Monday, December 5, 2011

New 52 Redux: The Good, the Bad and the Kinky

Taking Stock of the DC Universe Relaunch

Now that I‘ve gone through the whole bunch of individual debut issues (here’s the index for the reviews), let’s take a step back and look at some of the creative concerns and problems of the “New 52” relaunch.

1: ACCESSIBILITY

A sincere effort to make the material accessible can be felt in virtually all the “New 52” debut issues. In terms of sheer information, it was entirely possible to pick up most of those 52 books and get a solid grasp of what’s what.

The only major offender in terms of accessibility is, ironically, Legion of Super-Heroes #1, written by former DC publisher Paul Levitz. The book takes no discernible steps whatsoever to invite new readers along. It just keeps throwing groups of new characters at the audience every few pages, but never gets around to properly introduce any of them. The book might as well have been labeled issue #17. But, again, it’s an exception, fortunately, not the rule.

Also, while the relatively successful Batman and Green Lantern franchises are largely maintaining their pre-relaunch courses without major adjustments, the creators still chose approaches that made sense for readers who might only know these characters from other media.

In Justice League and Detective Comics, for instance, Batman is on the run from the police, just like at the end of the 2008 film The Dark Knight. In the new Green Lantern book, a role reversal between Hal Jordan and Sinestro provides an effective way of introducing the basics of the franchise without hitting new readers over the head.

That said, making those books just plain comprehensible to potential new readers isn’t the same thing as making them attractive and enjoyable, of course.

2: READING EXPERIENCE

a: Page-to-Page Storytelling

For the most part, the storytelling in the “New 52” books is competent and clear. Notable exceptions are I, Vampire, which left me puzzled as to how its two narrative threads are meant to be related, and Blackhawks, which fails to communicate the specifics in an introductory action sequence.

Birds of Prey made me stumble a couple of times. Notably, one scene has one of the protagonists leisurely recounting a rather irrelevant flashback sequence while dangling from a metal springe, until she finally decides to cut herself loose. Which, as it turns out, she could have done all along but didn’t, evidently for no other reason than because there was this flashback that desperately needed to be narrated.

Batgirl and Batwing display their own kinds of storytelling hiccups. In the cliffhanger ending of the former, a police detective points her gun at the hesitant superhero rather than at the armed killer, which doesn’t really make sense; in the latter, the creators fail to provide any kind of backgrounds in the panels, which means the story could be set in Africa, as the script claims—or it could be set in an abandoned warehouse in Brooklyn, or maybe on the planet Tattooine.

And then there’s Hawk & Dove, of course, in which Rob Liefeld is being Rob Liefeld. And if you’re one of those people who say negative appraisals of Rob Liefeld’s art are totally subjective because he just happens to be this totally passionate guy with a totally idiosyncratic style, then you could only be more wrong if Rob Liefeld made a drawing of you.

b: Concept

What’s the idea of Birds of Prey, Red Lanterns, Red Hood and the Outlaws, Hawk & Dove, Green Arrow or I, Vampire? What’s the difference between Green Lantern and New Guardians, or between Batman and The Dark Knight, conceptually? Why are Hawkman or Captain Atom doing anything they do in their books, for that matter? And neither Justice League nor Justice League Dark get close to being team books in their first issues.

It’s odd how many of the “New 52” debut issues fail to establish the basic set-up, or just plain don’t get around to it.

c: Structure and Pacing

Apart from a few titles, the “New 52” don’t particularly suffer from structuring or pacing issues.

Most of the bunch get to a more or less sensible cliffhanger or break on the final page, while some—Superman, Green Arrow, Deathstroke, Voodoo, Batman and Robin, Legion Lost, Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey—even serve up complete episodes with a beginning, a middle and an end.

And then there’s Flash, which actually accomplishes both—a complete introductory story in the first 10 pages, plus the beginning of a longer storyline in the second half of the book, ending on a cliffhanger.

