DC Talk: Looking for Meaning in 52 First Issues

Late last month, DC Comics announced a line-wide relaunch: fifty-two comics, fifty-two new first issues (/renumbered old titles). This is, depending on your perspective, a bold move that will reinvigorate the line or “a pitiful attempt to con more people into buying the same old shit.” I asked friend and EPA co-writer Nathan for his take.

Grant Morrison and Rags Morales's ACTION COMICS

Greg: DC’s line-wide relaunch probably isn’t intended to bring in a lot of new readers. Not exactly, anyway. Sure, some people who haven’t read Justice League in a couple years will probably check out [fan favorite writer] Geoff Johns and [fan favorite artist] Jim Lee’s collab on the title. But mostly the relaunch seem designed to stoke a lot of short-term interest with superhero comics’ perpetually shrinking core buyer base. At best, the relaunch will bring back readers like you and me (hence this conversation, in which I will probably overstate my particular value to the serial genre comic marketplace)—people who are deeply familiar with DC characters, and who may have stopped buying monthly comics but are still eager to read (and totally fine with paying for!) well-crafted superhero stories. We are the people DC could get. But with the exception of Grant Morrison’s new take on Superman in Action Comics, I don’t expect to be gotten by any of it.

Across the fifty-two first issues that DC solicited earlier this month, there’s a conspicuous lack of new talent. Marvel has had DC beat, writer-wise, for years, and by a pretty large margin. If there was an ideal time for DC to bring fresh creative talent into the fold, it would be now. Instead we’re witnessing what amounts to a reshuffling of the deck, with some of DC’s current writers taking on new titles, and some staying on their current ones. Also puzzling: the seemingly haphazard mixing of old and new continuity we’ll be seeing throughout the DC relaunch. Granted, some elements of the larger DC narrative will always stay the same—Superman will always be an orphaned immigrant from Krypton—but the apparent picking-and-choosing smacks of laziness and the failure of DC editorial to oversee any proper, consistent world building. (Apparently Johns’s dickweed zombiefest Blackest Night will have taken place in the new DCU; I’m guessing Final Crisis maybe won’t have.)

As a hardened wait-for-trader, it’s not really my place to talk about the effect on comics retailers, but: writer-storeowner Brian Hibbs has also suggested that the market almost definitely can’t support all of these fifty-two books. When many of these new comics flop, retailers will get hit first, and hit hardest.

…But if you’re comfortable with speaking more negatively, let’s discuss the following: As Tucker Stone noted, it’s hard to have a conversation about the relaunch on terms other than those established by DC PR. Here’s a way of thinking about the DC relaunch that is not on those terms: One can both enjoy the tropes, rhythms, recurring narratives, etc of superhero stories and also agree that most serial superhero comics are, as the general public might assume, gaudy, derivative, and often exploitative. In fact, part of being a responsible, grown-up consumer might be admitting that even if you liked Batman: The Animated Series, a comic which positions Harley Quinn’s boobs as its central selling point is still pandering trash. And the relaunch makes this admission way easier. It’s impossible to ignore the cynicism and shortsightedness behind the move. Agree? Disagree?

Geoff Johns and Jim Lee's JUSTICE LEAGUE

Nathan: I basically agree with most of your misgivings, so allow me to throw some nuance into your arguments. For starters, while it is true that Marvel has been cultivating an unbeatable stable of writers over the past few years, I thought that there had been a few positive signs that DC was starting to do the same. Obviously Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison were the main draws, but there was also the surprising switch of Paul Cornell from DC to Marvel, where he took over a Lex Luthor serial in Action Comics; also, DC seemed to be adding newer, more idiosyncratic talents like Scott Snyder and Nick Spencer (although Spencer has since become Marvel exclusive). I was hoping that maybe this was the start of a DC editorial that was committed to all of its writers, outside of the few bankable superstars they can rely on to keep Batman and Green Lantern profitable.

In a way, though, this is why so much of the news re: creative personnel in the DC relaunch disappoints me even more. I understand there are financial and contractual reasons for not initially offering much in the way of “fresh creative talent in the fold,” as you say, but this just seems like a dismal list of 52 books for so many reasons (Liefield!). You seem to be only mildly intrigued by Morrison’s Action Comics and maybe Geoff Johns and Jim Lee’s flagship book Justice League. Rifling again through this list of 52, I would add Azzarello’s Wonder Woman, Snyder’s Batman and Swamp Thing, Cornell’s Stormwatch and Demon Knights, Lemire’s Frankenstein: Agent of Shade and Animal Man, the new Resurrection Man and Sgt. Rock series, the perennially-delayed Batwoman series, and perhaps also Johns’ continuing Green Lantern adventures or his new Aquaman. These books all have writers who at least have the potential to tell interesting stories, but will the mandates of DC-nu editorial continuity overrun all these unique voices? As we have seen, only Morrison’s stuff seems to be immune to the tonal homogenization of Johns and DiDio’s DC (the “too-many-crises” era).

Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang's WONDER WOMAN

So yeah, you can find reasons to be optimistic about some of this. And it’s not like I’m personally offended by the concept of relaunching DC’s entire core continuity, as long as it leads to better stories. But I don’t get a sense (and maybe I won’t until the end of Flashpoint, which I admit I haven’t been reading) that there is any particular thread or concept that makes the relaunch of some of these titles necessary. Reading through the solicits, I am confused as to why some titles seem to be relaunched, “ultimatized” versions of core continuity books, while for others the new #1 stamp is more cosmetic. If, as you say, Blackest Night remains in this new continuity, did the events of that book happen before or after Superman was revealed as “the first superhero”? How will Batman Inc. now fit into a world where Bruce Wayne is just starting to become Batman? Obviously more will be known as Flashpoint approaches its end, but for now this all feels arbitrary, and also kind of sad, given the number of good DC titles probably canceled in the wake of this.

My biggest fear is that the DC relaunch will feel too much like what came before: sordid, 90s-like “adult-friendly” superhero fare, relying too heavily on the most easily tradeable “nostalgic” versions of beloved characters, written by writers who trade mostly on cool-looking, comic book-y “moments” and drawn by artists who can only put out a book every few months unless augmented by a fill-in artist )or several). Even if the initial list of 52 isn’t that great, though, I’m hoping that the market will start eliminating the most egregious looking books, like Harley Quinn’s Ass in Suicide Squad.

HARLEY QUINN'S ASS in SUICIDE SQUAD

Greg: My understanding of DC’s new status quo is that most comics will be starting in media res–with Batman, Superman et al having been around for a while–while a select few titles document the early years of a character. Morrison’s Action Comics, I believe, is one of these titles. Which, I am excited about this book! Some fans of Morrison seems to be growing tired of his stint on Batman, if you believe the blog chatter, but I can’t get enough of it. I’ll approach pretty much anything Grant Morrison writes in good faith for the foreseeable future.

I’m less intrigued than you by the other books mentioned–I’ve checked out several things by Paul Cornell, only to wonder what the fuss is about. And while I can’t dismiss Aquaman as a character out of hand (anyone tempted to should check out Colin Smith’s eloquent defense of Aquaman), all Geoff Johns’s efforts w/r/t characters like him and Hawkman just remind me that not all superhero properties were created equal, although they were created for children.

Jeff Lemire and Alberto Ponticelli's FRANKENSTEIN: AGENTS OF SHADE

I was moved by Jeff Lemire’s pastoral drama Essex County, to the point where I’ve avoided his DC work to date simply because the notion of him slumming on a monthly Superboy title bummed me out. But Frankenstein might be the title that turns me around–if Lemire can apply his knack for understated character writing to the underside-of-the-DCU weirdness of Morrison’s Frankenstein miniseries from a few years back, it could be one of the standout titles of the new line. (And, if the direct market performance of Xombi is any indication, one of the first to get the axe anyway.)

A closing question: let’s say we live in a world where new readers, coming right off the street, only vaguely familiar with DC’s characters, do indeed walk into comic shops this August. They want to check out some of the new DC books, and can afford to pick up three of them. What do you recommend, and why?

Nathan: See, that seems like a disaster-in-the-making, to have all these disparate timelines and continuities flitting around–or maybe that’s all Geoff Johns-ish metacommentary on how DC’s attempts to tamp down their continuity always lead to further ridiculous extrapolations and plot holes later down the line (Zero Hour). It also sounds like another excuse to get back to the most “classic” versions of characters, which disappoints this fan of 90s-era bearded Aquaman (at least, when he was being written by Morrison in JLA). Are some of these books expected to eventually make their way up to the DC “present”? [Greg: generally, yes.] And so far, I’m not seeing what any of this has to do with Flashpoint, which seems to take place in another timeline that makes even less sense than usual.

Of course, even the most egregious continuity discrepancies matter nothing to me if the story is good. Unfortunately it will be difficult to tell which books are worthy in the long run, but surely Action Comics is one of them. That is definitely an October book I would recommend for a new reader, and given that it catalogs the early days of Clark Kent in Metropolis, maybe it will amusingly invoke the goofy 60s Mort Weisinger era the way Morrison retconned Batman’s kid-friendly outer space adventures as secret acid trips or whatever. So that would be recommendation #1. Beyond that, it makes sense to go with Johns and Lee’s Justice League, which I hope starts with a hook as strong as JLA (and not something like James Robinson’s current series, which I now avoid out of spite). My last recommendation would be Scott Snyder’s Batman. Recommending a Batman book seems logical, and the stuff Snyder and Jock are doing on Detective Comics right now stacks up to Morrison, in my opinion.

Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's BATMAN

I wonder, though, if my preferences will be shared among DC fans, and if overall the market will favor the retro, “origin”-flavored books while ignoring those set in the ostensible present and/or written by Scott Lobdell. Surely none of the books of the new DCnU are immune to failure, but I remain optimistic that this could be the start of a new and better DC, if not now, then whenever they wise up and start stacking their writing decks with Morrison acolytes the way Marvel has been doing for years. That, to me, is the way to get more readers into comic shops, not by seducing them by reverting to the most familiar Super Friends brand of a beloved media character.

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