Friday, January 15, 2010

So Am I Just A Big Ol' Hypocrite Or What?

All right, so it is well documented that I am an unabashed Grant Morrison fan, but I dislike Geoff Johns (well, I mean his writing, it's not as though he's ever cut me of in traffic or anything).

So you could reasonably predict my reaction when I read about how Johns wants to define the nature of the Speed Force on his upcoming Flash run:

"I always thought of the Speed Force as if it were this layer, kind of like the fluid in your joints that allows your bones to move together, and if you think of that as the Speed Force, it’s this fluid between the now and the time stream. It allows the two to co-exist, because the way time exists, it’s not just a line, it’s a sphere. So that fluid coats that sphere and the sphere is the Speed Force. And that sphere touches all reality and it’s full of everything, it’s full of ultimate speed, moving through reality, because time is all relative and it’s full of all scientific knowledge. It’s all knowledge of all eras."

That reaction, of course, was "ARRGH."

Because it just seems so pointless, doesn't it? I mean, the purpose of fiction, right, is to either mindlessly entertain or reveal some truth about the real world (ideally both). I realize this seems awfully lofty for superhero comics, but I mean, even "Helping people is good" and "Stealing is bad" are truths - I'm not asking for Kafka or anything.

But this is just explaining how an imaginary system works. It is never going to be relevant for me to know how the Speed Force works because we haven't got one of those. It could be in service of a good story, of course, but it also could be that fan fiction-y mythology building and expansion that Johns does and that fans seem to like.

But then I re-examined my immediate reaction.

For one thing, the Speed Force has always been explaining how an imaginary system works (i.e. why a bunch of different superheroes all have the same powers for different reasons) that never really required an explanation in the first place; for fifty years everyone was fine with them just running really really fast. The difference is it came from Mark Waid, whose comics I've always liked.

The second thing is that quoted bit above, superficially, reads an awful lot like a Grant Morrison impression. It's big and wonderful and metaphysical, and you're not quite sure exactly what it means but it all seems to make sense to him. And if I had read that in a Grant Morrison interview, I'd be, "All right, sign me up, this could be rad times!" Now granted (...pun!), Morrison has built up a significant amount of goodwill with me as a reader, where even if something doesn't start out great, I'll stick with it because I trust it will pay off eventually (after about the second or third issue of Final Crisis, I thought, "Man, if Jeph Loeb had written this, I would be so done with this right now").

So the question I have to ask myself now is, am I totally biased against Johns as a writer of funnybooks? Even if he launched The Adventures of Exactly Everything Justin Wants To Read In A Comic Book tomorrow, would I dislike it? Or, more worrying - might I even be capable of liking it, but on some level (conscious or not) be looking for things to object to?

Man, this is why I haven't been to the comic book shop in months.


Josh said...

You bring up a good point. In fact its a relevant message every facet of life. Listen to the ideas not the speaker. Its like right out of the gate I will hate any song by Dave Mathews Band. One day I heard this song playing and I was like "Hey, I like this." Then I found out who it was and I was totally embarrassed to admit I liked a song by those dudes. But the truth is just because you dislike one thing someone has done you might not dislike everything they've done. And more to the point, you might like the same thing you dislike if it was done by someone you do like. Unless that person is Jeph Loeb.

plok said...

Well, I've liked a Johns book before, so I think that must mean I'm not automatically biased against him. And I've hated a Waid book before, so I guess I'm not automatically biased toward him! But the Speed Force I just totally hate full stop, I could honestly go on and on about how and why I think it's an incredibly barren and useless adornment to all things Flashy. As bullshit handwaving, I can just about tolerate its existence, that is I can tolerate it as background rationale for why the Flash is faster than anybody else...but as far as using the plot of Flash comics to "explore" it or "define" it, it's hard for me to put into words how much that sounds to me like a tragic waste of human energy and time.

And anyway, Johns doesn't have anything there, in that quote. There was a reviewer once, I remember from school, who hated Dylan Thomas and who used a cut-up technique to show his readers that Thomas' poems were just random bits of nonsense strung arbitraily together -- but it didn't work, because by comparing the cut-up to a real Thomas poem it became obvious just how ordered and balanced and hard-won Thomas' lyrics really were. I wouldn't buy that Johns quote if Morrison had said it, not one bit. There's just nothing in it that I find provoking, or even if Morrison had said it, I would think Morrison was about to stumble, and badly. To explain how the Speed Force affects time-travel or whatever's going on there, that just sounds like somebody wants to write a Silmarillion of stupid, a lot of bullshit-physics "begats" in place of an actual (even if unnecessary) rationalization or explanation of what-the-fuck-is-up-with-that-Flash-dude-how come-he's-always-running-so-fast, and that seems like an arid philosophy to me.

