Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Comic Observations: Marvel vs. DC - Round One: The New 52

For a couple years now, I've basically been reading almost all of the output from the big two comic publishers, and after reading hundreds of comics, it's become clear to me which one is enjoying the greater renaissance, and which one seems to be rudderless.

Let's start out by looking at DC Comics.

Ad for the New 52
Back in 2011, DC was tying up their latest line-wide event Flashpoint. The story involved the Flash experiencing an alternate timeline, and then returning to a whole new DC Universe, merging elements from the classic DCU, the Wildstorm Universe and the Vertigo Universe into one, with a whole new timeline.

As a result, all DC books were cancelled and 52 new books were launched (hence the name "The New 52"). Some, like Action Comics, Wonder Woman, Batman, etc, would be relaunches of established titles. Some would be new titles, such as Mr. Terrific, Voodoo, I, Vampire and Men of War. All would take place in a new DCU with a different continuity, resulting in changes to characters' histories and appearances. Superman's origin was now radically different, with Action Comics initially dealing with his early days, and Superman dealing with his present day stories.

The problems were evident early on. First off, no one really knew what parts of which character's histories counted anymore or what differences there were between the old continuity and the new. Were Ma and Pa Kent dead or alive? Had there been a Wally West who was a sidekick to Barry Allen's Flash? Batman and Green Lantern's continuities (DC's biggest sellers at the time) were largely untouched, but that just made their stories more confusing. For instance, Barbara Gordon, who had spent over a decade in a wheelchair as the first major disabled superhero, was now back to being Batgirl, but had been paralyzed. We didn't know how she healed, if she spent any time in the super-hacker Oracle persona, if any of the Birds of Prey stuff counted, etc. Somehow, Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, Tim Drake and Damian Wayne had all been Batman's partner within five years. Were they all Robin? All at the same time or one after another? No one knew. And as of this writing, we still don't know the answers to many questions, though some have been answered.

If all this sounds confusing, then you are most definitely not alone. DC's editorial team called this a soft reboot, as opposed to a hard one, but basically what it amounted to is a wishy-washy reboot where characters were updated in a superficial way, but little truly new was done with any of them. A hard reboot at least would have been a clear dividing line, allowing creators to take a fresh look at everything. However, DC's lack of clarity about what was in and what was out for these characters seemingly extended to the creators on the books as well, resulting in books where writers had no idea what was established and what was not. DC stated outright that in the New 52, superheroes began appearing five-six years ago, but that tight timeline created questions such as how has Batman had four Robins in five years? You had to wonder if DC even knew themselves, and the behind the scenes drama that was soon to unfold would suggest that editorial didn't have a clear idea at all.

Gail Simone
JT Krul was replaced as writer on Green Arrow before the second issue was released. George Perez left Superman after having numerous battles with editorial over constantly shifting expectation. He was the first to publicly suggest that DC editorial was making it up as they went, and that they were constantly asking creators to change story plans. Gail Simone left the Firestorm book, Ron Marz left Voodoo after editorial scrapped his entire script for issue 5. Rob Leifeld, who had been writing and drawing Deathstroke and writing Grifter and Savage Hawkman, left with this scathing release: "Reasons are the same as everyone's that you hear. I lasted a few months longer than I thought possible. Massive indecision, last minute and I mean LAST minute changes that alter everything. Editor pissing contests... No thanks. Last week my editor said, 'Early on we had a lot of indie talent that weren't used to re-writes and changes. [That] made it hard.' Uh, no, it's you." Gail Simone was fired from Batgirl, only to be re-hired following a massive outcry. Robert Venditi was announced as the Constantine writer, then replaced before the first issue was published.  Jim Zubkavich was fired from Birds of Prey before his first issue hit. Keith Giffen, a legendary Legion of Super-Heroes artist, left that book after two issues. Most recently, James Robinson, who had singlehandedly shaped the Earth 2 book and the alternate universe in which it took place, left the series. He had been passionate about the book, and had talked about having a free hand creatively to shape this separate reality. He didn't elaborate on why he left, but the Earth 2 reality looks to be crossing over into the main one, an idea I can't imagine he would have liked.

