Tuesday, August 28, 2012

TL; DR: The New 52 - This Reader's One Year Later

In September of last year, DC Comics relaunched their line of comics for the first time since Crisis on Infinite Earths back in 1986.  In general, comics fans my age grew up considering Crisis to be a necessary step in the evolution of superhero comics and enable them to reach a wider and more adult audience.

The relaunch of 1986 gave DC Comics a chance to give their intellectual property a fresh start where they felt necessary (ie: Superman and Wonder Woman), and continue telling the stories about their characters that didn't seem to need a rejiggering (Batman).

What nobody ever really talks about is that:  DC spent more than the next two decades trying to fix all the messes they'd created in their half-baked relaunch effort.  The gaps in planning and execution led to numerous attempts at editorial clean-up and we were treated to numerous in-narrative attempts to "fix" the problem, from Zero Hour to Infinite Crisis and, finally, to Flashpoint with dozens of other hiccups along the way.  In short, after 20-odd years of fixing the problems created by the reboot, DC had more or less reset their universe to very much reflect the DCU that existed prior to the "necessary" change.

My initial response last June on seeing the information that DC planned another relaunch - which I read on my phone in the back of a crowded ballroom at a conference I was supposed to be managing - was absolute surprise.

In 2007, I was reading over two dozen different DC Comics titles, and, of course, other titles, too... but DC was my bread and butter.  I firmly believed that Infinite Crisis - leading into 52 and One Year Later (DC's linewide narrative jump forward a year) were going to be well executed, well realized attempts to finally merge the old, Pre-Crisis DC with the current DC, and we had a chance to enter into a new golden age at DC.  For a long, long time I had believed that DC was working on a mega-narrative intended to pull together a DCU that kept the history of the company intact in its entirety, merging Pre and Post Crisis continuities and celebrating the 75 years of publication history.

I have no idea if DC ever rolled out the promised additional characters in the sidebars.  I do know Wonder Woman is no longer in leggings.

Nope.  They were sort-of scrapping the work and works of the past 7.5 decades in order to draw in an audience that had been daunted by DC's history and the internet chatter about how confusing DC had become (that was, at best, half true), and a lot of misconceptions about DC's stable of characters.

I don't know exactly how soon it hit me, but the realization slowly sunk in that, at age 36, I had just passed out of the 18-34 demographic in a final and unceremonious fashion.  DC Comics was happy to have had my money (a LOT of my money) the past few years - but they were going to do something else now.

Over the years I've had email chatter with a few older and former readers of comics, and I watch folks at the comic shop.  I was aware that there is some point many, many comics readers hit where they hang up their guns and declare themselves done with the characters and worlds they loved - at least in trying to keep up in the Wednesday shopper fashion that the Big 2 cater to.  I'd see these older guys on comment threads, sighing and saying "it's been ten years since I picked up a new comic, and this is why I don't miss it", and sometime about four or five years ago I went from writing them off as old, grumpy men to know that this was an inevitability of the hobby.  Something made all of these people move on.


While I strongly suspected the relaunch was that thing for me, I couldn't be sure.  Not wanting to be left behind, I tried out as much of the New 52 as I could afford, and then some I couldn't.

It should come as no big surprise that I'm not reading much DC anymore.  The only monthly books I think I'm buying right now from DC are Action Comics and Superman.  I'm picking up collections of Wonder Woman, and I want to try The Flash when it comes out as a paperback (waiting a whole year?  There's something broken to this business model, DC).  Somehow, I'd burnt out on Green Lantern, and my dissatisfaction with the Johns/ Lee Justice League is probably common knowledge for anyone who follows this site regularly.  My feelings on trying to follow Batman across 25 titles or whatever he has, are complex, but I can say that reading what I've read about the Court of Owls business tells me I don't really want to read those books, anyway.*

It's true that I just couldn't muster the energy to deal with a relaunch of a universe and continuity I'd spent a small fortune upon, not to mention no small amount of time and brain power to understand, write about, excuse and support.  I read a lot of those first issues, and was shocked that the effort seemed so disorganized - that this was what was passing for a "fresh start" when half the books I picked up seemed to be working in media res.  DC Editorial wanted a fresh start from a business perspective, but they had no model for what it looked like to start over, not with 52 comics.  How do you tell 52 separate origin stories?

You don't.  You jump in and refer endlessly to the things that readers already know from the now-dead universe left behind and do a lot of hand-waving that its all new.  You set it "five years after the start of the universe" - for no other reason than that you've for a couple of really nicely selling Batman titles.  You bring on mediocre talent and yes men.  You show a constant thread of what the new universe looks like, but as to whether the stories around that are engaging or not?  A totally separate question.

