Flashpoint: Hal Jordan and the Strange Askew Culture of Comic-Book Excellence

It’s impossible to believe that DC Comics was careless where it came to Flashpoint: Hal Jordan. They must have known exactly what it was that they were doing. The powers at 1700 Broadway, NYC, must always have been intensely aware that this was a comic which was to be released in the immediate wake of the Warner Bros. Green Lantern movie. For all that Hal Jordan is a Flashpoint tie-in, the editors and creators involved in its production can’t have possibly missed the fact that curious browsers might be inspired by the film to enter a comics shop and pick up any book so apparently closely associated with the Ryan Reynolds’s vehicle. For that reason alone, we have to assume that Flashpoint: Hal Jordan stands as an example of a deliberate attempt to produce an issue which reflects as well as possible on DC Comics, the Green Lantern cross-media franchise, and the business of reading comics in general.

Flashpoint: Hal Jordan #1, written by Adam Schlagman with art by Ben Oliver.

Yet to write that is to imply something that I’d not intended to, namely that DC doesn’t tend to take specific care to do any of those three things in its typical, non-movie-associated monthly books. It would be a point which it would be incredibly unfair to make, for there’s a remarkable consistency of form and content which exists across DC’s superhero books, and Flashpoint: Hal Jordan stands as an absolutely typical DC product. In that, any argument that DC’s employees somehow don’t care about their comics, that they’re just shoveling out product without concern for what lies between their glossy covers, can be immediately countered by pointing out that a staff which didn’t care would end up producing work that was far more diverse and variable in quality. Yet the centre does hold where DC’s comics are concerned. There are clear and substantial similarities between most every single one of its books, and that can only happen if there’s a clear agreement on the part of the company and its employees about what it is that constitutes an appropriately excellent comic book. Rather than not knowing what they’re doing, as a great many folks in the various talking shops of the comics blogosphere would apparently have us believe, DC’s employees know exactly what they’re up to, to the point at which there’s a considerable homogeneity characterizing their comics all the way across the diversity of the line from comic books with superheroes whose titles begin with “A”, to superhero comic books with titles commencing with a “Z.”

If that’s so, then the business of blaming individual editors and creators for any presumed shortcomings in DC’s modern-era product misses the real underlying causes of why so many DC books are so similar and, for many of us, so lacking. For it’s hard not to believe that DC’s output is strongly shaped by common norms and values held by its publishers and editors and at least in part bought into by the creators it invests in. There can’t, after all, be constant discussions about what should and shouldn’t be in a DC book, and yet month after month, the company’s product is remarkable consistent in both form and content.

Given that, it’s worth wondering what it is that will have changed, if anything at all, in this corporate consensus when we readers receive the first of DC’s brave new world of 52 daring titles. For we’ve been promised comics which are radically different in many ways to the typical monthlies of the past many-a-year. Is it a comicbook Jerusalem that’s about to arise, or will the corporate relaunch result in work which bears a considerable similarity to that which has been being published for so long? It’s certainly hard to imagine how a company can change its fundamental ethos so absolutely  in such a short period of time. Cultures don’t tend to shift so utterly without a substantial amount of retraining and oversight, commitment and incentive. Certainly, many of the Flashpoint books show little regard for the storytelling principles which DC’s senior staff have been assuring comicbook retailers will be the norm from September onwards. Change, it seems, will have to occur at a tremendous clip. Even then, yesterday’s taken-for-granted standards of excellence have a habit of remaining so ingrained that they unconsciously continue to guide decision-making despite all the road shows and all the declarations of laudable intentions. Which of the standards which so clearly guided the creation of comics such as Flashpoint: Hal Jordan will survive, deliberately or not, into the uplands of the new DC?

With the importance of the Flashpoint: Hal Jordan title as a possible entrance-point for new or lapsed readers drawn in by the movie, and given DC’s consistent and apparently fiercely-policed standards, it struck me that it might be interesting to use this single comic and attempt to uncover what the basic principles of storytelling which informed its creation actually were. If we’re soon to see the promised revolution in the content of DC’s books, then Flashpoint: Hal Jordan and its sister titles will stand as historical curiosities, as the last branch on an evolutionary diagram depicting what happened to the practice of DC as it developed through the first era of Dan DiDido’s tenancy at the top of the corporate greasy pole. And if the transformation is actually to be more tentative and qualified than promised, as I suspect is inevitable, then it’ll be interesting to compare what’s to come with its immediate predecessors. After all, the same folks who piloted Flashpoint and its tie-ins are in charge of the next great late-Summer wall of energised product. What is to be the difference between the very best that DC could conceive of doing for the books issued in June of 2011 and the long-hoped-for excellence to be offered up in September?

Given that the various Flashpoint tie-ins are to a large degree so very similar to one another in the type of storytelling principles they embody, we have to assume that there are basic and common assumptions about what it is that makes a fine comic book underlying each individual issue. Certainly, Flashpoint: Hal Jordan seems to be based on some fascinating if distinctly worrying premises. For example:

Assumption #1: The Reader Enjoys Splash Pages More Than Any Other Example of Page Design

Flashpoint: Hal Jordan is but 20 sides long, and yet 4 of those are splashes, with the two panel page 8 serving pretty much as a splash would (see above). That means that practically 25% of “Rising Tide” consists of single shot, whole-page frames. Obviously, DC Comics believed, at least it did right up until the point at which the scripts for the tie-ins for Flashpoint were completed and paid for, that the audience would often rather have one or two broad plot-points made in the form of full-page money-shots than they would experience a greater number of plot-points distributed across a larger amount of panels.

