As anyone who pays any attention to comic books already knows, this month DC Comics relaunched its entire line of comics, restarting them all from number 1. Well, not all: Some titles were discontinued, and a number of new ones are starting that weren’t there before. But in one month, DC is restarting from scratch with 52 new series. Even Detective Comics–which was the longest-running comic published in the United States, introduced Batman and gave the company its name–ended at issue #881 and now starts over. Action Comics, which introduced Superman in its #1 in 1938, similarly goes from issue #904 to square one. So on that level alone, it feels like the end of an era.
But it feels that way for a lot of other reasons too. The comics that start this month don’t quite take place in the same world as the ones that came out last month. The heroes are younger. Superman was never married. Superman was now the first superhero, and he only emerged a few years ago, so forget about any World War II-era heroes like the Justice Society of America. The former Batgirl, Barbara Gordon, who’s been a wheelchair-bound genius computer hacker named Oracle for the last 20 years, the leader of the Bird of Prey and go-to font of information for the entire superhero community, is now fully mobile and back as Batgirl again.
Weirdly, not everyone’s starting over. Sure, Batman has now only been around for a few years, but he’s still gone through at least four boy sidekick Robins in that time, one of whom grew into adulthood, struck out on his own as Nightwing and then became a replacement Batman himself. The current Robin is the son of Batman, which means he must have fathered him in junior high school or something. Green Lantern, similarly, takes right up where it left off, with the Green Lantern Corps of interstellar peacekeepers now complicated by red, yellow, blue, indigo and orange corps, each symbolizing a different part of the “emotional spectrum.” Don’t ask.
So a lot of the previous stories still happened, or some of them, or … well, we’ll just have to see how and whether they even try to make it make sense.
The thing is, DC has done this before. It never quite stopped publishing superhero comics after the “Golden Age” of the 1940s came and went, but it drastically reduced its superhero output to a few sure sellers and concentrated on Westerns, Viking adventure, science fiction, whatever it thought would sell. In the late ‘50s DC decided to introduce new versions of old characters like the Flash and Green Lantern, while others who never left like Batman and Wonder Woman stayed more or less the “classic” model.
Soon enough the DC writers thought it might be fun for the new versions to meet the old versions. It had already established that the new Flash had grown up reading comic books about the old ‘40s Flash, who seemed to be fictional on his world, so it was revealed that all the old World War II heroes lived in an alternate universe, Earth-2. As years went on, more alternate earths were added: Earth-3, with evil versions of familiar superheroes. Earth-S, with Captain Marvel and other characters inherited from Fawcett Comics. Earth-X, with characters bought from Quality Comics.
Although readers had enjoyed these multiverse crossovers for 20-odd years, DC decided in the 1980s that all this was too complicated and killed all those other earths off in the miniseries Crisis on Infinite Earths. At the end one earth was left standing, with a hybrid new history incorporating characters who’d previously existed on separate earths and radically reinventing characters with incompatible back stories (Huntress was no longer Batman’s daughter, stuff like that). DC took this as an opportunity to reenvision a number of characters. Superman was now the only survivor of Krypton—no Supergirl, no Phantom Zone criminals, no bottled city of Kandor, no Krypto the Superdog. And DC had some of 1980s comics’ top talent reinventing its core characters: John Byrne on Superman, George Perez on Wonder Woman, Frank Miller on Batman. It was an exciting time.
It also didn’t work, the “simplifying” part anyway. The idea, then as now, was that most of the old stories had still “happened” in one way or another, but the continuity patches to make them work were flimsy and didn’t hold, particularly because different writers kept changing them. Some characters such as Hawkman and Wonder Girl, were rewritten so many times and so clumsily that they became unusable. One cosmic “event” after another was created to alter the time stream to try to fix these problems, but they only made them more confusing. And after a while, new writers nostalgic for the comics they’d read growing up brought all the old stuff back anyway—the other Kryptonians, the other universes, everything.
And the thing is, a lot more planning went into Crisis on Infinite Earths than seems to have gone into “the new 52.” From the outside, this looks like a rush job, hastily announced and hastily executed. All the previously running series seemed to really have to hustle to try to wrap things up before their abrupt end, with decidedly mixed results.
As for the actual story that made the transition, I couldn’t tell you. Gone are the days of a miniseries for a big event like this that you can read as a self-contained story and have it make sense. Event crossovers are sprawled across practically every comic the company puts out, so that if you want to read one series that you’re following anyway it’s interrupted by some big crossover story that doesn’t make sense unless you read all the other series coming out at the same time—and if you do, it still doesn’t make sense. This is why I hate big event crossovers, and why I refused to read Flashpoint, the one that led into the relaunch. There are other reasons too. It’s spearheaded by Geoff Johns, DC’s current most prolific writer, and I don’t much enjoy his writing. It’s a pity because he brought back Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern of my childhood, who was my favorite hero when I was a kid, and made him more popular than he’s been in years. But I thought the story that brought Hal back was a mess, and I don’t like his character the way Johns writes him. And all the changes he’s made to the core concept of the Green Lantern Corps seem needlessly messy to me.
