Thus Far: DC’s New 52 at the Halfway Mark

It’s halftime on DC’s New 52, the company-wide relaunch that promises sweeping changes for characters, and implies a return of comics to mass media status. PopMatters Comics Staff Writer Mike (@MichaelDStewart) and Comics Editor shathley (@uu3y324rdry) pick up the conversation over Twitter this past Sunday (9/18).

We talk about why we liked what we liked, why we hated what we did. Muse on where DC might be going and how it got to go there because of where it’s been.

@uu3y324rdry: Ok I’m up… What do you like so far?

@MichaelDStewart: The standouts for me so far have been Action Comics and Batwoman. Innovative, thought-provoking and well executed. You?

@uu3y324rdry: Hmm… gotta be Demon Knights right at the top… there’s a brio to the book that puts genre comics back on the map… And Suicide Squad… that was a headrush… how it shifts between Poe-style body-horror and Style-Network type image-empowerment discourses.

What stands out on Batwoman for you? I know your review mentioned that the reboot felt tangential to the creative project of the New 52.

@MichaelDStewart: Demon Knights is an interesting book. Larger connection to the idea of an expanded DC Universe. Question: Does Etrigan rhyme? That’s a big thing for fanboys. On the other hand, Suicide Squad was an on the fence title for me. Harley Quinn’s characterization was odd and I didn’t know the New 52 was also a weight-loss supplement. But on Batwoman, the way Williams worked directly from Rucka’s refined origin for Batwoman – he didn’t miss a beat. He took risks, but worked within the framework. He mixed art and words, creating something we rarely see in mainstream comics. It felt intimate, yet epic.

@uu3y324rdry: LOL on the weight-loss… Etrigan doesn’t rhyme but he speaks like a real old-timey knight. Merlin rhymes so there’s a hint that at some point Merlin must get his ‘power’ subsumed into Etrigan. Agreed on Batwoman, though; that’s beautiful, elegiac storytelling through both word and art. It FEELS like comics again, rather than the medium trying to emulate movies.

@MichaelDStewart: Demon Knights seemed to pack a lot of characters and concept into 20+ pages. That’s a win in my book, I just wonder if it can sustain itself. Not trying to emulate movies. Or, Batwoman, not trying to emulate video games. Which is one of my concerns with much of the artwork DC-wide, especially Justice League #1. That book looked like a videogame rather than comic.

@uu3y324rdry: I’m curious to see how the team dynamics play out in Demon Knights… there’s this old familiar feel of a Western. These are protagonists rather than heroes. And there’s a powerful sense of being drawn together rather than banding together. This is something that’s happening to them, because of them. Rather than a choice. That’s an interesting spin on the idealism of knighthood.

@MichaelDStewart: That’s a very 21st century thing. Protagonists as opposed to heroes. Very much a reflection of our time.

@uu3y324rdry: That’s a nod on some DC art looking like videogames. And Lee’s art on Justice League definitely does have that feel of pushing towards other media. On the 21st century deal, yeah I think you really nailed it with an earlier Batman & Robin piece where you spoke about Bush Doctrine deployed against supervillains’ families. Good concept, bad execution you argued. Demon Knights has that same “21st century social commentary” feel to it.

@MichaelDStewart: And that video game artwork style is (supposedly) a nod to grabbing he attention of new readers on Justice League. It’s also the evolution of Lee’s style and a retro look at art of the ’90s.

@uu3y324rdry: That Batman & Robin was a Peter Tomasi arc I think… did you have chance to read Batman & Robin vol. 2?

@MichaelDStewart: Yes. I have some concerns. The Bruce Wayne shift in Batman & Robin #1 is disconcerting. Celebrating life instead of ruminating in death… A little thing like that changes the character drastically. Is he no longer a tragic hero? That’s the core of Batman. Is Batman fun again? And it seemed like Batman & Robin reverted Damian Wayne back to the devil-spawn he was. He had grown by the end of the old Universe. Are we starting over with Damian? He’s fine as a foil, I guess, but it’s really a re-invention of the Batman & Robin dynamic.

@uu3y324rdry: Yeah… that seems like a major disavowal of the Batman character, the celebration of life. Yes! On that point of Damian maturing, I really liked his characterization in Gates of Gotham. In Gates I got a clear sense that the other cast were responding to a Damian that only existed in their memories. Do you think between Tony Daniel on Detective #1 and Tomasi on Batman & Robin, DC broke the Batman?

@MichaelDStewart: I applaud re-invention when it makes sense. This might, too early to tell. Reading and listening to interviews with Scott Snyder (another Batman creator) there is this recent trend to make Batman a badass. Batman is not a badass. That’s the Punisher. It’s probably an evolution of the Miller Batman idea, but to a level that I think is harmful. Back to the Damian point. Gates was great with him. Bryan Miller was another creator that “got” Damian. In Batgirl he was still a foil, but had those signs of human growth. Which, no matter the character-type, is essential for the long narrative comics are.