Assumption #2: Just as the Reader Wants a Great Many Splash Pages, He or She Also Wants Interior Pages to Typically Contain a Minimum Number of Panels

If we assume that the absolutely uniquely designed page 7 is really displaying just four panels, as we’ll be discussing tomorrow, then the average number of frames per page in Flashpoint: Green Lantern is just 3.5. Again, this really does limited a creator’s ability to deliver a dense, content-heavy comicbook, which means, of course, that we have to assume that doing so was very much not a concern where Flashpoint: Hal Jordan was concerned.

Assumption #3: The Reader Wants as Little Information on the Page as is Possible to Place There

It’s notable that the splash pages of Flashpoint: Hal Jordan carry hardly any information at all in them. With one exception, which we’ll discuss below, they’re as literal and content-thin as it is possible to imagine any page being, pushing individual water-cooler moments presented in as focused and obvious a fashion as possible. It certainly does appear that the connection between a belief that “readers want splashes” and “readers don’t want to deal with content” has become, consciously or not, a tenant of the pre-revolution culture at DC. For it would be hard to produce an almost-full-page shot containing less data than that of page 8 here, where Hal Jordan daringly flies his plane without using his hands, or that of page 20, where an unnamed Green Lantern is discovered in a crashed ship asking for help.(It’s a shot which functions as an amped-up version of a scene in the Broome / Kane origin for Green Lantern from Showcase #22 in 1959, where it took up one of six panels on the tale’s third page.) It could at least be argued that the money-shot of King Shark clawing his way up Jordan’s airborne jet on page 12 is vigorous and exciting, although why it required so much space in a comic that’s already high on show and low on tell is hard to say. If it were the only data-thin splash in the comic, and if the artist had had the opportunity to polish the composition so that the jet’s canopy, cockpit and static pilot were more effectively presented, then a case could certainly be made for such a spirited composition. But otherwise, it’s just more speedy reading and wasted space in a comic characterized by a mass of exactly that.

It's a vigorous and exciting splash page, isn't it? Proof, perhaps, that the problem, if problem there be, with the typical DC Comic isn't the fault of the creators involved, but rather the culture which appears to shape the decision-making processes of everyone involved.

There’s only two possible conclusions that spring to mind that might explain why a quarter of Flashpoint: Hal Jordan is taken up by such splash page. Given the assumption that DC are promoting such content with a focused commitment to excellence, we simply must believe that the company were absolutely sure that this kind of product reflected the market’s demands. And that would mean that either DC believed that their readers were semi-literate and possessed of the concentration span of a kitten faced with two waggling strands of cotton at the very same time, or that they thought that their readers actively wanted, regardless of their reading skills and powers of focus, the thinnest and least content-filled product possible.

Assumption #4: The Reader Already Knows Most of What’s Going on in DC’s Other Comic Books, So They Don’t Need to Have Backstory Explained

For me, it’s the splash on page 7 which is in many ways the most telling of all such examples in Flashpoint: Hal Jordan. For while the others at least carry a specific moment in the narrative, page 7 presents nothing but a collage intended to suggest, but certainly not explain, much of the backstory of the Flashpoint crossover. It’s hard to understand why, if this was thought to be necessary, that the editors and creators didn’t conspire to either add expository dialogue elsewhere, or create narrative elements which carried backstory with them, or add a fill-in introductory page, or simply use page 7 to explain the essential detail. And DC must have thought that the various components of the collage on page 7 really was essential, otherwise why would they have wasted 5% of the book in such a way? Yet it seems to be an at least compelling hypothesis that such is the taboo associated with simply delivering the essentials of continuity, that the very idea of attending to such matters in a traditional fashion is verboten.

Instead, page 7 tries to deliver the background information in a way that hints without doing anything so crude and regressive as explaining. It’s as if a sex education lesson had suggested that lying fairly close to someone else might just by chance end up with a degree of procreation occurring, especially if the folks involved wiggled around a touch. Eventually, perhaps, everything might come close to connecting up, and the teacher would be saved the embarrassment of pointing out quite which bit goes where. And so, we’ve got many of the items which an info-dump would use on display in page 7, but they’ve been deliberately isolated from each other and from any narrative context. A great deal of wiggling would be required to put these promising and yet quite separate elements together in a way which made anything more than the vaguest sense of what was going on.

In the background, there’s a map of a flooded Europe. Yet if you don’t know that Europe’s been flooded, you’re unlikely to recognise the map as being of Europe, because, yes, Europe doesn’t normally look like that. In the middle-ground, there’s the Eiffel Tower lying at an improbable angle, and there’s a damaged ship which appears to have hit the tower, although it’s not certain, because the structure of neither reflects the slightest contact, let alone damage caused, between the two. (The ship has just been cut off at the point at which the tower is shown, the tower rises upwards without a dent.) And then in the foreground, holding a trident and facing away from the reader, which of course makes it impossible to read his expression, is Aquaman. Now, those familiar with Flashpoint will know that these items are all part of a specific narrative thread, just as those who know their superheroes will recognise the bloke with the trident as DC’s sea-king. And so the adept will know that Aquaman has flooded much of Europe, including, of course, France. And they’ll know that, as a result, America is at war with Atlantis. (You’ll note that the whole business requires but two sentences to explain.) Yet if you’re a stranger to comics, or even to this particular crossover, this splash will tell you nothing. It’s quite literally unreadable. It identifies neither character nor location nor plot. As a composition, its unbalanced and meaningless. As a guide to Flashpoint, it’s utterly incompetent.

