Who's Editing?: The Pros

Category: Grant Morrison
Last article published: 19 October 2019
This is the 73rd post under this label
Those who listen to my podcasts may have heard my newest experiment - Who's Editing? - in which myself and my guest take an issue of DC's Who's Who and use it as a template for a line of DC books. Five episodes in (#5 drops tomorrow), there have been a lot of very cool ideas thrown around, and my guests especially have brought the thunder with some bold concepts I don't think DC - especially in its current state - would be daring enough to entertain. Then again, DC history was kind of built on this kind of reinvention. When Julius Schwartz initiated the Silver Age, it was by reinventing Golden Age characters for a new audience. Then from the mid-80s when Who's Who was published, each subsequent Crisis allowed contemporary creators to do the same. So my question today is: Which comics pros or initiatives/imprints actually played my little game best? In other words, going by the same rules, who makes me feel the most like they looked at issues of Who's Who (so post-1986 DC) and dared imagining unusual but consistent takes on the characters therein?

Not everybody is good at this. I might point to Bendis' current Legion run as something that is wildly different from what went before, but is failing with Legion fans. Or to 90s grimdark re-imaginings like Fate or Manhunter. The truth is, there are different kinds of creative types (and editors) working in for-hire comics. Some are workhorses who just go with the flow and don't fiddle with the status quo. Some attain greater status by just giving existing characters better characterization (Ostrander, Simone, Johns when he's good). Some are very good at creating their own characters and catering to them. What we're looking for are creators who can look at a stale or forgotten character and reimagine them in an exciting way.

