Wednesday, February 22, 2012

How DC Comics Lost a Loyal Reader

In August 2011, the DC Comics universe started over. Iconic characters like Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, the Flash, and Wonder Woman saw their titles go back to the beginning in both number and concept. Costumes were redesigned, origins tinkered with, history redefined.

In the history of the big two superhero publishers, there was only one precedent for what happened: John Byrne's The Man of Steel in 1986. This mini-series completely reset Superman's origin and status quo, blowing off many years of accumulated characters, complications, and contradictions in an attempt to streamline and modernize.

DC's "New 52" reset was The Man of Steel writ large, across an entire universe of characters. Many fans hailed it as a bold, necessary move to attract elusive new readers to comic books, a hobby that is seemingly becoming more and more antiquated by the day. Others, predictably, balked. What about the continuity you're throwing away? Why are the new costumes so horrible? Where does Character X fit in? This isn't my DC anymore.

Personally, I was excited by the news, with only some reservation. I'd been feeling restless with an increasingly insular brand of storytelling DC had been peddling, largely at the behest of a writer I once greatly admired, Geoff Johns. Stories like Blackest Night and the follow-up Brightest Day featured promising premises belied by head-scratching non-sequitur pay-offs. Both stories climaxed with the return of long-dead heroes (Aquaman, Martian Manhunter, and many others in the former, Swamp Thing in the latter), and led directly into the next big thing. The final moments of these stories had no emotional payoff because there was no in-story reason to expect these characters to return, no foreshadowing or logic. Even reading as a long time fan of the DC universe of characters - the intended audience for this sort of "shocker" - I found myself left cold. The stories (and indeed the very idea of reading comics) seemed to be feeding on themselves. If for that reason only, I was happy to see something drastic happen.

Well, something drastic did happen, just not the drastic thing I expected. After giving the New 52 a good college try, I decided it was the final nail in my fandom of DC comics as it currently exists.

How did it happen? As follows I'll explain the troubling origins of the New 52, the implications of the reset, and what what should have been.

Part 1: Lack of Vision
I returned to reading comics full-time in 2006, after a 6 year hiatus. I immediately bought in fully to DC's line-wide approach. 2006's Infinite Crisis was a mess, though the resulting 52 made me feel like there was true coordination, planning, and direction in DC's universe. The publisher began releasing tantalizing teaser images that hinted at future storylines. They made it feel like if you bought in on mass scale, you'd be rewarded.

But that wasn't true, mostly because DC's editorial were good at teasing, but not delivering. They had no long-term vision, a fact they continually proved. Here are a few lowlights (out of many):
  • Countown to Final Crisis, a bi-weekly follow-up to 52 wasn't a bad series necessarily, but one that did not come as advertised. It was supposed to move everything in the DCU toward Grant Morrison's definitive event, Final Crisis. But it didn't. The two series were creative ships passing in the night. 
  • The character line-up for Batman and the Outsiders circa 2007. Take a look at the way the team line-up changes in these promo images, before you assume DC editorial had any sort of long-term foresight. In the end, the team they finally settled on lasted 14 issues before it was overhauled again!
  • The complete and utter mismanagement of the Archie and Milestone heroes. Few comics hold as firm a spot in my heart as the DC-sponsored Impact! and Milestone lines of the mid-'90s. When DC announced that they were incorporating these characters into their main line, I was thrilled! And then, almost immediately, they bungled it. The Archie characters were given ugly redesigns and put in the hands of the notoriously unreliable writer J.Michael Straczynski. None of the series made it past issue 10, and the crossover with the actual DCU was minimal. The Milestone characters fared slightly better, there were a couple of Brave and the Bold try-out issues, Static became a Teen Titan, and that Xombi series had top-notch talent. But Milestone creator Dwayne McDuffie was seemingly forced to write his charcters in and out of the universe in one Justice League of America storyline. The characters have languished since, with Xombi becoming a victim of the reboot, and a creatively-stillborn New 52 Static series already being canceled.
  • Justice League: Cry for Justice, a truly horrendous mini-series by a usually-good writer (James Robinson). It was initially marketed as an ongoing launch for an alternate team of Leaguers, but when that idea got scrapped mid-production, it instead morphed into a mini-series and a lead-in for one of the worst comic book storylines in recent memory (The Rise and Fall of Arsenal). Oh, and it ended with a little girl being blown up. 
All in all, it was clear that the company had good intentions, but no knowledge of how to carry them out and sustain them. Editors were driving stories, not writers, and those editors behaved like fish at the aquarium floor, constantly moving on to the next thing.

