Saturday, February 11, 2012

Stormwatch and The Justice League

So about six months or so DC Comics did a universe wide reboot, causing all their comics to be canceled and starting thing over at issue one.  Many comics, like Secret Six, disappeared altogether, other comics were completely new, like Batwing.  And some comics that had been canceled before the relaunch returned, among them Stormwatch.

Stormwatch began as an Image Comics title from the nineties, a United Nations super hero team operating from a space station.  Operatives were teleported to the Earth's surface and were directed by a supervisor called Weatherman (the series, combined with the "Satellite Era" of the Justice League, were both inspirations for my own Vindicators game when I decided it needed a little re-tooling).  The series was not very well written early on and it was not until Warren Ellis came on board that things took a dramatic turn for the better.  Ellis wrote the series to it's conclusion and was there for the reboot, then that run ended with half the team dying in some crossover with Alien I did not bother to buy (those characters later on returned in a magical reset button all too often used in comics in the pages of Stormwatch, Post Human Division, which to me was a fantastic title where minimally powered paranormals were deployed to deal with major threats by employing clever tactics and teamwork.)  Ellis used the remaining characters, most of whom were his own creations, to form a new series: The Authority.  The Authority were a team of paranormals willing to do whatever they felt was right to stop threats to the Earth regardless of how it might offend those in charge.  The series saw many ups and downs over the years with varying levels of success.

So Stormwatch is back, with Wildstorm characters being integrated into the DC Universe much like the Charlton Comic characters Blue Beetle, The Question, Captain Atom, Nightshade, and others had after The Crisis back in '86.  Back then the introduction of those characters worked wonderfully (Save for Cannon, who pretty much disappeared) and they made a smooth transition into the DC landscape.  The Wildstorm characters?  Well...

Here is my problem with the current incarnation of Stormwatch: it is The Authority.  Stormwatch was a government sanctioned team of heroes who, while they may have skirted the boundaries of the law (or outright broke it, depending on who was Weatherman at the time), at least had heroes as members who possessed a strong moral streak and a respect for authority.  The Authority consisted of self righteous bastards who thought they knew what was best for the world and were willing to do whatever they felt was right regardless of who they offended or what laws were broken.  They were not so bad during the initial Ellis era when they faced off against three global threats no one else could have possibly handled.  But starting with the Millar era the team became impossible for me to read because they became the most unlikable bunch of bastards I ever had the misfortune to spend money reading.

And this is pretty much what we are getting with DC's Stormwatch.  DC's Stormwatch consists of paranormals who operate in secret that handles threats too big for the likes of the Justice League to handle.  Think about that: DC is now publishing a series about characters who make Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern (Pick your favorite) look like scrubs.

I have no objection to The Justice League being Earth's most powerful super hero team, mightier than the Teen Titans or Suicide Squad or what have you.  Each team serves it's own niche in the super heroic landscape, having their own adventures uniquely tailored for those characters and the overall concept the super hero team serves.  And sometimes a team not the Justice League winds up saving the Earth without their help.  The Teen Titans took on Trigon, for example, a world class threat.  And I have no problem with the Justice League sometimes being written as being ill suited to handle a particular threat. For example, in the pages of Justice League Dark the JLA is confronted with a threat they are not equipped to handle because of it's magical nature.

 (Picture courtesy of Scans Daily)

And I have no problem with Earth's most powerful heroes sometimes needing help.  The first Teen Titans adventure consisted of Justice Leaguers being mind controlled and it was up to the sidekicks to save the day. 
What annoys me here is the idea that there is this organization that has apparently been operating for who knows how many years in secret, protecting the world long before the Justice League even existed.  On the face of it, it makes no sense in this new DCU landscape because the first story in the new Justice League involves the heroes meeting one another (mostly) for the first time as the planet is invaded by Apokolips and Darkseid.  If this is a pre-Justice League of America invasion then I would assume Stormwatch would have intervened somehow to stop it?

But setting aside the so-called logic of Stormwatch's existence, I find it ridiculous that DC would publish a comic that makes their principle heroes look worse than redundant.  It makes them look incompetent for not being aware of this other team.  It would be like Batman being unaware that there had been a vigilante operating in Gotham city for years, taking out threats even bigger and more menacing than The Joker.

