Hey Kids! Comics!: DCnU – One Year Later. What Worked, What Didn’t?

The moment that the DCU turned to the DCnU. One year later the dust has settled, but have the fans?

Last week DC Comics wrapped up their latest comic event, Zero Month, marking the first year anniversary of the dawning of the new 52, known to comic fans as the DCnU.  Possibly the biggest comic book story of 2011, the DCnU was a bold move brought down by Geoff Johns, Dan DiDio and Jim Lee to completely rewrite and retool the entire history of the DC universe.  The decision, obviously, was controversial from the moment it was announced, and continues to be a year later.   It is easy to say that the last twelve months have been one of the most challenging years for DC fans.  But now that the first year has finished, and the dust has settled, how has the DCnU fared?

Well, honestly, its still a mixed bag that, most of the time, leaves me a bit nauseous inside.  But now, after living a full year with the DCnU, can we finally make a fair accession at its success or failure.

Did the world really need another “Action Comics #1?” Instead of a knee jerk reaction I believed we should “Wait and see.”  One year later I’m still waiting.

When the DCnU was first announced last year I was flooded with mail from PCA readers asking about my opinion.  My opinion was simple.  Let’s just calm down, not get upset yet, and wait to see what happens.  In my opinion, Geoff John, Jim Lee and Dan DiDio are men who love the comic industry, and have a passion for the characters that they reside over.  Furthermore, some of the best creators in comics, such as James Robinson, Gail Simone, Grant Morrison and George Perez, were on board for this controversial overhaul.  I mean, how can you get upset over something that hasn’t happened yet? Until there is a problem there really isn’t a problem, and who knows?  It might have been great!  I had faith in DC Comics staff, and I looked forward to see what came out of the DCnU.  When the new books were released I picked each and every first issue up out of curiosity.  I mean, lets give each book a chance to shine or fail on its own.  Not everything was going to work, but it wasn’t going to be all bad.  I tried to not allow my inner fan boy, who passionately loves the characters I grew up with, taint my point of view.  Instead I looked at each individual series as someone who loves a good story and good characters.  What I wanted was a solid balance between something fresh and exciting, but something I could still recognize.  Sometimes I was rewarded with this.  However, much to my dismay, and despite my attempt to keep a positive attitude, most of the time I was left with a hollow feeling in my gut.  That hollow feeling was a continuous yearning for the DC Universe that I loved and put so much emotional energy into nearly my entire life.  And you know what?  I know I’m not alone, Despite what the DC Comics party line may be, I see evidence that the majority of DC Comics readers feel the same as I do, even though DC doesn’t want you to think that.  Perhaps DC’s monthly headlines about sales increases sound like the DCnU has been a success, but message boards, fan forums, and other evidence seem to say another story – that fans, and even creators, feel alienated from DC Comics.

DC has been issuing press releases about increased sales, but who exactly is buying the books?

For months we’ve seen the headlines at Newsarama and Bleeding Cool about the increased DC sales due to the DCnU.  Now I am not a financial person, and I understand my comic buying habits may not reflect that of the average comic fan (if it did Archie and Zenescope Comics would be in the top ten) but I am currently buying the least amount of DC books that I have in twenty years.  When the DCnU started I tried out everything.  Now, with the exclusion of the weekly Watchmen books, I currently purchase twelve on-going titles a month.  Before the DCnU I was purchasing twenty six DC titles a month, which made up more then half of my monthly comic book pull list.  So if DC is selling all these books, just who is buying them?  If fans feel the same way as I do, there isn’t enough emotional payback in the DCnU books to justify our money during these hard economical times.  I can’t help but feel that the sales figures have a lot to do with creative bookkeeping, and is a way to take away from the fact that DC fans are still unsettled in the DCnU.

Are the creators as dissatisfied as the readers? What caused George Perez to go on record as saying “I couldn’t wait to get off of Superman” after only six issues?

But there is evidence that DC fans aren’t the only ones that feel alienated.  Although no one seems to be willing to go on record as saying so, there has been sufficient evidence to come to the conclusion that the creators themselves have been dissatisfied with a company that they helped make vivid and strong due to an inane editorial mandate.  With decades of stories and continuity being trashed for the sake of a publicity stunt, creators have watched years of hard work get thrown to the side.   Many of DC’s former superstars are no longer writing for the company.   Meanwhile, strange coming and goings have been a constant at DC all year, including John Rozum leaving Static Shock after only a single issue; Rob Leifeld’s explosive walk off of three titles, in which he stated on twitter that he was leaving to “Save my sanity” and that the reason was “Massive indecision, last minute and I mean LAST minute changes that alter everything” and “Editor pissing contests;” George Perez’s statement that after six issues he “Couldn’t wait to get off of Superman” stating frustration over rewrites and lack of creative freedom, and most recently Judd Winnick’s announcement that he’s leaving DC.  This has been a massive turn over of heavy hitters out of the company in a twelve month period.  Are these creators bailing out of a sinking ship?   There has been more evidence that other creators at DC feel the same, and I would not be surprised if we see more of DC’s biggest names leaving the fold in the year to come.  While most know better to bite the hand that feeds them, it seems that the creators are as dissatisfied as the fans.

