When Words Collide: Splash Page Revisted: Flashpoint & the DC Relaunch

Tue, September 6th, 2011 at 8:58am PDT | Updated: September 6th, 2011 at 1:38pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer
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For years, Comic Should be Good's Chad Nevett and I talked about comics weekly somewhere on the internet. We started off chatting at the since-defunct-but-recently reborn Sequart website, then moved the conversation to our various blogs, and even spent one summer talking about every issue of "Wednesday Comics" here at CBR. More recently, we recorded 50 episodes of the Splash Page podcast before I retired from regular podcasting in the spring of this year.

Of course, not so long after we stopped podcasting, the comics world first learned about the DC Comics relaunch, and I'm sure Chad and I would have had a lot to talk about. But, other than a few Tweets and an occasional brief email, we didn't resurrect our Splash Page conversations for the world to see.

But now, it's time. As "Flashpoint" has come to an end and as we stand on the threshold of a post-relaunch era for DC, Chad and I resurrect our old-fashioned, text-based format for this important historical moment. The Splash Page has returned for a brief appearance on CBR, so you can finally stop worrying about the most important question of the summer: what do Tim and Chad really think about all this DC stuff?

Story continues below

Tim Callahan: Okay, so let's establish a foundation-of-knowledge first. "Flashpoint" is over and the DC relaunch hasn't kicked into full gear yet. "Justice League" is our only taste of it, other than my lengthy speculations over at Tor.com. I've obviously been thinking about the relaunch all summer, and I have read (let me put this in all-caps for those who might miss this extraordinary announcement) EVERY SINGLE ISSUE OF" FLASHPOINT" AND ALL THE SPIN-OFFS. What's your "Flashpoint" context? How much of it did you end up reading?

Chad Nevett: I wound up buying four of the tie-in minis ("Batman: Knight of Vengeance," "Secret Seven," "The Outsider" and "Project Superman") and also read a couple of other issues when I reviewed them here ("The Canterbury Cricket" and the first issue of "Deadman and the Flying Graysons"). That's it. I'm not a fan of Geoff Johns' writing, so I didn't pick up the main series and none of the other tie-ins really appealed to me. I haven't even kept up on the spoilers for the event with any real consistency. I have a sense of what's been going on, but that's it. Nah, I've just been off in my corner loving the alternate reality stuff I've been buying and doing my best to ignore everything else. Did I miss out on anything that you think I would have liked?

Of course not! You definitely read the two best series, with the Azzarello/Risso "Batman" spin-off easily topping everything else -- I actually think it's one of the best comics of the year -- and "Project Superman" coming in a distant second, with everything else substantially worse than that.

But it's not like I disliked "Flashpoint." I found it surprisingly cohesive and compelling, as an event, even if its baseline quality was mediocre. But a lot of the mediocrity came from the shifting art teams -- clearly artists got pulled to participate in the DC relaunch -- and the unimaginative writers (mostly former editors) who didn't do enough with the three issues they were given. Because plenty of the ideas in "Flashpoint" were great, and as an overall story, it was unusual. I mean, through the entire series, and even in the spin-off series, there isn't one overarching villain the heroes are set to fight.

The apparent baddie is the Reverse Flash, but he barely appears in the series or the spin-offs, and there's a switcheroo at the end, where we find out that everything is not as it seems, with Reverse Flash, and with the origin of this "Flashpoint" parallel world. So that means that the war between Aquaman and Wonder Woman takes the place of the expected antagonist for most of the series, as the heroes assemble to intervene and stop the war. Only, it's a war caused by betrayal within the Atlantis and Amazon camps. It's a story of political intrigue and courtly back-stabbing at heart, exploded into a parallel universe mega-event, where characters deal with their own local concerns and then realize, "Hey, yeah -- this war in Europe is getting out of hand and we need to go do something about it." And, even that ends up being an epilogue in the final issue. One of a couple of epilogues, and by far the least important one.