Let's do it as a Top 5, and of course, there are a lot of honorable mentions, chief among them, I think, Bruce Timm's DC Animated Universe which always seemed to crystallize exactly what made a character tick before putting a fresh coat of paint on them. I only decided against it because 1) it wasn't comics and 2) it was less reinvention than the kind of "better characterization" I hailed Ostrander and Simone for above.
5. Young Animal. Gerard Way is the same kind of "editor" we play in the podcast, though I'm sure his input varies from book to book. A lot of Young Animal just FEELS like they went and did the same experiment (including Who's Who pages in the classic style is almost a tell). Cave Carson Has a Cybernetic Eye is a prime example, taking not only an obscure, disused character, but also building the series around a throwaway line about his eye from the DC Encyclopedia (still counts). Who looks at Forager and decides to make him the star of series (Bug!)? Even Mother Panic feels like it's a Batwoman revamp. Doom Patrol and Shade the Changing Girl (the latter using one of Who's Editing's usual tricks of changing a character's gender or ethnicity to produce more variety) are obviously based on proto-Vertigo revamps, but there's still a significant change there, and "editors" have often gone to their favorite era of a character's history to spark their own. With YA, Way is really following in Karen Berger's footsteps, and as the editor who fostered the UK invasion and greenlit so many askew projects which eventually became Vertigo, I really want to put her above this list and give her a lifetime achievement award. The reason Vertigo isn't here as an imprint is because a lot of the reinvention came before the label was created (whether Gaiman's Sandman, Milligan's Shade, or some of the books we'll discuss later), and that when Vertigo seemed to be playing my little game, as with Vertigo Visions, the reinventions (of Brother Power, Doctor Occult, Tomahawk, etc.) didn't stick.
4. Keith Giffen. Who looks at the Justice League and decides to make it a workplace comedy? And then SELLS DC ON IT? That's Giffen. But though he's known for humorous comics, he doesn't stick with a single tone and that makes him a good choice. Not only did he give us the gritty, literary, subversive 5 Years Later Legion of Super-Heroes, but also a Legion that takes place in the contemporary era (L.E.G.I.O.N.). He also co-plotted Emerald Dawn, which humanized Hal Jordan and spun him off into a new Green Lantern series. But lest you think Giffen only revamped high-profile (if stale) properties, he was also behind Ragman as a mystical, Jewish superhero; Eclipso as not only a force to be reckoned with, but one that could have its own title; and a totally new Blue Beetle which may go to film. He also did Way's Doom Patrol direction before Way did, had a version of the Suicide Squad in him, and once redesigned Amethyst. I don't think it all worked, but his brassy tonal changes are certainly worthy of being included on this list.
3. James Robinson. Obviously, the key book here is Starman, which is not only a reinvention/legacy that then used every character with that name, but thematically, it was about collecting and nostalgia, and Robinson used them to reintroduce many characters, from Black Pirate (as a ghost) to Golden Age villains like the Mist. Some of this was prefigured in his Golden Age mini-series which went to town on Golden Age characters and used the more obscure ones in an interesting way and possibly made them interesting for the first time. If I include him in the Top 3, it's that he would later show he really was a guest of Who's Editing in the way he brought back forgotten characters from DC's 1st Issue Special, like Kirby's Atlas, and Codename: Assassin in his Superman run (and of course one of the Starmen). It's cheating, because those characters didn't get into Who's Who, but it's the same creative impulse. Even in something like Cry for Justice, which wasn't well received, we find him including Congorilla into a Justice League team. This is someone with a pile of Who's Who on his desk. Digging deeper, I think one of the first Robinson stories I ever read was "Blades" in Legends of the Dark Knight, which featured a Who's Editing revamp of the Cavalier. Bringing back the Spook in a later arc also speaks to an interest in forgotten characters, while New52's Earth Two series forced him to do a number of reinventions. Heck, while Tangent Comics went too far for our purposes, anyone who worked on those books had a shot at being on this list. His Green Lantern is a bold interpretation.
2. Mark Waid. Once credited as "boy editor" and very often just a good boy who goes with the flow, Waid has some impressive reimaginings on his record. His much-praised Flash run, for example, really reframed Wally West as Superman, with the reporter girlfriend, the "Family", and the A-class powers. But it's also a unique take, with the Speed Force looming large to this day in the DCU and its spin-off media. Or how about his Threeboot Legion? There was a case of thinking, well, what is the Legion all about, and going with the answer, redressing the team as a Youth Movement in a world that doesn't trust young people (it's Millennial versus Boomer before that was a thing). And then there's Kingdom Come, which is a cornucopia of revamps, though obviously much of the credit goes to Alex Ross in that case. A lot of the heroes are just older, but when you look at the younger set and who they are based on, you're seeing what a Who's Editing guest might do with Johnny Thunder, or Alan Scott, or Hawkman, Red Tornado I, Dr. Mid-Nite, and dozens more. Extra credit for revamping a lot of the Archie heroes for !mpact, just not the best books of the line.
 1. Grant Morrison. Given the label this is under, you had to know he was the king of this. In his for-hire work, Morrison has a knack for figuring out what a character is about, then leaning into that as hard as he can. The best-remembered re-imaginings are Animal Man and Doom Patrol, of course, and those remain among his best work in comics still. Unlike Waid, who seems to have kept close to the big guns, Morrison fearlessly made something of obscure characters who are, admittedly, easier to screw around with, but less likely to succeed on brand alone. Now that his DP is on TV, there's no question he BUILT the brand, and Buddy Baker wouldn't even be a thing without his run. The Seven Soldiers of Victory was another forgotten IP he made interesting, at the same time redesigning characters like the Shining Knight, Guardian and the Newsboy Legion, and Klarion the Witchboy, as if rummaging through old Who's Who pages and letting himself dream. Even something like Flex Mentallo is essentially a redesign of Mac, the nerd who gets sand kicked in his face in all those Atlas ads. Even his work on big names has been driven by clear concepts we might go so far as to call STATEMENTS: the JLA as the Knights of the Round Table; All-Star Superman, mining the Silver Age for reinvention (and later, a jeans-wearing New52 Superman based more on the Golden Age model); his Batman books that went out to prove every Batman story ever happened; I'm not quite convinced by his recent Green Lantern work, but I'm only a quarter into it. Projects like DC One Million, Multiversity and Final Crisis all gave him and others opportunities to reinvent characters in cool and interesting ways. And of all the creators on this list, Morrison is without a doubt the most meaningful influence on the Who's Editing podcast.

Hm... Three of those were architects of the 52 series... Obviously, there are tons of possible honorable mentions - Karl Kesel (Superboy, Hawk and Dove, Tangent Joker) would be mine - and I leave it up to you to discuss them in the comments. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to get back to that editing puzzle that is Who's Who #6 in time for my next recording...

1 comments:

Jeff R. said...

I'd have Gail Simone and John Ostrander fairly high on my list, too. Beyond their villain books (and either could make something amazing from whatever assortment of morts the issue has left over) you have new takes on Barbara Gordon(x2), Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, The Spectre, The Atom, Firestorm, the Hawks...

 

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