Saturday, January 30, 2010

Blue Beetle, Booster Gold & why Geoff Johns needs spelling lessons...

Are they really b-grade characters or did they always just get b-grade writing?

For the longest time I understood who the ‘big guns’ of the comic book world were with a sort of clarity that life doesn’t normally provide.  Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were the three largest icons in DC (and arguably all of comicdom) while Marvel was championed by Spider-Man, The X-Men (who are only stars collectively – except for Wolverine) and The Incredible Hulk.  Sure there were always your assortment of near-stars, like Iron Man, Thor and Captain America at Marvel and Green Lantern, Flash and Aquaman at DC, but the difference always seemed crystal clear to me.  The icons, the stars and then everyone else.  That was just how it was.

Then the millennium turned, and everything started to change.  By the middle of the last decade, the last vestiges of certainty were wiped out in one simple, yet brilliant comic book. It was written with the combined talents of three of DC's best; Geoff Johns (who, for a writer, really should learn how to's JEFF), Greg Rucka (who may still be too underrated as a scribe) and Judd Winnick. Just to show you how this book changed my understanding of whether or not characters were b-grade, or simple the net result of the writers that were assigned to them, I'm going to......***********SPOILER ALERT*********.....let a 5 year old secret out of the bag;

Maxwell Lord killed the Blue Beetle in this book.

Did you yawn?  I wouldn't blame you if you took the time to switch to another channel during that commercial, because let's face it, the news of The Blue Beetle's death wasn't exactly going to be met with screams of suffering and cries for a revision to save the beloved character.  Moreover, did you even take note of the name Maxwell Lord?  Why would you?  His sole claim to fame was a brief period of time that he spent associated with The Justice League International and his stories were considered so uninteresting to comic fans that when they needed to revamp his history to make his role in Infinite Crisis work, the decision was made to do it based on the belief that nobody cared anyways (Wiki Maxwell Lord and read the comments by DC EiC Dan Didio.)

Now that you have been significantly unmoved by the news I have revealed, go and read this book.  You don’t even have to be a fan of super-hero type comic books to appreciate the terrific story telling that takes place in Countdown to Infinite Crisis. The writers managed to use Beetle’s history as a b-grade character to alienate him sufficiently from the big guns of the DCU just enough that he is left to confront a growing danger to the entire world on his own.  As good writers do, they both build and tear down relationships through the story in a way that leaves us feeling more compassionate and impressed with Ted Kord than we have ever been before, and as a result, I think, his death resonates. It is a death worthy of a tier one character. Have a read and tell him what you think.

Now, how does that relate to Booster Gold?  Michael Carter was Ted Kord’s best friend, and he too was trapped hopelessly in the second (maybe third) tier of DC characters for years.  Booster plays an important part in Countdown, and in the Crisis that follows, though it is my belief that his significance is often overlooked.  The moment where he accuses the big three of being to blame for Ted’s death is exceptional drama. With all of that said, I really felt like DC was missing a golden opportunity with Booster Gold, and I said as much to Geoff Johns at the Toronto Comicon in the summer of 2006.  In my mind the writers were really missing something crucial that should have resulted from Ted’s death; Michael’s transformation.

Who amongst us wouldn’t be transformed by watching our best friend walk off to face evil when we were unable to help, and the greatest heroes in the world were unwilling.  More than that, when he died, how deeply would we be moved?  How long would we spend looking into our own life and values and examining them? I felt that while Booster had continued to play a role in the story of Infinite Crisis, and the year long odyssey of 52, that it failed to properly illustrate a man who should be profoundly changed by what happened to his best friend.  In my mind friendship should have been the catalyst that turned Booster Gold into DC’s version of Iron Man.  A technology based hero (Booster’s gear all comes from over 1,000 years in the future) who was ready to take his place amongst the Justice League’s elite.

I’ll never forget Geoff’s response.  He said, basically, “Yeah, I think they should do more with him too. That character has such great potential to tap.”

In case any of you didn’t know, Mr. Johns is a great big jerk, who was well aware that he was preparing to launch the second volume of Booster Gold, with a storyline designed to seriously elevate Booster’s station in DC continuity and to reflect the emotional changes that Booster underwent when Ted died. He just didn’t want to tell me about it at the time.  That series launched in 2007, and I have been giving it rave reviews ever since.  The opening story arc, entitled 52 Pick-Up was one of the most brilliant writing jobs I have ever seen, because it brought together a new storyline with a number of older storylines to answer some terrific formative questions about the relationship between Booster Gold and Batman. That moment in which Batman revealed that he had always known the hero that Booster would become, and had been so hard on him in his early years because he wasn’t that man yet……genius.

Assigning such writing luminaries as Geoff Johns, Dan Jurgens and Chuck Dixon to the series has given Booster a much more credible position in DC true, but it has also done so much more.  With top tier writing talent taking on the character, we have seen the growth of the character’s back-story, and watched the development of the man who was once a cautionary tale for young heroes into a man who is willing to sacrifice fame and fortune for the greater good. In the end, Ted Kord had to die to matter, and Michael Carter had to endure that loss to become the man he was always fated to be.

How many other characters who get laughed at, ignored or treated like b-grade properties could actually become tor tier talents with strong, relevant storylines that impact the bigger picture of the company that publishes them if only the talent assigned to write them was better?

Sometimes characters are only “losers” because the writers and editors who had them before were unwilling or unable to make them better than that.

As an final note…..that guy nobody really thought much of (Maxwell Lord) when he was running around in the pages of Justice League International?  He turned out to be kind of a big deal in Infinite Crisis.  The revamp might have been choppy (or non-existent) but the story they were able to tell with him afterwards was solid.

Characters just need purpose.

And writers.

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