Tuesday, 18 December 2012

On The New 52, And - Eventually - Gail Simone's Batgirl

All the covers scanned in here are, of course, by Adam Hughes.

I still have an experience-defying, logic-distorting fondness for the idea of the densely-populated, more-or-less internally-consistent superhero universe. There were all too many childhood days spent marinating my soft, slow brain in the minutiae of Marvel and DC's fantastical, immersive meta-narratives for anything else to be true. How many different versions were there of Atlantis or Asgard, and how could they all be reconciled one with the other? How could it be that a series of quite different 30th centuries had been shown to exist? Why did the almost-end of the world in one comic appear to have had no influence at all upon all of the others issued in the same month? The superhero book offered all the pleasures of academic study without anything of a student's responsibilities. All that was required was to read more comics, and to think about comics more.

As such, it was the very lack of close-focused precision and absolute clarity which helped make the Big Two’s comics so involving. Much of what made these stories compelling was the fact that - for all their other intense virtues - they didn't always make sense. As time passed and more and more tales were lobbed into the common pot, a host of different influences combined to suggest radically different takes on what was supposedly the same basic, all-encompassing story. Not just stray details, but the fundamental principles soon appeared up for grabs. Was Uncle Ben actually working with the burglar who killed him? Were the Legion Of Super-Heroes nothing but a pack of uber-privileged snobs? What did the Amazons do at night if they found themselves in need of a cuddle or even a kiss? The undeniable presence of ill-defined and openly contentious threads in the broader tapestry opened up the space for the reader to become creatively involved. The energy of the comics drew the reader in, while the shared universe and all its various strengths and weaknesses anchored that entertainment in a host of enigmas. Instead of passively consuming each tale as it came, the superhero fan learned to interrogate and even condemn what they read in terms of the greater context. What was being shown on the page, it seemed, was not necessarily the truth and nothing but. The real facts about a superheroic world could lie somewhere behind the texts which claimed to describe it, and it was the fan's job to come as close as they could to the most convincing version of events.

Yet there’s long been a desire on the part of some fannish professionals and spreadsheet-minded managers alike to do away with the possibility of depth and variety and confusion in the shared-universe superbook. The very mass of material which allowed them to work out their own preferences has somehow become seen as barriers to anyone else seeking to find their own way in the cape'n'chest-insignia worlds. To long for difference and discrepancy to be definitively excised is to destroy much of the corporate-owned superhero's appeal. For in all that historical jumble of different styles and values and genres lies the friction which keeps pulpish fiction firing off against itself in unexpected, reader-enticing ways. Like all the very best of pop culture, the superhero comic has flourished when it’s been most open to the widest range of influences and the most intense degree of debate. It’s at its best when it’s at its least pure, its least banally sensible and directed and over-simplified. But when its inspirations and content alike are dramatically constrained to a literal-minded core of what’s considered editorially acceptable, its quality and – ultimately – its reach beyond the hardcore fan becomes seriously impaired. Even if perfectly adapted to the demands of a specific niche in today’s market-place, such a conceptually unambitious, neurotic conceit is unlikely to prove flexible enough to prosper in anything but the most constrained sense.

As such, it's notable that every attempt to kick off a superhero world from scratch has soon run out of steam. From the Ultraverse to the Ultimate Universe, attempts to create rigorously well-wrought, tightly-policed backdrops for costumed crimefighters to fight in front of have traditionally lacked the magic to capture the reader’s imagination over the longrun. The capacity for endless renewal within an apparently unchanging context is all too often absent, which leaves the question of why - beyond the potential profits - they exist at all. They have their bright moments, of course, but they all too often lack the critical mass of combustible discrepancies, stylistic influences and complex continuity necessary to constantly generate forward momentum. Though we're always being told in the 21st century that the superhero is a commodity designed to be constantly rebooted, it's notable how rarely the effort actually works when the shared universe it belonged to is left behind. To abandon a rich backstory is a very dangerous thing to do, for a superhero is often simply the most blandly generic of figures when isolated from the context of a long-lived fictional environment. To remove that intricate shared-universe with all its detail and possibilities is to run the risk of liberating a costume and a set of super-powers from one of the key ingredients which made it interesting in the first place.

Eventually the fascination for the conceit of the shared superbook fades, or so it does for most of us. Even if the fondness itself for the idea, and the flicker of hope it persistently inspires, remains, the comics themselves rarely focus on the world behind the fisti-cuffs. Yet there have been periods in the sub-genre’s history when the strengths of a common fictional backdrop have been played to, and the memories of those brief highpoints are sweet enough to keep a certain degree of curiosity alive. (*1) But there's been all too few editors and writers who've proven capable over the years of putting all that complexity and absurdity to work in service of a compelling story rather than a hypeful sales gimmick. Eventually the lesson gets learned: there's no point in buying into these wonderlands as a whole when their fundamental virtues are so little attended too. Substance is all too often sacrificed for cheap effect, while coherence is repeatedly waved away for the inconvenience it might cause the poor editors and writers concerned. As such, the superhero universe is typically - if not exclusively - revealed to be a threadbare, unconvincingly stage-set against which supposedly shocking plot twists and empty-headed spectacle are projected.

*1:- For example,; The Marvel Revolution of 1961 to mid-1966; Marvel in the period from 1974 to 1977; DC from 1983 to 1988; Marvel from 2000 to 2004. Of course, there have been individual books, and crossovers too, which have been excellent through the past half-century. To suggest anything else would be ludicrous.

There are undoubtedly a few notable professionals who possess both the ambition and the skill to make a world of superheroes - rather than a world of superheroes fighting one each other - convincing and enthralling. But the relatively small number of them merely emphasises how little the industry as a whole has cared for anything much beyond than the big explosions and the melodramatic reversals in recent times.For all the laudable exceptions, and for all the undeniably good work, the sub-genre hasn't prospered as it might have since the middle of the last decade beyond the sales ledgers. The key question of what it would like to live in an absurd and yet alluring universe packed to the gills with super-folks is largely pushed aside in anything but the most facile manner. (*2) So too is the light that such a conceit might throw on real-world issues. What’s left is all too often a narrative with less depth and charm than a 1970's Saturday afternoon TV wrestling bout, with a similar degree of desperate attention being paid to the business of spicing up a great deal of nothing with supposedly shocking violent excess.

