“The only thing I can think of to do in that situation is what I usually do, which is lie and pretend I totally meant that to happen all along. Like, instead of a real gun, it’s a magic crime-solving gun, and how I always knew Despero’s secret plan was to take over the universe. I might even mention a few proper detective phrases, like ‘dusting for prints’ or ‘checking the carpet for hairs’. Once I get started, I can keep it up for hours. That’s why I, Ralph Dibny – I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – am, or was, the World’s Greatest Detective! In your face, Batman, you truth-telling beeeyotch.” – Ralph Dibny
In 2006, DC Comics, entirely by accident, put out a really good comic series.
DC had just finished a gigantic mega-crossover Nothing Will Ever Be The Same story called Infinite Crisis, in which absolutely nothing at all edifying happened (the plot, in so far as there was one, involved Superboy going insane, punching time to explain continuity errors away, then killing a different Superboy, while the original, proper, Siegel & Shuster Superman first turned evil, then got mocked by everyone, then also got killed by insane Superboy, while various comic characters stood around in the same poses they’d appeared in in other, better, comics, in order to ‘reference’ them. Utter, utter, irredeemable shit). At the end of this misbegotten mess, every DC comic jumped forward a year, had a new status quo (often the old status quo – so Comissioner Gordon was back in charge of Gotham police force, when earlier he’d been retired, and so on), and *we didn’t know what had happened*.
Dan DiDio (DC’s editor-in-chief) and Paul Levitz (DC’s publisher) decided they wanted to combine the real-time feel of 24 with the doling-out-answers-to-mysteries of Lost and make a gazillion dollars, so they commissioned a series called 52 that would, over the course of 52 weekly installments, tell us what had happened during that missing year. It was to be written by Geoff Johns (the writer of Infinite Crisis) and Greg Rucka (a solid, reliable writer who was also a friend of Johns). It’d cover the whole of the DC ‘universe’, and show why all the changes had been made.
As originally conceived, this would have been terrible, but before writing started it was decided to bring in two more writers – Mark Waid (a solid writer with a good knowledge of obscure DC characters) and his friend Grant Morrison (I may have mentioned him once or twice on here…) and it very quickly turned from an editorial-driven comic to a writer-driven one, keeping only the ‘real-time, missing year’ bits, and forgetting all about explaining dull continuity points. DiDio apparently hated the result (according to Waid he described the next DC weekly series, Countdown – quite possibly the worst thing in existence ever, and the final argument against the existence of a benevolent god – as “52 done right”) but it was a hit.
It was also a genuinely good comic. Not perfect – it sagged a *LOT* in the middle issues, and was wildly inconsistent – but every issue had *something* to recommend it, if only J.G. Jones’ stunning covers, and as a whole work it still works almost as well as it did as a serial, which I wouldn’t have bet on at the time.
Partly as an artistic decision, partly for practical reasons, the structure of the story ended up following very closely Morrison’s earlier work Seven Soldiers (about which more soon) . There was a central mystery, apparently Morrison’s idea (which DiDio decided to spoil before the end) , which was approached by several characters investigating several things, with each thread only briefly connecting. There were more explicit connections between the different threads than there had been in Seven Soldiers, but to a large extent each storyline was handled by a single writer – as Waid explains:
Some plot threads were passed like a baton more than others; I think all of us wrote John Henry Irons at one time, whereas the Montoya stuff was all Greg’s because it was important it maintained a very specific voice, and the space stuff was all Grant’s because none of us could figure out what the hell he was doing even though we enjoyed it greatly. Me, I get credit for Wicker Sue. Geoff and I shared Booster and probably collaborated more as a pair on different plot elements because we were the only two who lived in the same town.
But we definitely fed off one another’s talent and swapped some tips and tricks, and probably permanently raised one another’s game.
While Morrison said “Seven Soldiers was, in many ways, a blueprint for what we did in 52 – the idea of one big, extended epic, featuring a bunch of C-list heroes, and comprised of interlocking story arcs and plot threads had already worked very successfully there. ”
It is an interesting experiment to read 52 separated into its constituent stories, as in the 52 remixed project. (NB do not download these as a substitute for buying the actual comics – it’s a very different experience). This reworks 52 into six miniseries – Black Adam: Reign Of Death, Booster Gold: Somewhere In Time, Ralph Dibny: The Quest For Fate, The Mystery in Space , The Question: Answer the Question and U.S. Steel: Be Your Own Hero.
