Friday, 25 January 2013

All things must end

I've moved house recently and as a result have been sifting through my old comics. And as a result I have been reading a lot of old comics. (Something my shift to digital will rob me of. But I'll treasure the resultant shelf space.) This has reminded me of something I meant to discuss about a year and a half ago.

In October 2011, DC Comics rebooted their fictional universe. Some series were restarted from scratch, while other ones carried on more or less unchanged - albeit with minor background modifications or knock-on effects from other, more substantial revisions. (Green Lantern is the most unsettling one, as it carried on without missing a step ... But it soon became apparent that the Superman comics had decided the Death of Superman arc was no longer canon, effectively removing Hal Jordan's tenure as Parallax and Kyle Rayner's entire origin. Sticking-plaster patches are slowly being introduced, though I'm still not sure how Blackest Night played out. But I digress.)

For the series with a major reshuffle, the month before "the New 52" was an interesting proposition. Not only a last issue, but also the last post of an entire universe, with no worries about your story being problematic for anyone else down the line - or undone by a careless writer who hadn't checked if a character was still available. It was, for writers in an ongoing franchise, a rare opportunity to write an actual, definitive ending.

Writers approached this goldmine with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The Teen Titans got a happy ending, with resolution of romantic subplots and the final defeat of a long-standing enemy. The Justice Society ended with a funeral for a Golden Age hero who gave his life to save the world. Gail Simone destroyed her Secret Six in an inescapable battle royale.

And in JLA, James Robinson gave us a vision of a future that would never be.

I've read before - in message-board comments from the late, great Dwayne McDuffie, comments which allegedly led to his removal from the title - how frustrating it is to write the JLA. It should be the world's greatest gig. All your favourite characters fighting together for great justice! Cosmic threats and wonders of the world! The chance to really make your mark on the DC universe! Sadly the reverse is apparently true.

Because the JLA is such a flagship title, and features so many characters with series of their own, it is hard to avoid becoming embroiled in this month's Big Thing. You plot out a year's story arc, cherry-pick your favourite characters, and are then told that actually that guy is going to spend three months dead around December, and this girl will develop water powers in June, and actually we need all of Autumn to be a big part of Secret Crisis Invasion From Mars so just put all of your own stuff on hold for those three months, okay?

(The continuity problem can be addressed by building your league out of minor characters, or at least ones who currently have no book of their own. The crossover problem can only really be avoided by sticking two fingers up at the editors. Grant Morrison managed to do this to both problems, by writing his JLA plots as contained arcs and catching up on character development in between. Oh, and he had the foresight to become a critically-acclaimed creator beforehand, which helped. But I digress.)

There were certainly signs of that in Robinson's all-too-brief tenure. One issue into his 18-month run, we have a two-issue Blackest Night tie-in followed closely by a four-month Brightest Day event. The roster promoted in adverts and on some covers never really materialised. In at least one case, a character was literally yanked out of the middle of an issue to take part in a crossover. And then, just as he was hitting his stride with the Rise of Eclipso, he had to put his toys away.

So he skipped ahead and presented his characters talking over the events of the intervening weeks. It's clear these off-handed references - presented as a handful of splash pages bristling with creative energy - are the stories he had all planned out but would never get to pen. The robot rebellion. The Saturn-Thanagar War. The Battle for Gemworld. It's unclear whether Robinson is whistful for missed opportunities or bitter with frustrated ambition, but either way he's taking the opportunity to make them real, even if only in a vague, retroactive sort of way.

One by one the characters leave, and before they shut out the lights on this era we have this little exchange between Dick Grayson and Donna Troy. And it's clearly Robinson addressing the audience.
"Do you think they'll remember us? ... The people. The world. Think they'll remember this version of the JLA and all that we did?"

"Who can say? We did what we could with what we were given and I'm proud. I'll remember. Other people? Honestly who cares, it's not why I'm in this anyway..."

I think that sums it up, really. There's no bitterness there, only acceptance and gratitude. The man is so gracious it's sickening. But really, it's the best way to approach this sort of thing. Don't carry your resentments forward, just hold onto the positive.

It's been a blast, but all things must end.


EDITED TO ADD: For some clearer scans of the panels in question, see this BleedingCool article ... and for JR's comments on those closing words (some time after the fact), this interview.