Amidst that, the two best series completely ignored the overarching plot and told either a domestic story (Batman/Joker) or a government-plus-science-is-bad story (Superman as lab rat).

Geoff Johns and friends really committed to the idea that they were writing stories about another world, and they didn't let any kind of expectations about summer event comics get in their way.

There is practically no through line running from the beginning to end of this series and its spin-offs, other than: Reverse Flash messed up the world, let's fix it eventually somehow, even though that isn't really what we've been doing for all this time and most of the characters don't seem interested, and it's not really Reverse Flash's fault so much, it turns out.

That openness appealed to me, I must admit. I love alternate reality stories and was excited about the tie-ins I got for that reason. While I didn't follow along with the main series or a large amount of the books, this was still an event that I liked the idea of and how it provided someone like me (not buying the main series) with some comics that I wanted to read. How often do events work in such a way that someone can tune in for the tie-in books, completely avoid the main series and still walk away pleased? I just wish DC had given the reins over to a host of other writers that could really go insane for a one-shot or three issues a la Azzarello or Milligan. Just do their own things and not worry about the plot of the event so much as use the different universe a big toy to push themselves and write stories they normally can't.

When the tie-ins were first announced and we discussed it on the podcast, I remember being quite annoyed that DC hadn't approached more A-list talent to do one-shots. This seemed like the perfect place for big names who may not be up for runs on books (artists especially) to come on board and give the event some more star power. Now, as you said, part of the problem was pulling people off Flashpoint books for the new relaunch, but that still doesn't really explain the horrible creative teams on some of those books. When was the last time an event had such a disparity of quality in its tie-ins? You don't often get a tie-in of the caliber of "Batman: Knight of Vengeance" and it's positioned next to something like "The Canterbury Cricket," which I gave zero stars in my review. That's a pretty wide gap.

That wide gap is indicative of the DC line, historically and for the relaunch. I mean, "Watchmen" was coming out around the same time as, what, Tod Smith drawing "Vigilante" issues? And this fall gives us Azzarello/Chiang at the same time as Lobdell/Booth.

And "The Canterbury Cricket" wasn't even the worst "Flashpoint" comic. "Legion of Doom" was far worse, and so was the "Reverse Flash" one-shot. But, yeah, the disparity in quality is always a problem when you're dealing with mass-produced superhero comics, where speed of completion is more important than artistic quality.

It's pretty clear that the writers were mostly chosen from Geoff Johns' pool of DCU Hollywood, so it was either a bone thrown out to that group or simply the idea that it would be easier to coordinate the various spin-offs if they were all part of the same inner circle. That Milligan and Azzarello and Snyder (with Lowell Francis) were all outside that left-coast DCU group maybe explains why they wrote the three spin-offs most worth reading. They weren't as beholden to just moving the pieces around the board. Or, maybe it's just that they are much better writers. Yeah, that's probably more likely.

Because, man, are the "Flashpoint" spin-offs a bunch of missed opportunities. I actually like the main "Flashpoint" series, and I thought the final issue was strong, but other than the ones we've mentioned as being worth reading, the rest of the series tend to have very little actually happening. While Azzarello used his series to tell a full story with a beginning, middle, and an end (and create something that resonates back to the main DCU, emotionally), someone like Adam Schlagman used his Abin Sur and Hal Jordan comics to express the idea that, yes, the world would have been better off if Hal Jordan had the ring, but he's still a hero without it. It took him two series, six issues total, to get that across. It could have been a one-shot. He spent his issues treading narrative water. And that was basically the same in the Aquaman and Wonder Woman comics, too. Missed opportunities, with some interesting ideas as a backdrop.

I did find the Pirate Deathstroke series particularly entertaining, by the way. And I like how an entire pirate culture of supervillains (and Travis Morgan!) popped up within nine months of the European coast getting flooded. It's like a whole group of villains had been waiting to play pirate and when Paris went under, they jumped at their chance.

