As any comic book readers out there already know, last September DC Comics relaunched their entire superhero line as “the New 52,” starting classics like Action Comics over at #1, relaunching several canceled titles (e.g., Swamp Thing), and adding assorted new titles, such as Justice League Dark.
They’ve done big relaunches before — Crisis in 1986 was the first, then Zero Hour, and 52, and I’m sure I’m forgetting some. This time, though, they wanted to not just clean up continuity, but to make real changes to several long-established characters, and according to their pitch at the San Diego Comic-Con, to try to get back to what had made the characters appealing in the first place. They didn’t want everyone to just yawn and say, “Oh, look, they’re doing it again.”
So they cancelled every DC superhero title and started an entire new line, fifty-two titles launching with new #1 issues, some the same, some new. The theory was that they would all start off fresh, so new readers could pick them up and not be lost in a maze of accumulated continuity.
It didn’t really work out that way, but that was the theory.
So the new Justice League #1, the alleged flagship, was the only DC title shipped the last Wednesday in August of 2011, and the other fifty-one all premiered in September of 2011.
Naturally, not all of the fifty-two succeeded; in fact, they recently announced the first round of cancellations, six of them. They’ll be replaced with six new titles. That prompted me to look at what I was reading, and whether I wanted to continue, and whether I wanted to pick up any of the six new ones.
I used to read a lot of DC and Marvel superhero titles, but in recent years I had dropped them all. I didn’t like the big crossover events that the publishers staged more or less annually, so I made it a firm policy to drop any title where the regular ongoing storyline got mucked up by a big crossover event I wasn’t reading.
This meant that by the end of 2010 I was no longer reading a single Marvel title — I’m still not — and my DC reading was down to a handful of Vertigo titles and short-run oddities.
I figured this relaunch was a good place to jump back in, and see whether maybe they’d gotten it right this time.
Initially, I was pretty excited about the whole thing. Oh, I wasn’t about to buy all fifty-two — I really hated some of the characters they were including — but I did pick fourteen of the fifty-two — more than a quarter of the total — and bought those. I’ve also now read several of the other titles that friends had subscribed to, but this was my own list:
Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E.
OMAC and Blackhawks are among the six canceled titles that will end with #8.
Looking at the six new titles, I won’t be replacing them — none of the new six interest me at all. In fact, rather than adding any, I’ll be dropping some others. Haven’t decided on the exact list yet, but Superboy, Supergirl, Voodoo, Frankenstein, Demon Knights, and Catwoman are all at risk. And I was considering dropping OMAC and Blackhawks anyway, though the decision has been taken out of my hands.
Of the titles I’ve read but didn’t subscribe to — Resurrection Man, Animal Man, Grifter, Swamp Thing, Batman and Robin, Justice League, Justice League Dark, etc. — I don’t intend to add any.
So I could be down to six. Out of fifty-two. This isn’t very impressive. So what went wrong?
I really liked several of the first issues I got, but here’s a title-by-title account of what’s gone wrong (or hasn’t):
Action Comics: The idea here is that this is filling in some backstory on Superman, showing us how he got established in this new version of the story, while Superman is set in “present day” Metropolis, where he’s more of a known quantity. Eventually, Action is supposed to catch up and they’ll more or less merge.
I loved the first issue, where he’s not called “Superman” yet, he’s wearing blue jeans instead of tights, etc. Unfortunately, a few issues in the storyline started getting much less linear and became harder to follow. I’m sticking with it, but I’ve lost some of my enthusiasm.
Detective Comics: It’s Batman. They really didn’t change much from what was going on before the relaunch. It’s dark and violent. I like it. It isn’t especially innovative or anything, but it’s good, solid Batman stories, and I like those.
Superman: Superman is still relatively new in Metropolis here, but he’s accepted as the city’s hero, battling alien menaces, etc. I’m content with it, not thrilled.
Batman: Not as good as Detective, but serviceable Batman stories.
Superboy: This one started out great. The current version of Superboy, for those of you who haven’t looked at any comics lately, is a partially-successful attempt to clone Superman. They couldn’t get completely Kryptonian DNA to work, so they used a mix of human and Kryptonian, and the result is something new.
The first issue has him waking up in a big test tube while his creators debate what to do with him. He’s something of a blank slate. This is cool. Lots of things you can do with that. There’s a subtle inclusion of a character from Gen 13 that I didn’t pick up on at first. (I hadn’t realized DC now had the rights to Gen 13.)
Unfortunately, the whole thing started downhill with the second issue. They aren’t doing what I wanted to see. I realize that’s maybe my problem, not theirs; I also realize that sometimes authors come up with something better than what I wanted or expected. In this case, though, I don’t think that’s what happened.
As Julie puts it, Superboy has yet to develop a personality. He does have some (justifiable) feeling of persecution, and he’s a bit whiny, but there’s nothing interesting there.
Also, see Systemic Problems #1 and #2 below. They both apply here.
