12-issue run, leaving artist Chris Weston high and dry. Around once a year since he left the series, Straczynski insists that the series will be done soon, or “come hell or high water,” with the clear implication that Weston is at fault for the lateness of the series. Weston, on the other hand, has written a one-shot prequel to The Twelve and helped craft the visual style of the (pretty good!) Denzel Washington film The Book of Eli while waiting on scripts from Straczynski. Straczynski recently took to the press again to talk slick about his collaborator in public, prompting Weston to remark that The Twelve WILL be finished, apparently.”

What we have here is a pattern of Straczynski beginning projects and wandering off once he gets bored. He’s completed several projects, to be fair, but aside from Amazing Spider-Man, many of his major works (Midnight Nation, Rising Stars, Fantastic Four, Squadron Supreme, Thor) have been punctuated by lateness or simply not being finished.

JMS and DC both prioritized Superman: Earth One over Superman and Wonder Woman’s ongoing series due to the fact that Straczynski fell behind on his ongoing series to the point where maintaining his position became untenable. The reality is that JMS was (again, judging from available evidence) heinously late with his scripts and had already passed the point where the very high profile relaunches of Superman and Wonder Woman were either going to be creatively compromised by the presence of rushed art and scripts or slip from the schedule entirely. These are two launches that got enormous news coverage outside of the comics journalism bubble and managed to galvanize both the comics-reading audience and people who don’t read comics into having opinions about the stories. They are big, people care about them, and they matter in a certain way that a lot of comics stories do not. Something had to be done.

Comics fans aren’t stupid. We know about late comics, we know that sometimes health gets in the way, and we know when someone’s trying to pull one over on us. The problem isn’t JMS being late, sick, or needing help getting his stories done. The problem is the way that this news was announced, which attempted to scrub clearly obvious facts from history in favor of a fairy tale that makes everyone involved look pristine. A little spin is fine, and to be expected. Spinning to this extent, however, is absurd and borderline insulting.

When Chris Claremont got sick and couldn’t complete his work on Exiles and New Excalibur, Marvel straight up said so and brought in writers to tell stories until he could come back. They didn’t try to bait and switch their audience. They kept it honest: this is going to kill the schedule, but rather than compromise our quality and schedule, we’re going to bring in these other guys. The original writer will be back as soon as he’s well again. That’s the sensible choice.

Doing it DC’s way taints the entire story. The response to JMS surrendering his series has been overwhelmingly negative, due in part to the abysmal quality of his Superman work. Fans, journalists, and pros have snarked about his reasons for leaving. Instead of the news being Chris Roberson and Phil Hester getting a shot at the big time, the news is “JMS Quits Series Again, Some Guys Are Gonna Wrap Up His Work, News at 11.”

That’s awful. Roberson and Hester are talented guys and more than deserve their time in the sun. They don’t deserve to have their announcement overshadowed by JMS being up to his old tricks again. Now they’re sandbagged with not only cleaning up his mess, but also dealing with whatever ill will this press is going to generate.

The purpose of PR is to sell comics and to present a certain face for the company. The face you see here is one that’s okay with being intentionally misleading in a really crap way to its fans. It’s not a lie, exactly, but it’s spinning so fast it’d make a politicians head spin. This is a textbook example of what not to do.

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