Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Week 52: Outside Time Without Extension

Or: Mr. Mind Eating Continuity is the New Superboy Punching the Universe.* Also in this week's post! An important message to you from the editor--about the NEW Pickup!

Before I get to 52.52 itself, though, as a few people have suggested, I'm going to take this last opportunity to hype my book a little. It's called Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean, it's being published by Da Capo Press at the beginning of July, I'm really happy with how it turned out, and I encourage you to pre-order a copy here. 52 is mentioned only in passing, but there's a 30-page chapter on Grant Morrison (and Seven Soldiers and The Invisibles in particular), as well as essays about Question creator Steve Ditko, Mogo co-creator Alan Moore, and Mystery In Space writer/artist Jim Starlin. It's also got chapters on David B., Chester Brown, Carla Speed McNeil, Dave Sim, Chris Ware, Alison Bechdel, Tomb of Dracula, superheroes, superreaders, bad comics, good comics, art comics, and much more. I suspect that people who've enjoyed 52 Pickup will get a charge out of it, or at least find stuff to argue with. You can also befriend it on MySpace--I'll probably be announcing tour dates and such there.

Okay, plug over; thanks for your patience. So: we've got the multiple earths back, and this time they're not infinite but as finite as a deck of cards. The point of Crisis on Infinite Earths was slate-clearing: getting rid of the profusion of alternate realities that was supposedly confusing superhero-comics readers, and clearing the way for one true continuity. In retrospect, that was a mistake, and not just because continuity glitches started piling up within months, especially with the Superman reboot--not only were parallel earths a great springboard for stories, but I don't know that eliminating them made the DCU all that much clearer or more interesting a fictional setting. Since there wasn't the "hard reboot" that Marv Wolfman originally suggested, every fix has led to more fixes, and now it's a history that's permanently in flux, the elves of Superboy's universe-punching and Mr. Mind's continuity-eating going back and rewriting the archives of the Daily Planet again and again. And 20 years after COIE, virtually the only people still reading DCU comics are the people who care about the parallel earths, and would've been happier if they'd stuck around. (Infinite Crisis's payoff was a big old tease for what actually happens this issue.)

I'm one of the people who's delighted to see the parallel-earths concept back, not just because it's tied to so many stories I love, but because there's something intrinsically beautiful about it that extends beyond the content of superhero comics to their form. It gets to the heart of cartooning--the way that an artist can draw a world that's like the one its readers experience, but altered through perception and interpretation. The idea is that "default reality" is not the way things have to be; that not only might everything have turned out differently, but somewhere they did; and that we can approach that place through the bright metaphors of superheroes and their continuity, and the subtler metaphors by which hand-drawn ink lines stand in for what our eyes perceive in the world.

We'd been promised that 52 was a story with an actual resolution, and so it is--up to a point, although it was also intended from the outset as an incubator for new projects starring its former C-list characters. I think it's built up a couple of them successfully, but I don't know how many 52 spinoffs I'd want to read. This, I figure, is a good moment to take a long view of 52's more-or-less-surviving main characters:

What Have We Learned?: He's awfully good at flying and shooting, even when he's blind. That's it; no other character development here.
Do I Want to Read More?: No. Like I've said before, the hook of the early Adam Strange stories was that they were basically romance stories--they were about what he had to do to overcome the distance between himself and his beloved--with some space opera thrown in for flavor. (Even that great Alan Moore two-parter in Swamp Thing was about the cultural distance between them.) Aside from the two-panel reunion with Alanna last week, this incarnation of Adam totally ignored that angle, and I have no evidence that any future Adam Strange stuff would be able to make the romance work.

What Have We Learned?: The universe does indeed like him; he's still the one significant DC character with access to the world beyond the fourth wall.
Do I Want to Read More?: No more than I want to read The Further Adventures of Odysseus after The Odyssey is over. He's got his happy ending, and he deserves it; can we just leave him with that?

What Have We Learned?: She kicks ass and kisses girls, and her family's got money and a menorah. That is, I believe, literally all we know about her.
Do I Want to Read More?: Now that I've spent a year wondering if there might be any more to her than ass-kicking and girl-kissing, I suspect there might not be anything that would make stories about her different from Generic Bat-Eared Action Hero stories.

