Monthly Archives: June 2011

Social Liberal Forum: a question of definition

Jonathan Calder demands that the Social Liberal Forum answers the following question: “What is the difference between a social liberal and a social democrat?” Personally, I don’t think we should do any such thing.

It is certainly up to us to say what we mean by social liberalism, which is why we launched the SLF with David Howarth’s chapter from Reinventing the State on that very topic. But Jonathan’s question is a trap, akin to “when did you last beat your wife?” There is a presupposition in the question which we are under no requirement to accept.

Defining ourselves in relation to something else is entirely self-defeating. It is for social democrats to tell us what social democracy is; in what way is it incumbent on social liberals to put words in their mouths?

It was before my time, but the problem at the heart of the SDP always appeared to be that it didn’t actually have a satisfactory answer to what it was, other than that it wasn’t the Labour Party. It was preoccupied with filling in precisely the sort of negative space that Jonathan is now insisting the SLF should fill, rather than carving out its own identity. For the SDP, that course lead a lot of its members along a very rocky road indeed – not least of all David “vote Conservative… by which I mean Ed Miliband” Owen himself. It has always struck me that the Social Democrats who stuck around in the Liberal Democrats tended to be of a liberal bent in any case. Surely Roy Jenkins ranks as the most liberal Home Secretary of the 20th century?

Let’s not beat around the bush any longer: the implication of Jonathan’s post is of course that social liberals are merely atavistic social democrats. This is a suggestion that you can only make if you ignore the past 23 years. It is to ignore the fact that the SLF has just defied the most senior former SDP member in government, Andrew Lansley. It is to ignore the fact that a number of SDP members are now self-defined “Orange Bookers”. It is to ignore the fact that “liberal” was a word that the Liberal Paddy Ashdown was embarrassed to use – and event wanted expunged from our name, while the Social Democrat Charles Kennedy took back ownership of the word and nailed his liberal colours to the mast with the It’s About Freedom positioning paper. It merely revives a particularly dull tribal bunfight that most of us moved on from well over a decade ago.

Are there still some Lib Dem members – even SLF members – who call themselves Social Democrats? Of course, but if they are happy with the label, then why should we be concerned?

Do journalists habitually like to define the Social Liberal Forum as “socially democratic” (Jonathan cites the Guardian and the Independent on Sunday)? Of course they do. It fits into a frame which they decided years ago, before the SLF was formed. It isn’t an image problem of the SLF, which Jonathan suggests, but an image problem the entire party has. The Guardian in particular has been framing the debate within the party for years as a fight between “Gladstonians” and “SDPers”. Given that virtually none of us fit comfortably into either category, it would suggest that we all have a problem here. It has dogged us perpetually. But what can you do? We’re called the Social Liberal Forum and yet they still habitually replace the “L” word with the “D” word. How much more do you have to spell things out?

For what it’s worth, I’ve become terminally perplexed about labels. Most labels are inadequate. Progressive, is downright useless of course, but I realised long ago that even liberal, unqualified, was essentially vacuous. People who define themselves as “just” liberal tend to skim over the fact that most politicians are comparatively liberal these days – and tend to think that labelling something as “fundamentally illiberal” in thunderous tones tends to make a good substitute for actual argument. It often strikes me as more of a pose than a considered point of view.

I actually don’t really like the term “social liberal” much. If we were to be historically accurate, we should use the term “new liberal” – but that of course now carries with it certain Blairite connotations. Unless you choose to define “socialist” absurdly narrowly (in a way that Labourites never do), you could argue that the term “socialist liberal” is more technically accurate – but of course people do define socialist absurdly narrowly. Just by writing that I’m all but guaranteed to set certain people off screeching about “Beatrice Webb”, “Fabianism” and so on (I must get round to producing Lib Dem trope bingo cards at some point). All things considered, social liberal is the least bad term I can come up with for where I stand politically – and even then, as we can see, it can set people off.

