Hank McCoy (Before the Fur)

Tedd Riccio is a comic book aficionado chock full of useful comic history knowledge. So why not tap into that knowledge for the betterment of you, the reader? Appearing weekly is a column by newly appointed Assistant Editor Tedd (just Tedd will be fine). This column is called “Hank McCoy (Before the Fur),” so be sure to keep your eyes open for his unique insights into comics.

This week's column is a continuation from last week, and as such should be read after the first post (obviously).

Last week I elaborated on the kind of “old-school-Hollywood-action-movie” flavor that your average DC comic embodies.

However, DC comics is no stranger to the crazy-sci-fi-fantasy-epic-multi-faceted-cross-over story that is frequently the hallmark of the Marvel comics industry. In fact, many DC lines have begun to adopt this time-held money-draining enticing recipe for telling stories of late. Batman: Hush comes to mind (beautifully drawn, spans so much Batman cannon that’ll you’ll actually learn stuff you didn’t know by the end of it) as well as the events of the Sinestro War (if you haven’t been reading Green Lantern Corps books, you are missing out).

Still, DC has always had a way of containing the stories they are telling- while the events of Avengers, Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man comics frequently overlapped, a Justice League story is often just that: a Justice League story. There’s a little bit of bleed from the book and the individual books of its characters (if Superman gets his powers changed in his own comic, than the writers will briefly explain why he suddenly looks like he belongs in a bad 80’s electro-pop band), but mostly the story is contained to the book your reading.

Now obviously, this rule doesn’t apply across the board. Plenty of Marvel stories run in a contained fashion, and plenty of DC stories stretch into vast DC mythology. But for the most part DC has appeared, in my humble opinion, to value conciseness and continuity over neurotic-obsessive-fan-service-crossovers.

The end result is that when DC finally does get around to telling a big story, you tend to take notice of it.

And when DC finally goes big with a story, well….they go BIG.

If you ask most Marvel fans to name a big story, you could get a wide array of responses. The Infinity Gauntlet, Inferno, The Age of Apocalypse, Onslaught, House of M, Planet Hulk, Civil War, Maximum Carnage, Fall of the Mutants…the list goes on and on.

But when you ask DC fans, inevitably the most likely responses will be: Crisis on Infinite Earths and its recent follow up, Infinite Crisis (fans of The Death and Return of Superman, Superman: Our Worlds at War, and The Final Night, I give you your due here as well). Ironically, the original mega-DC-crossover, the first crisis, was really designed for cleaning up continuity.

And that was, at once, the beauty and the absurdity of the whole thing. DC decided to wipe the slate clean and modernize some of the characters’ backgrounds. They also decided to get rid of fifty or so assorted heroes and villains that no one really cared about. On top of it all, they had a host of characters that existed in alternate continuities that they decided they just wanted all in one place together (ever notice that there are no comics with Captain Marvel, Blue Beetle, and the Question in them before 1985 or so? They were part of some other label that DC picked up).

Interesting note- highly acclaimed graphic novel Watchmen was originally supposed to use these characters- just substitute Question for Rorschach, Beetle for Owl, etc. But the character rights were tied up in some weird litigation. But I digress). So rather than try to write a billion plot threads to get everything where they wanted it to be, DC decided to tell this bizarre, in-continuity story in which the essence of time and reality was altered in front of each characters eyes. So the characters actually live through the experience of the revision of their universe, in this trippy, cosmic way.

It was basically a total cop-out.

But it totally worked. And everybody loved it.

Mostly because it was some freaky $&*#.

The whole thing had some really bizarre, biblical, end-of-the-world kind of overtones that to this day give me some chills. And that wasn’t really the typically wholesome-American-upper-middle-class DC style of the 80’s. Every time I read that bit where the Robin and Huntress of the older DC comics continuity, and that one Teen Titan- her name was Kole or something?- eat it, it disturbs me, deeply. I believe Kole’s last line is an attempt to reassure Robin that they’ll find a way out of their situation, saying something like: “No, don’t talk like that, we’ll…AAARRRGGHHH”.