By reducing the DC Universe timeline down from 70 plus years to five years, DC has sacrificed it’s sense of history and legacy, and has caused timeline problems of its own, such as how Bruce Wayne has had time to mentor three (four?) Robins.

So what is wrong with the DCnU?  Possibly the biggest problem is that in an attempt to streamline the DCnU, DC Comics foolishly sacrificed the most unique and beloved comic universe of all time, their long legacy and their sense of history.  Since 1937 DC Comics has put out some of the best comic books in the medium, and have created, or acquired the rights to, some of the greatest and most beloved characters in the history of literature.  Every character and concept became a component in one of the most vivid and rich continuities in entertainment.  Each character had their own place in the history of DC, providing an endless playground of opportunity for writers, artists and creators.  Writers such as Roy Thomas, Neil Gaiman, James Robinson, Geoff Johns and Jeph Loeb made entire careers out of using this history to their advantage, and giving fans clever storylines that spanned generations.  The generational feel of the comics, possibly most evident in books such as Infinity Inc, Starman, Justice Society of America and The Flash, showed a real sense of passing time of heroics.  No other comic company had such a long or successful history to play with, and DC used it to its advantage.  However, by limiting the DCnU to only five years fan favourite characters were disposed with, and the sense of history amongst DC’s characters disappeared.  What was once a multi-generational community of heroes have now become nothing more than a dark world of strangers.  The DC Universe has become a cold and lonely place, and even the long time fans have become uncomfortable by no longer recognizing or truly knowing the characters that they once felt so close to.

Who the hell are these heroes? By spending to much time on trying to be “different” on “Teen Titans,” writer Scott Lobdell has forgotten what makes a successful story – plot and characterization.

But one thing I have always believed, and have said for years, is that a comic book is as a good as the writing in it (apologies to comic art fans but I’ve always been a “story over art” critic).  Part of the problem with the current crop of DC books is the fact that the stories just haven’t been all that good.  In most cases it seems that the writers have been far more focused on creating a new continuity that they have ignored the most important aspects of a good comic – strong characters and interesting plots.  Possibly the biggest offender of this has been Scott Lobdell on Teen Titans.  Scrapping Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s classic New Teen Titans, not to mention the majority of the characters that made that book successful, Lobdell took the characters that remained and warped them to the point that they are no longer recognizable (i.e. a red Beast Boy, evil goth queen Lilith Clay, a Tim Drake that was never Robin) and placed them in a highly cliqued story.  The family aspect of the Teen Titans has been completely lost, and what was one of DC’s greatest franchises is now hollow.  Scott Lobdell has been spending more time trying to figure out how to change fan favourite characters into something “new” instead of attempting to warm the reader up to his new creations through an interesting story and strong characterization.  But Lobdell isn’t the only writer that has been guilty of doing this.   This has been an ongoing problem in the DC Universe for a lot of characters.  Characters such as Green Arrow, the Blackhawks, the Birds of Prey, Supergirl, Hawkman and even Superman himself have faced something far worse then being rebooted.  They have become down right dull.

One of DC’s most controversial books of the year is also DC’s best. Adam Glass’ “Suicide Squad” is low on continuity, but high on action, adventure and excitement!

But the DCnU hasn’t been without its gems over the last year.  Once again, it all comes down to superior writing over the need to be “different.”  Possibly the best book DC has put out over the last year has been Adam Glass’ controversial Suicide Squad.  Although not popular with continuity die-hards, or the very vocal Harley Quinn fan community, Glass has been able to write pulse pounding and fun adventure stories which are entertaining enough to keep the inner fan boy that lives in our souls quite as we thrill at each and every issue.  While it may be hard for fans to ever accept a skinny Amanda Waller, a sexy Harley Quinn or a moustachless Deadshot, Glass’ stories have been amongst the best of the year.  What Glass has done right is to not get bogged down in obsessing how “different” his vision of the characters are.  He doesn’t care about the lack of continuity, nor does he care about justifying it to the fans.  He just writes an entertaining and exciting story and allows his characters’ motivation, be it traditional or not, create the drama.  While my inner fan boy may cringe once in a while, Suicide Squad is one hundred percent pure comic satisfaction.  Meanwhile, James Robinson has been hitting each issue of Earth One out of the ballpark despite decimating possibly one of comic’s oldest and beloved franchises, The Justice Society of America.  Robinson has done the same thing that Lobdell has done to the Teen Titans by taking a beloved family of heroes and warping them into characters virtually unrecognizable to fans.  However, unlike Lobdell, Robinson has been able to write them into strong characters and give an emotional impact to his stories which readers can connect with.  While I hate to see the DC golden age disappear, there is no denying that Robinson is doing the best he can with what he has.  Even Geoff Johns’ rewrite of Captain Mar…er…Shazam (*sigh*) has been entertaining.  While some may not like Billy Batson with a chip on his shoulder, Johns’ Shazam has heart, and his new take on Billy, Freddie and Mary have been endearing to readers.  Meanwhile, Johns’ treatment of Aquaman, Gail Simone’s take on Batgirl, Jeff Lermire’s Animal Man, Scott Snyder’s Swamp Thing and Greg Hurwitz’s four part Penguin: Pain and Prejudice mini series has stayed strong due to the fact that they’ve realized that a change in continuity doesn’t mean you need to make the characters beyond recognition.  It’s a shame that more of the writing at DC can’t reflect what has been done in those books.

