Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Mystery of Dwayne McDuffie, the Crisis on Mono-Earth, and the one in Tommy Westphall's mind.

For some years, before Dwayne passed, I had the great privilege of plaguing and terrorizing The Dwayne McDuffie Forums with my idiotic opinions and, somehow, getting some conversation with the great Maestro. I loved how he always gave me these one liners in which he spotted the flaws of my long piles of ranting nonsense and made several of my views collapse on their own weight. He is gone now, but I will always appreciate how many of his views are now mine as well. 
From science, social issues and home-made philosophy, to the way a comic book works, we talked about everything in that forum. Among the topics that were particularly attractive to comic book nerds, the one that appealed the most to me were his views on continuity.
This week, on his blog, Creation Point, the ever cool and incredibly talented J. M. DeMatteis exchanged a couple of replies with me on his ongoing Justice League 3000 (which I cannot recommend you enough) and how it is set outside the main continuity of most of the current DC Comics titles, in a world in which all his Justice League International stories happened. All of it got me thinking again about Dwayne's views. To this day, I consider them an impending revolution in the superhero genre and I think they expose the ideal way for publishers to work with it.
Dwayne wrote three essays on the subject, which I consider must-read material for any lover of comic books and superhero mythopoeia. Along with other interesting articles, they are available at his site. However, for the sake of diffusing and  keeping them for posterity, I am sharing a transcript here. So, enjoy:
Crisis On Mono-Earth! 
(c. 2001)
As I patiently await my copy of the upcoming Crisis on Infinite Earths trade paperback, collecting the outstanding 12 issue maxi-series that tried to untangle the beautiful mess of 40 some-odd years of DC Comics continuity, I can't help but wonder: Isn't it past time we got rid of all this "shared universe" crap? 
I suppose I should explain.
Crisis was everything you could ask for in a crossover epic; a great story, featuring dozens of superheroes facing their greatest challenge ever; a sincere promise of "anything can happen" that gave the proceedings something almost unheard of in series fiction: real suspense; final bows for old favorites not seen in years; Easter eggs enough to keep the most anal fan busy for weeks looking for them all; and beautiful, psychotically detailed, art. I almost liked Crisis enough to cough up the hundred bucks they were asking for the hardcover edition that came out a couple of years ago (but I didn't, out of fear that my late father would have risen from his grave to smack me on the head for stupidity). In addition to being both an aesthetic and a commercial success, Crisis also achieved its primary goal: wiping the slate clean so that the DC Universe could go forward without the many contradictions among its myriad continuities. The result, a single, contradiction-free DC Universe, would be the standard at DC Comics from then on, or at least until folks started writing more stories. 
Today, less than twenty years later, despite at least three other "reboots," (each more inventive than the next in their efforts to explain away the various inconsistencies that routinely crop up) DC continuity is at least as confused as it was before Crisis. 
I'm not here to debate the merits of comic book series set in shared universes. I've enjoyed reading shared universe stories. I've written shared universe stories, myself. I broke into comics by creating Damage Control, a concept thoroughly dependent on existence of the Marvel Universe. At Milestone, I even committed a shared universe of my own. But I repent my sin, and so should we all. The interconnectedness of shared universe stories is one of the biggest barriers to new readership. I know that's counterintuitive. Crossovers increase sales, right? I mean, that's why we keep doing them. True, but what we've also been doing is selling more and more books to fewer and fewer people. One reason? Shared universes are too hard to follow. 
In the interests of clarity, which is my point, let me repeat myself: Shared universes are too hard to follow.
The vast amount of information a reader has to master, simply to understand a typical monthly superhero comic is ridiculous. That's all well and good for geeks like you and me but it's become impossible to be a casual reader anymore. Casual readers should be our bread and butter; they certainly used to be. But I defy you to pick up a random issue of most current comics and be able to understand what's going on in it without the equivalent of a Ph.D. in trivia. We want more readers but we don't offer them any way in. Let me give you an example. Last year's Batman: No Man's Land promised exciting stuff from a number of top-notch creators. But can you imagine the confusion of someone picking up a random single issue of a story that ran through four (or was it eight?) monthly titles for an entire year? And where does DC get off asking them to commit to buying 48 (or was it 96?) individual comics to get a single story, no matter how good? Apparently, they got off at the bank, as I'm told the Batman titles sold much better than usual during that run. Me, I decided to wait for the trade paperbacks, which I haven't yet cracked, because I'm not sure I have them all. Too complicated. I suppose I could call Kurt Busiek and ask him to sort it out for me but I'm afraid of going to the well too often. Besides, this is not an option available to the casual reader. 