I can't fight the feeling that DC decided to do the New 52 reset because they feel that they broke too many things beyond repair in the last 7 years. This is not to say things have been universally bad for DC recently. Anything written by Grant Morrison has been sterling (I'm even an avowed Final Crisis apologist). Geoff Johns did great things with Green Lantern. The Jamie Reyes Blue Beetle series was awesome. I liked the JSA right up until Willingham left.

But the misses far outweigh the hits. And it was less about the creative teams than it was about the creative decisions. Identity Crisis was well-written and well-drawn, but there's no way to get around the fact that it featured a super-villain raping a beloved character's wife. The shot-through-the-head death of Ted Kord (the second Blue Beetle) was sadistic. Hawkman's origin was fixed and then broken again and then fixed, and then they killed Hawkwoman again for no apparent reason. Bringing back Barry Allen was a huge mistake, and should go down as a permanent black mark on Geoff Johns' record.

Before Dan Didio got in the sandbox as DC editor-in-chief, the DCU was pretty strong. It drew a pretty sharp contrast to the Marvel Universe, where the status quo nearly always resets (except, notably, in the X-Men universe). Supes had gotten married to Lois, finally. Dick Grayson - the first Robin - had come into his own as Nightwing. The Justice Society was a place for the heroes of yesterday and tomorrow. Wally West had become a better and more interesting Flash than his predecessor. Barbara Gordon (formerly Batgirl) had accepted her paralysis, and was a better character for it. The core Teen Titans (Connor, Tim, Bart, and Cassie) all seemed like viable and worthy successors to their adult counterparts. Not that everything was perfect, but this was a universe that hadn't just given us the illusion of change, it had given us the real thing.

And then there was the return of Hal Jordan. Now Hal's return was great. It reenergized the Green Lantern franchise. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that it wasn't because of the character of Hal (he's still as uninteresting as ever). No, it was because of Geoff Johns, and the way he expanded the Green Lantern universe exponentially. Also, bringing Hal back also felt like justice in a way, because he had gone out like such a chump. However, when Johns tried to do the same for Barry Allen, the reasoning failed. The Flash universe didn't need to be expanded out; Mark Waid and Johns himself had already done that to great effect. And Barry had already died the most noble death ever, so bringing him back just seemed cruel.
The rub here is that the current Didio / Johns / Lee administration created most of the problems it needed to fix, so direct reversals in current continuity would have lost them face. The "New 52" was a tacit admission that they'd fucked things up, but also a clever way to avoid admitting it directly.

By the way, with the "New 52" that lack of stick-to-it-ness clearly hasn't been smoothed out. From the issue of whether or not Wonder Woman's new costume has pants (it doesn't, though it used to before they decided that it doesn't) to massive creative upheaval, the new DC is the old DC (or the last-7-years DC). By my count, 12 of the new books (Frankenstein, Justice League Dark, Stormwatch, Men of War, Hawk and Dove, Hawkman, Superman, Green Arrow, Static Shock, Voodoo, Grifter) have already changed writers (either due to reassignment or resignation). As a reader, I can handle artists moving on, but nothing destroys my faith in a book faster than a revolving door of writers. The beauty and power of comic book storytelling is very similar to that of episodic TV drama: Writers can weave long-form narratives with big and little rewards for long-term readers. This takes time and commitment.