@uu3y324rdry: I like how you’ve got a clear sense of Batman as tragic rather than simply a badass. @MichaelDStewart: It has to be. Or else he’s just another vigilante. Batman is an archetype. It’s what makes much of his publication existence literature.

@uu3y324rdry: Agreed on Batman not being a badass. Well one thing I can say about Damian, one thing I like, is that there’s one creator handling him, so the characterization is regular. Not so much with Batman.

@MichaelDStewart: Batman editor Mike Marts really has a cluster when it comes to the Batman titles. The characterizations are all over the place. They have been for some time. I think Marts is letting them go too loose. Snyder would seem to have the most influence right now as [Mart’s] pretty much taken Morrison’s former role as influencing the character.

@uu3y324rdry: I think Kyle Higgins brought something special to Gates in terms of characterization.

@MichaelDStewart: And Higgins was working from Snyder’s outlined concept and plot. Higgins has a ton of potential. Too bad his Deathstroke was so poorly received. Scares you as to what Nightwing will become.

@uu3y324rdry: Did you get a chance to check out Higgins on Deathstroke?

@MichaelDStewart: Yes. One word review of Deathstroke: forgettable.

@uu3y324rdry: I gotta say… I’m way more charitable to Deathstroke and Green Arrow… they seem standard, solid superhero fare. I’m scared they might get missed in the shuffle.

@MichaelDStewart: Green Arrow was interesting as it was directly influenced by the CW’s Smallville. Ollie was definitely more like Justin Hartley’s character. We’ve seen characters invented for shows come over to comics, but I’m not sure we’ve seen an existing character’s tone transfer over before. Harley Quinn, Static Shock, both invented for cartoons. Now Green Arrow is a reflection of Smallville. Corporate synergy?

@uu3y324rdry: I’m not sure if I distrust corporate synergy in this instance… Hartley’s Green Arrow was much more interesting than the regular Green Arrow… you’d have to go back to Kirby to get me really engaged by Green Arrow as a character.

@MichaelDStewart: And Hartley’s character was an amalgamation (Batman and Green Arrow) for teen soap opera of TV show. Something that Arrow struggled with for much of his publication history.

@uu3y324rdry: Yes! It was great that Hartley’s Smallville Green Arrow exploited a weakness of Green Arrow as a strength. Kevin Smith’s Green Arrow: Quiver was great… but as a story rather than as a character. I really didn’t like the DNA Green Arrow characterization of the ’70s.

@MichaelDStewart: Exactly. It wasn’t until Hester, Parks and then Winnick got a hold of him that he became a real character. I think that Green Arrow characterization was a transition from the Bronze age to the more modern. He was essentially street-level, perhaps too much.

@uu3y324rdry: DNA = Denny and Neal (Adams) creators on Green Lantern/Green Arrow.

@MichaelDStewart: I knew exactly what you were saying, but DNA also works a fitting pun of the make-up of the character.

@uu3y324rdry: That’s a great segue to talking about the big picture. Do you think this is a New Age? (Ha! You’re right on DNA! Hadn’t even noticed that.)

@MichaelDStewart: Could be. Too early to tell. The previous ages came about naturally. This feels very artificial. Like they’re forcing it. Comics, like any medium is a reflection of our larger popular culture. If this is a new age, it might be a bit too late, as culture has… passed them by… by about five years.

@uu3y324rdry: Yeah I’m not too sure… you’re right of course about how ages work… but this feels more like economics than creativity.

@MichaelDStewart: Fittingly, I re-read and re-watched Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier. That was a revisionist (or tribute) to the change from Golden to Silver age. There you had a definite line between the War years and the postwar years.

@uu3y324rdry: Yeah… when was Darwyn… 2008? New Frontier was something else… it had that visual style that was so immersively Sunshine Noir.

@MichaelDStewart: New Frontier the comic was 2003-2004. The movie was 2008.

@uu3y324rdry: Wow… was it that long ago? Its such a large part of my imagination. Almost always feels like I’d just read it in the last six months. That’s an enduring testament to Cooke’s mastery of craft. Every time I think about that book I shed a little tear… it was the visual style James Robinson’s The Golden Age deserved.


But as a reflection on the changing of ages (which are very similar to what ‘re experiencing now), it’s interesting. Like then, we are struggling after a decade of war, economic strife, world in chaos. We are looking for leaders and inspiration, and not finding much. There’s a rose-colored glasses thing going on as we think of the postwar years as an age of wonder, forgetting racial inequality or at least glancing over it. Heroes, comics and otherwise, are hard to find. There is no innocence.

@uu3y324rdry: No, we’re definitely in agreement on New Frontier. You know what I loved? I love how Cooke used the cartoonist as master of evolution and the eventual villain of the piece. I think the first cartoonist to tackle that as a theme was Jiro Kuwata when he did those Batman Manga. So it shows a cross-cultural understanding on Cooke’s part. But we’re agreed, postwar was never Happy-Go-Lucky. There’s a great postmodern line in “Vice” the series finale to Vaughn and Harris’ Ex Machina; “But there really is no never-ending battle. Because sooner or later somebody wins. And somebody loses”. For me that line epitomizes our postwar nostalgia against the lived-reality of the era.

