By Allison Eckel
By now you should all know that DC Comics is re-adjusting their characters and storylines beginning in September. If you haven't seen one yet, here's a list of the announced new titles. This is not the first time in the publisher’s 60-plus year history that it has hit the editorial re-set button, and it won’t be the last. While I am nervous about how the writers will tweak my favorite characters, I find that I am most nervous about how the writers will handle the re-jigger itself. What I don’t want is for them to show me they know what meta-fiction means.
Don’t panic, I promise to keep this simple. Meta-fiction is to comics/fiction what “breaking the fourth wall” is to theater/TV. Basically, it’s when the fictional characters interact with the audience. A deeper level of meta-fiction is when the writer interacts with her readers through the characters. Put another way, the writer uses a character to acknowledge editorial adjustments or widespread fan ire. Imagine Gail Simone watches you read an issue of Secret Six. After every page, she pokes you in the ribs and asks, “What do you think? It’s good, right? Do you get what I did here?” Not that she would do, but it would be annoying, right? I recently stumbled upon two glaring examples of such meta-fiction, which went horribly wrong.
Superman Forever (1998) is a perfect-bound book, originally released with a tipped-on lenticular doo-hickey underscoring Alex Ross’s heroic image of Clark revealing the iconic S hidden beneath his suit. Most of the main story is a typical kidnapping mystery (Luthor’s infant daughter Lena is missing) and it’s all Super hands on deck to find the baby (guest appearances by nearly every supporting character Superman has). What made this more than a usual issue is the intro pages re-starting Superman.
Remember Superman Red and Superman Blue? I’ll wait a minute while you quell that nausea. This (thankfully) limited character departure was exciting in its train wreck value (we couldn’t look away from the disaster) and came to a close in June, 1998, with Superman Forever. But, instead of handling it all within the plot of the Millennium Giants story and then moving on, someone at DC decided we needed a statement piece.
I understand the need to explain a complicated series of events to readers (I’m still waiting for an explanation of 52). But writer Dan Jurgens was too heavy on the implied commentary, bringing this front matter well into the realm of meta-fiction. From Superman Forever, page 12, Superman says, “Bad enough I lost these powers and became an energy being, but to make matters worse – that energy divided itself and I became two independently functioning people!” The exposition covering the whole Millennium Giants battle continues, with Pa asking him to cease the “techno-babble.” Ma complains that the blue suit was “just too… too…” and can’t find the words to explain how awful we all thought it was. Clark finds his classic blue tights and red cape in Ma’s laundry basket and proclaims it is “just what I need to let the world know – that the one and only original Superman is back! Forever!” Ugh. Corny I can handle. But to me, this is Jurgens using Superman to show readers that although he’s a writer, he’s on our side in thinking the Red/Blue thing was a bad idea. In 1998, he didn’t have Twitter, so I guess he had to show us solidarity within the story, with a wink and a nod.
The latest example of annoying meta-fiction in a DC title can be found in Brightest Day Aftermath: The Search for Swamp Thing #1 (on sale now). The character of John Constantine has a running internal monologue that reads like a one-sided conversation with the reader. This is meta-fiction that works. I enjoyed my “conversation” with Constantine. Mostly. Just as I settled in to Constantine's Brit misanthropic rantings about Swamp Thing, writer Jonathan Vankin veered into the annoying lane by leaving the realm of plot and exposition in favor of industry commentary. Observe (from page 9, bold is as printed):
“Mind you, if it isn’t one crisis, it’s another. I’ve seen it before and, to be honest, it seemed like a bit of a laugh to me. Always believed evolution moves in leaps and bounds anyway. It’s not some gradual process of endless continuity. Sometimes this world needs a good kicking. It’s healthy. And we all just crack on as normal in the end.”
So, there’s Vankin using Constantine to tell us all that the coming re-jigger to the DC Universe is nothing more than a healthy evolutionary leap forward and we will all settle in quickly. Thanks, Man, I feel much better. Except for the part where I am annoyed that a writer used a character to comment on editorial decisions. Vankin does have Twitter at his disposal if he’d like to vent, and I am always available to interview writers.
Meta-fiction can be truly enjoyable to read. However, when it is used to serve the agenda of the writer, rather than the needs of his creation, it can alienate the reader. I’m sure there are many other examples out there; if you find another, share it in the comments section below.
Until then, I will hope that the writers for the new 52 titles will simply hit the ground running without wasting ink on commentary. The last time we had a Superman #1 was 1987, when John Byrne had the chance to re-boot Superman post-Crisis. We saw an adult hero who had just learned of his alien origins. The naiveté of Superboy in the soul-saving, butt-kicking body of Superman. No excuses, no apologies, no winks, no nudges, no commentary. No meta-fiction. That’s how we can all “crack on as normal in the end.”
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- Review – Uncanny Avengers #7
- Review – Happy! Trade Paperback
- The Original Guardians of the Galaxy
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