Author’s Note: Welcome to a semi-regular feature I’m adding to this site, where I discuss current comics that I’m following, or trends that I feel are important. I’ve already talked about several series that I’m pulling in a previous article, and in this one, and following ones, I’ll present more specific topics regarding stories I find interesting. Enjoy!
Most people understand what prophetic or apocalyptic language is supposed to sound like. Our western society is so heavily steeped in the milieu of Christian imagery in politics, philosophy and the lectures of crazy guys with sandwich board signs on the street corners that we’re keyed to pick up on it as a shared cultural reference. For many stories then, being able to appropriate that sort of sound to cast the occurrences of the world as a deeper conflict between the forces of light and darkness is a literary tool to grab the audiences’ attention.
And if we’re talking about comic books, what better way to hype up your story than to deal with it, not just as a bunch of weirdos in colorful costumes punching the crap out of each other, but as a mythic struggle between good and evil that will determine the fate of the very cosmos?
For a lot of stories, that sort of mythic light works. After all, I’m a big proponent of heroic narratives as reflecting real aspects of virtue and evil in the world, albeit in greatly over-exaggerated fashions. When one is dealing with a creation story or end-of-the-world scenario in a fictional universe, we expect it to reflect the same language that we hear to describe the same spiritual struggles and truths that religion presents.
However, it’s very, very easy to misuse this sort of story structure, because the sort of coded, symbolic language that scriptures use has a very specific purpose. When reading Dark Days – The Casting, one of the lead-ins to the Metal storyline that DC is set to launch later this year, I was disappointed to see that Scott Snyder missed that larger purpose in constructing the background for the event. In this article, I’m going to demonstrate a few uses of this symbology – both as real religious text, and imagery borrowed for other DC Crisis events – in order to show where Snyder’s own attempts unfortunately fall short.
First of all, let’s take a look at one use of this light-vs-dark metaphor that many people will recognize, from the first chapter of the Gospel of John (I’m using the RSV translation for those of you playing along at home)
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.
The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. John bore witness to him, and cried, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me.’” And from his fulness have we all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.”
The Gospel of John is pretty unique out of the other Gospels in the New Testament for a number of reasons. It was the last written, but it also was intended with a slightly different purpose in mind. Mark’s Gospel, the first written and aimed at the earliest Christian followers in Rome, was intended as a quick and dirty pamphlet of the highlights that the Apostles wished to pass on to the church. Matthew and Luke were aimed to Jewish and Gentile populations, respectively, both written around the same time, and covering many of the same events. They’re essentially lengthier, more elaborated versions of Mark’s narrative. In this way, these three Gospels lay down the basics – this is what happened, here are important things Jesus said, this is why you should believe in him.
John on the other hand emphasizes Jesus not just as a fulfillment of Jewish prophecies regarding the coming Messiah (which was the primary aim of Matthew’s Gospel), but as the fulfillment and fundamental lynch-pin of the entirety of creation itself. Because of this, John’s imagery is broader, more poetic, and should be recognizable as a preview of the same sort of symbology that John further develops in his Apocalypse later in the Biblical canon. (Which you should know better as the book of Revelation.)
The important thing to note here is that this poetic language has a purpose rather than just as a literary device to attract attention. The repeated words and phrases, “Word”, “light”, “world”, “darkness”, “blood”, and so, stand for significant theological concepts that carry real weight and form the basis of doctrinal beliefs that have been the foundation of the Church ever since. In other words, the symbology invites the reader to re-read and think on the importance of the concepts being presented here, to reflect on them more deeply, rather than just absorbing the information and moving ahead to find out what happens next.
While religions haven’t been based on DC comics events (yet….), as I said, it’s common to hijack this imagery when writing big universe-shattering events for comic continuities, as we expect this kind of language when dealing with the origins and fates of such universes.
The first big Crisis event for the DCU was the Crisis on Infinite Earths storyline. It’s a seminal classic, and for good reason. But from the first issue, it casts itself in familiar light-vs-dark symbolism in setting up the stakes of the earth-shattering (literally) conflict that will take place within its story.
Now, comics are also a visual medium, and in addition to conveying its meaning through the lettering, it also has the advantage of panel composition, artwork and other elements on the page to contribute to that meaning. What makes the introduction to COIE so memorable in my mind is the confluence of these elements.
Look here at how the capsule containing Alexander Luthor Jr, launched from his own doomed universe, literally flies through the panel borders to cross into another dimension of the multiverse.
The artwork, like the elevated language, sets up the sense that something big is happening, but the elements that present this atmosphere effectively fit with each other to contribute to the overall story of the comic. In its presentation, it grabs your attention, but also is rewarding to go back through and pick up on these words and aspects of the background art to get a better sense of how it all fits together. Especially on re-reading, when you know what is to happen and can see the foreshadowing and vague portents in full context.
