The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

Hacking the story

As you already know by now from Robin and Tim’s posts, DC comics is relaunching the continuity of its primary universe. While I’ll admit that my first reaction as a current collector of a handful of DC titles (Batman, Detective, Red Robin, Batgirl, Batwoman if it ever comes out, and anything with The Question—I’m new here, I have to establish my bona fides), is to geek out over all the details.

Barbara Gordon will be Batgirl again (and even better , written by Gail Simone)! Tim Drake loses his own title, but gets a new costume! Superman won’t be wearing red underwear over his tights anymore! Wonder Woman is keeping the pants! Other details, I’m sure! 

And before I try to make a bigger argument, let’s all focus on the fact that the details are all that really matter here. This isn’t the first time that DC has rebooted its continuity. 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths was arguably DC’s first attempt to bring all of its titles together into a common, consistent universe. Zero Hour followed in 1994, and Infinite Crisis in 2005.

There have been other big crossover storylines like Armageddon: 2001, Identity Crisis, Final Crisis, and Blackest Night, but while these storylines have had greater or smaller impacts of the status quo, they didn’t, for the most part, erase most or all of established storyline history.

In this light what’s really notable is that A.) we’re ahead of schedule (the next reboot shouldn’t be until 2014 or 2015), and B.) all title numbers are being reset to #1.

Which is, of course, a marketing ploy. Industry wisdom is that #1s sell better. If DC’s marketing department had their wish, every issue would be #1, every month. A world of one-shots! Every issue a collector’s item!

But all of this still misses what’s really interesting about the relaunch, and every Elseworlds title, every Crisis, every Age of Apocalypse, House of M, Ultimatum, and on, and on, and on.

Continuity is a storytelling technology. It’s a way of organizing information, conveying character over extended periods of time, giving depth to plot, and communicating history in a way that doesn’t demand retelling with each iteration.

It’s an enormously useful tool, with rewards for both writer and reader, but it also has limitations. It highlights any asymmetry in knowledge between writer and reader. If the story you’re reading demands familiarity with a previous story you missed, you can feel lost. If the writer contradicts a previous story, you can feel that something is wrong. In a medium, like superhero comics, where the suspension of disbelief is critical, a discontinuity can be fatal.

Or not. As the DC Universe in particular illustrates, continuity is nothing if not elastic. Between 1938 and 1985, it wasn’t even seen as particularly necessary. Each corner of the DC Universe largely concerned itself with its own particular space, and, in practice if not editorial principle, that’s largely true today as well. In fact, I’d argue that every new story recreates its own continuity. That is, this big thing that we’re spending all our time worrying about, hyping, ruing the lost of, it doesn’t really exist. Every writer constantly has to decide what to use, what to ignore, and what to re-invent. There’s even a word for changing continuity on the fly— retcon, for “retroactive continuity,” which is now both a noun and a verb.

Robin makes an excellent point that continuity, this depth of character and wealth of story, is the one major attraction that the big comic companies still hold for creators — and that if you have a lottery-ticket idea, the character and story that will be the next Batman, or Harry Potter, or Twilight, then you’d be a fool to sell it to Marvel or DC like Bob Kane, Jerry Siegel, and Joe Shuster did back in the 1930s. It would probably be more accurate to view Marvel and DC as they currently exist not as comic book companies, but intellectual property holding corporations that happen to print a handful of comic books, as just one way in which they manage and profit from their IP. I guarantee you that at the top levels, it’s how they view themselves. They have to.

But at the same time, it’s not really an either-or position. Jim Lee, one of the founding forces behind Image Comics — who may not have created creator-owned comics, but gave the proposition market power like few entities before — is also one of the driving forces behind the DC relaunch, which will introduce a number of his former Image franchises such as Grifter and Stormwatch into DC continuity.

This, of course, isn’t the first time that DC has integrated other universes into its own. Captain Marvel was originally a property competing with (and more popular) than Superman, until DC sued, shut down publication, and eventually acquired the character. Alan Moore’s groundbreaking Watchmen comic originally grew out of DC’s acquisition of Charleton Comics’ characters, but since Moore’s storyline made many of the characters, um, unusable, DC made him create new ones. (Captain Atom became Dr. Manhattan, The Question became Rorschach, etc.)

