Just Like Yesterday: Thoughts on DC’s “New 52”

When DC Comics, now DC Entertainment (and if that name change doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about the future of the industry I don’t know what will), announced plans to reboot, rejigger, and revamp their entire comics line (minus poor, neglected Vertigo), I was torn between thinking it was either a work of mad genius or the stupidest idea I’d ever heard. On the one hand, perhaps, given the right amount of commitment, talent and forward thinking, this sort of sea change could give the industry a much-needed boost. On the other hand, if they were so serious about reaching out to new and lapsed readers, why did it seem so half-hearted? Why were they only relying on their own small talent pool? Why did it seem like there were just shuffling deck chairs around on the Titanic?

Now the first month’s worth of titles have come and gone and, oncoming iceberg or not, DC’s New 52 (and god I hate that slogan) has been dubbed a big success, or at least enough of a success for the company to haul out the trumpets. Certainly it’s been a marketing and publicity success, with every newspaper, website, and media outlet under the sun talking about the change. By revamping the line, DC managed to pretty much own the conversation this year. And while that deserves a certain amount of kudos, it makes it all the more depressing that most of the comics simply aren’t very good.

Now let me be clear about this. I know this is the Comics Journal, where we’re supposed to hate all comics that come with a cape (or so Grant Morrison would have everyone think), but I really wanted to like these books. No, really, I did. In some ways I consider myself one of those lapsed readers Dan DiDio and company kept going on about wanting to have back in the fold, having been largely turned off by the puerile sexuality and unnecessary gore that populates most superhero books these days, but which especially seems to afflict DC’s output. A corporate structure that favors product over talent and my own meager bankbook aside, I wouldn’t mind a lighthearted excuse to see what’s up with Batman or Wonder Woman.

Of course, in the end, that voice of skepticism in my head proved to be correct. The biggest sin the bulk of the New 52 books commit, however, isn’t that they’re egregiously awful or offensive in that Catwoman-screwing-Batman fashion that you’ve no doubt heard about by now. It’s that they’re boring. Sure, some of them display a mind-blowing incompetence or abysmal storytelling skills, but by and large, the worst thing about these comics is that they’re deadly dull. Competent perhaps, but dull nevertheless.

Take Green Arrow No. 1 for example. There’s nothing truly “bad” about it per se. JT Krul’s story is perfectly serviceable and the art by Dan Jurgens and George Perez is easy to follow and dynamic, more or less the key to a successful superhero comic. But it’s also formulaic in the most plodding, brain-dead fashion; there’s nothing there to make it stand out from the miles and miles of other comics, superhero or otherwise on the rack. What’s worse, the few things that made Oliver Queen interesting -- the beard, the leftist politics, the swaggering attitude -- have been wiped clean. This is about as generic a superhero comic as you can get.

And so it goes with the rest of the bunch. If my life depended on it I don’t think I’d be able to summarize the plot of Resurrection Man or Grifter (though I do remember Grifter reminding me of Rom the Spaceknight for some reason). Blackhawks, Deadman, Birds of Prey, Nightwing – they’re all completely interchangeable, despite the different costumes.

If pressed for a reason, I’d say the biggest problem with these comics is that they value plot, and more specifically catchy plot hooks, over character development. They attempt to make you care about what is going on without making a sincere effort to make you care about who it’s happening to. Some comics, like Green Lantern New Guardians, actually do boast a smart hook or solid cliffhanger, but then proceed as if the job was done, when it was only half completed.

Another failing of the New 52 DC books is an extreme tendency to the overwritten. Titles that should have been a slam-dunk drown in a morass of exposition. Justice League International would be a much more entertaining book if people stopped yakking so much, especially when every other sentence is expository. Even Yanick Paquette’s stellar art and inventive layouts can’t make Swamp Thing's excruciatingly lengthy scene of Alec Holland talking to Superman in his new porn-star outfit seem exciting. George Perez and Jesus Merino’s Superman has some good ideas, like making Lois a TV news producer or the Daily Planet being bought by a Fox News-like company, but drowns any potential enjoyment in a sea of verbosity, as though every panel must contain at least a two paragraphs, each usually detailing and re-explaining what is plainly evident in the drawings.

