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Event Comics

With Marvel’s latest Infinity event wrapping up I started considering what makes a good comic event. Since I started reading comics seven years ago I’ve lived through more than my share of comic events; some of them good, and some of them not so good. I have found that all events of quality seem to share certain characteristics that help them succeed while others fail.  A quality, well written plot, characters you care about, consistency, and events that actually matter, all aid in making a great comic event.

Comics can easily be broken up into two parts:  art and story.  While these two often go hand in hand, event comics are most often driven by story. It’s extremely difficult to carry a story with just art (though not impossible).  There have been great comic issues that are more about the art then they are the story, but they tend to be one or two issues at most.  

Talk about epic.

Talk about epic.

Infinity is a great example of how the story, rather than the art, carries the event. Since all three books involved were written by Johnathan Hickman, there is a universe-spanning story with all kinds of interwoven parts that make for a truly engrossing story.  Hickman creates entire universes within the series he writes and connects them in surprising ways. This is one of the reasons I love reading his work.  It takes a long time, but the payoff at the end is well worth it.

Seven issues wrapped up in seven pages...Seriously!?

Seven issues wrapped up in seven pages…Seriously!?

I’ve also been pleased that with recent events, especially at Marvel, there has been a concentrated effort to avoid selling the ending short.  Nothing is worse than a writer creating a masterful storyline, and then trying to wrap up the epic story in two pages.  For the first couple years I read comics, Marvel was particularly bad at this, with the most egregious examples being Civil War and World War Hulk.  Both were pretty solid stories, but as I read the last issue I kept expecting the story to start wrapping up. Unfortunately the end didn’t come until I was almost done with the book. Instead of a real ending, Marvel then wrote a small mini-series to end the event, which seemed far too drawn out. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why they didn’t just put that material into the event itself.  It would have flowed much better.

I can’t deny that I love epic tales like Infinity, but I’m also very open to more intimate stories (get your mind out of the gutter). I can be drawn into a story that is almost completely character driven as opposed to action driven. If a writer really knows the characters they are developing, then they can make you feel for the character and take him to emotional depths that are unexpectedly satisfying for the reader.  Identity Crisis does just that by taking many of the second tier Justice League heroes and throwing them into some horrible situations to see what happens. I originally read this story arch about six months after getting into comics and it was very impressed by how much I found myself caring about characters, about whom I knew nothing before opening the book.  This kind of character driven writing can be just as enjoyable as epic events and is often far more compelling.  

First time I read Identity Crisis I had no idea who these characters were, but I really felt for them anyways.

First time I read Identity Crisis I had no idea who these characters were, but I really felt for them anyways.

Many times I’ve heard fans complain that they just don’t care about specific comic events and that frequently lack of caring is due to the characters. I know that I have skipped an event simply because the characters don’t interest me. It’s not so much because they’re characters I don’t know, but often it’s because they’re portrayed in a way I don’t care for. Maybe things seem out of character, or they’re just doing things I don’t find interesting so I’ve stopped reading. On the flip side of this, I’ve also read stories that followed characters that I didn’t know existed. A great example of this is DC’s 52 (not to be confused with The New 52).  52 was a year without Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman following the events of Infinite Crisis, and instead it followed characters such as Black Adam, Booster Gold, The Question and Batwoman. These were all minor DC characters but I became completely engrossed in their story and wanted more.

Sure a great plot can get the reader interested, but if the characters around which this plot revolves doesn’t keep him interested, then the whole thing is pointless. The one thing I can’t stand is when minor characters are included in stories in ways that don’t matter to the plot line. Frequently this is done via tie-in stories. Sometimes these can be great, like Civil War: Wolverine, but more often than not they are just an attempt to maximize the sales boost that typically accompanies events.  I have no problem including these characters in the story.  In fact I often like it when they’re done right.  It gives me a chance to get to know them and expand my horizons. All I ask is that the author keep them interesting and relevant to the plot line.

When it comes to event comics, the absolutely number one issues I’ve heard people complain about is that “it doesn’t matter.”  So often it feels like an event will wrap up with some big, universe changing occurrence, only to have that undone by the next event.  Or worse, the whole event that appeared to have an impact turns out to just be a lead in to yet another event like DC’s Trinity War.  In the world of comic books, things are ever changing. Characters die and are subsequently brought back all the time. This is the world of modern comic and the status quo isn’t going to change any time soon, so fans just need to accept it and move on.  Having said all of that, if writers are going to do something like kill off or bring back a character, it needs to be done in a way that means something or serves a purpose.  In a recent tie-in to Avengers Vs. X-Men, they brought back and then killed off Captain Marvel over the course of a couple issues for no other reason than they could.  This served absolutely no purpose and only really served to diminish the character to the level of expendable.  I want to see writers do interesting things, to take chances and to further characters, and I fully acknowledge that there are times that in order to accomplish this characters must be sacrificed or resurrected, but do it should be done for a reason, not purely for shock value.  The sacrifice of Nightcrawler during Second Coming is a positive example of how the death of a character can used to great effect.  Nightcrawler died keeping Hope away from the Sentinal Nimrod.  This served to impress upon the reader how important Hope was the X-Men and also managed to throw the X-Men into further chaos as they tried to cope with the loss of a lynchpin of the team.

