What does “epic” mean? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself for quite some time now. So often, in fact, that I have basically removed the word from my day to day lexicon. Why? Well, it is a word that has reached critical mass in its overuse, especially with regards to geek culture and the many works within it. I’m not for one second advocating that the word has no merit whatsoever.

There are great works of such grand scale in the narrative, thematic, and technical senses that the word can’t help but be used. I don’t think I’m alone when I say we have clearly spent the impact of the word “epic.” We have also spent the actual “type” of storytelling that is evoked when said word is used as well.

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Think of blockbuster movies, comics or video games from recent years. Have you noticed how often the end of the world is on the verge of happening in these pieces of media? It seems to be the leitmotif of most modern fiction. From the bright Marvel movies to the DC films directed by Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan. Everything that happens in these films is cataclysmic or grand, to say the least. But there are some key points to distinguish here. Namely, it is important to discern when the term is merited and why.

The Stakes at Play

Let us take the Avengers, in their eponymous film THE AVENGERS, for example. When the Avengers are fighting Loki and the Chitauri army in MARVEL’S THE AVENGERS, the stakes of their battle are no less than the end of the world and rightfully so. These are Earth’s Mightiest Heroes saving the world from impending doom. It makes absolute sense that a super soldier, a giant green rage monster, a man wearing the most sophisticated combat system in the world, a Norse god of thunder and a couple of master assassins would have to deal with something of that scale. Anything less would simply not be enough for their combined might and would subsequently leave us, the audience, incredibly underwhelmed.

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However, as an audience, we really should be asking ourselves: does a hero like Batman really need to be dealing with tplot after plot revolving around the wholesale destruction of Gotham City? Think about it. Batman is no more than an Olympic level athlete and the peak of human physical and mental performance. He’s intelligent but not omniscient. Yet he’s constantly charged with saving an entire city for three whole movies. And while the plots ultimately make sense, they overplay the capacities of a character that, frankly, works best in street level situations, with far more intimate stakes.

However, Batman’s films are entirely too epic for the source material. That being said, this particular phenomenon (call it epic pandemic if you will) is not limited solely to the medium of films. It is also incredibly common in superhero comics.

The latter one is hardly surprising, you would think. Superheroes fight larger than life threats *all* the time, right? Well, yeah. You’d expect that sort of approach with a team book like Justice League. Whenever Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and others team up, it is absolutely essential that they are met by threats of such imperial scale that this team of heroes would be challenged by them.

A regular day in the life of a Justice League member

After all, nobody wants to see this assortment of heroes just hang around and talk about adventures or capture bank robbers. We want to see them battle dark gods or malfunctioning sentient weapons from the future. The term “epic” clearly applies to a story on this scale and rightfully so, most comic book fans would agree.

Bat versus Gods?

However, we return to the problem of the “epic pandemic” as it manifests itself in Batman and his comics. Look no further than Scott Snyder’s Batman run for the New 52 for a recent example. I stress, “Epic” applies in a narrative sense to this run. This is owed to the fact that Snyder and artist Greg Capullo maintained stewardship over a saga entirely of their making. It reflected their own idiosyncrasies and storytelling styles to much critical and financial acclaim. The actual storylines, upon closer inspection, contain an element that genuinely merits some observation: every single story line in this saga revolved around the threat of impending destruction to Gotham City.

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Does Gotham City really need to be on the verge of being destroyed in every single story arc of a monthly publication? From The City of Owls, Death of the Family, Zero Year, Endgame and Bloom, Batman deals with threats that could very easily be brought up to the levels of a team book, in some instances battling a near Justice League-level threat.

Zero Year is a particularly notorious storyline since it also functions as a new origin story for Batman. In Batman’s chronological debut (according to New 52 continuity), he is stuck in a massive citywide blackout and subsequent dictatorship created by the Riddler. If this sounds remotely similar to the plot of Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, then you would be right on target.

Zero Year is a comic book origin story yet possesses the scale of a movie that ended a cinematic Batman’s trilogy. When I think of the origin of a character, especially one like Batman, I don’t think of some giant, cataclysmic event, regardless of how many times DC would like to push this rhetoric.

It is precisely because Frank Miller “ended” Batman’s saga in his seminal The Dark Knight Returns in such an epic fashion that his subsequent work on Batman’s origin, Year One, is appropriately down to earth. This creates a suitable contrast and works to properly elevate the scale of the story. A quiet beginning culminating in a bombastic finish. I challenge you to find such a contrast in Snyder’s work between the Zero Year and Endgame story lines.

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The Endgame storyline was pushed as yet another “ending” for Batman/Bruce Wayne. The Joker has returned to wreak havoc on Gotham City once more and his opening salvo on Batman is using a mind-controlled Justice League to kill Batman. Think about that for a second. A proverbial team of gods on Earth is the opening salvo to kill a man dressed as a bat and he still manages to defeat them all. Our suspension of disbelief is practically shattered by such an event. Regardless of what happens in the story line after this point, we can easily say that this is clearly past the point of epic and become outright ludicrous in many ways.

