Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Light a Candle, Curse the Darkness

Posted by Don MacPherson on January 17th, 2010

So it seems DC Comics is endeavoring to revert its core super-hero line back to a lighter, brighter tone, and to be honest, I welcome the shift in atmosphere. I have no problem with darker, more mature takes on super-heroes; they can be entertaining and even thought-provoking. But the genre was originally crafted as fun escapism, with plot elements full of wish fulfillment and adventure. DC’s uber-successful Blackest Night event is leading into Brightest Day and a new bi-weekly Justice League series that appears to embrace the goofiness of the humor-era Justice League comics of the late 1980s.

There are other indications that DC Universe titles are going to adopt a brighter atmosphere. DC announced last week it will launch a new 18-part Who’s Who series in May, as well as a generations-spanning history of its shared super-hero universe, penned by Len Wein, whose heyday in comics was in the 1970s and ’80s. Paul Levitz is returning to the Legion of Super-Heroes, a property he personally guided to popularity in the 1980s.

Furthermore, it’s not hard to find other instances in recent months and years that DC was slowly shifting back in this direction. Gerry Conway, a mainstay of mainstream super-hero comics in the ’70s and ’80s, penned an Animal Man limited series. Trinity, the 2008-2009 weekly series penned by Kurt Busiek and Fabian Nicieza, definitely adopted a more traditional super-hero tone. And when DC relaunched The Brave and the Bold with Mark Waid and George Perez as creators, it was definitely with an eye toward a more nostalgic feel. Booster Gold‘s a light, fun, adventure title, and last year’s Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds harkened back to DC’s big team-up events of yesteryear.

But then, there are several examples of new and recent projects that seem to fly in the face of that lighter tone. If Brightest Day promises to set a brighter tone, why has DC tapped its newly exclusive artist David Finch to provide cover images for the series? Finch is a popular artist, yes, but when one considers his resume, it leans toward a gritter style and even ugly imagery (such as the ultimate in distasteful Ultimatum moments — the Blob consuming the Wasp). Is Finch the artist to provide the brighter face of DC super-heroes in the new decade? I don’t think so.

Justice League: The Rise and FallThere are also the excesses of Justice League: Cry for Justice, from the suggestion that Green Lantern had a threesome with two costumed heroines and the transformation of Red Arrow/Arsenal into Arm-Ripped-Off-Boy (complete with an upcoming storyline about the fallout over the archer’s new one-armed status). DC executive editor Dan DiDio has announced that Titans will fall under the Brightest Day banner, but the new creative team to do so on the book is the same team that brought us a dark, urban drama in Final Crisis Aftermath: Ink. Some of these decisions seem contradictory in nature.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that DC ought to abandon all darker, more mature takes on super-heroes. Grant Morrison’s Batman and Robin offers an entertaining mix of campy elements and dark intensity, and Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III’s Batwoman serial in Detective Comics, just to cite two examples.

The truth is that DC has been offering a variety of super-hero material, some designed to be edgier and more adult in tone and some that harken back to a simpler, lighter approach to the genre. Even at its darkest, it had offered all-ages super-hero titles at the same time. The balance seems to shift back and forth over the years, but there’s clearly room for both.

My chief concern isn’t so much whether or not the storytelling is bright or night, but whether or not it’s any good.

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10 Responses to “Light a Candle, Curse the Darkness”

  1. ThatNickGuy Says:

    Honestly, I’ll believe it when I see it. The problem is that it seems DC promotes “going back to the light” after just about every major event. I recall they said something very similar during Infinite Crisis. Yet, we got 52, which included some pretty gory moments, most of which occured through Black Adam.

    I could be wrong, but didn’t they say something similar would occur after Final Crisis? I could be wrong.

    Anyway, my point is, they mention this every once in awhile and it never happens. So, like I said, I’ll believe it when I see it.

  2. Randy Lander Says:

    Yep, I was going to post almost exactly what ThatNickGuy had to say. DC in general, and Geoff Johns in particular, have been promising that all this darkness was just the night before the bright new dawn, that we had to have all this rape and murder and mutilation to let the heroism shine through…

    And it’s been bullshit every time. More to the point, it’s been pretty clearly proven to be the opposite of what fans want. So I’ll believe it when I see it, and honestly, even though I’d rather read a brighter, more heroic DC (and Marvel, for that matter) universe, I don’t see that day coming anytime soon.