The other problem with labels is that people tend to confuse argument for taxinomy. Particularly in the blogosphere, you will find people arguing that “if you are X you can’t possibly believe in Y” without ever contemplating the possibility that there is room within any political philosophy for debate and differing nuance. It is even, whisper it, possible for people advocating different political philosophies to agree on a lot for the simple reason that there will always be overlap and outriders. Yet all too often the debate – again predominantly online – tends to work on the assumption that all political ideologies are in hermetically sealed silos.

So let’s have a debate, and by all means criticise the SLF’s proposals, but let’s not get into an ossified discussion about labels. I would suggest that instead of attempting to answer Jonathan’s question, it should be focusing on policy. We’ve already got a working definition, and if that isn’t good enough? Well, tough.

Speech: Where we are and how we got here

Note: I got into a bit of a state preparing for my speech at the Social Liberal Forum Conference on Saturday, staying up the previous night writing and angsting about it: for some reason I found the prospect of sharing a platform with Neal Lawson, Will Hutton and Simon Hughes (who ended up replaced by Evan Harris at the last minute) quite intimidating. In the end, I would have been better off just writing half a dozen notes, having a good night’s sleep and winging it. I never got round to doing the final section because I went massively over time.

I’m not really happy with it – in particular I really need to spell out better what I’m trying to say about corporate culture and how the banking crisis is connected to IP wars and body image – but for what it’s worth here it is. In the event, a lot of what I didn’t get a chance to say was touched on during the day in any case, which was pleasing.

We established the Social Liberal Forum in early 2009, but its conception arose out of the Lib Dem 2008 Autumn Conference. Many will have forgotten, but that conference was dominated by the publication of the so-called “vision and values” paper Make It Happen.

The party leadership’s line to the press in the run up to that conference was that this paper signified a shift in policy, and specifically a move towards the party promising overall tax cuts at the following general election. This caused a predictable outrage and equally predictable froth about Clegg having a “Clause 4 moment”. In fact, the policy motion going to conference said nothing specific about tax cuts but was sufficiently vaguely worded that it was open to interpretation. The result was an absolute mess, with people hopelessly confused over what the debate was even about and the official line changing on an almost hourly basis. It was possibly the lowest point in the party’s proud history of deciding policy in a transparent and democratic manner.

In the end, the motion was passed, but it was a hollow victory. While we spent our time debating the prospect of tax cuts in Bournemouth, in New York Lehman Brothers was falling apart. By the end of the conference, it was already clear that we were going to have to tear up our economic policy and start all over again.

It is important to recall that incident because we need to be clear about where the SLF was coming from. We didn’t set up SLF to be some kind of Tribunite vanguard of a fringe liberal left. Our concern was that the mainstream voice of the party was being sidestepped and bypassed. The social liberal majority within the party had grown complacent about its predominant position, assuming that the party’s internal democracy would prevent the party from going in a direction it wasn’t willing to take. The 2008 conference made it clear to a number of us that it was important we got organised. As it happens, with the formation of the coalition, the need for that organisation is now more apparent than ever.

Was SLF established as a ‘response’ to the Orange Book? Well, it is true that several of its founding members were involved in the publication of Reinventing the State, which certainly was a response to the Orange Book. But I don’t think that portraying tensions between “social” and “economic” liberals within the party is some kind of ideological schism is helpful or especially meaningful. Within the Lib Dems, the debate over how public services are delivered ought to be entirely pragmatic and evidence-based. That isn’t to say there aren’t disagreements, merely that such an internal debate ought to be something that can only be constructive – as long as that debate is conducted fairly and democratically. It is the dogmatic approach of Andrew Lansley’s health reforms that, above all, should cause us concern, not the prospect of reforming the NHS at all.

The real ideological struggle we face is not over how we should deliver public services but over the size and the role of the state. This is clearly a dividing line between the Lib Dems and Conservatives. Is it a dividing line within the party itself?

There is certainly a libertarian fringe, but it isn’t a grouping that any senior party figure has ever chosen to associate themselves with. And despite the fact that senior figures within the party have occasionally appeared to flirt with libertarianism, I have never got the impression that this is part of a thought through position. Indeed, in some ways, it would be less problematic if it was. Rather, this flirtation appears to have more to do with an anti-intellectual tendency to confuse policy making with posturing.