Indeed, the only people who can read that page are the folks who already know what it depicts, meaning that it’s entirely a waste of space. Neither attractive as a piece of art, or informing in the context of the tale, it doesn’t even pass a pretty picture.

Those ubiquitous "widescreen" panels again, with their presumably excitement-creating irregular panel edges, apparently the best choice for scenes as different as jets above the sea, cockpit alarms and airfield control rooms.

But then, if your common culture, as we might presume, believes that (1) splash pages depicting elements of the spectacular are by their very nature good, regardless of their content, and if you believe that (2) your readers either don’t want to have to read and concentrate or can’t, and if you believe that (3) certain traditional storytelling practices such as explaining what’s going in in a clear fashion are unacceptable, then the only alternative is to (4) throw down key elements at random and rely somehow on the reader’s innate creativity, curiosity and knowledge of continuity to pull them through.

Assumption #5: The Traditions of Comic Book Craftmanship are Irrelevant to Modern-Era Storytelling

As surprising, or perhaps even shocking, as it might be for some folks to remember, there actually is a tradition in comics composed of some 70 years worth of material showing artists how to make the business of warplanes zipping about the sky both exciting and emotionally involving. There are even a host of comics which deal with how to present human-scale creatures bouncing around on planes of various kinds in perilous conditions far up above the ground. As a consequence of this, no artist need ever feel obliged to try to create an entirely new way of representing such things out of thin air and talent, for the problems associated with jets and air combat and canopy-eating monsters have often been dealt with.

Yet the comic-book “realistic” approach adopted in Flashpoint: Hal Jordan seems to be one in which the wheel is being purposelessly and constantly reinvented. Even if previously established ways of representing jets and aerial battles and so on were drawn upon here, it was done in such a way that all the essenial character and feeling suggested by the original work was abstracted out of the final design. All that’s left, if anything was put to use at all, is little but great solid chunks of flying metal and fibreglass which have been apparently traced from photographs and set down in a frame on a page as if a literal representation of a plane was enough in itself. The art is designed, you might swear, to mean as little as possible, to evoke as few feelings in itself as it possibly can. In that restraint, there’s a sense that Flashpoint: Hal Jordan is the product of a culture which believes that readers will be intimidated by the long-established language of comics, and that they’ll be enticed by as unchallenging a representation of events as is presented in “Rising Tide, Part 1.” And so, what editors and creators at DC believe that readers want, we might assume from Flashpoint: Hal Jordan, is nothing to do with the emotions which might be associated with flying in a jet and the possibility of dying in one. Rather, what readers apparently desire is to cast their eyes reassuringly upon art which delivers a simple and unambiguous statement such as, “This is a jet and it is fast!”

"This is a jet and this is fast." Energetic shots unmarked by emotion or informing information. Where are those craft and what is that purple ray? Where has the spacecraft landed? At what point would a pilot take a calm lingering look at a photograph under such circumstances?

Because of this lack of attention in much of the art of “Rising Tide” to the matter of feeling, especially where the flying and fighting scenes are concerned, the illustrations between the book’s covers seem to perfectly match the comic’s thin and content-light script. Both words and pictures seem to be describing something which happened somewhere else, to somebody a little like these people on the page. What is it, therefore, that DC believes will bring this book, and the many like it, to life for the consumer? What will make these pages appealing to the reader?

The answer, it’s impossible not to presume, is that this is a comic which is designed to rely upon the readers having a library of memories and emotions associated with the likes of aerial combat popcorn movies and tragic melodramas of family loss. For it seems that Flashpoint: Hal Jordan isn’t intended to be an experience in itself, for how could such a thin text be anything of the sort? Instead, it reads like a comic dedicated to the purpose of reminding readers of experiences they’ve gathered elsewhere while watching films and TV programs.

In this, it’s almost as if the creator’s main purpose wasn’t to think for themselves and invest their work with reference to the long-established craft of creating comic-books, but rather to make sure that they didn’t scare the readers too much by being too idiosyncratic, too different, too moving, too inspiring. It’s not a comic’s job to be remarkable, it seems, but to create images which trigger pre-existing and none-too challenging memories. Cut loose from the business of being essential components of an exciting and even scary and moving comic book, many of the pages of “Rising Tide” work instead as a strange kind of media aide-memoir. Do you remember that scene in Independence Day, they seem to ask, and doesn’t this remind you of any number of Top Gun knock-offs? Do you remember how you felt when you saw those films, those programs, ask these pages of the reader, because that’s how we’d like you to feel at this point in the story.

As a result, what’s most remarkable about the pages in Flashpoint: Rising Tide is what’s missing from them. It’s as if the editors and creators responsible for this tale were engaged in a form of graphic puritanism, willfully rejecting all the cleverness and brilliance of comic book’s past in favor of a new undemanding and unthreatening style of storytelling. The reader will look in vain for any trace at all of crucially historical antecedents such as the EC tales of Harvey Kurtzman’s, whose cover to Frontline Combat” #8, from 1952, can be seen at right. It’s not that anyone would want to see a comic in 2011 made up of thievings and “homages” to a 60-year-old comic-book tale. But it is a truth that it’s mystifying to see no apparent hint at all of the storytelling solutions developed by Mr. Kurtzman and a huge host of his fellow craftsmen before and since in these pages. Without that knowledge of how to depict aerial combat on the pages of a comic book, and without the willingness to shape that knowledge into new and exciting forms, all a comic-book creator can do is attempt to match seven decades of learning in a week or two’s work.

