ADIOS, NEW 52: RECOLLECTIONS OF A DC COMICS ERA THAT WILL (PROBABLY) NEVER BE FORGOTTEN
To put a finer point on it, as a brand, the New 52 is gone. DC Comics soldiers on towards yet another brave (and bold!) new direction for its line of superhero comics, and it’s putting the past behind it. What’s to be learned from the initiative that stirred up so much controversy in its time? “The New 52!” was more than just a banner; it was an attitude. It was a declaration of intent. And it brought with it a whole ton of baggage. The publisher carries it still.
So we’ve taken some time to look back on the things that really chapped us about what happened between Flashpoint and Convergence. We consider the things that left serious impressions on us as a new dawn for DC approaches.
JJ: The first book DC threw our way after Justice League #1 launched the New 52 in September of 2011 was Grant Morrison and Rags Morales’ Action Comics #1, a piece of comic book symbolism so potent, that the dubious prospect of a brand new DC Universe all of a sudden felt very new and very exciting. And then a year went by, and it became very clear that the state of the Superman books — to say nothing of the new DC line as a whole — was in quite a bit of trouble.
Not that anything going on prior to the New 52 was faring much better. In fact, the final storyarc in the Superman books before the company relaunched — titled, “Reign of the Doomsdays” — made it safe to assume that everything had come full circle anyway. Wiping the board clean was supposed to be the injection of life the Man of Steel desperately needed, but instead we were given a quagmire of bullshit so convoluted, that it sent comics legend George Perez, who had been tasked with rebooting Superman in tandem with Morrison’s Action, running in the opposite direction. And he wasn’t the only one: over the four years Superman ran in the New 52, six writers and fifteen artists came through the book to no avail, at least until DC CCO Geoff Johns had to stop what he was doing to drag the book out of the doldrums.
But all the while, there was never a point where Superman found his footing as the premiere hero of the DC Universe. His eponymous book was plagued with creative turmoil. Action Comics — until Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder came to save the day — was telling a story five years in the past for no discernible reason other than to do it. And can any of you describe the plot of Superman Unchained in twenty words or less? All that DC editorial had left to do with the World’s Greatest Superhero was to play the cynical Hollywood studio card and pair him up with someone as famous as he. And thus we had the kiss heard ’round the world (or the internet, really). The real shame is that his relationship with Wonder Woman was the highlight of Clark Kent’s four-year tenure at the New 52, and I suppose that’s for the best; a good quarter of it was spent being Doomsday.
DC. For real. What did you do to Superman?
MJ: In the past four years, female comics readership has grown considerably, but that happened independently of (and, one might say, in spite of) DC’s New 52 initiative. It started off ominously, even before any of the new titles were released: the company was garnering criticism for its lack of ladies on all its new creative teams — they went from 12% of their creators being women down to 1%. The furor became so great, DC’s co-publishers even wrote an open letter to fans about it, titled “We Hear You.” And while diversity has never been something superhero comics excelled at (either on the printed page or in the making of them), this drastic step back was disheartening, to say the least.
When all the new #1 issues finally debuted on that fateful September, it was extremely depressing (for those of us with, y’know, taste) to see the rampant male-gaze-centric depictions of some of DC’s most well-known and beloved female characters. Catwoman and Red Hood and the Outlaws’ Starfire were the first and most publicized occurrences, but it has been a constant problem throughout the past four years. (Remember last year’s Teen Titans cover that had Wonder Girl – a teenager according to obvious team affiliation – depicted with boobs as big as her head?)
The first batch of New 52 comics felt almost exclusively aimed at 18-34 year-old straight white males, and that made sense: more than a few of those books’ writers, artists, and editors made their names previously in the nineties, producing some of the most one-dimensional, lackluster and pointlessly gritty comics ever to be released. And the representation of women (except for maybe X-Men) was almost across-the-board atrocious: there was a reason as to why very few women read superhero comics then, and why the uninitiated would be so thoroughly turned off by 2011. You’d think (well, you’d hope?) that with DC’s new initiative so observably aimed at grabbing new readers, consideration would finally be given to that other half of the population. (You know, the 51% without those pesky y chromosomes?)
While it’s doubtful that all these flubs and faux pas were deliberate, they certainly were a symptom of DC’s lack of female vision. These numbers have improved dramatically, however — this past April had thirty-two ladies credited as creators, a great step up from the two (yes, two) the New 52 started out with. Along with those improvements in numbers have come drastic advances in the company’s general demographics — not to mention the quality of the product — with books that are aimed at (and actually appeal to) younger readers. And the ladies.