But the problem's even worse than it seems, because to really understand the Batman stories, you have to know all about something called "JLA." And to really understand JLA, you have to read four (or is it five) Superman books, and a couple of Flash books, and Wonder Woman, and Hawkman (if I really wanted to drive my point home, I'd have used Hawkman as my example but shooting fish in a barrel is only easy if you don't mind getting water all over the floor. I'd have had to spend more time trying to explain Hawkman to you than making my point), and Green Lantern, and Aquaman, and a bunch of other stuff that may or may not be cancelled. This is insane. How many people would watch ER if, in order to understand it, you had to be current with the continuity of every single show on NBC? Right. Practically no one, and NBC is free. Talk about "Must Watch…" 
I'm not just picking on DC, here, although I promise I will in the future. I could just have easily talked about X-Men titles, or Heroes Reborn reboots or, God help us, Spider-Man. The shared universe really was a good idea, once upon a time. That time has passed. Let's trash these unwieldy things. 
Does this mean we need another Crisis? Must we do without continuity, without team-ups or crossovers? Should we all just pack it in right now and go find a new hobby? No, I'm not suggesting anything that radical. Not quite. If you come back next week, I'll tell you how we can have our cake and eat it too. Which is fortunate, because if I can't eat my cake, I don't want any.  
See you next week.  
- Dwayne McDuffie

Yep. Mono-Earth sounded as a great idea, but the expressions of these multiverse characters show us how painful it was to understand its continuity.

The Rules of the Game: Crisis On Mono-Earth, part II
When last we met, the menace of "shared universes" (the unwholesome practice of setting the majority of a publisher's titles in a single continuity) was killing superhero comics.  
I'm borderline serious, here. 
I've already argued that shared universes add layers of unnecessary complexity to the reading experience. New customers can't figure out where to start reading, should they be so inclined. Casual readers don't exist anymore, as they can't hope to follow the stuff unless they're willing to commit totally. Even guys like us (well, most of us), who have already been reading pretty much everything for years can't keep it all straight any more. The result of these hopelessly tangled storylines, needlessly interwoven through dozens of comic book series, is to make anyone but a head case ditch the whole thing. Which folks are already doing, in droves.  
Not to worry, Gordius. Just bring that nasty knot over here and Dwayne McAlexander will make everything all better. 
I propose we sever the ties that bind. With one minor class of exceptions (which I'll get to later) let every individual title be its own universe. Marvel Universe? Screw it. DCU? Please, as if it were remotely coherent now. Tell the truth. You like the Elseworlds stuff better anyway, don't you?  
Well, even if you don't... 
I've already received letters from readers who freaked because they think I'm suggesting we get rid of continuity. Relax, I'm doing no such thing. I'm simply suggesting a separate continuity within each and every title. Ever wonder why the Avengers don't show up and help when the Fantastic Four is locked in mortal battle with Galactus? Well, don't. Because under the new rules, there aren't any Avengers in the FF Universe, and vice versa. 
"What!?!," you say. "No guest shots? No crossovers?" 
Sure there are. But only if the creative/editorial teams want them. The first rule of individual continuity is this: Nothing is canon unless it happened (or is referred to) in the pages of an issue of the comic you're reading. If the Empire State Building was destroyed in the latest issue of Green Lantern, there's no Empire State Building anymore, but only in Green Lantern. The Flash remains free to coax Gorilla Grodd down from the top of that that very same nonexistent building, because in his comic, it was never destroyed. Should I read only one of those titles, I don't have to keep track of continuity that has nothing to do with the comic I bought. If I happen to read both titles, the "discontinuity" is no more confusing than the fact that on The West Wing, the President of the United States is named Josiah Bartlet, and on Spin City, his name is Bill Clinton.  
You still want to know about guest shots, don't you? Okay, Rule #2: Guest Shots are permissible, but they only affect the continuity of the book they appeared in. If Flash does a guest-shot in Green Lantern, there's no Empire State Building and the Flash sees nothing wrong with that. Moreover, back in the pages of The Flash, the crossover story never happened (unless it's explicitly referred to in those pages). You with me? If you're reading Green Lantern, it happened, if you're reading Flash, it didn't. Anybody can still meet anybody though, if you're into that sort of thing. 
