Choice in DC Comics’ New 52

They’re no longer insular. That’s probably one of the first things you’ll notice about the New 52. They’re not comics that reference any kind of goings-on that date back over ten years ago. But more than that, they’re not really comics that point exclusively to comics fandom. Instead, these are comicbooks that play with ideas that are writ large across the mainstream of popular culture.

Take Suicide Squad for example. The story of a team of supervillains (all on death row or serving life), brought together to enact secret missions on US and foreign soil. The issue opens with the Squad being tortured by masked tormenters. Each member tortured by a tailor-made fear. Writer Adam Glass casually uses this setting play out the full psychological depth of the characters’ backstories. But Glass’ art doesn’t lie in his fluent command of scenes that would not be out of place in a SAW franchise movie or in a Lady Gaga music video. Rather Glass’ art is in the skillful way he is able to shift from this tone of storytelling to a mode not at all unlike Jeannie Mai hosting How Do I Look?.

The closing page introduces Amanda Waller, Director of Task Force X (the Squad’s official name), and she’s gorgeous. A strong jawline, bright, inviting eyes, high cheekbones. She looks nothing like the obese Amanda Waller of the 1986 version of the book. There’s something alluringly 21st century-success about this Amanda Waller. Something not at all out of place with the new “femininism” empowerment discourse that graces the scenes of shows like Ms. Mai’s or Kim & Khloe take New York.

And yet, on that very same page, Waller wears the faintest possible smile as she wrings a torturer’s mask in her hands. Was she the torturer who just killed Savant? We can only guess as the Squad is dropped into their next killzone. Their assignment; take out sixty thousand gathered at a Mississippi Megadome. It’s not that either of those image-trees are shocking, Lady Gaga and Style, it’s the facility with which Glass as writer can flit between the two. And in a comicbook. Suddenly the medium matters again. Suicide Squad wouldn’t be ill-placed coming with its own prescription for Ambien. In just one reading you get that sense, the same you felt about rock n roll when The Band’s Robbie Robertson said, “Music should never be harmless”.

Suicide Squad isn’t the only book with this unprecedented relevance. Paul Cornell’s Demon Knights plumbs the deeper psychological recesses of what it means to rally around an ideal (the fallen state of Camelot) in the face of overweening power. The richness of imagery in this book is unrelenting as it plunges its hero (Jason Blood, the human cage of the Demon Etrigan) into a knight’s quest for restoring values.

And in a similar vein, Peter Milligan’s encoding of failed love turning to the need for revenge in the magnificent Red Lanterns is a moving portrait of a character rallying against looming impotence. Jeff Lemire’s Animal Man is a profound meditation on consumer culture and the economy of disposability. And Scott Lobdell’s Legion Lost traces the same path as JJ Abrams’ hauntingly moving Super 8; but inverts the roles of alien and human.

In this rush of excitement, it might be easy to miss a book like writer JT Krul and artist Dan Jurgens’ Green Arrow. The story unfolded in the opening issue’s “Living a Life of Privilege” is the classic superhero tale. Billionaire Oliver Queen is driven by unnamed demons to don a mask, state-of-the-art armor, pick up a bow (and quiver) and plug into a vast an encrypted network of intel analysis and spy satellites and hunt criminals. To do this he’s retrofitted one corporate entity (Q-Core) to support his superheroics while the rest of Queen Industries languishes under Emerson, its narrow-minded CEO.

Krul is skillful in his ability to evolve a solid, steady superhero yarn. There’s personal conflict in the lead character’s alter ego; there’s a short, focused engagement with supervillains where the hero prevails. And there’s an interesting backdrop. It seems in Europe (where Green Arrow stalks his prey), supervillains have become cultural icons. Like A-List celebs or rockstars. Jurgens’ artwork too is steady, surefooted, a reliable touchstone for what the regular art in a superhero book should be.

So will Green Arrow get missed in the bold newness of DC’s company-wide reboot? Perhaps not. Against the other, more recognizable superhero fare, Green Arrow stands out as a singular success. Detective Comics #1 shows a passionless Batman, scripted as staid, emotionless, empty. His monologues read like diatribe, his confrontations with the Joker read as irrelevant, monotonous. Hawk and Dove, feels like a betrayal given the clear inadequacies of the creative team to effectively exploit the obvious depth of the characters. Green Lantern seems to have not rebooted at all, reading as it does like issue #68 rather than a brand new #1. And Justice League International is bad enough to make you want your time back.

But was this the plan all along? Has DC, in a masterstroke, reassert a full and spectacular interest in all of its products? Has creative focus been shifted away from core characters and teams like Justice League and Batman’s Detective Comics to bring those titles, teams and characters traditionally marginalized more sharply into focus?

If Fury of Firestorm and Captain Atom have a depth of storytelling not seen in Flash and Wonder Woman, then perhaps there is a case to be made for this argument. But where would this reorientation leave us? And what would this bode for other companies? In the recent weeks coinciding with DC’s New 52 relaunch, Marvel has released “Subland Empire” (issue #16 of Secret Avengers which kicks off the Warren Ellis, Jamie McKelvie run as series regular writer and artist) and Wolverine: Debt of Death the Japan-of-the-60s extravaganza written by the singularly gifted David Lapham and the rendered seductively gifted David Aja. Both of these books have exploited camp elements of the comics medium to offer stories undreamed of just a handful of months ago. It seems that in a single stroke, DC has reconstituted the entire comics industry. The mainstream of superhero books might be changed forever.

But it only seems that way.

Rather than a reinvention, DC’s ostensible tactic of centralizing experimental titles while defocusing from core titles (if this is what the New 52 truly is) reads like a play borrowed from playbook altogether. Looked at properly, this corporate strategy of growing the company by growing talent is one perfected by BOOM! Studios CEO Ross Richie and the dedicated Marketing and Editorial team he has put together. So perhaps rather than reinvent the mainstream of the comicbook industry, DC has simply leveled the playing field for the monolithic companies to learn from the small, highly mobile ones.

And that might be exactly the rejuvenation the industry needs.