This anti-intellectualism is not limited to the top of the party; indeed I would argue that it is one of the biggest challenges we face as a party. For my job at Unlock Democracy a few years ago, I conducted a survey of Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem local parties. I was shocked when the figures came back to show quite how little policy discussion actually went on in the Lib Dems, even in comparison with our rivals.

For too many within the Lib Dems, party involvement begins and ends with winning elections. For them, policy is only a means to an end. All too often that leads us down the road of populism and all too often populist policy proves to not be terribly practical when it comes to implementation. We have a tendency to focus too much on what makes a good slogan.

There’s a very specific reason why, for me at least, we decided to call ourselves a Forum, and that’s because we wanted to foment debate within the party at all levels.

But what direction should future party policy take? Spearheaded by Tim Farron, and no doubt in response to the Big Society, there has recently been a flurry of excitement about the idea of reviving community politics as the party’s core strategy. I welcome this, but feel it will only be a worthwhile exercise if we can work how to prevent the hollowed out form of community politics, which exists as little more than a technique for winning elections, from predominating. Despite many of its adherents’ best efforts, community politics has been indirectly responsible for helping to form the very intellectual vacuum that we are now so concerned about. Somehow, the reinvigorated communicty politics of 2011 needs to avoid this.

What other policy challenges are there? In my view, we need to urgently come to some kind of understanding about what we mean by inequality, and thus fairness, as a party. We have to come up with a more compelling answer than “social mobility.” It isn’t that social mobility is a bad thing to aspire to, merely that it is hard to see how you can truly tackle it without taking on entrenched privilege, or recognising that it is harder for people to rise from the bottom to the top is the gulf between them is so high. I fear that there is a lot of talk about how to loosen up society at the bottom but very little focus at the other end of the spectrum. To me, you can’t seriously discuss inequality or social mobility without talking about wealth – and specifically land value – taxation, yet we continually shy away from it.

Closely linked to both the idea of community politics and the need for a more fair society is, in my view, the need for us to create a more dynamic, people-centred economy. It frightens me how the very financial corporations and institutions which took us to the brink less than three years ago have already reasserted themselves, and in such a way that appears to have achieved little other than the seizing up of the global economy. But it is about more than just banking; corporate culture has commodified everything. The mass expansion of intellectual property legislation has meant that our culture has been quietly privatised. Information technology has made our purchasing habits and even the friends we choose on social networks a commodity to be bought and sold.

I’m no Ned Ludd and this isn’t a plea to go back to a simpler age; I’m a great lover of technology and am deeply immersed in it in every aspect of my life. It’s capacity to liberate and empower people is something that inspires me every day. Nor is it anti-capitalist; in fact I’d go so far as to say that in wanting to challenge entrenched oligarchies and monopolies, this is very much a free trade argument.

Fundamentally however, I don’t think our politics has yet woken up to the implications of how the combination of information technology and trans-national corporations is changing society and making the very possibility of a fairer and more just society increasingly difficult. It links the drugs we take with the books we read and even questions about body image and low self-esteem which Jo Swinson and Lynne Featherstone have been doing so much work on recently.

How should we tackle this? It’s a good question and not one I have a comprehensive answer to. We need much stricter banking legislation of course and a vital aspect of it is to scale back our ever burgeoning intellectual property legislation. We also need to rediscover industrial democracy: a concept which the liberal party embraced and championed throughout the 20th century yet have forgotten in recent years.

But if we’re going to achieve anything over the next few years, we need to do more to build alliances, both inside Westminster and beyond. By holding the balance of power in both Houses of Parliament, we are in a real position of strength. We undermine that when we go out of our way to disparage and alienate the Labour Party. What’s worse, for many of the people who voted for us in 2010, it confirms all their worst fears. For a party which has always objected to a culture of two-party politics, we have done a remarkable job of reinventing it.

