Ghosts at the Feast - A DC One Million Interlude

This is one of a series of posts on DC One Million, the Grant Morrison-helmed, month-long, macro-crossover from 1998.

 

In this installment we're looking at some of the 'ghosts' haunting the celebration of Superman's return from eons of exile in the Sun - one writer notable by his absence, and four ongoing titles that more or less wrapped up during DC One Million. Follow the hyperlinks to Week 1, Week 2 and Week 3 for previous entrants in this series.

 

(These DC One Million posts are part of a longer study of Morrison's JLA run, which in turn is part of an attempt to look at most of his work.)

 

DC One Million: The Search for Dan Jurgens

 

Having coined the term ‘Jurgens-y' in my last post, and having looked at Superman 1,000,000, notably not written by its regular scribe of the era, perhaps it is time to look at the most significant ‘ghost at the feast’ of this crossover. As we shall see, DC One Million is largely a Superman story. But the major Superman writer of the period wasn’t involved with it at all. So far, I have been admiring the ambitious over-arching plotting of the event, but it seems that this itself became a downside for many writers. I’ll let Dan Jurgens himself take us through the script that wasn’t.

 

In the case of Superman #1,000.000, I wrote a plot and it was a good story - and I rarely say that about my own stuff - that I think would have worked well. It didn't contradict anything they had to say. They read it, bounced it, trashed it, and I quit. That's why that issue of Superman was written by somebody else. They didn't want a writer, they wanted a trained chimp to sit down and type whatever they wanted. I don't work that way. I would never do that. I would never insult creators the way they did me on that project. It was one of the worst experiences I've ever had in this medium, and it's largely because of Grant trying to write everybody's book. If that's the way they wanted it they should have just told everybody to take the month off. I know a number of writers who worked on the 'One Million' books and were quite put out by it. We're dealing with talented people here, and I would never presume that I know better than they do. What I try and say on a crossover is, 'Here is a key point to hit sometime during your story. Here's another one. If you have any other questions please call me, and we'll work it out together'. But I would never dictate to people.

(from Writers on Comics Scriptwriting, 1999)

 

The heavy-handed and dismissive treatment of creators by editorial (and the replacement of the creative process with editorial diktat) is something that I rarely approve of in discussions about comics. Sometimes the comics companies are defended with variations on the old saying about omelettes and breaking eggs. I guess the merits or not of breaking the eggs depends on the quality of the omelette produced!

 

In terms of crossovers, Jurgens is half-right. You can’t treat writers like workers in a chain factory, where you just specify what you’ll be producing today and get exactly that. At the same time, many crossovers suffer from different writers putting contradictory things into a crossover, due to lack of care on some level. Given that this was a unique and ambitious event, with the chance to work with a fairly visionary and unique writer, I think it was sad if some of the creators weren’t able to become fully involved.

 

DC One Million was something marvellous, not just in the scope and originality of its storytelling, but also in how it tried to unite the whole line of a company’s comics under a single storyline and artistic vision for a month. Part of the cost of it was that writers had to put their own storylines on hold for a month, or risk producing something too crowded and wearying, like Superboy 1,000,000. However, this wasn’t as big a sacrifice as overturning the whole status quo with a crossover in the middle of someone’s storyline, or directly affecting the direction of the main character’s life in some way, as many recent crossovers do.

 

I’ve mentioned him before, but Chuck Dixon deserves special praise for how fully he buys into this crossover. I’ve never been a big fan of his work, but I have to praise the way he fully commits to the project, and delivers good comics in a science fiction mode that ‘s probably a little outside his comfort zone. At four books, I was surprised to find that he’s also the writer who contributes the most to the series after Morrison himself.

 

Dixon’s comments from Writers on Comics Scriptwriting, however, do underline Jurgens’ point that producing something creative ‘to order’ makes very personal demands that other kinds of work don’t:

 

“The DC One Million stories became a black hole that swallowed me up for months, and when I got back to my own books it was like I had never written them before. Sometimes it’s hard to change the mindset.”

 

Peter David’s Supergirl 1,000,000 is an interesting middle way between Jurgens’ refusal to take part and Dixon’s immersal in the project. It’s clear from other issues of the crossover that Morrison had plotted a resolution of Supergirl’s unwilling trip towards a fiery death in a Red Rocket suit and it involved the otherwise underused Wonder Woman 1m, but it looks like David ignored that and did his own thing! David used the excuse of the future setting to write a clever one-off about a super-powered girl terrorising the universe. We’ll look at David’s Supergirl 1,000,000 in the final blog post, but it was a very successful little comic on its own terms, and I’m definitely glad David was able to follow his own muse with it, just as I’m glad Morrison’s project gave David the excuse to do it.

