Grumpy Old Fan | Used universes

We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of the New 52, and I anticipate doing the usual examinations of what worked and what didn’t. Until then, however, this preliminary post will try to organize my general impressions.

I have tried to keep an open mind about the various changes, but apparently I keep coming back to the New 52-niverse’s lack of meaningful fictional history. Much of this comes from the five-year timeline, but a good bit of it is due to storytelling styles. While origin stories can generate a nominal setting, including a regular supporting cast, many of the New-52 books held off for various reasons -- like readers pretty much knowing the origins at the outset -- and with today’s practical concerns, many books spent their first 12 issues on extended arcs.

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been talking about this as a function of “idea generation,” but I think it is a more elemental concept. Specifically, it seems like I have been conditioned to expect a certain amount of continuity in a modern shared universe. Furthermore (and more troubling), I suspect the simple acknowledgment of preexisting continuity helps mitigate whatever weaknesses may exist in the stories themselves.

Before getting too negative generally, though, let’s talk about particular titles. I am reading exactly half of the original New 52 books:  Action Comics, All-Star Western, Animal Man, Aquaman, Batgirl, Batman, Batman & Robin, Batwing, Batwoman, Catwoman, DC Universe Presents, Demon Knights, Detective Comics, Firestorm, Flash, Frankenstein, Green Lantern, GL Corps, I, Vampire, Justice League, Justice League Dark, Stormwatch, Supergirl, Superman, Swamp Thing and Wonder Woman.

Of that original group, I read six titles which have since been canceled: Blackhawks, JLI, Men of War, OMAC, Resurrection Man and Static Shock. However, I’ve since been getting Batman Incorporated, Earth 2, Worlds’ Finest and Dial H; and I expect to try Sword of Sorcery as well.

That’s 32 out of 52, which seems like a decent amount, if a little on the high side. Generally, I like the books with which I have stuck. Today’s question, though, is whether I like a book more if it creates an engaging environment.

Naturally, this requires divulging another Ancient Memory. This week we go back some 24 years, to the spring of 1988, when I was a college freshman. While taking a break from studying for finals, I decided to pop over to the convenience store across the street from my dorm. There, on impulse, I bought a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man #300. I wasn’t a Marvel Zombie by any means, but I remembered writer David Michelinie from Iron Man and of course I’d heard of Todd McFarlane. I liked the issue well enough to stick with ASM for the next couple of years, until McFarlane left and I decided I’d rather get Walt Simonson’s Fantastic Four.

Now, besides the book’s own merits, what I liked about ASM was that sense of jumping into a moving stream. I hadn’t read ASM since #202 or so, and a lot had happened, including the Wedding and the black costume. Issue 300 (the conclusion of Venom’s introductory arc) had Spidey go back to the red-and-blues, but he was still married, he’d had a slight change in employment (including publishing a book of photos), and there were various other tweaks to his status quo and that of the Marvel Universe as a whole. For example, I hadn’t seen Four Freedoms Plaza or the Thing’s more-pointy look until the FF’s ASM #300 cameo -- and by the time I started reading Fantastic Four in early 1990, Ben would be completely human and his girlfriend would be all orange and rocky.

Since this is nominally a DC column, how are those changes different from the New-52's mélange of relaunches? Well, for one thing, at the time they seemed relatively organic, at least in the sense that they tended to come out of extended storylines. (Bear with me, because my Marvel knowledge is not that great.) Maybe the symbiote-costume started off as a Secret Wars stunt (I really have no idea), but by the time I got to the books, these changes had been around for a while. Furthermore -- and I know this may make the case for Marvel NOW! (!!) -- the notion that these were the same characters helped sell the updates. To me it was like ‘70s DC, with Anchorman Clark, the Batcave under the Wayne Foundation, and the Teen Titans as high-school graduates. New opportunities to learn some secret knowledge, and especially to build on one’s existing secret-knowledge base, can be very alluring.

By contrast, the opportunity to get in on the ground floor has its own appeal, which is not necessarily identical. I’ve written before about how the 1986-87 DC relaunches pretty much shaped what I’ve bought ever since, but there’s no escaping it: That’s when I started buying the Superman books, Wonder Woman, Justice League and Flash regularly. That sort of habit can easily become self-reinforcing -- I buy Flash because I have gotten comfortable with buying Flash -- but again, for the most part I’ve never been disappointed/upset/bored enough to drop any of them. Indeed, the New 52 revamps of Wonder Woman and Flash have been fairly successful, such that (except for the one thing) I’m not sure I’d trade them for more traditional versions.

Not so, however, with Superman and Justice League. We’ve read about George Pérez’s frustrations working on Superman Vol. 3, but it may be more illustrative to see what sorts of stories Byrne told in his first 11 months on the Vol. 2 relaunch. Note that I’m not counting his six issues of Man of Steel, which basically reintroduced significant characters and situations, because the New 52 book has pretty much just jumped into present-day stories. Anyway, Pérez’s first six issues had Superman fight (and then escape the influence of) an elemental-type extraterrestrial who turned into an evil Man of Steel. After that, Dan Jurgens, Keith Giffen and Jésus Merino did two issues with WildStorm villain Helspont, Jurgens and Merino did two issues with new villain Anguish, and Issue 11 continued that arc’s Russian-sub subplot (sorry). In 1986-87, though, Byrne’s No. 1 featured Metallo (picking up from a cameo in Man of Steel); No. 2 was the famous “Luthor scoffs at The Secret” issue; No. 3 was the start of an inter-title Apokolips crossover; Nos. 4-7 introduced new villains (Nos. 5-6 was a two-parter); No. 8 was a Legion of Super-Heroes crossover regarding the “Superboy question”; No. 9 featured the Joker; No. 10 was a one-off “powers gone wild” story; and No. 11 reintroduced Mr. Mxyzptlk.