At the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got Demon Knights, which sacrifices its first 10 pages for boring set-up, and Supergirl, which in its entirety consists of an uninspired fighting sequence; both issues take forever before anything in particular happens. Nothing in particular happens in Justice League, Justice League Dark, Superboy, DC Universe Presents or I, Vampire, on the other hand.

In O.M.A.C., the title character just crashes and tears through the pages until he arrives at the end of the book, and in Aquaman, Geoff Johns sits his hero down at a table in a seafood restaurant and has him take a stand on issues that must surely have kept the more prolific posters on the Aquaman Message Board awake at night for years on end.

d: Prose

One of the major issues for the “New 52” debuts is the dreadful exposition many of them are drenched in.

In some cases, like Superboy or DC Universe Presents, the problem is that the creators are relying too much on exposition to tell the story, which is lazy at best. For one thing, this isn’t how comics work. For another, not even a novelist would get away with this type of unfiltered and, as far as the actual drama is concerned, largely redundant infodump.

In Static Shock, for instance, the prose actively gets in the way of the story. I’m not sure what on earth the creators were thinking to clutter up the action scenes with piles of mediocre caption boxes and word balloons here, but it makes the book borderline unreadable. In Firestorm, two sets of annoying caption boxes—one for each of the two protagonists—are constantly vying for attention with what’s actually going on in a given scene. The captions in these two particular books are so pointless and annoying that the reading experience improves tremendously if you just skip them altogether.

In other books, characters frequently show up announcing who they are, what they can do and what they are like.

A particularly egregious example, taken from Stormwatch #1: “I’m Jack Hawksmoor. I control, manipulate and communicate with cities. You won’t catch me with a cape.” And there are many more examples in that issue—which, I guess shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that the writer is on the record embracing this type of phony dialogue.

Laziness or lack of imagination aren’t always the issue, however. In Superman, a good chunk of the prose consists of a supposed newspaper article that’s intercut with the action as it happens, and it’s so wrong stylistically that you have to wonder if writer George Pérez has ever looked at a paper.

In a baffling scene in Green Lantern: New Guardians that’s meant to introduce Kyle Rayner, the hero’s dialogue accomplishes little beyond suggesting that he’s a sociopath who enjoys being casually cruel to others.

And the less said about the prose in Mister Terrific, Green Arrow, Hawkman or Detective Comics, the better.

Still, it’s not all rubbish. In titles like Flash, Batwoman, Action Comics, Swamp Thing or Animal Man, the creators don’t just know how to write prose, but also manage to introduce their characters without having to rely on clumsy, ham-fisted exposition. They’re the exception, though.

3: ORIGINALITY

a: Plot

Short version: no.

Longer version: Many of the new titles—Blue Beetle, Nightwing, I, Vampire or Suicide Squad come to mind, to name but a few—offer run-of-the-mill plots and sensibilities, and that’s nowhere as evident as in the big flagship title, Justice League #1. By all means, this should have been an eye-opener that wants to show people what comics, and superhero comics in particular, can do. But the story ends up lacking the ambition for anything beyond your average action movie, unfortunately.

And in many cases, not even that. Apart from the awkward and heavy-handed talk about social media and the crisis of print journalism, Superman might as well have been published in 1984. Justice League International is another book with typical 1980s sensibilities.

There are Grant Morrison and Rags Morales’ thoughtful re-interpretation of Superman in Action Comics, Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato’s delightful approach to storytelling in Flash or the deadpan madness of Jeff Lemire and Alberto Ponticelli’s Frankenstein, but those are rare exceptions. The vast majority of their peers are content with regurgitating concepts and approaches we’ve seen a million times before, without a hint of creative invention.

There was a lot of coverage focusing on the logistics of relaunching the DC Universe in the mainstream media, but little to none of the actual content. That’s not a coincidence, and it’s a missed opportunity.

b: Characters

Short version: no.

