Communication Skills for Multiversal Salvation, or, Dark Nights: Metal

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(C) The Devil

Dark Nights: Metal is at once a Batman story and a Justice League story, a mystery and an adventure, a fragile, intimate drama and a sprawling, cosmic epic, and the mission of writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo’s latest collaboration (with Jonathan Glapion on inks and FCO Plascencia on colors) seems to be bridging those very sorts of fictional polarities. Metal is a story that posits that perhaps detectives and swashbucklers are one and the same, that perhaps the barrier distinguishing cosmic infinity from the sprawling expanses of any single individual’s imagination is far thinner than we might think.

Metal concerns the invasion of the DC Universe by the Dark Multiverse, a realm of raw imagination, comprised of the dreams and nightmares that on the rarest of occasions are forged into existence within the living, breathing DCU proper. Essentially, the world of Batman and the Justice League is an ark of existence, of reality, adrift on an unimaginably vast sea of could-have-been and should-never-be. Someone or something has breached the hull of that ark, which is now taking on sick water in the form of nightmare Batmen conjured from Bruce Wayne’s worst fears and insecurities. What follows is a desperate attempt to plug the leak in the DCU before the entire existing multiverse sinks into the Dark Multiverse.

It’s a mystery and an adventure, at once terrifying and exciting, a sentiment captured in the narrative’s dual focus on Batman the Detective and Carter Hall, the missing adventurer Hawkman.

Questions and clues abound: why is a covert ops team surveilling Batman? Why are strange metal artifacts around the globe reacting strangely to some unknown force? What secretes lie within the secret journal of Carter Hall?

Spectacle and bombast abound: the Justice League battles interlocking mechs in an alien gladiatorial arena. A demonic Bat-God clings to the apex of a dizzying spire that punctures a stormy sky, flanked by dual Joker-dragons.

And yet, whether it’s an army of villainous Justice League doppelgangers or a furrow in Wonder Woman’s brow as she prepares for battle, Capullo, Glapion and Plascencia never miss a beat, the attention afforded both to the smallest detail and the loudest spectacle alike indicative of Metal’s continued interplay between the intimate and the immense, the mysterious and the adventurous.

But the disparity between those two seeming opposites never feels jarring or disorienting, as Metal is, at its heart, largely concerned with that which unites them: communication.

Sound is a fascinating and prominent motif throughout DN:M, be it battle cries, devilish bellows, power chords, or good old-fashioned banging two pieces of metal together. Again and again importance is placed on sound, the difference between the life and death of all existence hanging on one character’s willingness or ability to create it and another’s ability to hear and comprehend it. It’s telling then that just before it hits the fan in the story’s opening issues, Batman refuses to communicate with his peers. His failure to communicate, his decision to withhold information, reaps dire consequences and the rest of this epic is largely concerned with not only discovery in the face of the unknown malevolence brought forth, but the communication of those discoveries with others.

Across the galaxy, in the depths of the sea and deep within the distorted bowels of the Dark Multiverse itself, the Justice League find themselves investigating any thread that might lead them to a plug for that leak in the ol’ aforementioned reality ark that is their entire known multiverse, but separated as they are those answers mean nothing without the willingness and ability to communicate that information, to share it, to come to a common understanding through detection and adventure.

For all its mystery and all its spectacle, Dark Nights: Metal ultimately revolves around communication, that which links the dreams and nightmares of our minds with the vastness of the universe. It’s a story about coming together, about living and experiencing and sharing those experiences to the betterment of all involved.

It is one hell of a comic book.

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Doomsday Clock #5, or, Real Fictional Resources

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Valentine’s Day is right around the corner Ozy!

