Been happy to check out “The New 52” from DC comics this past month. I can’t say that I’ve been all that impressed, but it’s still fun checking out comics once again. As far as the positives are concerned, the best thing about “The New 52” is that it allows new fans and old fans like me a chance to either check out some of the most well-known comic book characters for the first time or get reacquainted with them while starting off fresh. The idea of a re-launch of these characters is a bit misleading, however. Unlike the Ultimates from Marvel, “The New 52” don’t start from the beginning with these characters, at least in the books I’ve picked up. This is a good and a bad thing. The good: DC pretty much assumes that the reader has SOME idea of who these characters are, so they don’t waste time with retelling origin stories. We know Batman doesn’t have superpowers and protects Gotham, Superman is pretty much invincible, The Flash is super fast and so on. It’s nice to be given some credit for being an intelligent reader. However, while sort of starting over is nice, by not going all the way back to the beginning of any given hero, part of the fun of a re-launch is seeing how a new writer and artist tackle the origin story we all thought we knew.
Another aspect of the new books that is a bit unfortunate is that by not going back to square one, it basically feels like a big money grab. While the titles seems stripped down and a fresh start is there, ultimately a closing down of one numbering sequence just to start another sequence seems kind of pointless. The more number ones produced, and this goes for both of the big companies, the less special a number one becomes. Also, one of the things I loved about comic collecting was the massive run that so many of my books had. I remember thinking when I picked up my first X-men (I guess I should call it Uncanny) that it looked cool. (If memory serves it was #167.) After that I went on an unbroken run of nearly one hundred issues. More importantly, I went into comic shops looking for back issues I could afford and catching up on the history of the books and the characters. By re-launching, yet not really starting over some of that fun, that discovery is lost. It’s even worse with Marvel, who seem to be retelling the origin stories all the time, going back to number one, there doesn’t seem to be any attempt to tell a long running story. Once the sales slip on a title especially if it’s a historically popular character, stop the titles and start it all over again. I suppose with the internet and so many of the books collected into trade paperbacks getting the back story and the back issues for that matter, has become much easier. There isn’t a need to search, or at least search very hard, for these stories, because a quick google search will net pretty much all one needs to know about any given title. Not to sound like a cranky old man, but that saddens me. I loved bargain hunting, treasure hunting for books to fill out my collection. I remember what a thrill it was to find Uncanny X-Men #150 and only slightly more than cover price and how I dreamed of having enough money one day to buy X-Men #94. I even went to the rare books collection at Michigan State University and read comics when I needed a break from research. Now, there’s no need for that sort of thing. One doesn’t need to be a collector of comics, just a reader.
I’ll admit, I’m not interested in all of the new titles either, 52 new books is just too much, so just like when I was younger, I’ve picked a few and I’m sure I can be swayed toward others, like Animal Man for instance. It has been getting rave reviews and it seems to have an edge to it that the other books don’t. I most definitely will be steering clear of Cat Woman and Red Hood and the Outlaws. Not only has there never been a good Cat Woman title, the overt sexploitation of the women in these titles just goes beyond the pale. The argument can be made that pretty much all comics treat women the same way, but that isn’t exactly true. First, when women aren’t even in the stories, it’s hard to consider them being made into strict sexual objects. I suppose one could argue that by not being in the book at all then women are marginalized. But seriously, when Batman is beating the crap out of the bad guys in Dark Knight #1, I don’t necessarily think the role of women needs to be present, let alone desired. Sometimes I just want to see the hero beat the villain. For a much better critique of the whole issue, check out this great piece here. Also, I’ve yet to pick up Brian Azzarrello’s Wonder Woman, but I can’t imagine his characterization will read quite like a fanboy wet dream. It is worth mentioning as well that Batgirl #1 was really good. We’ll see if it keeps up, but overall the beginning of the story was very engaging, even mysterious as to how exactly did Barbara Gordon get her ability to walk back? Overall the books that I’ve read have been fun, I’m a little disappointed in JLA and Superman has never really done it for me. However, I was very surprised at how much I liked JLA Dark and Flash. The coming months should be fun in those two books to say the least.
I’ve been kind of happy with the artists on the new books, but the writing has been, at best uninspired. Wow, that is a luke-warm sentence if I’ve ever seen one. However, on both sides of the issue, illustration and writing, for all the bells and whistles, nothing is really pushing the genre, stretching the limits and range of the superhero comic. We aren’t see a reimagining of characters like Todd McFarlane brought to Spider-Man, or the amazing work of Frank Miller first on Daredevil then Batman. No, more blood and more naughty words aren’t pushing the envelope it’s just lazy at this point. Along the lines of Miller, especially as a writer, no one that I’ve seen is doing something special with any of these books; no one is resurrecting a character or taking a minor character and making it special, awe-inspiring. There is no Alan Moore taking over Swamp-Thing, no Neil Gaiman pretty much inventing Sandman, and Chris Claremont coming in and radically changing the course of the X-Men. So far, a month in it feels like DC has pretty much wasted an opportunity to do something truly special. Of course, what do I know? Sales for the “The New 52” have been through the roof, selling out across the country. Of course, we’ll see if it keeps up and if it actually garners anything like critical acclaim or legendary status. So far, nothing feels like Batman Year One.
Speaking of Batman, the other thing about “The New 52” that really has been sticking in my craw is the feeling that this is a huge corporate branding scheme. It was especially evident in Batman as the characters look and sound a lot like the characters from the movie. The absolutely worst of it was when the Joker actually said, “why so serious?” Really? Using the catch phrase from the movie in the first new book? Not good. It wasn’t quite so bad in the other books I read, but the visuals from Cat Woman seem to reflect the video game and movie versions of her as well. I’m also not sure what direction Superman is going, but it feels pretty controlled and contrived as well; tweaks to the costume, dialogue that seems to fall into line with where the movies took place. Overall, the feeling is much more about product and a lot less about story, let alone art. It really is too bad. DC had an opportunity to do something groundbreaking, something special. Instead it feels like a new television season. Some new shows look good, some look woeful and most is just dreck from the previous year.