The DC Re-launch, Month One

September is coming to an end, which means that all 52 comics in DC’s relaunched line have now been released. They’ve sold incredibly well, proving my more cautious ideas wrong. Of course, now that they’re out, the thing that matters for the future is quality. How many readers will stick around for issues #2, #3, or #25?

I’ve read 20 of these, along with online news and commentary about pretty much all of them. My opinion can be split into two contrasting views:

  • DC had the opportunity to fix any problem that they could think of and re-focus their line in a way to stay relevant to 21st-century readers. Given that, it’s incredibly disappointing that they just shuffled their heroes around among their existing creators, with the truly awful ones keeping their jobs. Most of the titles feel like generic superhero stories, with no ambitious ideas. When they did take chances, they were as likely to just make them more violent or unbelievably sexy as they were to actually try something to make the comic better. There is no line-wide ideal driving this reboot, either. Justice League and Action both take place “five years ago”, when superheroes first appeared to an untrusting populace. But all the others take place today, and they make no attempt to reconcile that brief five-year timeframe with the extensive continuity that they’re keeping for the fans. (As one of many examples, how has Batman had four Robins in this time, even ignoring the fact that the most recent one was born after he began his hero career?) Looking beyond the hype, it appears that DC’s grand plan to invigorate itself is “more of the usual, but with a big ‘#1’ on each comic!”
  • On the other hand, coming up with 52 new titles did force DC to cast its net a bit wider than usual. Most of these may be the same characters and creators that have been presiding over the company’s slow decline, but there is now room for several new ones as well. And even if most people squandered their opportunities, some of them did jump at the chance to try something new. The result is that out of 52 books, there will probably be at least 10 good ones. A few of them could even be great. Maybe this sounds cynical, but I don’t expect every comic to be good, and this is an improvement over their line-up before. Even better, the high profile of the launch and the huge number of people buying the comics means that the good ones have a chance to pick up a following. Even if DC’s overall creative direction is as lackluster as ever, I’m a lot more excited about my specific choices than I was before.

It’s always been true that the quality of superhero comics depended on how you looked at it. Just like books, music, and everything else, there’s a lot of crap. Since the comics industry is so small and depends on interrelated titles, it’s a lot harder to ignore the bad stuff. But if you do, you’ll find some great stories. This new direction for DC seems to have emphasized both the good and bad extremes.

One thing that surprised me was how dark many of the good titles were. In recent years, there has been a pretty strong correlation between how violent and gory a comic was with how lazy and poorly-written it was. There are always exceptions, but among this month’s titles, it seemed that the best ones incorporated horror elements, while the ones that stuck to (relatively) clean superhero action felt like just more of the same. I don’t know if this dark turn is intentional or not, but I expect that it’s here to stay.

If you are thinking about trying out some of these comics, there are definite right and wrong choices. Fortunately, reviews of these are all over the internet. You should be able to find out which ones sound right for you. As usual, I’m going to wait until there are a few months’ worth of releases before I start doing official reviews. If you want some quick recommendations, though, here are the first issues that I would recommend:

  • Action Comics actually seemed a little pointless to me, and its portrayal of Superman didn’t feel quite right. But it’s a new Grant Morrison comic, which means I’ll be giving it a lot of chances before giving up. (Oh, and so far, this is probably one of the most appropriate new DC comics for young audiences.)
  • All-Star Western is a re-launch of the long-running Jonah Hex title, but it brings the gunslinger to an early Gotham City (presumably to tie it to later Batman stories) and takes on under-appreciated artist Moritat. The art is unfortunately a little rushed here, but the writing is very good. Western comics are all too rare.
  • Animal Man is probably the best book of the new line. featuring Jeff Lemire’s sympathetic take on a B-list character. Established superhero fans should read this for the solid writing and original approach, while new readers will be surprised by just how much a “superhero” story can defy their expectations.
  • Batman is a confident, fast-paced title that walks the line between the hero’s strength and the villains’ depravity. It also seems equally accessible to long-time readers and people who only know the character from the movies. (Don’t confuse this with Detective Comics, though. That other Batman-centric title was widely considered to be one of the worst of the new lineup.)
  • Batwoman’s main draw is J. H. Williams III, who provides the best art of any new title. It’s one of the comics that just jumps into a new “first issue” by picking up right where the last one left off, so it’s been confusing and off-putting to the new readers I’ve talked to. But if you have even a passing familiarity with the previous Batwoman story, you should continue it here.
  • Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. is an off-kilter story of weird science and monster hunters. It looks like this could be the heir to Xombi, which was an unfortunate casualty of last month’s line-wide cancellation.
  • I, Vampire has all the drama of a typical vampire comic, but has some original ideas. The first issue introduces an unpredictable and moody story about a “good” vampire who tries to stop an evil army of the undead from taking over humanity. Of course, the most unpredictable part is whether this story can maintain that mood when it exists in the same world as Superman and Green Lantern. It’s a promising start, though.
  •  When I reviewed Justice League a month ago, it seemed like a good but not great comic. Since then, it’s become obvious that this is one of the few traditional superhero stories worth reading. This is exactly the sort of story Geoff Johns and Jim Lee like to make, and they seem dedicated to this one’s success. It’s still may not be great, but it provides an experience the rest of the DC line doesn’t.
  • Swamp Thing comics have been cursed to insignificance, with almost no way to follow up Alan Moore’s genre-defying use of him decades ago. This may be the comic that breaks the curse, with solid writing and some creepy horror. If you haven’t read Moore’s take on the character, you should try that first. For everyone who has, it may finally be time to read Swamp Thing again.
  • Wonder Woman has nothing to do with the character’s clean-cut image in popular culture: This portrays the hero as a warrior woman apparently protecting mortals from wrathful Greek gods, monsters, and blood magic. Cliff Chiang’s artwork makes the action scenes flow perfectly. Wonder Woman has been almost as difficult to write as Swamp Thing in recent years, but this may finally have an approach that works.
  1. February 5th, 2012

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