Now, whether the creators of  Flashpoint: Hal Jordan didn’t know of the sources that they could access for guidance, or whether they didn’t care, is a question which I surely can’t presume to answer. But whatever the answer, the truth is that not only does the art of  “Rising Tide” almost completely fail to impress, but it also falls considerably short of achieving the most elementary of the effects it sets out to achieve beyond the most obvious and easy-toachieve ones. For example, there’s not a single high-angle shot of a jet in all of “Rising Tide” showing the Ferris warplanes from above, so there’s never a sense of height and wonder and vulnerability summoned up by the sight of a plane suspended above the earth. But then, there’s nothing that creates the sense that anyone in the tale has “slipped the surly bonds of Earth” either, unless we count the single panel of Jordan being a no-hands bore as he roars past Ferris, nor a single sequence which suggests the vertiginous beauty and threat of Kurtzman’s breaking, turning, diving jets.

What is going on in the first panel? Is it a plane rushing to the rescue, or just one flying around, and is the artwork so informing that there was nothing to add in the way of text? The art itself does seems immediately sensible, but on closer inspection, it suggests rather than defines events. It's certainly tough to tell much about Hal's emotions in the third and fourth panels, and it's impossible to tell the state the spacecraft is in. We get a sense, we know how the story plays out, but the art isn't doing anything more than hinting.

It’s not that I’m suggesting that anyone has set out to consciously produce work so bland and uninspiring. But the art here is quite typical of that of many modern-era books in how it appears to lack the necessary knowledge of craft. Somewhere in the system is a belief that such work is appropriate, or such work wouldn’t be so very common. And the culture at DC often does seem to have tipped away in the direction of the prosaic and the brutally straight-forward. In that, “Rising Tide” stands as an example of what the company appears to consider acceptable, to a greater or lesser degree, rather than as an unfortunate anomaly. And so, it’s not that what’s here is designed against the instincts and knowledge of the editors and creators involved. That just wouldn’t explain the art and script in so many Flashpoint tie-ins. What’s here isn’t here by mistake but by design.

It’s not an accident or a failing that everything in Flashpoint: Hal Jordan is as flat and as undemanding as possible, despite the fact that that means that even the sky in the panels here is nothing but a generic, cloud-mottled, and unsuggestive blue. Nor is it an example of artistic shortsightedness that the ocean which the jets are supposedly anxiously patrolling is seen in but two panels as a table-top surface of placid, unworrying blue hues. As such, it has no meaning to it, it carries no emotional weight, it never suggests the threat supposedly carried beneath its surface by the soldiers of Atlantis, but then, we shouldn’t expect that. That’s clearly not what the art is there to do. If it were, then surely someone would have stepped in and ensured that such was so.

Just to help folks out, this is a page showing (1) a super-powered Shark leaping from one speeding jet fighter to another, before (2) trying to eat its way through the second plane's canopy. Obviously, given its subject-matter, this should be the most thrilling page ever, but it isn't. Why?

Nowhere is this decision to largely abandon the traditions of the comic book and the ambition to move the reader so regrettable as in the page at left. In it we see (1) King Shark leap from Hal Jordan’s jet to that piloted by Carol Ferris, where (2) the monster attempts to bite through the canopy of her aircraft. It’s an incredibly exciting basic idea, and yet neither script nor art embraces it. In particular, it might be noted that the reader is never shown anything other than one semi-clear shot of the super-villain that isn’t a silhouette. Indeed, Shark doesn’t even appear as a pinprick figure in four of the frames. Nor can the threat posed by his presence be deduced with reference to the facial expressions of the pilots on the page, for they are presenting anything other than the appearance of individuals shocked and threatened by a great jet-hopping, murderous super-villain.

Granted, it’s a difficult thing to have to do, to deal with the challenges set by the script for this page. And it could be argued that the wasteful use of space earlier in the tale, with sides being taken up by just a few panels written to carry but a few plot points, has landed the artist here with a huge amount to do and very little room to do it in. Yet surely the silhouetted form of King Shark here is a cheat. It carries no threat, no personality, and it’s so insignificant and unimpressive that it often barely registers at all. In truth, the artist here doesn’t seem to have the slightest idea how to cope with the problems which have been set, but then, it’s not an artist’s job to know how to solve each and every problem. That’s what the tradition of comic book storytelling and the presence of gate-keeping editors are there for.

Alex Toth: the most terrifyingly brilliant problem-solver in the history of comics?

For example, Archie Goodwin and Alex Toth’s “Death Flies the Friendly Skies” (at right), from 1974′s Detective Comics #442 would have been perfect for suggesting ways in which to deal with the matter of presenting figures hanging on to aircraft in a clear and engaging and exciting fashion. Yet it seems that such sources weren’t immediately at hand, or considered useful enough to be inspired by, and so, in the page above from “Rising Tide,” you’ll note that the business — the incredibly promising business — of a super-villainous Shark attacking a warplane above the Atlantic Ocean shows (1) no ocean, (2) no height-establishing high-angle shot, (3) only one clear unsilhoutted view of the shark in all seven panels on view, and therefore (4) no excitement or, once again, emotional content at all.

As already discussed, a Hal Jordan book at this moment in the sales-cycle is not an entirely unimportant business. Can it really be possible that a publisher of superhero tales really does regard work as undemonstrative and unremarkable as “Rising Tide, Part 1″ to be not only suitable, but desirable for its range of products? It sounds like an absurd suggestion, and yet it must be so, or, as argued above, there wouldn’t be so many comics which share so many key and troublesome features with this one.

