Dark matters

April 7, 2005

H at The Comic Treadmill offers up a spirited defense of The Flash and, by extension, the writing of Geoff Johns:

“Although I’m capable of understanding that there can be differences of opinion on writers, I can’t fathom how someone who otherwise likes super hero comics could have such a strong negative feeling about Johns.”

I initially enjoyed a lot of Johns’ work on titles like The Flash, Hawkman and JSA, but it’s been a case of diminishing returns over the last year or two. I think I can put it down to what I find to be a discordant approach to storytelling, mixing an unflinchingly nostalgic vibe with excessive violence and depressing plot twists.

It’s clear that Johns loves superheroes and superhero comics, so I certainly can’t accuse him of the tinny insincerity that nags at me in the work of, say, Judd Winick and Mark Millar. But I think his work, like that of Devin Grayson, almost veers into the realm of fan fiction. I’m reminded of one of Lea Hernandez’s ways to hurt comics:

“When you think ‘by fans, for fans’ is a big old RUN AWAY SCREAMING signal: you’re hurting comics.”

And that’s the point I’ve reached with Johns. He seems like a hell of a nice guy, and he’s genuinely enthusiastic about the genre, but his work just isn’t to my liking.

All things being a matter of taste, I can’t really take issue with much of what H is saying in this piece. The work of a given writer either works for you, or it doesn’t. But there is one thing H cites as a strength of Johns (his handling of the Rogues) that I really have to disagree with:

“Once again, in the course of one issue, Heat Wave is another character that Johns has rescued from second-string “bwah-ha-ha” status and made into a formidable menace.”

I don’t know if Johns is so much making them “formidable menaces” as he’s making them “uniformly unstable and brutal.” Johns seems to feel the need to make all of the Rogues suffer from some profound emotional disturbance and to suggest that they always have. There’s nothing inherently wrong with giving clever gimmick villains some depth (like John Ostrander did routinely in Suicide Squad and Kurt Busiek did with Thunderbolts), but Johns seems to have mistaken cookie-cutter instability for layers. (It’s kind of like when Peter David made Genis insane in Captain Marvel. Genis was still the least interesting character in the book, complete unpredictability aside.) By the time all is said and done, Flash will need to open up his own Arkham Asylum for all of these vicious nut jobs.

It all makes me wonder about the use of “dark” as a descriptor for comics. More and more, it’s being used as a synonym for “depressing,” and that’s legitimate enough as usage goes. But it’s not the only application of the term, and it certainly isn’t my favorite. I’ve enjoyed plenty of “dark” comics over the years, and I continue to do so. (I would classify Gotham Central, Sleeper, Fallen Angel, much of Ed Brubaker’s Catwoman and perhaps his Captain America, early bits of Brian Bendis’ Daredevil, Alias, Manhunter, and several others to fall into the “dark” category.)

But while all of those comics have or had sustained undertones of menace and settings and characters that lent themselves to darker material, they’re all dark in the sense that they take a more challenging, complex approach to a world of violence and threat. There’s nothing particularly mature or innovative about the way Johns or much of the rest of DC’s stable of writers are making their comics darker. They’re just wedging in miscarriages and insanity and brutality and whatever else without really placing them in any kind of logical context or with any kind of tonal fit. It sticks out like a sore thumb, more like shock for its own sake than part of a sustained narrative.

Speaking of Flash villains and insanity, if anyone is feeling nostalgic for The Silence of the Lambs, check out the preview pages for the next Gotham Central, which lifts a Clarice/Lecter exchange whole. What’s that about?