DC Comics New 52 Wrap-Up…And Our Top 5 Picks!
Alex Zalben: In case you haven’t noticed — and I hope you have — we’ve reviewed every single one of the DC Comics New 52 titles over the past month. It’s been both tougher and easier than we expected, as some titles soared, others clunked to the ground, and still others did a third thing that’s mid-way between flying and sinking.
In order to properly wrap-up the month, my esteemed colleague Charles Webb and I are going to have a little chat right here about what worked and what didn’t work quite as well, plus, of course, the storm of controversy that’s seemed to surround these last few weeks of books.
To kick things off… I feel conflicted. The first week was gangbusters, with some really excellent titles. And throughout, there’s been books I really, really loved that I wasn’t expecting to, like OMAC, and even George Perez’s Superman. But as the weeks wore on, I started to feel a little bit more like it was business as usual, rather than something special and new. That may be the fact that we were away from the initial buzz, the inevitable Internet backlash, or just that I was a little exhausted from jamming fifty-two comics into my brain.
Yes, I realize I just complained about having to read comics for a living. Deal with it.
On a whole, though, I’d say on the business side this has clearly been a successful experiment. I’ve never seen the shops as packed, I’ve talked to friends who have no business knowing anything about comics about the New 52, and the sales figures – no matter how speculative or inflated they may be, are huge. Even if it turns out Dan Didio bought a large chunk of the plus 200,000 copies of Action Comics #1, Batman #1, and Justice League #1, I certainly can’t remember a month that good in a long time.
If you think about this as a blockbuster movie, those regularly lose 60% in their second weekend. Even if DC loses 60% of their sales, across the board, in the second month (and I really hope they don’t), that’s still waaaay better than how they were doing for the past several years. So in total, I’d score this as a win for them, even if I have some concerns on the creative side I’m sure we’ll get to in a second.
What’s your broad-strokes take on this, Charles?
Charles Webb: I’m not sure what I expected when DC announced their big relaunch plan earlier this year. It seemed like such a crazy, big, ambitious move by a company that’s been pretty much defined by anything but over the last decade or more. More than anything else, my reaction probably tended toward suspicion given how abrupt the announcement was, and how in quite of few cases it seemed to cut right into the middle of ongoing storylines and plots, even seeming to take some of the creators of the books by surprise.
Still, this was going to be the opportunity to get comic books out in the spotlight again, to get the mainstream media talking about stories about characters in capes beyond hand-wringing about Superman’s loyalty to the U.S. or Captain America’s patriotism. The spotlight was on the venerable old publisher, everyone was watching, waiting for them to pull the trick they could do only once (every decade or so) — they were going to kill the DC Universe and then they were going to resurrect it as something shiny, new, and most importantly, inviting to new audiences.
Now after four weeks at 13 releases a pop, I have to say that 75, maybe 80% of the books fill that mandate of being new reader friendly. Mostly unencumbered by the baggage of the old DCU, the New 52 is, story-wise, an inviting place for a new reader looking to jump into new stories and see what all the fuss is about. Where it gets tricky, though, is who the new readers are that DC thinks or wants gravitating towards the New 52.
You see, even after enjoying a good chunk of the books put out over the last month, I’m still trying to figure out who they were for and how DC plans on growing the brand beyond people who were going to read DC comics anyway. Too many of them relied on the same tics that defined the previous iteration of the line, the change in creative teams was mostly a game of musical chairs with a few artists turning writer, somehow they kicked the number of on-page decapitations up a notch, and it started to feel like more of the same.
I liked a bunch of the new books, but I only got really psyched by three to five of them. And I’m the guy who’s already in the tank for their books — I’m the reader who’s ready to know more about Batman and Superman.
But you were asking about the broad strokes: I liked a lot of DC books this month but I only fell in love with a couple of them. Did you have the same reaction? I feel like you got a bit more hyped by the New 52 than I did.