*2:- "Largely" isn't meant to be read as "Solely". We can all list books which have done this job in a splendid manner. From JIM to Secret Six, from Demon Knights to 2011's Daredevil, the exceptions exist even as they are very much exceptions.

Yet that nostalgia for stories which use a shared universe for something other than brawling never quite looses its power. After all, a line of comics which really did try to exploit the scenario of a planet constantly convulsed by a class of superheroes would be something to experience. And just for a moment in the summer of 2011, the announcement of the New 52 suggested that this time, a reboot on DC's part might actually prove to be an enticing prospect. Soon, the reader was assured, inventive storytelling, diverse subjects and ethical substance would all arrive grounded in a carefully-shaped, inspirationally-informed example of world-building. A year and more, we were informed, had been spent ensuring that this new version of the DCU would be coherent, compassionate and thrilling. Perhaps this time - the vestige of a childhood fascination suggested - something wonderful might be created from all that potential. Perhaps the previous high-points of the superhero book’s existence had been studied and learned from. After all, the sub-genre had been in existence for almost three quarters of a century, and a series of nascent shared universes had first appeared in the first few years of its history. From the Marvel Family to the Justice Society and onwards, the idea that everyone in a costume undertook their adventuring and off-duty hours alike in the same world was long-established. Surely DC wouldn't have announced how brilliantly well-worked and exciting its new line was going to be if it hadn't been investing an impressive degree of corporate-funded hours into learning from the past? The constant reiteration that the New 52 would feature an impressive range of diverse content and style seemed to suggest that such had been so.

Sadly, of course, DC's line-wide audience-grab seemed to reflect little of history's lessons. Beyond the hucksterish series of announcements from the project’s anointed ringmasters, the whole process turned out to be mostly nothing more than stuff and nonsense. If this was a shared universe, then the material that was being commonly used was characteristically cliched and thinly-thought through. Indeed, there was little evidence in most books that much beyond a few obvious common props had been developed. No risk there, then, of too many intriguing ideas striking the reader beyond the question of who's going to stab who next. Even mildly-intriguing contradictions require a degree of coherence and depth to generate them, and for those not entranced by the likes of devilish psychopaths and Image-esque teen heroes, the pickings have been slim.

Despite the efforts of some particularly able and inspired editors and creators, the New 52 was - by unlikely chance or most likely purposeful design - predominantly aimed at a market of boy-minded fans. The presumption seemed to be that they'd on the whole prefer thin and undemanding storytelling, content that was focused on blokeish-noir superheroics, and little in the way of subtext beyond the ethics associated with the rightly-vengeful indomitable hero. With the dramatic conventions of this fresh start proving so repeatably threadbare and predictable in practise, the fact that the supposedly carefully-constructed universe didn't actually make a great deal of sense simply became all the more obvious. For all the talk of how meticulously it had all been worked out, it was clear that things were often either being made-up out of dirt'n'spit as the days progressed, or messed up when some bright spark had a brainwave and caught the eye of power with it. In several of those books where the foundations had been admirably laid, ad-hoc changes based on editorial whim seemed to become more and more common. In those comics where the creators were effectively winging it anyway, ad-hoc changes were still arriving to muddy up things further. With little of depth in the shared universe which most creators could tap into, the snaring of the reader relied more and more upon the likes of very sharp and pointy objects being thrust right through our heroes' bodies, or the pouring of ammonia into the eyes of elderly supporting characters.

Of course, it's all very well to make up a universe as you go if you've only a few books to play with and a team of geniuses to churn out the work. When Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and their various colleagues were quite literally inventing the modern idea of the immersive superbook in the early-to-mid Sixties, they were putting prodigious skills and decades of experience to work in an environment which by necessity encouraged initiative and imagination. To attempt to do the same with a line of 52 monthly comics in the absence of the requisite number of workhorse geniuses in both the creative and editorial departments is a very different thing indeed. (*3)

*3:- It's worth mentioning that the first 16 months of the New 52 has seen many of its best storytellers either leaving the company or being sacked by it. As such, the overall quality of the line for anyone not into the body-horror of it all has actually diminished as well as coarsened over the period.

For every book that showed heart and craft in the New 52, half-a-dozen more revealed nothing more worthwhile than deconstructed storytelling and a smug measure of pseudo-sophistication comparable to that present in a first-wave Image title from the early Nineties. Even the promise that stories would be largely self-contained and cross-company Events rare was soon proven to be something of a considerable fib. To those who dearly wanted more than the New 52 ever intended to deliver, the whole business was a considerable disappointment. This was, after all, an all-or-nothing gambit, and even a partial success would leave neither the resources or the will to try for another approach. That the New 52 raised sales substantially was hardly a significant achievement. Any team of managers who'd been given that unprecedented degree of resources ought to have been able to do so. That nothing that's been creatively accomplished couldn't have been attained with just a little thought in the old DCU merely intensifies the sense that a great deal's been thrown away has been thrown away for very little return.

Yet the very fact that a shared universe has been sloppily constructed can, with no little irony, throw up the kind of reader-intriguing contradictions and confusions that we've been discussing. The chances of that happening in the New 52 as a whole remains sadly limited, because the comics themselves are so threadbare in the world they describe and the cliches they obsess upon. But there were undeniably a few titles where the presence of an inspiringly different kind of storytelling yielded fascinating results when it came into contact with the norms of the new order. The most fascinating of these has proven to be Gail Simone’s Batgirl.

to be continued;


  1. I think one of the reasons these "planned" superhero universes never really seem to get any traction is because they're never really allowed to grow "wild," as it were--and disparate bits are allowed to cultivate their own mise-en-scene before they interrelate to everything else.