Is it wrong that I would have liked that Green Lantern mini to prove that everyone would have been a lot better off if Abin Sur was still Green Lantern and Hal Jordan never did anything more than fly planes? That would have been a bold direction to take the book.

Something that came up a lot in the past couple of months when talking with my local retailer (also named Tim!) is the amount of people complaining about the DC relaunch because that means all of the comics from DC to date "don't count." Now, that doesn't concern me too much, because a good comic is a good comic and how much it "counts" doesn't really matter to me. What I found funny was that DC basically "ended" things with a big event that explicitly doesn't "count" in the way that people mean. It's an alternate universe! And, yet, did people ever complain that these comics don't "count" or do they not realize the irony of their whining? As we said, the best books seemed to be the ones that understood the freedom in not tying into a strict continuity and just went for it. That's something I hope carries over into September. With a big relaunch/semi-reboot, there's a lot of freedom to really try new things and not be limited by what came before. That potential has me excited a little. I'm cautiously optimistic.

But the "Flashpoint" comics do count, because there's an in-story reason (or at least some words to that effect in the final issue) for uniting the universe that had been split into three. As in, DC/Vertigo/Wildstorm. Geoff Johns, through a mysterious, hooded character who apparently will pop up in the background of many or all of the new DC books, is saying that the DC universe is actually being put back together the way it's supposed to be. I mean, it is pretty obvious that if Wildstorm and the Vertigo line were part of DC continuity, then Superman would have been younger and never married. Obviously.

Cautiously optimistic is a good way to be, approaching anything new, but what's so interesting about the relaunch is the heavy-duty focus on characters and streamlined concepts and the significantly diminished emphasis on creative talent. I even thought, based on how they were approaching everything else about the relaunch, that they might not even list the writers and artists on the covers of the new books, just as they did back in the winter when they "held the line at $2.99" with those "iconic covers" with nothing but the main character on the cover and no cover credits at all.

This is clearly a property-focused linewide launch, with DC positioning their characters in a way to reach a potentially wider audience. And while my instincts would tell me that they won't be able to retain any kind of wider audience without extremely strong creators and fresh voices, I also know that the reality of any kind of mass media is that what's popular isn't usually the highest quality stuff. Hell, I don't even know what makes things popular. Why do more people watch "NCIS" than "Breaking Bad"? Why do more people read Dan Brown than Cormac McCarthy? Why did that "Smurfs" movie make more than ten dollars at the box office? Maybe DC knows the secret to getting to that middle-of-the-road-or-kind-of-terrible-but-popular sweet spot.

Ah, it's not like the new DC is devoid of talent. I'm being too harsh. I'm actually looking forward to plenty of books this month. But their approach was clearly not the Axel Alonso approach of, "Hey, let's get these sharp talents and distinctive voices to come over and do superheroes for us." The DC approach seems to be: "Who will get the job done, on time, and put the characters and concepts before their own writerly or artistic agenda?"

Yet, while I say that, I've also heard that the editors have been almost completely hands-off, letting the creative teams do what they want with the stories. So I don't even know, anymore.

I do know that I completely enjoyed "Justice League" #1, and so did my son, who has rarely showed any interest in serialized superhero comics.

The idea of the universe split in three now reunited and a hooded mysterious woman popping up the background of every comic has soured me a little. Integrating the Wildstorm Universe is different from saying, "Oh, it was always meant to be one big shared universe!" It strikes me as people over-thinking something that isn't too difficult, almost like they're falling prey to the usual comic book mentality that every change must be explained when all that's really necessary is change. It seems like they're planting seeds for the first big event in the newly relaunched/altered DCU being about how the newly relaunched/altered DCU came to be -- and that bores me. Just get on with it. If the point is to make things more accessible and easy to approach, just make them that way. Hopefully, this is a case of DC putting these hints in the background of every comic with the payoff only affecting a few when the time comes to pull the trigger. (Isn't it wonderful how I'm jumping to so many conclusions based on so little information?)

