Grumpy Old Fan | The New 52 needs a new <i>52</i>

Over the summer I wrote about the rate of “idea generation” across decades of DC history.  Essentially, I was talking about the number of new ideas (or new uses for old ideas) being produced under current superhero-comics storytelling trends. Idea generation and world-building go hand in hand, such that the more ideas you can harmonize into a reasonably coherent (and accessible) shared universe, the better.

The 2006-07 weekly miniseries 52 put DC’s shared universe to good use. Written by Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka and Mark Waid, laid out by Keith Giffen, and drawn by an array of artists, 52 had a handful of C- and D-list characters guide readers through various obscure corners of the DCU. 52’s locales included a Metropolis without Superman, Black Adam’s Khandaq, an island of mad scientists, and the farthest reaches of outer space. 52 also featured its share of new characters, like the Chinese super-team called The Great Ten, the intergalactic despot Lady Styx and the dark religion of the Crime Bible. Of course, it also debuted new versions of Batwoman, the Question, Infinity Inc. and Supernova.

Because it chronicled a year in which the Trinity of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman each disappeared from public view, and because it had that year all to itself (thanks to the other titles’ concurrent “One Year Later” time-jump), 52 gave readers a unique opportunity to poke into the dusty corners of DC’s attic. Due (mostly) to the vagaries of its truncated timeline, the New 52 apparently doesn’t have such an extensive history. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t take readers on a similar journey.

A shared universe invariably places potentially conflicting demands on its books. Each needs to succeed on its own merits, but each must also coexist peacefully with the others. I’d like to think that when these demands do conflict, the needs of the individual outweigh the needs of the universe; because in the end, I’m more invested in the individual books than I am in the shared universe. Besides, when a group of standalone titles can combine successfully into a coherent shared universe, the result can be pleasantly immersive.

By and large, I think the New 52 relaunch has tended to favor those individual books. At least, I get that impression from the New 52 books I read. This is not to say that everything is wonderfully iconoclastic.  Superman and Green Arrow have had more than their share of creative teams. The Wonder Woman who appears in Justice League and the Superman books seems rather disconnected from the character Brian Azzarello, Cliff Chiang and Tony Akins have been chronicling in her own title. The cheerfully anarchic OMAC was canceled early on, and I, Vampire will end in April. In short, quirky books should probably watch their backs.

Still, the New 52 titles try to be diverse, and to that end has been organized into general categories, like “Young Justice,” “The Edge,” and “The Dark.” The latter especially has carved out its own niche, with Swamp Thing, Animal Man, Justice League Dark and Demon Knights -- but in a way that doesn’t readily link those titles to the rest of the superhero line. This despite “Rotworld’s” monsterized guest stars and JL Dark’s use of the main League. (Even the late Justice League International didn’t interact appreciably with the main League, apart from Batman’s involvement.) Accordingly, for a complete overhaul of the superhero books, which carried with it the real possibility of stifling uniformity, the New 52 remains a rather loose affiliation of titles.

Still, the connections are there. Take Demon Knights, which shares Madame Xanadu with Justice League Dark and a history (including the Demon) with Stormwatch; or the upcoming Justice League of America, which takes Martian Manhunter from Stormwatch and most of the rest of its roster from other established titles. The new JLA is already slated to appear in April’s issue of Catwoman, and one suspects the team’s high profile will try to goose sales of the individual books.

So why a 52-style miniseries going hither and yon across the New 52-scape? Not so much to make those kinds of team-book connections, because the team books can do that on their own. Instead, it could be a travelogue of the superhero line, showing how the different areas of emphasis might interact with one another. Counting 52, DC has done four of these year-long survey-style miniseries, each with a different set of goals, but each charged with examining these kinds of macro-level relationships. 52 had spiritual quests, space adventure and geopolitical conflict. The mess that was Countdown eventually involved the New Gods and the revamped Multiverse. Trinity brought together the social circles of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, and then turned the timeline inside-out in their absence. Finally, Brightest Day sent a group of formerly dead characters on their own journeys of discovery, before revealing their shared destinies. (That last sounds pretentious, but it’s the simplest way I could describe BD.) Each miniseries tried to give DC’s shared superhero universe some kind of common identity, or sense of place, beyond “Gotham over here” and “Central City out thataway.”

Indeed, each miniseries did that at least in part by taking the focus off the big names. The point of 52 was to show how the world got along without the Trinity, the point of Countdown was to direct readers to various other events and/or books which didn’t necessarily involve the Trinity, and even the last bit of Trinity showed how the world would have been different if the Trinity never existed. For its part, Brightest Day involved some familiar faces, like Aquaman, Hawkman and Hawkwoman, J’Onn J’Onzz and Firestorm, but each of them had been out of the limelight for some period of time, and therefore needed some reintroduction. Obviously a “travelogue” miniseries will have significant marketing potential.

This potential is different both from an all-star team book like Justice League and from a line-wide crossover miniseries like the upcoming Trinity War. I figure TW will build on the backstories of Pandora, the Phantom Stranger and the new Question, and combine that with the various Black Diamond subplots running through assorted New-52 books. Since there will be three Justice League titles by the time TW starts, you’d think they’d be a “trinity” as well. That’s business as usual for a shared superhero universe, particularly because it rewards readers who have been paying attention.

However, 52 and its successors generally had a different perspective. A line-wide crossover is often the culmination of different subplots -- in other words, the end of a story. It juxtaposes familiar elements in (one would hope) new and creative ways. Infinite Crisis asked “what if the Trinity broke up,” Final Crisis asked “what if evil won,” and Blackest Night explored the rules of death and the meaning of life. By contrast, 52, Trinity and Brightest Day were each more concerned with character studies. Even Countdown intended to take its readers on a journey of discovery.

That’s what the New-52 DCU needs at this point in its development. Over the past year and a half, individual titles have been establishing their own identities, with varying degrees of success. Each book has contributed its own set of ideas to its particular sub-group, and by extension to the larger shared universe. The team books and Trinity War can help fans organize those ideas generally. What 52 did so well was to take that organizational structure and use it to guide readers towards the unfamiliar and the new. The New 52 books can’t exactly draw on decades of DC lore, but a 52-style miniseries could still try to evoke that spirit of exploration. It would go a long way towards making the New 52-verse feel lived-in, and it would provide a different kind of coherence to the regular ongoing series.

Now, I have yet to discuss in detail the other common element of all those previous miniseries -- namely, their year-long duration. 52 and Trinity each ran 52 issues, Countdown was 51, and Brightest Day was 25 biweekly issues. That’s a lot of storytelling capacity, even in these decompressed times. Nevertheless, even with a less-sketched-out world, I think the New-52 52 could at least go the biweekly route. Remember, it’s about the journey, not necessarily the destination; and the journey needs to be worth the investment of time.

Clearly this is one of those “make it happen, DC” kinds of posts. I don’t know exactly where this journey would take readers, or who they’d meet. I expect it would involve the New 52's broad genres of superheroes (main-line and alternative), horror, “action” (i.e., Deathstroke and Team 7), space opera, and other time periods. Ideally, it would reintroduce some DC folk who hadn’t yet been seen in the New 52. (I’d have Ralph and Sue Dibny as “tour guides,” trying to solve some impossibly-complex mystery.)

Above all, though, it would show readers that the relaunched DCU, for all its updates and streamlining, was still broad enough to hold all these disparate characters, friendly enough to explore, and odd enough to make the exploration fun. Any shared universe should be able to meet those criteria, and the New-52 DCU is no different.

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