Comics, FYI

By Graeme McMillan




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Comics, FYI
By Graeme McMillan • Issue #10 • View online
DC’s relationship to canon is getting more distant, and that’s a good thing.

Every now and then, you see an announcement that actually makes you stop for a second in stunned amazement. Like, for example, yesterday’s reveal that DC is launching a series called The Jurassic League in May, where the Justice League is reimagined as dinosaurs. 
If nothing else, the high concept alone is crazy enough to make the book worth checking out in some sense. The fact that it’s co-created and being written by Wonder Woman: Dead Earth and Extremity’s Daniel Warren Johnson, who’s also providing covers for the six-issue mini, just makes it even more appealing. (Juan Gedeon, who’s worked on Venom, is interior artist.) Johnson’s quotes about the project sum up the genuinely gonzo nature of the idea: “I dig the Justice League, but I dig them more as dinosaurs” is a statement so blunt that it’s difficult to disagree with; what’s the counterargument? “I prefer them as not dinosaurs”? 
Beyond any excitement at the very idea of seeing Superman, Batman et al as dinosaurs – because, I mean, come on – the announcement made me think about the approach that DC has been taking towards its primary superhero properties in the past few years, and in particular, the ways in which the publisher is (intentionally or otherwise) moving away from the idea of one central canon for these characters in comic book form. 
Since the debut of Marvel in the 1960s, the idea of continuity and canon has become increasingly central to the serialized superhero fiction. Whether it was the success of Marvel’s interconnected soap operatics – a novelty that quickly became the norm, just as would be the case in movies half a century later – or the rise of an older readership that wanted more complexity in their comics, publishers started to pull what had previously been disparate stories and characters into singular universes allowing for crossovers and team-ups and all kinds of cross-promotional shenanigans. 
Simply sharing a fictional universe wasn’t enough, though, and by the mid-80s – the point where the Direct Market was really taking off, and comics was arguably at the peak of its transition from casual hobby audience to dedicated collector fanbase – we were seeing things like Crisis on Infinite Earths, where effort was being made to ensure that fictional universes were streamlined and simplified, in theory to make them more palatable for newcomers. Anything that didn’t fit in with the dominant reality would be broadly labeled as such – a What If…? logo or an Elseworlds logo, or later Ultimate or All Star logos – to make sure that readers knew exactly what they were getting… but eventually, those went the way of all flesh, as well.
Quietly, though, DC has been making moves to change that. Even as it started expanding (re-expanding?) its definition of canon by reintroducing the multiverse concept in 2005’s Infinite Crisis, and then exploring in-continuity alternatives with projects like 2012’s Earth 2 and 2014’s The Multiversity, it started quietly pushing at boundaries in publishing terms, as well. 2017’s Mister Miracle was released without any specific label denoting its connection to central DCU continuity, raising questions that lasted its entire run. Certain then-DC executives I spoke to at the time would talk about it as a trial balloon for what eventually became the Black Label branding, which has published a number of explicitly non-canonical stories featuring DC heroes and villains since its 2018 introduction. 
The Black Label brand is absent on titles such as The Jurassic League, however, in part because the brand transitioned into an all-purpose “mature readers” label a year or so after its introduction. Nonetheless, The Jurassic League is just the latest in a number of projects set explicitly outside of DCU canon but featuring the company’s headline heroes.
Alongside Jurassic League, we’ve also got Dark Knights of Steel – which reinvents the DCU as a feudal fantasy story in some mix of Dungeons & Dragons and Alan Moore’s near-mythical Twilight of the Superheroes proposal from the 1980s, which DC actually published in a hardcover anthology of 1980s comics at the end of 2020 – as well as DC vs. Vampires, a 12-issue mini that is explained fairly well by its title. All three titles would, in another era, likely have been Elseworlds releases, being essentially attempts to tell a Justice League story with One Big Difference*, even if the difference is as big as “everyone is a dinosaur now.”
The forerunner of these New Elseworlds is DCeased, the 2019 miniseries that was so successful that it spawned no less than four spin-offs or sequels in the space of 18 months, all written by franchise co-creator Tom Taylor (They were, if you’re curious, one shot DCeased: A Good Day to Die, three issue mini DCeased: The Unkillables, the 15-part digital-first DCeased: Hope at World’s End, and the six-issue “official” sequel DCeased: Dead Planet, which seemed to bring the story to a close.) In terms of proof of concept that there was a market for Elseworlds-type projects featuring DC characters, it proved to be pretty definitive**.
In his newsletter last year, James Tynion talked about how DC vs. Vampires was the result of what he described as his jealousy of DCeased, and the way it was “able to play with all of the toys in the line, in a tight horror story.” That’s certainly one of the draws of the non-DCU titles for fans, as well, I suspect: each of these projects offers a story featuring any number of recognizable DC characters that doesn’t involve a buy-in to seventeen other books in order to get the full story. 