Longer version: Demon Knights is the only title among the 52 (fifty-two) new books that hasn’t existed before in some shape. Even here, though, there are no major new faces—the book is built around decades-old characters Etrigan, Madame Xanadu and Vandal Savage.

If you’re charitable, you can bring up Mister Terrific (a character who has existed for a while but never had his own title), Batwing (a Batman spin-off), Batwoman (another Batman spin-off; the character had a recent feature in Detective Comics but never her own book), Justice League Dark (a JLA spin-off) and I, Vampire (which is based on a strip that ran in House of Mystery in the 1980s). Also, Men of War and Blackhawks, which revamp old war books with new characters.

So, are there any new titles or concepts or prominent new characters among the “New 52”? Technically, there are a few. In practice, though, DC didn’t find room for a single one.

c: Style

Short version: not much.

Longer version: The vast majority of the “New 52” books are drawn either by artists who have been around forever or by artists who draw like the artists that have been around forever.

The debut issues of Teen Titans, Static Shock, The Dark Knight, Resurrection Man and Red Hood and the Outlaws are a trip down memory lane for anyone who read superhero comics between 1991 and 1999. Stormwatch looks and reads like the lukewarm and stale leftovers of something Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch cooked up in 1998. And there’s Jim Lee, of course, the archetypal genre artist of the 1990s.

Then again, granted, you can (and do) get worse guys than meat-and-potatoes storytellers like Doug Mahnke, Cliff Chiang, Rags Morales, Jim Lee, Aaron Lopresti, Moritat, George Pérez, Dan Jurgens or Keith Giffen.

In terms of leaving a mark stylistically, there’s Flash, certainly—Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato are doing some refreshing and exciting stuff in the debut issue. Over in Batwoman, John H. Williams III continues to perform in a league of his own. Travel Foreman (Animal Man) and Yanick Paquette (Swamp Thing) are both turning in the work of their careers—and some pretty unique-looking comics. So does Alberto Ponticelli (Frankenstein).

Greg Capullo delivers a pretty good and distinctive job on Batman. Patrick Gleason (Batman and Robin), Kenneth Rocafort (Red Hood) and Guillem March (Catwoman) have intriguing styles that make their books enjoyable to look at despite the mediocre writing. (And, in Rocafort’s case, despite a frame of reference for the female body that seems to begin and end with 1995 issues of Gen13.)

If somebody gave Aquaman artist Ivan Reis a story to draw that’s marginally more dramatic than the phonebook of Paris, Utah, I’m sure he, too, could do something with that.

So there are a few bright spots, at least. Overall, though, most of the “New 52” art—not to mention character design—looks terribly familiar, conventional and unexciting. It’s not bad, but it’s not terribly inspired, either.

If DC were serious about reaching out to new readers, they missed this opportunity to overhaul the face of their comics. Mainly, these books look precisely like they could have looked 10, 20 or 30 years ago, which may say more about the real target audience for this stuff than anything else.

4: CONTINUITY

DC took care to point out, at every turn, that the relaunch was “not a reboot.”

They weren’t kidding. While a whole range of B- and C-list properties were relaunched in September and the Superman cosmos got a makeover, the Batman and Green Lantern franchises pick up more or less where they left off before the relaunch. Instead of a new, rebooted DC Universe, it’s very much the old DC Universe, only with a bunch of isolated and fairly arbitrary tweaks.

The remit Gail Simone has to struggle with in Batgirl—and struggle she does—is particularly baffling.

In the book, Barbara Gordon, previously known as Oracle from Birds of Prey, who lost the use of her legs after being shot by the Joker in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s popular 1988 story The Killing Joke, is back in the Batgirl role.

Which, for starters, means that DC is replacing one of its more intriguing female characters—can you think of another strong female character in a wheelchair in superhero comics?—with a version that’s not only less distinctive in its own right, but also just another derivative of Batman.