By rebooting its continuity, DC is, in effect, updating its operating system. We’ll know in a few months whether it’s Linux or Vista.

But rather than thinking of continuity as some sort of sacred history of tradition, let’s remember that it’s a technology. And like any technology, it might be most interesting once we start thinking about how it can be hacked.

The canonical example of a continuity hack may be Watchmen — but I’d also throw in Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and Steven T. Seagle’s It’s a Bird. All of these stories play with continuity, not in order to retcon, reboot, or reinforce it, but to use that root access for their own idiosyncratic purposes. And it’s these interventions, not the big events, that ultimately bring the stories back to their foundations and move the whole industry forward.


The Cave, The Corps, The League


I’m going to jump in the middle of Robin and Gavin’s exchange on the DC Comics reboot, even though I explicitly told both of them that I didn’t want to read about it and had nothing to say about any of it, because some things Robin just wrote sparked some ideas that I want to follow here.

Today, you don’t go work at Marvel and DC because of what they are; you go because of what they have. It’s almost like a natural resource. Superman and Batman are potent substances. They have this incredible innate energy, this incredible mythic density, built up over decades. They really are like petroleum—a bright eon of individual organic contributions all compressed into this powerful stuff that we can now burn for light, for entertainment, for money… How do you weigh the opportunity to work on an old titan like Superman against the opportunity to create something wholly new, and to potentially profit from that creation? Is it only sentimental or emotional value that draws an artist to the former—or is there more?… Maybe what we’re talking about here is the difference between being an entrepreneur and being a custodian. We tend to think of artists as entrepreneurs, right?—inventors, trailblazers, risk-takers. To make meaningful art is often simply to try something new.

Now before I start, I want to stipulate a few things. First, I want to take seriously Robin’s two primary arguments in his post:

  1. “I want to talk not about Superman’s universe, but our own—because I think this strategy says something interesting about creative economics today.” Let’s call this the explicit argument.
  2. Comic books themselves, as content, not just the strategies of their publishers and artists, have something to say about this. Let’s call this the implicit argument.

And I want to add a third point, that I’ll call the unconscious argument. It’s something I don’t think Robin necessarily intended, but which is entailed in the way he formulates the problem:

Everywhere in Robin’s post where he writes “artists,” you can substitute “journalists“—and probably many other nodes in creative economies, broadly construed.
Read more…

The cosmic custodians

This is the first of two posts pegged to DC Comics’ upcoming restart of all its series with issue #1. The second will come from longtime Snarkmarket pal Gavin Craig. Update: We tricked Tim into writing about Green Lantern!

So it’s been tweeted and blogged about: this fall, DC Comics is going to restart every single one of its series (Superman, Batman, the Justice League, and on and on) with a new issue #1. Costumes have been redesigned; storylines have been streamlined.

It is a move that’s similar to—though much more sweeping than—Marvel’s Ultimate strategy. In both cases, there’s a recognition that the accumulated story-cruft of the past fifty years (or even the past five) isn’t really interesting to anyone any more. The weight of continuity and consistency crushes you in the end—so let’s just drop it. Let’s start fresh. Let’s get back to the primes of the story.

But I want to talk not about Superman’s universe, but our own—because I think this strategy says something interesting about creative economics today, and I think it raises some interesting questions about what it means to be an artist.

But first, the 90s.

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The Last Hours of @MayorEmanuel

As a follow-up to my earlier compilation, “The Two Mayors,” here is the stunning conclusion to the story of @MayorEmanuel. He won the election and as predicted by Mayor Daley, vanished into a time vortex in order to save the multiverse.

I’ve also been boning up on my @MayorEmanuel backstory, and man, it is totally batshit in the best possible way. There are layers and layers to this thing that I couldn’t even guess at, and a few I’m probably still missing. In short, the anonymous author(s) of the thread have been building towards this science-fiction/comic-book resolution of the story for a while now, first planting the seeds months ago, then grinding them up like fine celery salt.