The fifth issue of writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank’s Doomsday Clock explores the previously alluded-to Supermen Theory, a particularly potent vein of political discourse that has taken the DC Universe by storm. The theory, its true origins shrouded in mystery, posits that the overwhelming majority of superheroes, or “metahumans,” are American because they are being created and proliferated by and for the United States government. The accusations have torn apart the sociopolitical climate of the DCU, from Gotham City to Russia. Nations are amassing metahumans, closing their borders, withdrawing troops, holing up with their caped prizes and awaiting a spark that seems all but inevitable. In Doomsday Clock #5, the likes of Superman and the Justice League are more than heroes or vigilantes or symbols, they have become national resources.

That they’re treated as a resource is no surprise within the confines of the DCU. Superheroes can mean safety and protection for the denizens of their fair cities, they can mean justice or even propaganda, a canvas on which to plaster regional morals and value. Green Arrow says don’t do drugs! So don’t, Star City youth! But as with every idea presented in Doomsday Clock, the concept of superheroes as a resource reverberates across the spectrum of reality and fiction Johns has woven between our world, Watchmen and the DCU.

Just as superheroes are an American monopoly in the DCU, they’re a monopolized resource of sorts in, you know, the regular U. The here and now. In our world, as in theirs, superheroes reflect the philosophies and ideologies of the cultures that produce them. And in our world, as in theirs, superheroes are pretty much exclusively American. Here those heroes may not actually protect us, but they are a healthy economic resource, intellectual properties perpetuated across the globe in films with billion dollar grosses. Even in Watchmen, that gritty work of fiction buffering our reality and the balls-to-the-wall fiction of the main DCU, Superman is a comic book symbol of certain values that springs an ordinary citizen into extraordinary action, a social and commercial resource.

In Doomsday Clock then, superheroes become, for lack of a more pretentious term, a metatextual resource, fulcrums of communication between the real and the make-believe, bright, loud points of contact where ideas flow between levels of reality easiest. And it would appear, based on a hypothesis posited by Ozymandias in Doomsday Clock #5, as though that resource is perhaps what Doctor Manhattan is looking to exploit in traveling deeper into fiction, from his native Watchmen to the metahuman-swarmed realm of the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel.

When Geoff Johns lobs an idea through layers of fiction, through Watchmen into the DCU, deeper still into old detective movies being rerun on TV within the DCU, that idea bounces back, finds me back in the real world and inspired this piping hot take of a blog post. Perhaps Doctor Manhattan seeks to similarly lob ideas, ideologies, morals, values into fiction in hopes that they echo not only within the DCU, not only within his own abandoned world, but perhaps outward still towards the only superior beings he is like to meet: the reader in the real world.

Why yes, I did just read Grant Morrison’s autobiographical history of comic books, why do you ask?

Doomsday Clock #4, or, Making a Rorschach

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Pancake batter in alley this morning…

Doomsday Clock #4 narrows the narrative to focus in on the mysterious second Rorschach, Reggie, and how the vigilante’s mantle was remade and taken up again after the events of Watchmen.

In its early pages it reintroduces us to that distressing sense of dread that permeated the pages of Doomsday Clock’s first issue as we see a family watching a mushroom cloud erupt on a nightly news broadcast. At the same time we’re introduced to a young boy tasked with living in that dread, with growing up in the shadow of that mushroom cloud. We meet Reggie as a boy whose strategy is to keep his head down and power through, who doesn’t fight because it never occurs to him to fight.

Reggie, as a boy and later as a young man, is a passive being, one who doesn’t engage with the world around him, one who can hardly be made to impose his will on anything, even when he is clearly in the right. He is not an invader, a conqueror, an aggressor. He’s a good kid. Perhaps a harmless kid. Perhaps not. He may not be an aggressor, but Reggie is not a protestor, an objector or a defender either. The world is imposed upon him, leaders, laws and institutions are imposed upon him and Reggie continues to keep his head down. He may mutter, he may grumble, but he never engages with the forces of antagonism, instead content to be quietly antagonized.

This passivity, extrapolated outward, paints the picture of a populous that allows itself to be brought to the brink we see in Doomsday Clock #1.