It's totally worth noting, by the way, that the well-selling Batman titles still have not seen a reboot through two relaunches.  That's pretty crazy - and part of the problem.  It gives DC a chance to try to keep some faction of readers happy while blowing off everyone else, but the narrative problems it creates caused problems in 1987, and it caused problems from day 1 of the New 52 as well.

I wasn't impressed with the "edgy" new takes on old properties, but I also don't believe the new takes will last for more than a year or three as creators come off the books they launched and those creators' takes are replaced with someone else's take, and then someone else's take and the characters get pushed and pulled until what's left is either a shade of the character (see: Hawkman) or what really works for the character returns to form (see: everything they've tried with Supergirl since 1985 - and it always comes back to Linda Lee and the sweet natured Kara Zor-El).  These characters has momentum and mass that's always going to outlive the administrations of editorial teams.

I don't think it will ever go back to what I was hoping for in 2010, nor should it.  Time marches on, creative directions and audiences change.  I'm just not sure something as inorganic as hardstop that led to the New 52 is the way you improve your line.

The New 52 produced a handful of comics I was interested in, from Action Comics to Frankenstein.  It also generated about forty books I didn't want to give a second chance.  And then somewhere around month 5, with stories not yet even really warmed up yet, DC was asking writers to cross over (badly).   Add in the confusing editorial changes occurring within comics (see: Superman), and the occasional bad behavior and excesses of Geoff Johns and Jim Lee held up as the new normal for the DC line (see the plotless and embarrassing Justice League), and I just couldn't do it.

One year later, and I'm stepping back to consider what I want to spend my money on, and considering the various efforts from Identity Crisis to Infinite Crisis to One Year Later to Countdown to Final Crisis to Flashpoint to New 52 to Before Watchmen and having to make some calculations.  Dan Didio and Jim Lee are very good at something, though I can't really figure out what it is other than somehow keeping their jobs.  One Year Later, I've now seen everything the company is (currently) capable of doing narratively and from an editorial standpoint, and any credit I gave them for "working toward something" was ill-placed faith in people who had given me every reason to know better through the various blunders of the past ten years.

Most certainly they're giving the vibe that they're once again working toward something in the New 52, but it's also clear they don't really know how to do it without every issue of every comic feeling like the bullet points of an editorial meeting.  I mean, I'm less privvy to this across the line than I was last fall, but have you tried reading Superman?  Man.  That is some rough going.

Now, it seems that on a weekly basis a veteran creator is walking away from DC out of utter frustration with leadership and editorial.  These veterans are doing something a lot of these guys rarely do, and that's talking publicly or leaving a DC-Editorial-shaped-spot in their comments about why they're moving on.  To my surprise, the fanbase is cheering the exits of these veterans (yes, including Liefeld) - as if we've seen some astounding product come out of the New 52.

I will always contend that the reboot of the New 52 was unnecessary - except to rearrange things for the potential loss of the Superman lawsuit.  What was needed was the focus and energy into marketing that DC finally put into motion for once in their existence.  There could have been a few dozen other options for what could have been the catalyst event for the marketing, but I think this had to be tried to satisfy everyone at DC at the time that it had been tried.  And if that didn't work...  well, you call it a day and the company falls down around you until you hire someone else.  But at the end of the day, I still think its mostly just an issue of ad dollars spent in the right direction and the constant leveraging of the Time/ Warner media empire to point the public back at DC.  In many ways, given the reach of Time/ Warner...  that's a pretty limited success story.

Here's my thing:  The actual product of the New 52 is unimpressive and a creative wasteland.  In every way that matters, the phrase "the comics are only about the comics" has become standard operating procedure. DC seems to depend on the fact that the reader is mostly only reading other comics and has no higher expectations.

In all the ways I ever cared about DC Comics as a sort of Olympus for modern mythology - that higher attempt at storytelling is gone.  Trying to write stories for anyone but superhero fans - is gone.  Any hope for a story that was trying to say something has disappeared.  And that's what the non-comics people are talking about, by the way, when they say that Watchmen or Dark Knight aren't for kids...  they were doing what better books and movies do - and making pointed statements about the world as much as their own genre.  They do not mean:  oh, cool, the girls are in thongs and you get to see people's hearts ripped out of their chests, which would necessitate a hard-R rating at the movieplex.

It may not have been my cup of tea, but The Authority was a nuanced deconstruction of power held by any elite few by comparison.  Say what you will about JMS's failed run at Superman, but he was at least trying to investigate what it meant to be a Superman among men.

I have been happy to see DC try to make their universe reflect our own universe a bit better.  We're far off from the days when minorities simply didn't appear in any way in a DC comic, but want to bang my head on a lead pipe when I see vocal fan reaction against new characters like Jaime Reyes.  Or, when the sales fall flat.  Or, when terrible books starring a minority come out that don't deserve a readership.  And I think parts of DC are trying to work toward a female readership, despite what the internet will tell you.  It's still a terribly malformed effort, but DC has no problem putting female characters front and center as of the last decade.

