Maybe this'll shut 'em up.
Spider-Man Fever #3, by Brendan McCarthy and Steve Cook. Marvel.
Batman #700, by Grant Morrison, a letterer, and a total of 20 visual artists. DC.
Scroll to the parts in bold if you're here for reviews.
And that's really the name of the game, isn't it? Thinking about it on the way to the shop on Wednesday, I was struck by how fascinating it is that with retcons and reboots and various other meta-story hocus pocus, the continuity streams at the two big houses have been pushed back to the very beginnings and made to run uninterrupted until now. By which I mean, Marvel continuity starts with Human Torch in Marvel Comics #1, and DC continuity begins at Slam Bradley in Detective Comics #1. There's no way out of that fabric, no way to divorce your little comic from the epic tapestries that are those universes, least of all if you're working on a book for them these days. Most dudes doing the comics don't realize that -- most dudes who do don't care -- and most who care figure there's no point in doing anything about it. The ones to watch are the ones who are doing something, or at least trying to.
Trying is the fascinating part. Yeah, so Grant Morrison has invented some new characters in these... what is it like four years he's been doing Batman now? It doesn't matter. That's a fool's way of leaving a stamp. We all remember Xorn, right? My favorite line in all those Batman comics, the one I like more than the dada dialoguing, more than the pot references, more than the blood-and-thunder declamations, was a little shout-out to the mug's game that creating new things has been since Kirby left Marvel. It was the one where Talia asks Damian, the main character of Morrison's big meta-arc, the spirit of the new, the ticking time bomb Morrison has left in DC continuity to ultimately usurp the Batman's throne, if he really thinks everything will be the same once Bruce Wayne is back and Morrison leaves the book. "Perhaps you'll be lucky enough to rise through the ranks of the Teen Titans," she says. "Or not." The villain knows -- this stuff is never written in stone, and do you really think the hilarious little pixie from crazy Grant Morrison's weirdo run on Batman will ever don the cape and cowl in a continuity book? Let's just imagine how Slam Bradley felt when an entire multiverse of new existences surprised him after decades of unpublished sleep.
Brendan McCarthy knows too. He signs his Marvel work "McMarvel", and they let him. They let you do anything at Marvel as long as there's a fight at the end (there was) and you acquiesce to putting Spider-Man in your Dr. Strange comic (he did) and you do a story with Matt Fraction (it actually wasn't bad) and Spider-Man says "ass" by issue 3 (yup). It's gotta have that mod Marvel style, that Stan Lee touch. If the average American kid likes it, it's allowed. Which sounds all well and good, unless you object to what the average American kid is these days. But who in the hero comics game would? Marvel offers a sicko version of freedom, where as long as it's got a Bendis beginning to rope 'em in and you don't break anything at the end, you can do it.
And Brendan McCarthy goes with the flow, because this is probably the most readers he'll ever get and he gets to do the Ditko homage and I could honestly see how a lower-end Marvel book would be more appealing to a semi-mainstream guy like that than a hardcover at Fantagraphics. But he isn't stupid, and there's a lot of reticence in "McMarvel". It's a shoutout to the Ditkirbanko characters and concepts that somehow became an ill-cohering "universe" above and beyond the wills of their creators. It's acknowledging that this material is different than anything "McCarthy" ever did simply because the big guys are paying the bills. It's about knowing you're sublimating who you are as an artist and a person to serve the Disney corporation (despite the fact that you probably enjoy doing it) in the same way that that goofy clown hypes up Big Macs and fries. So McMarvel makes McDollars for some McBosses, and we get a few tripped-out, incredible McComics that are exactly what they say on the covers. A mix of expression and product, of man and machine, like a Kirby character or something. This shit ain't art, it's not that pure.
