Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The DC Universe is ending, long live the DC Universe.

A story that broke last week while I was busy writing about E3 has given me a little time to think about it and what, if anything, it means to me. I've made it clear that my comic book allegiance is primarily to Marvel, but let's face it. Superman was the first tradtional comic book superhero, and Batman... is Batman. In light of this, even a Marvel fanboy like me sits up and takes notice when DC announces that as if September 2011, all its superhero titles are canceled. Yep, in their current form, all those comics are done. There will be a relaunch of the entire DC line with any books being resurrected coming back with new #1 issues. The big reset button just got pushed on the entire Universe, and everything starts over.

Cover - Action Comics #1.

There are a few questions that arise naturally from an announcement like this. Why would DC do such a thing? Is it a publicity stunt or cash grab? What does all this have to do with the state of comic books in general? The announcement about some of the specific titles to be relaunched has provoked other reactions, most notably the return of Batgirl with Barbara Gordon in the cape and cowl. DC has been no stranger to controversy in storylines recently, but one thing is for certain. You make a decision like this, and it gets people talking, and people talking about your product is rarely bad for business.

This isn't the first time something like this has happened. DC had to clean up the overly complicated and confusing multiple continuities is had with the mega-event Crisis on Infinite Earths back in 1985. There were different versions of many superheroes depending on which continuity you chose to follow, and new readers were put off by trying to keep it all straight. Dimensions were destroyed, heroes died, and the DC Universe was relaunched as a single Universe, only one version of each hero and plot to keep track of. I suspect that the motivation behind the Universe reboot and series relaunch is very similar.

Not "Ultimate" anything... still the Goddamn Batman.

It has been said many times by many people, but it bears repeating here. The comic industry is in trouble. All printed media is feeling the strain of a digital age where people are slowly migrating away from purchasing paper copies of certain forms of entertainment and information. Comics gets hit particularly hard due to decisions made in the 1980s and 1990s of what to do with the medium. Once it became clear that it was profitable in the short term to appeal to nostalgic comic fans interested in re-purchasing pieces of their childhood, that's what comic companies did, at the expense of attracting new readers. This is a problem because long-time fans get disillusioned, move on to other nostalgia after a while, or just plain die, and when they do, there has to be a steady stream of new fans to fight the attrition.

Marvel tried to address this a few years back with the Ultimates line, which longtime fans hated and ignored for the most part, but elements of Marvel Ultimates seems to have attracted some sort of fanbase, so I'm not calling that a failed experiment, at least not yet. DC is taking it a step further than Marvel did, saying, “We've got this relaunch, we're going to give you a new version of our world, and its going to be the only one.” This is a bold move that is going to anger a lot of long time customers, and some will probably stop reading DC comics because of it, but sometimes, you have to lose a limb in order to save the body, and without some sort of timely intervention, the patient is currently terminal. Is this going to be viewed as a smart move? Maybe not, but something had to be done.

Some titles will be canceled and will not relaunch, and other new titles will start fresh alongside Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, The Justice League and Green Arrow. They will also be folding certain books into the DC Universe proper, including the Wildstorm characters Grifter and Voodoo who first appeared in the Image Comics WildC.A.T.s, by Jim Lee. (I could have told you in 1992 which two characters would survive if you could only pick two from that team, and I'd have been right.) They'll also be launching Suicide Squad, a team of Death Row supervillains chosen by the government to go on missions they aren't expected to return from, though this team, in practice, will turn out to be “Harley Quinn and the Pips.” Harley Quinn was the breakout wildly successful villain created for Batman: The Animated series, and she was added to the DC Comics canon officially by the late 1990s. Her extremely violent, insane and overtly sexual incarnation from the more “mature” comics seems to be the version they'll push to carry that title.

More like "Suicide Girls Squad," Amirite?... heh, her, err... okay, I'm done.

Most of the characters are being reset to earlier points in their careers, as one of the challenges for a writer is to actually be able to threaten superheroes who have been through so much and gained experience and power from, in many cases 25 to 50 years of fighting superpowered criminals and saving the world. How do you write a legitimate threat to these characters without treading well-worn paths and straining credibility? Quite simply, you don't. You tell the same stories over and over again and ask the fans to believe that this time, the danger to the hero is different somehow, even when it clearly isn't. The solution: Don't re-tell origin stories necessarily, but roll back the clock a little bit, see the heroes when they are still figuring things out and crime fighting is dangerous business again.

One of the consequences to a rollback is that it puts characters in a different place. For Barbara Gordon, that place is out of a wheelchair and into her costume as Batgirl. Since the classic Joker story “The Killing Joke,” Barbara Gordon was paralyzed from a bullet The Joker put into her spine, leaving her for dead. Her paralysis made possible her transformation into the superhero information broker and surveillance expert Oracle, and she effectively led the Birds of Prey team, which even got its own TV series (mercifully short-lived and probably another candidate for yesterday's article.) Barbara Gordon out of her wheelchair provoked an emotional reaction from some fans with disabilities, as Oracle is a favorite, and very strong character to many. The response from Gail Simone of DC, who wrote Barbara Gordon as Oracle for years, boils down to a simple question. If characters are being healed, brought back from the dead, if this is an earlier point in their careers, why would the one constant being that Barbara Gordon is always in a wheelchair? A strong argument.

Oracle is a great character, but that is a very cool cover for Batgirl #1.

We don't know the specifics of how this will all work, what the crossover that ends the old DC Universe and ushers in the new will actually look like. The cynical geeks among us will deride the company for publicity and for grabbing for cash because collectors love “Issue #1s.” Me, I'm going to wait and see. I'll pick up the titles involved in the crossover, and at least browse some of the new books up after the relaunch, though 52 issues is no where near my budget. When we get to see exactly how and why this all plays out, I'm sure I'll come right back to this space with my opinion.
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BigMike said...

I am looking forward to it, a great chance to get back into the series I love.

The Angry Lurker said...

Still got my comics, a favourite period of my life was collecting and reading.

Alpha said...

Big gamble, it might ruin them.

Jay said...

i'm still more of a marvel guy, and i though the ultimate line wasn't that bad. :)

Zombie Ad said...

Can they do that? I mean...all of them..all at once???

Eric Lindberg said...

I'm not liking the looks of it so far. Aside from losing all that history that I love, the new direction just looks...bad. Rob Liefield drawing again? Ugly 90s style art on Teen Titans and Suicide Squad? Barbara Gordon retconned out of the wheelchair? V-neck collars as Jim Lee's "hip" new designs for the Justice League? Lame.

I'll give some of the books a shot, as I love DC. But I'm not very optimistic at this point.

Shlomo Ben Hungstien said...

i was out of work for nearly two years and even now that i'm working again i'm making much less money and not doing what i want to so i was initially intrigued by your blog concept. but after reading the way you dissed the Suicide Squad i was done right there.

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