Neal Adams paying homage to Joe Kubert; an example of a comics great being proud to show his respect and the influence of the problem-solving solutions of a previous generation upon his work.

Yet in seemingly having turned away to such a degree from much of the best of the comic book tradition, DC hasn’t only stumbled into producing a range of dull and unaffecting texts. It’s also seemingly cut its editors and creators off from the knowledge of comics history and the necessary eagerness to learn from it that would’ve helped solve the problems with script and art in Flashpoint: Hal Jordan. After all, if the companies don’t actively seek out and reward excellence in all situations, and if they don’t encourage the mastery of the knowledge that it’s based on, then a culture of mediocrity will inevitably arise, because that will become the norm. And so there’s a serious threat that we’ll get more of the likes of so many of the disappointing Flashpoint prequels and tie-ins pumped out into the marketplace. Flashpoint: Hal Jordan and The Road to Flashpoint and Flashpoint: Canterbury Cricket and Flashpoint: The Outsider and Flashpoint: Lois Lane & The Resistance and Flashpoint: Reverse Flash and Flashpoint: Kid Flash Lost and so on and so on, all somewhat different and individual books, with their own distinct strengths and weaknesses, but none of them particularly good and all of them sharing at least some of the problems which we’ve been discussing in connection with Flashpoint: Hal Jordan.

Now, that all can’t have happened because the gifted creators and editors involved weren’t sincere in their desire for — that word again — excellence. It has to be that the very common definition of excellence and what’s needed to attain it is in certain places seriously askew.

Darwyn Cooke from "DCU: The New Frontier"; even the form and coloring of the clouds creates a sense of claustrophobia and threat.

Assumption #6: Brevity and Concision and Making Sense are Vastly Over-Rated Virtues which Don’t Attend to the Audience’s Needs

What is that the modern-era superhero comic is concerned with, if it’s not concerned to make the likes of great giant humanoid sharks leaping from airborne warplane to warplane more rather than less exciting? Perhaps something of the answer, if Flashpoint: Hal Jordan is in any way a representative piece of work, can be found if we accept the proposition that many of today’s comics have little to do with the business of providing their readers with anything so traditional and straight-forward as a simple story in the first place, exciting or not. Rather, the superhero book often now exists as nothing less or more than a disparate collection of conventions associated with the very idea of cape-’n'-chest-insignia comics.

And so, “Rising Tide, Part One” has a series of familiar technical components, such as 25% splash pages and dialogue-thin panels, as well as sub-genre tropes such as fearsome super-villains, brave supermen and desperately-in-distress damsels. The fact, as we’ll discuss, that these various technical components are put to use in a sloppy and amateuresque fashion is irrelevant, because neither creators nor, we must assume, a great number of the hardcore audience would want it any other way.

There’s a strange inbred form of authenticity, a respect for fans and the fan’s understanding of what a superhero book should involve, which gets transmitted when the habituated consumer receives a string of symbols of what they want which haven’t been too distorted by the presence of a challenging and moving narrative. It’s as if the very existence of too strong and individual a writerly hand would threaten the ownership of the material by those who know what they like and who fervently want a great more of it.

Similarly, the superfolks and supporting characters of a book such as Flashpoint: Hal Jordan aren’t, it seems, designed to be well thought-through individuals of any depth and distinctiveness, presumably because the audience is believed to want anything but. (Can it possibly be true, or even believed to be so, that the audience finds it harder to enjoy reading about characters who are obviously different from themselves, whether that refers to personality, culture, gender or even geographical location?) Seen from this perspective, the mysteries of how it was that “Rising Tide, Part 1″ went to press as such a careless and insubstantial tale fall away. Flashpoint: Hal Jordan‘s not a botched job, but a product which is intended to gently summon up the most familiar and well-loved aspects of the fan’s experience of the superhero without threatening those generalized pleasures of recognition with anything too challenging or specific.

Seen in this light, “Rising Tide, Part 1” isn’t a poor piece of work at all. It’s actually an exceptionally competent example of a modern-era, don’t-frighten-the-fanboy, don’t complicate-the-catechism superhero book. Its creators skillfully place certain key aspects of the spandexed tradition onto the page in an apparently logical fashion while DC reproduces the whole concoction in a glossily legitimate and familiar form. Such comics don’t tend to present stories in anything other than the broadest sense of the word, as we’ll discuss in a moment, but they do perform the absolutely key and almost quasi-religious task of reassuring the faithful reader that everything is alright, that all the things that they treasure are still there, unmessed with, apparently unmediated, pure, simple and unthreatening.

And so, a “King Shark” does exist in “Rising Tide,” but he’s never intended to be a character, or even to perform as an element of a thrilling narrative. That’s not the priority at all. Instead, he appears when a super-villain is required, signalling that this is the point where the fighting begins. Yet the fact that he’s given but a single splash page and four panels to look fearsome in, and the fact that the narrative largely ignores him and his threat even while he’s on-stage, isn’t a flaw in the creator’s work. For the “character” has done his job simply by being there in public view; he has no personality, no meaning, no existence beyond his immediate presence, and that’s exactly what’s required of him. The Shark has comforted the readers without demanding even their attention, triggering the reader’s acknowledgement that his appearance marks the point at which they can offer up their pantomime “ooohhh” and “aaahhh” without the distraction of having to worry about what he’s doing or even why beyond the most simplistic of explanations. For most of the encounter between himself and the pilots he attacks, he isn’t even shown on the page. He’s the menace that doesn’t menace, the antagonist that poses no real threat and who serves as no telling comparison to the protagonist. He’s the successfully limp reminder that “X” marks the spot where folks used to fight over something of weight and consequence in superhero books, rather than just appearing to reassure folks that comics are still the same as they always were, even though they’re nothing of the sort.

