More than a week ago Scott posted on an Alan Moore quote on Blackest night and the comments just exploded into nearly 100. I said I would respond but thought the best way to do so would be to grab some of the stuff I wanted to respond to, put it here, and make a new post out of it, while also directing people to that huge and great conversation. Here are the key highlights.
Couldn't you make the same critique of virtually any Alan Moore story? He wrote Watchmen based on some Charlton comic published twenty years earlier, or Lost Girls is just slashfic based on books published a hundred years ago. Because it's high culture stuff Moore's generally riffing on, he gets away with it, but I see a ton of similarities between Johns endlessly referencing the stuff he likes in the DCU in his books and Moore endlessly referencing whatever he likes in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Is Lost Girls really "just slashfic"? Is Watchmen really described at all well just by saying it's "based on" the Charlton comics?
It's not just that, there's other issues in there, but those works are as much based on the existing works that Moore drew on as Johns's Green Lantern stuff is on the comics that Moore wrote. I think it gets down to the difference between high and low culture, that if you copy a foreign film, it's an homage, if you copy a current film, it's stealing. People have different attitudes towards different pieces of culture, so Moore drawing on the power of cultural icons in Lost Girls is treated differently than Johns doing the same in Blackest Night because Peter Pan has a different cultural position than Green Lantern does.
But, looking at where pop culture is now, you could argue that Moore's riffing on obscure Victorian characters is much more insider-y and self indulgent than Johns doing similar things with DC's big characters. Who do more people know, Batman or Allan Quatermain? That's not to say that Johns comics are necessarily more accessible, and by no means better than League, but it's to say that conceptually I think he and Moore are doing the same thing. There's nothing wrong with doing that thing, but it's hypocritical to criticize Johns for doing it when he gets so excited about referencing all these obscure works in League.
I think if you want to compare Batman and Allen Quatermain, you should also compare Dr. Jekyll with, say, Hector Hammond...just to keep the scales balanced. But more to the point, I don't think it's enough to say Johns and Moore are doing the same thing in mining old cultural seams for their own purposes, without at least nodding to what those purposes are...how much is Geoff Johns really repurposing what he references? Moore looks at the sublimation of sexuality in children's stories, Johns has Green Lantern fight Sinestro again...I don't think it's crazy to call that a difference of kind, and not degree.
Johns' comics are like warm milk and cookies on a cold day. I don't see anything wrong with that. Sometimes I feel a little out of step with the readers of this blog, because you all really seem to crave the dynamic, interesting, and experimental comics. I think that's cool, and I enjoy them too, but I also don't eschew just straight forward superhero books either. Maybe I'm just a lazy reader, but I don't feel the need to be challenged every time I read. Sometimes I just want to see what's happening with Superman.
Johns gives me those kinds of comics. Pretty damn good ones, at that. They're melodramatic in a more refined Claremont-fashion, and fan-fic-ish, but that's just what I need sometimes.
I do think Johns fails at bringing forth any big ideas, like Moore, Morrison, Miller, or the complexity of an Azzarello, Ennis, or Ellis, but I think he's really great at what he does do -- delivering the pure essence of characters in fun stories.
Geoff Johns writes stuff for the melodrama, the action and the quotable quips. Sadly, he's not the best at it. On a purely idea-based level, they seem primarily based in the mindset of a thirteen year old. The idea for the different emotions and the different lantern corps cemented that for me. His stuff is never really "interesting" in the way that Fraction's or Morrison's work is, and craftwise, he's pretty by-the-numbers. Geoff Johns has never ever surprised me, and because so much of his character-work is based on the reader's previous fondness for the characters (when did Johns actually do some honest to God characterbuilding?), a lot of it rings hollow to me.
When plok writes of Johns "how much is Geoff Johns really repurposing what he references?" this to me is the key issue here. What I want to see in creative work is not the old again (Barry Allen and Hal Jordan back in costume) or the radically new (some edgy modern art thing that eschews basic aesthetics altogether) -- what I want to see, basically always, is something new made out of something old in such a way that I can SEE some links between the old thing and the new thing, and contemplate the degree and VALUE of the revision. Because you know if the universe is COMPLETELY EMPTY and you are sailing though it in a flying saucer just for the fun of it how are you supposed to know you are moving at all without something to MOVE AGAINST.
Claremont has been such a great thing to look at on this blog because he is so often shaking up that status quo and using motifs to call readers attention to the difference between where he has been and where he is going -- when he created the ALL NEW ALL DIFFERENT X-Men he really KEPT it ALL NEW AND ALL DIFFERENT over the years almost to a fault -- there was never anywhere to rest, which I really kind of admire. It all just keeps changing and building.
When Moore draws on literary history in League it CAN be empty, just empty reference and game playing (and I felt this for a good deal of Black Dossier, which I do not think I ever did read all the way through) but at the heart of it he is doing something analogous to what a literary critic does when he writes an essay on Victorian Literature -- putting different texts next to each other to tell us what new thing can be learned from the juxtaposition. Sometimes it is going to be nothing, but some times you are going to realize just how much has changed in our categories of high-culture and pop-culture and what is considered what and who comes out of what, and what is the background of what, what leads up to what and what points the way to what. And he has a lot to SAY about these things, though like me blogging there are stretches where he is talking when he maybe should not be.
Patrick says "That's not to say that Johns comics are necessarily more accessible, and by no means better than League, but it's to say that conceptually I think he and Moore are doing the same thing." Conceptually they may be doing the same thing but people saying they are not may just be expressing themselves badly -- the effects, the accomplishment, the aesthetic power is the thing people are reacting to, not the basic concept. They are just looking to justify the aesthetic experience with reference to conceptual categories that are kind of beside the point. As if I were to look at a painting and say "my god Picasso must be a great artist because he had the best PAINT" I am just grasping in the dark to express the thing here. The thought that Picasso is good is right but the justification is off. Moore is a good writer and Johns is not, and the fact that they are engaged in similar artistic modes should not be an issue.
Kenny defends Johns unchallenging writing, and I wrote a whole paragraph about how the aim of art should be to take us from simple pleasure to complex pleasure and Johns keeps us all from growing and how I totally agree with Christian's assessment of Johns. But I deleted it because I just don't know why I find it unacceptable to read Johns when we could be reading Morrison, but I am perfectly happy to veg out watching comfort shows like Frasier when I could be watching the Sopranos. I too sometimes just want my milk and cookies -- but for some reason I get angry at adequate comics while accepting -- and even really liking -- a lot of adequate television. I find it frustrating to end with a kind of "to each his own" mentality, but on this one, it is all I have got. Sometimes I just have no idea why I am doing what I am doing.