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.