Of course, the reboot was designed in part to streamline things and ditch some of the convoluted back stories so mythical “new readers” could pick up, say, Birds of Prey, and not be lost. It’s clear though, that some people didn’t get the memo. I was completely at sea by Legion Lost and even more befuddled by Legion of Super Heroes, in both of which their creators seemed to take an active delight in the titles' being as unwelcoming as possible. Other books, like Stormwatch, are so clunky in their exposition that they come off as just as unfriendly.

Much – probably too much – has been said about the adolescent sexualization of the female characters in these books, especially in the first issues of Catwoman and Red Hood and the Outlaws. I’m tend to side with Tom Spurgeon on this issue: These are at heart just bad comics and should be condemned on that basis alone.

Still, it’s not like it isn’t present in other titles as well, from the sexually adventurous badass female character in Blackhawks to the scantily clad Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad to the frequent arched back/butt-shot posing of the female red lantern Bleez in Red Lanterns to all that prostitute killing in All Star Western.

Ultimately it’s all part and parcel of DC’s true goals however. For all their talk of new readers, for all the interviews Dan DiDio and Jim Lee did where they swore up and down on the cross that they were being inclusive this time, there's really only one readership they’re interested in attracting and that’s young males. Preferably young males that happen to be lapsed DC fans.

That can be seen in the level of absurd machismo that dominates the line, especially in the level of over-the-top violence on display. Anyone hoping that in their effort to win back readers DC would tone down the gore they’ve become known for in recent years is going to be sorely disappointed. To wit: two comics (Red Lanterns and Suicide Squad) open with torture scenes. One closes with a guy being slowly lowered into a vat of acid. The Fury of Firestorm opens with a family being slaughtered. Green Lantern Corps opens with one character being bisected and two others being beheaded, and closes with an entire race of people being decimated. The otherwise entertaining Batwing ends with the gory slaughter of a police department, headless bodies lying everywhere. A horse is beheaded with a creature crawling out of the stump of its lifeless body in Wonder Woman. Perhaps the most memorable sequence comes at the end of Detective Comics, where the Joker (who, for reasons unknown first appears in the comic naked) gets his face flayed off and hung on a prison wall, an experience he describes as “fangasmic.” Even the first issue of Static ShockStatic Shock of all things! – ends with the character's arm getting sliced off by some flying compact discs. Not all of these sequences feel like pandering, but enough do to make you realize how narrow an audience DC is aiming for here.

It’s evident in other aspects as well. The soldiers in Men of War are gung ho, macho heroes that, while designed to be sympathetic, are to be admired and respected first and foremost, and bear little resemblance to the agonized troops that appeared in Robert Kanigher’s “make war no more” tales of the Silver Age, let alone the characters of Harvey Kurtzman’s Frontline Combat or Two Fisted Tales. Deathstroke’s tiresome “bad-ass assassin” pastiche would come off as a comical attempt to satirize anti-hero cliches if it weren’t so obviously sincere. At the risk of coming across as overly analytical, the bulk of DC’s new books, like, I suppose, a lot of superhero books in general, seem overly concerned with replicating what teen boys and young men find “cool” – uber-violence, sexual objectification of women (with token “tough lady” dialogue to sidestep accusations of outright sexism), and serious stories that “matter.”

In that regard, the New 52 doesn’t seem like a genuine attempt to look forward as much as it does a desire to gaze longingly back to the heady days when comics last mattered, at least in terms of sales, i.e. the 1990s. Why else have people like Rob Liefeld, Greg Capullo, and Scott Lobdell at the forefront of this revolution? Look at Brett Booth’s art work on Teen Titans. It’s practically a mash note to the Image era, a time that, despite the big sales, I would suggest was not the superhero genre’s finest moment.