Zalben: I think that was true at first, I was super jazzed once I got to sit down with the first week books… Which meant I feel like I had a longer fall than most people, where, by the last week, I was getting a little anguished by, “Business as usual.”
One thing you said that I really do want to add to is who, really, this relaunch worked for, and I’ll say that I’m doubtful it reached out to non-comic book fans. I’m sure there’s exceptions that proved the rule, but I don’t think I talked to anybody who saw a commercial on Comedy Central, and said, “Oh dude, I have never read a comic book, but now I will!”
What I DO think DC was successful at was energizing the base, to use a little bit of a political term. There’s been a very clear malaise going on in the comic book industry for the past few years, with fans lamenting recurring storylines, endless crossovers, and more than anything, price hikes. People I’ve known who have been fans for years have cut down to two-three books a week, or dropped out of comics entirely. There just didn’t seem to be the same level of excitement there, and sadly, its not like mainstream comic fans said, “Now I will start picking up indie books and go to MoCCA more to enrich my soul,” they just gave up.
What DC did – more than anything – was got comic book fans interested again. And not just these recently lapsed comic book fans, but also those who had lapsed for YEARS. Like I said, I don’t think they won anyone new, necessarily, but they did do what Dan Didio said he’d hope they’d do: get a portion of that mythical, million selling comic book audience from the ‘90s back in the stores.
Here’s my caveat and concern, now: this was, in essence, an Event. Like Fear Itself, Flashpoint, Blackest Night, or whatever, it’s a comic book Event that appealed to comic book fans. DC saw that fans were tired of “BIG” comics, even those they’re still at the top of the charts, and decided to trump that, a million fold. And it’s worked. So given that? I’m kind of scared to see what’s coming next… Or rather, what has to come next. This could be the start of something new, but the cynic in me says that, like my initial reaction to the line, the industry – and DC – only has farther to fall now.
Anyway, this is all big picture, and we should probably get into talking about the books themselves… I will say that overall, though I don’t think I’ll be picking up a good chunk of the month one titles, DC does have me on board for a larger chunk in month two than I would have been buying from them the month before. And interestingly, I think that has a lot to do with the quality of the art, even more than the writing.
As books, I wasn’t in love with, say, Batwoman or The Flash, but they’re both gorgeous to look at, and I’ll happily pick up anything J.H. Williams III puts out, or Francis Manapul, even if its just to look at the pictures. Similarly, even someone like Tony Daniel seemed to kick things up a notch on Detective Comics, and newer artists like Adrian Syaf, for example, put out some of their best work ever.
I’ll add that this seems to be the direction DC has been moving in for years now, making an artist-centric line, which seems to be the direct opposite to Marvel’s focus on their “Architects,” the guys who create their plots. What’s your thought on this? And do you feel the line has become as art centered as I do?
Webb: You kind of hit the nail on the head there—to a certain extent there’s a drift towards being an artist-centric line with thin storytelling and a huge marketing push. It’s early 90’s Image right down to the designs, right down the slim storytelling. The only thing missing are the extra pouches and the 501 ads.
And I haven’t been as blown away by a lot of the art being offered up, mostly because the artists have had to wrestle with those new, armor-heavy costumes, but in large part because the same elements keep cropping up across nearly every book: geared-up paramilitary types, terrorists, dudes with five o’clock shadow or generally douche-y looking facial hair, and guns, guns, guns. It’s an attempt to get a house style going but it all feels like 24 by way of Image-era Wild C.A.T.s.
Look, I’m talking a mess of noise here when I did enjoy a bunch of the books that came out over the last month. I’m not going to deny that Animal Man and Swamp Thing were a couple of the best books DC has put out in a long time and I’m looking forward to reading an ongoing Aquaman comic—which is a feat in and of itself. I liked the craziness of the first issue of Batwoman, even if the absence of Greg Rucka was evident. Action Comics, I was a little conflicted on, and hubbub aside, I’m with you in thinking Catwoman was a decent piece of pulpy sleaze (the last page was ridiculous-hilarious, though). Demon Knights was really good thanks to crackling characterization by Paul Cornell and All-Star Western was pretty great. I, Vampire was within spitting distance of a perfect fist issue.
