It doesn’t seem so first blush, but “The Culling”, the recent crossover of DC’s New 52 teen-hero books, and originary moment for their newest superteam, the Ravagers, is core to the project of the New 52. Rereading it now, and rereading the earlier buildup in Superboy, Legion Lost and Teen Titans, I’m struck by what a unique cultural moment this is. With the current surge into transmedia, with movies like The Avengers, the upcoming and perhaps too-soon movie reboot of Spider-Man, the much-anticipated conclusion to Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and the down-the-line Superman movie… Between the transmedia surge, and other Top Billing comics megaevents like Before Watchmen and the recently concluded Night of Owls, will “The Culling” simply be lost? Will it be rendered anonymous between the folds of more pressing things?
It’s that feeling of being lost that rings truest for me during the nearly two-hour long roundtable that DC set up exclusively for PopMatters. Not in being lost in a sense of being swamped or being inundated, but lost in a sense of maybe missing the real story entirely. With nearly a century’s worth of collective experience of comics storytelling behind them, “The Culling” creators are themselves a siren song. Sitting down with Scott Lobdell, Tom DeFalco and Howard Mackie, means sitting down with creators who have already imprinted themselves as generationally definitive in the popular imagination.
Awash in this splendor of creativity, my inner fan and my inner critic come to blows. The story here I know, is much less these creators themselves and the paths they walked to get here, and much more the work of “The Culling” itself. I understand that rationally. But… But, there’s Tom and Howard and Scott, and these things they have built over the long march of time.
Moreover, “The Culling” provides its own kind of siren song. It’s made harder to see it for the unique cultural moment in comics publishing that it is, by the fact of it being as apposite to the moment as it clearly is. “The Culling” is the first crossover event, in that it ties together unexpected books. One of the joys of reading Millennium was discovering that events of the story had actually connected science heroes Firestorm and Captain Atom with urban crimefighter Batman. This is true for any crossover event, the Law of Unexpected Connections (more a rule of thumb really).
While “Night of Owls” was a contemporaneous comics event, it didn’t have any of the hallmarks of a classic crossover event, since it logically tied together all the books set in Gotham. During “The Culling” however, exactly this story mechanic of the unexpected relation plays out. Teen Titans is logically connected with Superboy—both written by Scott, both find themselves in contention with the secret society known as N.O.W.H.E.R.E. But Tom’s Legion Lost being thrown into the mix, we see that flash of the unforeseen entwining. Coming out of “The Culling” event itself (the event that plays out over the course of Teen Titans, Superboy, Legion Lost and DC’s first Annual for the New 52), the survival horror of Howard Mackie’s Ravagers adds another hue of the unprecedented.
And that’s another element that misleadingly repackages “The Culling” as solely “of the moment”. With the crossover’s ongoing fallout ricocheting through not only the pages of Superboy, Legion Lost and Teen Titans, but through Ravagers as well, “The Culling” effectively connects the First and Second Waves of the New 52. My first line of questioning is exactly this. “The Culling” is a major milestone in the evolving history of the New 52, how was it writing under this kind of architecture?
The table returns almost unanimously with an unexpected answer. That “The Culling” hadn’t begun as a top-down Editorial/Marketing crossover, but emerged harmoniously as a localized, lateral, cross-pollination between creators. I smile at how easily Scott, Howard and Tom crack the usual industry story in half.
The usual industry story being the received mythology there’s always ongoing tensions between creatives, and business, with Editorial (serving the interests of both creativity and business) usually caught somewhere in-between. It’s a story that has run the full gamut of publishing history in the comics industry, from the Age of Eisner through to the Age of Image. But does this received mythology still hold the same power it once did? With the advent of Image and the now-multiple opportunities for culturally-legitimate and financially-viable self-publishing, does this hold any water?
Tom’s characterization of “top-down” as distinct to “lateral” certainly offers an escape from what I’ve increasingly begun to read as a dated map of the power-dynamic between publisher and creator. Tom’s easily the most taciturn of the group. He’s every bit as energetic and enthused. He’s always ready to riff on some of the ideas already in the mix. But in teasing out his own ideas I find he’s slower to respond, more thoughtful, every idea he speaks to is lent the sober weight of a deep and abiding gravitas.