One of the overlooked gems of the DCnU has been “National Comics” featuring new takes on C-list characters, such as Looker, Kid Eternity and Rose and the Thorn, which have been amongst the best DCnU stories of 2012.

But possibly the most entertaining, yet virtually ignored, title thus far from DC has been National Comics.  A series of one shots reintroducing some of DC’s C-list characters to the DCnU, the reinterpretations have been fast and loose, but for the most part the storytelling has been far more entertaining than most of DC’s on-going series.  Kid Eternity by Jeff Lemire, Looker by Ian Edington and Rose and Thorn by Tom Taylor have been entertaining takes on boutique characters, and some of the boldest books that DC has put out this year.  Once again, the characters have been reimagined completely, but within one issue the writers have been able to create a strong sense of character and narrative.  Hopefully we’ll see more of these characters, and the sort of storytelling in National Comics, in 2013.

Yet, despite my cynicism over the last years’ worth of output from DC comics, there is evidence of interesting things to come.  I must admit that Zero Month was a successful month for DC.  I felt that some of the weaker books that I was only buying out of devotion to beloved characters, such as Birds of Prey, Justice League Dark and World’s Finest, produced their finest issues to date.  I found that via these early looks at the pasts of the characters that I finally felt more emotionally engaged for the first time all year.  Meanwhile, the first installment of Christy Marx’s Amethyst in Sword of Sorcery was worth getting excited about, despite disposing of the existing Amethyst mythos.  But possibly the shining star of the upcoming year will be the DCnU’s first major event, The Trinity War, which will bring together the Justice League, Justice League Dark and Geoff John’s new team, Justice League of America.  Johns, who has always had the ability to put both a sense of legacy and emotion into all of his stories, has been able to make the best out of what he has had to work with in the DCnU.  I am excited to finally see the return of Stargirl in the DC Universe, and I’ll admit that I look forward to seeing what Johns does with Vibe.  I mean….Vibe?  Seriously?  They bring back Vibe, but won’t reintroduce Swing with Scooter.  Obviously DC is ignoring those e-mails I send them.

Does Pandora and The Phantom Stranger hold the key to returning the DC Universe back to normal? Probably not, but we can always hope.

But, like most fans, I still hold on to my hope for that sometime, somewhere, the original DCU will find its way back into mainstream continuity.  Has the appearances of Pandora, and the Phantom Stranger’s statement in this year’s Free Comic Book Day book that she doomed the universe when she unleashed the DCnU, an indication that the original universe is still tucked away in Dan DiDio’s bottom drawer somewhere?  DC needs to realize that they’ve made a mistake by taking away their company’s legacy.  They have alienated their core fans, the readers and creators, for some increased sales.  This could have been done without such a massive stunt with a lack lustre pay off.  But is it too late to save face?  The wonderful thing about comics is that everything can be rewritten and mistakes can be fixed (remember Brand New Day Spidey fans?)  It is not too late to amalgamate the best of the DCnU with the continuity that the fans miss so much.  Who knows?  Anything can still happen.  Rome wasn’t built in a day.  Hopefully some of the bugs have finally been worked out and year two of the DCnU will prove to far more entertaining than year one.

  1. Bruce Gravel’s avatar

    Great article, Sam! I agree with many of your insights. A senior editor at Marvel was quoted at Comi-Con this past July as saying the DCnU was a matter of “throwing s**t against the wall and let’s see what sticks.” Rude, but apt. I definitely get the sense that Editorial is thrashing about, making it up as they go along – and driving the fans and many of their creative talent crazy. However, you’re quite right: many of the reboots have been great (ie: Aquaman is finally popular and Wonder Woman is finally kick-ass awesome, to note just two). But did they need a universe-wide, continuity-crushing reboot to accomplish that?

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