Friday, 30 December 2011
GRAPHIC NOVEL: DC THE NEW 52 (DC, 2011)
Take a deep breath and hold on to your seats because we’ve got a long wild ride ahead into one of the boldest decisions ever taken by a comics publisher and into 1200 pages of comics.
The superhero genre of comics is often derided by critics as inferior to more ‘mature’ or ‘serious’ works of graphic storytelling; though I suspect that literary snobbery is aimed as much at the fans whom these critics see as reading nothing else which, pretty much like most generalisations, both is and isn’t true. I have a broad taste in comics or graphic novels or whatever it is you want to call them but I still keep coming back to superheroes. Why? Because they’re just so much damn fun which is why they’ve not only lasted but come to be the most popular genre of comics. This massive book demonstrates why that is so.
But it was still a big gamble for publishers DC Comics. They cancelled all their titles and rebooted their shared universe from scratch with 52 No.1’s. And, in my opinion, they were extremely clever in the way they went about it. This new universe begins five years after the appearance of superheroes which allows some stories which worked well and were popular from the previous continuity to be carried on (specifically titles which feature Batman) and to adapt elements from it to makes changes to characters (Barbara Gordon was crippled by the Joker but has now recovered and is back as Batgirl). Vertigo (DC’s mature readers imprint) characters which were owned by DC (Swamp Thing, Animal Man, John Constantine, etc) have been brought into the new shared superhero universe. Elements of the Wildstorm imprint bought by DC years ago and previously in their own separate universe are now integrated into DC’s –Stormwatch, Grifter, Voodoo. Some defunct characters have been revitalised (Resurrection Man – a favourite of mine from the 90’s- I,Vampire, Omac). And there are a handful of new titles –Justice League Dark, Frankenstein Agent of Shade, and Demon Knights.
DC planned this as a jumping on point, though no doubt being well aware that for others, like a long-standing DC superhero fan and friend of mine, it could also be a jumping-off point. No doubt some did indeed jump off but many more jumped on. For the first time in decades, DC outsold Marvel Comics and while sales have dropped after the initial explosion, DC are still matching Marvel. So as a commercial exercise, there’s no question that DC’s New Universe has been a significant success.
But has it also been a creative one?
Well, having just read all 52 first issues and read hundreds of reviews on various websites of these and successive issues, the answer to that is a qualified yes. So, time to look at the book itself.
Although it begins with the first title of the New Universe published, it doesn’t reprint them in order of publication. Instead, they are arranged into categories. The first section is Justice League and does indeed begin with that title, setting it five years before the new current continuity when superheroes are just beginning to (re?)emerge. And concerns Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) meeting Batman, for the first time, in Gotham against a mutual alien enemy. It ends up in Metropolis where GL gets the crap knocked out of him by –oh come on; I don’t really have to tell you by whom. So these first few issues of JL are the origins of the current team. Next up is the founding of Justice League International in the ‘present’ day. Other titles in this section include Aquaman, Wonder Woman (superb), The Flash, Green Arrow (more in line with the character as shown in the tv series Smallville), The Savage Hawkman, etc. You might do a double-take when you see Mister Terrific in there. This is the first case in the book of DC shoehorning in a title which doesn’t fit anywhere else; unless there’s something they aren’t telling us.
The next section consists of four titles, one of them being the section title Superman, but it’s preceded by the Grant Morrison written Action Comics which is chronologically the earliest title and features Superman at the beginning of his career when his powers are limited (he can only leap buildings at a single bound, etc), he doesn’t have a proper costume as such, and he’s after crooked businessmen which puts him in line with the Siegel and Schuster original character. And it’s wonderful. In the George Perez scripted Superman, he’s in his new costume (no pants on top). The other titles are Superboy and Supergirl who seem to be newish takes on these characters.
The 11 titles of the Batman section are often the least changed yet the most startling. The final page at the end of Detective Comics is both surprising and deeply shocking and is guaranteed to get you to buy the next issue. Catwoman is already almost a legend for its graphic depiction of rough costumed sex between her and Batman. I’ve already mentioned the new/old Batgirl. There are also the usual suspects –Nightwing and Birds of Prey. Two new titles are Batwing (an African Batman) and Red Hood & the Outlaws which stars Jason Todd, Roy Harper, and a rather controversial version of Starfire. And then there’s Batwoman (which was delayed for months so as to fit in with the DCnU) which is in a league of its own. If you only buy one title, this is it.
I’ll skip the four Green Lantern titles of which only The New Guardians caught my interest and move quickly on to The Dark which happens to be the most interesting and diverse collection of titles which all happen to be generally pretty good or better. They also share something else in common, apart from the fact they appear to involve the supernatural, in that they are all setup issues introducing the reader to the characters. Justice League Dark features Madam Xanadu trying to form –oh you guessed- which includes, among others, John Constantine and the Enchantress. Animal Man and Swamp Thing have already garnered high praise. I, Vampire is probably the most surprising title to be revived and is about vampires surviving in a world of superheroes. Resurrection Man is the title I would have second least expected to be revived but the one which most delighted me. Demon Knights (written by Paul Cornell) is either Justice League Medieval or an earlier version of Stormwatch (see above). Add Frankenstein/Shade and that’s 7 trades I’ll be buying when they come out.
Less interesting, but not without interest, is The Edge a disparate collection of titles bunged together to call them something. There’s the Wildstorm titles (see above), Deathstroke and The Suicide Squad (same old, same old), Blackhawks (a completely new team of covert operatives), and Men of War (the grandson of an old DC character). But I’ve saved the best till last. Dan Didio and Keith Giffen channel the spirit of Jack Kirby in a new over the top version of his character O.M.A.C whose Mohawk hairdo is now an energy field of some kind. In All-Star Western, Jonah Hex has been hired to investigate the Ripper-like murders of prostitutes in Gotham City and finds himself way over his head in one of the best of the New 52 titles.
And finally, Young Justice starring the younger heroes though what Hawk & Dove are doing there I’ve no idea. There’s a nice reboot of the Jaime Reyes incarnation of the Blue Beetle which is welcome and a very promising Teen Titans. Static Shock mildly disappoints and neither of the two Legion of Superheroes titles impress.
And there we have it. It’s a mixed bag which ranges from the nothing special to the WOW! with an average of pretty good. Or, if you want it graded numerically: 3.75, 9.5, 7.5 respectively. (Except for Batwoman which rates a 10).
I’ve been going through the list of titles and, based on the first issues, I will definitely be buying 20 of the titles in trade editions when they appear, with another 10 as strong possibilities depending on reviews. This alone has made it worth me buying this book as that’s a lot higher number of DC trades than I have been getting. Additional material like alternate covers is minimal and could have been a lot more.
Sure, it’s also quite expensive but just remember you’re getting a 1200 page 52-comic hardback sampler of some of the best superhero comics around and you’re in at the ground floor of the DC New Universe. For superhero fans that’s as good as it gets.
This review has also been published on amazon.co.uk and amazon.com