On a great many issues Nick Clegg is in a position to negotiate with David Cameron on behalf of the majority of parliament rather than on behalf of a minority third party. This doesn’t mean being uncritical of Labour by any means, but it does mean choosing fights with more care and positively encouraging Labour when does the right thing.

Why Barbara Gordon should stay in the wheelchair

So it turns out that my article about the DC ‘reboot‘ was pretty offbeam. DC are now making it clear that it is merely a relaunch and won’t apparently result in a significant shift in continuity. So essentially ignore all my guff about Geoff Johns’ Corps Wars and Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated storylines coming to a close and Damian Wayne possibly being written out of continuity. Not going to happen. I will still stand by the significance of DC’s switch to same-day-as-print for its digital output, a move which is far more significant than any passing continuity change in any case.

Just to compound matters though, in the comments I poured cold water on Andrew Hickey’s suggestion that Barbara Gordon might suddenly be ‘healed’ and return as Batgirl. Well, the precise details are still yet to be confirmed, but it looks as if I could not have been more wrong.

One reading of this decision is that it is actually quite positive. Gail Simone, who will be writing the new series, is responsible for kickstarting the debate in comics fandom about Women In Refrigerators Syndrome – the tendency for comic writers to maim, abuse and kill off female characters in the interests of (male) character development. Anita Sarkeesian gives a pretty good overview here (transcript here):

From a feminist perspective then, it could be interpreted that this move to restore Barbara Gordon’s spine is actually a positive step: she’s being ‘defrosted‘. So why am I, and others, less than pleased? Four reasons:

Firstly, if there are precious few positive female role models in superhero comics, there are even fewer positive disabled characters. And Barbara Gordon, in her guise as Oracle. was very much that. Here I take issue with Sarkeesian [1]. Sure, Gordon is crippled and very possibly raped in a heinous way – the Killing Joke is a highly problematic story – but her story arc ever since is that of a survivor.

Secondly, if you look beyond the superficiality of assessing characters in terms of their physical capabilities. Gordon-as-Oracle is a far more powerful character than Gordon-as-Batgirl. The latter was a second-stringer; she didn’t even count as a proper sidekick. She is defined by male character: Jim Gordon’s daughter; Dick Grayson’s girlfriend; Batman’s copycat.

Oracle, by contrast, is a central character in the DC Universe, one who works closely with all the heaviest hitters. She’s the character Batman and Superman go to when they need help. She’s played a central role in saving the world on more than one occasion. You’d have to be pretty superficial indeed to see it as anything other than a massive demotion.

As a character, Oracle was not defined by her disability: yet, ironically, as Batgirl she will inevitably be defined by her physical prowess. Will she be able to survive as a just another poutingly gorgeous female acrobatic martial artist? Throw a rock in the DC Universe and you’re liable to hit one of those; very few have ongoing series that last very long.

To cite a related example, Cassandra Cain is the fourth character to assume the identity of Batgirl. A radically different character to Barbara Gordon, she could best be described a 5-foot mute ninja in a gimp mask. When she first appeared, she was an immediate fan-favourite. Then someone had the bright idea of ‘curing’ her muteness. As a result, she was sidelined and was eventually replaced. Just another boring epitome of physical perfection. In this particular case, it was made slightly worse in that one of DC’s few Asian characters was replaced by a blonde white girl.

Thirdly, this would appear to be filling a vacancy that doesn’t exist. Even leaving aside the fact that Stephanie Brown only recently took on the Batgirl mantle, the comic about a red-headed female Batman-copy that fandom is currently waiting for with baited breath is J. H. Williams’ Batwoman #1. Unlike Batgirl, Batwoman is a character with her own, independent continuity – only tangentially connected to Batman’s. And, having only sporadically appeared over the past 5 years, she’s got plenty of story to tell.

