Funnybook Babylon

June 15, 2008

Narrative Darwinism, Dan Didio and Final Crisis: The Future of Comics Continuity

Filed under: Blurbs — David Uzumeri @ 12:44 am

There has been – to understate – a bit of a storm around Morrison’s recent Newsarama interview regarding the lack of connection between the 51-issue weekly Countdown and the series it was leading to, his 7-issue (plus tie-ins!) opus Final Crisis. For those who didn’t read it, it essentially goes like this: Grant Morrison writes Final, submits it to DC; DC decides that like its predecessor, Infinite Crisis – and its far more distant ancestor, Crisis on Infinite Earths – it can’t show up out of nowhere, and needs to be led up to. There needs to be anticipation beyond the normal solicitation cycle.

Except, instead of the random Monitor appearances for COIE or the well-orchestrated miniseries and one-shots leading up to IC, it was tacked on without the participation of the primary architect of the event. I’ve seen a decent number of people claim that this was Morrison’s fault for not paying enough attention to Mike Carlin’s office and the fairly badly-received weekly comic they were outputting. This frankly utterly confounds me, as it’s not like Morrison is a writer unused to working within larger editorial dictates (‘Nuff Said Month, Invasion, etc.). He knows the system, he’s worked within it for quite a while, he’s used to having other people shit all over his stories. I mean, look at Xorn. He didn’t fail the system; the system failed him. This also isn’t the end of the world.

What the DC braintrust know – and perhaps act on to an unhealthy degree – is that all of this damage is eminently reversible. Tom Brevoort has stated on his blog (I’m sorry, I can’t find any references) numerous times that there’s no such thing as character, story or continuity damage that can’t be easily reversed via another story. This is how comics work, this is how fictional universes work. It’s narrative Darwinism.

The bad stories have always been outshined and replaced by the good in this field – hell, fuck this field, forever. I’m quite positive that there were untold legions of horrible Hercules stories told back in the B.C.E. that didn’t survive to this day. The stories that resonate with readers count; the stories that fail don’t. Countdown, as should be evident to anyone who was following comics within the past 58 weeks, did not strike a chord with readers as much as it smashed a guitar against the amp and gave everyone eardrum damage.

Narrative Darwinism. This is the term that always has, and always will, describe the mechanism that forms the center of these fantastic, bizarre, fucked-up worlds that provide so much entertainment and meaning. It’s a concept that Morrison understands completely. Contradictions are part of the game. Hell, they’re almost part of the fun. It’s all about merging and arbitrating between the conflicts.

In a metaphor that I’m sure will resonate with my fellow computer science nerds, think of a comic universe continuity as a giant CVS tree. For those not familiar with this, most software is designed by multiple people working over multiple files in multiple areas – CVS is the tool that lets you know that Tom’s changes to biteme.cpp will conflict with Jane’s. And if Jane committed her changes first, Tom will have to reconcile the changes he made before Jane’s with whatever Jane did. That’s how it works. The principle remains the same with comic book continuity, although there’s no algorithmic mechanism to deal with this – instead, it enters the court of public opinion. Which story did you like more? What do you want to read? And not in a direct, letter-column, call-to-save-Jason-Todd way – it’s a process that takes a great deal of time and also involves editorial dictation (see “Spider-Man: One More Day”, which was a top-down editorial decision implemented to deal with perceived gaps between fan perception and the character’s reality but has received a fair degree of vitriol from the fanbase).

So, now we have these two conflicting recent updates, named, hilariously enough, Countdown to Final Crisis and Final Crisis. It will be up to readership-dictated history rather than DC editorial to dictate which one will have the most effect, but considering the creative payload within each of these missiles, I’d bet on Morrison/Johns/Rucka/crew over Dini/McKeever/Graymiotti/Beechen/Bedard/crew any day. But, hell, I could be completely wrong; it’s up to future history to decide. I don’t know how the conflict will be resolved, or if it ever will be.

That said:

Mr. Geoff Johns, dude, if you can solve the massive continuity Sudoku puzzle (thanks to Mike Carey for that phrase) that is reconciling Countdown with Final Crisis with the same natural deftness that permeated throughout your Green Lantern run, I will buy you a pony keg of the beer of your choice and make sure it gets delivered to you somehow. Good luck, dude.


