First, some information about us. We are both long-time comic book fans, but my roommate (hereafter to be known as CF) has been much more loyal in collecting monthly issues before this. I had been sticking to my Ultimates Marvel Universe and only dipped into DC for Teen Titans and the occasional Batman graphic novel. So both of us are required to really get a well-rounded idea of how successful this relaunch is – CF as an existing customer and me as a potential one. We have read our way through almost all of them.
There were some that we missed because they were sold out at our comic store.
It’s hard to really know where to start with this. The good, the bad, or the ugly. Because there was indeed good to be had here. Some of the comics were excellent and we will see their second issues join our bookshelves. Others were simply “meh” and we can’t be bothered to spend the money on them. But the others…oh, dear, the others. There was some ugly in here, ferrets, and it must be mocked.
Problem 1: It’s fucking confusing
So, we couldn’t help but notice as we read through that some people’s attitudes toward the relaunch went something along of the lines of, “A relaunch? That’s a great idea! …for you.” Some of these comics just honestly decided to continue their regular timelines, which was against what DC’s whole marketing campaign for these new 52 were about. It was about bringing in new readers, starting from scratch, but I guess only when they wanted to? For example, all of the Green Lantern books (of which there are four) have picked up right where they left off, according to CF. Which explains why I had trouble following most of them. I managed to mostly get by on info from CF and the new movie, but it didn’t exactly inspire me to keep reading. Protip, DC, people don’t like being more confused coming out of the comic book than they were when they went into it. This is not how you get new readers.
Batman (and its multiple affiliate comics) runs into an even stranger problem. Everything that had happened in previous continuity has in fact still happened. However, it is also established that Batman has only been around 5-6 years. And yet, he’s still gone through all four Robins. That’s a pretty high turnover rate, Bruce. Here’s how the continuity used to go:
- Dick quits to pursue his own crime-fighting career and Bruce picks up Jason Todd
- Fans hate Jason Todd and vote to have him killed off. He is, by the Joker; it was harsh.
- Tim Drake figures out that Dick Grayson was Robin and becomes the new Robin because he said so.
- Somewhere around here, Jason Todd is revealed to not really be dead anymore and comes back as vigilante villain Red Hood.
- We’re not even going to talk about Steph Brown because the new continuity wrote her out
- So then Bruce finds out he has an illegitimate child named Damien, who becomes the new Robin when Bruce dies
- Tim becomes Red Robin due to emo-ness. I would have thought that would make him Black Robin, but whatever. He likes red.
Bruce adopts Dick Grayson after his parents are killed and he becomes Robin
And yes, that all still happened; just now in the span of 5-6 years. Right before the relaunch, the editorial staff created a storyline with multiple Batmen throughout the world. This is still around, sort of. We have Batwing (African Batman) and Dick Grayson is still established to have been Batman previously, but has given it up because the cape didn’t fit, I guess. Also, Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl) was still paralyzed by the Joker, but now she is magically healed after 3 years. It’s unclear whether she was ever Oracle, but it’s been implied she was (maybe). Did we mention that this is confusing? Again, DC, confusing readers is not the way to get them to read your comic.
Another confusing aspect, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t, was the inclusion of some Vertigo and Wildstorm (subsidiaries of DC) characters into the regular DC continuity. They’d done this before with Zatanna and John Constantine, and it worked, and it continues to in Justice League Dark. However, with Stormwatch, it gets a little confusing. This was mostly a problem for CF because I was actually just really bored by Stormwatch and had no idea that they were playing tradesies with characters from other canons. I was mostly sitting there going, “Who are these people? J’onn, you’re the only one I recognize, surely you can tell me what’s going on?” But apparently, no, he couldn’t. I think the reason it works in JLD and not in Stormwatch is because although the Vertigo characters interact with DC characters in JLD, it is mostly a comic about Vertigo characters and DC characters make little cameos whereas Stormwatch is a comic about Wildstorm and DC characters coexisting and being on a team together. It doesn’t quite mesh well.
And now we’re going to approach the real issue of why their continuity is such a problem. Basically, there are three kinds of continuity going on here: existing continuity, tweaks on existing continuity, and brand new continuity. And sometimes, these all exist in the same book. For examples of this, see Justice League International, Red Hood and the Outlaws, and Teen Titans. In JLI, Booster Gold seems to have been tweaked or reset back to before he had his character and personality growth, Green Lantern (Guy Gardner) and Batman are both in existing continuity, and the other characters seem to be brand new continuity. In Red Hood and the Outlaws, Jason Todd is in existing continuity, Roy Harper is in tweaked continuity (no daughter, for example), and Starfire is…yeah, we’ll get to that later. As for Teen Titans, Red Robin is the same as before, Superboy is completely new (and sucks!), Wonder Girl is totally new as is Kid Flash (we think?). I’m not sure how the creators plan to try and make all of these differing continuities work together when the characters are constantly crossing books. I suppose they just shut their eyes, stuff their fingers in their ears and shout, “Lalala, I can’t hear you! This relaunch is genius! Lalala!”
