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.
Here’s the counterpoint to Captain America: Ryan Reynolds looks the part, Martin Campbell is an excellent action director (when he’s in the mood), and even DC co-publisher Geoff Johns – the ongoing book’s writer – is on board. But it’s a complete waste of time – all for nothing. The film is a garbled mess, it has no unique selling points, and noone clearly thought whether the highly successful comic property would work at all well as a film franchise. The moment where Hal’s mask is first seen in public drew hysterical, catty laughter in the cinema, for the few moments that people weren’t asleep from boredom or thoroughly insulted by the shoddy script and lazy acting. Martin Campbell has shown he knows how to direct blockbusters (‘Casino Royale’/'Goldeneye’), but either his eye was off the ball here or there was a far more serious series of failures. It’s not unwatchable but it is tedious, the script is terrible and far too much of what you need to know comes from endless exposition.
You know something is wrong when Blake Lively is the best actor in the film. Reynolds simply isn’t up to the task of playing a hero, but he isn’t helped by being woefully badly written. Test pilot Hal Jordan crashes his boss’ super fighter jet – he’s reckless. We know he’s reckless because we have it drummed into us every few minutes. We’re also constantly told he’s unreliable – again it’s drummed into us. Then Hal gets the ring (he doesn’t even show the slightest awe when seeing alien Abin Sur), instead just goes on admitting he’s reckless and unreliable and unworthy – we’re even given a brief flashback to prove his confidence issues come from seeing his father die. So how is this supposed to be interesting? In short it isn’t.
Hal gets a spine when he defeats Parallax (seriously – how are kids with today’s sophisticated tastes going to be remotely interested in an amorphous ‘entity of evil’?), but until that point there’s no moral centre to the film. Bruce Wayne has his revenge, Clark has his upbringing, as does Peter; Tony was just plain cool, but Hal? Hal’s not interesting, and Reynolds offers nothing to make him interesting. It’s a film which does everything it can do badly badly, but even then clearly by committee. I can’t recommend anything about it really. I went off to sleep for about 15 minutes of it. Why didn’t they bother spending more than a cursory few minutes with Sinestro (Mark Strong)?
Hint to DC: if you want us to like your heroes on film, you have to give us nobility (nope, not from Hal), tortured past (nope, not for Hal), wry humour (Thor gets it, Hal doesn’t), or a likeable everyman quality. The Corps wasn’t needed this time around – randomly including huge numbers of characters who aren’t given remotely decent screen time (Kilowog is the moral core of the Corps for example) comes across as a cynical licensing opportunity. Only the post-credits sequence with Sinestro gives any hope for the inevitable sequel, but I can’t really say I care about the prospect.
I’ve had a number of discussions in the last few weeks about diversity in comics, and this scan of the Young Avengers in Avengers: Children’s Crusade #3 highlights pretty much all of the points I want to make. The subject is at the top of the agenda right now because DC Comics have highlighted the issue at the heart of their relaunch in September. In a sense they’re trying to play catch-up – Joe Quesada changed the playing field in 2001 when he took over as Editor-in-Chief at Marvel – Garth Ennis broke every rule in the book with his Punisher, Mark Millar, Ron Zimmerman and Allan Heinberg all started introducing gay characters into mainstream Marvel books, Luke Cage took over the leadership of New Avengers, Christopher Priest broke all sorts of boundaries with his Black Pather, Brian Bendis started writing Jessica Jones in Alias, and Chuck Austen brought an out gay Northstar into the X-Men . It was by no means full diversity – check out how many of those writers are female, but Marvel certainly started to acknowledge that its readership consisted of far more than its white, thirty-something, hetersexual stereotype, and needed to be responded to. If I’d seen Billy and Teddy (above) in a book while I was in my teens it would have changed my entire life.
Looking at DC, they appear to be making similar moves. Wildstorm’s Apollo and the Midnighter are being reintroduced into Stormwatch by Paul Cornell, Cyborg is being placed at the heart of a rebooted Justice League, Judd Winick is writing Batwing and JH Williams III is finally back with the out gay Batwoman. But what effect will this have on the readership? Rich Johnson points out the fall in female authorship at DC across the relaunched line:
Of the 52 new number ones, 7 of the books are headlined by solo women or all-female teams, and several other team books feature female characters (most of them wearing pants, though Supergirl seems to have REALLY missed the memo and even left her skirt at home). But in terms of creators, it’s not a good situation. The 52 titles feature 160 credited creators, 157 male and 3 female.
So did accepting diversity made any difference to Marvel last decade? Dirk Deppey shows the answer was more complicated than just a change in attitude towards the single issue:
Asked in 2003 by readers of the online webzine X-Fan why sales had gone down so drastically in the previous decade, Jemas started out with the same answer he’d always given to the question: because the comics sucked. “My explanation is attached to an actionable and practical solution,” Jemas continued. “Start to write the kinds of stories that those millions of people used to like to read. When we get our mojo working, people will beat a path to our door.”