I got a little choked up.

I got a little choked up.

Making things matter doesn’t just apply to individual characters, but also to the universe as a whole.  I don’t expect every event to completely rewrite the universe, but I like it when I read something that doesn’t make me feel like my time was wasted.  In my opinion, House of M does this best.  With three simple words, “No more mutants,” Scarlet Witch undoes everything that has happened in House of M and at the same time completely alters the Marvel landscape.  Only recently, at the end of Avengers Vs. X-Men, was a solution found to Wanda’s actions.  Not only was this a great and simple plot twist (i.e. good writing) but its consequences lasted far longer than most readers would have expected.  It took a little over seven years for things to finally come full circle, which is an eternity in modern comics. This is the kind of epic event that makes comics soap operas for geeks.

One panel changed everything.

One panel changed everything.

One of biggest crimes that a comic event can commit is to lack consistency.  A comic event is supposed to be one unified story, so why is it that there are frequently eight different writers and then another eight different artists? Ok, so this might be a little exaggeration, mostly, but my point is that a solid team must be on board for these events. This may unfortunately mean that the ideal artist isn’t available because they can’t do a monthly book for six months.  It would be preferable that they do some of the smaller series, maybe a tie-in or a one shot.  I would much rather see them this happen than to have a third of the event’s pages drawn by different artists all trying to copy someone else’s style. This kind of inconsistency really becomes jarring and pulls me out of the story. The biggest reason I read comics is the fantastic mix of art and story and when those two don’t mesh or there are blaring inconsistencies in either it’s disappointing. Writers, please note I said both.  If writers aren’t meeting their deadlines, then artists can’t meet theirs and then comics have to use fill in artists. Even the best artists still require time to perform their part.

There are, of course, times when having a mix of writers and artists is perfectly fine, but those are the exceptions rather than the rule. Typically those times are when an event doesn’t not have an overarching book, like Marvel’s recent Battle of the Atom did. Battle of the Atom had two issues acting as book ends, but otherwise the action took place within All-New X-Men, Wolverine and the X-Men, Uncanny X-Men, and X-men. This event was written by three different writers (Bendis, Wood, and Aaron) with art by four different artists (Immonen, Lopez, Bachalo, Camuncoli) but it worked because they maintained a consistent level of quality. This quality was also aided by the uniform vision that was guided by Brian Michael Bendis who wrote All-New X-Men, Uncanny X-Men, as well as the event bookend issues.

Two different takes on the same characters, but both look great.

Two different takes on the same characters, but both look great.

With consumers still trying to watch what they spend it’s difficult for these event comics. Those that have managed to balance storytelling, likable characters, consistency and events that matter are the ones we remember, while those that couldn’t get forgotten. It’s a good thing I enjoy most event comics because the reality is that they aren’t going away any time soon.  Publishers see them not only as a way to tell a great story but also as a method of driving up sales.  Although I would like to think that storytelling is the only thing driving publishers, I’m more realistic than that. I promise that I’ll keep buying them as long as they keep writing good ones.  That way everyone wins. 

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Filed under Andrew Hales, Comics

DC’s New 52: How we got there

Just about two years ago, DC Comics decided it was time to shake things up. This was no surprise. A revolution had been coming for a while, but this time DC was starting over from issue #1 on everything in their universe. When they said everything, they meant everything, including titles that had been around since the beginning, such as Action Comics, Detective Comics, Superman and Batman. Previously these books were untouchable, the holy relics of the comic book industry, and to do something this radical to them was a risky undertaking to say the least. As we approach the two year mark of this experiment, I think it’s worth taking some time to look back and evaluate how each of the New 52 titles is doing. So each Thursday in September (and the last in August. I’m looking at you, Justice League) we’ll take a short look at those books that came out two years earlier.

New52logo1

Before we get into the books themselves, it’s probably a good idea to take a look even further back and see how DC got to the point of needing a completely clean slate. DC has a long and convoluted archive of continuity that has often been intimidating to new comic book readers trying to jump on. More than once DC has tried to pull off a universe-wide reboot, but it hasn’t always gone according to plan.

Back in 1985, DC came to the realization that fifty years of uncoordinated continuity had become too unwieldy. How could they explain to new readers that Golden Age Superman was old but alive and working with the Justice Society, while Silver Age Superman was young and a part of the Justice League? Were there two Supermans? The original attempt to explain things away was the Multiverse, an idea that many of these characters existed at the same time, but in parallel universes, each one with its own history. This worked for a while, but after time these different Earths began to cross over with an increasing frequency that once again made it difficult to keep things straight, and it was decided that something had to be done. Enter Crisis on Infinite Earths, a universe-spanning event comic that would radically alter the face of the DCU. By the end, whole swaths of characters had been removed from existence, the Multiverse was eliminated and a single Earth (with a single Superman) was left behind.

