Banners and Branding: ‘Brightest Day’ vs. ‘The Heroic Age’
The status quo of storytelling in Big Two comics is an endless series of status quo shifts and it's been this way for quite some time. The aftermath of one "big story" usually leads right into the next one, and what seems like a third of any given set of titles will fall under some sort of banner, letting us know that the book in question is a part of a larger story, even if the connection is tenuous at best. I personally lost track of how many Marvel books carried the "Dark Reign" logo if a character so much as received a text message from Norman Osborn in the past few months.
From a storytelling perspective, it certainly makes sense to use these banners as a sort of organizing framework for what's going on in your universe. It provides fans with a very helpful sense of structure, a way of understanding how events might be tied together in a given set of titles. And when it comes to selling, these banners convince us that we need to buy everything. If you don't get all 6 issues of the "Heroes vs. Villains Major Event Tie-In Special", the entire story is going to be lost on you! Allow me to step back for a moment and be honest: I am that person who buys the tie-ins. I fall for it every time. I even have a spinner rack in my apartment that is solely dedicated to displaying unnecessary tie-in issues from the last five years of major events.While I most certainly love me a good crossover, the banners have become increasingly confusing to me. I certainly understand the intention behind them; I'm just not always entirely clear on the intended meaning. Whether the banners are referring to ongoing stories or the intended tone of a comics universe, it seems as though it's not uncommon these days for the name to be somewhat divorced from the storytelling content of whatever is being sold.
Think of it as a matter of branding. The general purpose of branding is to convince the consumer that the item in question has some kind of serious value to it, whether or not that value actually exists. Classic example: when you smoke Marlboro cigarettes, you're not actually entering Marlboro Country, but you are inhaling smoke into your lungs. Nothing more, nothing less. But selling this idea of Marlboro country was designed to make those cigarettes more appealing than any other. This is how branding tends to work. Instead of selling a product, companies sell an idea, tie it to the product, and make you want to buy that product, leading you to think that somehow you're also buying the idea, even though it doesn't really exist. (For a fantastic analysis on this subject, I highly recommend "No Logo" by Naomi Klein.)
Bringing this back to the comics, I would argue that the major publishers choose simple, appealing titles that they use to brand a large segment of their comics at any given time. To me, the question becomes whether or not these titles truly apply to the stories being told, or are we just being sold an appealing idea and nothing more?
Right now we're in the early stages of "The Heroic Age" at Marvel and "Brightest Day" at DC. In both cases, it's worth examining how much these brands actually correspond to what they're trying to sell to readers.
As a yearlong follow-up to "Blackest Night", "Brightest Day" is running through at least nine different titles, comprising a significant portion of the mainstream DCU. Now it wouldn't be crazy to assume that the term "bright day" is talking about a good day, and if that's the case, then "Brightest Day" would probably be talking about something pretty awesome, especially if you take into account the fact that the "Blackest Night" preceding the "Brightest Day" was an extremely violent cosmic zombie war. Add to that the fact that these two terms exist side-by-side in the Green Lantern oath, so they've always been presented as natural opposites within DC mythology. No matter how you approach it, there is an unavoidably strong implication that something like "Brightest Day" would at the very least have positive tone to it.
But the story so far has easily been as dark and violent as "Blackest Night" was, from the death of Ryan Choi to zombie sharks biting child slavers in half, and those are just two examples. Compounded with the controversial accusations of superhero whitewashing, we have a story right now that some fans are referring to as "Whitest Day" or "Bloodiest Day". It may be many things, but it certainly doesn't seem bright. And I'll grant that we were never told that it was going to be that way: Geoff Johns did make that clear in the lead up to the story:
"Brightest Day' is about second chances. I think it's been obvious from day one that there are major plans for the heroes and villains from Aquaman to take center stage in the DC Universe, among many others, post-Blackest Night. 'Brightest Day' is not a banner or a vague catch-all direction for the DC Universe, it is a story. Nor is 'Brightest Day' a sign that the DC Universe is going to be all about 'light and brighty' superheroes. Some second chances work out...some don't."