 

Obviously the process of writing is a very personal thing, and we have to respect each contributor’s own level of commitment to a project like this.

 

***************************************************

 

Such Tales Remain Untold - Series that ended during DC One Million

 

Chase, Creeper, and Young Heroes in Love all ended their relatively short runs during DC One Million, while Green Arrow 1,000,000 followed the 138th and final regularly numbered title of that volume of the series. All used the One Million concept in different ways to put a capstone on their sagas. Chronos only lasted another three issues after DC One Million and I’ll include it here as well.

 

Chase 1,000,000 D. Curtis Johnson & JH Williams III (Week 3)

 

Chase may be the series that most deserved to continue. The adventures of Cameron Chase, a government agent working in the Department of Extranormal Operations, which monitored and contained super-powered citizens, was a noir contrast to the bright four-colour positivism of the line-leading JLA, and complimented it well. Like Chronos, this series took a few cues from James Robinson’s Starman; in both cases, the heroes slowly uncovered the truth about their parents’ secret lives. Cameron Chase had her own life before this series, appearing in Batman, and was seen often after her series ended. She is even a player in the Nu52, now a recurring character in Batwoman. According to the DC wikia, she has had a relatively healthy 68 appearances up to the present, including several issues of John Ostrander’s fine Martian Manhunter series, which I might look at as part of my wider JLA overview sometime.

 

Chase, the series, was cut short in mid-flow with issue 9, and issue 1,000,000, which followed, depicted a completely different government agent at work for a similar DEO organisation in the year 852,751. Loyal readers only got a short note from the production team expressing regret and disappointment that they couldn’t finish what they had begun.

 

And so to Chase 1,000,000, by the series’ regular team. Of course I haven’t mentioned the other half of the reasons why Chase should have continued, and that is J H WIllliam III’s gorgeous art. As with his Batwoman pages, a lot of thought was put into the use of interesting layouts and framing techniques. It’s strange to think that Williams wouldn’t become so highly regarded until almost a decade later.

 

Like the Flash/Shazam two-parter we looked at in part one, this tale takes the very idea of an information-driven futuristic Utopia as it’s starting point, and thoughtfully examines its implications. In this case we find that there is a stern force that polices the limits to the dispensation of the super-powered icons. The costume design of the DEO of the future owes something to Judge Dredd, with its eagle’s wings, black leather, and dehumanising visors.

 

The story is satisfyingly complete, following the trail of one batch of illegal power-ups that take us to the home of an individual condemned to live ‘off the net’ for his previous dealings in the highly prized super-power icons. We see that in a society where connection to the incessant information-stream is all but a necessity, and practically a human right, the punishment of being removed from it seems very harsh for a so-called Utopia. It’s a great story that presciently discusses the internet-dependent world which was just around the corner, and thoughtfully questions where personal responsibility ends and obedience to the state you serve begins. There are more questions than answers at the end, but good art does that sometimes.

 

 

Some of the content of Chase 1,000,000 takes us back to my discussion of Lanier’s book You are Not a Gadget in the Week Three blog; the first villain’s cry of “power wants to be free!”, embedded in a story about freedom and restriction in a Utopia where the currency was information, was reminiscent of the idea, promulgated by hacker culture, that information wants to be free. Knowledge IS power, after all!

 

This is one of several DC One Million comics that reach for the opportunity to tell a unique done-in-one in a fresh new environment and delivers strongly. Morrison speculates in his own interview in Writers on Comics Scriptwriting that D. Curtis Johnson was one of the writers, along with Devin Grayson, that were embarking on a new type of superhero story, where the superheroics were taking second place to an understated ‘situation comedy’ kind of tone. Sadly that didn’t work out and today, neither is working in the field.

 

Chronos 1,000,000. JF Moore & JH Williams III (Week 5)

This issue appeared between issues 8 and 9 of a series which was cancelled with number 11. Like Chase, Chronos took a few cues from Robinson's Starman, but went off in a completely different direction to the gritty police procedural of Chase. Walker Gabriel, the ‘hero’, had inherited a time-travelling suit from the old Flash villain, and his adventures were complex parodox-laden affairs. He was based in a vast Neo-Renaissance palace floating in Limbo called Chronopolis. Time didn't pass there, so earlier and later versions of the characters can be seen and heard wandering around the edges of many scenes. This offered the readers some intriguing glimpses into Chronos’ long future. (Of course, when I say ‘long’...)

Chronos himself was a morally ambiguous anti-hero, which was perhaps one of the reasons the series didn't catch on. There was a supporting cast of sorts, but Chronos' tendency to rewrite history meant that there wasn't a lot of consistency to them if they managed to stick around at all.