So, in short, the new 52 may be more confusing than the old continuity was, and considering that the relaunch happened partially because the old continuity was too confusing for new readers, this is a major fail.
Problem 2: It’s fucking boring
To be honest, most of my issues with the relaunch comics were that they just weren’t interesting. There’s a lot of reasons that they weren’t interesting, some of which had to do with the confusion factor discussed above, but we have also thought of some other reasons.
Text-blocking: Don’t do it. Comic books are a visual medium. There should not be that much text on the page. Show don’t tell is Rule Number 1 of any writer, and when you have a picture to help you do that, it’s even more unforgivable to be telling me everything. Here’s an example from Stormwatch where one of the characters narrates her power as she uses it, saying, “Okay. This is me connecting the alien language processing lobe that got lodged in my brain with all Earth media, and finding only three mentions of the guy!” I’m watching her do this. I don’t need to be told what she’s doing! Superman had some choice moments as well because they decided to have excerpts from Clark’s article about Superman saving the world overlaying the pictures of Superman saving the world. I understand what they were going for, but it didn’t work.
Another reason many of these comics were so boring is because they expended zero effort on trying to express who this character was and why you the reader should care about them. For example, not many people cared about Hawkman, and guess what? We still don’t. I think the only reason I liked certain comics was because I already had an attachment to the character. The only reason I enjoyed Green Lantern: New Guardians was because I already liked Kyle Rayner. And the only reason CF is going to keep buying The Flash is because she already likes Flash. In short, you still aren’t getting any new readers. Not really.
Problem 3: The fucking –isms
Now we’re getting into the meat here, people. Comics have long gotten a bad reputation for their failing on the various –isms. And while some progress has been made, it seems as though for every step forward, there are two steps back. Let’s walk backwards with DC, shall we?
Batgirl is in a sort of “rock and a hard place” position. Years ago, Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) was stuffed in a refrigerator (slang for killed off/depowered/dismembered etc for being a woman). She later became the superhero Oracle while being paralyzed in a wheelchair. And being in that chair did not hinder her from physically kicking your ass. She became an A-list superhero; Batman called her for help. She formed her own team, The Birds of Prey, and they all kicked major ass. So, Babs came out of her fridging a better hero in most people’s opinions. Good writers turned a shitty situation into an awesome new hero, who also happened to be in a wheelchair.
And now, DC has decided that they want her to walk again. So, on one hand, that’s great. They want to undo what damage they did with her, but on the other hand, they’ve taken away the only well-recognized disabled superhero they had. This isn’t an issue that affects me directly, but I can’t help but feel that it’s problematic, and to be honest, I miss Oracle. She was so much cooler than Batgirl.
One of the things that DC promised for the new 52 was more racial inclusion. And they have, to an extent, delivered on this. We have four titles with black superheroes (Batwing, Mister Terrific, Static Shock, and Voodoo), and a title with a Hispanic superhero (Blue Beetle). This is a delicate issue for CF and I to address as we don’t deal with racial oppression, but there were some things that we feel we have to address. Many of these comics walked the thin line between having the character’s race be a natural part of who they are and unnecessarily pointing out the character’s race as though to remind the audience that he/she is a minority. Static Shock seemed to handle this well as did Batwing, for us anyway. CF felt that Mister Terrific crossed a bit of a line a mere four pages in, where the following exchange takes place:
Mister Terrific: Some people call me the third smartest man in the world.
Bystander 1: Who’s one and two?
Bystander 2: Does it bother you being third?
Mister Terrific: Actually a simple ‘Thanks, black guy, for saving us from a homicidal lunatic wearing weaponized body armor’ will do.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this dialogue, and in fact, I’m pretty sure the writer of this comic is African-American so I trust him to know if this is natural, but it definitely rubbed both CF and other comic readers the wrong way. Why is he telling us that he’s black? We can see that. And in fact, the bystander he is addressing is also black. This is not the only instance of race being brought up in this comic. It happens again with a black woman named Aleeka and a white woman named Karen. The dialogue goes like this:
K: You’ve been staring at me all night. For the record, Michael and I are just friends. I don’t want to start a turf war.
A: It’s not that.
K: I get it. It’s because I’m a white girl, isn’t it?
A: And I’m a black woman, which means I’m built to handle things that you can’t even imagine or never had to. No, it’s because you’re rich, a corporate worth of over 340 million according to Forbes.
This mention of race just seems to come out of nowhere to me. And maybe it’s because these race issues aren’t a huge part of my life, but it felt forced. Similarly, Firestorm had related issues. The conflict is between a white football player (Ronnie) and a black nerd (Jason), and it devolves into a racially fueled situation really quickly. Jason implies that Ronnie is racist over a rather innocuous comment made by Ronnie. I’ll put the dialogue so you can judge for yourself:
J: So I don’t know, what do they ask people like you? Do you have some astounding insight into this week’s game or do you just want me to make something up?
R (thinking): Oh, a jock hater. Normally I can see them coming.