Thinking about the Black Label books, this new round of quasi-Elseworld titles, or even DC’s middle grade and young reader titles, I’m reminded of something Jim Lee said at the launch of DC Black Label: “Many of our perennially best-selling, critically acclaimed books were produced when we unleashed our top talent on stand-alone, often out-of-continuity projects featuring our most iconic characters, a prime example being Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.” It’s the “perennially best-selling” part that’s important, because it’s a recognition that (a) labyrinthine continuities and canons are, more often than not, roadblocks for any new readers who fancy reading a Superman story every now and then, and (b) casual readers tend to like stories that have beginnings, middles, and endings. If you want to reach an audience outside of the existing fanbase, the answer isn’t to reboot the universe every ten years, it’s to learn to tell different types of stories.
Something like The Jurassic League – or any of the new Elseworlds-esque titles – are perfectly positioned for the casual reader: outrageous high concepts in the set-up – “What if Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman were all dinosaurs?” “What if half of the Justice League were vampires?” – are the kind of thing that anyone can understand, in a way that “They’re all fighting the Great Darkness, which is a personification of non-existence but also a reference from 1980s Legion of Super-Heroes comics, and also ties in with all the other big event comics from the past 40 years” could never hope to achieve. (I say that as someone who’s really enjoying the Infinite Frontier storyline that’s been running over the past year or so; I’m arguably not the target audience for these books, though.)
It’s not as if DC is ignoring the hardcore fanbase that heads to stores weekly for the latest issues of their favorite comics – again, look at the ongoing Infinite Frontier event, or the (over-)abundance of Batman-related comics tied to the central continuity each and every week. We’re just about to get a crossover between The Flash, Teen Titans Academy and Suicide Squad over Earth-3 and a sequel to Flashpoint, of all things. 
Nevertheless, these Elseworlds-in-all-but-name feel worth paying attention to, and an opportunity for DC to try to grow the audience for its core superhero comic offerings in a way that the regular DCU titles simply aren’t equipped for. I’ll be watching to see how they all perform when collected, and what lessons (if any) DC will take from their performance either way. 
Still: the Justice League as dinosaurs! Who doesn’t want to read that?
* There’s also the recently-completed Justice League: Last Ride, which skewed far closer to Injustice in its One Big Difference: the death of the Martian Manhunter during a battle with Darkseid. It’s far less “high concept” than “the Justice League versus vampires,” or “the Justice League but they’re dinosaurs,” and perhaps suffered as a result, at least in terms of public perception; it pretty much vanished without trace. Nevertheless, it fits the Elseworlds model, even if it falters at the “high concept understood by non-comic readers” element a bit.
** DCeased was, in many ways, the result of Taylor’s success with the Injustice franchise, which also fit the Elseworlds model of the DCU that you know but One Big Difference – this time, that the Joker killed Lois Lane – and proved that Taylor could handle this kind of project. Being a tie-in to a heavily promoted game series might have skewed its success in the eyes of decision makers, though, making an original concept like DCeased necessary in the eyes of executives. 
It’s not a coincidence that Dark Ages, Marvel’s attempt to replicate the DCeased and Injustice model, has Tom Taylor attached as writer; it’s also probably not a coincidence that DC then signed him to an exclusive after Dark Ages was announced. Marvel has been trying to build its own continuity-free superhero evergreen library in recent years, with the Life Story books and the retooling of What If? into a series of standalone series, starting with last year’s Spider-Man: The Spider’s Shadow.
The biggest story of the week is something that isn’t really a story just yet. As reported by Rich Johnson, who picked up on the response to a FOIA request from a week or so back, Image Comics is under investigation by the federal National Labor Relations Board, for “engaging in unfair labor practices,” specifically “interfering with […] Image Comic employees’ Section 7 rights by intentionally disseminating misinformation.” 
That’s definitely a story, but the reason that I say that it’s not a story just yet is that the investigation is still underway – the projected completion date is February 23, but we’ll see if that’s an accurate guess or not as the date gets closer – meaning that no-one involved is really likely to say anything yet. I sent the Comic Book Workers United group an email about this a week ago, and still haven’t heard anything back at all, continuing a trend of no response to questions I sent in early January about certain accusations that, I suspect, are part of this current NLRB investigations. I suspect no-one’s going to have anything to say until the investigation is finished, for fear of being accused of interfering with the investigation. We’ll all likely find out more by the end of the month.
One last thing before wrapping things up for the week: Diamond Comic Distributors has announced its most-ordered products for last year, and it makes for very interesting reading. Even with the knowledge that Marvel switched distributors for the last quarter of the year, it seems telling that Marvel doesn’t place on the top 10 of periodicals until #4, and only has one entry in collected editions. (It’s Diamond, so there’s no DC at all.) Which Marvel titles show up is equally fascinating: of the six Marvel single issues to place in the top 10, three of them are licensed titles. (Two of them are Star Wars, as a sign of how important that license still is to the company.)
Apparently, a fuller listing of Diamond’s 2021 is due soon. I can’t wait to see it.
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Graeme McMillan

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