Part 2: Wherefore Continuity?
There has been some confusion about whether or not the New 52 was a complete reset. When they first spoke about the New 52, DC brass described it as a "soft reboot", which seemingly meant "Don't worry, long-time fans, we're not throwing everything away." Grant Morrison and Geoff Johns had been working on multi-year arcs on Batman and Green Lantern respectively, and their books sold very well, so their characters' histories were left mostly intact (at least thus far and as far as we know). Green Lantern (volume 5) #1 even picked up off the cliffhanger at the end of Green Lantern (volume 4) #67.

Superman, however, is completely new again: New origin, parents dead, no more marriage to Lois. Other characters have been given drastically different roles (Cyborg, once a member of the former sidekick club The New Teen Titans, is now a founding Justice Leaguer) or have seemingly been wiped out of existence (Wally West, Donna Troy). Some characters are returning in name only, with nearly everything else changed (Superboy, Beast Boy, Terra).

So which is it? I'm guessing that DC wants us, ultimately, to treat the New 52, as, well, new. Throw any notions of the preboot DC out the window. But on the other hand we're already being reminded of things that happened in the previous continuity (e.g. in The Dark Knight #6, we learn that Bane broke Batman's back at some point in the new history) I'm guessing DC are trying to walk that line between being accessible to new fans and honoring long time fans, but saying "this is all brand new; forget everything you knew" out of one side of your mouth and "oh some of those events from the old continuity still happened, just in a slightly different way" is disingenuous. It also strongly favors new readers who haven't read and/or don't feel any connection to the old stories.

Quick example: The "Death of Superman" story, which has also been established as canon in the New 52 (well, at least the death part). I guess I can buy that the "Big 7" Justice League played the part of the story that the Booster Gold-Blue Beetle-Fire-Ice-Guy Gardner-Maxima-Bloodwynd JLA team played in the original. I guess I can accept that the subsequent emergence of Superboy and Steel didn't happen, since they both have brand new origins now. But that basically makes it the same story but completely different. I have no interest in that.

Also, I can't shake the feeling that this reboot was hastily thrown together with little foresight, and that there's no coherent plan behind it. Then again, it's fully possible that the writers (that haven't been fired or had their books cancelled) are all working in great concert to methodically unfold the brilliant construction of this new-yet-familiar universe.  Which seems more likely? See Part 1, if you're skeptical.

Part 3: What Might Have Been
I've gone through the mourning process of losing a 25 year long-form narrative (must be the way soap opera fans feel; at least we comic fans still get the characters in one form or another). I'm adult enough to move on and not lament it too much. Ultimately I read the comics for two things: characters and creators. Those are still around. And I still have all my old comics to reread whenever I want. And one thing DC did get right was its timing. If there was ever a time for a fresh start, this was it.

But the New 52 hasn't been a fresh start. DC has been touting itself as "bold", but dangling your feet in the water isn't bold. Cannonballing off the high dive is bold. What would that have looked like, you may ask? Well, let's take the case of The Flash.

I said earlier that Barry Allen shouldn't have been brought back. So, I get that Wally West's existence was totally predicated on being a former sidekick, and thus couldn't have stayed on in a new continuity. And DC already tried making Bart (Barry's age-accelerated grandson from the future; don't ask) the Flash, and that didn't go so well. Their solution, was to go back to Barry and wipe away his history (marriage, children in the future; don't ask). That's starting at the beginning, I suppose.

But what about this, instead? What if, just in the way that Robert Kanigher, John Broome, and Carmine Infantino took the name and powers of the Golden Age Flash (Jay Garrick) and made up a whole new hero, DC had tasked Brian Buccellato and Francis Manupul (the current Flash writer/artist team) to do the same thing? Flash. Speed powers. Go.

What if they had done that with every one of their heroes? Green Lantern, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Superman, even Batman. Everyone. Brand new heroes with familiar names, new origins, new secret identities. A blank slate. No sacred cows. Trust your creators to come up with something great with no tether in the past. That would have been fucking "bold".

That kind of creative revival is what we need right now, not a dressed-up second helping of stale food. The irony here is that, in trying to bring fans to their books, DC have lost one.