R: Huh, you know, you look like you could play. Ever try out for the squad? Afraid to get hurt, maybe?
J: That’s what I ‘look’ like, huh? Do you know that for the past four years in a school with forty-five percent of the students being African-American, there hasn’t been a black quarterback?
R: What? Bull. You’re making that up.
J: Am I?
R: I got your number, man. On the field, no one cares what color you are and you hate that, right? Those guys are my brothers.
J: Oh, they’re your ‘brothers’. Ever stay the night at any of their houses, Ronnie? Just, you know, for the record. For the thing.
After this exchange, Jason writes up an article about Ronnie in the school newspaper calling him racist. Again, I’m not saying that these issues don’t exist or that they shouldn’t be in comics, but it feels forced and badly handled. I’m not going to come out and say that any of these comic books are racist, but I don’t feel that race was particularly handled well in all of them.
Let’s move on to sexism – an old fan favorite when it comes to comics. There were some major offenders hitting the stands in September. We’ll be focusing on Catwoman and Red Hood and the Outlaws because certainly they haven’t been discussed enough on the internet. Catwoman – had it come out alone – might not have made it onto this list. Also, if the writer of the comic hadn’t used the word “sexy” forty times when describing it at SDCC, we might not have been predisposed to reading it critically. However, these things did happen and so we’re going to be extra harsh. The main thing everyone is talking about with Catwoman is that the last four pages are a sex scene between Batman and Catwoman despite the fact that the costumes remain on. This isn’t a problem in and of itself. Catwoman is allowed to have sex with Batman, and in fact, it made a lot of shippers happy. However, the scene reads like bad fanfic. There is no real emotional life going on in these characters. It’s like watching cardboard cutouts have sex. I got no sense of who Selina was throughout the whole comic. I mostly just got a sense of what her boobs and ass look like. We see constant ass and boob shots in the beginning of the comic before her face is ever revealed. Basically my problem with the scene is that it felt voyeuristic rather than engaging and a successful piece of storytelling.
This happens a lot in comics. There are things that by themselves aren’t necessarily eyebrow-raising, but when taken together start to look a bit suspicious. Selina Kyle’s backstory was re-written to be rooted in prostitution and kept that way since the eighties. Deadman has only been a woman twice that we see and one of them was a stripper with Daddy issues. Wonder Woman sleeps naked for no reason. The Purple Lanterns are the only ones with revealing costumes out of seven colors and guess what? They’re all women. It’s these little things that pop up again and again and go unchallenged because they’re so little. It’s only when you get something so over the top and offensive that it garners attention. And that brings us to….
Red Hood and the Outlaws. You’re my favorite. By which I mean, I can’t believe I spent money on you. First of all, cheesecake. Like the cheesiest, heart-attack inducing cheesecake you will ever see. This comic features one female lead and two male leads. The female in question, Starfire, was already a well-established sex object. She has always had a revealing costume and is implied to be polyamorous. She’s an alien and her species believes that love can be expressed physically with however many people you want to express it to. Fine. That’s all well and good because she was at her core a complex character. She was both naïve and sexual. She was both wrathful and playful. And she carried it all realistically. Starfire is in fact one of my favorite Teen Titans characters despite the fact that she is constantly sexualized. She was interesting enough to make up for it.
In this relaunch, however, her character and personality have been completely obliterated. Jason tells us that because she’s an alien, humans are no more than sights and smells to her and she can’t even really tell them apart. Roy then asks her if she remembers Dick Grayson (her ex-bf) and the other Teen Titans and she says no and then in the next sentence asks if Roy would like to have sex with her. She is some sort of nymphomaniac goldfish who says that love has nothing to do with sex when in her previous incarnation love had everything to do with sex, and I hate it. Not to mention that parts of the comic boil down to Roy and Jason high-fiving over the fact that they’re both banging Starfire. This article says it better than I can why this is so problematic.
The fucking good stuff
I’d like to end on a high note by listing the stuff that CF and I liked and will be continuing to read. Because there were some stand-outs here and they deserve recognition too. Supergirl was fantastic. It was a great introduction to the character, engaging, and even though not much happened, it happened well. Batgirl, despite its ablelism issues, had a strong voice and I’m honestly interested to see where it goes. Action Comics was the one of the few comics of the new 52 that really updated its title character (Superman) for a modern audience. I’ve never liked Superman before, but Action Comics made me like him. All Star Western made me care about a character I’ve never cared about before. Jonah Hex teaming up with Doctor Arkham in the late 1800’s to track down a Jack the Ripper-esque killer? Count me in. Demon Knights was really cool. Jason Blood is an interesting character who doesn’t get much attention and I’m glad to get to explore who he is in his own book. Resurrection Man also did a good job of introducing me to a character I’d not known or cared about before and now want to read more about. Also good: Blue Beetle, Wonder Woman, Batman, Detective Comics, Teen Titans, Suicide Squad, and Green Lantern Corps.
All in all, we realized that DC had more hits than misses when it came down to it, but when they missed, they missed pretty hard, and I don’t know if their big gamble is going to pay off for them.