The Superhero genre is the most mainstream class of comic book you can find, but the most misunderstood and disrespected by the uninitiated. DC Comics, a company that has been playing catch-up to its main competitor, Marvel Comics, since the 1960s, moved to make their products more accessible to average people this year with an initiative called The New 52, systematically cancelling all of their titles and replacing them with fifty-two titles, all relaunching with a new first issue this past September.
DC has felt the need to make similar decisions in the past, most famously with 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths which also dramatically restructured all of the titles and paved the way for a completely different DC Universe. Whereas Marvel shows more reverence for their history, often providing elaborate and illogical explanations for past storylines, DC will toss out decades of history on a whim and it’s to their credit that they recognize the need for evolution in serialized fiction.
Now that we’re a few months into The New 52, we can analyze whether or not its lived up to its mission statement, mainly to make more accessible stories and draw in new readers with well-told stories that don’t hinge on being familiar with twenty years of comics history. While DC’s decisions work well in theory, they seem to be afraid of taking too much of a risk. Instead of diving into the water, they’re hanging on the side of the pool, eyes closed, claiming to swim laps while haphazardly flailing their water winged arms around.
Is DC really serious about The New 52? Or do their actions run counter to the stated message?
The stated goal of the New 52, according to DC, is to reinvigorate old titles and offer fresh versions of characters for new readers. While DC’s output definitely needed a shot in the arm in terms of overall quality, some titles were doing very well in sales. So, acknowledging this, the powers that be left many things completely untouched by the reboot while others were completely erased from continuity. As a result, we’re left wondering when exactly certain events took place or (in the case of characters that have been removed) who was even involved with said events.
Here’s a good example: Alan Scott, the golden age Green Lantern, has disappeared from the DCU. We’ve been told that he and his other Justice Society counterparts will eventually reside on Earth 2, which is all well and good, but Alan’s absence directly impacts on Kyle Rayner. Alan acted as a mentor for Kyle when he first became Green Lantern and Jen, Alan’s daughter (also known as the adventurer Jade), eventually dated him. Now that Alan is gone, Jen is gone, too. Thus a large part of Kyle’s history is gone as well.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are plenty of new developments that leave fans scratching their heads wondering what’s what. Even something as simple as a sketchy timeline of events would go miles towards helping us understand everything. DC’s refusal to let go of what was successful will eventually come back to haunt them with glaring continuity issues, which is exactly what happened to characters like Hawkman and Power Girl. Plus, the mission statement of the relaunch is to bring in new readers, but if someone who’s never read a comic before picks up a book like Green Lantern or Batman, (and let’s be honest – people are most likely to pick up one of these books with the characters’ healthy exposure in mainstream culture) they’ll find themselves dropped in the middle of a story, asking themselves questions like “What is the Sinestro Corps?” and “Batman has a son?” DC wants to have their cake and eat it, too and it’s going to cause problems in the future.
New in Name Only
While the relaunch updates a lot of characters and gives them a good jumping-on point for new readers, none of them are actually new creations. Can Barbara Gordon becoming Batgirl again really be considered new? Dick Grayson is Nightwing once again. New? Sure, a lot of characters who didn’t have titles now appear in their own books, but these are people who already existed. If anything, DC is actively against anything new, systematically reducing the relevance of characters created after the silver age like Wally West and Cassandra Cain. Most of the moves that have been made are in the interest of preserving a DCU that strongly resembles the comics of the 60s. Sure, the “Not Quite New But Feels Very Similar 52” is not as pithy as what they have, but it’s definitely more accurate.
Diversity for Diversity’s Sake
The Justice League is a gathering of Earth’s most recognizable heroes, each with their own golden age pedigree and status as the DCU’s heavy hitters…and Cyborg, who just so happens to be black. Shoehorning Cyborg in to the League feels like superhero affirmative action; as if Superman turned to Batman and said “You know what? We need a black guy.” Cyborg can’t even carry his own book! While I’m certainly in favor avoiding a fighting force made up of seven white people, it really feels as if it’s the Justice League and Black Friend. Mr. Terrific, who is also black, gained his own title, but does he really deserve it? Is he a character who can sustain his own book? Only the sales figures will tell, but it’s definitely not a book anybody is talking about much.