You can read a quick-and-dirty PDF of all of @MayorEmanuel’s tweets here, assembled by @najuu (h/t Carla Casilli). I’m not Storifying the whole thing, because 1) Twitter’s archives have a hard time going back that far in the Storify interface and 2) even if they did, I’m not stupid. But I would like to do my small part to gather the limbs of Osiris just here at the end. Enjoy.

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The Two Mayors

Today, the city of Chicago elects its mayor. In other cities, there would be a primary vote, then another at the time of the general election in November. But given the scarcity of Chicago Republicans — it’s like 25 guys, and they’re all professors in three departments at U of C — the Democratic primary would effectively determine who will be mayor of the city anyways.

So, Chicago’s mayoral race is nonpartisan. And it’s at the end of February — which in Chicago, is even more masochistic than it would be in cities with a more temperate climate.

Since Chicago’s longstanding Mayor Richard M Daley announced he would not seek re-election for another, Rahm Emanuel, former Chicago-area Congressman, Democratic Party powerhouse, and (until recently) Chief of Staff for President Obama, has sought to sew this thing up. There were some brief problems establishing his residency and right to run for office, but now it looks like he’s off to the races.

Since Emanuel announced he was running for office, he’s been joined by a delightfully funny and foul-mouthed shadow on Twitter calling himself @MayorEmanuel. Like Fake Steve Jobs before him, @MayorEmanuel combines a kind of exaggeration of the known qualities of the real Rahm Emanuel — profanity, intelligence, hyper-competitiveness — with a fully-realized, totally internal world of characters and events that has little to do with the real world and everything to do with the comic parallel universe @MayorEmanuel inhabits.

For instance, @MayorEmanuel’s “about” section on Twitter reads: “Your next motherfucking mayor. Get used to it, assholes.” The idea is that if we strip back the secrecy and public image to something so impolitic, so unlikely, we might arrive at something approximating the truth. But, despite my status as a one-time — and actually, I still hope future — Chicagoan, I haven’t been a regular reader of @MayorEmanuel. My friends retweet his funniest one-liners, and that’s good enough for me.

Yesterday, however, @MayorEmanuel outdid himself. He wrote an extended, meandering narrative of the day before the primary that took the whole parallel Rahm Emanuel thing to a different emotional, comic, cultural place entirely. It even features a great cameo by friend of the Snark Alexis Madrigal. The story is twisting, densely referential, far-ranging — and surprisingly, rather beautiful.

And so, once more using the magic of Storify, I’d like to share that story with you. I’ve added some annotations that I hope help explain what’s happening and aren’t too distracting.

In its original form, it has no title. I call it “The Two Mayors.” Read it after the jump.

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The Modern Metropolis

Henry Jenkins interviews Jorn Ahrens, talking about comics and the city:

Are there specific ideas about the city which originate with comics or do you see comics as primarily replicating ideas which are in broader circulation?… What have comics added to our understanding of what it means to live in the city?

I see primarily the coincidence of the historical emergance of an environment of mass society, most clearly accentuated in modern urbanity with its implementation of the modern self, speed, a stone-born-nature, etc. and new types of mass media of which the comic is one. This coincidence, in my view, feeds a very particular and reflexive relation between the comic and the city. The film, too, is involved in this development. However, I see the comic being special here when its frozen sequentiality also corresponds with the frozen architecture of the sublime that the modern city contunally tries to realize…

Comics made the city readable. The city as social realm strongly refers to communication via images. Comics help turning these images into cultural narratives and aesthetics and to create outstanding icons of modern identity, landmarks of our self-understanding that are, by definition, not bound to specific cities or nations.

Anne Trubek looks at Superman’s original hometown (his first one on Earth, that is):

In 1933, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster dreamed up the comic strip hero with superpowers. Both boys were from immigrant Jewish families and lived down the street from each other in Glenville, then a booming, overwhelmingly Jewish, middle-class neighborhood, with kosher markets selling Yiddish newspapers on nearly every street corner. At the time, Cleveland was the fifth most populous American city, and a forward-thinking one at that, being the first to install public electricity and trolleys.

