DC Comics announced last week that its April superhero comics will be "WTF Certified," presumably because the month kicks off with April Fool's Day. In doing so, the publisher made itself the easiest of targets for snide remarks. Let's take a quick sample of the ones I found in just a five-minute search:
- "[A]n all-too-apt description of the current state of the publishing company" — The AV Club's Oliver Sava
- "I am looking forward to 'MILF March' featuring all the superheroes’ mothers" — Mike Sterling
- "DC has the ability to sell comics to literally anyone with an internet connection now. It'd be nice if their tenor reflected that." — Kevin Church
- "The company announced that all 52 of its mainstream titles would have a 'WTF Certified' stamp on it, presumably as a wink to fans who have been wondering what the fuck has been going on at DC." — Outhousers.com
- "This is not a hoax, not an imaginary story, but a certified edgy promotion! The covers are gatefolds, with the “What the” part on the front and the 'fuck' part on the inside." — Heidi MacDonald
- "Remember how DC is having their mature and genteel 'WTF Month,' where the cover is supposed to fold out and make you swear in shock and exasperation … and if children still read DC comics, presumably get your mouth washed out with soap?" — Todd Allen
- "I thought every month was WTF month at DC?" — about one-fifth of everyone leaving a comment beneath an online article on the subject
It's not that weird for DC Comics (or, to be fair, arch-rival Marve), to occasionally be metaphorically walking around with a "Kick Me" sign on its metaphorical back, but it is pretty weird for DC to affix the sign itself and make such a big, aggressive show of pointing it out to everyone.
So let's get to kicking them, I guess. But where to start? With the name of the event, naturally.
I honestly can't believe DC is using the term "WTF" to promote its "all-ages line" of superhero books, which, remember, the publisher itself rates somewhere between "Teen" ("Appropriate for readers age 12 and older. May contain mild ... language") and "Teen Plus" ("Appropriate for readers age 17 and older. May contain ... mild profanity"). The word "fuck" can't appear in context in any of the books — the writers can't use it in narration, the characters can't use it in any dialogue — but it will represented on the covers of all of those books?
Here I suppose someone might want to point out that the word "fuck" itself isn't technically on the cover, but that is what "WTF" stands for, and merely abbreviating it doesn't change the meaning one bit. Even after the New 52 reboot and its renumbering of Action Comics and Detective Comics, even after Before Watchmen, I still find "WTF Certified" month completely insane and hard to believe is something that actually exists, and not just an April Fool's joke poorly executed.
The last time I had such a hard time believing a mainstream publisher was actually putting something like that right on the cover was when Marvel published the hentai tentacle rape cover of Heroes For Hire in 2007. At this point, we're all well-versed, even semi-deadened, to depravity tucked into the pages of super-comics, but "WTF" on the cover, on every cover? I confess: That surprised me.
Now, the stated goal of the event is include in each and every of those 52 books a big, shocking, surprise moment that will leave readers saying — or tweeting or texting — "WTF?" That is an impossible goal to meet.
Firstly, that's something most comics writers strive to do on a monthly-ish basis. That is, to choose one of the more extreme cliffhangers of the past 14 months or so -- why, the first issue of the new volume of Detective Comics ended with The Joker's flayed-off face nailed to a wall, right?
I've always thought Geoff Johns was especially good at cliffhanger endings, particularly in JSA and Green Lantern. He doesn't always completely achieve it, but he certainly seems to strive for these "Oh, shit!" moments, as I've always referred to them (because "What The Fuck?" is just so strong, implying something completely out of left field, not merely a surprise appearance of an unexpected character, or the introduction of an esoteric plot point).
It's become increasingly hard for Johns to achieve these, though, as they were generally based in the decades worth of continuity that Johns delighted in playing with, continuity that was done away with during the reboot. Can all 52 writers or writing teams achieve 52 such endings simultaneously, on command? I'm not much of a gambler, but that's a bet I'll bet against, no matter how insanely high the stakes. (52 billion dollars, you say? Sure, put 'er there, pal!)
DC's promotion of the branded month of content reveals just how low its bar is for "WTF."