Rule #3: No continued stories crossing from one book into another. A multi-part story is fine, as long as all the parts take place in the same title. No part one in Flash, part two in Green Lantern, part three in the 48 page bookshelf Faster Than Lantern's Light! nonsense. If I like the Flash, that's all I should ever have to read. If I really like him, I can follow his circulation-building guest shots in other titles if I want to. But I never have to. 
Before you ask, Rule #4: Team books and multiple character crossover books are permissible but take place in their own unique universe. You may have team books. Even team books like The Avengers or JLA that are made up mostly of members who already have their own solo titles. JLA can have both Flash and Green Lantern as members but it has its own unique continuity, which may or may not contradict the continuities of the Flash and or Green Lantern titles. Big crossover epics like Maximum Security would take place in a maxi series called Maximum Security. You wouldn't need to read any other titles in order to understand it. Characters that guest star in a crossover title aren't beholden to that continuity unless they choose to be. 
This brings us to the exception of the exception to my shared continuity rules. Exception #1: Groups of titles may share continuity in ways that violate Rules 1, 2 and sometimes 4. In other words. If the Empire State Building is destroyed In Superman, it's also gone in Adventures, Man Of Steel and probably in Supergirl as well. If you want to define a group of titles as "X-Men books, and all of their spin-offs," this is also kosher. But rule #3 is inviolate.  
Another happy result of this system is that it would strengthen certain titles that are diminished by being in a shared universe. Captain Marvel, Plastic Man and Wonder Woman, for instance, would all work better in their own unique worlds, worlds that differ than the shared DCU. Captain Marvel's Fawcett City, stuck in a retro 1950's, with talking tigers and world conquering worms, is at best an uncomfortable fit with Superman's "just slightly ahead of our time" Metropolis. Maybe you disagree with my examples, but you know what I mean. Do street criminals have ray guns? Is public mass transit light rail, buses or transporters? Is the Hulk the strongest one there is, or is Thor? Are magic and the supernatural real, or just scams to be uncovered by the Amazing Randi? The answers to questions like these effect the kinds of stories you can tell. My solution? Let these questions be decided in their own individual titles. Then the creators can build a unique world that supports, not simply allows, the conceit of a title.  
The best part of my scheme is that the people who care deeply about how all the various titles relate to one another will have more to argue about than ever. Imagine the fun of trying to stitch all these contradictory continuities together into a seamless whole. The rest of us don't have to risk migraines thinking about it ever again. I remember once, many years ago Marvel executive editor Mark Gruenwald explained Omniverse, his theory of how various fictional cosmologies all fit together, to me. I think I got it, eventually. But I'm sure I had less trouble grasping the finer points of Special Relativity. 
None of what I'm proposing is all that radical, really. We've all seen these rules in effect many times before, in intercompany crossovers. Superman vs. Spider-Man was my first exposure to this treatment of continuity but the latest Aliens vs. Whomever mini demonstrates the principles just as well. 
Okay, you've got the gist of my plan. Now it's time to shoot holes in it. I'll give you guys a couple weeks for rebuttal. Email me with your comments and critiques, I'm especially interested in examples of good comics that wouldn't be possible under these conditions. In a month or so, I'll respond by either cruelly shooting you down right in front of everybody, or grudgingly admitting that you're right and trying to refine my set of rules. If you're really successful, I'll just give up the whole idea. 
Okay, I'm running long. See you next week with one of those "bits and pieces" type things, wherein I try to pass off as a real column a bunch of random notions too thin to carry even a rambling, unfocused, thousand word essay.  
- Dwayne McDuffie
And from that we can snowball and make our own takes. Personally, I think DC should go half way. They already have the Multiverse structure, in which they have named universes for realities such as the ones from 
  • DC: The New Frontier (Earth-21)
  • Gotham by Gaslight (Earth-19)
  • Batman: The Brave and the Bold (Earth-23),
  • Young Justice (Earth-16), 
  • The DC animated Universe (Earth-12, a.k.a. the Timmverse), or
  • The Dark Knight Returns (Earth-31).