But this is all comic book history that’s well known. So I’m just treading water here. What I’m really getting at is this- DC still uses the magic cop-out theory to readjust their continuity (not that Marvel doesn’t). But lately, continuity has taken on this kind of new life of it’s own in DC comics. The events of the original crisis, the original continuities that each character in the current one came from, the older incarnations of DC characters and stories- it’s all become part of this very cool, very rich, very weird DC mythology to tell stories from. And that’s where Infinite Crisis kind of comes in. DC took their whole play-with-continuity thing to this whole new level. Imagine an abstract play where the characters met earlier versions of themselves created by the same author. Add super powers. Add bizarre tampering with the nature of reality and time. Wash, rinse, repeat.

You know how in the 1970’s, Spider-man’s characterization was a lot more…well, you know, what you would expect from the 1970’s? But now a-days he’s like a completely modern character? And somehow he’s only like, I don’t know, late twenties? Even though he was like 22 back in 1975? Chances are, people who remember Spider-man fighting Green Goblin in the late 70’s are not going to know that much about the Spider-man who clashed with Venom in the late 80’s. I mean, in theory it’s all one big story. In truth, the character always represents the period they are being written in.

But here’s the thing- the Superman that fought big cartooney robots and talked like a bad public service announcement still exists in the DC universe. And all of the stories that were told starring HIM (That would be Kal-L, not the current Superman, Kal-El) really HAPPENED in his own continuity. In other words, such a character really comes from a world where Superman was a little bit older, was as likely to fight public littering as he was organized crime, and said things to Lois Lane that you and I would consider sexist and demeaning but somehow appears to flatter her. And the people who live in that world say things like “Gosh gee willikers” and so on. That Superman, that world, exists (or, it did, until the original crisis. Not going to try to explain that here).

The other thing is all the stuff that was ever written about that Superman’s origin? The nature of his powers? It’s all true for him. For example, the original Superman was like…ungodly powerful. I mean, today, Superman is a pretty ridiculously powerful character. But he got revamped to you know, tone it down a little. Because Kal-L as he was originally written was insanely powerful. Were talking lift mountains powerful. And there was this vast array of different colored Kryptonine in Kal-L’s universe. Different colors had different effects. The rare Gold Kryptonite, for example, could take a Kryptonian’s power away for good.

So consider this- if Kal-El is tangling with a young version of Kal-L, he may very well find himself over-powered by “his” younger, yet different, self. But if Kal-L pulled out a piece of Gold Kryptonie to take Kal-El’s powers away, it wouldn’t work, because the Kryptonite in Kal-El’s universe has different properties. So Kal-El is not affected by Kryptonite that affects Kal-L and vice versa.

Confusing, right? By the way, the example was taken from Action Comics # 591, circa 1987.

But the next crisis was rife with cool examples like this that really made the most sense IF you had been reading comics for a long, long, llloooonnnggg time. Watching Diana of Themyscara (spelled right?) have a conversation with Diana Prince (original Wonder Woman) as she rested on her invisible jet (yes she really had that thing) was pretty fascinating. Read up on Power Girl, Psycho-Pirate, Dick Grayson, Superboy-Prime, and Alexander Luthor sometime and see what’s been going on lately. You won’t regret it.

I end this exposition on the following note- DC has one more “big gun” in their bag for this coming year. They are calling it Final Crisis and if 52 and Countdown are any indication, it’s going to be big. With Grant Morrison at the helm, it’s safe to say that the book will be in good hands but will have a fresh, new feel. While I ranted about Morrison a few posts back, I have to say, this kind of bizarre, abstract stuff seems right up his league (no pun intended) and I am totally stoked to check it out. A brief interview with a few spoilers can be found here.

In the meantime, I would advise you brush up on comic history. Because the cast of this new crisis is likely to bring some characters back into the fold that were weird and hokey even back in the day. Check out Jack Kirby’s Forever People, which Morrison notes will make an appearance. It’ll be a show.