The art – by Paul Guinan - was lovely. The details of the different time periods were wonderfully researched and depicted, and it was obvious that Guinan had a sophisticated knowledge of art history. From the perspective of 2012, most notable was that the women were depicted as human beings, rather than merely the bearers of bouncy bits for the boys, which says a lot about the entire aesthetic of the editorial standards of this time.

 

All in all, the series was intriguing. It was somewhat understated and deliberately avoided many of the tropes which some of us find boring in our superhero comics. Chronos was a flawed everyman, who almost never resorted to violence if he could help it, and came across as no better at unarmed combat than I’d imagine most of the folks reading this sentence would be.

 

I’m sure the understatement of it, with few big name guest stars, the fluctuating backstory, the moral ambiguity of the hero and the lack of fetishised boobies were all marks against it in its short run, even if they are all things I found fresh and interesting reading it recently. It’s a pity the market can’t support series like this. It was written in a literary way, and, like Starman or Swamp Thing, it may have had a shelf-life as a short series of collections if it had run longer, but sadly the whole publishing model is always about the pamphlet sinking or swimming.

 

Chronos 1,000,000 seems to give us a glimpse into the main character’s future. The Chronos depicted here seems to be much more of an informed and confident player than the character in the main series, who is still trying to find his feet and figure out which side he’s on. This character is on speaking terms with many powerful DCU personalities and works in secret to his own agenda, which turns out to be for the good of the heroes. In this issue he runs rings around the John Fox Flash, in a complex scheme involving Scourge the master of Warworld, and the first ever appearance of the time-gobbling Chronovore. His ultimate goal, we find out, is to steal John Fox’s time-travelling gauntlets, as he knows it’s important that the Justice Legion A have to be stranded in Earth in 1998 when they changeover with our JLA, or things will work out even worse than they do.

 

This issue gives us a glimpse of how much fun Chronos might have been once he’d found his feet and began to revel in the infinite possibilities of visiting any time or place in the DCU, with all its marvels and wonders.

 

Perhaps the odds were against Chronos surviving long as a series, but I’ve often argued that shared universes like the DCU benefit from having interesting and unique characters around, even ones that don’t carry their own series. It occurs to me that Booster Gold’s last reboot after 52 as a secret time-travelling do-gooder was a simplified, less morally ambiguous and more fanboy-friendly take on what Moore was trying to do with Chronos.

 

Chronos, the series, was cancelled abruptly with issue 11. I've only seen one, rather ironic appearance of the character after his own series ended, before the bumbling zombie Flash made a catastrophic mess of everything and facilitated the universe-obliterating apocalypse called the DCnU.

 

 

Young Heroes in Love Dan Raspler & Dev Madan (Week 5)

 

Unlike Chronos, Creeper and Chase (what’s with all the C’s?), I didn’t manage to read any of the issues of Young Heroes in Love that preceded issue 1,000,000. On the strength of the final issue, however, that would seem to be my loss. This is a very warm and charming comic.

 

As with Chase, the creators chose to introduce a whole new cast to fill the roles of the protagonists. Here, we meet a group of very young children who, as part of their efforts to get to see Superman’s return from exile in the Sun, dress up as the obscure cast of Young Heroes in Love. Their extreme youth is a large part of the charm of the comic. The youngest seems to be 4 years old! Raspler and Madan model their adventures after the much-loved characters of the Peanuts comic strip. Reading this comic, I realised that superhero comics do childhood extremely rarely, and when they do, they almost never capture how the everyday events in children’s lives cause them such intense joys and frustrations. There are no life-threatening horrors in this comic, but plenty of high drama all the same.

 

The issue is rounded out with a chance meeting in the far future between two of the regular cast of the 17-issue series, neither of whom are ‘Young Heroes’ anymore. It’s a bittersweet scene, and conveys something of the creators’ sadness in letting these characters go, tempered with their obvious pride in getting to share their adventures with the small but loyal readership.

 

Creeper # 1,000,000 Len Kaminski and Shawn Martinbrough (Week 3)

 

Although it has some merit, it’s easy to see why this run of Creeper lasted only 11+1 issues. It concerns itself with ironing out the seeming inconsistencies and illogical elements of Ditko’s frankly demented Creeper origin story. The characters have no real life beyond whatever Kaminski’s plotting needs them to do. The main character doesn’t have any real personality at all when he’s not cavorting around in the red furry mane. Kaminski deconstructs Ditko’s depiction of Jack Ryder as a ‘square’ who just lives to do the right thing (which in Ditko’s hands was compelling, because Ditko’s heart was obviously in it), but doesn’t give us anything to replace that. I love Martinbrough’s expressionistic art and Sal ‘Rom/Hulk/You name it’ Buscema’s thick-lined inks. I can’t say how much of it is down to Martinbrough’s pencil work, but Buscema’s inking is actually outstanding and strikingly effective. In any case, it was probably too far from the mainstream for the fanboy crowd.

