In a fractured, niche-oriented environment, it can be hard to justify one's existence, let alone one's relevance. When the tastes of your audience have changed, you are naturally prompted to change as well. Thus, MTV cultivates youth-oriented reality shows, VH-1 spotlights fading celebrities (and their desperate hangers-on), and The Weather Channel now plays meteorologically-minded movies like The Perfect Storm and The Wizard Of Oz.
To be sure, there must be scads of people who think AMC's shift towards showing Catwoman edited-for-TV is a step up from those all-weekend marathons of uncut Hitchcock films. Why shouldn't a channel try to keep as many eyes glued to it as possible? If you don't care what kind of elements Jim Cantore is braving, you can get your local radar instantly from the Internet. (And then you can watch Cantore highlights on YouTube.) Only those who remember how these channels began now lament what they have become -- and may envy their successes.
That brings me to The Brave and the Bold, DC's venerable team-up title. Relaunched about three years ago with the combined star power of Mark Waid and George Perez, it has survived the departure of both, as well as several months' worth of rotating creative teams. Nowadays things have settled down under writer J. Michael Straczynski and artist Jesus Saiz. They've produced two issues so far, one pairing Batman and Robby "Dial 'H' For Hero" Reed, and one with a time-lost Flash meeting the World War II-era Blackhawks. Future issues will team Batman and Brother Power the Geek, Green Lantern and Doctor Fate, and the Joker and the Atom.
All of this is consistent with B&B's format of unusual team-ups. Straczynski told CBR last year that he was "intrigued" by "the oddness of the [original series'] pairings," and his choices are appropriately unconventional.
However, two issues into his tenure, Straczynski seems determined to frustrate reader expectations. For example, the premise of Dial 'H' For HERO is that Robby Reed's H-Dial transforms him into a new (and perhaps reader-designed) superhero each time he uses it. Robby might therefore go through multiple alter egos in a single story. Consequently, when Waid had Robby meet various other DC heroes (as in the Silver Age miniseries and in B&B #9), the latter were themselves transformed by the H-Dial. Specifically, it made Tin, the insecure Metal Man, into a confident (and human-looking) crusader. In Straczynski's first issue, though, after the H-Dial reveals a terrible fate for whoever uses it next, it forces Robby and the dial into the background for much of the issue. Similarly, in last month's issue #28, both the Flash and the Blackhawks are compelled by circumstances out of their comfort zones and away from their usual operating modes. Barry Allen eschews his super-speed and the Blackhawks abandon their planes, in order to help the infantry fight the Germans in Belgium.
Now, these plots are not indefensible, and each of them highlights a different aspect of heroism, which is not unreasonable for a superhero anthology. Still, Straczynski's B&B lacks the multiplicative exuberance which (by and large) his predecessors brought to the book. Put another way, he doesn't seem that interested in his characters' surface details, and thus doesn't seem that interested in the possibilities of combining them.
This is certainly a non-traditional perspective on superhero team-ups. Each of DC's characters comes with a certain set of expectations, and while it's perfectly okay to play with those expectations, in a general-interest title like The Brave and the Bold I think you at least have to acknowledge them. The Flash is synonymous with super-speed action, and the Blackhawks are all about fighter-pilot swagger. Put 'em together, and perhaps you get a story where the Flash must use his scientific know-how (and a healthy dose of speed) to, I don't know, help the grounded Blackhawks overcome the laws of physics. Maybe the situation's reversed, and the Blackhawks are the key to getting Barry back to the present. Or maybe there's nothing wrong with either of them, and they work behind the scenes to help the Greatest Generation repel the Axis and save civilization as we know it.
Any of those sound more exciting to me than the actual plot of B&B #28, which finds a time-lost Flash at the Battle of the Bulge with a broken leg, and otherwise unwilling to use his powers to kill Nazis. (He will gladly use his powers to hurt Nazis, but Blackhawk says that only makes him "a coward and an impediment to the war effort.") As a result, Barry puts on a dead G.I.'s uniform and spends the next few weeks as an anonymous American soldier, before returning to the present with a new appreciation for those who served.