Now you might ask, what does this article have to do with gaming?  It goes back to what I have discussed in one of my first posts about the dangers of NPCs and GMPCs making the PCs look inferior and/or unnecessary. This is why you do not introduce legendary figures like Ben Sisko in your Star Trek game to come flying in with The Defiant to make the PCs look useless.  Not unless your characters are there to rescue Ben Sisko.  Highly unlikely, I know.
You're God-damned right!

Now you might ask yourself what is the harm of having such powerful beings existing in your universe?  Star Trek has Q, Dungeons & Dragons has various deities that are sometimes called upon to intercede on behalf of the heroes.  In DC Comics during Grant Morrisons run on JLA the Rock of Ages storyline had several ‘Leaguers running into god-like beings, and if we are talking god-like beings then let us look at the likes of Marvel’s Galactus.  However, the difference in all these cases are the beings in question are used sparingly and are do not show up the heroes.  Rather, their appearance are plot devices that might be employed for a variety of purposes.  They might show the heroes that the gods themselves are fallible and petty as the worst of them (i.e. many of Q’s appearances), or it might humble them a bit, putting their lives in perspective if they feel they have grown too arrogant (one of Q’s greatest appearances was in Q Who when he introduced the Enterprise crew to the Borg.  Not so cocky now, are we Jena Luc Picard?).  And they just might be a convenient plot device to bail the heroes’ butts out of the fire when they get in over their heads.

The difference in what Stormwatch represents in the New DCU is they make the established big guns look redundant and incompetent.  What I mean by the first is any threat the Justice League handles Stormwatch can handle in a much easier fashion based upon the resources at their disposal.  What I mean by the second touches back on what I said about Batman; how could the likes of Green Lantern and Superman with the senses at their disposal never pick up on this group?  Now granted, one member of Stormwatch is The Martian Manhunter, who is also a member of the Justice League.  So it may be assumed the Manhunter is using his position in one team to hide the existence of the other.  I suppose that is entirely possible, but if this is the case then it calls back the objections many people had about the limited series Identity Crisis, where one Justice Leaguer used her powers to wipe Batman's memories.  The Martian Manhunter must not only be eliminating evidence of Stormwatch's existence from Justice League databases, he must also be mentally assaulting his team mates to scrub Stormwatch evidence from their minds!  If this is the case then The Manhunter From Mars, one of my favorite DC characters (and the other reason I decided to give this Stormwatch a chance, the first being that I thought I was buying, you know, Stormwatch and not The Authority), is now being written as a complete bastard.

But wait!  You may say.  What about Marvel’s Annihilators?  Those guys are ridiculously powerful and make The Avengers or X-Men look like pathetic bush leaguers.    In a poor writer’s hands Marvel’s cosmic powered heroes could easily make The Avengers look pathetic in comparison.  But in the recent Earthfall limited series writer Dan Abnett was able to show how The Avengers worked with the cosmically powered team to overcome a universal threat.  And the Annihilators normally operate off Earth, outside of the normal "jurisdiction" of Earth's heroes.

When I first started my super hero game I decided that rather than the world be a place where paranormals and metahumans had just begun to appear, there would already be established heroes.  And there would be a premier super hero team already in place with it's own rich history.  And I decided early on that this premier super team had to go.  More than that, this premier super team had to face a threat they could not defeat on their own.  Indeed, the threat they faced largely incapacitated them and it was up to the PCs to not only save the day, but to save the premier super team!  Afterwards the team, High Justice, retired, it's members taking on the roles of mentors to younger NPC heroes or fading from the public spotlight.  Logic was preserved as was the PCs' place in the landscape of my, now our, fictional universe.

So if you are thinking about introducing a group of NPCs that would be operating in the same sphere as the PCs, or might be interacting with the PCs in some fashion, please do not follow the path DC has taken with Stormwatch and make your player's characters look the worse for it.  Do not retconn some team of NPCs or a ship or what have you into existence that makes your players look redundant, that might make them feel as if their efforts have been wasted.  Do not do what DC has done to their core heroes and show your players the respect they deserve.

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