Fourthly, if it emerges that she gets to come back because of some kind of time paradox (this isn’t mere speculation, this whole relaunch is being precipitated by Flashpoint, which is all about a villain’s attempt to muck about with events in the past), it’s boring. There’s a reason that DC have flirted with the idea of bringing her back on at least two occasions and rejected it. It is the ultimate lazy plot device. One of the things we were promised with the Blackest Night saga was that there would be no more, or at least fewer, incidences of characters ‘recovering’ from death. True, Gordon isn’t dead, but this is just as much of a cop out. It isn’t remotely interesting from a dramatic point of view.

I may be wrong. It could be that Gail Simone has gone something pretty spectacular up her sleeve and Gordon will be coming back in a way that doesn’t leave the reader short changed. It may well be that she manages to retain what is best about Oracle with the added bonus of the main character being able to literally kick arse once again. This could be the most genius, misunderstood move yet in the twisty-turny life of the character. But on the face of it, this appears to be a very poor choice, not just from a feminist and ableist perspective, but from a dramatic and commercial one as well. And with 51 other new DC titles to choose from during the month this makes its debut, why risk it?

[1] I actually take issue with Anita Sarkeesian in one other important respect. In one crucial aspect, she is factually wrong: Stephanie Brown is actually an example of a character whose “death” actually results in her coming back more powerful than before as Batgirl (and with her own series): she’s actually an example of a female character who “defrosts”, to use the jargon. Ironically, with Gordon now taking that mantle back, she’s now just another bit-player.

The Steel Convention has no place in modern politics

I’ve had enough articles published in newspapers now to know that you can’t blame the author for the often shockingly misleading titles that appear above their articles, so I will give Lord Steel the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is not so disingenuous as to actually baldly state that “The Lords needs reforming now, not in 2025“. The article beneath the headline is a bit better. But only a bit.

Where does one start? Well first of all, if he is serious about his package of interim reforms, then the simple answer is to put them into the Lords reform bill and ensure it gets passed without delay. Yet for some bizarre reason he points this as an either or option: either we make some incredibly minor changes in the short term or we focus on reform for the long term. This is an entirely false distinction. What’s more, the Lords only started talking about these piecemeal reforms once they had realised that the electoral reformers weren’t going anywhere.

To offer dire warnings of the cost of an elected second chamber while demanding pensions and increased remuneration for unelected peers is a particularly audacious claim, but not the only one. Of equal status is the demand for an “independent” appointments commission. This commission would indeed be independent – of everyone – except for the House of Lords itself which would then exist in a state of permanent self-perpetuity. One of the main reasons for having elected members of the second chamber is to get away from the idea that the only people suitable are the usual clubbable suspects: here Steel is claiming we should take the status quo a step further.

It is remarkable to read a former member of the Scottish Parliament (which uses the Additional Member System) issuing non-specific yet dire warnings about what might happen if we have “elected senators (with a 15-year tenure as proposed), possibly of different political parties, wandering about their constituencies claiming, correctly, that they too have a mandate.” Strangely, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland somehow manage to struggle on in such circumstances – as indeed do parish, county and district councillors (not to mention MEPs).

The old canard about the House of Lords challenging the “primacy” of the House of Commons should also be put to rest. What on earth is wrong with a bit of competition? Is Steel really suggesting that it would be a bad thing if the Lords were seen to be doing a better job at representing people than the Commons? That we should stick with mediocrity because it might force MPs to raise their game? Linked to this is his deliberate obfuscation between the concepts of “powers” and “conventions”. The debate over what powers the second chamber should have has been settled: essentially it should have the same powers it has at the moment. And yes, the Cunningham Report did indeed say that a change in the Lords’ composition would mean that the conventions too would need to be rewritten, but those are two entirely different things.

The Parliament Acts limit what powers the Lords have in terms of delaying and rejecting legislation, but the Salisbury Convention has – until recently at any rate – held the Lords back from using those powers in full under normal circumstances. Will we need a new set of conventions if the second chamber were to be elected? Of course. But then, as I pointed out last week, with governments elected with 36% of the vote and now a coalition government, we urgently need to tear up the existing ones and start again in any case. This isn’t a problem that magically disappears if Lord Steel has his way and gets to kick elected second chamber proposals into the long grass.

