Thursday, May 24, 2012

DC's New 52: A few thoughts after 9 months

First, I want to make clear that I don't read very many comics.  I read Action Comics, Justice League, Superman, and Wonder Woman.  That's it.  I keep up with them by browsing at my local shops, but I don't actually invest any time or money into any of the Batman books, second-tier characters like Hawkman and Aquaman, or the more fantastic stuff like Swamp Thing or I, Vampire.  I read Action Comics because it's Superman and I trust Grant Morrison to write an awesome Superman comic book.  Morrison gets Superman.  I read Justice League because I trust Geoff Johns and Jim Lee.  These guys know their craft. I read Wonder Woman because I was curious about what Brian Azzarello would do with the character and I have been wonderfully pleased with what I've found.  I've stopped reading Superman because I can't stand the turn the writing has taken since George Perez left.  I promised myself in the late 90s that if Dan Jurgens was involved in a comic book, I was not going to buy it.  As you can see, my personal experience with the New 52 is actually pretty limited. 

You are probably asking, "Why do you think your opinion counts?"  The answer to that is, "I know it doesn't."  My money counts.  And DC got me to spend money on comic books again with the New 52.  Period.  But my dollars are not the ones DC should have been chasing.  The purported goal of "The New 52" was to attract the mythical "new reader" to comic books.  Unfortunately, they have failed to do this.  According to DC's own statistics, something around 97% of the people who are buying DC comics right now are people who already buy comics.  I am not the "new reader."  I was a lapsed reader, and I will probably lapse again if the writing for characters I care about continues to degrade.  But DC knew they had my money.  Many "lapsed" readers like me were just waiting for a good "jumping on" point.  The New 52 offered us that.  What DC has failed to do is get the new money.  DC has failed to attract new readers to the medium.  In retrospect, this should come as no surprise. 

The New 52 isn't really "new" at all.  All the same characters are being written by all the same writers and drawn by all the same artists.  Let's be honest, some of those artists were never all that good (Rob Liefield, Dan Jurgens), some have lost a step (Jim Lee), while others are doing stellar work (Rags Morales, Cliff Chang).  The same can be said for the writers.  Some still can't write (Dan Jurgens), some are doing work consistent with their past excellence (Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison), and others are surprisingly good (George Perez, Brian Azzarello).  There are a few (Judd Winick in particular) who are just plain offensive (but at least he can write decent dialogue, which is more than can be said for Jurgens).  But this is no different now than it was before.  The New 52 isn't doing anything new.  It is the same stuff.  It is simply another reboot.  Nothing special.  Nothing new.

If DC really wanted the "new reader" they should have thrown some money into doing something new.  How about real fantasy comics?  Fantasy is huge right now.  It's booming on television, in books, video games, and comics.  Why didn't DC take some of that talent and put it behind a new fantasy line of comic books?  How about western, crime, political thriller and horror?  What about straight-up galaxy-spanning sci-fi?  Don't license anything.  Create something new. 

Finally, if DC really wanted to snag "the new reader," they should have focused on girls.  Romance, relationship, drama, and even girl-action comics might attract someone new.  Your average tween or young adult female is not going to find anything compelling about super-hero comics which still objectify and over-sexualize women while simultaneously playing into the power-fantasies of adolescent males.  Females are over half of the population.  There are more women graduating college than men.  Women's pay is catching up to men's (though it still has a way to go).  By ignoring females of all ages, DC is ignoring "the new reader." 

The New 52 isn't really new at all.  It's the same artists, the same writers, the same characters, and consequently, the same readers.


  1. Anonymous9:38 PM

    [Part I of II]

    "First, I want to make clear that I don’t read very many comics."

    Whoa!!! That’s not the Z-man that I remember at all. As I recall, the Z-man that I knew was frequently seated at our beloved high school's studyhall at the end of each schoolday devouring every issue of the myriad incantations of "X-Men" (along with everything else Marvel) while waiting for the big Middledorf cheesewagons to arrive. (I will freely confess that I was perfectly content with my own pile of "Darkhawks" and "Moonknights" at the time.) Perhaps it was all that distance swimming that fueled one's appetite for such things. But anyway, let’s look at the heart of this post. :)

    "Don’t license anything. Create something new."