While DC still has a long way to go in its representation of other races and sexual orientations, the onset of the (seemingly) diverse DC You is imminent, not to mention promising. And with Marvel’s recent (huge) successes in broadening readership threatening to leave DC in the primeval dust, it finally feels like Lee and Didio’s 2011 “We Hear You” letter has finally become more than mere lip service.
YOU’RE MAKING OUR EYES BLEED
MJ & JJ: One thing that will certainly keep the New 52 in the periphery of our collective regret was the “House Style” that came with it. You remember: everyone in the DC Universe all of a sudden appeared as though they had just stepped out of some god-awful ’90s era Image book. And that wasn’t by accident; DC co-publisher (and Image co-founder) Jim Lee gave a spit-shine to the Justice League and lined the DC bullpen with former Image Comics acolytes like Brett Booth, Rob Liefeld, and Greg Capullo in order to solidify DC’s newest look. Now with 100% more piping!
These are but a few of the worst offending attires the befell the New 52.
STARFIRE. Nope, nope, nope. Does this actually qualify as a costume? What, exactly, is she supposed to be obscuring here? Starfire couldn’t possibly be hiding her secret identity from anyone, and from the looks of things, she isn’t hiding the shape and size of her labia either. After all the success and enthusiasm that came to the character through the Teen Titans animated series, DC Comics decided to undo all that goodwill in one single comic book page. It doesn’t matter how powerful a superhero is, you simply can’t save the world dressed like a Vegas showgirl. (Scientifically, it’s not allowed.)
SUPERGIRL. The one thing that kept the late Michael Turner’s redesign of Kara Zor-El’s costume from being absolutely perfect was that damned midriff. Some people felt it was fine. Others felt that it belittled a character that was already living in the shadow of her more famous (male) cousin. But this was fifty-two steps in the wrong direction. Is it a bathing suit? Primary-colored BDSM gear? And what’s going on with those boots? Maybe skirts are out in the 21st century, no one can really know for sure, but one thing we can all agree on is that DC Comics ain’t the company to tell us so. It’s hard to take a pissed-off Kryptonian seriously, even with those glowing red eyes, when we can spot your wax job.
TEEN TITANS. All right, what are we looking at here. While we would relish the opportunity to take the piss out of the “edgy” look of every single member of the Titans individually, we do have day jobs. (But for real, an “S-Shield bar code” tattoo? Hope someone got fired for that.) This assembly illustrates humanity’s worst fears given comic book form: an armada of wealthy drama school students who want their “finest roles” to be those of fourth-tier superheroes. (Tim Drake, we hardly knew ye.) These might be the kids who show up to our rescue when the Justice League is too busy, but looking like this, would we really want them to? (We can’t tell from the angle, but… does Kid Flash have a faux-hawk?)
LOBO. Oh, come on. You knew we were gonna talk about Lobo. Even if you’re in the camp that honestly believe that the Main Man was an artifact of his time (that time being the gross-out that was the Nineties), you can’t possibly think this is even close to being a suitable alternative. What helped Lobo endure for over a generation wasn’t his bitchin’ biker boots, or his shaggy shock of hair; what kept Lobo on a neverending crash course against Superman and any other poor bastich sorry enough to be in his way was his attitude. His joie de vivre. And it was always evident on his silly-ass face. This? It looks like this dude’s mascara’s gonna stream right down his face if one of those nails breaks. That ain’t Lobo.
POUR ONE OUT FOR THOSE WHO COULDN’T BE HERE TODAY
JJ: The editorial chaos that churned and frothed from within the DC offices during the New 52 yielded some rather reactionary decisions, chiefly those of when and how to use the ol’ axe. If a book’s sales faltered (especially during its crucial First Wave), they were gutted out of the new paradigm to make room for new titles (Resurrection Man, Voodoo, Blackhawks). Even when nostalgia demanded a book stay put, the ravages of time ultimately did it in (Birds of Prey, Green Lantern Corps, Legion of Super-Heroes). And then there were the books that were relaunched mid-stream (Nightwing into Grayson, Justice League of America into Justice League United, etc) or were always meant to end (Batman Eternal, Earth 2: World’s End, Futures End).
At the onset, the New 52 began with (yup) 52 books. All told, 62 were cancelled before it was done.
