When DC Comics relaunched its superhero line in 2011 with the New 52, there was an unmistakable sameness to the aesthetic of many of the titles. Sure, there have been some eye-catching exceptions, but for the most part, the Jim Lee-led character redesigns have exerted great influence over the DC Universe for the past three years.
If you're a fan of Jim Lee, that's pretty awesome. If you're a fan of a lot of artists and styles, that's less awesome and has made the New 52 sometimes frustrating and occasionally baffling. There are more than 75 years' worth of characters bursting with the imagination of hundreds of creators. Why filter all that down to such a narrow experience for readers? I love Oreo cookies, but can I ever have chocolate chip cookie?
But then, along comes new Batman Group Editor Mark Doyle, who moved from Vertigo in February. Suddenly, there's a new creative team, a new costume and a new outlook, for Batgirl, followed by announcements of Gotham Academy, Arkham Manor and, just Tuesday, Gotham By Midnight, demonstrating that Batman and his world are a resilient and powerful corner of the DC Universe. It's one where offering different aesthetics adds a richness to the entire line while (possibly) attracting the eye of those looking for something different in their reading experience.
Essentially, Doyle just installed a snack bar. So let's go eat!
Gotham Academy probably has me the most excited. A book that teams Becky Cloonan with Karl Kerschl makes it feel as if a genie just showed up at my door. This is a teen drama about a creepy prep school in Gotham City and looks to feature mostly new characters. That's a clear premise that's pretty easy to get on board with. This isn't spinning out of some byzantine crossover, there's no prequel miniseries I need to read; just pick it up and go.
Sure, Bruce Wayne will drop by, and the school apparently has a connection to something in Gotham's past, but that's just window dressing. Otherwise, it almost seems like it's a creator-owned book, which I probably would've preferred, but if it means they get to create this book and get some of that sweet, sweet Batman money, more power to them. The ongoing series will be co-written by Brenden Fletcher, who's also co-writing the Bat-book that falls next on my excitement list, Batgirl.
I think I've already joined everyone else in flipping out about the redesign of Barbara Gordon by co-writer Cameron Stewart and artist Babs Tarr, but it's worth noting in this context. The reason everyone has swooned over the new look is because it's such a departure from DC, and from mainstream superheroes in general. This book and Marvel's Ms. Marvel represent (at least I hope) a sea change in the depiction of female superheroes. With Batgirl in particular, I can't help but feel like the design is influenced by cosplayers. This was a costume designed to be worn in the real world yet still look heroic. There's also a refreshing level of fun that is so great to see. Sometimes it feels as if DC is trying to be cool by making everything gritty and dark. And now here's Barbara Gordon having a blast being Batgirl, and she looks better than just about anyone else in the New 52.
Gotham By Midnight is the newest addition to this new wave of Batman books. It's more of a supernatural horror comics, which is fitting for the eternally spooky Gotham City. It's also appropriate that one of the great modern horror artists is on board.
From 30 Days of Night and Fell to his own Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse (where even his humor is unsettling) and his current The Squidder (even the name makes me uneasy), Ben Templesmith has always fascinated and scared me. The way he sees the world isn't right, but I'm glad he depicts it so well. He's joined by writer Ray Fawkes, who's also an artist in his own right. His experimental One Soul and its thematic sequel The People Inside (released today) are fascinating explorations of time and space using comics. No one else uses the comics language like Fawkes does. His DC work has been less about experimenting with the form and language of comics, but this should nevertheless be an interesting team up of creators. At the least, any lingering thoughts of visiting Gotham will surely be eliminated.
The final in this quartet is Arkham Manor, perhaps the most conventional of the bunch. Both it and Gotham By Midnight spin out of the weekly Batman Eternal, and Arkham Manor serves as something of a companion to the regular Batman series. Perhaps not surprisingly then, this is the only book of these four that Batman plays more of a central role. Hopefully it won't be too reliant on Batman continuity. Even so it wanders enough from the well-traveled New 52 path to merit trying, mostly for the fantastic artwork of Shawn Crystal, whose name should be better known among fans. Deadpool and Nova writer Gerry Duggan joins him to spin a horror tale with more of a suspense angle, and hopefully something of a psychological thriller. Wayne Manor gets turned into the new Arkham Asylum, twisted inmates and all.
These four books are a great way to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Batman, a character who's shown so much flexibility and resiliency to allow for a wide spectrum of interpretations. Whether noir or goofy or straight superhero, Batman is still Batman. That kind of tonal and stylistic diversity also applies to what we're reading today. The DC Universe is too rich to confine it. And the days of comics fans only reading superhero comics from one publisher are fading. Readers can handle a teen drama beside a horror book and a fun superhero comic. They may not buy all of them, but they'll grab the ones that appeal to them. And then the readers that bypass the entire Batman section entirely may see something that catches their eye too.
I grew up a Marvel guy, so DC reading has been limited in the past. But I'm always looking for an entryway, and this line-up looks like the perfect opportunity.