It’s that sense of a character’s function that has to be what shapes the mind-set of so many producers and creators today. Both DC and a significant number of its audience obviously share to a greater or less degree the sense of pleasure that comes from seeing thin stereotypes and worn out routines reappearing time and time again. Depth, complexity, nuance, subtlety — these are the enemy here, not the desired result. For nobody could write such material without believing that the thrill of the superhero book, and its very purpose, lies is a pleasure that’s somewhat akin to that of an exceedingly familiar franchise ride in a themed adventure park.

Well-known faces and types and locations appear and re-appear as the ride rolls onwards. A journey designed entirely for the sake of spectacle rather than meaning is engaged upon. Splashes, crashes, hi-jinks, and then a souvenir photo at the end, a memoir of a fun ride that meant nothing beyond itself and was never intended to. Nobody expects or wants to be made to feel or think from such an experience beyond the occasional adrenalin-leap along the way. Instead, they want what they expect and they want it in ever more spectacular if meaningless amounts, and they want to feel that they’ve received it in a way which respects the consumer’s desires rather than any creator’s selfish personal agenda.

In short, though King Shark quite obviously appears in Flashpoint: Hal Jordan, he never exists as anything other than a symbol of a super-villain. The fight he kicks off barely appears on the page, and it has no emotional or physical repercussions for the characters who are shown standing up to him. He appears because the reader expects such an appearance, but the writer and artist feel no compulsion to do anything other than sketch out the broadest of events to mark his arrival and passing. In so many ways, Flashpoint: Hal Jordan isn’t a comic book so much as a ritual of comforting familiarity, a litany of all the things than the devout superhero fan, and indeed creator, believes in and relies upon experiencing. That such product has consistently failed to travel beyond the converted and committed is of course no surprise. In order for it to do so, it would have to signify something beyond the fan’s devotion to certain particular aspects of the genre. Yet of course, it doesn’t, and so why would anyone beyond the devoted could possibly care? The superhero book in the form taken by Flashpoint: Hal Jordan isn’t, it seems, anything more or less than a fan’s catechism, allowing one key aspect of the superhero narrative after another to be counted off as the pages are scanned and turned.

Now, I fully accept that this is an argument which can appear to be entirely spurious. What’s the difference, after all, between a super-villain who limply signifies the presence of the idea of a hyper-baddie, and one who stands as a character in their own right? How can we tell the difference between a comic which has a clear and well-honed dramatic purpose and one which vaguely and gently serves to reassure the faithful?

I’d suggest that the answer to any such quandary can be best found by looking at how casual and directionless the script of “Rising Tide, Part 1” is. If we grant DC the benefit of the doubt and assume that Flashpoint: Hal Jordan was indeed written to a deliberate purpose rather than hacked out, then all we need do is ask ourselves what outcome the script and art seemed designed to elicit. After all, the comic was written by an Assistant Editor at DC with years of experience on high-profile books, while his work on “Rising Tide” itself was overseen by another assistant editor and, in the way of such things, an editor proper too. We have to assume that they are folks, are highly skilled professionals, who are making the decisions they are for quite deliberate reasons and towards entirely specific ends.

And so, it’s worth noting that “Rising Tide, Part 1″ does indeed contain all the key expected components of a what might be imagined to be a traditional superhero tale, albeit it in a notably diluted and unintegrated fashion. There’s the punch-up, which as we’ve seen isn’t much of a punch-up at all, and there’s the supposedly eye-misting character moments, which we’ll see are slackly and sentimentally constructed, and there’s a cliffhanger and there’s a super-person or two in costume and there’s the love interest. Everything is present and correct that might be needed in a story, but then a story in the traditional sense isn’t what these ingredients are on parade to provide. Just scratch the surface of what’s been made from these components and it’s obvious that they’ve simply been slapped down onto the page in a loosely sensible sequence. They’ve certainly not been exactingly worked into a narrative of any consequence, despite moments of promise such as the counterpointing of internal monologue and external jeopardy on the first page.

For example, here’s Mr. Adam Schlagman’s dialogue for the second and third pages of Flashpoint: Hal Jordan:

Four panels explaining that Hal Jordan wants to be a pilot but won't obey his Mom.

Mrs. Jordan (off-panel, over shot of Hal in bedroom playing with toy jet): ”Hal Jordan! Did you finish your homework?”

Hal’s Narration: “I was never great at school.”

Hal (playing with a model jet fighter): “Yesss, Mom. Working on it.”

Hal’s Narration: ”I just didn’t care.”

Hal’s Narration (shot of Hal watching a real jet): “There was only one thing I cared about.”

Mr. Jordan (off-panel, as Hal reads a flight manual): “Son, what are you doing?”

Hal (as his dad enters): “Studying!”

Mr. Jordan: ”That doesn’t look like math. Hal, you know what your Mom thinks about you flying.”

Hal: ”But I wanna be just like you, Dad.”

It’s quite a pleasant exchange; undemanding, mostly unrevealing, unintense. Yet if we dig underneath this rather restrained and undramatic sequence, we find that there are but three simple plot-points being delivered in this scene:

  1. Hal longs to be a pilot like his Dad.
  2. Hal’s Mother doesn’t want him to be a pilot.
  3. Hal’s dad sides with his wife on the matter of the boy not being encouraged to fly. (This isn’t clear, but it is weakly implied.)