Superboy, Batwing, All-Star Western, Birds of Prey, Talon, Trinity of Sin: Pandora, Trinity of Sin: The Phantom Stranger, Captain Atom, Secret Origins, The Fury of Firestorm: The Nuclear Men, I, Vampire, Blackhawks, Men Of War, Legion of Super-Heroes, Grifter, The Savage Hawkman, Hawk and Dove, Mr. Terrific, Klarion, Nightwing, Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E., Resurrection Man, Team 7, Voodoo, Blue Beetle, The Phantom Stranger, DC Universe Presents, Deathstroke (Vol. 2), Sword and Sorcery, Demon Knights, G.I. Combat, The Green Team, The Movement, Justice League International, Green Lantern Corps, Legion Lost, Arkham Manor, Batwoman, Aquaman and the Others, Infinity Man and the Forever People, World’s Finest, Swamp Thing, Red Lanterns, Star-Spangled War Stories Featuring G.I. Zombie, Threshold, Green Lantern: New Guardians, Earth 2, Trinity of Sin, O.M.A.C., Static Shock, The Ravagers, Stormwatch, Suicide Squad, Batman: The Dark Knight, Teen Titans, Larfleeze, Katana, Vibe, Batman Eternal, Earth 2: World’s End, Futures End
HOW QUICKLY WE FORGET
MJ: Before all this reboot nonsense, one of my favorite DC comics was Justice Society of America. And it took the removal of one of that book’s integral elements to make me fully realize its relevance and necessity in the entirety of “my” DC. I’m talking about the concept of legacy, of an ideal or a mantle being handed down through generations. I’m talking about the original Flash, Jay Garrick (who’d been active back in World War II), still bopping around the JSA Brownstone, helping show the ropes to newcomers like Stargirl or Jakeem Thunder. I’m talking about Wally West as the Flash, carrying on and fighting the good fight in his uncle Barry’s name. I’m talking about something that is now glaringly absent from DC’s superhero comics, and it makes the company that much poorer.
Before the New 52, there had been a careful (and yes, slightly tenuous) continuity put in place that retained the history of JSA seniors like Jay, Alan Scott, and Ted Grant. That made for a very meta way of acknowledging both the real and fictional history of these characters, and the continuous nature of DC’s stories. By 2011 it had become more than obvious that this was going to be a difficult feature to perpetuate: as it is in real life, people who were around to see the Depression might be getting a bit, well, old to be going out superheroing.
Despite the fact that we operate in the fluid and often vague physics of comic books — in which Captain America has been (until recently) a guy in his twenties, despite having socked Hitler in the jaw — DC decided to fix this “problem”. In the New 52, all those pesky sidekicks (from New Teen Titans for instance), who we’d experienced growing up and into their respective responsibilities, were either completely gone or otherwise de-aged, all their fascinating experiences and stories erased. And my beloved JSAers were shunted over into the completely separate Earth-2 universe where they became replacement heroes for the likes of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.
In order to be at once recognizable and new-reader friendly, the entire DC universe was rearranged to more comfortably fit the “important” characters: the plotlines of characters like Hal Jordan or Arthur Curry were safeguarded and propped up, despite the fact that they were characters non-comics readers could still imprecisely guess about. (“That’s the guy who talks to fish, right?” and the like.) In throwing the baby out with the bathwater, DC not only lost that deep sense of legacy, it lost any sense of permanence or reliability within its universe. Which, I do realize, is a fictional universe anyway… but if the goings-on in those fictions are going to have any emotional resonance, events need to feel like they matter. After DC’s gutting of decades upon decades of its own continuity to make their universe feel shiny and fresh for new readers, I can only quote Queen in saying, nothing really matters.
BUT IT WASN’T ALL BAD
MJ & JJ: In spite of all the acrimony, there were more than a few books that had us here at DoomRocket over the moon with satisfaction. If they weren’t busy getting their asses cancelled, all of these books did the New 52 proud:
Swamp Thing, Grayson, Earth 2, Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman (y’know. Before?), Catwoman (once Genevieve Valentine came on board), Dial ‘H’, Batgirl, Animal Man, Batman, Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E., Batwoman, Action Comics (Pak and Kuder run), Gotham Academy, Batman, Incorporated
We know from the foundation laid by those stellar books there’s the chance of a brighter day to come. We weathered the storm that was the New 52, but to be honest, we’ve endured similar pains in the years that have passed. So from now until the day our eyes fall out of our heads, you’ll find us reading DC Comics — loving them when they succeed, reprimanding them when they fail, and taking inventory of what truly matters all the while. To the future.