Siegel’s father first arrived in Cleveland as a sign painter, but he soon left that profession to open a haberdashery in a less prosperous part of town, only to die from a heart attack when robbers entered his store. According to Gerard Jones’ indispensible book Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book, the Siegel family was told that he had been shot in the chest. (Whether this incident was the inspiration for a bullet-proof superhero is unknown but seems plausible.)…

Judi Feniger, executive director of the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, notes that Siegel and Shuster both exemplify the Cleveland immigrant story, as children of parents who may not have spoken English. They had a “working-class ethic that is particularly Cleveland, and particularly Glenville,” she says. In 2008, the museum hosted the exhibit “Zap! Bow! Bam!” about the creation by Jewish immigrants of Superman and other comic book heroes.

Yeah. I’m probably just going to blog about comic books and sports for a while.

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Jillian Tamaki’s Comic-Con report—in comic format—is my new favorite thing. Her style is irresistible; so sketchy, spare and elegant. I’m jealous.

I’m gonna buy her book. (You should click that link because there’s a smart idea about the important of play waiting for you on the other side.)


Waiting for Superman

Times like this truly do make me wish superheroes were real.

There’s an affecting moment in J Michael Straczynski’s recent run on the comic Thor. The Norse god of thunder’s been dead for three years, but has come back to life, as only gods and comic book superheroes can.

One of the first places he goes is New Orleans. Thor was dead when Hurricane Katrina hit a year earlier, and he knows he could have stopped the hurricanes, the floods, or otherwise saved the city and its people. But he wonders where the rest of the superheroes were: “Why were not force fields erected? Why were tides not evaporated by heat and blast? Why were buildings not supported by strength of arms and steel?”

Just then, Iron Man shows up, to tell Thor that all superheroes need to register with the federal government to prevent superpower-caused disasters. Instead of preventing Katrina or repairing New Orleans, Iron Man and his fellow superheroes have been fighting each other over this registration requirement, part of what Marvel Comics called Civil War.

There’s some meaning to be drawn from this, that I can’t fully articulate. Something about thinking too small, thinking about short-term hurdles and squabbles rather than the big picture; a blindness to the fact of habitual human suffering that would be willful if it weren’t also somehow sickeningly necessary.

I’m not sure. But I think I know why I’ve been reading more comic books lately.


This I can guarantee

This comic (by Apostolos Doxiadis, Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donnais) is the best graphic treatment you will read that summarizes and explains both the life and ideas of Claude Lévi-Strauss and the great Aeschylus trilogy The Oresteia. It is also probably the only comic strip you’ll read that talks about topological transformations, and the “algebra of action.” I think I can say that with some certainty.

The nerd/insidery factor is high here, but speaking as a quasi-expert who’s always looking for ways to make obscure lit/theory intelligible, I think it actually really does a good job of clarifying some of this stuff. And it actually works as a little three-page comic, too.

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Every house is haunted


As established, I’m a Grant Morrison fan, but apparently I’m a bit out-of-the-loop because I didn’t know about his new project Joe the Barbarian. There’s a great preview and write-up over at Super Colossal. The series chronicles a teenager’s travels through his own house:

[…] the next seven issues […] will document parallel journeys through the house. One where we follow Joe descending through the house from the attic to the basement (where I am assuming his medication is?) and the other where he follows a Narnian/Wizard of Oz like adventure populated by his toys and the contents of the house.

And I love this bit of context from Morrison:

So like I said, it’s really quite grounded, because it’s all about this journey down from the attic to the basement of the house. And I think we can all relate to that, because man of us will have had those moments when we were sick or feverish and had to venture down to the kitchen to get something that would make us better. And we all know how difficult it can be to cross familiar ground if you’re weak or injured or delirious. The terrain of an ordinary home can easily become larger than life and apocalyptically meaningful.

What a great hook to hang a story on! There are shades of Toy Story and The Indian in the Cupboard here, or even Home Alone. It’s that same denaturalization.

Click through and check out the last panel. It alone makes me want—maybe even need—to check this series out.