    It was a bit like the circus--if you didn't like the trapeze artists, there were clowns, or people getting shot out of a cannon.

    Nowadays, of course, everything has to spring from some central conceit like the super-soldier serum, or Team 7 or Stormwatch or whatever and everything gets reduced to the same bleary sort of common mediocrity because it's so terribly important we get the punters to read every single book, and the circus is now a guy getting shot out of cannon over and over.

    1. Hello Kazekage;- I agree entirely. It's the very fact - as I know was going on about above - that the "old" universes DON'T make sense that gives them the ability to keep going. The more the differences and contradictions are smoothed out, the less chance there is for new ideas to be generated. The more different styles/influences/content are in the mix, the better it is.

      In a way, it's the comicbook version of healthy DNA. And the New 52 is unfortunately inbred.

      Your point about the punter having to want to read just about everything is well made. It means that style as well as content gets smoothed out and - whether deliberately or not - dumbed down. When the whole point of most of the Bat-books is WHO GETS HURT BY THE PSYCHOPATH, then something is very wrong. Now, some books were better than others. Batgirl was splendid, Batman & Robin wasn't far behind. At the other end of the spectrum, you've got Suicide Squad, issue #14 of which was ... a prime example of what's been lost. That that should be nominal replacement of Secret Six tells us so much about the priorities of the DiDio regime.

      None of which is to say that DC doesn't have good books, or good creators. I'm writing about Dial H for publication elsewhere this very evening. But overall ... the New 52 has proven to be a terrible disappointment, and worse yet, all its mistakes were obvious in the first month's books and could have been prevented.

      Hubris, I fear. Thankfully there's been creators and editors in the mix who have risen about it all,or at the least mitigated the worst of what's happening.

  2. My first thoughts on the Nu 52 were "yes", "yes" and "yes", but the more I read of it they turned to "no", "no", and "why?"

    Everything is rebooted except this, this, this, that, and also this, but some of it happened and some of it didn't, and not necessarily everything from individual stories happened but the stories themselves maybe happened or maybe they didn't. Maybe five years of superheroing have occurred in one book or it's the start of someone's adventures in spandex body armor, we'll just have to see.

    "Bitch, please" as the yanks would have it. Or as I prefer: "bollocks".

    1. Hello Brigonos:- I did have a sense of optimism too. Then I started getting wind of how creators were being treated. Then the first previews appeared in the press. Then we learned that the new Superman books were having to go to press without their creators knowing what the character's backstory was, because Morrison hadn't told anyone. At which point, it was absolutely obvious that the whole thing was a terrible miscalculation. I wrote about it at the time and suggested that based on what we'd seen, X & Y & Z were the almost-inevitable result. Well, it's 2012 and X & Y & Z are all in place.

      I agree with the , er, analysis you put in your last line. It was the most fantastic chance to remodel the line and reach out to new readers as well as satisfying the "please stab another hero" obsessives. Instead, literally dozens of comics which NEVER had a chance have been pumped into the market, and nobody in the machine seems to have the slightest idea what to do where the overall strategy is concerned.

      Apart from turn DC into a version of Marvel/Image circa 1994, with extra pseudo-edgy content. Pah.

  3. Here is an example of why history and back story are important in my comics:

    In 1966 Karate Kid and Nemesis Kid are introduced together as new members in the LSH. Karate Kid catches Nemesis Kid betraying the LSH and NK is tossed out/arrested. NK holds a grudge against KK.
    In 1984, eighteen years later in real time, they have a fight to the death.
    The writer and artist are aware of the characters history and rivalry. They know the two characters are opposite poles in powers and attitudes. All of this makes a very powerful fight scene and a great story. It has a sense of real time that adds to the feel of scene.
    This was possible because there were no reboots, and the creative staff was left alone. Nobody was worried that this fight was based on a story from eighteen years ago. Really, only die hard LSH fans had read the original 1966 two part story. I hadn't read it. I wasn't born yet and there was no Internet to use for reference. But it was explained with dialogue and reference boxes.I got it.
    No, the important part was the sense of a rich and textured history coming together. You knew by the drama and dialogue this fight had been brewing for many years. It didn't feel artificial and invented on the spot.

    Marvel did it best. The reintroduction of its Golden Age characters (Cap, Subby) into their modern Marvel universe are classic stories.
    I love the Wonder Man, Vision and Human Torch triangle. The Defenders are all about characters with complicated history.

    But the Nu52? How do I get a tether hold in this universe that's been all smoothed over? It is painfully obvious they are keeping everything as generic and yet shocking at the same time. Until the next reboot.

    Sorry for the rant.

    1. Hello Teresa;- I didn't think it was a rant at all. It referred to many of the issues I was discussing and did so with the kind of passion which DC ought to be tapping into rather than ignoring. And I'm grateful you did. I was desperately trying not to give specific examples of all the points I was touching upon because I knew I'd never finish the post. To have this example here is therefore something I'm grateful for.

      The assumption of the audience's inabilty/unwillingness to engage with a deep fictional history is one which seems to run against what's happening elsewhere in fantastical fiction. From Tolkein to Potter and all points connected, readers young and old are showing they're keen to experience complex worlds which are delivered in a smart, accesible fashion. Those universes create audience involvement rather than frightening away readers. It's not an easy thing to do, of course. But all the best comics writers managed it, and the best editors enabled it. To choose instead what you rightly call a "smoothed over" fiction does two things that I'd think DC would have wanted to avoid in the longterm. (1) it prevents a great many folks beyond the immediate target audience from buying into the project, and (2) it cuts off the possibility of complexity which generates new and rich ideas.

      The New 52 has some bright lights. But it's based on a desperate grasp for one specific blokeish market and it often - though not always - displays a contempt for the audience which is breathtaking. Are readers really that stupid that they need their stories delivered pre-masticated? Are readers really that shallow and brutal that they want nothing of real life and everything of hyper-violence?