As you know, I didn't pick up "Justice League" #1, because of my utter apathy towards Geoff Johns' writing and lack of love for Jim Lee's art, but I have noticed a generally disappointed response. I've seen a few people praise it and many more dismiss is as underwhelming. The biggest complaint seems to be that it's a comic that doesn't actually feature the Justice League, instead going back to tell the story of the League formed. That approach speaks to what I was talking about a moment ago with the need to explain everything. Why are they bothering with explaining how the League got together? Doesn't it seem fairly obvious? Threats so big that no single hero can deal with them caused the world's most powerful heroes to join forces. Reword that however you like, but that's one sentence and literally all you need to set up that comic. I guess my problem is that I often find the explanations to be the most boring part of the story. The interesting thing about the Justice League is seeing all of the big DC heroes fighting against some giant threat, not seeing how they all met and got together and wrote the charter and checked the real estate ads for their headquarters and went to Home Depot to check out paint samples so they can repaint the intended trophy room.

Since you and your son liked is, can you tell me what it was that made it an effective first issue, and an effective comic to kick off this relaunch?

Huh -- were people really disappointed that the first issue was about the beginning of the Justice League? It never occurred to me to be disappointed about it, because the pre-publicity so clearly stated that this opening issue would be about how the heroes met and how the team formed. Seems weird to then be disappointed when you get exactly what's advertised. (Though, to be fair, I would have been disappointed if all 52 new series opened with an origin of their character, and I'm ever so glad they have decided not to go that tedious route.)

So, as a new origin, does it succeed? I think so. I don't particularly like Jim Lee's art (other than his Deathblow experiment and his few attempts at non-hatching in short little stories for anthology comics), but it does create a big action movie feel to this comic. I know my son literally said, "Wow, this art is really good," so it hit some of his visual buttons, probably because it had big, bold characters doing big, bold things and taunting each other, which I would think kids would respond to.

I enjoyed seeing these characters meet for the first time. Johns' Hal Jordan has an immediate personality in this opening issue, more personality than he has shown in Johns' long career writing the character before this. It's Batman and Green Lantern, getting mixed up in a mystery involving a Mother Box and Darkseid. It's basic, and clean, and I thought it was well-executed. I didn't expect it to be anything amazingly fresh. Is it "All-Star Superman?" Of course not. But is it "Superman: Earth One?" Definitely not. It's far, far better than that debacle. It doesn't sap away the comic-bookiness of the Justice League just to try to appeal to a wider audience. I respect that completely.

I think you actually would have liked the first issue, really. Maybe not totally loved it, but you would have at least responded to the cocky Hal Jordan getting punched in the face by Superman, I'm sure.

Ah, but I can picture that whenever I want. I don't need comics for that joy. And you've tried to get me to like Geoff Johns comics before; it didn't work then, it won't work now.

Even with it announced that this opening arc would retell the League's origin, I don't think that people responding negatively to that idea isn't valid (not that that's what you were saying). I took more as people being aware of it, waiting to see how the first issue introduced the idea, and still finding it wanting. Or, this being the time where they've voiced the concern that maybe kicking off the relaunch with a Justice League comic that doesn't feature the Justice League is possibly a mistake.

That disappointment may lie in DC's "having their cake and eating it too" approach to this relaunch, which they've insisted isn't a reboot. Except it's kind of a reboot when they want it to be. They're walking a fine line between appeasing existing fans and enticing new ones, and it's understandable that that approach is turning some people off. People familiar with the Justice League could easily look at this opening arc and groan, not wanting to read yet another origin story of a group that, as I said before, doesn't really require one. I tend to have that reaction to superhero movies where they tell the origin of heroes, because I've read those origins dozens upon dozens of times. Now, does a character like Swamp Thing or O.M.A.C. need to catch people up a bit more? Yeah. The Justice League is such a well-known concept that it doesn't need to begin here and I wonder if it's a miscalculation on DC's part to not understand where they need to reboot things a little and start from the beginning and where they can simply tell the stories and skip the explanations.