Though one of many characters killed during Crisis on Infinite Earths, Supergirl was probably the most popular character to meet her end.

Though one of many characters killed during Crisis on Infinite Earths, Supergirl was probably the most popular character to meet her end.

Because carving a Superman logo into your chest is completely normal

Because carving a Superman logo into your chest is completely normal

Soon, events and characters were referred to as Pre- and Post-Crisis and all was well. At least for a little while. Over the next several years, writers began to reintroduce characters and plot elements that had been wiped out in Crisis. What was originally a pretty clean restart slowly began to resemble the Pre-Crisis DCU with all of its twists and turns. Throughout all of this, though, the Multiverse stayed gone. With no Multiverse there was still a limit on how crazy plotlines could get because all the characters had to exist within the same universe. That all came crashing down when the Multiverse was brought back in Infinite Crisis. Following several lead-in mini-series, Infinite Crisis revealed that Golden Age Superman had not perished during Crisis on Infinite Earths, but had, in fact, gone into hiding with his wife Lois, Superboy Prime, and Alexander Luthor (Lex Luthor from a different Earth). When Lois’ health starts to fail, Superman determines that her health will improve if she is returned to her Earth, and they leave their hiding place and begin an attempt to replace the current Earth-1 with their Earth-2. Eventually Superboy Prime goes crazy and kills several heroes and villains, including his Earth-1 counterpart, Connor Kent. Superboy Prime is stopped, but not without causing both Supermans to be depowered and a considerable body count.

The fallout from Infinite Crisis was taken up by the breakthrough series 52. An ambitious concept, 52 released an issue a week for a full year. Even more shocking was that this series would not include DC’s holy trinity of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. This decision allowed writers to use lesser known heroes, relying on character development rather than just big names. The year started out with a series of stories which are interesting but mostly unrelated, but as the weeks passed the stories became more intertwined until it culminated with the reveal of the existence of fifty-two new parallel universes, created at the end of Infinite Crisis.

250px-Cover_52_Week_One_(May_10,_2006)

Now you may think “at least we’ve made it to the New 52”, but alas, you’d be wrong. Next, fans were made to suffer through Countdown to Final Crisis, a disasterous follow up to 52 which followed 52’s weekly release schedule, but lacked its overall appeal. The storytelling was questionable at best and it was populated by characters that most people didn’t really care about. Additionally, the plotlines became so skewed as the series progressed that by the time it ended they no longer lined up with Final Crisis. Subsequently most of the storylines were retroactively removed from continuity.

Thankfully Final Crisis turned out much better than its lead-in event. Written by DC’s powerhouse writers Grant Morrison and J.G. Jones, Final Crisis was a well written, if confusing story. Further tapping into lesser known characters, and adding more than a few of his own, Morrison made considerable use of Jack Kirby’s New Gods, most of whom had not seen much use in recent years. Additionally, the Multiverse played a major role in the Final Crisis with the inclusion of the Monitors, a whole race based on one of the key players from Crisis on Infinite Earths. While a great story, Final Crisis was anything but final and did little to help maintain the clean continuity that DC had attempted to setup all those years ago. And oh yeah, Batman died.

Are we starting to see a theme emerge?

Are we starting to see a theme emerge?

This being comics however, Batman came back (Turns out he was just trapped in the past. Happens to me all the time), just like many characters before him. While he was gone, however, readers were treated to Dick Grayson as Batman, as well as the DCU-spanning Green Lantern event, Blackest Night. As if things hadn’t been confusing enough, Blackest Night brought many dead heroes and their loved ones back to life as Black Lanterns (If your head wasn’t hurting before this, it should be right about now). While impressive for its cosmic scale, Blackest Night was a nightmare for those not intimately familiar with DC’s continuity.

I see dead people...a lot of them.

I see dead people…a lot of them.

The final stop on our journey to the New 52 is Flashpoint. The Flash (Barry Allen) wakes up in what he believes to be an alternate timeline in which Wonder Woman and Aquaman are at war with one another and Batman is Thomas Wayne, whose son Bruce was killed in Crime Alley. Eventually Barry finds out that he is not in an alternate timeline, but in his own timeline that has changed after he attempted to travel back in time to save his mother from dying. Barry is eventually forced to undo what he has done and in the process the DC universe merges with those of its imprints, Vertigo and Wildstorm, and the timeline resets, leaving us with the New 52.

This controlled reboot of the DCU was twenty-six years in the making and took several failed attempts to get right. Through the next five weeks, Therefore I Geek will explore the things DC has gotten thing right and point out areas in which they took a misstep or two. Each week we will discuss the first wave books that were released that week two years ago and see where they’ve been, what’s going on now, and where they are headed. Lucky for you, Week One only consists of one book, Justice League. Stand by for Weeks Two through Five and join us for a look at the state of the DCU.

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Filed under Andrew Hales, Comic Reviews, Comics