The point is not exactly that Byrne was doing a lot of world-rebuilding. Rather, it’s that he was telling a lot of one- and two-issue stories (crossovers notwithstanding) and playing with the book’s focus accordingly. Byrne’s Issue 4 featured Jimmy Olsen, Nos. 5-6 had a pulpish, ancient-astronaut feel, and No. 2 and No. 10 were Luthor-driven (although No. 2 had a lot of Lana Lang as well). Those different kinds of stories allowed readers to see Superman in a range of situations, and from there to get a good sense of both Superman’s versatility and the book’s scope. (To be honest, I’m not sure there was all that much to Byrne’s Superman characterization, but for that there was always Marv Wolfman and Jerry Ordway’s Adventures of Superman.) I got the sense that George Pérez wanted the Superman of 2011-12 to have a certain depth and complexity, but it sounds like that got lost in a muddle of editorial interference and action-heavy plotting. Similarly, Dan Jurgens and Keith Giffen are no slouches when it comes to writing the Man of Steel, but Giffen’s gone already and Jurgens is headed out the door to make room for Scott Lobdell. In short, after a year I don’t have a real handle on the Superman in Superman. Things are a bit better in Action Comics under writer Grant Morrison, but only now is that book settling into a comfortable month-to-month groove. Ironically, its focus may have jumped around a little too quickly -- from the first “Springsteen Supes” arc to the issues with the Legion and now with Clark’s “death” and the Captain Comet/Susie Tompkins material -- like Morrison is throwing the high heat right past the reader. Still, I have a better sense of where Morrison wants to take Superman, even if he benefits from being in the driver’s seat.

But I begin to digress. Most of the A-list books are like Action in that they have established their new status quos pretty definitely. I mentioned Flash and Wonder Woman already, and Scott Snyder on Batman has done a good job making the Court of Owls feel like it’s been a credible behind-the-scenes menace. Similarly, with Green Lantern and Aquaman, Geoff Johns is working the characters’ mythologies at appropriate stages. On GL, he’s trying to distill eight years’ worth of stories into something which will inform a relatively-simple rebellion against the Guardians, and on Aquaman, he’s in the early stages of something which could conceivably last several years itself.

I think that’s what frustrates me about his Justice League. Not to rehash last week’s post unnecessarily, but it just feels like Johns isn’t taking full advantage either of the characters’ own backgrounds or of the DC Universe as a whole. Clearly part of that is the need to make the book accessible, part of it is the “newness” of the Leaguers’ revised backgrounds, and part of it is the desire to create something new (as opposed to another Starro or Despero story). Nevertheless, of all the books in DC’s lineup, Justice League is the one best-suited for a global perspective on the entire shared universe, and now it feels hobbled by self-imposed restrictions.

Thankfully, a number of New 52 books are filling that void, particularly the period pieces All Star Western and Demon Knights, the Vertigo-esque JL Dark and Frankenstein, the alternate-history Earth 2 and Worlds’ Finest, and the eco-centric Animal Man and Swamp Thing. Because each of these treats the DC Universe (or some part of it) appropriately as an unreal setting, each therefore adds to the DCU’s overall complexity. For example, the main Justice League’s brief appearance (and quick defeat) in the first issue of JL Dark gave readers a quick and dirty justification for the book’s existence, and showed dramatically there are some things the regular League just can’t handle. The same goes for cameos from the likes of Superman and the Flash in Animal Man and Swamp Thing. I like how the New 52 has a handful of different environments, from medieval times to the Old West and into parallel Earths and the 31st Century, but I wish each book did its part to build up its own particular atmosphere.

In that respect, I suppose it’s not so much that I appreciate a nominal amount of continuity, but that the book feels like it takes place somewhere vibrant. Again, I think a lot of New-52 books do fairly well in that department -- but as a whole, the New 52 shared universe doesn’t yet seem cohesive. To be clear, this is a minor complaint, and I’d rather have 52 well-written and well-drawn books, with robust creative viewpoints and energetic storytelling, than 52 parts of a cohesive whole. Still, in light of the end of the pre-Flashpoint DCU, a little more coordination would make the New 52 go down easier.

Maybe it’s just me, but without the sense that they’re all working together -- even if it’s just the acknowledgment that they mostly share the same planet -- the New-52 books don’t feel as sustainable as their predecessors did. I can see a number of New 52 books working just as well under the pre-Flashpoint continuity: certainly the Green Lantern and Bat-books, most of the “Vertigo-ized” titles, and perhaps the ex-WildStorm titles. However, when it’s something explicitly different, like Superman, what I’ve read of Teen Titans, or Justice League, that difference not only stands out, it seems to highlight the book’s lack of grounding. I don’t have a good sense of Superman’s Superman, or the New-52 League or Titans, because I know they’re supposed to be all-new versions and they haven’t convincingly stepped into their predecessors’ boots.

Accordingly, as we gear up for the year in review, that will probably be in the back of my mind. It’s a criticism which no doubt comes from decades’ worth of habits and expectations, and it may not be entirely fair, but there it is.

Now I just have to find time to get caught up on the books I do read.

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