Here, for example, is one-half of the gate-fold cover for the "WTF Certified" Savage Hawkman #19. The shocking, expletive-eliciting surprise will be on the unseen, right half of that image, and apparently revolves around the identity of who is stabbing Hawkman in the back:
What reveal would elicit a genuine "WTF" response? Does the other half of the cover show a giant hawk with the head of Julius Schwartz holding a lance in his mouth, which it is plunging into Hawkman? Is it Jefferson Pierce, stripped to the waist and wearing a pair of wings on a harness, shouting, "Hawkman? More like Jive Turkey Man, so says the new BLACKHAWK!" in a big dialogue bubble? Is it Rob Liefeld? Flash Gordon? Shadowhawk? Cerebus, drawn by Dave Sim himself as part of a Joe Bennett-Art Thibert-Dave Sim jam cover? Birdman, signaling a surprise entry into the New 52 by the Hanna-Barbera superheroes? (Look for Blue Falcon and Dyno-Mutt on the right half of April's Batman and Robin cover!) Is it the restless spirit of John James Audubon, as the All-New, All-Different Gentleman Ghost?
Is it me?
The solicitation text for the issue simply reads "The Secret Society strikes again — but who is the one member strong enough to ground The Savage Hawkman?"
So I guess it's just going to be some random villain, maybe one from the old DCU making his or her New 52 debut. Doesn't sound too terribly eyebrow-raising does it? But "Meh Certified" probably didn't get many voices of support on the conference call that generated this promotion.
All of the solicitation text DC released for April reads like that. "What new member, who threatens to tear the team apart, is welcomed into the New 52?" "What undead menace threatens the lives of the Demon Knights?" "Will a battle of sibling rival mean a death in the family?" And so on–standard stuff, really.
Even the few things DC teased don't even sound like mildly out-of-the-ordinary plot developments:
• Booster Gold reappears while an entire team disappears• One team is trapped in a bottle while another is changed completely• Some heroes change their colors and other change allegiances• Pandora battles to the death• A close encounter of The Dark Knight kind• There's a new, old Creeper and some old New Gods.• One hero quits, and another hero dies
What I found especially weird about this, other than the name of the event itself, is that DC announced the branding effort two weeks after it released the solicitations, and there was no indication that anything out of the ordinary was planned, let alone 52 things so far out of the ordinary they will make you say or think a word John Constantine and Swamp Thing aren't allowed to say any more. At the time, I noticed the covers were mostly incomplete, and that the solicitation text was structure so as to feature basic, direct questions, but that's all I got out of it.
Why hold off on that part of the month's promotion until now? Based on the solicitations, it seemed to have taken shape already, and it isn't just now being retroactively inserted atop the books. I suppose DC must have been going for a big splash, with mainstream media paying attention in addition to the comics industry press.
It's not really a best foot forward kind of story, though, is it? Something the publisher might want to the mainstream press to cover? I know I'm kind of embarrassed about the whole thing, and I have nothing to do with DC Comics, beyond reading, reviewing and writing about its products. "The publisher of Batman and Superman comics puts expletives on their covers" doesn't really seem like the sort of headline or cable news affiliate blurb that would garner positive attention the the publisher's line of comics, but then, that division of the company has surely been operating under the "There's No Such Thing As Bad Publicity" philosophy of marketing for a while now.
If the fact that "WTF Certified" month happens to be in April isn't just a coincidence, but is instead a deliberate attempt to link the event to April Fool's Day, it's kind of too bad that's the best DC could come up with. If you read those April solicitations closely, you'll notice a bunch of the comics include 1-in-25 variant cover schemes referred to as MAD variant covers by "The Usual Gang of Idiots."
That's right, DC does own MAD magazine, huh? Instead of gatefolds with "WTF" stamped on them, DC could just have gone with those parodies by some of the many great cartoonists working for MAD. Or hey, maybe that's what the surprise on the right half of all those covers really is: It's Alfred E. Neuman stabbing Hawkman in the back, the right half of The Red Hood's face is that of Neuman, and so on.
That might be sort of surprising. More surprising than The Creeper appearing in The New 52, or Booster Gold returning after a few months of absence or whatever.
But it still wouldn't be surprising enough to generate a single WTF, let alone 52 of 'em.