      To those DC books rising above the mediocrity huzzah. But the gravitational pull of the editorial-set limitations is intense, it seems.

      Ah well. There's plenty great comics elsewhere, and more brilliant fiction than could be read in a hundred lifetimes. DC wanted to compete. Well, they are, and that degree of specialisation brings with the risk of alienating other audiences who want something less obviously tailored to a specific readership.

  4. Colin, this is some of your best writing on here(and that is saying something because your quality is frequently very high!). It is also some of the best words put together about the engaging nature of on-going serialized parallel comic titles (aka universes or continuities) I have ever read, and I am not just saying that because you echo the idea of what I call "macro-closure" (built on McCloud's idea of closure in comics literacy), which is part of what I am writing my doctoral dissertation about.

    I can't wait for part 2. . . please don't make us wait too long.:)

    1. Hello mr oyola:- That's very kind. Thank you. I thought the whole thing got away from me from the beginning, to be honest. I realised that explaining my points would mean I never actually finished the piece, so I left a great deal without examples in place. Luckily, the folks commenting here have thankfully been able to peer through the murk and see what I was driving at. But I think I bit off far more than I could chew, and I ought to have explained what I meant when I was mentioning "contradictions" and "diversity" etc far more. Mea culpa!

      Good luck with that dissertation! It's a fascinating subject. Just playing around with the idea that shared universes must be allowed to be too rationally organised was a challenge to me. But trying to do so has helped me grasp the great paradox here a touch more clearly; the shared universe which makes perfect sense and is perfectly designed for a target audience is actually a stunted and over-simplified one.

      The current success of franchise properties such as Dr Who and Judge Dredd show that. They haven't dumped the past or smoothed away the possibility of very different types of storytelling coming into play. Instead, they've built on that past and used it to generate a new future. And because they've saved the past while adding to it, the next generation of storytellers can both draw off and add to the common store of inspirations.

      But DC? They cut out everything that was challenging, different or alienating to bloke-fans, with very few exceptions. Even the different ideas they adopted were - with very few notable exceptions - delivered in Image-lite storytelling. Hubris, I suspect, and the desperation that the body-horror and the massive crossovers displays shows perhaps that they've already run out of magic.

      If only they had a decades-long shared universe to draw off of, ah?

    2. Naw, I think you hit it perfectly. This blog is not for neophytes, it is clearly aimed at people who know a thing or two about comics (and your healthy following shows that), so I think you struck the right balance between being too obscure and over-explaining.

      Check out my words on the subject (if you haven't already): http://we-are-in-it.tumblr.com/post/36148801376/continuity

      You may find it helpful in thinking through these ideas of continuity.

      Oh, and by the by, the only New 52 I am still reading is Batman, Inc and Dial H - having given up on Wonder Woman, Action Comics and very briefly trying Blue Beetle (in hopes of a decent Latino character with his own series).

    3. Hello Mr O;- Thank you, both for your kind words and for the link, which I will check out just as soon as I've worked through my current list of pressing deadlines :)

      What am I left reading in the New 52? Batman Int, Dial H and on occasion Action Comics. I can't think of anything else, though try to read two different titles from the range every week in an attempt to keep up.

      I hear a great deal of anecdotal evidence about older, less blokeish readers just giving up on the New 52. I don't know how significant that is in terms of sales, but I suspect that it has some importance.

    4. Dredd is a great counterpoint to Nu52. If you look at older Dredds, they're clearly making it up as they go along and whole chunks of it become 'wrong' as time goes on - Walter the Wobot and Maria are 'clearly' not what should be in Dredd, so Wagner writes them out (and then Wagner himself brings them back...) - but that gives the writers a vast pool of things to draw from for stories and spinoffs. If everyone didn't dress so silly in early strips and if Max Normal hadn't established only a weirdo doesn't dress weird, we wouldn't have the original version of Wally Squad, and then we wouldn't have The Simping Detective or the Dirty Frank parts of Low Life. Not only do we get that, we also get grimmer undercover stories like Sin City, Aimee's Low Life, and parts of The Pit, plus mixtures like Lenny Zero. And that's just one thing.

      What is there in the Nu52 that allows that? I can't think of anything. There's no random foreign Batman for a future Batman Incorporated or an accident with sliding timescales that leaves the 60s free of superheroes for a future Chase to play with.

      Then there's spinoffs: is there a tonal difference between any given Bat-title or Lantern-title? Maybe there is but I can't see a difference when they market it to me. Compare to Dredd and any given spinoff; or Doctor Who and Torchwood and Sarah Jane Adventures (the tone is often similar with Who and SJA but there's massive differences in setting and stories); or Marvel, where Wolverine & The X-Men and Uncanny X-Force are different in every way possible when Wolverine is the boss in both comics and they've even crossed over, X-Force handing a mind-wiped Angel over to the X-school saying "we're finished, you can have fun with him now".

      (The biggest failure, however, is that Nu52 has hired cartoon veteran Christy "Jem & The Holograms" Marx to revamp Amethyst and it's not an all-ages title. I don't know if that's editorial or Marx's decision, but it's the wrong one.)

      - Charles RB

    5. Hello Charles:- There was so much to try to force into this piece and I actually wrote and removed a long paragraph about 2000ad, Dredd and all that wild, wide-ranging mythos.I couldn't resist bringing it up here and your thought ring absolutely true to me in that context. Even the cross-company crossovers which Dredd has been involved in - Aliens, Batman - have both stretched and yet reinforced the Dredd universe, creating the sense that there's an absurd superhero universe one breath from MC1 in this direction, and a universe as terrible as the post-holocaust Judicial one in that. Where American crossovers tend to smooth out difference, internal and external ones in 2000AD have a habit of doing something quite different. (In this context, even Pat Mills habit of rewriting his character's continuities at the very least creates some tension and debate.)