Ultimate Comics: Ultimate Spider-Man is diversity done well: by taking Spider-Man and making him a legacy character, it allows the mantle to be picked up by a minority. He has a connection to someone people already love and breathes new life into the concept. But, Marvel has always been better at diversity than DC. The Justice League’s problem could just as easily have been solved by adding John Stewart as the resident Green Lantern (which also would have helped separate the Green Lantern movie from the herd), but DC is too attached to Hal Jordan to abandon his spot on their premiere book. So just throw in Cyborg and it’ll be fine!
Same Old Gimmicks
When the first issue of Justice League was released it heralded the new direction for DC Comics. All of the information we’d received up until then was that this was going to be the premiere book and the best example of how things work in the new universe, but the end of the issue teased a fight between Superman and Batman yet again. Seeing those two characters battle hasn’t been new and exciting since Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns in 1986 or possibly 2002’s Hush storyline. In both of those, these skirmishes were a result of the plot and were important to the story; Justice League #2 had them fighting until it wasn’t time to fight anymore. And it’s not just that title either. Batgirl vs. Nightwing in Batgirl #3; Voodoo vs. Green Lantern in Voodoo #3.
Take note of the cover of Supergirl depicting her and Superman fighting: due to the angle of the shot, Superman fills up most of the space while a much smaller Supergirl hangs in the background. Boosting sales of struggling or lesser known titles with appearances by more popular characters is an old standard of the comics industry and in no way, shape or form resembles something groundbreaking. Seeing Batman and Superman fight “for the first time” all over again inspires groans and eye rolls. Shoving characters into books they don’t belong in and having the characters fight for no good reason is insulting to readers.
There Are Girls Here, Too!
There has been a lot of controversy recently over the way DC has been depicting some of its female characters, with Catwoman and Starfire eliciting the most venom. She may have gotten her own title, but throughout the first issue, Catwoman is in various states of undress. In fact, we get better views of her red bra before seeing her face properly. The issue concluded with an unnecessary sexual encounter with Batman, reducing her role in the DCU to the Dark Knight’s Booty Call. Starfire gets an even rawer deal, not only does she play second fiddle to Jason Todd and Roy Harper, she’s been reduced to a mindless, scantily clad, dream vision of what misogynists assume females are. She appears to have very little higher brain function, a terrible memory and propositions sex from her teammates as casually as one might break off a piece of that Kit Kat bar. These are two characters that have proved to be fully capable in their own right, yet they are instantly made into sex objects. Yes, superhero comics are male dominated, both in readership and characters, and more females are definitely a good thing, but not when they’re only there to remind men about bumping uglies.
Even Wonder Woman, the supposed paragon of feminism in the DCU doesn’t escape unscathed. In the first issue of her series, she is seen naked for no reason. It literally contributes nothing to the plot. We have the Internet; we have Cinemax after dark; we even have a wide array of assorted filthy magazines. If we want porn, there’s no shortage of it anywhere. We don’t have to count on our escapist fantasy for our sexual perversions. I’ve always thought that when a male creator writes a story for a girl character that he should formulate it the same way he would a comic about a man. And rest assured, these scantily clad, brain dead females only show up in books penned by men. It’s a kind of invisible sexism that allows DC to say they have titles devoted to female characters, but still parade them around as trollops for fanboys’ amusement. They say their goal is to increase readership, yet they insult half of their prospective audience with women that look and act like a sixteen year old boy’s wet dream.
Look, I’m enjoying The New 52 so far, for the most part, but when I consider what could have been, how DC could have started completely fresh and really pushed its marketing to appeal to those that have never picked up a comic before, I can’t help but feel disappointed. There was a television commercial that didn’t even make it clear they were referring to comic books and some mainstream news items leading up to the relaunch, but other than that there hasn’t been much effort put in. It just feels like once the novelty wears off, the new readers lose interest and sales return to what they were before (or worse) all of this stuff will be quietly swept under the rug and we’ll get the Amazing Return of the Classic DCU. Perhaps it’s all part of a master plan. Hell, it worked for Coke.