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DC's "New 52" - John C. Kirk

Feb. 11th, 2012

03:21 am - DC's "New 52"

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Two years ago, I wrote about DC's Infinite Crises, i.e. their habit of rebooting the universe every few years. As I mentioned, I didn't read Final Crisis, but last year this was followed by Flashpoint, which led to every mainstream DC comic being cancelled. Most (all?) of these were relaunched, starting with issue #1; there were 52 titles in total, hence "the new 52" as a brand. The basic idea was to treat this as a jumping-on point for new readers, but the risk was that they'd alienate existing readers. In my case, it's been a bit of both.

If you look at the recent Spider-Man films, they're separate from the comics, but they also start at "day 1" with the origin story. This relaunch is a bit different: it's set in an established world, where the superheroes have been around for several years. Some of the previously printed stories are still part of the history, and some aren't, but we don't know which (yet). I'm not too bothered about whether the stories are still "real": the old issues still exist, and I can re-read them. However, it's more significant in terms of character development. For instance, is character X still married? Did she ever trust character Y with her secret identity? I think it can undermine the new stories if we don't know what's at stake.

Prior to Flashpoint, the only "mainstream" DC title I followed was Birds of Prey. (I also read Fables and The Unwritten, but they're not part of the shared universe, so it's just a coincidence that they happen to be published by the same company.) I started reading BoP when Chuck Dixon wrote it (at the same time as Nightwing), then dropped it when he left, and I came back when Gail Simone took over. I really enjoyed her first run (#56-108, June 2003 to July 2007), but the series went downhill after she left and it was almost a mercy killing when DC cancelled the title in Feb 2009 (#127). The title got relaunched in May 2010, with Gail Simone back as the writer, and the first 13 issues were really good. She was expanding the team, and the final storyline brought in Renee Montoya (as seen in Batman: The Animated Series and Gotham Central) to be a detective for them. However #14-15 (different writer) were basically just filler, to pass the time until Flashpoint. (The Gutters was quite accurate there.) There's a new BoP series as part of the "new 52", but I haven't read it: there's a different writer, and different characters, so this was a suitable jumping-off point for me.

However, I have tried out several of the new titles. DC are now selling them through Comixology on the same day that the paper issues are published, so I've been buying them all that way; it saves me a trip to the shop, and I avoid clutter here. Spoilers follow for Animal Man, Batgirl, Demon Knights, Justice League International, Resurrection Man, Stormwatch, and Swamp Thing.

Animal Man

I have the first TPB from Grant Morrison's run (in 1988): I liked it, so I intend to read the rest of his issues when I get the chance. That series finished in 1995, and the character hasn't done much since. So, this demonstrates one of the advantages to the "new 52": kick-starting an old series rather than hijacking an existing one. I read an interview with Jeff Lemire (the writer) where he basically said that the old stories contradicted each other a bit, so he couldn't stay true to all of them. Anyway, it's close enough for me, and it's an interesting story. It's pretty much a horror story rather than being anything to do with superheroes, and they're emphasising the idea of "The Red" to balance out "The Green" in Swamp Thing.

I've read the first six issues, and I'll be sticking with this one.

Batgirl

This is probably the most controversial title, since it involves a big change to Barbara Gordon's status. As I mentioned last year (Chaste romance), she was originally Batgirl until the Joker shot her in the spine, paralysing her from the waist down. After that, she acted as Oracle: she provided information to the rest of the superhero community, and organised the Birds of Prey as her field agents. In the relaunch, she's out of the wheelchair and back to being Batgirl.

This new series is written by Gail Simone. Since she wrote Birds of Prey for five years, she's proven that she really understands Barbara Gordon's character. She's also been willing to walk away from titles when she disagreed with the editorial policies (e.g. Agent X). If anyone else was writing the series, I wouldn't have touched it. When the relaunch was announced last summer, Jill Pantozi wrote a very personal article for Newsarama: OP/ED: ORACLE Is Stronger Than BATGIRL Will Ever Be. After that, Newsarama posted Gail, Jill and Babs: A Conversation about BATGIRL & ORACLE. Both pieces are well worth reading. Personally, I miss seeing Oracle as a role model; however, since I care about the character, I ought to be happy for her now that she's better off.

Six issues into the new series, it's clear that The Killing Joke (or something very similar) still happened: Barbara was shot and confined to a wheelchair, but she's recently made a miraculous recovery. Other questions are still open-ended, e.g. whether she ever acted as Oracle. This in turn leaves her relationships undefined, e.g. are Dinah (Black Canary) and Helena (Huntress) still two of her closest friends? Similarly, there was an issue of BoP where she admitted to Jim Gordon that she used to be Batgirl; he then told her that he already knew that. In the new continuity, does he still know that? If so, does she know that he knows? I don't mind deferring these questions for a while, to avoid a big info-dump, but I hope that they are addressed in due course.

Looking at the new stories, they've had a couple of interesting villains, so it's off to a good start. These stories are also being realistic about Barbara's physical capabilities. She's mobile again, and athletic, but in terms of sheer strength she's not really a match for a bigger male adversary. That means that she'll still have to rely on her brains to win the day. Anyway, I intend to keep reading this one for as long as Gail Simone is writing it.

Demon Knights

This is a genuinely "new" series. It's set in the middle ages, so it's basically a fantasy story. Some of the characters have previously shown up in modern stories (sorry for the tortured syntax!) due to their immortality, e.g. the Demon Etrigan who doesn't speak in rhymes here. It's written by Paul Cornell, who wrote a couple of good Doctor Who episodes ("Human Nature" and "Family of Blood") and it's a decent story so far. By its nature, it won't really get caught up in crossovers, although there may be some thematic links to other titles (e.g. secret organisations that have been around for centuries). It's quite different to any of the other mainstream titles, and I'd like this experiment to succeed, so I'll be sticking with this for a while.

