Cover Charged

Notes on the Rise of Conditionality at DC

by shathley Q

14 March 2012

It's not simply a change in logo, for DC. It's that this change in logo captures the unique power of comics as a medium hinged on the promise of conditionality, and this idea of conditionality is littered in these issues of DC's New 52.

In the week that DC changed its company logo, two unconnected, parallel events also surface.

The new DC logo feels like a statement again. A soft, flat-shaped form that human minds easily interpret as a paper D begin folded back, as if turning the pages of a comicbook, reveals a hard C waiting beneath. In an age where already we can begin to feel the cultural inevitability of digital overtaking paper as comics’ preferred medium, the new DC logo seems to be a touchstone with the company’s and the medium’s origins. Not only the visual representation of turning the page, but the idea that the traditional comicbook format came from a tabloid-format newspaper folded over, then folded over again is subtly referenced in this logo. There’s some furtive magnificence to all of this, not at all unlike the uncertainty of sailing across the globe, navigating only by starlight. And there’s something secretly profound about the story that’s being retold here—that comics’ original material conditions were responsible for the art that consequently resulted. A phantom of that same furtive magnificence that echoes in two issues of DC’s New 52 released that same week, Animal Man and Green Arrow.

Even before the company-wide reboot last September, Animal Man and Green Arrow had little to do with each other. The New 52 reboot only entrenched that segregation. According to last summer’s primer, DC: the New 52, Green Arrow belongs squarely in the “Justice League” collection; traditional heroes given a twenty-first century revamp. According to the primer, and this has been supported by, if not wholly exploited in the hitherto six issues of New 52 Green Arrow, Green Arrow Oliver Queen is something of a outlaw hero. He’s out to reign in supervillains-run-wild but he himself is none too careful about understanding and adhering to international law. In an interesting twist, Oliver is a tech-oriented trust-fund orphan. He is in the process of running an insurgency campaign against his deceased father’s industrialist company, and in the midst of transforming Queen Industries into Q Core.

Animal Man was one of the first wave of titles, nearly some 20 years ago now, to be incorporated into DC’s then-new Vertigo initiative. Vertigo was groundbreaking. It posited a much older, much more sophisticated readership for comicbooks. Rather than constructing the Ideal Reader as a male adolescent, Vertigo made demands on the gender and demands on the maturity of its readership. How could Vertigo books manage to appeal not only to young males, just exiting high school, but young women, just about to enter the job market for the first time? Over the course of 20 years, Vertigo has made that leap time and again. Animal Man would traditionally belong to that stable of comics. And things have changed only slightly since the New 52. Post-September, Animal Man is now branded as part of “The Dark” collection. Sister titles include Swamp Thing and Justice League Dark, to round out a world that is still notionally part of the mainstream of the New 52, but handles the kinds of things that regular superheroes are just under-equipped for.

And the New 52 have only entrenched this schism. Animal Man strikes that same beautiful cord that the very best of our travel fiction hits, from Star Trek to the much more animated, much more moving Wild Thornberrys to Kerouac’s On the Road. Writer Jeff Lemire and artist Travel Foreman have carved out a space where the story of a man staring down the barrel of the very middle of his life, his highly portable nuclear family in tow, comes to terms with the truly nomadic nature that lies at the heart of modern existence. Over the course of the now seven issues of Animal Man we’ve been interested far less in the Red or the Hunters Three or the strangely resurrected dead and decaying animals. Instead, our wrapt attentions could be fixated on nothing less than how Buddy has been moved, by plot-point and by narrative arc, from a family-man, head of a household, owner of a nice suburban home, superhero who’s friendly with local law enforcement, to a man whose wife, whose children, whose mother-in-law, are packed into the back of a camper running from who-knows-what-horrors. The true opponent here is existentialist.

Green Arrow has itself offered a wholly different kind of substantial fare. It’s been one of the strongest superhero narratives in the New 52. Oliver Queen has been given a short leash following on from his father’s passing. He’s not been given the run of the whole of Queen Industries, just the run of the tech-rich Q Core division. And Oliver’s revenge? To play out the role of outlaw superhero who, like a take-no-prisoners sheriff of old, will bring down the bad guys, the law be damned. Green Arrow’s ongoing dalliance with superheroics speaks to a deep-seated breakdown in the generative economy that Silicon Valley once promised. As much as Oliver Queen is a post-Dot-com-bubble billionaire, he is also a post-Enron billionaire. The idea that the Old West metaphor of bringing in the bad guy is the only model that still appeals to him is a powerful comment on the kind of society we’re only just now beginning to rebuild in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis.