Another big Crisis within the DCU, Final Crisis, deliberately echoes the imagery and style of COIE with its story. This occurs throughout much of the whole event, but most potently in the Superman Beyond two-part story. This whole event is an Apocalypse through-and-through, (see my explanation of this framework in context of Ultraman Nexus if you need a refresher) but this side story sets up the “otherworldly journey to reveal the nature of the conflict of good and evil” aspect that is integral to all Apocalypses. In order to save Lois’ life, and protect the fate of the universe, Superman is taken beyond the scope of their Earth, and fulfills a prophecy from the Monitors to defeat the ultimate evil that is driving the Crisis below within the Multiverse itself.
I’ve said a few times in other articles, but I’m a huge fan of the way Morrison writes these sorts of encounters in (most) DC stories. Part of the reason why is because he takes the symbology associated with them very seriously and puts thought into how specific terms are used and echoed throughout the events. We can see this retelling of the origins of the Multiverse not just as a big plot reveal, or a reference to the original COIE, but as something akin to what the Gospel of John served in reflecting the language and style of the book of Genesis.
In the first chapter of his gospel, John takes a story that readers would be familiar with, and explains how Jesus Christ was central to understanding its fulfillment in the modern day. In Superman Beyond, Morrison takes a creation story people would be familiar with, from COIE, and explains its fulfillment from another perspective, that of the Monitors themselves.
In both the examples in DC comics that I’ve provided, the elevated language and imagery has a specific purpose, and one that holds up under further reflection. In fact, allowing for further reflection, again, is the purpose of its inclusion in the first place. I wanted to cover this topic this week because the current event that DC is building up, called Dark Days, attempts to cover some very big, climactic revelations within the structure of the DCU’s cosmology. The general idea is basically “Nth Metal is sentient and evil” and “this fact is central to a deep, dark conspiracy that underpins literally everything in the universe”.
The first point is an interesting one, and would be a cool attempt to cement a fairly nebulous aspect of the DCU. In much the same way, the Speed Force first started as a way for writers to ignore the logical ramifications of near-light-speed movement, and later became one of the most fundamental forces within the structure of the DCU itself.
Where Scott Snyder goes wrong is with the second point. In the process of hyping up this secret history of the Nth Metal, he feels the need to tie in nearly every single legacy of the DCU in the process – not just the Hawkman mythology, but the Green Lantern corps, Doctor Fate, almost all the “immortal” characters of the DCU regardless of shared origins or not, the Greek pantheon of gods, and even the concept of “metahumans” themselves.
Yeah, turns out that the secret history of the DCU hinges on one convenient bug in computer operating systems because written records or medical journals aren’t things that exist, nosirree.
But throughout this week’s issue, The Casting, Snyder has some striking scenes as Batman delves deeper into this conspiracy.
All of them use the same sort of elevated, mythic tone that is common in DC Crisis events, but unlike the best examples of Crisis events, this sort of layered symbology does not stand up under deeper thought. COIE and Final Crisis both created a larger overarching mythology connecting various disparate parts of the DCU because it takes pre-existing stories and elements within the universe and extrapolates from them the one thing they all have in common. That is, the larger conflict of Good vs. Evil that all heroic narratives share. It merely blows up that conflict to a much, much larger scale than seen before.
Instead of connecting events and elements of the DCU’s history in this Apocalypse narrative, where metaphysical forces of good and evil, light and darkness play out in repeating stages, The Forge and The Casting try to bootstrap a connection that just involves this mysterious metal and its sole influence on events.
In conclusion, I don’t mean this article to call Snyder a hack. I like a number of his other works, both within the DCU and elsewhere. The issue with this event, at least at this early point in its introduction, is that while taking on the appropriate language for a huge crossover Crisis event, Snyder centers the revelations of secret workings of the DCU around the wrong focal point. Try to think too hard about how all of this ties together as told, and the imagery around the language falls apart.
Now, comic stories aren’t just made up of religious allegories and symbolism, there are characters involved, and the actual event hasn’t started yet, this is merely the introduction. If Snyder can sell the characters and their interactions with this story later on, I’ll be willing to overlook a lot of other issues with putting “Metal” as the central focus. But so far, this introduction story has used its characters to deliver ambiguously spooky foreshadowing and exposition, so I don’t know how much hope I have for the structure of the main event.
I still have some hope it winds up improving though. More good stories are always preferable to bad ones, or no stories at all. I wouldn’t be writing these articles if I only had complaints about my pull lists each week.