      As you say, the New 52 has no significant range of tone, style or content. The greatest difference I can think of is between Dial H and the Bat-books, which is hardly too substantial a jump. And the key problem is - immediate sales to bloke-fans aside - it's suicide for anything but shock-the-reader storytelling. The New 52 is already collapsing from inside; indeed, it was from the first week's books. Your comparison to Marvel's output is a fine one. Though Marvel hardly pursues a strategy of difference beyond a relatively narrow range, it seems profoundly ambitious in comparison to DC.

      And there's no better example of that than the new Amethyst. I've no doubt Christy Marx is a fine talent. I know not of her background, but I trust your judgement. Yet Amethyst has been stripped of its uniqueness, presented in a style that clearly operates in the post-Image tradition, and slams in that stupid, stupid rape business too. (Whatever justifications can be offered, that was a duff, tasteless decision, although it's hard not to think of some genius at editorial thinking that would be edgy and, somehow, progressive too.)

      I feel I really ought to throw in something positive here. Well ... I think the last few issues of Dial H have been a considerable improvement ....

  5. Rucka once pointed to the obvious, these are stories about superheroes. They're supposed to be good, live right, etc. i.e. Why can't Superman be Superman in a Superman book?
    Now yes, the ideal always welcomes contention from all ends but in today's context--where creativity is shunned, editorial runs with abandon, yesterday and today's creators are played, and reprehensible are the ethix being celebrated both in the story (i.e. Spidey torturing Sandman) and the story's execution (i.e. gratuitous demeaning depiction of women, superheroines no less), etc.--you can see how level-headed costumed crime-fighting comix lovers are just exhausted; just asking for good people in their pages. What's funny to me is how hackneyed much of what passes for comix are and how these corporations seem to be inherently against their own profit. I wait for the moment a few good men and women from comix unite and trailblaze their own brand/company that takes by storm. And that such a movement addresses the ridiculous still maintaining its stranglehold on, as we all well know, should be beautiful. At least challenging. Image's explosive rise without the lack of soul to craft a moving, a worthwhile tale.

    --Niles Day

    1. Hello Niles:- I read Mr Rucka's recent discussion of Superman and found myself nodding throughout. But then, DC don't understand, because they're trying to think like bloke-fans of the most narrow stripe, and Superman can't speak to that audience without having most of his essential nature removed. Yet he DOES speak to the world beyond them, and that seems to have been ignored.

      But then, how could the "new" Superman ever have made sense. The creators didn't know what the background of the character was because Grant Morrison hadn't written it yet. You can't reboot a character without a past, and yet DC obviously believe on an editorial level - with some exceptions - that you can.

      The issues you raise are ones I'm concerned about too, as I'm sure you know. And your point about Image and the creativity which can be found there is a good one. Indeed, there are fine comics to be found everywhere at the moment. Marvel have a half-dozen fine series on the go, and their output is the best it's been since 2003/4. Not that that means that most of their books aren't mediocre, but there is a core of promise there. Beyond the super-book, there's never been a better time to be a comics reader. Yet lumbering behind the times is DC, treating many of its creators with a reactionary callousness and its readers with a pronounced contempt.

      If you all-too-often aim at the lowest common denominator you can find and make little attempt to reach beyond it, you'll end up speaking to a tiny section of the market. There aren't enough smart, good books at DC to give the New 52 depth, let alone to challenge its growing reputation as a bland and rather distasteful producer of cod-horror hype.

      A shame, but there's so much else out there. I have to follow DC's output for the Q column, but after reading comics like Suicide Squad, I dearly wish I didn't have to. A final page of the Joker hanging Harley Quinn while quipping away, and with her underwear being the focal point of the shot, is enough to convince me that there's other work to be enjoying.

    2. Rereading my post, I found myself taken away by how reactionary I was; it's great fun till you see what you've left behind. Didn't mean to overlook Marvel at all, seeing as they've finally managed to wrangle me back to the shop tomorrow with several titles I'm fawning over. (For some reason when I saw the solicitation for X-Men: Legacy featuring Xavier's maligned son Legion, I automatically thought, this is what the X-Men should be about period. And I hoped it fulfilled the promise I saw. Lo and behold, it's outdoing my expectations; I don't remember the last time I hoped without reason so easily and been rewarded. Can't help but feel cancellation already looming.) But loving DC lore as much as I do, it's so much easier to get tunnel-vision and check em so to speak. Again, why I come here time and again. Even keel refuses to give too much to what doesn't deserve it; especially when great comix are waiting. As you said, there's so much else out there. Until we figure out how to get DC on the right track, too busy thinki... you know the deal.


    3. Hello There:- It's so easy to write in a way that doesn't even reflect our own thoughts, isn't it, when dealing with situations such as this. On the one hand, nothing more important than a range of corporate-marketed entertainments. On the other, there's the emotions that often get stirred up when enjoying fictions. The company's love to encourage us to buy into their shared universes, and then somehow object when there are complaints about what's happening there. And often, those complaints really do come from nowhere but the peanut gallery. But I thought, for all your passion, that the crux of your complaint was clear and understandable; daft things are being done while the people doing them are celebrating their own apparent achievements.

      It's good to hear some generous words about X-Men Legacy. It's a book that's had some contrary press. I found the first issue tough going - setting up two equilibriums and disturbing them both in 20 pages didn't leave much room for a story that I could warm to, but your words mean that I'll be back.

      By which I mean, overhearing other folk's who're thinking too much, as it were, is good for me too :)

  6. It seems like DC wants to repeat the 1960s over and over again. What kid now cares about Dial H for Hero, or even anything that was created from the 50s and 60s? How many times do we need to see Darkseid fight the justice league?

    Its extremely disappointing. I didn't read Batgirl (never really was into the character) but its a shame to see a very popular female writer get the sack, AND with good sales.

    Most of my dollars goes to image comics these days. They are doing an excellent job with diversity and have some great titles.

    DC canning vertigo is a sign of very bad things. Marvel rehashing the same old crap is old.

    I disagree on Batman;) I think Scott Snyder is an excellent writer. Completely agree on Superman and majority of the new 52 titles.