It’s worth noting that the art accompanying this script tells us nothing of Hal’s mother, who doesn’t appear on the page, and about the same of Mr. Jordan, though he does at least appear as an emotionless presence in Hal’s room. From this appearance, the reader gets the sense that we’re supposed to regard the father as sympathetic to Hal’s ambitions despite the lack of any sign that he actually is so. But he’s wearing a flight jacket, and Hal’s mum seems shrill, and the logic of such narratives, if not the sense of this one, carries the story forward. The father is the source of Hal’s adoration, so we’re supposed to adore him too, despite the absence of any single sign or word to support any such feeling.

By which I mean, this is a scene which seems to tell us about the characters involved, but which instead deliverers very little of any substance beyond the most unspecific of sentiment. The script and art hint at meaning, but the whole concoction relies upon our knowledge of similar narratives from other comics and other mediums. If you were to wonder what either parent was like in even the slightest of detail, the best you could deduce is that the Dad was “nicer” than the Mum, although in truth the mother seems to be being quite sensible in suggesting that Hal actually gets his homework done. And so, as is par for so many modern-era books, what appears to be vitally informing information is actually sketchy and cliched and patently inadequate.

Four more panels explaining that Hal Jordan wants to be a pilot and loves his dad.

In addition, the script also shows us how little many modern-era writers think of the intelligence of their readers. Here we’re given eight panels to tell us that the young Hal Jordan is obsessed with being a pilot. Look, Hal with a model of a jet, Hal reading a jet plane’s manual, Hal looking at a real jet, Hal day-dreaming about jets, Hal arguing with his Dad about reading about jets — just how dense do the folks at DC involved in this book think the typical reader is? How many times do we need to see a cute kid and a marker of a jet in the same panel before we’re trusted to get the point?

Yet matched with that constant repetition of the simplest fact is the absence of data beyond the most obvious points in each of the panels in this sequence. Because for those of you who’ve not read this comic, the exchange written out above takes up two whole pages of this tale, with each of the eight panels on show putting to use an thin average of just eight words each. So three basic plot-points hammered out over and over in panels which simply couldn’t be more lacking in information; what does this say about how DC views the needs and abilities of their audience? And how much more might have been done with the 10% of “Rising Tide, part 1″ that’s here invested in so slight an business?

I suspect that the likes of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, or their modern-era story-focused descendants such as the Dodsons and Marcos Martin, could’ve achieved the same effect and more in just two panels, and even the least disciplined of artists could surely have delivered that information in two-thirds of a page at the most. But not here, not in Flashpoint: Hal Jordan, where the writer is concerned not to tell a taut and meaningful story, but to suggest in as kindly and undemanding a fashion as possible that one has been told.

But then, if the writer had been interested in making “Rising Tide, Part 1” a story, a great intense and fierce and bright and exciting story, then he’d hardly have followed up his introductory splash page with such a boring and undramatic scene, where nothing of emotion bar the most standard-issue love on Hal’s part for his Dad and them jets is transmitted. If the script was concerned with delivering the key plot-points in as concise and moving a fashion as possible, then most of those two pages could’ve been replaced with a single “widescreen” panel such as the following:

Page 2, panel 1: We see Hal’s father laughing and holding up his similarly joyous boy as a jet roars above them. Hal waves a tiny jet fighter in his hand.

Hal’s narration #1: “My Dad was the best test pilot in the world.”

Hal’s narration #2: “All I ever wanted to do was fly those jets as fast as he did.”

And if the matter of Hal’s mother and her disapproval is actually needed, and that’s doubtful given that she doesn’t appear once in the remainder of the first chapter, we could specifically set the scene at an open day at the local air base:

Page 2, panel 2: Behind Hal and his father is his mother. We see Hal trying to turn to speak to her. She looks worried and almost resentful. Perhaps Mr Jordan is frowning a touch with trepidation where her feelings are concerned.

Hal: “Mum! Mum! Look at that F-18 go!”

Hal’s narration #1: “Mom didn’t like the dangers that Dad put himself through.”

Hal’s narration #2: “And she was always scared that I’d follow in his footsteps.”

Now, the above is hardly poetry, but it’s not meant to be. I wrote it in 10 seconds flat to make a point not about the poor quality of my prose, but to suggest that there are a million easily identifiable alternatives to the wasteful lack of concision and brevity in so many modern-era comics. And for all of the failings of the results of those 10 seconds worth of work, my scenario does at least present the action in an interesting environment, with jets tearing around in the sky and folks milling around the lead characters. It has emotion harnessed to the key plot points, and everything is explained in two panels without any excess of wordage. Nothing has been lost, I’d presume to argue, but a great deal of space has been freed up to tell a story elsewhere.

How little content can be squeezed in 25% of a page.

But then, if the point isn’t to tell a story, but instead to suggest the presence of one complete with fake-iconic moments and a selection of to-be-expected moments, then what does it matter if the tale is sloppy and content-light and quite frankly disdainful of any duty to entertain? After all, even if “Rising Tide, Part 1″ doesn’t hang together as a story, it still has has its requisite slushy moments, its action moments, its tragic-angst moments. Why does it need to explain or even illuminate anything beyond giving the consumer the reassuring signs that the world isn’t an entirely unpredictable and taxing place to live? No, an intensity of experience isn’t the purpose of this story; reassurance and distraction are. If it was anything else that had preoccupied the editors and creators of this book, 10% of the whole comic wouldn’t have been invested in those three simple, basic plot points in the scene set in Hal’s bedroom, any more than King Shark would’ve been barely shown attacking two planes in the tale’s first climax.