To make things worse, Steel himself admits that the current Lords is pretty much a law unto itself. In the final paragraph, he makes the oblique threat that “the risk the coalition now faces is that its plans will get bogged down in endless argument in both houses, clogging up valuable parliamentary time.” Or, to put it another way: “nice legislative programme you’ve got there; it would be a shame if something was to happen to it…”

Perhaps he could tell us: what is the name of this “convention” that dictates that the Lords gets to derail a government’s legislative programme whenever its future is open to question? In what way is this form of blackmail in any way defensible? Perhaps we should name it the Steel Convention?

I could go on but really: why waste my time? This isn’t an intellectual argument being offered, but a threat. It will be a test of the coalition – and of the leader of the opposition – to see how they respond.

Not a review of Anno Dracula

I read Anno Dracula when it first came out. It has since apparently acquired legendary status – something which slightly surprises me as I had assumed that the reason it had been out of print for so long was simply because it had been forgotten.

Anyway, if you don’t know, Anno Dracula is a counterfictional novel that explores what would have happened if, instead of being chased around Eastern Europe and eventually killed in Bram Stoker’s original novel, Count Dracula had actually won? Newman posits that Dracula’s intention was really to take over the British Empire – and the only way he could do that was to marry Queen Victoria. The book explores the consequences of this and how Dracula would have influenced late Victorian society – particularly when the vampires come out of the shadows and into mainstream society. And in telling his story, Newman features cameos from pretty much every fictional vampire and figure from Victorian literature you care to mention. It sounds a lot more cheesy than it is, due to Newman’s superb writing and sense of plot.

The reason I came across it was due to being around in the right time and the right place. You can draw a pretty straight line between me getting the Warlock of Firetop Mountain back in 1982, getting into roleplaying and Games Workshop hobbygames, buying Drachenfels (the Warhammer world-based novel from which Genevieve Dieudonne, one of Anno Dracula‘s main protagonists, originated) and getting Anno Dracula as soon as it came out. I suppose you could add the other following factors: I’d got into Vampire: the Masquerade; Copolla’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula had made Dracula particularly fashionable again; Sandman was starting grow exponentially in popularity – and I was aware that Newman and Gaiman were past collaborators. Essentially, I was the prime audience for this book.

This isn’t a review for the simple reason that I haven’t read it in 20 years. It is a testament to its quality however that I have repeatedly sought it out, only to be repelled by the huge prices it commands on the second hand market (I leant my original copy to a friend and never saw it again). It is also notable that Newman’s work was of sufficient quality that when I first read League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the latter seemed a little old hat (to give Alan Moore his due, he’s since taken League off in an entirely different direction).

What I can tell you is that from last summer through to the new year, I ploughed through Kim Newman’s short story collections. I don’t really understand why I bought so many of these yet failed to read them until 12 months ago; I think I had a slightly irrational snootiness, believing that somehow Newman’s Derek Leech “world” was somehow inferior to his Anno Dracula “world” [1]. Suffice to say that it turns out I was utterly wrong. Not only did I read through all the books that I had but I scooped up his entire back catalogue and read all of them too. The main thing stopping myself from rereading Anno Dracula is that my next task is to read his other novels I haven’t read. Thus far, I’ve read two: Jago and Life’s Lottery, a truly awe-inspiring novel written in the style of a choose-your-own-adventure gamebook (which takes me all the way back to the Warlock of Firetop Mountain).

Anyway, despite having no intention of reading it again any time soon, I picked up the latest edition of Anno Dracula as soon as it came out, and it is a fantastic edition. As well as sporting an excellent cover, it has over 100 pages of “extras” including a list of annotations, an afterword, an alternate ending, extracts from Newman’s own adapted screenplay and the short story The Dead Travel Fast which serves as a prequel. According to the blurb at the back, the republication of the existing sequels, The Bloody Red Baron and Dracula Cha Cha Cha, will be receiving a similar treatment (the promised bonus “novellas” sound exciting). And of course, we will finally be seeing the publication of the fourth book in the series, Johnny Alucard, which takes the story right up to the present day.