But the two biggest debacles were still to come. Josh Fialkov, scheduled to take over the Green Lantern franchise after Geoff Johns' departure, quit both Green Lantern and Red Lantern before his first issues hit the stands. The rumour, which has never been confirmed, is that after agreeing on the story direction Fialkov proposed, DC then did an about-face and demanded Fialkov kill off major character John Stewart. Fialkov chose to leave. This was followed by the announcement that fan favourite writer Andy Diggle would be taking over Action Comics. This was welcome news, as Superman had been one of the most troubled characters in the New 52. DC's flagship character, celebrating his 75th anniversary, still did not have a book that consistently captured readers. Diggle's appointment was met with glee from fandom, but this was dashed when Diggle announced he was leaving the book before his first issue would be published over creative differences. Tony S. Daniel was tapped to replace him, but Daniel would only stay for one arc before leaving as well. This disappointment was only compounded by the release of Diggle's single issue, which was seen as arguably the best Superman story since the relaunch.
Andy Diggle
As for the line of books, there seemed to be far more misses than hits. Justice League, written by Geoff Johns and drawn by Jim Lee, was a massive hit, and the different Batman and Green Lantern books have continued to sell well, with Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's take on Batman in his eponymous title looking to become one of the character's classic runs. A few characters saw their relaunches bringing unexpected success. Animal Man, written by Jeff Lemire, was a critical and popular hit, as was Scott Snyder's Swamp Thing. Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang relaunched Wonder Woman with a storyline that has been loved by fans. Geoff Johns' proven ability to revitalize characters was proven once again with his take on Aquaman, and the book has become one the New 52's most consistently satisfying non-Batman book.

But they've also cancelled 23 books since the New 52 started. And they're about to cancel four more next month. Some of these books were among the better of the New 52 offerings but failed to find an audience (Static Shock, I, Vampire, Frankenstein, Agent of SHADE, Dial H). Some books were risky concepts that had a chance of failure anyways (DC Universe Presents, Men at War, GI Combat, Blackhawks, Sword of Sorcery). But a lot of them were just plain bad. Either the execution was poor, or the editorial influence was so heavy that the titles seems to change gears every issue.

And that's the big problem here. The best books DC has are the ones that feel the most free of editorial interference. When you read Batman, Aquaman, Justice League, Animal Man or Wonder Woman, you can feel that the creative team is doing what they want to do and what they feel is the best direction for the book, even if you don't like it. On the other titles, with less powerful creators on them, you feel a timidity to explore new concepts because the direction feels so tenuous. Things could change in an instant, and that kind of oppressive grip can really strangle creativity.

And those books above? The ones that really stand out? Justice League aside, with very little rejiggering they could all have had their stories told within the old continuity. The New 52 and the

new universe it created hasn't made a dent on them at all. So, what then, other than marketing reasons, was the point? Did this reboot succeed in replacing the old continuity with one more exciting, one that is freer or more accessible for new readers?

I'd argue no. The haphazard way the reboot was done doesn't make the universe easier to understand for new readers, and I'd also argue it's failed to successfully create a more interesting universe for these characters to operate in. A hard reboot would have had a better chance, but by keeping some of the old universe, and ditching other parts, and not explaining very well what exactly was changed; well, it's a mess.

DC's got some new books starting up. Superman Unchained, by Scott Snyder and Jim Lee, seems to be the first book with a shot at being the great Superman book DC wanted from the beginning. Greg Pak and Jae Lee are taking on Batman/Superman, a new iteration of the old World's Finest book, that looks to be a winner. So, let's hope that we see DC return to greatness, but currently there's far more evidence that they don't really have a cohesive idea of what kind of line they want to be publishing, as well as creators that are running away from their workplace environment. Neither is a good position to be in.

In Part 2, we'll take a look at Marvel, and see if they're really the House of Ideas.

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