Grumpy Old Fan | Blowed up real good

[Note: This post was written Wednesday night, before the latest round of announcements.]

I was barely into the back yard when the lawn mower exploded.

This mower was far from new. My wife had owned it since a few years before we met, and it may have been old when she got it. It had cut the grass of at least four different addresses in three different states, and had been maintained and serviced fairly faithfully throughout its life. This summer, however, its persistent little engine had been making ominous noises that my amateur care could not entirely mitigate. When it ran over that big limb, which it tried mightily to shred as it had so many others, the stresses proved to be too much. The next thing I knew, there was a puff of smoke, a spray of oil, and a silver-dollar-sized hole in the mower’s side.

I pointed that out to my wife, to drive home the extent of the damage. “See that in the hole? That’s the piston.”

“We’ll take it to Sears in the morning,” was her reply.

Well, needless to say, by this point we were talking about an ex-mower. The most the Sears mechanics could suggest was to order a part that would cost more than a new mower. This was the tipping point for my wife, when practicality superseded sentiment. Indeed, the new mower is remarkably efficient by comparison, atomizing clippings and leaving a uniform green carpet in its wake. It is cool and bloodless, like a Secret Service agent or an athlete in prime condition. With luck, it will serve us as long and as well as its predecessor.

Now, clearly I am not telling you about my lawn mower because this has turned into “Grumpy Old Garden.” Neither am I saying DC had a gaping hole in its superhero line and we readers thought it could be simply patched. There was, and is, no simple solution -- not even starting over entirely -- to DC’s array of small and large ailments. A few weeks ago I talked about the relationships we readers form with these characters over time, and I can see a couple of ways to roll back whatever Flashpoint facilitates.

Still, after a week’s worth of pondering September’s lineup, I have decided it is time to embrace the new.

* * *

Actually, “blowing up” is probably too strong a term for the combination of creative-team shuffling, continuity tweaking, and renumbering coming down the pike. “Overhaul” sounds better: it implies that some things were working, and some things needed fixing. (I’m sure we won’t entirely agree on what was working and what wasn’t.)

Therefore, the first question is, why a line-wide overhaul? The Batman and Green Lantern books aren’t really being touched, Wonder Woman was due for another rejiggering, and we knew big things were in store for the cast of Brightest Day. What’s more, that Geoff Johns/Jim Lee Justice League book had been rumored for years. So why not have a series of big announcements throughout the summer and fall? Why win the Internet for two weeks in June when you can (potentially) win it for three months?

Part of it, I think, is to raise the level of every new announcement to that Justice League level. I can’t remember the new Nightwing writer off the top of my head, but I know Nightwing is one of the New 52.

Part of it is the suspense. Watching the steady drip of press releases and rumors over the past week has been like a slow-motion version of the March Madness selection shows. (At press time, titles like Justice Society, Power Girl, and Jonah Hex were still on the bubble.)

Part of it, though, is this notion that all the Flashpoint tie-ins were a dry run for the reading capacity of DC’s audience. If we can extrapolate from my local comics shop’s experience, apparently there are enough people out there willing to take chances on Greater Flashpoint that DC feels like they’ll buy a good bit of the New 52. This includes a certain cynical calculus: if DC’s readership will take chances on esoteric Flashpoint tie-ins like Deathstroke and Frankenstein, why wouldn’t they buy a Teen Titans where Tim Drake wears glider wings and Superboy has a tattoo?

And that, I think, has been driving DC, both for the last little while and into the fall. Essentially, DC is asking its current readers to buy into two successive “altered timelines”: first Flashpoint’s nightmare, and then September’s overhaul. Superficially I think you can compare it to 1985-86, when Crisis On Infinite Earths set up a massive wave of from-the-ground-up revamps, but this time it’s happening at a much faster pace, and with virtually no time to say goodbye to the present status quo.

Such suddenness is wrenching, not least because it forces readers immediately to choose the extent of their investment in the New 52. I don’t mean committing irrevocably to Justice League Dark today, June 9; but I do think many readers (and potential readers) have been deciding generally whether they’re getting most, some, or hardly any of the New 52. Again, this is in contrast to 1986-87, when the new Superman was rolled out in June, the new Wonder Woman in November, and the new Justice League a couple months after that. A reader like me might wake up one day in the fall of 1987 and realize he was reading three times as many comics as he had been the year before. Today I’m buckling down in June to make a post-August budget. It is all very are-you-with-us?, which can be thrilling if you say yes, and a little alienating otherwise.

I am very excited about a few things. I’m particularly eager to see if the rumors are true about Grant Morrison and/or George Pérez on the Superman books. I’m very glad that Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang, who I loved so much on “Architecture & Mortality,” are the new Wonder Woman team. Geoff Johns and Jim Lee should make Justice League worth watching, at least for as long as their schedules allow. Gail Simone seems very enthusiastic about returning Barbara Gordon to Batgirl, and if she’s happy, I’m happy. I’m also curious to see what she (and co-writer Ethan Van Sciver) bring to Firestorm. In fact, there are a number of creative teams which seem well-suited to their new assignments: Scott Snyder and Yanick Paquette on Swamp Thing, Jeff Lemire and Alberto Ponticelli (great on Unknown Soldier) on Frankenstein, John Rozum and Scott McDaniel on Static, DnA and Fernando Dagnino on Resurrection Man, and Paul Cornell and Diogenes Neves on Demon Knights. My September budget seems to be filling up quickly.