Plus, Johns has a sadistic streak that I find deeply disturbing. He’s big on C-list heroes having their arms ripped off, their heads punched through, and other disgusting things like that.
The Red Lanterns he introduced? They fight people by vomiting blood. Seriously.
Anyway, Flashpoint is a big Geoff Johns event starring Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash who’d been dead since the first Crisis in 1986, now brought back because nobody demanded it. Wally West, the former Kid Flash who’d managed to surpass everything his mentor was in the interim? There’s no room for him in the New 52. Four Robins? No problem. But just one Flash.
Anyway, Flashpoint is some big time travel clusterfudge that created an entirely new reality. No, not the New 52 universe (or DCnU, as fans have called it) but an intermediate world gone wrong where Bruce Wayne’s dad is Batman, there’s no Superman, and … well, I couldn’t tell you. I didn’t read it. It involves the central 5-part miniseries, 16 3-part series focusing on what various individual DC characters and teams are like in this temporary reality (from Emperor Aquaman to Deadman & the Flying Graysons to Frankenstein & the Creatures of the Unknown, and at least four one-shots. With other tie-ins, it’s about 60 issues I’d have to pick up to make sense of this new world that would only exist for a few months. Forget it.
But the New 52? Well, on the one hand, it bugs me. This was my pantheon, the myths and teaching stories I’ve immersed myself with since childhood, and I don’t like feeling like all this otherwise useless lore taking up space in my head doesn’t “count” anymore because it’s a brand new day.
I’m leery of a lot of the particular announced changes. Crippling Barbara Gordon was a highly problematic thing when it happened in Alan Moore’s graphic novel The Killing Joke, but Barbara came out of it a stronger and more interesting character than ever before—and I say that as a big fan of her as Batgirl. Putting her back in those tights seems like a great leap backward.
Not to mention the fact that there have been two Batgirls since then, both of which have avid followings, already bruised by a sense of their favorite characters being habitually misused and abused by writers who didn’t know what to do with them. I wasn’t big on either of those Batgirls myself, but I know the feeling. I was a big fan of Ryan Choi, the All-New Atom, and I hated that he was killed off because Johns and other DC writers miss the “classic” versions of the heroes they grew up with, blind to the problematic aspect that this meant sweeping aside a marginally more diverse cast of newer characters in favor of the all-white old models.
It particularly bothers me that they’re rewriting history so that Lois Lane and Clark Kent never got married, because they were a great and inspiring couple. As a happily married man I completely reject and resent the premise that there are only so many storytelling possibilities with a married hero. It just speaks to a lack of creativity that’s not going to be solved by undoing one of the few happy, stable marriages in comics, only a couple years after Marvel undid one of the other most prominent ones with Spider-Man and Mary Jane.
There are plenty of other aspects that sound dumb to me: Incorporating characters from the formerly independent WildStorm imprint into the DC universe seems misguided, especially because some of those characters were meant as a critique of the whole paradigm of superhero comics (f’rinstance, why not try to mold a better world instead of just putting out fires in a missed-up one?). Most of the classic DC heroes are given makeovers by Jim Lee, an artist popular in the ’90s who’s now become a DC co-publisher, and all the changes he’s made are very stuck in the 1990s. And for some reason, everyone has new v-neck collars. And the few series I’ve been following lately, like Gail Simone’s marvelous supervillain team-up Secret Six, were just too beautiful to be snuffed out like that.
On the other hand, I was following very few series because I haven’t been enjoying a lot of DC comics in recent years. The overreliance on event crossovers at the expense of comprehensible storytelling; the cheap sensationalism of killing minor superheroes or supporting characters off just for the sake of shock value, or to show that some D-list villain is now someone to be taken seriously; the whitening of the DC universe as “classic” versions of heroes are brought back while their erstwhile replacements of different ethnicities are killed off or sidelined; a misguided form of nostalgia —with very few glowing exceptions, DC has been going down a deeply misguided creative path for at least a decade, and in that sense it’s been time for a change for a while.
On the other other hand, the problem wasn’t the world the stories were based in or the histories of its characters. The problem was the writing and editorial decisions. And the people in charge of building this brave and bold new world? Yep, a lot of the same guys who screwed things up the last time around. Erstwhile executive editor and current co-publisher Dan DiDio has been a reliable fount of bad decisions, and the reboot is his baby. And the primary worldbuilder, now DC’s chief creative officer, is Geoff Johns. The bottom line is, I don’t trust DiDio, Lee and Johns to create a new DC universe that’s in any way an improvement on the one they’ve been mucking up for years. And honestly, the whole idea sounds desperate—a hopeless attempt to attract theoretical new readers who don’t read comics while alienating the fan base they already have.