  1. As much as I’m not a Geoff Johns fan, if there’s anyone who can solve this problem, it’s him.

    Comment by EndlessMike — June 16, 2008 @ 10:27 am

  2. Maybe this is just my cynicism talking, but I don’t entirely buy the narrative darwinism theory. If anything, I see a narrative ‘intelligent design’. Even though everyone gives lip service to fan control of canon, most of the reconciliation of continuity comes from the top down and not the bottom up.

    Now, I won’t say that fans have no impact on the ‘official history’ at all, because in the end, the stories that fans embrace tend to be the ones that are financially successful, which has a powerful impact on which version of a story becomes the ‘official one’. The problem with that is that the fans who have strong preferences (who expect cohesive narrative) are outnumbered in the marketplace by those who have weak (or no) preferences (those who only want to follow the continuing adventures of their favorite heroes). As a result, any signal that DC receives from its fans is going to be imprecise and open to interpretation.

    To me, this just creates a scenario in which the editor/star creator of the moment has a free hand in determining what becomes the ‘official story’, and can justify their decision through unprovable claims of fan support.

    Of course there are other indirect ways for fans to have an impact on canon, especially when fans become writers, editors and executives (in comics or other media).

    Comment by Jamaal Thomas — June 16, 2008 @ 12:24 pm

  3. Narrative darwinism plays into the construction of any story which references a character’s past history by simple selection of which stories are worth referring to. It’s not all a question of top-down editorial fiat, although the selection of which stories are kept in print will make them much more likely to be followed up on. Morrison is correct in his assessment that Countdown was and is, like Millennium, largely inconsequential; he’s just extra-ballsy in saying so immediately after its conclusion instead of waiting ten years and then saying something everyone else already agrees on.

    Comment by Aaron Poehler — June 16, 2008 @ 2:06 pm

  4. Well, it’s not necessarily editorial fiat, but the final decision rests with creative. If we’re talking about a decades long span, you may be somewhat correct, but looking back, how consequential was Morrison’s New X-Men run? It introduced some ideas that are still followed, but I would argue that it was largely abandoned, despite the strong fan support for the run. In my view, one of the reasons for that was the fact that most fans are either (1) fans of the status quo, or (2) indifferent.

    The selection of stories ‘worth referring to’ is a decision made by the people who write and edit and draw the comics, not by the ones who read them, except in a very indirect way. If Countdown was a commercial failure (i.e., it lost DC money), then I’d be closer to your position, but it was profitable.

    Comment by Jamaal Thomas — June 16, 2008 @ 6:22 pm

  5. […] read all their comics? How does Ian Sattler still have a job? Will Geoff Johns take me up on my pony keg offer? Did, as Huxford seems to think (but then again Huxford is like the comics blogging equivalent of […]

    Pingback by Funnybook Babylon · Archives · Final Cluster@#*!: DC Comics is Like a Videogame Boss Where You Blow Up The CPU and Then Every Other Part Functions Independently With No Teamwork — June 17, 2008 @ 2:00 pm

  6. Hmm, after much thought, I think there’s a pretty simple fix that would more or less bring Countdown in line with Final Crisis. Imagine that after the big fight in Countdown #2, Orion approaches Superman and reassures him that his injuries are not fatal. He tells Superman that the gods’ war is over and he will be leaving earth forever. Superman asks if he’ll ever see Orion again, and Orion tells him, “I should hope not. If you ever hear from me again, you should take cover, because it means a great evil is coming for earth.” Then he leaves. Superman relays this information to Kyle Rayner (who was worried that Orion might die from his injuries), and Rayner relays the information to the Guardians of the Universe. The Guardians recognize the significance of Orion’s ominous warning, and they raise the threat level of 1011s (deicides) because they realize that if another god dies, it means very bad things are afoot. Thus, when Orion turns up dead in Final Crisis #1, Superman and the Guardians are all pretty worried.

    This whole explanation requires that Orion’s death in Final Crisis #1 be caused by some other event than the fight in Countdown #2, of course.

    Comment by ed sudoku — June 18, 2008 @ 12:35 am

  7. How do you solve a problem like Didio?

    Comment by E — June 19, 2008 @ 11:18 am

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