In becoming Rorschach, in being taught how to fight, Reggie becomes an active participant in the world around him. Through Reggie’s transformation into Rorschach II we get insight into the original Rorschach and that character’s place as an agent of action in Watchmen. Rorschach, then as now, was a questioner, a participant. On its face, the entire first issue of Watchmen is an introduction to a cast of characters committed to remaining passive in the face of mysteries and questions, Rorschach the only among them willing to grab hold of the dangling thread.

And yet, with mosquitoes and Mothman alike, we see in this issue what that pursuit can lead to and we’re given the impression Reggie himself knows what fate may befall those unwilling to ignore questions and mysteries.

We know Ozymandias. We know Bruce Wayne. We know Lex Luthor. Now we have an idea of who Rorschach II is and what he’s bringing to the table as the mysteries of Doomsday Clock thicken at the close of its first third.

Rampant Speculation: Totally Cool and Totally Normal, or, Doomsday Clock #3

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When it’s not Blanton’s, AMIRIGHT BOYS!?

Spoilers ahead for Doomsday Clock #3…

If Doomsday Clock #1 is an exercise in evoking powerlessness and Doomsday Clock #2 is a primer in a spectrum of reality and fiction, the third issue of Geoff Johns and Gary Franks’ Watchmen/DC crossover series is a marriage of the two. This third chapter bounces back and forth between a number of narratives, calling back to the intermittent Tales of the Black Freighter portions of the original Watchmen. But where those interludes represented a single work of fiction within a fictional “real world” the traversal of fiction within Doomsday Clock is less a game of pong between two works and more a frenzied exploration of a densely layered onion of narratives.

Piggybacking off of my writing on Doomsday Clock #2, there’s a penetration of the fictional spectrum in this issue that brings with it at least the implication of an increased ability to harness and exert power over the world the more fictional a character gets.

The outer most layer of the onion in question is the world. Our world. Us. The readers. Holding a comic book. We are so often the masses portrayed in Doomsday Clock’s first issue. Inundated with dreadful headlines we are so often powerless to effect. We are not fiction. We are reality.

The Watchmen Universe, while a fiction, is only truly separated from our own world by one aspect: Doctor Manhattan. That’s that grit I mentioned in my first Doomsday Clock post. That grit implies realism, or invokes a sense that something fiction is at least “more real” than other less gritty works. The surrounding dystopia is obviously a fiction but the element of fantasy separating the Watchmen Universe from our own is just one big blue dude. In this sense the Watchmen are more fictional than us, but more realistic than…

The DC Universe: where fiction runs rampant, where some things are gritty but others actually smile once in awhile. Super powered aliens, space cops, metahumans, multiverses, one inter-dimensional Crisis after another. You can’t pinpoint just one fantastical element responsible for the divergence between us and the world of Batman and Superman. Even to the characters of the Watchmen Universe the DCU appears fictional, with Ozymandias stating last issue that certain heroes within the DCU are characters in he and Rorschach’s world.

Ozymandias, Rorschach, the Marionette and the Mime travel deeper into fiction, and with that traversal there appear to be side effects. Last issue we saw the Mime use a pantomimed lock pick to escape his bonds. This issue, we see him actually use the pantomimed gun we’ve only ever seen him brandish in the Watchmen Universe. It fires and a head explodes. It works. And not only that, Frank’s depiction of the gun in the DC Universe lends it a hint of shape and form, the presumably make-believe gun now becoming real when brought in to a comparatively make-believe universe. Similarly we see possible side-effects of the aforementioned traversal of fiction in our new Rorschach, who we learn in this issue is in all likelihood basically just some guy. He talks of having blood on his hands and then, as he showers, we see that blood appear as he clutches his head. Now, is he clawing his head open and making it bleed? Like, a lot? Maybe. Or perhaps the metaphors, the make-believe, in which he speaks are given more power, more potency in the DCU.

With that wild speculation in mind, I can’t help but feel the text implying an increased power, and increased ability to affect change, the more “fictional” an entity becomes.