    Amazing Spiderman is garbage now too. "Oh WOW Dock OCK is a sinister Spider-man". YAWN

    1. Hello Eric:- I take a different position to you on this, but by that, I only mean that my personal stance is different and not that I'm in any way objectively correct. I like the fact that DC is allowing a range of genres in its books, although the storytelling is such that they're not really examples of diversity at all. A good Dial H comic - and it is becoming better with each issue - is a good thing regardless of when it was first published. Indeed, I think that having that silliness in the range helps stop the DC books becoming even more blandly one-dimensional.

      But the difference between an inventive, different Dial H and the Darkseid/JL issues is a substantial one, and I agree there. Dial H is offering something new, those JL issues were hollow knock-offs that offered nothing new at all except for crass characterisation.

      On Batman by Mr Snyder: I think he's a promising writer, but I don't think he's there yet, despite having some genuine talent and some impressive work under his belt. The following review sums up the problems I have with his Batman work;


      The shared universe superbook IS going through hard times, I agree. I still think there's been a dozen or so great runs this year; Batgirl, JIM, Uncanny X-Men, Wolverine & The X-Men, Thor, Hawkeye, Daredevil, Batman International, and so on

      Thankfully, as you suggest, there's fine work to be found elsewhere too.

  7. It's an interesting point raised about all these constructed universes coming from a singular point. The super soldier serum is no doubt a reference to the start of the Ultimate Universe.

    The other thing that happens when a fixed point is given to a super universe is that, now there's a set beginning. And from that beginning is born a middle and end. In my mind, the act of assigning a beginning is the act of removing the potential for a self renewing universe. Everything becomes framed around that origin, and when the story's circle gets squared, well, that's the end of it.

    I'm glad Dial H has been brought up. I read the first few issues (borrowed from a friend) and thought they were, to use the same word, interesting. The story was, from what I had seen, well crafted and drew me in. The art was excellent, the random heroes were hilariawesome. AND there was something quite off about the transition the writer was making between being a novelist and writing a comic. Numerous panels didn't quite 'fit' the comics language. On the surface, sure, that's a bad thing, but I really liked the oppourtunity to think about the how and why what was being used was wrong. And of course it's a lot easier to be forgiving of such things when the overall quality was so good.

    Ah, Colin, we probably won't be agreeing about Batgirl anytime soon, but like I said before, that's alright. BUT! Have I told you about the Nightwing series? If I haven't, then let me say now that it has thus far been one of the only jewels in the New 52 line as far as I'm concerned. True, it's no Batman Inc. or Action Comics at its best, but those are hardly fair comparisons. Nightwing, to me, is very tonally similar to the comics I grew up reading. I really need to find an email address for the writer to send my regards sometime.

    1. Hello Isaac:- I agree entirely with what you're saying about "fixed points". If you can nail a shared superhero universe which supports a host of serial fictions down to one causal variable, then I suspect you can also wave goodbye its chances of longterm success.

      I also think that you make an excellent case for Dial H, in that its quirkiness - for whatever reason - is endearing itself AND good for the range as a whole. The most recent issues have actually been far tighter in their storytelling without losing that quirky appeal, which sounds like the best of both worlds.

      I did read the most recent Nightwing as part of my preperation for the new Q column. I hate to say, but it didn't seem any different to most of the Joker crossovers. A terrible death! A fearsome force-of-nature psychopath! A grieving, impotent superhero! It just made me despair,given that I'd read the same tale over and over again in the previous hour. In all those Bat-books, I thought the warmth to be found in Batman & Robin and Batgirl were the saving graces.

      But your conviction about Nightwing does convince me. When I've a moment, I'll go back to some of the pre-DITF issues. I have every faith that I'll find content there which reflects your faith.

  8. Nice work Colin and I'm looking forward to the sequel.

    I am fascinated with the notion that the rich sense of - I guess you'd call it community - that comes from a shared fictional universe has been sacrificed in order to make these properties more marketable.

    The question is, would the alternative of a continuing emphasis on history and linkages between hundreds of fictional persons have been possible?

    1. Hello Emmet:- Thank you :) As I said above, I'm keenly conscious of having bitten off far more than I can chew, but luckily the commentors here know their stuff anyway, so they've obviously filled in the gaps I left for me.

      Your question is the $100 dollar one, isn't it? My feeling is that the answer is yes. There's a strong tradition of comics which have succeeded in doing so, which means that the editorial and creative skills necessary to pull it off are there to be learned by anyone who cares too. From the Lee/Ditko Spider-Man through the Thomas/Englehart Avengers through the Moore DC work, Waid and Morrison in the 90s and thenceforth, through to writers such as Gillen and Simone and Cornell in the present day, the tradition is there to be drawn from.

      The problem is, it's hard work. But the results are wonderful and the shared universe as a whole benefits greatly from it.

      But if you've got editors and creators who either don't get it, or even can't grasp it, then the solution is often to simplify and - I'm making this word up - crassify too. But anybody can reduce a universe to blokeishness and relatively little else. It's the easy option and it will pay off in the short-term.

      If what the reader wants is a blokeish, crassified shared universe with a few shining exceptions in amidst the mediocrity.

  9. A quarter-century on, I still stubbornly cleave to my Crisis on Infinite Earths. I readily concede that it swept away some great elements of the Silver Age (and Bronze Age), but there was so much creativity there, and it allowed me, as a young reader, to get in on the ground floor. Perhaps it benefited from the long set-up and staggered roll-out.
    The New 52 has the stink of Zero Hour about it: gimmicky, confusing, uninspired and nasty (for the most part). Post-Crisis, editors and writers knew they had to reintroduce all of the characters; in the New 52, Zero Hour and other Crises, the reader has no idea what is and what isn't canon.
    Perhaps my obsession with timelines is unhealthy, but I am at a loss to understand how Batman's solo career and his time with Dick, Jason, Tim and Damien fit into five years. So how does this all work out for Barbara? I look forward to Part 2.