It also includes a "Prime Earth", which is where the events of most of the DC line takes place and it was formerly known as "Earth-One", "New Earth" or "Earth-0" (don't ask). For my two cents, whatever they call that main reality, these days DC should only keep a limited number of successful titles within it so that editors could keep a tight ship  and, consequently, they increase the quality of the continuity (like TV head writers, if you will). Meanwhile, other creative teams can have their very own Earths as a setting for whatever ongoing title, limited series or graphic novel they want to include. This way Darwyn Cooke could write more Earth-21 stories, Brian Augustyn could explore Earth-19 and  Alan Moore can have his own "Earth-W" to produce a Watchmen sequel (pfff, ha, ha, ha, just kidding). 

The existence of a DC multiverse also opens a possibility for writers who have their creations trapped in an extinct continuity and would like to take their contributions and continue working on them as part of a new Earth. Frank Miller intended precisely this when he wrote All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder, an unfinished story that he considers to be set in the same continuity of all his previous Batman stories (Batman: Year One, Batman /Spawn, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, and Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again), regardless of their ties to unfitting stories by other writers (Loeb's Batman: Dark Victory). Apparently a similar situation is happening with 
J. M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen's Justice League 3000, which is set in the year 3000 of an Earth that includes the events Formerly Known as the Justice League, I Can't Believe It's Not the Justice League, and all the Justice League International stories by that creative team. Apparently, it also includes the events of Camelot 3000, which basically means that they can hand pick whatever stories they want to fit in their continuity. This dynamic would also make sense for properties such as Neil Gaiman's Sandman, or James Robinson's Starman. Too bad Grant Morrison continued Batman Incorporated as part of Prime Earth, it deserves its own continuity .  

Of course, all of this might complicate reading lists for every given Earth. If Jeph Loeb wanted to continue his Batman stories from Batman: The Long HalloweenBatman: Dark Victory, and Catwoman: When In Rome on "Earth-H", he would share the Batman: Year One, as a common canon story with Miller's Earth-31, despite not being able to fit other stories like The Dark Knight Returns, and Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again which take place in the future and shows alive two of the characters he clearly killed off his stories. However, taking my cues form something Dwayne pointed in the next essay I am transcribing (time to get back to the star of this post), not one but many series can share stories and characters, but they can conveniently ignore whatever doesn't fit. The essay, titled Six Degrees of St. Elsewhere and was originally published at SlushFactory.com, came from the took the same line of thinking and applied it to deconstruct all TV crossovers. The premise became very popular and was coined the "The Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis" actually became a flow chart that shocked the Internet:
Six Degrees of St. Elsewhere

I know this is going to read like a plug but it’s not, actually it’s an excuse for writing about TV. I’ll try to explain. Last weekend I had the unique thrill of watching pop-culture icons Batman and the Joker make a guest-appearance on STATIC SHOCK, the Kids WB animated series I co-created. It looks like the episode went over well with the audience, too. I’ve read many good reviews. I’ve received well-wishes from dozens of fans. I’ve got some great e-mails from little kids who discovered the show only because Batman was on it. All in all, an unexpected triumph. 
Except there are some comic book fans who are confused by what the crossover does to the continuity of the DC and Milestone universes (answer: nothing, actually) or to the continuity of DC Comics’ animated shows (answer: nothing that matters, really). There’s just a few of those guys out there, mind you but they’re strident. Anyone who has read my old columns knows my radical stance on comic book continuity (part 2 is here. Click the links if you care). The short version is this, I think comic book continuity should be treated as TV continuity traditionally has, that is to say, every show has its own, individual continuity – even when that show shares characters from other shows. The old sit-coms Seinfeld and Mad About You share characters but both shows conveniently ignore that fact whenever they feel like it. This allows them to have all the fun of crossovers, without the silly baggage of both shows having to keep it all straight (and, wonder of wonders, you can watch and enjoy either show without ever watching the other one). 
This is the right answer for comics too, because complex interlocking storylines across dozens of series will inherently prove to be absurd. Let me demonstrate.
For the purposes of our demonstration, we postulate that any TV show that shares characters with another series is in the same universe as that series. With the help of the guys at the Milestone E-group and their discovery of a wondrous TV crossover website that lists an astonishingly large list of spinoffs and crossovers, I will first reveal to you a stunning tapestry of interconnected TV shows, then prove that none of those shows’ episodes actually occurred. I’ll do the last with two magic words: St. Elsewhere. 