We, the readers, have no superheroes or caped crusaders. The Watchmen Universe has a smattering heroes but only one is truly super-powered. In the DC Universe everyone and their mother is a superhero, even, perhaps, the formally less remarkable refugees of the Watchmen Universe.

But there’s a hiccup in that theory because the DC Universe is not the farthest Doomsday Clock penetrates into fiction. Within the DCU we’re given continued allusions to an actor, Carver Coleman, and the grizzled gumshoe he’s most famous for portraying, Nathaniel Dusk. Coleman is of the same fictional stock as Batman and the lot, a denizen of the DCU, but Nathaniel Dusk, a character in a movie within the DCU, is a layer deeper.

Throughout Doomsday Clock #3, we’re show scenes from the final Nathaniel Dusk film, The Adjournment. It’s as deep as the fiction goes in this issue and yet it’s the most realistic story in the book so far. It’s a detective, a cop and a murder mystery. No powers, no vigilantes, no nothing. Nothing but the characteristic grit of noir. So where has that power gone? That power that seems to grow and grow the more fictional it becomes?

If nothing else, it certainly rebounds and penetrates back out toward reality, as we see some old-timers in a retirement home hailing Carver Coleman as a hero, presumably because he was Nathaniel Dusk. Perhaps there’s a law of diminishing returns in regards to this perceived increase in power. Perhaps that power can only penetrate so far into fiction. Perhaps the power is not affected by how many layers of fiction it is bundled in, but by the amount of excessive grit it is saddled with.

Whatever the case, there is some shit going on with this Coleman fella, and there is most definitely some shit going on with Nathaniel Dusk.

(Reveals bulletin board of color-coded thumb tacks and torn up portions of comic books)

 

No, you’re “a bit much!”

What’s more, is Rorschach’s journal, as an artifact from a “realer” universe, now imbued with a yet unseen power? It’s already been revealed that after the events of Watchman the original Rorschach’s journal became a powerful document in its own universe.

All this, and Doctor Manhattan still hasn’t even shown up yet! Or has he? I’m just saying, is Batman Doctor Manhattan? He previously spent time on the Mobius Chair, an object that got Manhattan’s attention once before, shortly after Batman relinquished it. And the button showed up in Batman’s cave. And it makes little sense that Batman would walk a man who know’s his secret identity into Arkham Asylum and lock him up. So, you know… what is going on?

Home for the Holidays, or, The Court of Owls

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BAM! BIFF! POW! OWL!

The recent Batman: Noir release (a format presenting seminal Batman stories in black and white inks without any color) of writer Scott Snyder, artist Greg Capullo and inker Jonathan Glapion’s The Court of  Owls has proven an excellent opportunity to revisit a story that has cemented its place as a Batman classic despite being less than a decade old.

The new Noir formatting of the story is not exactly the second format I’ve encountered this story in. I read it first as individual comic books, then as a nicer pair of hardcover trades. There’s an excellent version that is just Capullo’s original pencils and, of course, the academic, oversized Absolute Edition. Anytime the opportunity arises I find myself eager to reencounter Snyder and Capullo’s first Batman collaboration in a different light, as I consistently find myself drifting back to the tale once or twice a year. With the exception of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, which I saw a dozen times in the theater because I was a high schooler on summer vacation and the world was my oyster and time had no meaning, Court of Owls is the Batman story I interact with the most.

But why?

There are plenty of Batman stories I love, but none that I inevitably meander back to with such frequency.

DC Comics already regularly markets The Court of Owls as a Batman essential alongside the likes of Frank Miller’s Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, and Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween, but more than perhaps any other Batman story, Court of Owls has the mythological backbone of a near-universal rite of passage.

