Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Comic Book Summer Events and the Death of My Favorite Martian

The DC Multiverse has been shifting at a more rapid pace of late, and the total character death toll has subsequently risen. Take, for example, the proliferation of new tie-ins and spin-offs surrounding the latest and arguably most accessible of the “cosmic house cleaning” series thus far, Final Crisis (written by popular psychonaut Grant Morrison and drawn by the rarely-sequential J.G. Jones).

The first up for fiery sacrifice on the altar of sales: The Martian Manhunter, more recently remade as The Manhunter from Mars.

J’onn J’onzz (the deceased party’s Martian name, pronounced “John Jones“) has played a sizeable part in the background of the DC comics mythos since his introduction in 1955 in a back-up story titled “The Strange Experiment of Dr. Erdel”. As with most DC characters, his origin has been revamped several times, including his status as the last Martian to survive a mind-plague, his only real weakness (or his version of kryptonite, if you like) being fire. A telepathic shape shifter in addition to holding an array of Superman-like powers, he lacked popular appeal due in large part to his being overshadowed by better known characters and his rather dry personality.

His murder took place in Final Crisis #1 at the hands of Libra, a 1970’s villain returning for what he describes as “An end to the age of superheroes. A full-on no bull&@%& twilight of the gods.”

Since the death (and subsequent rebirth) of Superman in the early 1990’s, mainstream competitors DC and Marvel have ranged the death, derangement, or replacement of major characters whenever a major company event occurs. For a very limited example, in the months and years following the death of Superman DC had a drugged-up wrestler break Batman’s back, had old mainstay Green Lantern go insane after his hometown was destroyed, and most recently had Wonder Woman twist a man‘s head 180 degrees (killing him) on worldwide television. These events were designed to make sales, and can be seen mirrored in the competitor, with national attention being briefly (and vaguely) directed towards the death of Captain America. Joe Quesada, Editor in Chief at Marvel, tells his writers that if they are going to kill a character off, it should mean something. In the case of J’onn J’onzz, it perhaps signals that with the maturation of the medium as a whole, the larger-than-life archetypal characters of the DC Universe are being usurped by their own humanity.

More likely than that, it signals yet another Comic Book Summer Event.

Every summer the “mainstream” comic companies starts work with a cross-over of some sort, and in most cases it’s tied into storylines that have been built up over the months (or years) preceding it. Final Crisis arises from the year-long 52, which was preceded by the tepidly-received Infinite Crisis, hearkening back to and intensely tied with Crisis on Infinite Earths. The “core series” of Final Crisis acts as a sort of panoptical overview of the Summer Event, covering major plot points impacting numerous titles, whereas more detailed and personalized aspects of the story take place on a character-by-character basis in other titles, such as Revelations, Requiem, and Rogue‘s Revenge. It should be noted that there is a Summer Event taking place in the Marvel camp titled Secret Invasion. Content-wise the two mainstream competitor’s stories are carefully distanced, especially in terms of scale, but on a closer read they are essentially similar. The message for characters? Trust nobody, because otherworldly forces are hidden amongst us, and they are about to strike. Marvel is far more direct in their presentation, with the tagline “Who do you trust?” replacing the last Summer Event’s “Whose side are you on?” DC has a more subtle approach in their Event, with characters hinting that the war of good and evil already happened, and evil won.

In the first issue of Final Crisis, old Kirby creation and standard-issue wargod-with-father-issues Orion, of the New Gods, is found dead in a shipment of toy super-guns. Major players at the outset of the core books seem to be the Green Lantern Corps (space police, essentially), the Question (a faceless Ayn Rand Ditko creation, the role taken over by former Gotham cop Renee Montoya), Multiversal Monitors (cosmic maintenance men) and, of course, the Justice League of America. Superstars like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, missing during the events of 52, have now established more integrated roles than centerpieces to hang the major plot points on.

It’s been said that the balancing good storytelling with giving respect to the history of a character is one of the greater challenges for writers at DC. Certainly, when dealing with the aforementioned icons of the industry, the real money-makers, there seems a worn pattern in their stories that iconoclasts would sooner reject than deal with, or better yet, simply ignore. Yet with Final Crisis you can see Grant Morrison’s love of the medium, handling minor and major leaguers with equal aplomb, their roles and motivations integrated within the storyline, rather than a tacked-on twist or feeding into simplistic motivations. These characters are more human than they have seemed in years. The nuanced illustrations provided by J.G. Jones, an artist whose work of recent years has been mostly covers, lends the story to multiple readings.

In short, thus far DC has delivered the goods with this particular Summer Event. The death of the Martian Manhunter may mark a new revival of the unpredictable within the mainstream comic book industry, but only time will tell.

No comments: