Time to Meet Your God

Dark Nights: Metal is a six issue crossover by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo, with inks by Jonathan Glapion and color by FCO Plascencia, published by DC Comics in 2017 and 2018. It is the central part of a medium-sized crossover of the same name.

There, you can’t say I haven’t fulfilled the bare minimum of my requirements for any review.

It’s been about a year since I have read any new comic book that someone else didn’t give me. I was burnt out on a lot of shit towards the end of my old life and comics were definitely a part of that. It doesn’t help that the last couple years have been disastrous for both Marvel and DC. Writing about new mainstream comics for the AV Club had become an increasingly masochistic exercise because the trend from the Big 2 over the last few years has been a race to the bottom. When I had the time to step back from writing about comics every week for a couple years (more or less), I quickly realized that new books were getting worse across the board and neither company seemed to have much of a positive direction besides poorly managed attrition.

That is a very depressing big picture.

There should always be something to read. Even the worst patches of the companies’ respective histories have still managed to produce readable books, even if just a few. But now there’s no margin in readable. There’s no margin in anything but events that force retailers to order heavy and risk ruin on a weekly basis. Civil War 2 was so bad it actually broke a habit of being a more-or-less weekly Marvel reader, something I’d been (with only a few brief pauses over the years) for over three decades. That the bottom appeared to fall out of the quality of superhero comics around the same time I started to experience significant events in my own life (long story told copiously elsewhere, fuck yeah I’m self obsessed!) made it all the easier for me to just walk away for a while.

Now, I always knew I’d be coming back. That’s something about which I never had any doubt. I always return to comics, whether I want to or not. They’re home. That’s not good and it’s not bad, it just is. If I were smarter I’d have grown up liking sports, but I wasn’t so comics it is.

And if we’re being completely honest, I audibly groaned when I saw the e-mail from Tucker about reviewing Dark Nights: Metal this week. He gets to pick what I review, which was actually my idea after I realized I really didn’t have any interest in sifting through previews for books to review. It’s more fun to play badminton with whatever he wants to serve. But I also knew eventually he’d send me a superhero book of a more recent vintage, which I wasn’t looking forward to.

The good news is that, as far as this book goes, I’m as close to a “clean” audience as you could get. I drifted away from most industry news around the time Metal was first announced, so I avoided hearing the plot or premise beforehand. I realized as I sat down to read the book just how unusual a sensation that was. Advertising and solicitation being what they are, it’s difficult for anyone who wants to remain informed to avoid knowing every plot point beforehand. But Metal was all new to me. I didn’t know about the guy who shows up at the end of the first issue, what classic character was being relaunched at the end of it, or even who the villain was. Considering that I’ve read just about every major crossover released . . . well, probably every major crossover ever released by Marvel or DC, period, there’s not a lot they could really do in 2018 to surprise me.

(Maybe not all of Armageddon 2001, in the spirit of full disclosure. To be fair I do know how it ends.)

I won’t bother with phony suspense: Metal doesn’t surprise me. I’ll admit I wasn’t maybe expecting the guy who shows up at the end of the first issue, but nothing really came of it either. And even if the outline of the story was ostensibly new it was still quite familiar.

Metal is the story of –

Well, that’s a problem. Because Metal is a story about a bunch of things. It might actually be about too many things. A lot happens in these six issues, and half the things that happen happen in other comics, which is terribly inefficient. 

A series like Metal is usually designed one of two ways: a crossover with a main series and multiple crossovers can either keep the crossovers separate and distinct, or incorporate as many of the crossovers as possible to tell a part of the main story. Metal goes the latter route, which is problematic if you’re coming in late to the party and your editor thinks that sending you issues one through six of a six issue limited series is any way to actually get the whole story. I mean, come on, let’s be reasonable.

In all seriousness: there’s a lot of the plot of Metal that gets glossed over in the pages of Metal. That seems like a problem, considering that unless the collected edition is 600 pages with all the missing crossovers (always a possibility, but don’t hold your breath), there’s no way collecting these six issues together will result in anyone feeling like they got their money’s worth. Being so far out of the loop means I have no way of knowing which crossovers are and aren’t important, and I have no ability nor desire to find them right now anyway.

What is the plot, anyway? There’s a couple different ways of answering that. In the first way of answering I note that the plot is the culmination of threads from Snyder & Capullo’s run on Batman. Metal is a cosmic story, so the fact that everything from the Court of Owls to the Joker had a part to play in some decades-long game to turn Bruce Wayne into a cosmic MacGuffin thanks to a bunch of different kinds of magic metal (hence the title), and all the parts were laid out from the beginning, is kind of interesting to see, even if it doesn’t seem like a very good hook for a Batman story.

The second way of answering is to point out that in addition to all that the story is also about an evil parallel universe trying to destroy and / or usurp our own, using distressingly twisted versions of familiar heroes as weapons. That’s not so interesting, seeing as how it is literally the plot of half of everything DC has published for many years.  

Metal, to its credit, does take the time to point out to the reader just where all these seeds were planted over the years, not just in the pages of the New 52 Batman but also a pile of Grant Morrison stories (Multiversity, Final Crisis, and The Return of Bruce Wayne are all important), Geoff Johns’ Forever Evil and The Darkseid War, and everyone’s favorite, Crisis on Infinite Earths. (No references to Zero Hour, I don’t think. Sorry Extant, maybe next year?) It’s an impressive bit of construction. I respect the old school, and I feel Snyder does too.

But it’s not just that the plot seems familiar – I mean, originality is hardly the point. But the problem is not just that the plot is familiar but that all the elements of the story are. Forever Evil was also about an evil parallel universe trying to destroy and / or usurp our own, using distressingly twisted versions of familiar heroes as weapons. Coincidentally also similar to the plot of the entire DC Universe since they plugged the whole thing into a machine designed to power a small European country by harnessing Alan Moore’s disgusted sighs into renewable energy. 

At a certain point you begin to wonder if DC is capable of making comics about anything but existential dislocation on a cosmic scale? Evil parallel worlds are always trying to take over the DC Universe. Perhaps this is a Freudian recurrence of all the different fictional universes that have legitimately been swallowed into the DC Universe proper following legal acquisition. One of the (unintentional) themes of DC’s “evil universe” genre is that DC itself is always having to fight the grafting of alien characters onto its universe, a process whose traces linger in the presence of characters as diverse as Black Adam, Plastic Man, and Dr. Manhattan.

Although many of the pieces seem to fit, Metal doesn’t satisfy. One of the main reasons why is that the story relies overmuch on the symmetrical and structured moralism of the DC Universe to carry the plot. This is a broad criticism of the entire line: it’s not just that evil people exist in these comics, or evil actions are committed – there are entire evil multiverses, filled with universes so foul that merely touching our plane of existence risks corruption. Every since they introduced the evil anti-matter universe of Qward (which was introduced a month before Kennedy was elected, to give you an idea of how long this has been going on) the interplay of good and evil as solid and tangible things has been hardwired into these books.

There’s a medieval flavor to these stories, in that they build on tendencies within the framework of the DC Universe that lead these abstract concepts towards personification. Ascribing a moral identity to states of matter – such as the evil dark matter of the evil multiverse – reduces drama, because the conflict seems less like compelling human drama and more like a passion play where Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman can save the day by holding hands and thinking clean thoughts, chum.

The best explanation I have found as to why these stories linger so unsatisfyingly in the memory was written by the late Mark Gruenwald in 1990, in the context of a list of the worst clichés for comics writers to avoid. To this list of tropes he adds:

[A] story where the villain is defeated when the hero or villain somehow harness emotions, “goodness,” or some abstract value and bombard the villain with it. I hate that stuff. I don’t really believe those values exist as literal, objective energies so they shouldn’t be employed as if they were.