Is it all bad? Of course not. Perhaps the biggest, nicest surprise is Jeff Lemire’s two contributions, Animal Man and Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. I had never warmed to Lemire’s work before, but he captures the family-life-meets-supernatural-horror aspect of Animal Man well, and Travel Foreman’s antiseptic style really manages to capture a nice sense of dread. Frankenstein, meanwhile, is basically a Hellboy pastiche, but it’s a spirited, funny, inventive pastiche rip-off with Alberto Ponticelli’s rough-hewn style playing strongly to the more frenzied action sequences.

There are other gems. Demon Knights by Paul Cornell, Diogenes Neves, and Oclair Albert is a sly, ahistorical fantasy romp. Despite the headless horse thing, the first issue of Wonder Woman shows promise, as does Flash. I miss Greg Rucka’s writing but am happy to see J.H. Williams (perhaps the best artist working in superhero comics these days) strut his stuff on Batwoman. Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis (not a team-up I’ve particularly cared for in the past) manage to get some mileage out of exploiting Aquaman’s general low status on the pop culture totem pole. And despite its tee-hee tease sexuality, Voodoo actually manages to understand how to introduce characters and pace a story properly, which is no doubt why some of its sins have been forgiven by critics.

So what have we got there, eight comics? Only three of which I’ll likely be buying regularly. I can be a picky reader but I can’t help but feel that proportion is a wee bit off.

Well what did I expect? This is corporate comics 101, right? Where art is made by a committee and financial and marketing concerns are put far ahead of an interest in making anything entertaining, let alone sincere or thoughtful, right?

And hey, DC got the sales jump they wanted and brought back the readers they were looking for, at least for now, aesthetic qualities be damned (though, naturally, the line’s success will ultimately be determined not by how well they do initially but how well the do four or five months from now. My suspicions tell me not very well). Why complain about this stuff? Why not just ignore the whole thing and read Love and Rockets Vol. 4 instead?

Well, yes, that’s a good point. When faced with the depressing tedium and adolescent attitudes on display in these comic it’s important to remember that other reading options exist and to be grateful that DC and Marvel no longer dominate the landscape in the way they did thirty or even twenty years ago. At the same time, sometimes all you want is junk food and if nothing else, it seems to be reasonable to expect a company like DC to produce satisfying (if not necessarily nutritive) junk food. And if (to stretch my poor metaphor even further) despite all their ballyhoo, they’re not only incapable of producing decent junk food but actively alienating segments of their customer base, then it’s entirely appropriate to take them to task for it before moving on to the store next door.

25 Responses to Just Like Yesterday: Thoughts on DC’s “New 52”

  1. What are the three? The two Lemire books and…Action?

  2. Chris Mautner says:

    Batwoman. I honestly was disappointed with Action.

  3. patrick ford says:

    What I thought was Warner’s could find something on the sidewalk, and hype it as a Pâté de Campagne laced with black truffles, and fans would rave over it’s earthy pungency.

  4. Ian Harker says:

    I think the #1 thing mainstream comics need is art direction. If you want to make comics that are different why not start with having them look different? Sales have declined steadily since the collectors boom-fad and everyone gets blamed except for the people making the damn things.

    Alternative comics have taken a global view of the medium and adopted a huge range of not only illustration/design techniques but also storytelling approaches. Mainstream comics still clings to this bizarre, ugly style that only appeals to one vanishing demographic.

    Writing in mainstream comics has come a long way but I get the sense that it’s hit a wall. They need to get back to the immediacy of the comics-making process that we see in alt-comics and scrap the comics-by-committee approach. If I was the art-director my question would be why is there a separate penciler, inker, letterer and a colorist? Why are the artists being handed scripts instead of working directly with the writer on every aspect of storytelling?

    Want a different result? Do something different.

  5. I went to the comic book store with my seven year old daughter to get her Scooby Doo and Tiny Titans for the month and decided to pick up Action #1 to see if there was anything to the hype. I had read somewhere that supposedly there was an editorial decision to make the new books more ‘stand alone’ storywise, so I had hoped to get something I could read where there was a beginning, middle and end. Instead I got the first chapter of a paperback collection to be released in six months. I know that’s been the market for years, but it’s been a major beef of mine.
    Plus I didn’t like the art and the story was a stupid attempt to make Superman not be a square pussy because ‘the man’ was trying to take him down for being so righteous. I like junk food comics, a lot, but I won’t be wasting any more money on DC comics except the ones for my kid.