Fever #3, at least, is something weirder. It isn't as good as issue #2, which was the middle of the story, where Marvel let McCarthy do his thing free of stylistic or character-maintenance constraints. That comic, man, will live forever. But this is good too, because it's fun to see the guy draw insect lords and spider-punches, and he writes a damn good happy ending. And there are still kaleidoscopic colors. And there are still panels that look like nothing else before them. And when McCarthy has faithfully put the toys back in the box he takes one last page to give us Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's big laughing profiles, singing a corporate-owned lullaby as Spidey and Dr. Strange finally realize that they do the same hand motion to use their powers and the backgrounds fade to Ditko linework.
It's gorgeous and wistful and anyone with a heart or an aesthetic sense will wish there was more. But we never find out whether Ditko and Lee are laughing with joy at McCarthy's story, or at the plight of their immortal, Sisyphean characters being readied for another more normal adventure -- or at us, for buying into it all over these three gorgeous issues against our better instincts. Some fools hate on McCarthy for playing in this sandbox, for using old heroes and industry figures instead of stories and plots, but there's nowhere else he could achieve this richness, this complexity, this amount of inside-comics meta-meaning. For an artist who loves superheroes, and it's very obvious McCarthy does, this is the place to be.
Meanwhile at DC they don't let you do anything. Where Marvel always wants new and shiny, as long as it's something parallel to their vision of the new and shiny, DC wants old. You've got to tick the continuity-reference boxes every issue, when you bring back a villain you'd better have a storyarc explaining why, and your character can't say that or do that unless he did it in a George Perez issue thirty years ago. Most writers drown here. People always complain DC doesn't develop new talent like Marvel does, but if fucking "Eric Wallace" or "Sterling Gates" were writing low-tier books at Marvel they'd be the Next Big Things just because 1) they'd be hyped out the ass, and 2) they wouldn't have to play in the carousel of failed editorships, branding schemes, crossovers, madness that is the DCU. Marvel just wants you to write a stupid superhero comic. If you're Brendan McCarthy you can turn it into a really fascinating stupid superhero comic. But at DC, man, they want to kill a Moby Dick that doesn't exist. At 1700 Broadway they're trying to create a doomsday mechanism, some "story scheme" or "internal logic device" that will make it so every fan buys every single book regardless of quality. They aren't very good at it and it blows up in their faces a lot, but I've worked in stores and I can tell you, those mutants who are susceptible to the mechanism do exist. Some even buy the variant covers too.
Here's the thing, though: DC doesn't water down. The Marvel line has editors who are on top of things, throwing in pounds of chaff with the wheat and making sure that no one book they publish goes beyond a certain level of surface interest, that they don't put out anything too smart or too interesting. Spider-Man Fever is the best-written book they've put out since Jemas left, and it wasn't even to do with the quality of the ideas. There were just more of them in there than there are in a BruBendis comic, and that's something we haven't seen come out of Marvel in a hell of a long time. It felt like something that had slipped through the net, just like the crazier Kirby and the darker Ditko and that Steranko SHIELD issue where Nick Fury blames his nightmares on his "new cigars".
But DC? They don't have editors, they have overworked office mugs in a perpetual state of panic. Tonal consistency? Art quality? Character logic? Spelling? It doesn't matter, because OH MY GOD, we need a Firestorm relaunch event, and JESUS CHRIST, Geoff Johns wants another backrub! As long as you put in a reference to some old Paul Levitz book you're cool, and they'll just throw that comic out there, playboy! It's like they don't even read the comics blogs that call them on it. Yes.
The freedom DC offers is something stranger, less commercial, but it still gives with possibilities. It drives some men mad -- witness "JT Krul" rattling the cage with the most decadent orgies of filth and power fantasies the DCU has ever seen -- but getting away with it because his character shot heroin that one time Neal Adams drew him, and after all, he fucked a supervillain too! You want to base your fantasy death-porn comics experience around that? Yeah, the backstory works well enough, they can make it happen. They can make it all happen if you can make it jibe with the big picture. If Marvel is the Communists, cutting off the intelligentsia and making all things mediocre and equal, DC is America, where it's every man for himself and this is a free country as long as you pledge allegiance to the flag.
