My first recollection of comic books came from a store in a small town outside of Boston. Aisles of rectangular white boxes, chock a block with plastic folds arcing like a cascading wave effect, suggestive of an inward flow, singing mermaids by the rocks, if you will, beckoning to readers (and of course, their wallets).
That was the early 1980s, when the internet, BBS, modems, webpages, were all in their infancy.
Yet even then I was hooked, and found this to be my gateway to books, people, and material that would inform my world view, underline the metaphors I used to understand this new world I had come to from the Soviet Union. America, with all its different interpretations, visions, and mythologies – new and old.
Comic books have, I suspect, for some, become in some perhaps not fully realised way, a new kind of mythology. Constantly being reinterpreted, analysed, and shifting, for each generation. Helping each generation make sense of the world, their place in it, and providing a new set of hopes and dreams.
A Soviet refugee of 6, 7 years of age, being raised by Soviet parents in the Land of the Free picks up these books. Sees new names, new worlds. Batman and his rogues gallery. Spider-Man and Mary Jane. Superman and his pantheon of heroes in the Justice League. The X-Men. Worlds filled with metaphors. Some obvious. Some not so obvious.
Marvellous, colourful, dark, mysterious, shadowy, cosmic worlds.
It lights up a young child’s imagination. Somewhere in the brain, fires begin burning. Fires that nearly thirty years later still have not gone out. Fires that have only grown larger.
Fast forward, to 2016. That same child has travelled, journeyed, across the globe, landing unexpectedly in Australia, and finds friends who, like him, had a disposition for the larger than life, the grandiose, the marvellous.
All of them coming of age at a time when technology was able to visually realise the imagined landscapes of comic books, fantasy novels, science fiction epics.
There they were. Captain America. Spider-Man.
And to this one reader, most importantly, most incredibly: The Flash!
A previous attempt to adapt the complex mythology of The Flash, ten or more years ago, starring John Wesley Shipp, had never quite matched the heights of the source material.
But in the middle of the second decade of the 21st century, The Flash arrived.
And with The Flash. And The Green Arrow.
And they soared.
All those panels. Those colours. The crackling dialogue. There it was.
It was all there. Oliver Queen, the man who killed finally stopped Hal Jordan in Zero Hour: there he was! And Flash, and Kid Flash! And Iris West! Now, three seasons in, this writer still eagerly awaits the arrival of Impulse.
Someone out there, there were creators fuelled by the same material as us. Their imaginations met the nearly limitless boundaries of modern computing and filming technology – and finally, The Flash could hurl with lightning bolt urgency across Central City.
And in Starling City: Oliver Queen returned home.
And though it was not necessarily the same Oliver as witnessed and developed over the years by Mike Grell or Dennis O’Neil, the essence of the character, as an urban, street-based fighter, the man who fought for those without a voice – he had arrived.
For two very nail-biting seasons, Queen and his family encountered the likes of Amanda Waller, the Suicide Squad, Death Stroke, Malcolm Merlyn, and it was glorious. The dramatic journey of each rogue found itself mirroring a portion of Oliver Queen’s time away from home, on the island of Lian Yu.
The plots did not exist for the sake of the plots. Rather – they emerged directly from the character drama. Actions made sense. Had consequences. Lessons were learned. People were hurt. Mistakes were made. It was the stuff of captivating, riveting, if infrequently vexatious drama. But perhaps by maintaining an air of verisimilitude, it remained engaging and relentlessly watchable.
Given the obvious and evident success of the now-monikered ‘Arrowverse’, as witnessed with the launch of a spin-off (‘The Flash’ – and later ‘Legends of Tomorrow’ and ‘Supergirl’), it came as no surprise that with success came the freedom to experiment.
Ra’s al Ghul. Damien Darhk. The League of Assassins. The Lazarus Pit!
For Batman aficionados: exciting names!
With the experiment, however novel, however comic, came diminished dramatic results.
Characterisation, for reasons unclear, became inconsistent, actions and decisions – uncharacteristic. Characters reacted to Plot Events, instead of producing them as a result of their interactions. To perhaps more naïve eyes, it could be suggested that having established each character, the focus could now turn to putting them to use fighting external threats, one that would open up the larger world in which the Arrowverse existed.
Watching, this afternoon, the finale to season 4, ‘Schism’, I found myself wondering:
Four seasons. An ever-expanding cast of primary and secondary characters, including super-powered metahumans. Too busy to help stop 15,000 nukes, were they?
Of course, the nukes were averted. Of course. Redirected to explode in space by skilled hackers. Nuclear Armageddon averted. A sign of relief was had by all. No Fallout 4 sequel here, folks!
Aside from stopping said nukes: what meaningful, dramatic consequences are presented for our plucky band of heroes?
As with season 3’s end-goal of destroying Starling City as a ritualistic passing of the mantle to the new and presumed Demon’s Head, Oliver Queen…aside from preventing the destruction of the city: what value does this exercise in action excess provide our characters and viewers alike?
A well-known theory of storytelling suggests conflict flows from drama and drama flows from character interactions.
But if we have no means by which to sympathise with a character; if they exist merely to serve the plot: how are we to then establish emotional ties with them?
Damien Darhk sought to burn the world. A quizzical viewer would surely ask: “uhm….why?”
No answer of any serious depth is ever provided. Throw-away references to humanity having failed are made by actor Neal McDonough (who clearly had a delightful time in his role). What made Darhk that disillusioned? What drove him to such madness? Likewise, with his wife: how did she arrive at the exact same precipice of madness as he?
It would have been nice to know.
When juxtapositioned with Malcolm Merlyn’s burning rage for the loss of his wife or Slade Wilson’s grief for having lost Shado in seasons 1 and 2, respectively, seasons 3 and 4 leave a hollow, unsatisfying aftertaste. The question of “and what was the point of all that?” lingers in the air.
Yes. There are heroes, and they save us.
But upping the narrative stakes is not equivocal with tightening the dramatic noose.
Stakes have to be meaningful. They have to have value. They have to have meaningful dramatic value to viewers and characters alike.
The early seasons of Arrow understood this.
Perhaps, now that the Arrowverse is built, a renewed focus can be had on the denizens of Starling City (or Star City, as it was renamed in season 3). Let’s leave saving the world to The Legends of Tomorrow.