Even taking the new book on its own terms, though, Batgirl is saddled with an extremely unfortunate premise: On the one hand, it re-casts Barbara as Batgirl. On the other hand, though, the events of The Killing Joke are still meant to have happened. So Simone is left to tell readers of the debut issue that her heroine was once shot and crippled, but recently got better thanks to some unspecified “miracle.”

That sound you hear are the gears of continuity, grinding.

Thankfully, Batgirl is the only case of a concept that’s marred so thoroughly and gratuitously by an ill-advised direction.

Speaking of ill-advised, though, there’s also the matter of the purple-robed woman that appears in all the debut issues. Most creators had the good sense to hide her in plain sight, but not all of them—in Resurrection Man, she’s drawn way too prominently, for instance.

And as it turns out, ironically, this particular crossover thread has its origin in Legion of Super-Heroes, the least accessible of the “New 52” books by a wide margin.

Further, an impending crossover between Superboy and Teen Titans is indicated in their first issues, Superman and Stormwatch refer back and forth between one another for no particularly convincing reason, and by now, DC has announced crossovers between Frankenstein and O.M.A.C., Animal Man and Swamp Thing, as well as for the Batman line at large—more to follow, no doubt.

Again, the “new” DC Universe turns out to be very much like the old one. It didn’t even take them a month to get back to the old tricks that were driving readers away well before the relaunch.

5: DIVERSITY

a: Genre

Well, let’s be realistic: It’s the DC Universe, and the DC Universe is a world of superheroes. There are seven books that arguably belong to other genres: All Star Western (guess what), I, Vampire (guess what), Men of War (guess what), Demon Knights (sword & sorcery), Blackhawks (war/sci-fi), Swamp Thing and Voodoo (both horror).

And I’m probably being charitable by counting some of them as non-superhero titles, because four of them mention or include superhero characters in their debut issues.

b: Franchise

Of the 52 new titles, 23 fall on five different franchises: Batman (10 titles), Superman and Green Lantern (four titles each), the JLA (three titles) and the Legion of Super-Heroes (two titles).

This only leaves 29 titles—or about 56 percent—for characters or concepts other than Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, the Justice League and the Legion or their derivatives.

c: Gender, Ethnicity and Sexuality

Of the 32 “New 52” titles starring a single character, only six—Batgirl, Supergirl, Wonder Woman, Catwoman, Batwoman and Voodoo—have female leads, i.e. about 19 percent.

That’s not much, but let’s remember that this is the North American direct market we’re talking about.

At Marvel, for instance, the number was five out of 29, or about 17 percent, in September, so DC isn’t doing especially poorly in this department—particularly since three of those five female-led solo titles at Marvel have now been cancelled and two more were miniseries; leaving, erm, none, for the time being. And 19 percent is better than zero percent, certainly.

Another fact that’s worth noting is that three of the six “New 52” books with female leads are derivatives of Superman or Batman, and only one of the six does not carry the words “woman” or “girl” in the title.

Moving on to ethnicity, seven of the 32 solo books have non-white protagonists: Static Shock and Mister Terrific (African American), Batwing (African), O.M.A.C. (Asian), Blue Beetle (Hispanic), Voodoo (space-alien, posing as Hispanic) and Frankenstein (um, monster). If you leave out the last one, which I believe is the right way to go here, you end up with six out of 31, or about 19 percent again.

Sexuality is a little harder to keep track of, but as far as we know, there’s at least one solo book with a homosexual lead, namely Batwoman. That would be three percent—which isn’t a whole lot, obviously.

The books with more than one lead tend to be relatively diverse, although females and non-whites are in the minority there, too. Exceptions are the all-female cast of Birds of Prey, as well as Justice League International and Justice League Dark, each of which are split 50/50 in terms of gender. (I’m not aware of any gay characters in the team books other than Apollo and the Midnighter in Stormwatch, but I’m sure I’m missing someone; there’s a gay member coming up in later issues of Teen Titans, at least.)

Overall, though, it’s fair to say that, as of the “New 52” relaunch, the DC Universe is still very much run by heterosexual white dudes.

6: SEX

Well, three points first.

