I am the target audience, a lapsed believer ready to come back to the fold. And it’s a religious experience. The rites of comics imprint on a reader in the same way a religion’s does. Wednesday is our Sunday, but over time a lot of us only show up on the important days.
Wednesday Comics, brought me back. It was a weekly collection of one-page stories done on newsprint, with mixed results. The format was a throwback, cribbing from the long-dead tradition of huge Sunday comics supplements, but it also played with the kind of short-installment storytelling used in some web comics. I found it thrilling, visually interesting and respectful of the medium’s past, something the industry ignores despite its constant plundering of its glory days.
So I drifted. A lot of us did. It’s hard, not to mention expensive, to devote time to a weekly hobby like comics. Of course I didn’t leave them behind. My desk is covered with odds and ends from the sale bin, stuff I couldn’t afford or ignored back when I was still waiting for Wetworks to come out, and there are piles of books from my collection and the public library. But I rarely go to ‘church’, anymore.
The folks at DC know this, and they know there are lot of people like me out there. They know that labyrinths of continuity have wound themselves into the DC Universe since we last picked up a monthly book, and we’re puzzled by questions like, “Where’s Superman’s mullet?” and “Which Robin is this?” The solution? A collective reset, a cosmic retreat from 70-plus years of continuity and commerce.
The idea of the relaunch is that the new readers would flock to a comic with a #1 on it rather than a big, scary number like #904, the final issue of Action Comics, and in September 2011, 52 new titles arrived, the first issues of which are collected in this hefty omnibus edition. It’s an oddity as a collection because it doesn’t contain a massive crossover event in the DC Universe or a pivotal story line in character’s life. Instead, it’s an artifact of the media blitz, an all-in-one stop for the entire DC line. It’s a lot to take in.
The omnibus kicks off with Justice League, an umbrella title which will eventually gather the greatest heroes of the DC Universe into one fighting force, just not in this issue. The League is still getting off the ground, with only Batman and Green Lantern bantering and fighting aliens before attempting to recruit Superman into the fold.
Heroes are a new phenomenon in this new world, an element which also serves as a primer for new readers. We get the perspective of the teenaged football hero who’s dad studies “metahumans” and the crook who believes Batman is just a myth. The idea is that seeing this world from the perspective of these secondary characters lets readers unaccustomed to superheroes learn how to react to them, to see them as longtime fans do. It’s an idea which might have made sense long ago, but the past decade has seen superheroes enter mainstream consciousness like never before. Multiplexes are riddled with superhero movies year-round, and prime time television has both success (Heroes) and failure (The Cape) in the genre.
DC co-publisher Jim Lee serves as Justice League’s penciler, and his work is as bombastic as ever, filled with the same hulking forms and extraneous line work which made him a superstar on Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men over 20 years ago. The reason for Lee’s selection as artist is obvious. His big screen blowups with heroes and aliens burst with action, and it’s his work which forms the template from which a lot of superhero artists of the last 20 years work from. His placement on this high profile title, and the placement it’s given as a centerpiece of the new DC universe, presents the central problem with most of the titles in the New 52. In resetting the clock on its fictional world, DC is also attempting to reset the comics world back to the early ‘90s.
It’s not just the mandarin collar of Superman’s redesigned or the brooding antiheroes which populate the pages. Even Rob Liefeld, the much-derided creator of the quarter bin classic Youngblood appears as the penciler of the abysmal Hawk and Dove, a series he drew early in his career. There’s a sense of throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks, a desperate creative flailing like that of the boom times of the early ‘90s. Everything, from artistic competence to the price point, has risen since then, but all that’s missing are the embossed holofoil covers and polybags.
The stories and art of second-tier titles like Mr. Terrific and Captain Atom are virtually interchangeable. Lumped in with these titles are two titles which do offer something more than explosions and cool robots. Writer Brian Azzarello and artist Cliff Chiang offer a twist on Wonder Woman filled with creepy mythological creatures and body-horror, and Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis approach Aquaman mix introspection and superhero bravado while at the same making plenty of jokes about talking to fish.
These two characters, despite their spotty publication history, have been central players in the DC universe since comics’ Golden Age, so the relative quality of their books is not surprising. These are important, popular characters, but neither of them have the status of Batman or Superman. These characters are the pillars on which DC’s creative and financial fortunes rest.
Grant Morrison brings back the smug do-gooder of the Superman’s early days in Action Comics, placing the Man of Steel squarely in the peoples’ corner versus cutthroat business man Lex Luthor. It’s a classic approach to the character that, sadly, still rings true.
Scott Snyder’s Batman finds a good balance between the character’s dark detective world and the glamour of Bruce Wayne, but artist Greg Capullo’s works best when he explores Gotham’s underbelly. The standout of the Bat-family books is Batwoman, J.H.. Williams, III’s moody, horror-tinged detective series about a series of kidnappings based on the urban legend la llorona.
By far the best books in the book fall under “the Dark” banner. Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman’s Animal Man is blood-soaked riff on the superhero-as-celebrity trope, and Swamp Thing’s reintroduction into the DC universe is full of promise. Perhaps the most fun book in the whole line up is Jeff Lemire and Alberto Ponticelli’s Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. in which the titular monster works for a secret government organization headquartered inside a microscopic city above Manhattan. There are monsters and teleporting and impossible science and loads of fun to be had with this series.
Judging by the sales and the media attention alone, DC’s New 52 initiative was a resounding success, but nearly six months after the launch, some of these titles have already been canceled. New ones will pop up in their place, and The New York Times and CNN won’t care. The big lie about the relaunch is that the company is heading in a new direction with innovative stories and fresh takes on long-established characters. Even the best work here hints at the comfortable, the familiar. These people have gotten so good at superhero comics that even bad work still hits all the sweet spots. It’s like traveling cross country and only eating at McDonald’s. There might be regional differences, but the results will almost always be the same.
Still, I’m a believer. Superhero comics don’t have to be rehashes of older work or pitches for action movies. They don’t have to be cosmic, “everything changes” events. Have faith, in characters, in creators, in comics. The rest will take care of itself.