However, quite a few of the New 52 just don’t interest me. New directions and/or new creative teams for Hawkman, Teen Titans, Hawk & Dove, and Green Arrow aren’t enough to earn my $2.99. I can appreciate Dick Grayson resuming his Nightwing career, but without the Titans, Batman, or Chuck Dixon, the character has been somewhat directionless. Similarly, I like Captain Atom, but after Rise Of Arsenal I’m not sure about J.T. Krul. Red Hood and the Outlaws just looks unpleasant.

Overall, from the forty-odd titles released so far, my impression is of a publisher interested mainly in doing variations on the familiar. While 1986 was concerned primarily with relaunching the big names, it also featured a slew of new titles. (Ironically, Booster Gold was one of DC’s most successful new post-Crisis characters, but as I write this there’s no word on the current book’s fate.) Even Batwing, which represents a pretty significant step for the Bat-books, isn’t entirely new, spinning off a character from Batman Incorporated. I commend DC for diversifying its characters, but the credits boxes still include a lot of Krul, Judd Winick, Peter Milligan, Fabian Nicieza, Scott Lobdell, et al. In fact, while Gail Simone is still writing (or co-writing) two titles, as far as I can tell she’s the New 52's only female creator -- no Felicia Henderson, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Amanda Conner, or Nicola Scott as of yet.

Even the “Vertigo-verse” books seem more superhero-flavored, especially Justice League Dark. (Seriously, that’s the title? I’ll probably get the first couple of issues, but I can’t imagine that group under the JL banner without a healthy dose of hipster distance. Still, it does have Zatanna....) Demon Knights is “medieval superheroes,” Frankenstein is “monster superheroes,” and Resurrection Man and Animal Man are unconventional superheroes. I ... Vampire! and maybe Swamp Thing look like the most straightforward horror book, although I presume they both fall under the DCU umbrella. With the few slots remaining, I’m hoping DC signs up for more Jonah Hex, gets back into the war business (maybe with Blackhawk), and goes further into fantasy with Amethyst. Finally, although he’s a straight-up superhero, I have to think there are plans for Captain Marvel, and this overhaul is as good a time as any.

That said, it’s good to see DC branching out again, even if it’s into familiar territory. Creative teams can change and premises can be reworked, but I don’t see DC abandoning the overall structure of the New 52 in the near future. Ultimately, that’s what this is about: convincing a cynical readership -- not to mention that elusive pool of hypothetical new readers -- that these comics can speak to them. If DC is so wedded to a main line of 52 ongoing series, it might have been more exciting to launch one new book per week for a year (culminating in the Johns/Lee Justice League, perhaps), but that plays to the habits of us every-Wednesday readers. Announcing a whole new lineup, and putting it together in a much shorter timeframe, gets everyone’s attention.

* * *

Regardless, the one thing that sets DC apart from just about every other superhero publisher, and the one thing that DC seems eternally bent on sabotaging, is its eclectic nature. I’ve said many times that as much as it may try to emulate Marvel, DC’s superhero line isn’t the product of a small Bullpen collaborating on the same shared universe. For better or worse, it’s a confederation of different creators, bringing disparate influences and distinct perspectives to a variety of genres. Its three keystone characters each represent something unique: Siegel and Shuster’s idealism, Marston’s social activism, and Kane and Finger’s expressionism. Later, they’d be joined by Carmine Infantino’s streamlined speedster and Gil Kane’s striking space-cop. DC is all these names and more: O’Neil and Adams, Englehart and Rogers, Wolfman and Pérez, Levitz and Giffen, Fleming and Von Eeden, Moore and Gibbons, Wein and Wrightson, and on and on. Accordingly, there is a real opportunity here for DC to let its characters be defined by a “class of 2011": not just Morrison’s Batman and Johns’ GL, but the new teams generally. Twenty-five years ago, DC did just that, with the “Byrne Superman,” the “Pérez Wonder Woman,” and even the “Ostrander Firestorm.”

Furthermore, because DC has blown up its past, it can no longer use all those decades’ worth of stories as an excuse for failing to attract new readers. You want something accessible, hypothetical audience? Well, here you go, served up with new No. 1 issues just itching to be downloaded. Start here and don’t look back. However, the new DC must be about more than just the nth different version of Hawkman or the Justice Society. The new DC needs desperately to take chances on new characters and new ways of telling stories. I’m excited about the anthology books because they represent this kind of experimentation, in terms of both character development and format.

Most importantly, DC needs to be committed to its new initiatives. Make no mistake, I expect to see a return to traditional numbering, sooner rather than later, especially for the continuously-published books like Action and Detective. However, I don’t want the DC of 2012 to look like the DC of 2010. It should try to live up to all this ambitious hype about diversity and outreach. It should include a healthy mix of genres, and not just variations on superhero formulae. Its books should ship on time, establishing expectations and building anticipation. Its A-list titles shouldn’t draw attention away from the midrange books -- instead, the midrange should get the care it needs to prosper, instead of being left to sink down the sales charts.

It cannot be said too forcefully that after August 31, there is no going back. If this all turns out to be a grand, year-long “Heroes Reborn”-style digression, and some future Big Event restores what Flashpoint changed, the New 52 will be seen as a crushing failure. There are ominous echoes of the mid-‘70s “DC Explosion,” a flood of new series (including revivals of Teen Titans and All Star Comics) which largely didn’t survive the subsequent “Implosion.” Before too long, DC’s books had migrated largely into what we now call the Direct Market. Therefore, a large part of the New 52's task will be to get ahead of any potential implosion by actively courting new readers, and especially the new digital marketplace. If DC doesn’t do that, after all this buildup, I’m not sure it could summon the institutional courage for another attempt.

Although this isn’t the best way to take a great leap forward, it’s better than nothing. The old machine still runs, but its days are numbered, and it’s only a matter of time before a new model takes over. Here’s hoping DC has avoided a big blow-up.

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