  6. Steve says:

    For the most part, everyone has missed the real story. By doing a combination of advertising, returns and variant covers, DC managed to launch a direct competitor to the direct market without the direct market retaliating like Barnes and Noble is doing over the Amazon Kindle Fire deal. Now Marvel is expanding their digital offerings as well without the incentives DC had to do. DC’s current management thinks that accessibility not content is what is keeping readers away. To show how clueless they are on content, hiring guys like Lobdell, Booth and Liefeld is akin to booking MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice in Madison Square Garden.

  7. steven samuels says:

    “I’d say the biggest problem with these comics is that they value plot, and more specifically catchy plot hooks, over character development”

    And this is somehow a new development? 0 + 0 always = 0.

    “Want a different result? Do something different.”

    If they want to improve the artwork, why don’t they get back to the old industrial method of doing things? Dave Sim’s way. Have a different artist (or group of artists) do backgrounds. Let the main guy do all the foregrounds. As far as the writing goes, it is possible to be entertaining and have high standards. But most who work there aren’t educated enough to know how to do that.

    As always, the manga editorial model points the way forward. But given we’re talking about American corporate entities, the creative moral values are not in place to facilitate this.

  8. DanielJMata says:

    What else do people expect from superhero comics? A lot of these are very, VERY fun. OMAC, Frankenstein, Animal Man, Swamp Thing, Demon Knights are all just fun, catchy comics in their own way. Superhero comics are just candy. Nothing more, so to expect that is an exercise in frustration.


  9. DanielJMata says:

    Pretty dumb to complain about a book wanting to make you buy the next one. floppies are supposed to do that. They have forever. I don’t care for Action either, but there are good comics in the line

  10. DanielJMata says:

    The reason there are separate people working on the art is because of time. The same reason for manga. Also, from plenty interviews, a lot of the writers and arists do talk and collaborate with each other. Sometimes, the artist isn’t a good writer, and vice versa. Don’t know why that should inhibit them from making comics.

    Also, have you seen these comics? Rags Morales looks like a guy from Mad. Alberto Ponticelli looks straight out of a sketch book. Moritat is a very personable cartoonist. OMAC is doing a fun Kirby pastche. Wonder Woman has some amazingly clean cartooning. They are hardly ugly.

  11. Pat says:

    “Rags Morales looks like a guy from Mad.”


  12. Pat says:

    Call me crazy, but it sure doesn’t sound like it made him want to buy the next one.

    Also “works as a single issue” and “leaves you wanting more” aren’t mutually exclusive.

  13. Carl Walker says:

    Heck, I guess I don’t think 8 out of 52 is that bad of a result. They would never get me to buy more than 8 per month long term, anyway (that said, I may be slightly over that figure at the moment, but this will not last).

  14. michael L says:

    Did you even read this article? What Chris (along with scores of other critics) is lamenting is that DC had publicly expressed an interest in making their titles more accessible and inclusive, and yet the reboot so far seems as alienating as ever.

  15. I must be older than you. When I grew up reading comics in the 70’s and 80’s the majority of stories were contained within one issue. They still may have referenced events in other recent issues and larger storylines were still developed over time, but when you got the the last page most things were resolved. If there was a special two parter or something they got you all caught up within the first few pages.

    I realize there has been a fundamental shift away from that for quite a while now, but that has been one of the things keeping me from even bothering to try to keep up with modern superhero comics.

  16. comic fan says:

    i disagree completely with this article. i think the new 52 was a GREAt idea and all the titles ive read (ALL of the bat titles) were very good and i cant wait to see what happens next. batgirl and batwoman are Exceptionally good with story telling and art

  17. Allen Smith says:

    So true. I’m trying to figure out why Liefeld’s style hasn’t changed one iota from what it was twenty years ago. Talk about lack of growth and having a static point of view. Can he draw anything but grimaces?