This is how you start a story line these days?

This isn’t meant to slight the works of Snyder and Capullo. They are thoroughly entertaining and smart comic book creators. Undoubtedly, their work on Batman is likely the entry point of many a new fan and they probably catered to that fan using all their skills as storytellers. There is a reason why this comic book run has been hailed as an instant classic. That being said, there is a strange authorial contrast at play here.

The Smaller Stuff

Before Scott Snyder began his tenure on Batman, he was the writer of Detective Comics just before the New 52 relaunch in 2011. His overarching story in that publication, The Black Mirror, is considered a modern classic and one of the best Batman stories a fan can find. If I had to use a simple description for this amazing story, I would simply say it is THE DARK KNIGHT meets SE7EN. And this description should indicate the intimate focus and limited scale of this storyline.

I shall not focus on that story’s particulars but it should suffice to say that the story focuses on the internal drama between characters. Sure, the villain of the story does have a twisted plan with city-wide implications. However, unlike the urgency of most “destroy the city” plans concocted by supervillains, this plan is one that is mired in potential uncertainty and ambiguity.

So… which one is it?

Snyder’s writing enables the threat to feel more ghost-like, constantly haunting the internal world of the characters and the audience’s expectations. The previous mention of SE7EN should also evoke the genre of horror or suspense. This gifts the story with an atmosphere that truly benefits the Batman mythos and has earned the story its place in the canon of great Batman stories.

The artistic collaborators for this story, Jock and Francesco Francavilla, aid in the creation of this classic by using their artwork to pull the audience into its haunted crime scene of a narrative. Their work, while different, is moody and grounded. These are traits that very easily justify the aforementioned description using two movies. Jock deserves some special mention because, apart from his terrific work in this comic, he worked on a film that could be considered the perfect antithesis of “epic” storytelling: Pete Travis’ and Alex Garland’s DREDD.

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A Day in the Life…

DREDD was a new take on the Judge Dredd character. Rather than slavishly reproducing the visual aesthetic of the comic, as the Sylvester Stallone mid-1990s bomb JUDGE DREDD had DREDD opted for a different approach. While many of the zanier elements from the 2000AD publication were excised for budgetary reasons, DREDD focused on what essentially amounted to a simple day-in-the-life of Mega-City One’s most ruthless law enforcer. On this particular day, he takes a rookie named Cassandra Anderson out on what is supposed to be a routine assignment investigating three homicides in an unremarkable but highly violent tower block called Peach Trees.

Their investigation and subsequent arrest of a high-profile gang member force the leader of the gang controlling this tower block, Ma-Ma, to contain Dredd and the rookie Anderson in the complex. This forces the judges to attempt to survive in a massive structure, surrounded by heavily armed enemies, and with no way to call for backup or alert their superiors of their predicament.

As it turns out, the reason for this elaborate entrapment is due to the fact that Peach Trees is the primary distribution center for a narcotic making big waves across the entire city. No massive doomsday device. No religious zealots with a bioengineered plague hoping to use it in the entire city. Just a place where a new recreational drug was being made and distributed.

Anger and Control

There is no grand finale or big fistfight at the end. Just a simple shootout, a judgment of the guilty, a sentence is carried out. Dredd and Anderson manage to leave Peach Trees alive yet whatever victory they might have obtained is meager. The world isn’t made a better place for having stopped the distribution of this drug. The city is still just as crime ridden as it was before.

However, on a narrative level, we glance the inner workings of Dredd and Anderson as they combat their situation throughout the story. Dredd is unflinching in his application of justice. One gang member is much the same as another: a perp with a gun. To Anderson, however, they are so much more. Due as much to her psychic powers and her own sense of empathy, we can see how she is able to see them as human beings, capable of both right and wrong, a distinction Dredd clearly does not care to make.

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The focus of the film is the dichotomy in the application of justice by these two characters to people in a specific if violent context. The plight of Dredd and Anderson is not some abstract “save the world” act. It is simply a day in the life of a law enforcement officer in this particular world.

Conclusion

There are countless epics being made right now and countless more already made. These epics span across all mediums and vary in quality and success. The opening question, however, still stands. What does it even mean anymore? Have we become so saturated with the Wagnerian scale of storytelling that we are now taken aback when a narrative becomes intimate? It used to be the other way around. The smaller stuff gave way to the grand finale. But nowadays, it seems epic is the starting point and not an eventual destination.

Perhaps a more pertinent question is not what epic means but if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. At this point, I could hardly give an answer. I consume much of this type of media but I’m not divorced from craving smaller, more intimate fair. It just seems like the latter is becoming extinct in the tidal wave of grand stories. A balance is urgently needed. How it begins rests entirely on the disposition of the audience to indulge in stories that don’t deal with the end of the world as if it were just another Tuesday.

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