 

In the series, Jack Ryder arrives back from his death in the 90s bloodbath Eclipso series and starts to put his life back together again. We find that, in the tradition of 90s ‘reimaginings’, his acute split-personality disorder goes back to a troubled childhood in the care of a mother who was a few wigs short of a full costume herself.

 

Kaminski up to this point had ridden the wave of what I’ll charitably call ‘a certain type of 90s comic’. He was responsible for the grimacing, trenchcoated, and knife-wielding Fate, for instance, and prior to that, his heyday at Marvel coincided exactly with the period when I was completely repulsed by the charmless violence and cynicism that the so-called House of Ideas then specialised in.

 

Although Jack Ryder in this series was a hollow cipher and many of the storylines took place in the empty echo-chamber of decades-old comics continuity, Kaminski was trying to produce something a little more literary and poetic with this series. The Creeper’s babble includes lots of witty jokes, wordplay and references to the odd snippets of popular culture that stick in our minds. Kaminski tried to reinstate Ryder as a crusading journalist, but this time more in the mould of Hunter S Thompson than the ‘right-wing Walter Cronkite’ that Ditko gave us. One issue explored the darker side of America’s fast-food industry. Tackling a genuine current affairs issue of the day pointed a way out of the continuity dead-end that the series was in. However, the writing was already on the wall by then.

 

The main engine of the series was the 2 warring halves of Ryder’s psyche, and this is fully resolved in the final issue (#1,000,000), as they realise that together they make a complete whole, and an effective team. As we’d been getting strong hints that this was how their problem was going to be resolved, its hard to see how the series could have lasted very long once that was cleared up. The other ongoing conflict was between the main character and his nemesis Proteus, a shape-changer who turns out to be most of the people Jack Ryder ever came into contact with! Come to think of it, Proteus escapes to scheme against the hero in issue 3 and was never seen again! That’s a loose end.

 

 

There’s actually a lot to say about this little series. I’d argue that the finer aspects of it would attests to DC’s culture of quality at this time. The storytelling is quite compulsive. Each issue skips quite jauntily to its conclusion. Even though a review of each issue shows them each to be built around only a few beats and to be somewhat decompressed, Ryder’s incessant downbeat noir musings, and the Creeper’s demented stream of consciousness babble make for plenty of text too, so the reader doesn’t feel too short-changed.

 

Also worth mentioning is issue #9, a fill-in issue written by those stalwart workhorses Abnett and Lanning, that shows Jack Ryder struggling with writer’s block. It includes short stories drawn by Phil Hestor, John Paul Leon and JH Williams III. The involvement of such well-regarded artists does suggest that certain people thought highly of the series at the time.

 

Obviously, there was no market for a strange old concept reheated like this. Once again, DC found the monthly model of flailing the dead horse to the bitter end doesn’t serve their series or their characters very well. Kaminski could have produced something worthy of a bookshelf, which would be better appreciated today, if the aim had been to produce something other than monthly ‘standard attrition’ shelf filler, but that was the trap all concerned were in.

 

Creeper #1,000,000 shows the Creeper of the future going back in time to tie up the dangling plot-threads of the series, and mop up a plague of Creeper variants that have started splitting off from the original Creeper. The prose of the future scenes displays lots of esoteric and clever ideas. At first glance I thought that they might have been mainly cribbed from Morrison’s notes, but there was a cleverness to Kaminski’s prose up to this point which makes the case less open-and-shut!

 

 

Dan Jurgens, in another part of the interview I cited above, had mentioned car chases as something that can’t be done well in comics, compared to film, but I couldn’t let a discussion of Creeper 1,000,000 pass without stating that Kaminski and Martinbrough managed to close off the series with a wonderful car-chase scene that worked very well.

 

 

For all its faults, Creeper was an interesting and experimental little series that never quite got going, but it showcased some welcome ambition and skill on the part of its creators. It tried to reach outside the box in some ways, supported by the editorial position of the parent company, which is hard to say about most of today’s output from DC, or Marvel, come to that.

