It has been a while since I've checked in with the various comic book universes (And these write-ups are always long and geek-filled). But if you remember, the mighty myriad Marvel Universe has been suffering from crisis-shock in the form of multiple super-hero civil wars and invasions from space over the past few years, while DC has been counting down to a big finale and a supposed new beginning.
So how have things been going? Oddly, Marvel seems to have its act together while DC is in the grip of a not-too-obvious internal civil war.
Marvel first. I mentioned that the latest mega-epic, the Secret Invasion showed promise, and now, a few months in, it has been paying off nicely. The short form is the Skrulls, a shapechanging alien race, have infiltrated earth, replacing a number of heroes, and are now invading. And after the oddness of seemingly random sides in their Civil War, these stories are firing on all cylinders. The Skrull opponents have a lot more depth than in previous incarnations, and they actually seem to have a long-term plan. They are not responsible for all the weirdness on Marvel-Earth of late, but have fit their plans into it. Good marks for maintaining modern continutiy.
As a result the core book is small sliver of time, throwing off sparks that catch in other lines and produce interesting stories (which is sort of the point of continuity, ultimately). I thought the Skrulls-replace-heroes tales would be kinda lame (we know that Yellowjacket has been Skrulled because we see it in Issue 1, what more do I need to know), but the story itself weaves nicely through the continuity of the past few years and gives it a solid grounding.
In addition, we're seeing tie-ins that cover the full spectrum of the Marvel Universe - a Magical Heroes story that centers on the Marvel UK group, and a storyline in the Incredible Hercules that deals with the Skrull gods that is extremely impressive. Even the tie-in one-shots have been well-written.
The end result is taking the universe out for a spin in a way that provides surprises as well as keeping true to your roots. You feel like the story is going somewhere. Oh, and after what seems like years of Tony Stark being a complete ass (and getting said ass handed to him), you're actually rooting for the guy. That's probably the most impressive part of it of all.
DC, on the other hand, has been deeply troubled of late. Its weekly Countdown series, which was supposed to bring us to their highly-touted Final Crisis instead just grounded out, in a way that made its predecessor line, 52, look inspired. Worse yet, the big final crisis takes off and ignores/denies a good chunk of its own predecessor work. The "Death of the New Gods", which was supposed to be a big revelation in FC, but had been made a mini-series almost immediately before (with a completely different ending).
Here's what I think happened (and all this is speculation). DC turned over a lot of its big-crisis continuity to an extremely talented writer named Grant Morrison, but forgot to send out a memo to the other creatives (writers, editors, artists, etc). Morrison worked his way at DC from the outside in, deconstructing and rebuilding many minor characters into interesting and groundbreaking books - Animal Man and Doom Patrol among them. He is known for major revisions within the established canon, and fundamental changes in the nature of the characters. This can be real cool for the characters and sometimes problematic for the surrounding universe - He wrote some incredible stories over at Marvel for X-Men, and in the time since then, almost all of his changes have been uprooted and changed back, usually by major continuity crisis.
Morrison's work has a couple major themes. He believes in the relationship between the fictional and real universe (particularly letting characters meet creators). He challenges basis assumptions about the fictional universes (heroes win in the DC universe because of the nature of this universe to have the good guys win). He has a love of the Silver Age and working its major coolness into the present (His All-Star Superman is a big, hearty valentine to that era, but the All-Star line was set up to be non-canonical). But by the same token does not pay attention to the current continuity as well. And finally, he has no problem doing really horrible things to his protagonists. He's not above ripping the legs of the Flash, for instance.
Grant Morrison is an excellent writer, and as time has gone on, he has orbited into the heart of DC Continuity, writing a core Batman Book and now, Final Crisis. But his work functions within his own universe ("DC books by Grant Morrison") as opposed to within the larger universe that has to pay attention to whether Riddler is a villain or not this week. So characters that die in one of his books show up alive elsewhere and vice versa, and the larger issues from his books are not addressed for characters who are supposedly live in the same universe.
Hence, there is a quiet civil war in DC, not of hero against hero, but of creative vision against creative vision. On one side is the Morrison-verse, which is really cool but going to break a lot of toys (Old fan-favorite Martian Manhunter is dead and they did a funeral issue to stress just HOW dead he was). And on the other side is, well, not the rest of the creatives (they are a wide and disparate lot), but those who are maintaining a flowing modern continuity.
The result, in terms of the universe, is a mess. Some books are tied into Final Crisis, or into final crisis-like events, while other lines are not (not so much as a "red sky"). For the continuity maven, the best approach is to judge each book as to whether it fits into Morrison's larger themes, or matches up with baseline continuity.
So instead of a universe with 52 (or 51, or whatever) worlds, we have two complete universes that are continually diving and twisting around each other. And I'm not sure about how that is going to work out.
So Marvel - pulling everything together from the standpoint of a coherent universe. DC? Showing a lot of strain at the seams. It is going to be an interesting summer.
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