@MichaelDStewart: And I think the brazen anti-hero, badass-ness, whatever we are seeing from comic heroes now is a reflection of our day. So in a sense, it’s a new age, but it’s manipulated by what you said: economics rather than creativity.

@uu3y324rdry: Y’know what I liked… OMAC. That’s gotta be my big surprise.

@MichaelDStewart: OMAC… I think that’s a case of art trumping story.

@uu3y324rdry: There was a story? I thought it was just copypasta from old Dilbert strips. Reprocessed as a Kirby simulacrum.

@MichaelDStewart: Everybody loves Kirby. That should be a webshow.

@uu3y324rdry: I’d watch.

@MichaelDStewart: Comic as workplace meme.

@uu3y324rdry: Ok here’s the bitter pill… last question. What did you hate?

@MichaelDStewart: Superboy and Mr. Terrific. Not because they were really that bad, but they were a wasted opportunity to re-invent and innovate.

@uu3y324rdry: Yes!

@MichaelDStewart: I would also throw in Batgirl to that pile but for a slightly different reason. DC made a point of diversifying their line. How can you have a “diverse” line when you remove a strong wheelchair bound female hero?

@uu3y324rdry: I’m actually curious to see where Mr. Terrific is going to go to get itself out of its current mess. But yeah, that move with Batgirl killed me. My bottom books have got to be Batgirl (I’ll talk to that in a second) and Hawk & Dove. And Justice League International.

@MichaelDStewart: Mr. Terrific is a mess. DC really needed to re-invent or strengthen the origin. It was glanced over in #1 and even then didn’t connect.

@MichaelDStewart: Hawk & Dove might as well have never happened. Not to be too snarky, but it was a waste of paper. JLI in comparison to Justice League: Generation Lost, was a poor showing. They made Booster Canadian? More faux diversity?

@uu3y324rdry: Hawk & Dove was just… Yeah less said the better. It really felt like a phone-it-in. For me JLI is tragic. Because this should have been the tipping-point-book for issues Mark Waid and Alex Ross dealt with in Kingdom Come. This is the ordinary humans’ response to the superhuman. This is failure to resolve potential on a critical scale. And as you said of Superboy failure to reinvent.

@MichaelDStewart: And that, failure to reinvent, is true of much of the New 52 aside from Action Comics.

@uu3y324rdry: Totally agreed on Action! As far as classic DC goes, Action and Swamp Thing are just sublime. But to loop back to Batgirl. What really hurt was (after I got to thinking about it more clearly), not so much that she got back the use of her legs. It was that she lived through exactly that same experience with the Joker. It seems like the moral there is “see you just weren’t trying hard enough last time”. This optimistic aggression seems squarely directed against the handicapped. Something inside me died when I read that.

@MichaelDStewart: Yes. Barbara/Batgirl became almost like a co-ed. She’s Felicity. Except her Ben is the idea of the Batman.

@uu3y324rdry: Yes! Barbara’s become Barbie or even Babs. Somehow innocuous, even a featherweight. Mr. Terrific brings out the rubbernecker in me. It is so glaringly trapped in its own shortcomings that how it does or doesn’t escape these becomes interesting in itself.

@MichaelDStewart From a publication standpoint, Mr. Terrific felt like filler. IMO that’s the summation of the book. And that’s really sad. Wasted potential. Sublime? Philosophically or denotatively?

@uu3y324rdry: I’d say more connotatively. Superman is the Great Liberal Vigilante of Action circa 1938. Or at least connotations only insofar they link back to their ‘original referents’. Snyder deploys all the same tropes/genre as Moore (and Wein) in Swamp Thing.

@MichaelDStewart: YES! Snyder on Swampy and Morrison on Supes are taking the history and linking it back. Which, considering our current cultural trappings (from TV, film to fashion and aesthetic) is exactly what’s going on. Mad Men, The Hour. Playboy Club on TV. Revival of Grindhouse pictures. ’60s inspired fashion of narrow lapels and tailored pants. We are searching for inspiration in the past because the present is just too much to bear. It’s a new battle of excess vs. streamlined/minimalism.

@uu3y324rdry: ¥€$! And yet, Snyder and Morrison both bring a strong creative center to the mix. These are definitely homage, not knock-offs. What you said about the struggle towards a nostalgia economy, that’s dead on. Plus, in this climate of economic uncertainty, political uncertainty, it becomes easier/safer to recap than to reinvent.

@MichaelDStewart: Yes. But I think there is a certain amount of new, it’s just taken in the form of the old because progress in the marketplace seems scary. I think the whole New 52 comes down to something Sean Bell wrote in his PopMatters column last week… “produce good work that entertains and innovates and we have no problem.”

@uu3y324rdry: Absolutely! That seems a great note to end on.