    1. Hello Rabbi Joe:- I have, as I believe you know, my reservations about Crisis, but compared to the New 52, it was a good job well done. It certainly attempted to keep as broad a degree of the old continuties in play, and therefore kept a measure of complexity and diversity going. Sadly, DC's editors kept trying to edit that down, either through promoting shamefully poor storytelling or through daft crossovers such as Zero Hour. (And of course, through pronouncements such as those which killed the 90s JSA book because readers 'didn't want old heroes', despite the book doing well.) The post-Crisis dropped far much of the brew for me, but in trying to build in things like the Charlton heroes and Earth-2 too, it did have a great deal going on.

      And of course, it had writers such Alan Moore and John Ostrander, to name but too.

      I don't think your concern with timelines is unhealthy. My take is that a timeline is actually unnecesary so long as the readers are faced with impossible-to-reconsile situations. In short, the trick to making continuity work isn't to flatten it out into easily digestible schemas, but to reference only the bits that are immediately needed while leaving everything else undisturbed to be used at another time.

      The New 52 is a shockingly jerry-thing. It shone for a few moments when first opened, like so much that's shoddy and showy. Afer awhile, only the few solidly-constructed aspects of it stayed looking impressive, while most everything else started to slide and look not-a-little shoddy.

      Editorially-determined comics. It's always been a bad idea, and I suspect it always will be.

  10. This pretty much sums up my feelings on the New 52 now. The stuff I've enjoyed - Demon Knights, Animal Man, Batman, Batman Inc., Dial H, Wonder Woman, etc. - I've really enjoyed, but as you say, it wasn't impossible to include these in the old DCU. Hell, it would have been very easy if people had sat down and thought long enough. The comparison to 90s Marvel/Image is accurate - it's built on crossover events, "shocking" revelations, "bold new directions" every six months, and making things unfriendly to new readers. I've seriously lost count of how many solicitations I've seen that promise to "shake the foundations of the New 52!"

    I got addicted to Warren Ellis' old "Come In Alone" column and in an interview with Mark Waid, Bob Harras is singled as the man responsible for Marvel's creative decline above Ron Perelman during his tenure as EIC. Guess who's now EIC at DC? The mistreatment of creative teams, the chucking people off books, the labyrinthine and baffling continuity, the editorial iron fist - all of this has his stink on it. Not to single out one individual or anything, but the similarities are too vivid to dismiss.

    The firing of Gail Simone was the tipping point. I didn't really get into it, but she's a popular writer and she was selling well, so it doesn't make sense. I'm not going to ditch DC entirely, since they are still putting out titles I like, but I don't see why I should invest so much of my time in them when Image is doing this so much better.

    1. Hello Halloween Jack;- By chance, the Splendid Wife and I are sitting in the front room while a Bowie DVD plays. Diamond Dogs will be along in about 3 tracks ...

      The parallels between Marvel of the 90s - even more than Image - and DC at the moment are frustrating and disturbing. The inability to learn from a period of history which many of the leading actors at DC in 2012 were part of is ... staggering. It was during the 90s that I washed my hands of Marvel, and I rarely bought one of the company's titles from the period between Lee and Liefeld returning and Jemas and Quesada taking charge.

      I don't want the foundations of the New 52 shaken. I want the overall foundations of the New 52 actually built with some craft and ambition in evidence. The line is so shoddy as a whole, and yet, the company keeps huckstering away about how terrific everything is. I assume those at the top really do believe that they've delivered the knees of the bees. Incredible, but I suspect it's true.

      I really am sure that you can't produce a line such as this - with all its notable exceptions - unless you really believe in what you're doing.

  11. "The important thing in writing is the capacity to astonish. Not shock -— shock is a worn-out word —- but astonish."
    -–Terry Southern

    An excellent piece on many of the ways these comics went wrong is here. Not all of it is applicable, but man, a lot if it is.

    Also: for a story to resonate and be involving, it has to have a solid storytelling structure rooted in recognizable emotions. For a story to be cool or shocking, it has to disrupt structure and change emotional responses from caring about the story to being wowed by the coolness. Therefore, you have to choose which to emphasize. Many bad comics of today are the results of emphasizing "cool" over "involving." An example of the reverse is the Lee/Kirby FF run. It's exciting, it's involving, but it sure as hell isn't cool. (Despite Stan's best efforts. Sorry, Stan. I got nothin' but love for ya.)

    To go off in yet another direction -- the creation of the New 52 does feel both over- and under-planned, doesn't it? How bizarre.

    1. Hello Harvey:- That's a fantastic reference. Thank you. I found it absolutely fascinating. But heads would presumably explode were such a thing to be read by certain areas of the comics community, since it does present a more subtle version of storytelling to stab-'em-kill-their-friends.

      I would argue with you that the FF retained an element of cool until Sue stepped away from Namor and dedicated herself to Reed. Until then, the last of the FF's importance as a symbol of family instability remained, and I'm convinced that that was one of the key things about the first few years - on and off - about the book. Although the comic is now view and presented as a celebration of family, in its original form, it was daringly anything but. It was clearly a book about family, and yet mum and dad weren't married, mum longed for another man's embrace, the kids were fighting, the oldest nipper was terribly alienated and deformed, and the younger one had nothing in common with anyone else; indeed he had so little in common with everyone else that there weren't even grounds for a fight most of time. He was just off elsewhere.

      But I wouldn't deny that the cool started to wear off after the first Namor story, and it rarely came back full-force. A shame, I say. And once Namor had been touched into touch, there was nothing cool about the FF at all. Well, except for its guest stars such as T'Challa and the Surfer ...

      And do I agree with your point about the cool/shocking issue!

      The oddest thing about the New 52 is that it seems to be deliberately designed to be both over and under-planned. To reduce the complexity/diversity of the universe while constraining the storytelling does seem to be the plan. Pah and sigh, I say ...

