Browsing in What X can teach us about Y

As we all wait for Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell to be repealed either now or in the future, I’ve been thinking about a meeting my grandfather went to back in May of 1977 and the statement released afterwards.

In 1977 the Episcopal Church allowed the ordination of women and one of the early and most contentious ordinations was that of Ellen Marie Barrett who was a lesbian. Discussions and arguments spread across the country and my grandfather, Rev. Mac R. Stanley attended a meeting of California clergy. I know a little bit about the meeting from his journal entries and what a gay clergyman said to me at his funeral, but the conversation reached a turning point when my grandfather spoke late in the day.

Afterwards they released a statement in full support of Rev. Barrett and other gay clergy. I can only find it excerpts of it online but what is there is I think still noteworthy:

Gay men and women have made enormous contributions to the Church … daring all, risking all — to serve unfalteringly people who if they knew they were homosexual would turn on them in confusion, or horror, or unease …. It is only from the outcast that we can ever be redeemed, only from that which we want to cast out of ourselves that in finally facing honestly we can ever become whole men and women again. Jesus’ whole life is a statement about that …. If homosexual men and women are not good enough to serve at the altars of the Lord who went to a cross for us all, then perhaps they are not fit in any capacity to serve or minister …. The Church, like all institutions, has always accepted homosexuals when it was to its profit, convenience, and benefit. What it has not done is to be honest about that, to be forthright, to give back the love it has received. I have seen a fine and distinguished bishop of this Church, Kilmer Myers, walk unfalteringly to a cross on this issue, as he asks us to look again at a Christ who holds out hope, confrontation, forgiveness, new possibilities, and redemption for all of us equally. If Ellen Barrett…if homosexual men and women want out of their sadness and joy, to reach out lovingly — what about that is so threatening to us? … Can we look at what the Church’s legalisms have done to people? I call the Church to not only look at that. I call the Church to repent …. The real business of the Church … is to reach out and help bring in the Kingdom of God to our world …. In the name of God, I urge you to help this saintly bishop to start the process now.

-Statement to the Clergy Conference (topic: “sexuality”) – Diocese of California – the Rev. William H. Barcus III, May 5, 1977

This of course took place five years before I was born and I didn’t hear about it until at my grandfather’s funeral when a gay clergyman (whose name I don’t recall) came up to my grandmother  with me, my mother and then Bishop of California and thanked her for all my grandfather had done that day for gay rights.

You can find what I quoted and a lot more information at http://www.oasisca.org/OAsisa%20Transfer%202009/0_Historical/chron.html#1977

Tomorrow the second part of “Battle for the Cowl” comes out. This is a story about the fallout from what the world believes to be Batman’s death and the struggle to replace him. I’m referring to the three issue miniseries with this title, and not any of the five one-shots or the two tangentially connected miniseries which star other Batman related characters. All these extra books exist because BftC isn’t just a story, it’s an Event.

It’s an event because there’s money to be made. DC can take a simple story and expand it and bloat it and pull in other books because fans who want the full BftC experience or don’t want to miss anything will buy them all.

But the fans won’t necessarily like it. Fans have started complaining about the consistency with which events come out. (Which is a justifiable, DC’s just had three other events before this and another one is on deck.)

But publishers deny this “Event Fatigue” exists. They point out that if fans were tired of events, the books wouldn’t sell and the companies wouldn’t produce them. The fans can’t help themselves, they’re hooked and need to know what happens to the characters and universes they’ve followed for ages and don’t want to risk missing something “important.”

Which is exactly how these events are sold. They promise shocking twist after astonishing reveal after stunning tragedy and the fans believe it, after all there must be a lot going on if so many issues are needed to contain it. So fans hand over their cash and ready themselves for the roller coaster in their hands.

But often times, it’s flat. There are no thrills or surprises, just issue after issue trudging from A to B. And that’s what fans are tired of. And that’s what BtfC is.

While the event had a good hook (Who is the new Batman?), the ending was obvious and out just before the event started:Dick Grayson, the original Robin and Nightwing, will be the new Batman. Damien Wayne, Bruce Wayne’s bastard son, will be the new Robin.

And that is a premise that is interesting and exciting and bursting with story possibilities. But BftC? It winds up being a placeholder: 3 months of ugly art and clumsy writing trudging from A to B, when the real fun is C.