The books that energized me the most were the ones outside of the comfort zone of “let’s get real for real.” Or, putting it in terms that make slightly more sense, the books I was most excited about were the ones that were most excited about being comics and not just pitches for “what if x, but like, for real, you know?” How many books had terrorists as the villains? How many of them had gruesome, on-page murders? How many had someone threatening to blow up, shoot up, or cut up someone else? Way too many.
This was DC’s chance to put their best foot forward, and in a few cases, yeah, I was wowed and wooed, and want to come back next month. But there were so many “buts,” so many books that dragged down the average because at no point did someone think that running down some of the same sci-fi military beats might not get a little old. If I could indulge the cynic in me for a minute, if it is an event like you say Alex, then the New 52 was the all about stripping out some of the fantasy in the universe and maybe making some of the titles more movie-friendly.
I mean, am I imagining that? Did you get that vibe at all that a lot of the new titles felt like pitches for a high-octane tentpole action movie? “In a world where blah, blah, and then Batgirl, blah.”
Zalben: It’s interesting you mention that, because going into the month, the titles I was most drawn to – and the ones that I thought I’d like the best – were the ones with clear movie pitches. I felt like that’s what they were going for, and with the stated mission of reaching out to a new audience, that seemed like a smart idea.
On the other side of things, though, what worked –- as you said -– were the books that worked as comics. Kind of a “duh” statement, but it comes down to what people like Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, or even Scott McCloud say time and again: the comic books that work are the books that are essentially comics. Not movie pitches in graphic form, or TV shows, but those that ONLY could work in a comic. Occasionally, I think that goes horribly, horribly wrong, as, say, Joss Whedon has even admitted they got a little too enamored of “no budget!” in Buffy Season 8. But for the most part in the DC New 52, something like an Animal Man worked because it was Jeff Lemire embracing the comic book form.
To talk about something specific, I had zero problem with the thinnening of Amanda Waller in Suicide Squad, which – correct me if I’m wrong – was the real tipping point for the Internet from “Yay! New 52!” to, “DC is the anti-christ!” The reason I had no problem is because I already like The Ultimates.
Bear with my explanation of a rather obvious point here, but I read The Ultimates, loved The Ultimates, and had no real problem with Nick Fury being Samuel L. Jackson, because hey, that’s cool. And then he was cast in the movies, and that was cooler. So to take Angela Bassett – who played Amanda Waller in the Green Lantern movie – and using her as the model for a rebooted character in the comic book universe makes total sense to me.
Not to focus on this point in particular, but I’m a little unclear on why people thought an overweight, sexless black woman who took no sass was any less of an offensive stereotype than an oversexed, barely dressed floozy who has sex with whoever. I’m mixing two arguments here, sure, but the sexy depictions of Catwoman and Starfire were in dumb books for dumb boys, and they were dumb. I’d have less of a problem with that than if they were meant to be serious books with serious points about female sexuality. By talking about them so much, people made them into serious comics, and that’s bad.
I’m not getting to the point I wanted to make, and that’s that I agree with you on one major thing, that got shoved over in favor of discussing Starfire’s stupid transparent bikini: there was a lot of over the top violence in these books. I don’t think DC has to be publishing all ages books across the board, but if the idea is to get new readers… New readers are young. I get that a lot of them have been raised on violent video games, TV shows, and movies, and you know, our society and its issues of sexuality versus violence or whatever… But it seems irresponsible to me that there wasn’t a single title – except maybe Batman #1 – that I could confidently hand to a kid and say, “You’re going to love this, and fall in love with comics.”
Am I wrong about this? Is this a non-issue? Have we moved past the point where we should even try to give comics to kids?