And yet even in the crappiest times for comics (like much of the 1990s), there are some good stories, and some of the new titles look intriguing, mainly because of the writers involved. As leery as I am of the new/old Batgirl and as completely disinterested as I am in Firestorm (here again, the old version was brought back), both are written by Gail Simone, whose work I reliably like (Birds of Prey, Secret Six, Wonder Woman, All-New Atom). I’m a big fan of Paul Cornell’s Captain Britain and MI 13 and Knight and Squire, so I’ll definitely check out his Demon Knights (a superteam in medieval England) and even the StormWatch WildStorm/DC mashup that I’m so dubious of, just because he’s involved. Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman was superb, so I’m curious to see what he does with the “early years” Superman tales in Action Comics. I’m amazed that DC’s bringing back the forgotten ’90s series Resurrection Man, so I’m curious about that, and despite the stupid name Justice League Dark is an intriguing mix of DC’s supernatural characters long sidelined in the Vertigo mature-readers imprint.
If these stories turn out to be good reads, does it matter if they’re set in a different continuity than the one I’m used to? Of course not. Even within the relatively narrow slice of the comics landscape that deals with these particular iconic DC characters, there are plenty of great comics that were told as “Elseworlds” or “What Ifs,” alternate futures or “imaginary stories,” and it’s the nature of myths and legends to be told in many different variations. I can read great Wonder Woman stories from the 1940s, 1960s, 1980s and 2000s and it’s still recognizably the same character despite periodic changes in her costume, abilities, history and supporting cast.
And frankly, it ain’t nohow permanent. Subsequent writers will chafe at all the things that have been changed that don’t make sense, and after a period of “This is how it is now, get used to it” rigidity they’ll make more changes to try to make things more internally consistent and to try to reconcile some of the old stories with the new status quo. Then some of the creators will miss old characters and situations that don’t exist anymore and we’ll start seeing them creeping back. Fan outcry may influence some of this, but they’re used to fans flipping out over every change in the age of the internet (“Arrgh, Wonder Woman’s wearing a hat in this issue?! Is she going to be Hatwoman from now on? This is totally out of character and rapes my childhood.”). The real test is going to be what the fans-turned-creators decide to do, and that tends to mean that the way things used to be cycle back. Some fans have said (angrily) that this is what the relaunch is all about, dialing the DC universe back to the way it was in the 1960s and 1970s. But this is from people who didn’t actually read 1960s and 1970s comics, because the people writing comics now don’t write anything like that. They couldn’t if they wanted to. DC’s party line seems to be that they’re returning to the “iconic” versions of their characters, and it looks like for Superman that means they’re going all the way back to the 1930s (first superhero, loner, etc.) while for Green Lantern that means whatever Johns was doing earlier this year. And we still get the new Blue Beetle, not the 1960s one who was killed off gruesomely to kick off this lousy last decade at DC, and it’s nice that they haven’t discarded all the new guys, because Jaime is a cool character.
Even with my misgivings about this whole endeavor, DC is putting out more new comics I’m curious to read now than it was a few months ago, and that in itself is a win. Sure, others look horrible, and there’s this feeling of throwing the baby out with the rocket from Krypton, but… well, I’m conflicted. That’s what I’m trying to say. I haven’t picked up single issues for a while, preferring to wait for the inevitable trade collections of anything I’ll probably want to buy because they’re much more affordable that way. Comics I’m more dubious about I may read once the trades hit my local public libraries. But this time I really want to know the heck’s going on, because I have a vested interest of 30-odd years reading about these characters (another win for DC).
This might be a good time to walk away and just stop paying attention to what’s going on today with the escapist literature of my youth. (I mean, I don’t follow the cast changes on Sesame Street, because I don’t have kids.) Or I might want to just check out the few things that look promising to me and just try not to worry about what the heck they’re doing with Aquaman over there. These would be reasonable responses. So I’m doing the unreasonable thing. Some retailers have been offering half-off package rates on the first issues of the entire line, or all the second issues, or all the third, so I ordered some. Now I’m committed to read the first three issues of all 52 new comics, even the ones that look just dreadful. After that, well, you can’t say I didn’t give it a chance.
The problem is, it’ll take a while. I ordered them online because my local comics shops didn’t seem to be offering any significant promotions (and like I said, the reason I don’t usually buy single issues is because they’re so dang expensive), and this means that I’ll be getting each batch of 52 at the end of the month. So I’ll be a bit behind, but my plan is then to tear through them and report back on my initial impressions. Because whatever else the relaunch may be, it’s a grand experiment, and I’m game to play a test subject for a little while.
The funny thing is, one of them has already arrived. The first new comic of the 52 was Geoff Johns and Jim Lee’s Justice League #1, which arrived on its own unexpectedly a little over a week ago. That led me to think maybe the #1s would come weekly even though I was expecting them to be shipped at the end of the month, but no, this one seems to have been a fluke. I haven’t even opened it because I wanted to get this all this off my chest first and go into it fresh, relieved of some of my baggage. But tonight I’ll open it up and see what the future holds.