Then again, take a look at this solicit for "Flash" #3:
"It may be BRIGHTEST DAY, but when a mysterious group of so-called heroes turns up, another Rogue ends up dead."
If Brightest Day isn't supposed to be a positive time, then why should we be surprised if a Rogue ends up getting killed, especially after we've seen several other people die? It just seems like we're getting some mixed messages here. And I fully appreciate that this is a story and not a banner, but perhaps there's a small chance that this story has a misleading title?
Over at Marvel, we do have a banner in "The Heroic Age". Following almost a decade of Marvel's heroes going through what can best be described as karmic hazing, things are apparently getting a bit lighter. Here's what Joe Quesada had to say about it:
"Our heroes have experienced some of their greatest trials and tribulations recently, but now there's going to be a renewed hope among their ranks...As our heroes emerge from the darkness, the Marvel Universe is going to be a more optimistic place than we've seen in a quite awhile. But that doesn't mean we're making things easy for our characters!"
So far things have seemed slightly nicer in the Marvel universe. Steve Rogers is back, heroes aren't fugitives anymore, and we have about five new Avengers teams. Let's be honest, after "House of M", "Civil War" and "Dark Reign," it doesn't take much to make things seem pretty awesome. If someone punched you in the face for seven years or so and then switched to slapping, you would probably feel great about it. And I'm loving these stories so far, but I can't actually detect a significant shift in tone. When you've got most of the Avengers constantly bantering no matter how dire the circumstances, it has the unintended consequence of keeping things pretty light, even horrible stuff is going down.
I've also noticed a number of things that seem decidedly...unheroic. CA contributor Chris Haley pointed out on his blog that this page from "Hawkeye and Mockingbird" #1 shows the title characters taking down some armed thugs in a way that just appears to be downright murderous, and they're smiling their way through it!
What else do we have to look forward to in The Heroic Age? Apparently the X-Men are going to get all vampy and then it looks like Daredevil is basically going to war in the middle of Hell's Kitchen in Shadowland. And the more I read each of these previews, I keep getting the phrase "short-lived hope" stuck in my mind. If it's a heroic age of any kind, it doesn't look like it's going to last very long.
As much as I'm enjoying and invested in what's happening in both of these stories, I think I'm struck by two things. The first is the notion that both companies are essentially branding their universes with ideas that don't seem to apply all that much. Remember "The Age of Apocalypse?" That was about an Age of Apocalypse. "Onslaught" was about a guy called Onslaught. "Heroes Reborn" was about...never mind. The Heroic Age is an exciting reboot and a fantastic jumping-on point, but it doesn't yet read to me like what it purports to be selling, and the same goes for "Brightest Day."
The other issue is that in both cases I'm seeing that the bar seems so low for what is defined as a positive tone in mainstream superhero comics. Even after all of the painful events in Marvel and DC in the past few years, the "exciting new chapters" appear to have a whole lot of blood in them. I don't need to see Aquaman and Ocean Master holding hands and skipping along the ocean (actually, I'd love to see that), but I could stand to live without all of the stabbing and slashing for just a bit.
When Marvel and DC apply loaded terms like "Heroic Age" and "Brightest Day" to more than a few of their books, they're sending a message about the nature of their stories. Yes, I recognize that it's pretty early for both of these stories and that we've been given disclaimers that things "won't be easy" for our heroes, and I love this stuff so I'm obviously in it for the long run. At the same time, I think that readers will stand to benefit from broad titling that doesn't tend towards the abstract. I'm a passionate believer in the power of names, so how we refer to our stories is just as important to me as the stories themselves. A stronger connection between name and narrative can lead us to a stronger story, which will make readers feel even more invested in our heroes than they already are. These comics can actually take us to that metaphorical "Marlboro Country" and they do. There's no need to sell us on anything other than that.
(I'm not saying you should smoke. Really, that's a bad idea.)