One: Only two of the 52 debut issues list a female creator in their writer or artist credits, and both of those credits go to Gail Simone. Two: If you look at the costumes of most of the female characters, you don’t need to be a feminist to come to the conclusion that they tend to be made of less fiber than those of the male population.

(To be fair, I’ve got the impression that there’s been progress in the latter respect, at least, if you look at the line as a whole. I may be wrong, though.)

Three: It should probably be noted that—and this may be a consequence of One and Two—when we say “sexually explicit” here, what we mean is the female breast.

The makers and readers of superhero comics tend to be a timid lot when it comes to ghastly things like penises, vaginas, masturbation or intercourse that involves actual human emotions, so there’s no use even looking for them here. Such things clearly do not exist in the DC Universe.

In fact, even the nipples of the female breast tend to be such a hot-button issue (no pun intended!) that they’re virtually nonexistent. Simply put, women in regular superhero comics, as a rule of thumb, do not have nipples.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the sexual content, which, after all, was one of the more controversially received aspects of the “New 52” books.

Here’s a list of the “sexually explicit” (wink, wink) material contained in the “New 52” debut issues: one set of creepy-skimpy panties (Supergirl); three coy displays of almost-but-not-quite nudity (Wonder Woman, Batwoman and I, Vampire); one extended display of almost-but-not-quite nudity (Voodoo); one socially awkward orange space-alien nymphomaniac in a bikini (Red Hood and the Outlaws); one emotionally stunted, fully clothed mustache-porno sex scene (Catwoman); and, as feared, nary a nipple in sight.

End of list. I’m counting seven.

Given this rather tame lot, it’s fair to say that the subject of sex is avoided in the “New 52” books, most of the time. And when it does come up, it tends to be treated in a conspicuously juvenile or titillating fashion.

Also, on a side note, books like Batwoman, Flash or Animal Man, which include reasonably realistic romantic relationships involving behavior that’s recognizably human, are far and few between. Mostly, there are books like the aforementioned Red Hood, Catwoman or Voodoo, or like Green Lantern, where the hoary old Hero Takes Girlfriend to Fancy Restaurant But Look at Her Face When She Realizes He Just Wants to Ask Her for a Loan! is still good enough as a punch line.

Evidently, the 1950s never ended.

So you could be forgiven for assuming that the average DC book is still exclusively aimed at a male audience.

7: VIOLENCE

Twenty-five of the “New 52” debut issues feature grisly displays of excessive violence, or cruelty, or blood and gore.

I don’t mean people beating each other up or being shot or dying, which happens all the time. What I mean is the really nasty and on-camera stuff. Here’s a rundown of some of the things you find in these books:

  • Detective Comics #1 (skinning and throat-biting)
  • Batwing #1 (mass murder, multiple beheadings, mucho dismemberment)
  • Static Shock #1 (dismemberment)
  • Animal Man #1 (disembowelment, lots of bleeding)
  • Swamp Thing #1 (lots of graphic neck-breaking, a burning and screaming man)
  • Green Lantern #1 (fatal strangulation with a garrote)
  • Batman and Robin (shots in the head, people burning to death, a man being tortured and dissolved in acid)
  • Batgirl (torture involving a garden hose)
  • Frankenstein #1 (skinning of a dog)
  • Demon Knights #1 (a baby explodes, leaving blood stains)
  • Red Lanterns (everybody’s puking blood all the time, torture, gallons of more blood, genocide)
  • Suicide Squad #1 (throat-slashing, burning to death, lots of torture involving rats and insects, among other things)
  • Grifter #1 (eye-stabbing)
  • Blue Beetle #1 (torture, burning, dismemberment, genocide)
  • Green Lantern Corps #1 (genocide, multiple beheadings, disembowelments and dismembered body parts, cute aliens on spikes)
  • Batman #1 (an abused corpse)
  • Nightwing #1 (liberal slashing, lots of blood)
  • DC Universe #1 (shot in the head)
  • Catwoman #1 (lots of scratching and blood)
  • Red Hood #1 (lots of blood, brains and guts)
  • Green Lantern: New Guardians (genocide, disembowelment, burning)
  • Wonder Woman #1 (decapitation of a horse, an arrow pulled from a stomach wound)
  • I, Vampire #1 (stakes driven through hearts, a bloody kick to the head)
  • All Star Western #1 (blood and gore, an abused body)
  • Firestorm #1 (lots of torture and cruelty, including but not limited to children)