Webb: I do want to get back to the Amanda Waller thing, because I think the outrage was more than just aesthetic—it was wasn’t simply that DC was slimming down Amanda Waller but that they were narrowing the universe and who lived in it. Waller was a smart, tough, dangerous older black lady who it was easy to underestimate because of her appearance. And implicit in the change—which could simply be a bait and switch—is that there’s no room in the New 52 for that kind of character. I think the Ultimate Nick Fury comparison is sort of apples and oranges because they simply swapped out one form of gritty, hard-talking manliness for another.
I’d argue that the bulk of the new line should have been all-ages accessible. I don’t mean necessarily as light in tone as Brave and the Bold, but somewhere around what you’d get in the DC Animated U shows, with the older-skewing work being the outliers. Have we moved past the point where we’re trying to target kids with comics? Well, DC seems to have moved in that direction.
This was maybe the weirdest thing about the whole relaunch: that there wasn’t a single title targeting the kids and tween set. I’m not sure I can blame DC for making a lot of noise about them not reaching out when the business model hasn’t exactly set the world on fire: Marvel’s Adventures line isn’t selling like it used to and I’m not sure what the numbers ever were for DC’s own Johnny DC line.
But this is me playing armchair editor: why wasn’t there a single book that evoked any of the extensive DC Animated Universe? I think you’re a fan of Young Justice too, right? Why wasn’t the new Teen Titans closer in tone and feel to that? I’m asking this from a dollars and cents standpoint—is there some kind of proven formula that the comic tie-in to the cartoon doesn’t work? I’m asking honestly, here. It feels like a given that if you told kids that while they were waiting for new YJ episodes, they could read about those same characters interacting with the broader DCU, that they’d gravitate towards those books. Instead, what we get are these nearly unrecognizable incarnations of the characters whose stories might be too mature for those same kids and whose characters might be too young for the targeted teen and adult audience DC is trying to woo.
I’m making a bunch of assumptions here, so please forgive me, but it feels like after the partial collapse of the manga industry here in the U.S. (including DC’s own CMX line) the line of thinking was that kids weren’t into reading comics and manga anymore. I want to be clear: I’m assigning motivation here and I don’t think anyone has actually said anything like this publicly, but on the timeline of CMX’s collapse to now, DC has mostly pulled up stakes in delivering stories to younger readers.
And that’s nuts and my logic has to be flawed somewhere because I have to imagine DC suspects that at least a few of the lapsed fans you mentioned at the top of the piece would be bringing their kids into the comic store for the first time. And when the parents scanned the shelves and thumbed through the books with Batman, what did they see: the Joker getting his face ripped off for one thing. Well, what about Blue Beetle? He was on Batman: The Brave and the Bold and he looked cool and was fun—what happened in his book? Some guys got tortured and the top of their head melted off. Green Lantern—maybe they were part of the audience that saw the movie this summer. Yeah, dead bodies all over the place.
Zalben: I absolutely agree in theory with what you’re saying here, and though we’re starting to get even broader than New 52, and into “general problems with the comic book industry,” I wanted to focus on one point you brought up: comics marketed to kids don’t sell.
I’m going to get an even bigger armchair than you did here, but here’s what I think DC should have done, and where they went a little wrong: embrace different styles, but keep it in the same continuous universe.
The problem, as you said, is that nobody – relatively speaking – buys the Johnny DC titles, or Marvel’s All-Ages title. Taking it from a guy who wrote a few of ‘em, they just don’t sell the same way a Fear Itself or Blackest Night does… Nowhere even close. However, also take it from a guy who wrote one of them, there is an audience out there for these books who doesn’t regularly read comics, again, the professed audience of the New 52. At the same time, though, the Big Two have to keep their core base reading, and as we’ve already established, win back the lost base as well. And the way they usually try to do that is by “radically changing” the storylines, but keeping the comics constant. Fans bitch and moan, and keep buying everything in sight. However, you paint something like it “doesn’t matter,” like the Johnny DC books, and they’ll stay away in droves.