With the vast differences in these two titles so apparent, it’s strange that they ring out with two moments so remarkably alike. And in the same week no less, and the same week as DC’s unveiling of it’s new logo. In the pages of Green Arrow new creative team’s writer, Ann Nocenti, opens with a true Shakespearean turn. Atop one of downtown Seattle’s roofs, Oliver Queen, the Green Arrow, opens the issue with a genuine soliloquy. He even goes so far as to quote Lear; “Nothing will come from nothing”, he exclaims while delineate the cage that the Oliver Queen identity has become for him. And by issue’s end, he would have encountered three daughters, triplets who inherit their father’s kingdom by proving their love to him. Without realizing it, Green Arrow has entered into a condition where Shakespeare is perpetuated.

Although the vector of conditionality is different in issue #7 of Animal Man, the effect is almost exactly the same. While in town buying supplies, Cliff Baker, son of Animal Man Buddy Baker, spots two girls. In an instant Travel Foreman’s art betrays everything there is to know about them; they’re dangerous, free, entirely superior to this dead-end town that they’re trapped in, expect in the only meaningful way—having escaped it. One girl sports an iconic Animal Man image from issue one (Buddy standing savior-like before the tree of blood-vessels) on her t-shirt. Cliff approaches, only to be rebuffed. And at exactly that moment, Buddy makes his appearance. The girls are shocked that Cliff has been telling the truth about who is dad is. Where has Cliff been, Buddy demands, the Justice League needs them both. Buddy grabs his son and flies off; cigarettes drop from mouths.

It’s a small kind of rescue, an unusual rescue for a superhero, but that rescue becomes the centerpiece for the entire issue. The rescue of a man struggling to not lose his family as they both evolve beyond the 50s fable of the nuclear family. And its a scene, that despite the surface variances, shares deep architecture with the arc of the most recent Green Arrow issue. Just as Green Arrow has stumbled into the conditionality of Shakespeare’s King Lear (you can almost feel “angler on a lake of darkness”, writhing just beneath the surface, about to break free in the next issue, or the next), Animal Man himself has been set as a condition into which Buddy, Cliff and their whole family must enter.

This arc of external conditions driving narrative action would seem shockingly manipulative in anything medium, and yet not so with comics, and particularly not so with these issues of Green Arrow and Animal Man. Not only is it a question of artwork. Incoming Green Arrow creative team artist, Harvey Tolibao, infuses Ann’s story with a wonderful, charismatic, freneticism. He effects a grand and diffuse drama of angles and tilts, and also, captures sublimely the very moment of inner movement in each character, in every panel. Green Arrow twists wildly through the air, Skylark, even being triplets, appear at odd angles, in the middle of catching things, grabbing things. Travel Foreman is no less spectacular. Thin line art and muted colors seem suggestive of a personal, inner world not so much in breakdown, but in a state of deep uncertainty.

And beyond even the artwork, this storytelling mode of conditionality evokes a sense of the original comicbook stories, a medium that was dictated by the conditionality of its publication format. It’s with the comicbook that comics really begin to take flight. In those early days of color, the idea of a single story being told, no longer confined by the structure of three- or four-panel strips, was just simply groundbreaking. A complete story, told in full, from beginning to end. A story told across a three act structure, a story which embraces the monomyth evolutions of ‘separation’, ‘quest’, ‘reunion’ and ‘death’. It was the story of how possibility sprang from the endless possibilities of a simple change in external condition. The comicbook was the unleashing of the Promethean urge of comics.

We don’t need a media analyst the caliber of Clay Shirky to remind us that this entrenching of the idea of conditionality is already occurring in the digital arena. In his talk “Organizations Versus Collaboration”, he effectively illustrates how even in social media like Flickr, the 80/20 rule applies; that 80% of the work, is done by 20% of the people. In the past, organizers who needed to view the potential outputs of a group in terms of the cost of establishing and running an organization, would have made the sensible decision to cut away as much of that 80% of the workforce as possible. But with collaborative social media structures like LinkedIn or Twitter or Flickr, the costs of starting and running an organization has dropped through the floor. This means the question has changed. We’re no longer hemmed in by “How much of the workforce can we stand to lose, and still maintain a reliable yield?”; instead we’re able to ask “Why lose any of the output at all?”. Each member of an organization consumes resources of the organization, and should therefore supply benefit in excess of that cost. But social media means that that formulation no longer applies. Instead, we can have 100% of the yield, for only fractionally more organizational costs. For organizations, technology has ushered in an external conditionality scarcely different from the same conditionality present in comicbooks, all those many decades ago.

I look at DC’s new logo and I read Green Arrow and I read Animal Man and I’m eager read what other issues and other titles that will come later this month, and all the months of this year, and all the years down the line. I look at DC’s new logo and for one shining moment, it transcends the simple, impoverishment of “print-versus-digital”. I run my thumb over the new logo, aware that in the days and months and years to come I may have to pay a premium for the extravagance of feeling paper beneath my thumb. I’ll remember this moment, and so will you. If the future looks as bright as it does now, it’s only because DC has mastered the past in the way it has.

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