"I'll Be Rooting for You": DC's Grand Pop Cultural Experiment One Year On
Just as music should never be harmless, pop culture should never diminish those who read it. If DC's proven anything over this last year, it's that the grander experiment of pop culture can succeed even for a genre as marginalized as superheroes.
"I'll be rooting for you," Green Lantern Hal Jordan says as possibly his last words to the Justice League just before he teleports out. There's a salute, a wry smile, and a glint in his eye. This will be Jordan's last time leaving the League's satellite base, you can already sense that even as the teleporter flickers into action. The panels directly preceding this one detail perhaps one of the most heroic moments in the New 52 -- the League was disgraced by villain David Graves, manipulated into infighting in front of the world's news cameras. Their credibility in the public eye was shattered. But what if one Leaguer took all the blame? "You don't have to do this, Lantern," Batman protested against Jordan's decision to play the scapegoat. "No," Jordan replied, "but I should."
What makes the moment a magical one, is everything that doesn't appear on the page. It's how DC Entertainment's Chief Creative Officer and Justice League series writer Geoff Johns leverages a problem, into building a new mythology for the characters. Traditionally the Justice League book (strongly associated with the birth of the so-called Silver Age), had been a showcase for the more modern heroes. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman had all enjoyed unbroken publication since the War, or just prior. They'd been established as classics.
But in the mid-'50s, as things just began to settle down, and as a species we began to settle into the idea that there might be new horizons to aim for. Updates of older, more worn heroes emerged. The Flash, no longer a Mercury-styled super-speedster, was recast as Barry Allen, CSI with the Central City PD. A man of science, he was the promise of atomic science and moon landings, and the villains he fought were equally science fictional. Hal Jordan would not only face cosmic threats as the new Green Lantern, but he would stare down danger as a push-the-envelope test pilot in his day job.
The problem that emerged then, the problem that Johns so elegantly addresses, is one that dates back to this era. The problem is how to showcase these new heroes, on the edge of a new tomorrow, without disavowing the longstanding heroes with more classic powers, heroes like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Between the publisher's own loyalty to their earlier creations, and the dynamics of a group-book where new characters only get a page or two in the spotlight, Green Lantern and Flash, and later Green Arrow, Red Tornado, Black Canary became de facto second tier characters.
The problem that Johns so elegantly addresses is how to find a place to evolve the unique character of each of these new superheroes, within the constraints of a team book. With Hal Jordan falling on his sword to save the reputation of the Justice League, Johns has done exactly that. He's given longstanding fans, and new ones just taking their first steps into the mythology, a portrait of a League where every member contributes to the core idea of the League.
And it needed to be done in Justice League. As much for DC as a publisher, as for the idea of the New 52. Justice League was the book that inaugurated the Silver Age. Justice League was the very first New 52 book to be published, and the very last title to have its 12th issue published. The story of Justice League as a New 52 title, is also the story of the New 52 itself. Looking back on the New 52, it's easy to see it for the experiment it was intended as. It is perhaps the boldest experiment in the history of the comicbook industry to date. What if, an entire fictional universe could be rebooted? With if, no decades of publication history made it into the mix? What if, we could start from scratch, start all over again, with everything?
The experiment belies a deep commitment to the core values of popculture itself. And to values that began to emerge during the late Renaissance after Gutenberg developed the printing press based on movable type. And values that connect deeply with the notions that underpin and course through the idea of rock 'n' roll. The idea is really best expressed as a choice. Would you like your art locked away and idolized for all time, far outside of your reach? Or would you prefer your popculture to be an ideal, expressed in your own lifetime, reiterated every generation, perfectly relevant to you, before it's handed down to the next generation?
The choice has profound implications for how we orient ourselves in relation to our art, and in relation to ourselves. It's a choice about what we expect from our art and our stories, and from ourselves. Will our art diminish us, by being perpetually out of reach? Or will our art empower us by walking amongst us, immersing in our lives? DC's continuity-wide reboot of its characters and their settings is a statement about the underlying mythic architecture of the company's creations. Is there a way for the pure ideas of these superheroes to shine through? And can that idea itself speak to large groups of people? This is the engine that lies at the heart of transmedia. This the reason why 100s of 1000s of young families stood in line for midnight screenings of The Dark Knight Rises. And why a madman manipulated the iconography from the earlier movie when he committed mass murder in Aurora.
Over the course of the last year, the first year of the New 52, we've Aquaman (really a marginalized figure throughout the character's publication history), be threatened with losing that inner peace he's just regained. We've seen Flash fight for the love of the city he loves and always fights to save. We've seen the Suicide Squad enact black ops sanctions, on American soil, against a fearsome cultish terrorist threat. We've seen Wonder Woman struggle with her newly discovered role as demigod. And perhaps more than anything else, we've seen the idea of space emerge. The idea of there being space for these profound stories that have impacted into our lives for so long, to impact at an even higher level.
It is the idea that Robbie Robertson of the Band articulated so beautifully when he expressed, "Music should never be harmless." It is the idea that music is already immersed in the greater work of pop culture, and that pop culture is itself something alive in the minds and in the everyday behaviors of the people who interact with popculture. If DC has established anything over the course of the past year, it's this: their firm commitment to the idea of pop culture itself.