By this argument, as he continues, rebooting the line, Ultimate-style, could be a dramatic turnaround for DC. Without the same old, tired, comics memes and continuities holding kids and other back from reading the books, the company’s long-term fortunes could improve. Hiring high quality writers like Grant Morrison (one of Jemas’ success stories at Marvel), Scott Snyder, Jeff Lemire, Paul Cornell and others, and putting them on books well suited to their talents, may be a success. I would argue the jury’s out – for every Morrison there’s a Lobdell, for every Cornell there’s a Jurgens; then again Marvel’s approach to writing with the future in mind hasn’t stood the test of time either. Going back to what executives think works – the Spider-Man in-continuity reboot, the X-Men getting into ever more complicated, continuity-heavy, internecine wars, Bendis using the Avengers merely to break things, isn’t challenging anyone, and they may be defeating DC in market share, but they’re contributing inexorably to the long-term destruction of their market as a whole. Hopefully DC will see the value in Batwoman, start risking having far more women in high profile writing and drawing roles (there’s not exactly a shortage), and truly challenge their readership. Geoff Johns and Jim Lee will make a huge splash when Justice League relaunches but it’ll help the long-term market about as much as Joe Madureira on Spider-Man.
So here’s what I’m going to be buying:
Action Comics by Grant Morrison & Rags Morales
Superman by George Pérez
Wonder Woman by Brian Azzarello & Cliff Chiang
Batman by Scott Snyder & Greg Capullo
Batman Inc by Grant Morrison & Chris Burnham
Batwoman by JH Williams III, W Haden Blackman & Amy Reeder
Justice League by Geoff Johns & Jim Lee
Green Lantern by Geoff Johns & Doug Mahnke
Aquaman by Geoff Johns & Ivan Reis
Flash by Brian Buccellato & Francis Manapul
Stormwatch by Paul Cornell & Miguel Sepulveda
Demon Knights by Paul Cornell & Diogenes Neves
Swamp Thing by Scott Snyder & Yanick Paquette
American Vampire by Scott Snyder & Rafael Albuquerque
I’ve got to say this is the biggest haul of DC books for me in many years (at least 20). Thing is though I don’t think it’ll stay stable for very long. Both Cornell books will be cancelled within 18 months (unless Stormwatch in particular really pushes boundaries), Batman Inc will have delays (as will Justice League), and I can’t see Johns & Reis staying on Aquaman for more than a year or so, but the Snyder books are a guaranteed awesome read, Batwoman looks likely to be free to push boundaries and if the creative team on Wonder Woman get it right that book could be very interesting indeed.
The risk of course is that this is all a gimmick. Are the executives at Time Warner (DC’s parent company) really prepared for Superman to look like that for good? Is this a follow on change from Flashpoint which, Heroes Reborn/Return stylee will just get reset after a year or so? They say ‘no’ but I’m not sure.
DC Comics’ films have been over reliant on Batman and Superman for far too long. I can’t wait for this next month – I think this trailer makes it clear it should be absolutely stunning (not to mention extremely close to the source material).
They do still have it, it’s true. And if director Robert Schwentke and screenwriters Jon and Erich Hoeber had played to that, you’d have had a film truly worthy of Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, the co-creators of the DC/Wildstorm book, upon which the film is based. The tone of the adaptation is completely different for starters, sure – Bruce Willis’ retired CIA assassin Frank Moses isn’t a cold, relentless killer with room in his heart only for pensions clerk Mary-Louise Parker, before killing everyone in Langley for trying to off him in his retirement. The film’s Frank Moses instead has friends – the batshit crazy John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman, who lives in a care home, and the deadly Helen Mirren, who although retired still kills a bit on the side. He cracks a bit wise, but the film’s Moses is still targeted for assassination by the CIA, here by up-and-coming CIA assassin Karl Urban, who is as unquestioning as Willis was in his youth and is no less deadly.
The movie fast becomes a good humoured road trip around the US, as Moses tries to stay one step ahead of Urban, who is in turn being controlled by nefarious people behind key figures in the CIA. Will he and his gang stay alive long enough to track down who’s behind the plot to kill them? It’s an awful lot of fun, with Malkovich’s excellent insane act (we need more of him on screen please), Freeman’s normal stoicism commanding every scene he’s in, and Willis is well enough cast as Moses, although the gleam in his eye was occasionally jarring (Sin City proved he can do without). The film offers some quite sharp commentary on age too, with the parallels between Willis and Urban clear, and Helen Mirren effectively stealing the show out from under the men, but for some unknown reason she and her male cohorts are only allowed to burn slowly on screen, rather than explode. You are granted what becomes a rollercoaster ride, sure, but it surely would have made better sense to have taken these larger than life personalities and let them off the leash. The first half of the film also suffers from far too little energy – it takes far too long to get to Malkovich and for the wisecracking to start in earnest; artist Cully Hamner imbued the book with more pathos than the film has, and with less plot to work with.
From the amount it’s earned, ‘RED’ has successfully made a statement about age in Hollywood. Willis and co couldn’t have been more warmly embraced by audiences both sides of the pond, and rightly so – it’s wonderful to see these greats so warmly embraced. It may not be a perfect film – Parker’s role for example is horribly underwritten and occasionally fully out of step with the characters around her, the dark rationale behind the book is ditched in favour of a generic conspiracy theory, and Willis could have been much truer to Ellis’ Moses, but the film gets right more than it gets wrong. Pity that its moments of real bite – Malkovich running with a suicide jacket at the vice president (Julian McMahon), pretty much any scene Mirren is in – weren’t more plentiful.