And yes, I’m aware that a civil war rages in Syria, human trafficking has been identified as the fastest-growing criminal industry, and apparently, Miley Cyrus committed war crimes at the VMAs. But anyone who pays attention to comics knows that DC rebooted a couple of years back, restarted every title with #1, chucked Superman’s external underwear, and launched the New 52, a project which has been marked by controversial decisions. More than a few fans have taken issue with DC’s reboot. My own thoughts follow with additional links and, we hope, some discussion.
I read comics when I was a little kid, mostly DC (hangover of the late 60s Batman show) and Gold Key (R.I.P.). As an older child, I got into Marvel. I also read anything I could find about comic books. By fourteen, I knew the history of American comics—and I was ready to put them aside. High school provided other interests.
In university, I knew some people who talked about things called “graphic novels” and places called “comic shops.” I found a copy of Avengers #239 (Avengers on David Letterman) in a bus station, and read it. Then DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths made headlines, and I picked that up. In the late 80s and early 90s, I rediscovered DC, its reinterpretation of old heroes and its remarkable Vertigo line. The interest would wax and wane, though I read quite a few of their early 2000s titles. I thought their slightly retweaked universe (centered on the original 52 series—-let’s call that “the old 52”-—did a good job striking a balance between the deliberately juvenile escapist appeal of the characters and their adventures, and the desire to place those characters and adventures in a more mature world. They let their characters change, however gradually. Superman had been married since the early 90s— creating an excellent non-kryptonite challenge to his godlike powers. The Man of Steel has to worry about and maintain a spousal relationship with Lois Lane, an unparalleled danger magnet, and yet so significant a part of the brand that DC can’t fridge her. Batman had gone through a handful of Robins, had a son with Talia Al Ghul and a daughter with Selina Kyle—well, until DC backtracked on the parentage of Catwoman’s child. Renee Montoya became the Question, and made that character important for the first time since… possibly ever, someone other than that guy who inspired Rorschach. They reintroduced Batwoman with a new look and persona—and sexual orientation. The first really name DC character to be openly gay, Batwoman proved a hit and took over Detective, the title whence comes the company name. Meanwhile, the part of Batgirl went to a one-time Robin, Stephanie Brown, and her comic had a sense of fun and adventure that actually drew young female readers. The Barry Allen Flash had remained dead since the mid-1980s, and more interesting versions had replaced him. The latest reimagining of Superman’s origin balanced beautifully decades of history, allowing all sorts of past stories to remain in play, if the reader enjoyed those stories. They picked up on their more mature legacy, too, putting Animal Man back into continuity with stories that derived from his fabled late 80s run. At the same time, doofy characters like Krypto and Detective Chimp still had a part in their universe.
It wasn’t perfect, to be sure; more than a few people expressed concerns about the handling of heroes’ female partners in Identify Crisis, for example. Nevertheless, DC’s creative staff had looked at their universe and presented it once more as a fun, slightly crazed playground for heroic adventures.
Then, with the ink barely dry on Superman: Secret Origins, they announced the New 52.
You could see some of the reasoning, I suppose. Marvel had produced hit movie after hit movie, superheroes were increasingly becoming known as videogame characters, and DC wanted to create a look that worked with these other media. With superhero readership declining, they also wanted a fresh start that would allow new readers a jumping-on point, uncluttered by decades of confusing continuity.
Unfortunately, their approach to making their characters more movie-friendly seems wrong-headed from the start, and many of their decisions have soured many fans while, I suspect, attracting few long-term readers. I want to tread with care here; DC actually outsells Marvel, currently, by a slight margin, and a friend who owns a comic shop says that trend has been increasing. Of course, Marvel makes tonnes more money through their success in other media (For an account that examines problems with both Marvel and DC, check out Don’t Make Me Turn This Car Around).
Certainly, some series have held up. Batman had been doing so well it would have taken real effort to screw his titles up. DC settled for keeping him as pre-reboot status quo as possible, thus screwing up only the timeline of their rebooted franchise. Jeff Lamire won praise for his work on Animal Man, while Batwoman remained a breakout comic. Superman had problems, but the initial run on Action served the character well, and Superman Unchained became one of the top-selling comics of summer ’13.
Nevertheless, the perception exists that DC has been wasting capital, and that the dwindling audience for superhero comics has dwindled further because of their recent efforts.
Read more about DC’s PR goofs at The Outhouse.
So what happened when DC rebooted?
Characters received new, more realistic collars, I mean, costumes, and nearly all married characters had their nuptials reversed (because that move proved such a hit when Marvel did it to Spider-man).
The Silver Age versions of the Flash and Green Lantern returned, with louder personalities. In fact, a lot of the Silver Age returned, but filtered through 90s angst and contrived darkness.
Strange things began happening to the womanfolk. Steph Brown and Renee Montoya vanished, while DC’s one physically-challenged hero, Oracle, returned to the role of Batgirl. Gail Simone actually did well with the revived Barbara Gordon Batgirl—before DC fired her, nixed her plot ideas, and then rehired her.
