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DC: The New 52 – How Much Is New?

Posted on Thursday, October 6, 2011 in comics, culture

The answer is not very much, but that’s not to say there isn’t radicalism there. The point of the DC Comics reboot last month was purportedly to inject an entirely new approach to existing properties – largely by embracing greater diversity in order to woo audiences into comics who had thus far been alienated by the same old, often sexist, super human punch ups and endless events. In order to achieve that they needed to take some huge risks, and balance competing demands from licensing (which won’t stand for, say, Batman no longer looking like Batman), existing readerships (who were loyal although not growing), and a potential audience they knew was there, but of whom they knew very little. What got was this:

  • DC’s more adult orientated characters and ethos are now at the heart of the superhero line. Swamp Thing by Scott Snyder doesn’t alienate long-term Moore and Veitch fans, and offers an extremely dark tone by the American Vampire writer, right alongside Superman, Batman et al. Animal Man, Justice League Dark, I, Vampire and other books are also taking a much more mature and far darker look at the DC Universe. So far this appears to have been a triumph, and an unexpected one – generating huge word of mouth online.

  • Refreshed books. Batman, Flash and Aquaman are notable (very) high points in this strand. Their continuity may not be fully intact from before the relaunch (minor but significant changes), but Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo, Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato, Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis have distilled the essences of their characters into fantastic first issue reintroductions to them. All characters now have more potential than they have had in years, scribed by writers who clearly adore them, and depicted by artists raising their game to the very top flight.

  • Unchanged books. Green Lantern most notably hasn’t discernibly changed at all. It probably made sense, given DC/Warners’ eagerness to exploit the property in films, but Green Lantern #1 continues right where #67 left off, with writing and art team intact. Given that this has recently been the company’s highest seller, why mess with it?
  • Wildstorm properties are folded into the DCnU. Voodoo, Grifter and Stormwatch aren’t taking strident risks, but, as after the Crisis on Infinite Earths, they are examples of properties acquired by DC being brought into its shared line. No Captain Atom or Blue Beetle, rather co-publisher Jim Lee’s creations; they’re symbolic books, likely to have wildly differing sales and lifespans.
  • Pandering to the crowd. Catwoman and Red Hood and the Outlaws most notably aren’t offering anything new at all. Judd Winick and Scott Lobdell are, for the most part, delivering 90′s comics to a 90′s audience. There’s bound to be a hardcore who’ll buy it, but you have to wonder what the point of the reboot was if you’re going to continue, even in part, with a strategy which wasn’t delivering sales to rival Marvel’s. Both books represent retrograde steps for their principal characters (Selina and Koriand’r) who have previously worked terrifically well, with genuinely innovative takes by Ed Brubaker and Marv Wolfman.

  • Ultimisation. Hardly a surprising tactic, given the way Marvel refreshed Spider-Man under Brian Michael Bendis in 2001, and DC have essentially tried the same with a number of their properties. Teen Titans is a case in point, offering little genuinely new, other than having a blank slate with which to define the characters as writer Scott Lobdell sees fit. None of them are doing anything different though, and it’s bizarre commissioning Lobdell to write it – it’s like asking Chris Claremont to reboot the X-Men now. Jim Lee and Geoff Johns’ Justice League is also a clear case of ultimisation, and will sell terribly well, but for how long after they leave? Most strangely Superman has also fallen under this strategy (at least in his self-titled book). George Pérez may be an all-time great in the industry, but has only offered meta textual musings about the media, and nothing whatsoever new about Clark in his first issue. Mark Waid didn’t need to invent Kryptonian armour to sell truckloads of books about Clark Kent in the 90′s – Kingdom Come sold because of superb writing and art.
  • Some genuine risks are also being taken. Batwoman and Wonder Woman are good examples of something genuinely new at DC. JH Williams III & W Haden Blackman offer us an out lesbian superhero, with very non-traditional artwork and a world unlike any other female DC character’s, whilst Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang reboot Princess Diana into a horror-based pantheon of Gods and noir storytelling. These are prime examples of what I was expecting from the line-wide reboot – aiming existing and new characters at entirely new audiences.

So it’s a mixed bag. Stormwatch may be a good book, but Warren Ellis & Bryan Hitch took dramatic risks with the book 10 years ago, the likes of which Paul Cornell is unlikely to match. Firestorm, Nightwing and Legion of Super-Heroes aren’t offering anything whatsoever new, whilst Batwing, Demon Knights, Men of War and OMAC are unlikely to develop sales high enough to keep them afloat for more than a year. The question also remains about how long writers like Snyder and Lemire can remain at DC without being poached by Marvel. I’m not thoroughly convinced the experiment will deliver the results they claim they were after, at least not long-term, and certainly not line-wide. Marvel properties tend to be inherently more popular than DC’s, and I don’t get the sense that they’re prepared to take real risks where it matters – Pérez for example is already off Superman, to be replaced by Dan Jurgens, the man who killed him in…the 90′s. I thought the reboot would be a case of all-or-nothing, but it’s clearly not. Bob Harras has clearly recruited a surprising number of his allies from his time as editor-in-chief at Marvel, but even sales successes like Heroes Reborn weren’t successful for more than a few months on his watch.

It’s great that they’ve brought an excitement long missing back to the comics industry, and there’s no denying it’s having a powerful effect on sales and the industry, but I don’t see much that will keep the long-missing new audience there. A new costume for Superman won’t impress new readers and will alienate the existing base. Having far too few women writing and drawing their books won’t bring women in, and there’s a real risk that Scott Lobdell is, without irony, going to write a stereotypical gay man into the Teen Titans. Marvel, itself taking very few risks right now with its mainstream books, most recently found sales success with 5 Ronin – books which offered vastly different takes on existing top flight characters. Wonder Woman and Batwoman desperately need to be accompanied by other titles by unexpected creators, offering something genuinely new. I acknowledge that Scott Snyder is innovating in Batman, offering a highly engaging experience to a more adult, cinema-aware audience and his existing Vertigo fan base alike, and Grant Morrison may be making waves with his take on the Superman origin in Action Comics, but the ‘new 52′ line as a whole though isn’t sharing this ethos equally, and unless it does, the excitement outside of this handful of notable exceptions is likely to fade.

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