    2. Thanks, guys. I've actually got a half-written 15-part series called, "What movies and TV can learn from the decline and fall of superhero comics," with topics such as "You can't be embarrassed about what you story is about" and "Don't over-expose the goose that lays the golden eggs", but I've never run it because I'm not sure I have enough readers familiar with comics. Maybe in the new year.

      I'm glad to discover your blog, Colin, and I look forward to exploring it more!

    3. Hello Matt:- I can think of a few folks around here who'd line up for all 15 episodes. I will indeed keep an eye out in the New Year :)

  12. Superb piece, Colin, you sum up the possibilities and problems of DC wonderfully well. That Suicide Squad sounds dire, it's horrible that you have to keep up for Q - even 'give everyone a second chance' me never went back to that comics after the terrible debut.

    I will love you for ever for 'crassify'.

    1. Hello Martin:- Firstly, thank you for noticing "crassify". If used with a tongue-in-the-cheek and a sense of contempt, I find it does the job very well.

      Suicide Squad is one of the finest distillations of the New 52's least edifying aspects of storytelling. I'm almost tempted to admire it, in that all involved appear to have managed to sublimate whatever their own styles and ethics are to the stab-em, flash-em tendency. That is an achivement of sorts.

      Or perhaps that's what they want to produce. Good for them. I've no problem with an obvious market for this stuff being supplied with their hits. Why it should be DC that's doing it escapes me, mind you.

  13. It was just annouced that DC's giving the book back to Gail, how does that affect things in your opinion, Colin?

    1. Hello Dina:- I'm tremendously pleased that what appears to have been a boneheaded commercial decision, a brutal sacking and an artistic screw-up - being how good her work is - has been reversed.

      But my opinion of the New 52 in terms of content, editorial competence and worker relations as a whole remains the same. It's a cluster-*!&$ dressed up as a grand success. Thankfully, those editors and creators who remain who are competent 0 and better! - are keeping up the hope that good times will arrive again.

  14. You've once again blown my mind with another brilliant article, Colin.

    I welcomed the New 52 with open arms, but as you and everyone else have pointed out, its become all too apparent that this initiative was slapdash and short-sighted, and I've completely lost my enthusiasm for immersing myself in the DCU. What's even more disconcerting is the flippant attitude that Dan Didio and his cronies have displayed towards there readership.

    Looking at the latest sales figures, it seems to me like it won't be long before they have to do another reboot.

    1. Hello Sergeant Hartman:- That's very kind of you to say so :)I suspect that there's a good few folks who share your experience.

      The solution to the sales figures does seem clear, if we ignore the reboot option again!! Get quality creators on the books and have expert editors with the training and supervision that's necessary to support them. Purse a broad range of styles and subject matter and reach out to readers beyond the bloke-fan.

      There we are. (rubs hands with smugness.) That's that problem solved. For my next trick, peace and order for the world by the end of XMas Eve ....

  15. An interesting read as usual, though I get the feeling that you have written this piece before. Actually, you often include a short version of this in every other article, even when writing about another subject entirely ("Contrasted with the daftness of the miserable New 52..."). Which I don't say in a hateful way at all - if you feel this way, of course you should use your blog and your magazine column to elaborate on a subject that is important to you. It's just that I still don't see this at all.

    I know that your experience contrasts immensely with mine. I guess I've left an anonymous comment here before, saying that the New 52 actually brought me to reading and collectin monthly comics at the tender age of 27 last year. Maybe my missing experience is part of the reason why I can't see what pap I'm really reading, although I normally do consider myself a rather well-read young man who can at least tell crap from classic. Maybe I'm still just not versed enough in comics. Maybe in 5 years I too will be tired of "the same old shock and awe" or something.

    Then again, I have over the last year actually gone and read some trades of Neal Adams Batman stuff, among other things. And while I found quite a lot in there to like, I absolutely do not see a big difference in quality between that and the phenomenal work that for example Mr. Snyder and Mr. Hurwitz are doing at the moment. I do realise that they are written in very different styles, with me being sorta partial towards this newer style, seeing that it is the one I just fell in love with. Certainly sensibilities in general have changed. But I absolutely do believe there is solid to great work being done nowadays (Batman, Batman: The Dark Knight, Wonder Woman, Animal Man, Swamp Thing, Batwoman, Red Hood...) that ranges from being simply exciting or wonderously imaginative (no shame in that) to dealing with themes of family and loss to dealing with thmes of abusive relationships to actually being a metaphor for the condition of America post 9/11 etc. - all in a comic book way and certainly not in the depth other mediums could give. But still, it's all there.

    One comment above linked to a piece about writing with which I don't entirely agree but where I found this bit:
    "Great genre stories are metaphors for universal emotional experiences. A great vampire story isn’t about fangs and blood, it’s about our internal struggle between lust and self-control. Great Westerns aren’t about horses, they’re about the struggle between our craving for individualism and our need for community. Even the most unrealistic genre stories should be metaphors for how things really feel. "

    Yeah, exactly. And I'm purchasing about 14-16 of those great genre stories every month right now from DC comics. I really like them all.

    And that has been the lone defense of modern DC comics for this thread. Have a great new year! Maybe the recommendation for Earth 2 over in that other thread will see us agreeing on at least one comic in 2013. ;)

    - Björn

    1. Hello Bjorn:- Good for you! I wouldn't dare to suggest that your choices are misplaced or your enjoyment in any way inappropriate. Obviously, I've my own opinions on the worth of the New 52, and you've yours; vive la différence.

      Thank you for reminding me that I promised to take a look at Earth-2. I shall get that sorted.

      As for us agreeing on the quality of DC books, I've written positive reviews - or made at the least favourable mentions - of Batman International, Batman And Robin, Batgirl, Batwoman, Dial H For Hero and Demon Knights in 2003. I can understand you feeling that I never speak well of the company's product, but there are books it produces which I not only think highly of, but write positively of too.

      I of course return your kind best wishes for the coming new year, and hope it brings nothing but splendidness to you :)