It's the perfect place for Grant Morrison, whose comics "don't make sense" a lot anyway, who used to brag about using chaos to make magic. The editors have no time to wrangle a mind that big, in fact none of them have a mind that compares, and besides, he's Grant Morrison, and besides besides, our digital comics platform is coming soon, promise! Morrison can truly do whatever he wants at DC because he thrives on the continuity. He'd be doing it even if they didn't make him. It's his idea of fun to do a comic like Batman #700, where he pops out a Batman-TV-show-style villain team-up, makes Batman Beyond official continuity (brownie points!), creates some new characters for the next writer to degrade, and kills an old and useless one. DC loves it when their writers do that. They love this violent, past-obsessed kind of thing so much they let Morrison write out their future in big awesome-ugly Dave Finch pages, where Bruce Wayne lives to a ripe old post-DK2 age and the city of tomorrow is called "Nugothotropolis". There are new names, new visions, new ideas mixed in with the old ones, ideas from a yesterday and ideas for a tomorrow -- unlike at Marvel where the idea is anathema and every day is the present. At DC time and creativity flow like crude oil in the Gulf of Mexico, like blood from a Tony Daniel villain's mouth. That is to say, it's ugly and it's stupid and it's not something a lot of people want, but it's by-God happening. So here's your review:
Batman #700 is the best issue thus far of Morrison's run. In 31 story pages it incorporates everything memorable about his tenure on the book -- continuity games, drug innuendo, electric dialogue, the futurist "666" issue, Frank Quitely artwork -- into a postmodern version of the old Jack Schiff "you solve it" Batman mysteries. The big conceit is that instead of red herrings and multiple suspects Morrison uses rapid shifts in time and the heroes' own befuddlement to shroud the plot events in uncertainty. The narrative careens from a Silver Age-ed up beginning featuring Bruce Wayne through bits with Morrison's current Batman & Robin team and the future Caped Crusader Damian Wayne before terminating in the farthest reaches of barely-glimpsed day-glo futures.
The art, by a different team for each time period shown, goes from glorious (Quitely, Andy Kubert) to hideous (Tony Daniel doing Carmine Infantino is not a pleasant thing), but even at its worst it never seriously maligns the story. However, Morrison does take full advantage of the cognitive dissonance the shifting art styles are bound to cause, throttling his writing into a different gear for each separate story segment. Playing on the reader's perception of the total experience the comic gives them, inconsistent art and all, Morrison does a fantastic job of obfuscating the solution to his "mystery" (actually nothing more than one of the Riddler's riddles) until the final splash page makes everything clear. The story is razor-sharp and unpredictable, with allusions to classic Batman comics of the past slamming up against brutal action sequences and glimpses of the tantalizing future Morrison is setting up for his characters. Uncommonly for a Morrison book, almost every page reads wonderfully outside of the context of the overarching plot. Full of more ideas than most entire storylines carry, Batman #700 is Grant Morrison in full control of his considerable craft, working with and not against the limitations of modern mainstream comics to deliver one of the few instant classics the past few years of them have given us. Nothing short of superb.
There, that's as coherent as I want to get. You should just read it -- good comic, better than you'd expect, absolutely worth your time. You want to know what part I liked best? Morrison's long-delayed realization that creating new characters or great storylines won't win you a place in the canon unless it's convenient to the editors. And that what does stick? The little stuff that every superhero comics nerd eats up on a plate, the stuff that high-fives the reader for having read so many of the same kind of books that they all liquefy and blur together into what high-toned fools call a "universe". Specifically, stuff like how every landmark in Gotham City has been named by some Batman writer after a dude who worked on Batman before he did, like "Adams Street", "Sprang Park", "Englehart Hotel" and whatnot. So when Morrison writes a suburb of the big town into his comic, he names it "Granton" to make sure he's here to stay. Because in this game quality's nice but it doesn't count for much, and after all, if a genius can write Batman he can do some other dumb shit too from time to time.
(More on Quitely in a day or two.)