I read that when it was first printed in Marvel Age back in the first Bush Administration – the first first Bush Administration, that is – and it has stayed with me since, especially given that this is a cliché that never seems to die. And it’s also a cliché that DC continually invites since it insists on leaning heavily on moral ontology as a crux for its stories. It only makes sense that Metal ends with a Care Bear Stare since the villain Barbatos, at least what we see of him in this main story, is more of a cipher than No Heart was. He’s Batman’s evil cosmic dad from hell or something, I think.

Because that’s exactly what Batman needed, more magic bullshit in his backstory! As a matter of principle I dislike Batman having any kind of connections to cosmic or mystical stuff in his origin. I seriously dislike the idea that there was any kind of grand destiny behind the character, such as that implied by having a monster from the dark multiverse influencing the Waynes throughout history.

Is this stuff explained in the tie-ins? Seems like a good place to do that, you know, since things like exploring the main characters’ motivations seems like a questionable thing to shuffle off to a tie-in. Just because I could sort of follow what was going on without the context (I mean, I have read a few of these things before), doesn’t mean it’s ideal to have to guess about so much stuff. This seems so basic, and yet also kind of important!

(Being out of the loop for these things is honestly a wonderful sensation, I will point out.)

Capullo does a good job with frankly a thankless story. There’s a lot that needs to happen, and even if his pencils get progressively looser as the story continues, the looseness isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Something very similar happens with Jim Lee’s work when under deadline: both artists start taking shortcuts that actually make their pages slightly less fussy and their figure work more dynamic.

I should also acknowledge the fact that my reactions here are intentionally a bit disingenuous. I’m almost forty years old, been writing about comics professionally for almost half my life (JESUS FUCKING CHRIST THAT WAS A DEPRESSING SENTENCE LIKE WTF), and I know more about how these stories are put together than most people will ever forget, including many of the men who write them. But by that same token – c’mon. I’ve read all these things. I know how they work and how they don’t. I know when they’re cribbing from other stories, I can tell when they run out of plot and have to just wave their hands real fast and pray the readers don’t notice, and I can most certainly tell when the last issue of a crossover reads like a jumbled mess because there’s just so much to do in such little time and the last thing they were worried about was actually trying to make sense . . .

The story ends with the Justice League coming together for a nice dinner where they also explain how the story ends. I hope that doesn’t sound snide! They literally have a two-page spread at the end of the story where Bruce Wayne goes down the final plot points like he’s reading off a checklist. I’m not complaining, mind you, since I needed the recap. They also have a few pages where they talk about all the books that are spinning out of the event – the usual mixed bag of this and that, none of which looks all that interesting this go around. Of course it’s very hard to make anything appealing when it’s presented in the context of such an obviously tacked-on advertisement. Every “big” storyline for the last decade or so has ended on a similar note, and the only time it ever worked for me was the end of the Sinestro Corps War, when Johns revealed the multi-colored Lantern corps that the company spent the next few years exploring. Which should tell you a lot about how these stories really don’t change much at all.

Every time I read DC these days I get the feeling that these characters are lost. Their respective status quos have been so torn and soiled by years and decades of sales attrition that every new saga feels tentative, like the creators are desperately searching for some new status quo to establish, so they can actually get onto the business of telling new Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman stories. This feels less like a new story than bookkeeping: it’s all tied in and ingeniously constructed, yeah, and you have to check it off so we can get to the next thing, which wouldn’t you know is another Justice League relaunch.

It used to be that books and characters had status quos, and those were good things to have because it gave series foundations on which to build. New creators could add or subtract elements but long-running series always had defaults. Nothing is stable anymore, though, so status quos never stick around. Everything is crisis leading into more crises. There’s no point where things settle down and they just get, like, back to the business of fighting Kanjar Ro every month or something. It feels unsettled. There’s no ground. It’s all just lurching from one damn thing to the next.

Kind of like life!

Now, I don’t want to beat up on the book. It thought the best way to sell the audience on a new direction for Hawkman was to highlight that franchise’s best features, random and arbitrary plot contrivances. But I also copy-and-pasted the previous sentence from my column about Zero Hour, a story two and a half decades old, so perhaps it can’t be avoided.

That’s what I love about these Big 2 crossovers, man. I keep getting older, they stay the same.