Still, it'd be nice to have a readable story to go with any of that, recent Blue Beetle relaunch and Static Shock and whatever this thing is they're calling Birds of Prey.

The Big 2 have developed a culture through both accident and design that the worst thing that can happen to a comics fan is that you finally miss "the big thing", be it the death of Character Z, the return of character Y from death, the moment where everything changes, etc....  It led directly to the event-based storytelling and marketing that's driven Marvel, in particular, for the past 6 years.  The hyperbole of the solicits became the hyperbole of the events, and perhaps Marvel has made it work, but DC's events always really meant a return to status quo within two months (see: Final CrisisOne Year Later, etc...).  The challenge has the dual effect of keeping a portion of the readership locked in, terrified they'll miss something and driving the Wednesday habit - but it also means that once you step outside the co-dependent cycle, you realize (a) you really don't miss it that much and (b) its going to be really, really hard to step back in.

Its why the New 52 was so new reader and lapsed friendly.  For about four issues until the cross-overs began.

Fellow comics readers have asked or suggested that I might miss something by reducing my DC Comics purchases and reading.  Here's the thing: I don't miss it.  I've got comics, books and movies stacked up waist high throughout my house that I need to read.  Knowing what's going on in Swamp Thing, no matter how good, just means I know what's going on in Swamp Thing.  And I kind of get Swamp Thing already.

I'm 37.  I've read thousands of superhero comics.  Life is short.  I'm tired of wishing for more out of my mainstream superhero comics and seeing creative teams assigned who seem like hacky fanfic writers, and, as a Superman fan, tired of writers getting assigned who have no love for or understanding of the character and are arrogant enough to think they're going to "fix" Superman by turning the character into something they can understand without needing to write up to the admittedly lofty ideals placed around the character.

I'm also the 37 year old who came of age in an era when DC was insisting comics were for an older audience with Watchmen of course, but was 18-ish when Vertigo appeared and bridged a necessary gap for me as a reader - who forgave untold sins and mistakes as DC seemed to be clawing its way toward the ability to make these characters work for a mature audience - to make a Superman comic something you'd be able to hand your Dad with his John LeCarre novels and say "this is also adventure fiction for adults".  I wanted DC to grow up with me, and that was a lot to ask.  And, I keep wondering when comics in general, are going to find their creators that use the medium to do something bigger and understand that better writing isn't just about looking in the pages of what came before and sharpening and sharpening the same blade over and over.  Sometimes you pick up different tools to get the job done.

It was curious to hear the anger in fans and creators alike that some of us did want to DC to grow up.  I get the complaints about "Dad Comics", but that's the problem...  Dick Grayson can be 25 forever.  I can't.  My expectations for what an adult does and what they can do and how they might solve problems or look at the world are going to grow and change.  No matter how old I get, I will always expect Superman to be between 30 and 35, but I will always want for him to be older in mind, spirit and wisdom.

Comics aren't just for kids, but DC Comics demonstrated their own limitations for what they're capable of, and the visionaries of the 80's are no longer with the company.  It's not that I can't find comics or superhero comics that appeal to me on that level, but it's not going to be found in DC's mainline, especially once Grant Morrison moves on by end of 2013.

Us adults are not as easily satisfied, and I imagine that DC just got tired of trying to make us happy.

Digital comics are starting to take off a bit (I haven't seen numbers.  I don't know how much.).  Brick and mortar shops are reporting upbeat sales.  Where the movies are concerned, Avengers and Dark Knight proved the value of the comics divisions of Disney and Time/ Warner once again.

I'll continue to be disappointed that both DC and Marvel have abandoned kids as a market for comics, but know that the toy aisle is full of the four color characters of my youth is a way that I found unfathomable when I first got into comics - and they can always exploit the comics for cartoons and live action TV and movies - how I got into superheroes in the first place.

Someday the Superman lawsuit will be settled and DC will at least have the opportunity to think about letting Superman slide on the red trunks again, make Lois Lane a reporter and love interest once more.  And when that happens, I'll be curious to see if DC (or someone else) knows what to do with The Man of Steel that was.  It seems like there's so much possibility with the character free from a constraining monthly comic within a universe in which he's just one of thousands of bits of Intellectual Property in a cape.

In the meantime, I'm trying to figure out how to bid DC farewell within my own home.  I need to literally rearrange parts of my house, move bookshelves and items upstairs and out of sight.  I'll be unloading toys and collectibles and comics.  Not the Superman stuff, of course, but...  you know.  My space is not endless.

And there's a new Superman movie coming out in 2013.

*I miss the days when Batman solved crimes, was a detective and didn't just clean up messes his very existence created.
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