What Have We Learned?: His sense of entitlement knows no bounds; he likes to dismember people even more than we thought he did.
Do I Want to Read More?: Oh Jesus no. Leaving Week 50 as the last appearance of Black Adam ever--undone by his pride, having shamed his country, wandering without his power, trying to recall a magic word that will never come back to him--would've been as good a ending to his story as I could've hoped for under the circumstances. But it's pretty clear that DC's decided to make him a major player for future projects too, and I can't think of any more one-dimensional character to deem "major."

What Have We Learned?: Even though he used to do the right thing for the wrong reasons, he can come through in the clutch; he's somehow key to the omni-multi time-travel megaverse setup we're going to be seeing a bunch more of.
Do I Want To Read More?: Well, I'm curious about the time-travel stuff, and Booster seems to be the character who's attached to that now. I also like the new angle Geoff Johns suggests here--that he's a hero who can never let on that he's doing the right thing. And the title of that first story arc is strangely appealing.

What Have We Learned?: He's a detective, people; he now knows the Ways of Magic, or at least the fictitious version that Faust fed him (since nobody's done much with the "new rules for the Tenth Age" that Michael Moorcock apparently drafted); he got his wish to be with Sue again, the hard way.
Do I Want to Read More?: I'd be perfectly happy to let his story stop here, and as much mileage as The Thin Man and Topper both have in them as premises for ongoing storytelling, I think they lose a lot when you combine them. I somehow imagine it being a bit more like "The Dead Detective."

What Have We Learned?: Her impulses--generally impulses to do good--keep leading her into damaging places; she doesn't understand herself, and is now making a career out of it.
Do I Want to Read More?: Yeah, actually; I think a superhero comic about introspection and self-discovery could be a mighty interesting thing if someone (Rucka!) could come up with a way to make it work. (The two closest approaches to that I can think of are Whisper and The Sentry, which are not exactly similar comics.)

What Have We Learned?: Nothing. Kory has been a device for moving the plot and basically nothing else in 52.
Do I Want to Read More?: Not until somebody thinks of something interesting to do with her.

What Have We Learned?: He's self-reliant. Really. He's all about self-reliance. That's his thing. Self-reliance. Yup. Admittedly, giving him powers that he neither chose nor earned could've led to an interesting angle on the character, but it didn't, and when they went away again, the effect was rather zero-sum.
Do I Want to Read More?: No. I still think the only writer who's written really good stories about Steel was Priest, and that was actually sort of sleight-of-hand--making his series about the relationship between him and Natasha.

As I feared, though, even though the character arcs are complete--and some of them in really satisfying ways!--there's a lot of the plot side of 52 that remains unresolved. Going back to that list of dangling plot threads I posted a couple of months ago, these are the big ones that still seem to be open:

1) Why was Intergang trying to do with their "invasion" of Gotham City/attempt to turn it into an Apokoliptic fire pit? Why did they need a beachhead in Kahndaq? Where are they getting their Kirbytech and beast-man tech?

2) What happened with Adam Strange and Alan Scott's eyes? (What's the one Alan has that's "not even his own"?)

3) What exactly did Adam, Buddy and Kory see in outer space (with the "giant hands" and all that--it seems to have been something other than the creation of parallel Earths, especially since they were nowhere near Earth), and how did they end up wherever they were thereafter?

4) What's the meaning of most of the stuff written all over Rip's lab--and why, for instance, did he write "52 is all his fault" a zillion times in a dirty corner if he's now cheerfully going on about how the existence of parallel whatevers is "the way things should be," and was caused by New Earth replicating itself "in a cosmic act of self-preservation"?

5) Why did Lady Styx want to capture and/or kill the space travelers, and if she sent the assassins that Starfire dispatched last week, shouldn't Buddy and his family be worried about future attacks?

6) What are the "two score and twelve walls of heaven" attached to the 52 realities, and what's beyond them?

7) How did Kate get to be Batwoman?

8) Where did Booster's future corpse come from?

9) Who gave Ralph "some help pulling himself together," and does it have anything to do with the unexpected intra-JLA hookup that the Wizard preview of 52 teased?