Of course, that depends on this republication not being a crashing disaster. Somehow I doubt it – the buzz online has been very positive and Titan have even invested in an advertising programme on the tube – but just in case, please do yourself and me a favour by picking up a copy.

[1] A short explanation for the terminally lost: not only does Newman have fun with the shared universe concept in Anno Dracula, but he has interlinked pretty much all of his own output over the past 20 years (and some before that). The Anno Dracula cycle of books constitute one “world” while world depicted in The Man from the Diogenes Club, Secret Files of the Diogenes Club and Mysteries of the Diogenes Club (along with most of his other short stories and novels) constitutes another. I’ve called this the “Derek Leech” world because, taken together, he is the main recurring villain in the cycle of stories.

Just to add to the confusion, the Diogenes Club – borrowed from the Sherlock Holmes books – is a major player in the Anno Dracula series. On top of that, Genevieve “exists” in both Anno Dracula and in Newman’s Warhammer stories (written as Jack Yeovil). With Eugene Byrne, Newman has written series of stories around a third world, in which the communist revolution happened in the US instead of Russia, the bulk of which can be found in Back in the USSR. For completeness’ sake I should also mention “Pitbull Brittan” – a short story about a rather idiosyncratic British superhero, which features at least one of Newman’s other recurring characters (not Pitbull himself, thankfully).

This promiscuity even extends to Newman’s Doctor Who novella, the main antagonist of which appears in Secret Files. And finally, the aforementioned Life’s Lottery takes the whole thing much further by telling a story across several different counterfactual worlds.

The result is a series of books which don’t only read well but provide plenty of grist for the geeky male brain and its tendency to want to catalogue everything. Perfect fodder, in other words, for me!

The DC Reboot: new dawn or twilight?

Cover to Justice League #1 (2011)The news that DC will be rebooting its entire superhero line with issue 1s from September has been whizzing through my mind all week. It’s going to have profound ramifications, not just for the DC Universe but for the so-called comics ‘industry’ as a whole.

This promises to be DC’s biggest stab of the reset button since the start of the Silver Age. The Crisis on Infinite Earths resulted in a number of titles going back to basics, most notably in the case of John Byrne’s Superman, but for most of the line it was little more than a hump in the road.

Zero Hour and its Issue Zeroes promised much but ended up being a damp squib. The Infinite Crisis and One Year Later was far better handled but only really offered a jumping on point of existing storylines.

By contrast, the post-Flashpoint DC Universe looks like it may end up more closely resembling the Ultimate Marvel line – and the launch of that line didn’t result in the existing Marvel Universe cancelling at the same time.

Personally speaking, it feels a little too soon. According to Dan Didio’s introduction to the collected Infinite Crisis, Julius Schwartz told him that all comics lines need to refresh themselves every 10 years or so and that sounds about right.  Certainly, DC left it too long last time. On the other hand, ending the current continuity on a high is arguably no bad thing.

And, thinking about it, the series I have enjoyed do appear to be coming to a close. Geoff Johns’ complex ‘Corps Wars’ storyline has pretty much run its course. Very few mysteries remain. Grant Morrison’s Batman run similarly seems to be running out of road; he’s done a good job at answering the question: where do you go after bringing Batman back from a timespanning cosmic odyssey, but does Batman Incorporated really have more than half a dozen issues’ worth of storyline to go?

Better this I suppose than what happened to Superman post-Reign when, having run out of story to tell the strip ended up just recycling plotlines from Lois and Clark and, a little later, Smallville. The setting that John Byrne had established was quite radical in its own way but it ended up collapsing under the weight of its own self-imposed restrictions.

More broadly, the same could be said of the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths DC Universe. They had established for themselves a clear set of rules on time travel and parallel universes all of which fell apart quite quickly for the simple reason that this is a line of superhero comics and they were attempting to tell them with an arm tied behind their back. One hopes that they won’t repeat this mistake with the latest reboot. Somehow I doubt they will (they’ll make all new mistakes) and the fact that they are launching with 52 new number ones may be a clue. I doubt they would be as radical as to set each of the new first issues on a different one of DC’s alternative Earths, but neither do I see them scrapping the multiverse any time soon.