Don’t get me wrong. The point isn’t to object to this stuff in principle, and a lot of it—the scenes in Animal Man, Suicide Squad or All Star Western, for instance—fit the overall tone of their given stories. That’s fine.

It’s the sheer abundance that’s notable, as well as the complete tonal clash with some of the concepts it’s applied to. Did the Firestorm book really need those torture scenes? Was anybody looking for a Blue Beetle title where populations are annihilated and people are dismembered and burned alive?

The whole Green Lantern franchise looks like a mean-spirited sadomasochist version of the Care Bears, for that matter. The general sophistication of the plots and characters would suggest that these comics are aimed at five-year-olds, but the creators imbue them with an idea of maturity that boils down to showing how someone’s head gets ripped off.

The most imaginative thing anybody makes with their magic ring in the flagship Green Lantern title is a garrote, promptly used to kill the other guy in a grim struggle. All three spin-off books feature mass murder or genocide. And the cast of Red Lanterns is puking blood all the time, for no particular reason.

In many cases—Detective Comics, Blue Beetle, Batman and Robin come to mind—it seems like the creators spent more time thinking about how to shock their audience into submission with displays of excessive violence than they did on virtually any other aspect of their comics.

In others, like Firestorm or Green Lantern Corps, there’s a sense that the blood, gore and cruelty are intended to cover the perceived silliness of those characters and concepts, and meant to show that, scout’s honor, These Are Serious and Mature Stories That We Are Telling. (Trust me: It doesn’t work that way.)

This makes for a mind-numbingly dull and uninspiring reading experience, and, frequently, a rather disturbing one. For 52 series total, that’s an awfully narrow stretch of the tonal and emotional spectrum that’s being covered here.

8: HEY, KIDS: …COMICS?

Apart from everything else, it’s striking how few of the “New 52” books are making use of their storytelling medium.

The creators of Flash and Batwoman are certainly having fun playing with the comics form, and so—albeit to a less spectacular degree—are the makers of Action Comics, Swamp Thing or Animal Man.

Most of the others seem to be taking it for granted, though. If you’re just looking for inventive comics, the “New 52” books don’t have much to offer.

THE UPSHOT

Well, it’s pretty much more of the same, isn’t it?

I mean, aside from the titles marred by problems like bad art or bad writing, the overriding sense of the whole thing is that there’s not, in fact, a whole lot of “new” in the “New 52.”

That it was going to be the same creators (give or take a Greg Capullo), we knew before. Now we know that it’s also the same characters, the same sensibilities, the same approach to storytelling and continuity and, except for a few arbitrary tweaks, the same DC Universe as six months ago. It seems DC’s stance is that they were doing everything right all along—they just needed to get more people to pay attention.

And I wonder if that won’t turn out to have been a grave error of judgment in the long run—especially because the initial interest in the relaunch seems to have beat the expectations. What if that mythical new reader happens upon a copy of Hawk & Dove or Red Lanterns?

There are a handful of really nice books among the 52 relaunched titles—but isn’t that always the case? That’s not really what you need a relaunch for. Ultimately, this is a wasted opportunity, and exceptions like Flash or Action Comics or Batwoman (or Daredevil, over at Marvel) only make it all the more obvious that everybody else is barely trying.

This is, for the most part, the same old bunch of creators sleepwalking their way through the same old bunch of stale characters and concepts using the same old tired storytelling repertoire as before.

The “new” 52, my arse.

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