For those unfamiliar with The Court of Owls, the story concerns a Batman at the height of his prowess discovering an illuminati-like organization that has haunted Gotham’s past and is pulling the strings to manipulate the city’s future. Readers are introduced to a Bruce Wayne who can and does readily wax philosophic about Gotham. It is his city. He knows it to the marrow. He informs the reader of Gotham’s history, of Gotham’s architecture, of its heights and depths, and he does it with the sort of offhanded virtuosity one would provide an oral history of their closest friends and family.

And then he discovers that that knowledge is at best incomplete, and at worst an elaborate façade.

In The Court of Owls, Batman undergoes a rite of passage most, if not all, of us will confront at some point in our lives: the subversion of his perception of home.

Court of Owls challenge Batman by calling into question the structural integrity of what he believe Gotham to be. The worst part? Nothing about Gotham City has actually changed. The threat Bruce Wayne stumbles upon is one that dates back centuries. The adversary he faces is ingrained in Gotham and has been for longer than he ever can be. In grand, mythological fashion, Batman’s undertaking in Court of Owls mirrors the sort of realization that comes with hearing the unabridged, adult version of the history of the town you grew up in, or with returning home after that first semester away from college to find everything so different and so eerily similar. It’s a story about our relationships with home, about how home can define us, betray us and strengthen us, about how even when everything  we think we know about our home suddenly feels false the inherent truths we hold about our home can still ring true.

In Court of Owls, Batman, like each of us, has to contend with those aspects of his relationship with Gotham that are concrete and those that are fluid and the fact that what makes those aspects concrete or fluid may be entirely out of his control. It’s a struggle that is gorgeously rendered by Capullo in the story’s unforgettable middle chapters (originally published as Batman #5 and #6) in which Batman is stalked through his new nemesis’ stalking grounds.

I find myself returning to the Court of Owls time and time again because it so beautifully articulates and examines our relationships with home. It is Batman punching and kicking his way through the internal monologues we have when we return home for the holidays and wander through neighborhoods that suddenly seem so much smaller. It’s a batarang to that weird sensation of finding out some grown-up you knew as a kid is actually an utter jackass, or some mean old lady you rolled your eyes at was a saint. More than an excellent Batman story, the Court of Owls is an excellent human story, one that deals with the horrifying sensation of tectonic plates beneath our parents’ house shifting that we all find ourselves experiencing at one point or another.

How to Keep it Real in a Fictional Universe, or, Doomsday Clock #2

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Ah yes, my favorite Watchmen character: Box of Assorted Clothing and Cosmetics

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming. Spoilers ahead for Doomsday Clock #2…

The second issue of writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank’s Watchmen/DC Comics crossover event Doomsday Clock spends very little time exploiting the sense of dread and impending doom so masterfully curated in the debut issue, instead seeing those nuclear fears realized and moving on to an examination of a  spectrum of perceived reality amongst superheroes.

In the opening panels we’re introduced to the concept of a sort of identity vendor within the Watchmen Universe who sells costumes and monikers, which, Doctor Manhattan aside, is all a superhero really is in the Watchmen Universe. Rorschach, the Comedian, Ozymandias, names and costumes the lot of them. And yet, even within the world of Watchmen there is a spectrum of realness and legitimacy which those characters have and so many others who buy monikers and costumes do not.

The new villain introduced last issue, the Mime, is a personification of this sort of nebulous discrepancy between real and fake superheroics in a world that only actually has one real superhero. Last issue we saw the Mime retrieve his pantomimed “guns” from a storage locker and this issue we see them in action, so to speak. Watching security camera footage of a bank robbery carried out by the Mime and the Marionette, we see him successfully coercing information from a bank teller by miming pointing a gun at her. We never see him fire psychic bullets or whack anyone with an invisible pistol, but the gun is perceived by the bank teller nonetheless. There or not, in effect the gun is real.

Perhaps then, in the Watchmen Universe, the reality of a superhero or supervillain is a matter of imposition of will, a scale of how deftly one can wield their own imagery and mythos within the world around them, their true power being influence. We see this influence reflected in the same bank robbery in a picture of the bank teller’s son, who we see cradling an Ozymandias action figure. Ozymandias is not only a moniker and a costume, it is a moniker and a costume that penetrates the surrounding culture, that means something to the world around it.