And it’s an almost throwaway comment from him. The “top-down” model versus the “lateral creative” model. But it’s also a comment that points to a deep schism that perhaps went unnoticed for the longest time. In his 2008 book Reinventing the Sacred, Stuart Kauffman argues for there being a conceptual difference between physics and biology. Physics, Kauffman reminds us, deals with particles, and the key to a physics-oriented worldview is finding the smallest particle and understanding its processes and interactions. Physics is reductionist.
Biology operates in the opposite manner, asking questions in the opposite “direction”, as it were. Biology is all about connectedness, and about environment. If introducing a new element into a preexisting environment, what would be the outcome? The point of physics would be to essentialize a set of rules that would be able to predict in advance what must come. With biology, the questions do not conform to this predictive stricture. Instead, the only way to know for certain the outcome of an experiment, is to run that experiment. And even running the same experiment, in the same preexisting environment, a second time, is no guarantee of obtaining the same result.
Biology in other words, focuses on the study of emergence, rather than reductionism. When Tom speaks about the “lateral” model, he alludes to exactly this. The idea that we cannot know in advance what might come. But we know that what will come will qualitatively reframe the entirety. This notion of being irreconcilable with predictiveness is core to the New 52. “If we took the same characters,” DC seemed to say going into last September, “and ran them through the same preexisting environment of popculture, would they repeat the same history, assume the same cultural significance?”
That’s been the secret joy of reading the New 52 this last year or so—to see Grant Morrison reenact those first steps of Superman, to read Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire find that same inner horror in the pages of Swamp Thing and Animal Man. And now, with Howard and Scott and Tom, to see the classic work of Marv Wolfman on Old DCU’s Teen Titans and of Paul Levitz on Legion of Super Heroes take bold steps not only into the unknown, but into the unknowable. It is the promise of the deep, inner scifi of the twenty-first century. Almost all of scifi, as a genre, since the 1920s or thereabouts has focused on transcending the year 2000. If we could make into the twenty-first century, we kept telling ourselves, we’d have it all. Flying cars, pills for breakfast, dancing alien striptease girls, as Warren Ellis puts it in Doktor Sleepless. But those were always the externalities of scifi, the tools of the trade, the sleights-of-hand and the stratagems of genre.
The true, down-deep-in-the-DNA of scifi, as Bill Gibson reminds us in his most recent Bigend Trilogy (the three volumes of which play out contemporaneously in the years of their publication 2003, 2008 and 2010), has always been a sort f postmodernism of popculture. The idea that, minus those external paraphernalia that we so closely associate with scifi, scifi itself has always been about deploying the recognizable into the unforeseeable, the unknowable. Scifi, has always been our secret and perpetual skirmish with the tyrannies of prediction.
Scott illustrates beautifully how this skirmish plays out even at the level of storytelling in Ravagers. “We see a lot of team books,” he begins, “but team books almost always mean, ‘Here’s the captain, and here’s the mission statement, and this is our secret headquarters.’ And what I really like about Ravagers is the fact that it’s not a team book, but a it’s a shared experience book. And I think that with the success of this book, hopefully we’ll see more of this kind of shared experience book.”
This same sentiment is something that echoes profoundly in a later response from Howard. He’s replying to a question about the acts of creation when he says: “We had, and perhaps DC Editorial had, in presenting this crossover to the three individuals whose voices are being inflicted upon you at this time.” And I chuckle, as does Howard, and then Tom and Scott, also, “is that it was those three individuals. And I can tell you honestly I have nothing but the utmost respect for those two guys, in terms of their creative energy drive. So that was the big appeal for me to get involved at all. And I think in as much of a way as we’d take slams at each other given any chance, but it made it easier. There were a lot of phone calls and a lot of emails going back and forth, and it was just very natural, because it was the three of us. And I think that alone allowed for a very organic back-and-forth. Throwing ideas at each other a thousand miles and hour, allowed for what we referred to as an organic crossover. You guys take it from there….”
And then Scott makes a joke that completely reframes everything.