So hate the Speed Force, man! I don't know if I could even fully explain why in under three thousand words. It just puts the cart so monumentally before the horse, it's just such a massive snowball mistake, if there's anything in superhero comics that simply cries out for less elaboration, it's this.


plok said...

Oops, tried to elaborate on why the Speed Force sucks -- hit two thousand words without even getting halfway to the point!


Justin said...

Josh: Oh man, do you remember in high school - it might have been in one of those art classes we were in together, in fact - when people would call him "Dave"? "Yeah, Dave's coming to town, we're going to see Dave." Like they *knew* him.

On the other hand, it's not as though I've never called Paul McCartney "Paul" for short. Ah well.

Oh, and Jeph Loeb. Like I said in that list of writers I linked to, I *understand* Jeph Loeb, at least. He started out as the guy with the screenwriter's sense of character (not necessarily a *great* screenwriter, but perfectly *okay*), and when that ran its course he became the pure let's-bring-back-things-for-nostalgiac-value guy, and now he's settled into the role of the outrageous idea guy (he's kind of ahead of his time in all these things). Let's have Ultimate Blob eat Ultimate Wasp! Let's put the Sentry, Moon Knight, and Ms. Marvel together against the Hulk and play it like they're TOTALLY EXACTLY THE SAME ROLES as Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.

But I *understand*. He treats the characters like toys you can screw around and do anything with, and he's not wrong. He's just messing around and having a laugh, and why not? He's just not very clever or entertaining with what he chooses to do. But people buy those comics just to watch the trainwreck, so it sells well enough so that there's no incentive for him to change.

Justin said...

Plok: Blogger's comment length limits are indeed harsh and unforgiving.

Out of curiosity, what was the Johns book you liked? I started reading Legion of 3 Worlds and thought it was pretty okay, although it became so delayed that I forgot to buy it when the last few issues were released. But with that, I mean, it's always entertaining just to watch George Perez cram twenty-five superheroes into a page and still keep a decent composition. But I remember the story being fun in a good-ol-fashioned thrills 'n' spills way.

Oh, and with all the stuff he did for 52, odds are he wrote at least a couple of the scenes I liked, right?

But about the Speed Force ... I will be a little more charitable about the Speed Force because I think it worked really well and served its purpose just in the story that introduced it. "To save the love of your life you will have to merge with the Speed Force ... but no one has ever merged with the Speed Force and returned to tell the tale!" and then the story is about being the first guy to merge with the Speed Force and return to tell the tale.

It's there in that first story for the sake of *story*, as an adventure-story device and not as a system, but once it's introduced it was always *there*, and it doesn't have any actual value beyond that. And so Waid kept going back to its one useful purpose as the risky last-ditch gambit to beat the bad guy and doing variations on it.

plok said...

I'd say you're being a little too charitable: the Speed Force was introduced as a partial answer to a lot of the puzzling post-Crisis questions about how in the hell the Flash's powers work, it's just that Waid's admirable gift for story structure immediately condensed the partial answer down into a moot point. Why is Wally so fast? Because he went into the Speed Force, and came back out. But Waid makes it so "because of Linda" is functionally the same answer. Which is a fine plot point, don't get me wrong! But it's then that "what the hell is a "speed force" when it's at home, anyway" ceases to be a question anyone wants a response to. Johns seems interested in its nature, but a close reading of that interview suggests to me that its "nature" is the very last thing that interests him -- he's interested in how it can be employed, convoluted, regularized....not explained.

But then why not just drop it? Morrison enjoyed calling it "extradimensional gel" -- fine, good, very Morrisonian. Comic-book science can be full of holes, that's no problem so long as everybody's willing to get on with the action. But to get back into it, you have to think of something new it can be for, and there are really only three options for that: reconciling the things that don't add up about what speedsters do (Messner-Loebs), justifying Wally being the Real Flash Now (Waid), or something else...

But I don't trust Johns with "something else", because he's just not an innovator. He's like Jeph Loeb Lite, he just wants to play with the toys.

plok said...

That's a darn good point about Loeb, by the way -- I like it! The "Marvel Trinity" especially just shows that he doesn't care, he's just smashing things together. Maybe we've all got it wrong and he is an innovator!