  3. ThatNickGuy Says:

    What’s worse that, although Johns is a good writer for the most part, he’s been part of the problem when it comes to the darker stuff. A lot of his stories wind up being pretty gory. I point out examples such as any time Black Adam or Superboy Prime kills someone, Infinite Crisis in general and more recently, the decapitation of a Kryptonian in the New Krypton story.

    He’s not, by any means, the only person responsible. As Don pointed out, there are other prime examples.

  4. Bring back Jenette Kahn! Says:

    I share the same views about DC as the previous posters and this is coming from long time DC reader. While Geoff Johns should get some of the blame, the main reason why DC is in the state it’s in is Dan Didio. Rape, murder and mutilation in the DC Universe has been his agenda from the the beginning. The moment he’s gone from DC is the moment we’ll finally see this Brightest Day DC have been promising for years.

    Oh hey, Randy, we haven’t talked since you were contributing regularly at Comicpants. I pretty much agree with you, except for the Marvel bit. I believe they doing a great job in balancing the fun and gritty/gory stuff than DC. It definitely reflects that in the sales, as Marvel is getting what the fans (most of them, anyway) wants.

  5. Don MacPherson Says:

    I don’t think it’s fair to heap the blame on Johns. He’s written quite a few lighter stories. His Superboy stories in Adventure Comics have been wonderful, as have his Legion stories. Personally, I find that Blackest Night has a certain charming simplicity to it as well.

  6. Paul Says:

    I stopped reading comics after Final Crisis. Up until Morrison “killed off” Bruce Wayne, the title was interesting in a wacky, crazy way. DC can be pretty awesome at times (I thought Identity Crisis was great) and I love a lot of their characters but they appear to be teaming them up and throwing them into events far too often. I used to love reading certain titles like Batman, Detective, JLA, Superman, Green Lantern and Flash. I would get my fix of big team-ups in JLA, and then I’d be able to delve into whichever character I was into at the moment in their own monthly title. These days there are gigantic events almost every five months and sub-events layered beneath those events which inevitably trickle into the “single” titles (i.e. Superman, Batman). I do agree that while darker, more mature takes on superhero characters are enjoyable and interesting, it doesn’t always have to be grim-n-gritty. I agree with Don that Morrison is doing a great job on Batman & Robin balancing both.

  7. Alex Says:

    Don, et al,
    I also hope for a brighter day for DC. Recently I read Mark Waid’s run on The Brave and the Bold and was delighted that someone still knew how to do a straightforward exciting superhero adventure story. I am beginning to wonder if it’s almost a lost art, that so many writers have been learning the dark arts for so many years that they never developed the sensibility to just have fun with the characters and not be so so serious, brutal and grim.

    It concerns me that, as one of you noted, most readers prefer darkness to light in their comics–as if fun and adventure is too childish and dark and violent is more adult. I’ve been reading comics throughout my middle-aged life, and I’ve never lost my love of fun.

  8. Don MacPherson Says:

    DC’s experience with The Brave and the Bold brings up an interesting point, though. Even with such popular creators as Waid and Perez on the book, it failed to sustain a larger audience. Perhaps that was one of several signals that people weren`t looking for lighter, more traditional fare.

    Conversely, The Brave and the Bold cartoon and its much lighter approach to super-heroes has fared well on TV, so it seems DC and its partners are getting conflicting messages.

  9. Paul Says:

    I agree with Alex. Haven’t read comics in a while, but I have always enjoyed Mark Waid’s style of storytelling. He always tends to maintain a mature tone and balances that with some great fun. Oddly enough, the uber-mature reading title Empire he did years ago is a great example of great balance. I always loved Batman as a character because he’d bring tons of brooding mystery to his cohorts who were far more colorful and fun (Flash, Lantern). Maybe I’m nuts, but I would opt for Mark Waid to take over this whole Brightest Day direction altogether.

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