So I’m going to sit out Battle for the Cowl until June when we’ll get to C and stories!

Last week everyone’s stack of comics was a little bit thicker. Comic shops were giving out Marvel’s latest Saga book – a free comic that offers everything you need to know to enjoy an upcoming product. I thought it was going to get me in the mood for the upcoming movie, but instead, the book is doing a hard sell of another product: Romulus.

A few years ago Marvel decided to create a new villain for Wolverine and so after a terrible story he was given Romulus, a hidden mastermind who has existed since the dawn of time and seeks only to screw with Wolverine.*

Marvel really wanted to push this new villain as a credible threat but couldn’t be bothered to put any effort into it. So instead they just said he was behind anything and everything in Wolverine’s life, we just didn’t know about it.

But Wolverine: Saga makes it impossible to miss. Romulus is mentioned 34 times on 16 of book’s 32 pages. That’s probably more times than he’s been mentioned in the actual comics in the 2 years since he’s been created. And look at how he’s mentioned. He’s been everywhere and done everything:
…agent of Romulus…
…Romulus’ first lesson…
…a tool of Romulus…
…under Romulus’ orders…
…reinforced Romulus decree…
…all per Romulus’ plans…
…Romulus’ scientists…
…under Romulus’ careful manipulation…
…awash in Romulus’ cruelty…
…could not escape Romulus…
…felt Romulus’ claws upon him…
…Romulus still had use…
…as Romulus had planned…

But Marvel isn’t even sure how much of a reach their heretofore nonexistent manipulator has:
…some assignments no doubt serving Romulus…
…likely under Romulus’ guidance…
…either serving Romulus’ interests or perhaps his own…
…under secret orders – perhaps from Romulus, perhaps from another…

Romulus is so powerful and omniscient a threat that even when he screws up, it can’t be called a mistake.
…But Romulus may have outsmarted himself…

The problem with all this is that Romulus doesn’t seem real or credible in any way. All of Marvel’s efforts have had the exact opposite effect: you already wish you knew less about him.

So not only has this forceful insertion produced an uninteresting new villain, but it has taken away from the appeal of existing villains. The feud between Wolverine’s and Sabertooth highlighted Wolverine’s the dangerous nature and how precarious his humanity was. But now their rivalry is just a case of Sabertooth battling Wolverine because he was told to. This would be the same as if the next Batman movie began with the Riddler saying “Everything the Joker did in the last movie was because I told him to, I’m the real mastermind behind it all!” No one would buy it for a second. Even if there was a free promotional comic given out to hammer home the point.

*If you want to know more about the introduction of Romulus, read this and enjoy: http://www.thexaxis.com/wolverine/wolverine55.htm

In just a few moments I’m going to put up the first installment of what will be a new feature on the blog, “What X can teach us about Y.” The goal of this feature is to examine storytelling techniques and ideas, as well as characters and occasionally the business practices that drive commercial art. I’ll be using examples that I have come across in my many years as a consumer and storyteller that highlight good and bad ways to do something.

I am not sure how often I’ll do one of these articles, it all depends on time and inspiration, but I hope to produce these semi-regularly. And with a little luck, we’ll all learn something from this.