10) Did the Super-Chief business have any connection at all with the rest of the story? (It was supposed to tie in somewhere, right?)

11) Waverider appearing in Sivana's lab and saying "I know why": what was he doing there, and what did he mean by that?

12) Once again, most of the "between seconds" scene in Week 27 still needs some serious unpacking, although now we know what "the golden metal" is.

13) Why did the Chinese government commission the Four Horsemen?

14) What happened to the Plutonium Man that Dr. Magnus reconstructed?

15) Do all the multiple earths exist at different vibrational whosywhatsises in the same surrounding universe, or was the thing that was replicated 52 times actually the entire universe?

*I just noticed that Paul I beat me to this joke in the comments on last week's post. Oh well.

More notes:

Pg. 4: I love the idea that people in the DCU are constantly having strange adventures. And Mr. Mind ate the logo right off Conner Kent's shirt!

Pg. 5: But wouldn't it have been more fun if the Mr. Mind butterfly were still wearing his specs? The "vibrational plane" routine, incidentally, dates back as far as the DCU "parallel earths" concept.

Pg. 8: So the 52 seconds (which 52 seconds?) that Dr. Tyme stole somehow ended up as a loop in the possession of Rip Hunter? Then what was with the countdown Rip started the last time we saw him? And does this connect to the prophecy that "a few seconds will make all the difference", which was apparently not realized in IC?

Pp. 9-10: There are actually two different Earth-17s in DC continuity. One of them is the one that first appeared in this Morrison-written issue; the other one, as Michael Nicolai pointed out a few weeks ago, was the home of the rather Earth-1-like universe where all pre-Crisis New Gods stories that weren't actually written and drawn by Jack Kirby took place (it was named by Mark Evanier in a text piece here). I'm guessing this is the latter--and, with the retroactive disappearance of the Justice League, Detective Chimp, and various events I can't place (which all appear as comics panels, printed on paper and bent by the wind!), the atomic war that led to the existence of the original Atomic Knights seems to have happened.

Pg. 11: It appears that Earth-3--the Crime Syndicate's earth, in classical continuity, rather than the one they belong to in JLA: Earth 2--is the one that Talon from Week 32 came from.

Pg. 12: Mr. Mind's doing a pretty good job of reconstructing pre-Crisis Earths. Earth-10 is of course the former Earth-X, where the Nazis won World War II and the Quality characters/Freedom Fighters have finally made their appearance; Earth-5 is typographically close to its evident source Earth-S, where the Fawcett characters won World War II (and look! there's Tawky Tawny and Uncle Dudley!). And Earth-50--Man! Grant Morrison working on a comic that the WildCats appear in? Lightning does strike twice!

Pg. 13: Earth-22 is the Kingdom Come world, where Alex Ross's paintbox won World War II. Earth-2 is the circa-1979 version--Huntress even looks a bit like she's drawn by Joe Staton!--that Paul Levitz wrote in Adventure Comics and elsewhere. (And that's the world in which the Gotham Gazette is about Superman Superman rather than Batman, and has editors who can't spell "innocence" on front-page headlines. Superman's missing because he ended up in the Crises; Power Girl, I'm guessing, is the one who ended up on New Earth.) Earth-4 is the Lillian Charlton Home for Problem Children, where the Vic Sage Question is still alive and still an Objectivist.

Pg. 14: So the "garden" is just a figure of speech; somehow it seemed to signify more when it was mentioned earlier.

Pg. 16: Not sure how Booster's going to have "glory years" given the premise of the forthcoming series, but it's a nice thought, anyhow. And what's the difference between a multiverse and a megaverse?

Pg. 17: Is it just me, or does it seem like there should be some piece of exposition somewhere about what Booster's doing here, or what exactly the power source is? Is the thing he's holding on the next page the scarab? In any case, this last Blue and Gold moment (with a final bwahaha!) feels like a little bit of dramatic closure for the whole business that started with Countdown to Infinite Crisis. Too bad we don't get a Week Negative-Whatever dateline, though, but it's understandable that nobody wants to get too specific about how much time elapsed between COIE and IC. And was COIE really the "first crisis," or would that have been one of the several earlier crises?