However, I’d posit that the audience is willing to go with different styles and tones, as long as you keep it “in continuity.” I’m kind of rolling my eyes about this even as I type it, but sure, have your Catwoman sexy fun adventures, and even a more “mature” take on Batman like Detective Comics. But even more than Animal Man, I think the one New 52 title that connected with everybody was Batman #1.
I may be blocking out some uber-violence in the issue in my brain, I know that there was a murder somewhere in there, but that book felt like – and I think I said this in my review of it – a book you could hand to someone who watched any of the animated series, and say, “Here, read this,” while still being clearly set in the continuity of the Bat-books set up by Grant Morrison. Sure, not every writer is as savvy and smart as Scott Snyder about this stuff, but I wish there was more of that.
Specifically, like you said, how cool would it be – since they rebooted 50% of the Universe anyway – if Teen Titans was basically the cartoon show, with a reminiscent style to the cartoon show (get Francis Manapul, or Juan Bobillo or someone with a younger style so it doesn’t full fledged lapse into – horrors! – manga style), and keep it clean, so you CAN have that audience. I mean, honestly, if they’re going to go ahead and have four entirely separate continuities for Superman running at the same time, as well as various appearances in other books, and DC states that they believe readers are savvy enough to keep up… They’ll also be savvy enough to deal with a Blue Beetle title in the style of anime with no blood and guts.
Anyway. I could probably talk about this forever, and we probably will, but at the risk of wallowing in what doesn’t work, let’s talk about what did. I just jotted down a list of the titles I’m actually excited for issue two of – not just interested, but excited – and I counted sixteen. That might seem like a low ratio, but given usually a maximum of 5% of anything is any good, that’s awesome. That’s a scientifically proven ratio, by the way.
The other really good thing I’d say here is that we might as well call The New 52, “How Geoff Johns Got His Groove Back.” The guy is three for three in my book, with three crackling, fun titles that are exciting, funny, and shockingly more all ages than nearly anything else in the line, particularly given Johns’ penchant for choppin’ heads and limbs. I couldn’t be happier about that, too, because Johns has been one of my favorite writers for years, and recently, it felt like his soul has gone out of it a bit. I’m glad to have him back.
That said! Here’s my Top 5 overall books, the ones I think were heads and tails over all the rest:
2. Animal Man
3. Birds of Prey
4. All-Star Western
5. Justice League
…Which was surprisingly hard to decide, as there were a lot of great things about a lot more titles. I also reserve the right to completely change my mind in a month. How about you?
Webb: Fair point about readers wanting stories that “count” and are part of a contiguous universe. Of course, I kind of like the Abnett and Lanning/last 5 years of Batman under Morrison approach of creating stories in the same universe but then creating your own events that affect a relatively limited number of books (see: Annihilation, Batman R.I.P., X-books).
Simply to avoid overlap—and because I think one or two of these titles could use the extra exposure—I decided to list my five favorites that also made me excited about getting new DC comics:
2. I, Vampire
3. Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E.
4. Swamp Thing
Each of these titles hit on that core value we kept harping on a few thousand words ago: they’re comics and they’re about exploiting and doing interesting things with the form. Where else can you see a sword-toting Frankenstein’s Monster along with the Creature Commandos hacking away at horrors from the deep in an epic, two-page spread? Or call on the last decade of seeming cultural insignificance of Aquaman in comics in a pretty significant Aquaman comic? Alright, maybe not significant, but good and emotionally genuine in a way that was wholly unexpected.
And notice: tonally, none of these books are the same. A couple of them are horror comics but they couldn’t be any different in their approach and articulation. A couple of them are cape comics and they couldn’t be more varied in how they humanize their leads.
So if I have the honor of the final word here, I have to say DC: more of this. More different, bold, varied, new, and exciting. Take chances or going off the beaten path and don’t be afraid to get weird. And keep making comics, because without you guys many of us wouldn’t be in love with comics enough to be complaining about them on the internet.
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