For those of you don’t know, St. Elsewhere was a slick, well written and acted drama series about the doctors, administrators and patients of the fictional Boston hospital, St. Eligius (nicknamed St. Elsewhere by the staff). After a long, award-winning run, in the very last moments of the show’s final episode, it was revealed that all of the events of the show were merely the prolonged daydream of an autistic child. None of it “really” happened. Whether you like this final twist (for what it’s worth, I didn’t), it’s a legitimate ending to a self-contained show. But if St. Elsewhere played by the rules of comics, either they wouldn’t have been allowed to do it, or they would have precipitated a crisis in TV Land far bloodier than DC Comics’ Crisis On Infinite Earths. Why? Because crossover-wise, St. Elsewhere is the Kevin Bacon of TV shows. 
Stay with me now, this is complicated but kind of fun. 
Characters from St. Elsewhere have appeared on Homicide, which means that show is part of the autistic child’s daydream and likewise doesn’t exist. It gets worse. The omnipresent Detective John Munch from Homicide has appeared on X-Files, Law & Order and Law & Order: SVU. Law & Order characters have appeared on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. X-Files characters have appeared on The Lone Gunmen and Millennium. Characters from Chicago Hope have appeared on Homicide. Characters from Picket Fences have appeared on Chicago Hope. All those shows are gone (if you count cartoons, which makes this game much too easy, the X-Files characters have appeared on The Simpsons. The Critic has also appeared on The Simpsons. Dead). 
Characters from Picket Fences have appeared on Ally McBeal. Ally McBeal has appeared on The Practice. Characters from The Practice have appeared on Boston Public. Autistic daydreams, every one. 
But that’s not all. St Elsewhere characters have appeared on Cheers, so Fraiser doesn’t exist. Neither do Wings, Caroline In The City or The Tortellis but who cares? Well, maybe you do, because Caroline In The City once crossed over with Friends, which crossed over with Mad About You, which crossed over with Seinfeld and The Dick Van Dyke show. None of them happened in our new, shared continuity.
St. Elsewhere also shared characters with The White Shadow and It’s Gary Shandling’s Show. Garry Shandling crossed over with The Andy Griffith show (no, really!). So Gomer Pyle, Mayberry RFD, and Make Room for Daddy/The Danny Thomas Show are gone. Make Room For Daddy takes out I love Lucy.
And there’s more, St. Elsewhere also shares continuity with M*A*S*H, so Aftermash and Trapper John MD are out of there. 
Now here’s a good one, St. Elsewhere shared a patient with The Bob Newhart Show, so the Bob Newhart Show is part of the grand daydream. The Bob Newhart Show crossed over with Murphy Brown, which in turn links to, among many others: Julia, The Nanny, Everybody Loves Raymond and I Dream of Jeannie! Meanwhile, the series Newhart was revealed to be a nightmare had by Bob Newhart’s character on the Bob Newhart Show. Newhart crossed over with Coach, which connects it to Grace Under Fire, Ellen and Drew Carey. Drew Carey takes out Home Improvement and NYPD Blue. 
All of these shows (and many more that I left out or missed) are daydreams of St. Elsewhere’s autistic kid. 
This is by no means an exhaustive list. Links to the Happy Days, All In The Family and Diagnosis Murder universes would take out another 20 or 30 shows. If we can get to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, who knows how many would fall? My favorite possibility? A link to Knight Rider, of all things, would remove every single Star Trek series. I wouldn’t mind some research help from my vast and loony readership on these and any other shows you guys can think of, E-mail me. No cartoons though, that way lies madness. The Scooby Doo movies alone encompass a good chunk of the space/time continuum. 
All of these would help me prove my Grand Unification Theory, which posits: “The last five minutes of St. Elsewhere is the only television show, ever. Everything else is a daydream.” 
So what does this prove, other than the fact that I’ve got too much free time? Well, my point and I do have one (I can steal this catch phrase because, as I’ve already proven, Ellen never existed), is that while guest-shots and crossovers can be fun, obsessive, cross-series continuity is silly.
It’s silly in comics too. Relax and enjoy the show.    
- Dwayne McDuffie

All TV fiction takes place in Tommy Westphall's mind!

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