Again, that's a perfectly decent (albeit familiar) plot … but I don't know why it had to feature the Flash and the Blackhawks. Like I said a couple of weeks ago, it could have been any combination of modern and wartime characters: Robin and Sgt. Rock, Blue Beetle and the Boy Commandos, Firestorm and the Haunted Tank. The appeal of The Brave and the Bold, if not its reason for existing, is the showcasing of these characters not just in combination, but individually. That thought was behind the series of Milestone-character spotlights in issues #24-26, and that was to have been the point of Straczynski using the title to reintroduce the Red Circle characters. Straczynski's two issues so far seem to be for people who are more familiar with the characters -- not just Batman and the Flash but Robby and the Blackhawks -- and while that's okay in a vacuum, it's not what The Brave and the Bold should be about.
Now, I say this having just revisited the series' first twelve issues (the "Lords of Luck" and "Book of Destiny" arcs), over the course of which Waid and Perez allowed their fannish impulses to run free. Key moments in these issues seemed to hinge upon relatively obscure DC trivia, like the source of Ultraman's powers or the appearance of familiar Rannian weapons. Although these are things the characters would know, it's also easy to see them as "Mark Waid showing off." Of course, if you like Waid (and Perez) showing off, all the better. The narration in the especially cheesetastic introduction of the Challengers of the Unknown did have a certain movie-trailer ambiance, but Waid and Perez made it work.
By contrast, Straczynski's scripts operate from the inside out, looking at character dynamics as opposed to those broad surface details. The H-Dial doesn't turn Batman into a fan-designed superhero at any point in issue #27, but it does force Robby into the decision which drives the plot; and the superhero it does create is equally important to the story's resolution. Moreover, Batman's experience with teenaged (and younger) superheroes makes his closing speech to Robby particularly poignant. Similarly, the conflict in issue #28 comes from Barry Allen's refusal to let "the Flash" kill, and Blackhawk's deadly-serious response. I can appreciate Straczynski wanting to do unconventional takes on the characters, to go along with his unconventional pairings, but at the same time it feels like he is missing the point of the series. By the end of the story, I should want to read more about the characters in their natural settings; but I'm not convinced that having Batman try to comfort emotionally-wrecked Robby is the way to get me to read more Dial 'H' For HERO.
Still, DC has already been down the general-interest-anthology road. Some ten years ago (cover dates February 1998-June 2001), it published Legends Of The DC Universe, which ran for 41 monthly issues and a handful of specials. LOTDCU wasn't strictly a team-up book, although it featured a few (including Aquaman and the Joker in a sequel to "The Laughing Fish"). It was more of a venue for short stories and small arcs starring older versions of high-profile characters (e.g., the then-dead Barry Allen and Hal Jordan). Therefore, it didn't exactly go deep into DC's bench, and with the exception of a Hal-Spectre three-parter, neither did it try to raise a character's profile. Instead, it tried to be for the rest of DC's characters what Legends Of The Dark Knight was for Batman: a venue for marquee creative teams to work on marquee properties. This belt-and-suspenders approach got LOTDCU three-and-a-half years.
By inviting readers to come for the creative team and stay for the characters, The Brave and the Bold steps out in faith a little more. DC's faith evidently is in Straczynski's ability to write good stories using a variety of matchups. Still, like the Weather Channel expanding its scope, Straczynski's style represents a significant shift away from B&B's usual practice. Presumably this is intended to attract new readers, and it may pay off for DC in the long run -- sales of September's issue #27 were up over 33% (26,904) from August's #26 (20,154). Unless the bottom drops out unexpectedly, B&B may well have a longer life than LOTDCU. DC could then reasonably claim to have met its readership's changing expectations, using stories which went deeper than fannish superficiality.
And notwithstanding my criticism, I'll still be happy if Straczynski's Brave and the Bold is successful. I'll always support the sort of anthology which highlights the little-known corners of DC's shared universe, because it encourages the imaginative possibilities which such a shared universe offers. Besides, I can't imagine any writer using these characters being downbeat for long, especially with a character as deliberately disruptive as Brother Power.
Who knows -- maybe Straczynski is ready to loosen up after all?