 

 

 

IN (appropriately enough) CONCLUSION:

 

It’s impossible to get the flavour of an era of creativity without checking out its failures as well as its acknowledged high points. None of these series found enough support amongst the comic buyers of their day, but all show an ambition and an attempt to push the boundaries of what could be done in a superhero comic. Consider that Chase, Chronos and Young Heroes in Love all starred characters that had been especially created to tell tales of their moment, by creators strongly invested in them.

 

I can’t help but compare them to the comics of DC’s New 52, which only featured ongoing brands churned out by work-for-hire creators who still continue to be replaced in mid-story. Creeper, as a long-standing property being reimagined for a modern audience, is the series here which most resembles a Nu52 startup. It does have much of the violence and shock-tactics of what I’ve seen of recent DC comics, as well as being, like them, largely of interest only to the continuity-obsessed. Still, the scripts and artwork in Creeper seem to be of a higher quality than the average DC comic these days, and certainly aren’t as generic, at any rate. (More subjectively, my heart doesn’t sink while leafing through the pages of Creeper, as it does while perusing DC’s ‘Sneak Peeks’ preview comic.)

 

On the evidence of these 4 ‘bottom of the heap’ series, it looks like DC was being run at this time by people who put artistic concerns above commercial ones, who took chances on the creative visions of committed storytellers and managed to get sincere heartfelt work out of them. These comics failed because they weren’t what the fan-market of the time (including myself back then, sadly) were looking for, but that isn’t a reflection on the comics themselves. Much of the difficulty I have with most of the output of the Big Two these days is because they have fine-tuned their product to appeal solely to that fan market, and have consequently severely limited the range of stories and approaches that you can now find in them. They’ve certainly lost that indefinable ‘heart’ that I perceive especially in Chronos and Young Heroes in Love, and the willingness, evinced in Chase and Creeper, to approach superhero comics from unusual directions.

 

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Comment by Rich Steeves on January 9, 2013 at 1:11pm

I cannot express how much I adored the CHRONOS series. I agree with your points about the protagonist, who was a lot more like me than most DC heroes at the time. Plus, I really felt like there was a long-term plan in place (with different versions of characters we saw) and a fun time-travel concept. I was royally upset when it got the axe...

Comment by Figserello on January 9, 2013 at 6:56pm

Yeah, I'm glad that this project meant that I got around to reading most of Chronos.  It was a really classy comic.  It was obvious that the creators were drawing from a wider field of interests than just other DC stories, and that elevated the series for me.  They weren't interested in cynically throwing a Batman crossover in there just to bring over the readers, as they had their own story they wanted to tell.  But then again, maybe it would have done no harm.

 

If I had a time machine to meet my previous 1990s self, I would knock that guy upside the head for not supporting at least 3 of the 4 titles mentioned above.  But it comes back to the lame publishing model that comics have laboured under for most of their existence.  How was I to know what was coming out, or what its quality would be, or indeed, anything about these talented creators, largely unknown to me then?

 

It takes a lot of homework and a lot of buy-in to be able to support the good stuff, which as a more casual buyer in the 1990s, I just wasn't interested in putting in.  I do hold it against the industry that they never found a way to ensure that quality like these 4 titles could find their market, or get a chance to lift the game of superhero comics generally.  I can't tell you how they should have done it, but that was their job to find that solution instead of shrinking the market all the time by depending on readers who did invest time and money on the buy-in.

 

Anyway, one series I was glad to see that they crossed over with was Ostrander's The Kents, about Jonathan and Martha's ancestors during the American Civil War.  That was a clever place to go in a time-travel comic.

 

And yeah, it was very clear that they had a huge story possibilities available going forward and they seemed to be seeding a lot of stuff that could grow into good stories.  Perhaps it's an unfair point to make as they only produced 11 other issues, but Chronos 1,000,000 showed that once the series got going and the character became a little more confident, there were even larger vistas open to the series for exploration than the rest of the series showed.

 

The more I think about Chronos, the more I realise that the post-52 Booster Gold was just Chronos for Dummies continuity obsessed fanboys.

Comment by Figserello on January 9, 2013 at 7:00pm

And when I said that Walker was no better at hand-to-hand fighting than any of us, I wasn't including Wandering Sensei, who is a black belt and could probably break most of Chronos' opponents in half if he wanted to.

Comment by Wandering Sensei: Moderator Man on January 9, 2013 at 10:56pm

Darn tootin', my friend! :)

Comment by Ray on April 17, 2017 at 12:25am
Huh. You may touch on this when I get to your piece on the last issue, but your review of Chronos has me wondering if the teleport gloves that Vandal Savage takes from Resurrection Man were the stolen Time Travel gauntlets, rather than just future tech hacked by Chronos (which was the impression I got from reading the tpb.) Morrison does like to tidy up his time travel plot points...

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