Supergirl: Great set-up — Kara Zor-El remembers getting ready for her high school graduation (or the Kryptonian equivalent), and then next thing she knows she’s waking up in a crashed rocketship in Siberia, on a planet she’s never heard of where the only person who speaks Kryptonian is some guy who claims to be her baby cousin Kal-El all grown up. Wonderful start.
Unfortunately, since then the story has her flailing about wildly and refusing to listen to explanations or ask sensible questions. Oddly, one of my complaints here is that Systemic Problem #1 does not really apply — she’s fighting villains while she still has no idea what’s going on. And there’s Systemic Problem #1a.
This one may still be salvageable, though.
Batwoman: Beautiful art, pretty good story, but it’s picked up from the old continuity with no changes at all, so it hasn’t always been easy to follow, and a new reader may not get who some of the characters are. Still, I’m enjoying it so far.
Catwoman: They introduced a cool new supporting character, then promptly killed her off, and many readers aren’t happy with the depiction of Batman’s relationship with Catwoman, but I’m okay with this. Not blown away, but it’s not bad.
Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E.: This is apparently picking up continuity from some title I never read. Frankenstein’s monster is working as an agent for a secret organization called SHADE that battles menaces threatening the world. Cool. Some of the other agents he works with are also cool (and apparently from one of the various “Creature Commando” series, none of which I ever read).
Unfortunately, the writer seems to think readers want action, action, action. I’d much rather get some background on what’s going on, see conflicts develop over time, etc. Systemic Problem #1a and #2 are both very much in evidence. (#1, not so much.)
Blackhawks: The Blackhawks are a super-high-tech organization based in central Asia fighting various menaces, but Systemic Problem #2 is huge here.
Demon Knights: All DC’s magical medieval characters team up to battle supernatural menaces. Cool. Except that we get absolutely no introduction to any of them; we’re just thrown into the middle of it as they find themselves trying to fight off a huge army besieging a village. I don’t know who half these people are, or why I should care about them. After six issues, we’re still in the middle of that first battle.
OMAC: Someone clearly adores 1970s-vintage Jack Kirby. Unfortunately, Systemic Problem #1 and #2 undercut the whole thing.
Voodoo: Voodoo is the stage name of a shape-shifting alien spy working as a stripper. Five issues in, it’s not yet clear whether she’s the hero of the series, or the villain. I think she’s supposed to turn into a hero. She hasn’t yet.
Wonder Woman: The premise here is that the Greek gods are not the anachronisms we’ve seen them portrayed as in the past. They’ve kept up to date. And they’re still the ruthless, petty, vengeful, inhuman bastards they were in Greek myths. Zeus is still screwing anyone and anything that catches his eye, and Hera is still royally pissed about it. Diana, a.k.a. Wonder Woman, is caught up in their intrigues.
This mostly works for me — except when the story goes to Paradise Island. I like some of what the writer’s done with that background (I’m trying not to spoil anything here), but the scenes actually set there just bored or confused me.
So, about those systemic problems…
The first systemic problem: These are superheroes, right? Heroes? People who do good deeds? Who fight villains, and protect innocents? That’s the whole underlying concept, isn’t it?
Couldn’t prove it by me, after reading most of these comics. Oh, Batman is still doing his job, tracking down homicidal freaks, and Wonder Woman is trying to protect innocents, but a lot of these people seem to be fighting themselves or (systemic problem #1a) each other, rather than bad guys. We have yet to see Superboy or Supergirl do anything that wasn’t based on their own self-interest; OMAC is thrust into battle against his will by Brother Eye, whose motives are unclear. We’ve seen Superboy fight Supergirl, Frankenstein fight OMAC — why? Aren’t they all supposed to be good guys?
Maybe I’m hopelessly old-fashioned, but I’d like to see some of these superheroes fighting bank robbers, or saving people from tornadoes, or other such old-time heroics. Most of these characters have no grounding in anything remotely like the real world, and give us no reason to care about them.
The second systemic problem: What the heck is it with the DC universe being overrun with super-high-tech clandestine organizations? There seem to be dozens of them — SHADE, Checkmate, NOWHERE, Blackhawks, Cadmus, etc. What’s more, they seem to be fighting each other more than they’re combating any obvious evils; the idea that they might all be on the same side doesn’t seem to ever occur to anyone. When NOWHERE goes up against Checkmate, which side am I supposed to cheer for? Why would I care?
I loved the original Blackhawks, who were a team of heroic aviators. The Blackhawks in the title that’s being cancelled aren’t a team, they’re a bureaucracy.
And finally, to sum up: There’s a depressing sameness to most of these comics. Nothing stands out as fresh or witty or touching. Except for Superman and the Batman titles, they seem to exist in a realm where super-powered beings defend themselves from other super-powered beings and ordinary people either don’t exist at all, or are relegated to the distant background.
I don’t care about super-powered beings; I care about people, and there are damned few of those in these stories.
So I’ll be cutting my list, and regretting that DC blew their chance to do this relaunch right.