  18. Rex Harrison says:

    I always thought there was something a bit naff about DC’s superheroes, despite their being so iconic. Batman was always the exception – he even survived the crap of the fifties and sixties! No matter how many times DC have tried to re-invent the characters, they invariably wind up back where they started from – fighting side by side with Super Fido! Marvel’s superheroes, on the other hand, despite some severe mishandling over the years, are still rock solid. The irony is that Vertigo manages to publish some truly excellent work from some really talented creators. The tragedy would be if DC let the masthead sink. As for the New 52, I’ll give the ones I’ve bought 5 to 10 issues to see how they go. This is the first time I’ve bought mainstream DC in about 25 years, so I’m not counting on a renewed love affair.

  19. PDuck says:

    i love comics. when i heard that dc was starting again with a new 52 i was all for it. after reading the first issues i am still for it. fun reading, great art to look at. yet so many people bitching and complaining. these are superhero comics people! there’s skin tight outfits! there’s body parts showing! men and women in garish and overly designed costumes flying and jumping around beating the snot out of each other toting guns and pointy objects! monsters! magic! super awesome tech! c’mon lighten up. there’s alot of good stuff out there so stop being so cynical and melodramatic.

  20. Paul Slade says:

    It’s not a question of being cynical or melodramatic – simply one of knowing from experience that even mass-market superhero comics can be so much better than most of the New 52 titles have been so far.

    Praising anything as mediocre as, say, the new Green Arrow title simply ensures that more mediocrity will follow and we do the comics medium we love no favours by settling for that.

  21. PDuck says:

    of course mass market superhero comics can be better. just as many indy comics can be better as well as blockbuster films and indy films. any creative medium in which stories are told. but when i read that longtime comics readers are giving up comics for good because they either hate the idea of dc relaunching with a new 52 or because they believe that if something ain’t broke dont fix it or maybe they read some of them and dont like the direction the stories took. now that is being a bit dramatic and cynical. the characters have been around for so many decades and characters from every company have been rebooted in one form or another. some were hits and some misses. and i by no means suggest that people settle for mediocrity. what i do suggest is that people give some titles a chance to actually develop a story that spans more than one or two issues. maybe the mediocre will change through interesting plot twists to become rather good. i know many people who read watchmen and found it incredibly boring and long winded while others just loved it. if over the first story arc lets say green arrow is still perceived as mundane, then maybe dc will do something interesting through the natural progression of their stories to change that.

  22. MRosa says:

    I can’t stand the New 52 either. I want my superheroes to be smarter. Is it too much to ask that more creators aspire to the intelligence of Watchmen, 1963, Zenith, Kingdom Come, Marvels, Enigma, Animal Man, Doom Patrol, Marvelman, Supreme, Tom Strong, Promethea?

    Superheroes don’t have to be dumb, loud, sexist and incoherent.

  23. Jan Stolz says:

    If they really want to make a sensation, start dietributing the comics like regular magazines again. It use to be you could find comic books in any store in town. Now even the comic book stores don’t carry everything because they are stuck with it. Change the distribution and te sales will skyrocket.

  24. Taha says:

    Havent read action comics, assumed its quality because of Morrison. What is good: Scott Snyder’s Batman, The Flash, Batman, animal man, and though flawed, Wonder Woman has its moments, usually thanks to Cliff Chiang. There’s something both solid and slender about his art, it’s perfect for action scenes starring nimble women

  25. Brynocki C says:

    I would suggest reading Green Lantern Corps. Tomasi has been writing very solid, very dark Sci Fi featuring the lanterns for a few years now and it is quite entertaining. You could quickly dismiss it as one long act of violence but really, asking comic publishers to tone down the violence is a foolish venture in this day and age. The foundation of the GLC storytelling is strong and Fernando Pasarin’s art is well grounded. Each arc is generally a simple mystery tale with a twist or two. Also over at the main Green Lantern title Doug Mahnke is turning in some really top notch comic book art. Tomasi is also delivering a good book in Batman and Robin with the former GL Corp artist Patrick Gleason. Again, it’s dark dark stuff. But it goes deeper than a lot of the other DC stuff. I always keep a look out for Peter J Tomasi.

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