In crossing over to the proper DC Universe, Ozymandias, Rorschach, the Marionette and the Mime enter a world in which that influence and legitimacy might just translate to something more, something palpable. In the DC Universe, the Mime’s pantomimed lock pick works.

DC’s universe has always carried with it the weight of myth, their characters less a reflection of the world outside our door than monuments to ideals and beliefs. It’s fitting then that Doomsday Clock seems interested in exploring the potency of myth as its narrative moves across universes more and less like our own.

In its inaugural issue Doomsday Clock concerned itself with very real world fears. Its second issue sets up an exploration of what effect, if any, very unreal world stories have on those fears. When Batman saves Gotham, what effect does that have on the DC Universe? What effect does that have on a separate fictional universe in which Batman is a fiction? What effect does that have on our world, here and now, and how real is the effect of that fictional salvation, particularly in the face of very real dread?

And to think at this point Doctor Manhattan hasn’t even gotten involved in the proceedings. Two issues in Doomsday Clock promises to be one wild ride.

Doomsday Clock #1, or, True Grit

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That guy who’s way to excited for the Justice League movie.

When the intermingling of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s comic book classic Watchmen and the rest of the DC Comics universe was first teased last year in the comic DC Rebirth it was immediately framed as a battle between hope and grit, between the wholesome hope of old school Superman and the intellectual grit and despair of Doctor Manhattan. After 30 years, the Superman of yore was finally going to stick it to the grime and misery that has pervaded superhero comics since the heralded arrival of The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen and bring back hope and color and fun.

Enter last week’s Doomsday Clock #1, the first issue in the aforementioned crossover, written by Geoff Johns and illustrated by Gary Frank.

Much of the first issue of this twelve-issue limited series is concerned with setting up the status quo of the world of Watchmen after the events of the original series, and it’s a status quo that is a slog to internalize. Set in 1992, the world we’re shown in Doomsday Clock is a frightening one. It’s funhouse mirror reflection of our world today make it particularly upsetting and paranoia-inducing. I found myself becoming more worried about the real world and what could become of it while reading the pages of Doomsday Clock. And then I found myself wondering, “is this what it was like to read Watchmen in 1986?”

One of the first comic books I read, I encountered Watchmen on a summer vacation in 2008, after having seen the trailer for the then-upcoming film adaptation during repeated viewings of The Dark Knight. It blew me away and still does every time I read it, but for me it will always be something of a period piece. The world it satirizes and discusses is one that predates me and so while I can read it and understand that it is gritty and grim, that grit and grim has always been mostly aesthetic rather than directly indicative of the world around me.

And perhaps that’s the problem. Perhaps that’s why so many were quick to sick a colorful, smiling, curlicued Superman at the patient zero of grit and grime like a cheerful attack dog. Where the vein of bleakness in Watchmen was a direct reflection of the world that produced that work, in many works since then that darker tone has become an imitation of Watchmen itself, a reflection of a reflection that loses its poignancy somewhere between mirrors.

Doomsday Clock #1 isn’t the condemnation of grit some might have expected, rather it’s a recontextualization of it. A reminder of why Watchmen was the way it was. Doomsday Clock is more a reconstruction of the equation behind Watchmen than the end result. The darkness in this first issue isn’t an imitation of its predecessor, it’s an imitation of its own time and place, which makes it incredibly effecting.

As a reader, by the end of Doomsday Clock #1 I felt more concerned about the world than I had before I read it. That’s a vulnerable and unpleasant journey to be taken on by a story. After Doomsday Clock’s first steps I’m left to wonder about what I suspect will make or break this story: what will the issues to come do with the vulnerability the first issue elicits from me, and how authentically will it be done? One expects some semblance of hope to prevail, but would that hope ring as true as despair does here?

Classic funny books!