A new crossover called “New Krypton” is starting this week.  From its title, we know it’s a Superman story.  And this Superman story is going to be told in the two Superman comics, the Supergirl one and a smattering of specials.  And with that set up it could be good, because a big crossover is a bad crossover.  If it gets too wide and involves too many books, it loses focus and falls apart and wastes everyone’s time and money.  That’s a danger readers already face from the two ongoing crossovers on the shelves right now: DC’s “Final Crisis” and Marvel’s “Secret Invasion.”**
But “New Krypton” isn’t set up like those, this is following in the footsteps of last year’s “The Sinestro Corps War.”  It was a storyline that took place in “Green Lantern” and “Green Lantern Corps” and a several specials.  The crossover had been subtly building in the background of each book and took them over, and intertwined them.  It was a critical and financial success and DC planned to replicate its successes.
So far that DC has copied the structure, and there has been definite story build up, so everything is suggesting this should be a good story.  And a great deal of that comes from the fact that we know who’s story is being told: “New Krypton” will be a Superman (Family) story and “Sinestro Corps War” was a Green Lantern (Corps) story.  There might be plenty of other character showing up.  The Justice League and Society lent a hand to the Green Lanterns, so they’ll probably help Superman with his problems.  But in the end, they’re Superman’s problems.
It’s fine if many characters get involved in a story.  It’s fun!  It shows the reader that these events are not isolated and there is a shared universe they all exist in.  And when there is a threat large enough, other characters all become involved.  But their books shouldn’t.
In the 1990s Marvel let Jim Starlin create The Infinity Trilogy, three large crossovers that each presented a threat so great it could only be stopped by the entire Marvel Universe: the Fantastic Four, The Avengers, The X-Men, Spider-Man, The Hulk, Dr. Strange, Silver Surfer, Alpha Flight, Ghost Rider, Dr. Doom, Galactus, everyone got involved and had a stake in this fight!  But they didn’t.
These events weren’t about the Marvel Universe, they were about Adam Warlock.  The first, Infinity Gauntlet was about Thanos & Adam Warlock.  Infinity War was about Adam Warlock & his dark side.  Infinity Crusade was about Adam Warlock & his good side.  But the scale of their battle involved the entire universe.  So it was completely fine to have Thor, Wolverine, She-Hulk and Puck in the same book.
But these Adam Warlock stories probably didn’t need to hijack comics like Fantastic Four, Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Daredevil, Darkhawk, Spider-Man, Web of Spider-Man, Captain America, Marvel Comics Presents, Avengers West Coast, Silver Surfer, Sleepwalker, The New Warriors, Thor, Wonder Man, Alpha Flight, Cage, Deathlok, Guardians of the Galaxy, Marc Spector: Moon Knight, Nomad, Quasar, Silver Sable & the Wild Pack, or The Mutant Misadventures of Cloak & Dagger.  Considering the story was already being told in Infinity Gauntlet, Infinity War, Infinity Crusade, Warlock & the Infinity Watch and Warlock Chronicles.
So if a reader followed Adam Warlock (& The Infinity Watch), there would be progression and development through the story.  But if you read Nomad, what did seeing him fight an evil copy of himself matter?  And each one of these unnecessary involvements just dilutes the power of the main storyline.  And readers notice this.  We can tell when something was shoehorned in for a quick buck.  And that’s what causes “event fatigue.”  It’s not the event, it’s the non-event events.
Most people would like to just read what interests them and ignore what doesn’t.  But that isn’t so easy.  The current volume of Captain America has been struck twice by crossovers.  In the middle of the second story line everything stopped and Issue #10 instead traveled to an alternate reality where everything was different, because “House of M” was going on and Marvel thought everyone would want to read about how it involved Captain America.  The issue was great thanks to a stellar creative team, but most readers just wanted to learn more about “The Winter Soldier” which turned out to be much more important in the long run than seeing an aging Steve Rogers as an astronaut.
Shortly after that the “Civil War” storyline starred Captain America and his book could have simply repeated what he did in the primary storyline.  But again the fantastic creative team made something that worked better, three issues devoted to the supporting cast.  But I think everyone is glad that “Secret Invasion” stayed out of the way and they were able to finish the Red Skull saga uninterrupted.
Most of these interruptions are being kept out of the primary book and now exist in miniseries.  Curious how “Secret Invasion” involves the X-Men?  Well, if you read the regular X-Men comic books, it doesn’t!  But it does give Marvel an excuse to publish “Secret Invasion: X-Men!”  This doesn’t fix the problem that has plagued readers for decades; it just makes it easier to produce collections with unified trade dress and titles.
Publishers shouldn’t be putting their effort into coming up with new ways to dilute their stories and their impacts on the characters that matter, they should be trying to tighten and focus the story.  Even if it has a cast of billions and takes place from one end of the universe to the other.

*Yes, I know “Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen Special #1” came out last week.  But DC is acting as though it’s “Part 0.”  And by the way, so long Jack Kirby DC Characters!
**In the interest of full disclosure, I should be open with any bias.  I am reading both FC & SI.  I have no strong corporate allegiances.  I think SI was great off the blocks but has been running in place for a while.  FC is fun and heady when it comes out, but we’ll have see how it ends to judge it.