Pg. 18: Can someone who knows Blue Beetle's history better than I do explain the "right under my nose" bit?

Pg. 19: One awkward bit of storytelling: we don't actually see the suspendium in this scene!

Pg. 25: The "Pulitzer"/"Howitzer" gag is a pretty cute callback to Week 1. But if the big cannon is what Rip's got in mind to fire Skeets off with, what was Booster swiping Steel's device for during WWIII?

Pg. 26: It's the 52 clip show! (Although my favorite variation on this business is still the one in this Waid-written issue.)

Pp. 28-30: I've read this sequence over and over, and I totally fail to understand what's happening. As far as I understand, Butterfly-Mind is attracted to the suspendium, and then physically trapped inside of Skeets' dying robot husk, which is reinforced with more suspendium. (Maybe we could just start calling it Plotdeviceum?) Then Booster hands off Skeets to Supernova, who throws the robot-with-butterfly-inside; it lands in an explosion I don't think we've seen before in Week 1, Day 1, where Sivana just happens to stumble upon Mr. Mind, who is now in caterpillar form again, and puts him in his lab in a jar, where he's exposed to more Plotdeviceum, and somehow ends up in Dr. Magnus's lab at the beginning of week 2 (because all mad scientists actually share the same lab), where he crawls into Skeets, and proceeds to repeat the entire sequence in an infinite loop, getting older each time. That cannot be right. Can someone explain what I'm missing?

Pg. 34: Who's that reaching for the amulet? It'll be interesting to see why we haven't heard of this task force in the OYL continuity...

Pg. 35: I wonder if this is just a generic fire-pit or a smaller version of the Gotham City/Apokolips fire-pits.

Pg. 36: One last use of a teddy bear as a symbol of innocence! Drink!

Pg. 37: From the pill bottles in the wastebasket in panel 4, it looks like Magnus is back on his meds in a big way. Is he in Haven, or some other gated subdivision? And both he andRip Hunter backed up Skeets? Clever of them--especially clever of Magnus to figure out how to convert Skeets's 25th-century consciousness to a DVD-R.

Pg. 38: Closure again--a callback to my favorite scene in the first issue. But, actually, it occurs to me now that Rucka also wrote the pre-OYL story in which the Bat-Signal is removed from the roof of Gotham Central and accidentally smashed in the process. Oh well. Chalk it up to Mr. Mind, as I'm sure we'll be doing so often in the near future.


Oh, that special message about the new Pickup? There isn't going to be one, I'm afraid--with the book coming out in two months, I can't really consecrate one workday a week to an unpaid gig any more. When I started doing 52 Pickup, it was meant as an act of fannish devotion, inspired by how excited everybody involved with 52 seemed to be, and I think after a year I've discharged the duty I had in mind. I'm still going to be doing a lot of comics reviews all over the place, though--there's one (on Free Comic Book Day) running in the next day or two at Salon, some stuff coming up in various print magazines and newspapers, and of course reviews and articles in PW Comics Week, which I encourage all of you to subscribe to--especially since it's free. I'm hoping to turn up in some form on as many comics blogs as possible the week the book comes out (want me to do something with your blog? drop me a line: blogtour [at-sign] douglaswolk [period] com). And I'll probably be doing semi-regular, very casual reviews of various periodical comics at my relatively-dormant-lately personal blog Lacunae.

There will, most likely, eventually be one or two more posts here as various 52-related things turn up. Meanwhile, Andrew Hickey's excellent new blog seems to have taken on the challenge of doing lengthy, discursive, analytical posts about Countdown; I'll be reading it.

Thanks so much to all the readers and commenters, both regulars and one-time-only chimer-inners, who made this blog such a joy to do, week after week--I've loved hearing what everybody has to say, and your observations and perspectives have made reading 52 a lot more fun for me. Special thanks to Ragnell for her fill-in in Week 17, and to the people who FedExed a copy of that week's issue to my camp at Burning Man, despite having an address not much clearer than "so there's this tent in the middle of the desert?"

And thanks most of all to Messrs. Giffen, Johns, Jones, Morrison, Rucka and Waid for the amazing ride, and to everyone else who helped make it possible. You've given me a year I won't forget.