Master Of The Obvious: Issue #9

Wed, September 29th, 1999 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

For some reason, people keep asking me about the Wisconsin Mafia these days.

I have no idea what they're talking about. I grew up in Madison Wisconsin,

and I did have a couple benign brushes with the real Wisconsin Mafia

when I was a music critic there, but these people are referring to an

alleged "mob" of comics talent that came out of Wisconsin, like Richard

Bruning and Mike Baron and Steve Rude. And me. The myth goes that

somehow we all greased each other's wheels and allowed Wisconsites to

take over the comics industry.

Nice story. If there ever was a Wisconsin Mafia, it never did anything for

me.

It's not unusual for waves of comics talent to suddenly sprout from specific

areas. Up until the early 70s, New York cornered the market, but then

California got into the act. Jim Starlin, Al Milgrom, Rich Buckler and others

rose together out of Detroit's comics fandom around 1972. Bob Layton,

Roger Stern and John Byrne launched their careers off a little Indiana

fanzine called CPL around 1976. (John was Canadian, of course, but CPL

brought his art to professional attention.) In all these places, there was an

organized comics fandom where those who broke through gave entrée for

others. But Wisconsin? Not a chance.

The closest I ever got to a Wisconsin Mafia was Mark Gruenwald, who

arrived in Manhattan from Appleton WI a few months before I moved

from Madison. I didn't even know he existed until then. I'd gotten in on the

coattails of the CPL Gang, as they were called, but Mark and I, having a

home state and a Manhattan neighborhood in common, became close

friends and writing partners for a couple of years. An assistant editor at

Marvel, Mark had no power to speak of, and, though he did throw me what

assignments he could, our association probably hurt him more than it helped

me. (The power structure at Marvel held me in low regard, but that's

another story.)

Mark and I both held strong opinions on what comic books should be. As

our opinions parted, so did we. We never became enemies, but it wasn't

until just before Mark's recent death that we really started talking again,

and then only at conventions. He was a great guy, but his driving obsession

was one I couldn't share.

Mark loved universes.

Universes were pretty much implied in comics the first time the Justice

Society ever banded together, but nobody concerned themselves with

whether the Mars Wonder Woman went to was the same Mars Green

Lantern went to. Nothing was really

suggested until 20 years later, when

Gardner Fox set the Golden Age heroes

on their own parallel earth, a concept

long established in science fiction but never really applied to comics. But

DC was then subdivided into editorial fiefdoms, and editor Julius Schwartz

was under no obligation to correlate THE FLASH with events or settings

in Mort Weisinger's Superman books, even though they appeared together

in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA. Even internal consistency in titles

was rudimentary.

When the Marvel Universe congealed around Stan Lee - a triumph of

convenience over design, as Stan was writing something like ten books a

month and leaving the plotting mostly to his artists, and less variation meant

less he had to keep straight - fans reacted strongly. It was an exciting idea

at the time, the notion that all these separate stories could coalesce into a

single all-inclusive myth, and when fans became pros, they started writing

about what excited them. Since most broke in at DC, which had recently

purged its old talent for political reasons, they began "universing" DC. Jack

Kirby's NEW GODS bumped the overt myth content of comics to a new

level, and Jim Starlin wedded that to acid mysticism and the convolutions of

Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion to take superhero comics "cosmic."

And where once people had talked of Earths or worlds, universe was the

official buzzword.

Mark came to professional attention with his fanzine OMNIVERSE,

co-edited with Dean Mullaney, who went on to found Eclipse Comics.

OMNIVERSE attempted the ultimate jump to a unified field theory of

comics where not only did The Flash and Superman share the same

universe but all comics universes were sectors of one great superuniverse:

his Omniversal Theory. He never stopped quietly pushing it. On some

levels it's a really great idea, with only one flaw.

Universes are bad for comics.

I recently tried to explain to one reader why many creations are of their

time and don't necessarily translate for a new audience. DC's Adam

Strange - America's First Spaceman - made sense when astronauts were

new and the space race excited us, but I doubt it's a coincidence his

popularity faded the closer we got to the moon. (And as our national

attention shifted from "the last frontier" to social issues.) While Marvel

has managed to keep him active (if not consistently popular) for 30 years,

the sensibilities underlying Captain America are so tied to the 1940s it's

no wonder they keep reviving Nazis or pseudo-Nazis like Hydra to justify

his existence.