The crucial question though is to what extent the new “main” Earth resembles the current “New” Earth (are you lost yet?). The real problem isn’t so much the main guys: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman et al won’t be going anywhere. But what of the sidekicks? Specifically, what happens to Robin? Will Dick Grayson be donning the green tights again? Since he grew up and became Nightwing (let alone Batman), we’ve had Jason Todd, Tim Drake, Stephanie Brown and now Damian Wayne.

All this is of fascination to the plans but does rather highlight why it all needs paring down. Something tells me that the current Dick and Damian Batman and Robin won’t be making the cut, which is a shame because they’ve been fun. I’m sure many more fans out there feel a lot more strongly about it than me.

But is it worth getting that energised about? One thing that comic fans don’t appear to have noticed is that just because a character or plotline becomes out of continuity, it doesn’t mean that the comic itself suddenly disappears – plenty of wives and mothers will testify to this fact. The Dark Knight Returns and All Star Superman weren’t any weaker because they were out of continuity.

Regardless of its official status, only real way to understand DC continuity – and comics continuity more generally is Hypertime. I’m quite confident that Damian will be back sooner or later, just as I’m entirely unsurprised that DC are currently publishing a Batman Beyond comic 9 years after that animated series ended.

The final question is: will I stick along for the ride? The risk with jumping on points is that they serve as terrific jumping off points as well. That was certainly the case for me with Zero Hour. Can I really face going through it all over again or should I, as a 36 year old, really use this as a convenient point to move on?

Clearly it depends on what exactly DC have to offer. I’ve become a bit of a fan of Geoff Johns’ work and the creative way in which he manages to weave old and new together, so that is a real plus point for me, so I’m currently inclined to pick up the books with his name attached. Beyond that, I don’t know.

I am however extremely inclined to stop buying the floppies, in favour of going entirely digital. DC’s decision to simultaneously publish online has the potential to be the real game changer here, and that’s what makes this reboot more significant than anything else.

I’ve been reading an increasing amount of my comics online over the past year-and-a-bit and despite the fact that I’ve been reading it all on a non-HD iPod Touch, I have to say I’m a convert. Up until that point I had associated online comics with sitting at my desktop; comics were the things I wanted to read when I wasn’t at my desk. It was clear from the word go however that the iPad was going to change this completely: in terms of both size and function, the thing seems tailor-made for comic reading (far more so than reading prose, which the Kindle does much better).

DC have been experimenting with same-day-as-print since they went onto Comixology, and it would appear that they have been happy with the results. I’d like to be able to reassure Gosh! Comics that I won’t be ditching them to embrace digital, but I can’t. Not only is it more convenient, but it means I can keep my collection in my back pocket rather than in an ever growing pile of boxes in my bedroom.

That doesn’t mean I’m giving up on physical comics entirely. I could never abandon my 2000AD sub and there’s nothing better than a thoughfully produced collection. I took the radical decision of buying all the Starman Omnibuses rather than read them digitally for the simple reason that they look gorgeous. The best stuff that I read online, I will no doubt end up buying an all-the-trimmings physical copy of.

With that said, and here’s the rub, I’ll be doing most of that purchasing online where the prices are typically quite dramatically cheaper. So the question remains: what is to become of shops like Gosh? In the short term, there will still be plenty of things for me to buy there but I can’t see myself continuing in five years time. I feel guilty even writing this, but I’d be lying if I claimed I’d stay loyal. Signings have very little appeal to me. Talks, maybe? I hope they’ll figure something out, but at the end of the day, a comic shop isn’t like a village post-office. There aren’t any obvious pro-social externalities worth hanging onto here and it is a type of business that didn’t even exist 30 years ago.

All in all, then, September 2011 will mark the passing of one age and the start of a new one. Whether this new era is a bright, exciting and happy one remains to be seen.