    I'm going to make the argument that the source of this frustration goes well beyond the realm of comic books and is endemic to science fiction and fantasy writing as a whole. To isolate the source, one has to go back (way back) to when television and movies largely replaced the written word in the entertainment world. The two individuals who really deserve the blame are George Lucas and (although my dad would skin me alive if he ever heard me say this) Gene Roddenberry. Time was, we had some really outstanding science fiction writers who challenged their audiences to think about their lives and their societies in new, novel ways. When Robert Heinlein published "Starship Troopers," he got his readers to debate the notion that one inherently owes responsibilities to society in a truly free world. Then before the ink was dry, Orson Scott Card had penned "Ender's Game" and Joe Haldeman wrote "The Forever War" as their own personal ways of saying "Geez Bob. What were you smoking when you wrote that?" Not surprisingly, all three books invited readers to explore the role that the state should play in determining what freedom is, not only in this country but in how its foreign policy affects people in other countries as well. Although this wasn't, say, Thomas Carlyle and John Stuart Mill duking it out on the issue of slavery, it was definitely worthy of one's entertainment dollar. Seeing "Starship Troopers" and "Ender's Game" on the recommended reading list that the Commandant of the Marine Corps issues to every new enlisted Marine makes me smile to this day.

    Then along comes George Lucas in 1977, and the game completely changes. As the audience was dazzled by the special effects and relatively decent performances by Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher, no one really paid much attention to the plot, which was essentially "Nazis are bad. Let’s shoot 'em!" After this and the inevitable sequels, no one was really interested in REAL science fiction writing anymore. "Star Wars" fanfiction slowly replaced the real thing on bookstore shelves, and that was the end of that.

    Roddenberry's influence was heavier on television than writing itself. I don't want to get too political here, but his tendency to view (or want to view) the future in rose colored glasses with the United Nations (ahem, Starfleet Federation) diligently bringing everyone together and solving all of the world's problems was interesting when the Cold War was at its height. But once that was done, all that television gave us was regurgitations of that same idea. "Star Trek" begat "Star Trek: The Next Generation" which begat "Stargate SG-1," which get the idea.

  2. Anonymous9:42 PM

    [part II of II]

    The problem is that once the entertainment industry got its head wrapped around what Lucas and Roddenberry did, it couldn't let go. Of course, one could argue that whenever something new is devised and launched whether it be novels, television, or comics, the only way that it can build up the fan base necessary to survive over time is to keep enough of the Lucas and Roddenberry elements in the forefront that it isn't a complete shock to the audienc's system. With the recession and much of the entertainment industry still vetting a new business model in the Internet age, the argument that one needs to at least recover one's costs looms large.

    This, of course, is what made the story behind "Firefly" so interesting. When Joss Whedon and Tim Minear came along and attempted to actually pick up the science fiction writing football and run with it, they did everything they could (well, everything that Fox would allow them to do in the short time they kept the show on the air) to get out of the Lucas and Roddenberry shadow and do...well...something new. When Whedon described the story as being about "nine different people looking out into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things," he may as well have been talking about his audience as the show means something different to everyone who watches it. In a nutshell, to me it will always be about what it would be like to live in a world where the state is so horribly oppressive that one feels compelled to do whatever one can to live outside of its confines and do so honorably even though the overwhelming incentive is to stab everyone else in the back. But other people who watch it have completely different interpretations that have nothing to do with that. That's what made it brilliant.

    Although it was nice to later see Ronald Moore and David Eick pick up the ball with "Battlestar Galactica" and J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof do so with "Lost," the cold, hard reality is that when most people sit down to watch television, they just don't want to have to think too strenuously about whatever it is that they're looking at. "Nazis are bad. Let’s shoot 'em," still has a lot of appeal for a lot of people, so that's what the industry gives them. How does one get around that in this day and age? I'm not sure.

    What does this have to do with comic books? About a year ago, my brother and I were mucking around with NetFlix one night and he put on a cartoon named "Archer" that I'd never heard of. After watching it for a few minutes, I noticed two things:

    1. The type of humor wasn't really to my taste.
    2. It seemed to me to be heavily inspired (to me, almost a knockoff) of Howard Chaykin's excellent "American Flagg," an obscure comic that absolutely lambasted many of its peers for many of the very things that the Z-man vents about here. Of course, "Archer" gets lots of positive reviews while "American Flagg" wallowed in obscurity. I guess it's just the way of the world.

    "Don’t license anything. Create something new."

    Hmmm. Maybe we could emblazon that slogan on a bunch of T-shirts and hand them out to folks in line to enter Comic-Con. Or better yet, emblazon it on shirts and then get John Galecki and Jim Parsons to hand them out. That'd be cool. :)