My God, I think you've convinced me!

As to the Johns work I've liked, it's been his Superman stuff right after 52, all the Donnerisms he was bringing in, the "Up, Up, And Away" thing with Kurt Busiek...I thought that was all very adept stuff, and Lord knows it's tough these days for people to write Superman comics I want to read. Haven't kept up on his Superman stuff since, though, and I hear it's taken a Johnsian nosedive into aggressive retcon, so...

The Speed Force: it seemed to me that it was going in a certain direction, before Waid jumped all over it. There was a Secret Origins where Barry Allen became the thunderbolt that hit the chemicals that made him the Flash in the first place, and in the immediate post-Crisis days this seemed to me like it was in the Animal Man vein...the "speed force", whose existence is probably necessary to explain the mechanism of superspeed in the post-Crisis DCU, could be the energies released by the death run of the pre-Crisis Barry Allen in CoIE...floating out there somewhere in a now-empty supra-universal space. Pre-Waid Flash suggested quite a few "pre-Crisis" connections -- Chunk contained a possibly infinite number of empty, destroyed universes within him, e.g. At the time, as I've gone on about before, what made the new DCU so interesting was that most everything that happened had supra-universal causes that were invisible to the characters because they couldn't remember the multiverse...but that were apparent to the readers, who obviously did remember it. Morrison even had the Yellow Aliens directly explain this to readers of Animal Man. So in that sense, there was no need to go for ultimate explanations of any Speed Force that might arise, because it could be assumed those reasons lay outside the epistemic scope of the universe's characters. It could've stayed a tantalizing mystery, to them, forever.

But now it's like, hell I don't even have a clue what the damn thing might be.

(I was kind of hoping the Barry Allen who came back to life in Final Crisis might be the pre-Crisis one, though...)

Justin said...

Oh yeah, I totally forgot about those Superman stories. Those first couple *were* really good, actually, though off the top of my head I can't say what, if anything, makes them different than those Johns Flash comics I couldn't get into at all.

And yes, I'm charitable about the Speed Force because a.) again, Waid having the sense to use it to actually drive a story, and b.) because even if it's kind of mystical bullshit, at least it's *vague* mystical bullshit. Even Waid, I think, wanting there to be some kind of explanation for it all, knew enough to know the specifics weren't *really* important. "Speed heaven, an energy field beyond the speed of light, a Valhalla for speedsters." Not as elegant as "radioactive spider," true ... then again, not even as elegant as "electrified chemicals" in the first place.

(By the way, that "supra-universal" stuff is fascinating stuff; the immediate post-Crisis DC Universe is something I'm not totally up on. And man, if *only* it had been a pre-Crisis Barry, but then again with the state of the DCU at present, it might as well be, for all I know.)

plok said...

I always liked the faultlines in the post-Crisis DCU a lot, it made for interesting story textures even in the most straight-ahead comic -- of course now the absolute biggest faultline in Crisis is that we don't know what the post-Crisis version of the "Crisis" was like. We know the characters remember something, and that what they remember doesn't contradict anything in CoIE that doesn't have to do with the destruction of the multiverse. Except...the problem is that once upon a time, it was just that the Crisis had happened, and nobody remembered it. They were there, but they didn't remember. Now, in my opinion unfortunately, there was another Crisis that happened, that was the one they lived through, and it's we who don't remember it. And we can't reason out what it "must have been", either, because...well, just what would be the "minimum change necessary" for "their" Crisis to be differentiated from "our" Crisis? They don't remember Supergirl, okay...then who saved Superman from the Anti-Monitor? We don't know, because that story's never been written. So, weirdly, the only possible thing to do to reconcile "theirs" with "ours" would be to write a new version of Crisis that's set in the altered history of the post-Crisis DCU...and who the hell's gonna do that? It's actually a total swamp, it's a black hole...why you'd have to be Geoff Johns, to imagine trying to fix it.

Uh...ha ha?

Even more unfortunately, I've got proof there was "another" Crisis...and it happens to come from the pen of Mark Waid. In his Flash run, he had Wally go back and visit Barry as Barry was sacrificing himself to destroy the Anti-Monitor's...blah blah blah. Barry dies, Wally tries to destroy the thing himself but he can't, then he slips back into the timestream to get "another" Barry to finish the job.

You see the problem, I think!

plok said...

But yeah, the immediate post-Crisis era was pretty free and loose. It was neat.