That stupid U.S. government, refusing to fund its own "drafted" private air force if it dares to loose jets in combat.

Because Flashpoint: Hal Jordan is in truth intended to be exactly as facile and shallow as it is, no one involved in its production needed to take the time to ensure that it even made sense. It doesn’t matter. So for example, we’re told that Ferris Air’s planes and pilots have been drafted into America’s armed forces to fight Aquaman’s Atlantis. But this very idea is, in terms of what we’re told in this comic, nonsensical. It may be that other Flashpoint titles have established America as a nation run by great corporations with the government as their proxy, but there’s nothing here to indicate anything of the sort, meaning that the following problems immediately jump to mind:

  • How is that Ferris aircraft fly under entirely autonomous control without any military markings during wartime? How could that possibly so? Could it be that the writer wanted his characters to have military responsibility where going into action is concerned without any of the limitations of military life?
  • “The government is relying on Ferris Air to be the first line of defense,” Carol is made to declare, which Hal narrates that Ferris Air was drafted to ”patrol the coastline.” Does this mean that Ferris Air, a private plane-maker, is protecting all of America’s coastlines? Are we to assume that there is no U.S.A.F. on Earth-Flashpoint, or that U.S.A.F. plays second-fiddle to a corporation’s private airforce? And how big a private airforce did Ferris have before the war erupted, and what the *!$ was it doing with them?
  • If the government is relying on Ferris, then why? Can’t the U.S.A. afford a fleet of jets to match those of Ferris Air? Gosh, I guess that the Washington of Earth-Flashpoint has never heard of centralised military authority or necessary taxation in wartime.
  • But then we’re told that the loss of two Ferris aircraft while fighting Killer Shark will result in the government cancelling its funding for the company. (“You just sacrificed all our government funding,” Carol whinges at Jordan in return for his saving of her.) So Washington will cripple the defense of the nation in a hissy fit about two jets being lost while saving a pilot’s life? Either Ferris Air is a substantial and vital part of U.S. defense, or it’s not. If it is, then no government would cancel funding during wartime simply because planes are lost in the fighting. In fact, quite the opposite would surely be true. And so on, and so on, daftness upon silliness…

How wonderfully stupid is this? Hal Jordan has just been involved in a life-threatening encounter with a super-villain, destroyed around $300 million's worth of fighter plane, and yet is still able to take another jet into the air for no apparent purpose despite being told not to during wartime. So a man serving in the U.S. military for a "drafted" private air force (?) can do whatever he wants because he's a superhero in another timeline. Wow, whee, comic books...

The mind struggles to conceive of how such a Swiss cheese of a plot can hang together with all those huge holes in it and, indeed, so very little cheese. But the cheese that’s here shouts “planes” and “war” and “conflict” and “shock”, and it works to allow Hal to fight the war while not be a member of the armed forces, and so the little cheese that’s there really does count for something; these various plot-elements don’t have to knit together and make sense, and they’re surely not intended to. They just have to sit there on the page, suggesting a plot, summoning up the chimera of a story for readers who don’t actually care too much about reading. Reading rather than skimming, concentrating rather than daydreaming, is not what these comics are there to promote or serve.

Similarly, a whole story apparently organised around Hal Jordan loving Carol Ferris which barely shows them talking or communicating in anything other than sniping tones isn’t a tale concerned with love; it’s concerned to having love evoked while avoiding any feelings of consequence beyond a vague longing and a vaguer sense of self-pity. And when Jordan proves his love for Carol Ferris to us by crashing his plane into hers in order to save her from the by-now invisible and yet supposedly terrifying King Shark, well, the sheer adolescent weight of that charmless wish-fulfillment fantasy leaves this reader at least feeling rather grubby. It’s one thing to wish that a writer would express emotional matters in visual ways. It’s another to reduce love to the heroic destruction, and consequent Very Big Explosion, of two multi-million dollar war planes in a great unimpressive unspectacular non-event. (Nothing was at stake, for Hal does have a parachute.) As satire, it’d be wonderfully fitting, reducing hyper-human desire to crashing one plane into another in the name of lurve. But presented seriously, it’s all rather tawdry and embarrassing, as if someone sat down and said “He blows up two planes because we need a big blow-up, and he did it because we need proof he loves her!”

Gosh, what would a less repressed Hal Jordan be like when proving his love? (Note the mystery ejecting pilot at top right of the panel in the mystery silhouette.)

Nothing makes Hal Jordan show the slightest emotion, not even the needs of the story. What's that, the woman you love is piloting a jet that's airborne and being eaten by a psychotic superhuman shark? Chill...

Flashpoint: Hal Jordan is a comic book concerned to do little more than represent key elements of what it’s assumed modern-era comics fans want in a superhero book. In that, it’s a thoroughly excellent product according to its own lights. It reflects a purpose, it’s directed deliberately at a specific target audience, it stands as a recognisable example of a publisher’s line of products — there’s nothing slapdash or irresponsible about it in those terms. It’s not actually a story in anything other than the broadest meaning of the word. It’s not moving, or interesting, or clever, or witty, or exciting, sensible, logical, or even well-written in any traditional sense. But it is an effective item of faith, a well-observed catechism of the often unconscious beliefs of the perpetual and undemanding fanboy as to what their favorite genre ought to look like, in terms of both script and art. It’s everything that a great number of editors, creators and readers seem to want of their comics — by which I mean, it’s as hollow as it can be and it’ll serve as yet one more nail into the sub-genre’s self-assembled nail-studded coffin.

This article was originally published on Colin Smith’s blog Too Busy Thinking About My Comics.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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