Reading these stories like this is interesting, not only because you get to cut out the utterly pointless Steel story, which has little connection to the rest and is tedious beyond measure, but because you get to see exactly how ‘stand-alone’ the different threads of the story are. Every individual story comes very close to making sense in its own terms, but there are little hanging threads all over the place that never get picked up on in the same story that they start in, even though the big picture makes sense.
But the really interesting thing about 52 – even more than the comic itself – was the level of involvement from fans, of which 52 remixed was only one aspect. Most ‘famously’ (for values of famously that equal being known about among that part of the internet that talks about comics) journalist Douglas Wolk had a blog called 52 Pickup that analysed and annotated each issue as it came out, but by far the most interesting manifestation of this was Ralph Dibny’s Diary.
The Dibny Diary was the work of British comics writer Al Ewing, and is in many ways as interesting as 52, if not more so. Starting from the third issue, every week Ewing wrote a comedy blog post in character as ex-superhero Dibny (or, later, Dibny’s therapist, or Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Master) , dealing with the events of that week’s issue of the comic, but also filling in the rest of the events in Dibny’s life, showing Dibny as a narcissistic, washed-up, delusional, suicidal wreck, desperate to regain his self-respect, or, failing that, die.
Every week, Ewing had to fit together not only the story being told in 52, but his own story, and the comments he quickly started getting from other people, writing in-character as comics characters (some of whom got what he was doing, while others definitely didn’t), and over 50 weeks we were shown Dibny hiring ‘internet superhero’ Ram (an obscure 80s character from the New Guardians) to stop Jean Loring leaving comments on his blog, him getting a new flatmate who doesn’t flush *and* who is a supervillain, his brief, unsuccessful career as a TV pundit, him defecating in Doctor Fate’s helmet (and trying to persuade us that no matter what his psychiatrist said, Doctor Fate’s floating helmet *was* talking to him), Black Adam’s career as a swing vocalist, Dibny’s psychiatrist becoming a genocidal maniac, Dibny’s obsession with Superboy’s penis, the impossibility of getting good Bialyan takeaway the week after Black Adam razed the country, and much more.
I’m sure I saw an interview with the editor of 52 at the time which said that the creative team were reading the Dibny Diary, and towards the end of the story it seemed to me they even dropped in a couple of little nods to it.
Now, to me, this is exactly why ‘canon’ is a ridiculous concept. A large part of my enjoyment of reading 52 was reading Ewing’s work, and to me the experience of reading 52 is inextricable from reading this completely ‘non-canon’ work. As far as I’m concerned, the Ralph Dibny in the comics is less interesting than one who would write about the Flash Museum:
Well, I was all set to launch into the most glamorous suicide of all by using the Flash’s Cosmic Treadmill to project myself back to the beginning of time and be blown up in the Big Bang itself – which may coincidentally have meant that the entire universe would have been remade in my image, which can’t be bad – but then I got a look at the broom closet they’re remembering me with, and I just can’t be bothered. What is the point? I ask you. What is the point of doing anything when these miserable skinflints won’t even spring for a proper room to remember it by?
I’ve had enough. Even Dr Fate is starting to sass me, like an unruly teenager, just because I enjoy the occasional methylated spirit. All great men have. Edgar Allen Poe drank meths all the time when we solved the case of Jack The Ripper. Or possibly that was me, I was drunk at the time… well, Edgar Allen Poe won’t have Ralph Dibny to push around any longer! And neither will you, dear reader, you bastard.
And a zombie Ralph Dibny, as we apparently see in Blackest Night, is positively dull in comparison (I had hoped that the resurrection of the character as a zombie would have brought about the resurrection of the blog, but apparently not…)
As the collaborative nature of the internet, blah blah social networks twitter wiki web2.0 etc (this sentence doesn’t actually need to be written, just insert one from any of a billion other things you’ve read), well anyway, I think we will see more of this sort of thing in the future, where the ‘canonical’ text is merely the jumping-off point for more imaginative creations. Not just fanfic as it exists at present (although some fanfic increasingly diverges from the source, especially collaborative online RPGs where people tend to play characters from different sources), but people creating the music made by fictional bands, or creating mashups of entirely different TV stories to try to tell new coherent stories, and so forth. Most of this will be shit, but it will be very interesting to see if we get much great art made out of rubbish.
This has already reached 1800 words and I’ve not even really started to talk about 52 proper. Rest assured, I will do…