The girly Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld returned— with an attempted gang-rape in the first issue. Harley Quinn now dressed like a stripper. Catwoman and Star Sapphire, historically characters in charge of their own, somewhat unconventional sexuality, got depicted as male fetish objects (Laura Hudson has covered this specific problem so well at Comics Alliance that I’m just going to send you there). In a genre historically marked by misogyny, the New 52’s “presenting female sexuality in tone-deaf ways”(Hudson) looks stunningly retrogressive, and does nothing to draw in new groups of readers.
Batwoman, a character handled thoughtfully, sold well. That should tell DC something. It didn’t, of course, because JH Williams and W. Haden Blackman, who made Batwoman one of DC’s most successful titles, announced they would quit in September 2013 over editorial interference, most notably DC’s refusal to let Katie Kane marry her girlfriend.
DC quickly followed that public relations disaster with a contest that required wannabe artists to draw Harley Quinn attempting suicide in various amusing ways—one while bathing. Both concept and timing here couldn’t be worse, especially in the eyes of that broader, more mainstream audience they need to reach.
Finally, DC remains uncertain how to handle their flagship character, Superman. His stories kept getting re-written, because they had to connect with the early adventures depicted in Action, and apparently no one had bothered to write an overall bible for the re-imagined character. It’s a pity, because the early Action adventures gave us a decent version of the character, with far less angst than the recent film version and a decent dose of boy-scout, farm-boy heroism.
Why so much dumbassery, misogyny, and change-that-isn’t-change?
Some of the revisions reflect a desire to bring about DC films as successful as Marvel’s recent cinematic forays, which spread the brand and bring in a lot more money than comic books. Apparently, someone thinks the way to do this is rewrite the characters into something they think the movie-going public will like.
But look: most of the people who go to watch The Avengers or the next Thor movie won’t be picking up the comic book. These versions exist as entities in and of themselves. Smallville ran for years with minimal effect on DC continuity. Arrow has hit a television bull’s-eye without being slavishly close to the source material. Marvel, meanwhile, simply altered their comics to look a little more like their films. A backstory explains the presence of both the old and new Nick Furies in their universe, for those who care. New readers will likely just jump on board with the movie-inspired Nick. Discrepancies between the two Avengers histories will be accepted, just as people tolerated television, motion picture, and comic-book Men of Steel coexisting. The only reset button pushed by Marvel to bring comics and movies more in line with each other, One More Day, received widespread and wholly justified derision.
The comics don’t have to change to set up for the more successful films, and they certainly don’t need their history simplified for those new fans the films might attract (One look at the conundrums created by Batman’s history and it’s clear continuity doesn’t really matter that much to post-52 DC). Continuity only presents problems when overused, as in the complicated crossover stories that Marvel and DC keep pushing in order to sell more comics. And DC doesn’t have to change their comics to succeed in Hollywood. The corporation that owns DC needs to make better movies about their characters. People with an interest in the various incarnations will adjust, the same way we’ve always adjusted to difference between, say, novels and their divergent motion pictures. And if the changes look good on film, Marvel has shown they can be incorporated into continuity relatively easily. Furthermore, these new, darker versions aren’t inherently more film-friendly.
Superheroes don’t all have to be “dark” to succeed. Forced darkness isn’t more mature than wide-eyed optimism; it’s just a different form of immaturity. Not all characters have to be Batman. He works gritty; despite his many permutations, he was born in angst and darkness. But angst doesn’t work for Superman, at least as a regular shtick. As the Avengers-related movies have shown, adaptation isn’t about being the goddamn Batman; it’s about bringing a character to a broader audience. How many non-comic-readers knew who Iron Man was before 2008? And while Stark has his dark side, the audience responded more to his sense of fun. Seriously, the guy flies. He cracks wise in the face of death, whether the threat comes from external villains or his own inner demons. And he’s played by a charismatic actor. For these reasons, audiences love him. Radically rewriting their characters, at least as DC has been doing, doesn’t make a movie deal more likely, and only serves to hurt the medium that will keep those characters alive between the spates of movie, television, and videogame successes.
Paradoxically, while changing the characters, they’ve made certain things more like they used to be. Take the New 52’s resemblance to a dirtied Silver Age. DC has overturned years of progress and development so they can feature versions of the characters their current staff followed as children. This isn’t a new direction. It’s resetting the status quo, but with more grit in the world and greater assholism among iconic heroes.
Some of the changes, to be sure, have worked. Wonder Woman has received some positive reviews, but before the New 52, DC had altered her past history anyway. New elements include radically reimagined classical gods. But mythic gods have not played the same role in DC as they have in Marvel, and certainly not a consistent one. DC could’ve easily made their recent changes to Wonder Woman without the reboot. Wonder Woman works, in the end, because Brian Azzarello has been given the freedom to take DC’s most famous female in new and interesting directions and, thus far, the editorial staff has not unduly restrained him.
Hmm. Hire good people and let them write the characters. Maybe that’s how you fix DC comics. Certainly, continually pandering to a dwindling lot of aging male readers won’t assure them a future.
As for me, I’m currently buying one monthly comic.
Dynamite’s Mocking Dead.
I’ll do a review when a few issues have passed.