Universes are the detritus of the 1970s, when comics, facing plunging

sales as they are now, scrambled between the twin idols of myth and

relevance to make comics more meaningful for readers. We like to think

of comics as the last repository of myth in our culture, but that's a pretty

egotistical view. All fiction is myth, regardless of medium. While ancient

myth is supposed to have great resonance, we shouldn't forget that

they're what's left of dead religions, and those religions are dead for a

reason. GILLIGAN'S ISLAND is no less a myth of our culture than

Superman. Superman is no more a myth than NATIONAL

LAMPOON'S CHRISTMAS VACATION. The idea of universes as the

grand tableau of new myths has led more than one talent to

quasi-religious excess, attempting to illuminate the meaning of existence

between fight scenes. Enough is enough. By the 50,000 resurrection or

the five millionth destruction and rebirth of the universe, even philosophy -

once fascinating in comics simply because there previously wasn't any -

can't keep it interesting. Jung said that the closer you get to your dreams,

the further they recede from you. Myth, like dream, is an unconscious

process, something scores of fantasy writers and Hollywood producers

haven't learned. If you start by consciously trying to create myth, you end

by creating Jar Jar Binks.

The compression of entire lines into a single

coherent universe, most notably in DC's

CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, was also

thought to make those worlds more real for

the readers by wiping out redundancies and

streamlining continuity. All universing did was

to separate comics even further from the real

world, and from the experience of potential

readers: only borderline schizophrenics need

apply. Like most people who wander off into

their own little worlds, comics companies have

become, at least editorially, more solipsistic as

they've depended more and more on universes

as content to the exclusion of all else.

Whatever was originally behind universing, in the 90s it has become, like

virtually every other aspect of comics, a marketing gimmick. (Not that it

was ever anything but. As soon as Stan Lee realized he had a

proto-universe on his hands, Marvel started marketing that over individual

characters. It wasn't enough to buy Spider-Man, you bought Marvel.) As

Image rocketed to popularity, whole comics companies rose peddling

their books on little more than shared universes, and existing companies

like Malibu and Dark Horse were suddenly desperate to generate their

own universes. Even DC and Marvel created "new universes." None of

them lasted. Pinned down on the tiniest details, they were all suffocated

by minutiae, everyone forgetting that all the great myths were syncretic -

even Greek and Egyptian mythologies, often presented as coherent story

cycles, resulted from waves of migrations and conquests replacing

indigenous gods and heroes with new ones - and even Marvel Comics

came together piecemeal and unplanned. Everyone tried to replicate 30

years of Marvel history overnight, and it can't work. It landlocks

everything. There's no room to move.

Universes make for bad writing, and

we get enough bad writing in comics

without them. Logic tells us that

"universes" offer an expansive view for

writers to work with, but the opposite is

more true. The weakness of the

Tarzan concept is that today we know

enough about Africa to not expect lost

civilizations there. We've mapped

enough of the moon and Mars and Antarctica that lost lands and secret

bases grow less likely by the day. Fu Manchu, the manifestation of the

Yellow Peril, is unconscionable today. The more territory mapped out, the

less there is to discover. Fact is always an obstacle for fiction. Ignoring

fact opens the door for some reader saying "But that can't be so!" and

once they say that, you've lost them. Universes carry their own sets of

artificial facts, eradicating contradictory stories in the name of

verisimilitude. Continuity, not story, is the raison d'etre of the comics

universe, and any story that doesn't fit becomes, de facto, a bad story.

Universes are crutches for editors, cheats for readers, and shackles for

writers.

I'm not saying Alan Moore shouldn't put

PROMETHEA and TOM STRONG in the

same universe if he wants to. Let every writer

create his own universe of books for all I care.

But should he have to put them in the same

continuity as FROM HELL and BIG

NUMBERS? Why should Batman exist

alongside the Justice League? A weakness of

my CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN

was the expectation of many readers that

they'd take for granted things like ghosts and

magic and telepathy that are common in the

DC universe but strange and suspect in ours; the DC universe had

rendered "the unknown" moot. While there will always be readers who

say "I like it," many readers have shown their growing antipathy toward

universes, putting their money behind things like DC's Elseworlds books

instead. Or simply no longer buying anything.

There's no reason comics must mimic

the real world. But by ritualistically

disconnecting comics from any

connection to reality, by wrapping

comics in hermetic esoterica in lieu of

actual stories, we marginalize what possibilities comics have. The

universe concept is played out - almost 30 years on and it's still just sound

and fury, signifying nothing. Can anyone honestly say universes have

made for better fiction? They've captured a few imaginations in their

time, but whatever power they had for that has obviously waned badly.

It's time for comics universes to wane as well, and for comics writers to

find their own ways, their own voices and viewpoints, again.

No special information this week. As usual, my website is Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions.

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