Justice League International

I've read some of the Giffen/DeMatteis JLI stories: I strongly recommend the TPBs "Formerly known as the Justice League" and "I can't believe it's not the Justice League". There are some very funny scenes in there, particularly when Booster Gold is bickering with Blue Beetle, but there's also genuine affection for the characters.

This new series is written and drawn by Dan Jurgens. I enjoyed his run on Sensational Spider-Man (in the Ben Reilly era), and I would have liked it to continue for longer. However, this didn't really click for me. I've read the first six issues, which more or less tell a complete story, so they'll probably be collected as the first TPB. The art is clear, so I can understand what's going on. However, I don't really have any attachment to the characters. Looking at Guy Gardner and Tora (Ice), all I can tell is that their old relationship has apparently been retconned into a minor fling, whereas in past stories he literally went through Hell for her. Then there's Godiva: it's nice to see a British superhero, but I have no idea what her abilities are, aside from prehensile hair. If she's dodging laser bolts, does that imply that she's a gymnast, or is that just generic hero skill? I couldn't even tell you her real name until I went to Wikipedia just now.

I've decided to drop this one. It's not bad, but I want to read comics that I actively look forward to each month rather than just trudging along out of habit.

Resurrection Man

This is another series that's been dormant for a long time. It's also been relaunched with the original writers (Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning) who wrote every issue of the previous series (1997-1999). The basic premise was simple: each time Mitch Shelley dies, he comes back to life with a different superpower. This led to some dark humour (where someone shot him in the head repeatedly until he got a "useful" power), and also an interesting storyline where he resurrected as a woman.

This is a reboot: they're pretty much starting from scratch rather than following on from the previous series. However, that's probably the best decision to make from a pragmatic/commercial point of view, since they don't want to restrict the audience to people who remember their previous run. They're going in a slightly different direction, but they still have the elements that I liked from the original, so I'm sticking with it.

Stormwatch

As part of the relaunch, the Wildstorm universe has been merged with the DC universe. So, if you ever read The Authority, Apollo and the Midnighter now co-exist with Superman and Batman. I read Warren Ellis' run on Stormwatch a few years ago, and I liked it: it was a bit more political than his subsequent work on The Authority. This new series is written by Paul Cornell (see above), so I picked up the first issue. It was a decent story on its own merits, although arguably closer to The Authority, particularly with the "widescreen" threat (an alien entity possessing the Moon). However, it seems to be retreading familiar territory, by getting characters to join the team. I may come back to this later, but I haven't bothered with any of the subsequent issues yet.

Swamp Thing

I've previously read the first TPB (the first 10 issue from 1972 by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson); this isn't particularly good, so it's only really of historical interest. The basic plot is that a scientist (Alec Holland) was working on a "bio-restorative" formula; this was essentially a super-fertiliser, to improve crops. However, someone blew up his lab, so he was covered in the formula and then his clothes caught fire. He dove into the nearby swamp, and emerged as the Swamp Thing.

(As a side note, there was an animated "Swamp Thing" TV series. The theme tune was heavily based on the song "Wild Thing". Maybe worth a look to marvel at how wrong it was, but I don't recommend watching any episodes!)

When Alan Moore came along later, he drastically reinvented the character, with a subtle tweak to the origin story. Basically, he said that the bio-restorative formula was never intended to work on humans. So, Alec Holland had in fact died in that swamp, but the formula had caused the nearby plants to grow much more rapidly; they'd then absorbed the memories from his corpse. So, rather than being a man who turned into a plant, he was a plant that (sort of) turned into a man. This led to the logical conclusion: "You can't kill a plant by shooting it in the head." I've read all of Alan Moore's run, which is very good, albeit a bit weird in places.

There have been various writers since then, but I haven't kept up with the series. Scott Snyder took over for the relaunch, and gave a very promising interview. "And my feeling was that I wasn't going to reboot it in any way. So I wasn't going to cut anything out. I want to make that very clear to fans: absolutely all of the Swamp Thing history stands. This is not a book that I have any interest in starting over again. I'm not going to ape the Alan Moore or the Len Wein/Bernie Wrightson stuff. There's no way I would do that. Everything that happened in "Swamp Thing" has happened."

That's exactly what I wanted to hear: reboot, schmeboot, he's writing the same stories that he would have done if Flashpoint hadn't happened. At the same time, he's come up with a very interesting premise. Basically, Alec Holland was always destined to become Swamp Thing, but then he died before he could fulfill that destiny, so the Parliament of Trees had to improvise by giving his memories to a plant creature. Now Alec is back from the dead (I'm not sure how) with all of Swamp Thing's memories, but he's still human, and the Parliament of Trees want him to become a new Swamp Thing.

As with Animal Man, this is pretty much a horror title. They both use the idea of elemental forces: "The Red" is the collective life-force of animals, while "The Green" is the equivalent for plants. These two forces normally balance each other out, since they need each other to survive, but "The Black" (rot/death) threatens them both. The only thing I'm not clear about is why The Green would want a human to be absorbed into a plant to become Swamp Thing; that seems like a shift towards The Red. Still, I'm impressed by the series so far, and I'm confident that all will be revealed. I'm also looking forward to the crossover between the two titles.

Conclusion

Basically, I'm sticking with the titles that were least affected by the reboot; the only exception is Batgirl. Still, from DC's point of view this probably counts as a success: I'm giving them more money each month now than I did pre-Flashpoint.

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