And is much as DC is trying to toe the line with the kinda-sorta-reboot, it is totally a reboot. This first "Justice League" issue presents a substantially different version of the first JLA adventure -- no previous version told anything like this story -- and this Superman might as well be a completely different guy than the previous Superman. He is a brand new take on the character, and even the younger Batman is a different version than we've ever seen before.

No, this is as hard a reboot as the Archie Legion of Super-Heroes in the 1990s, the only difference is that they aren't going back to tell all the classic stories all over again. But they will. I'm sure. Killing Joke 2.0 and Death of Superman Revised are sure to come within five years, don't you think? (I honestly hope I'm wrong about this.)

Maybe this time, one of the four replacements will turn out to actually be Superman...

If it is as hard a reboot as you say, why not say so? I can understand DC not wanting to alienate readers who are crying "My comics don't matter anymore! The world is over!" But -- they're going to figure that out pretty quickly. Then again, certain books look mostly the same, so maybe "Justice League" isn't the book to be making snap judgments about the whole of the relaunch on.

I can't remember if you ever told me, but are you actually getting all 52 first issues? It seems like something you would do. I considered it briefly and, if my shop was larger and having one of those deals where you get all 52 for a set price, I would have taken advantage of it probably. But, I only put ten books on my pull list and may pick up a few more on the spur of the moment or to review for CBR. Even though you're probably buying them all, how many of them actually interest you as a reader legitimately?

I was originally going to get over half, maybe 35 of the first issues. But after writing so much on each series for Tor, I am genuinely interested in every comic, even if it's simply to see how close my speculation matched the reality of the first issue. That said, I will try to go into each series with an open mind. If Judd Winick or Scott Lobdell or Eric Wallace genuinely surprise me, I won't be afraid to let everyone know. So, yeah, I will be buying every single first issue. Maybe the first three issues of all 52 comics. We'll see. The whole thing might put me off comics altogether!

I do think we'll see an overall bump in quality in the DC line. A significant one. Certainly "Wonder Woman" and "Action Comics" will be much improved over their average quality over the last four years, and I expect quality from Paul Cornell's comics, and the books Jeff Lemire's involved with. I think "Aquaman" will be interesting for the first time in a long, long time. I'm thinking "Grifter" might surprise people. And Moritat drawing Jonah Hex is hard to resist. That doesn't even include the inevitably strong work from Scott Snyder, and the Geoff Johns stuff that I know doesn't hit your sweet spot, but I find consistently entertaining. I am just an eternal optimist about this stuff, plus I love superhero comics like crazy, and I'm glad someone's trying to inject some life in the genre, even if it's not that much different, really, than what came before. Other than the new continuity and all.

Ivan Brandon's "Men of War" has me really intrigued, especially after he tackled somewhat related ideas in his "Doc Savage" arc. Even when everything he writes doesn't land 100%, it's always interesting. I'm curious about how new and different "Action Comics" really will be, both in content and style after Morrison has talked it up recently. Plus, it's Superman going back to his Golden Age roots a bit, which sits nicely in my comfort zone. That Azzarello is calling "Wonder Woman" a horror book is also intriguing. I'm one of those rare people who liked both "Broken City" and "For Tomorrow," so seeing what he does with the other member of the ‘Trinity' has me genuinely curious and excited. Throw in some Wildstorm-meets-the-DCU with "Stormwatch" and "Grifter" and some of the stuff by Snyder and Lemire, and I'm still excited for the new books. Even if there's possibly some larger overarching plot that I want nothing to do with...

If the overarching plot turns out to be about the rescue of Grant Morrison's Noh-Varr from the clutches of Brian Michael Bendis and the character's shift over to one of the alternate DC universes, I'm guessing you won't mind at all. But that will never happen. Or will it?

Ominous sound cue. Roll credits.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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TAGS:  when words collide, flashpoint, splash page, dc comics, new 52, justice league

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