For those paying attention, Williams and Blackman’s departure isn’t exactly a surprise. Since DC launched the New 52 two years ago this month, there has been an almost frequent shuffling or outright exodus of talent from the books in its line. While this is certainly a significant and increasingly pervasive problem at DC, it isn’t the biggest problem plaguing the New 52 on its second birthday. The real problem speaks more to a quality, or lack of it, that is evident in virtually the entire line, and is the reason for my knee-jerk reaction to the end of Williams and Blackman’s run.
Azzarello and Chiang’s Wonder Woman continues to be a bright spot in the New 52 lineup.
A couple years ago, I wrote a weekly series of reflections on the titles from DC’s New 52 lineup that I read as they debuted. Going into the month, I expected to pick up maybe five titles, but that number quickly swelled to encompass about half of the initial line. I was taken in by the fresh, new interpretations of DC’s heroes and wondering (like many other readers) just what about these characters’ histories had been altered. It’s telling that, even now, I’m still wondering about this (and I have a sneaking suspicion DC is, too).
It’s obvious why DC wanted to be coy about continuity as the line launched—if it didn’t work, they needed a reasonable way to set things back to the way they were without losing too much face. It would have been easy to say, after the first couple months, that “The Death of Superman” still happened, or that Crisis on Infinite Earths still happened if fans rejected the perceived changes to continuity. Actually, DC did say both of these initially, before recanting them (Superman did still “die” in the New 52, although the exact details are still—surprise!—unclear).
But here we are, two years later, and the New 52 is still here and, yes, seems to be sticking around for a while. Even DC’s animated films are following suit—the recent adaptation of Flashpoint will soon give way to an animated version of Geoff Johns and Jim Lee’s initial Justice League outing. So that must mean things are going well, right? Well it might be for some people, but I am unfortunately not one of them.
Despite picking up roughly 25 titles at launch, I’m now only reading a handful of DC books, and of those only two regularly. Part of my need to shed titles was financial, I’ll admit; however, when it came time to cull, I could have just as easily stopped reading some Marvel titles. But DC was what I cut, almost without a second thought.
Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s Wonder Woman is still the best thing to come out of the New 52, and a book I’m still enjoying. It’s a fresh take on the character, exploring the mythos in a new, exciting way that is equal parts drama and action. Unsurprisingly, it seems to largely ignore the “major” events going on elsewhere in the line, focusing on telling its own story free from a greater continuity (or pervasive tone…more on that in a moment). This has given the series’ creators an unusual amount of freedom and has certainly helped Wonder Woman develop its own distinct voice.
DC’s Forever Evil event, spotlighting the Crime Syndicate, is representative of the cynical tone evident in much of the publisher’s current output.
The other series I’m still reading, Batman, is also unencumbered by the larger framework of the New 52 (although it does tend to lead its own corner of the DCnU into mini-events almost constantly). That DC can create a solid Batman series is really no surprise, though. After all, the tonal approach that the character calls for seems to be about all they’re good at pulling off these days. Manapul and Buccellato’s The Flash continues to be the most lighthearted of the New 52’s fare, and certainly its most artistically vibrant, but with the exception of this and digital first, continuity-free series like Adventures of Superman, Batman ’66, and Batman: L’il Gotham, DC’s publishing line is a dark, dark place.
Even the relationship between Superman and Wonder Woman unfolding in Justice League (and soon their own series), which you’d think was worth at least a little joy and levity, is treated almost exclusively as something to be feared. Despite the fact that Clark and Diana have feelings for each other, they seem more like foolish teenagers than reasonable adults. We’re never invited to see their relationship as something other than a time bomb, destined to fail and to do so spectacularly.
Oddly enough, it took this summer’s Man of Steel to finally help me pin down exactly what was bugging me about so many DC books—they just aren’t fun anymore. There’s no sense of awe, no sense that these characters are something to aspire to. Lately, DC seems bent on taking every trace of joy and wonder out of their books and replacing it with bleak misery. You’d think DC would take to heart the famous cinematic catchphrase of its most recognizable villain: “Why so serious?”
Speaking of Mr. J, when I look back at that first full week of the New 52, when everything seemed exciting and (relatively) unexplored, I remember the one panel that everyone was talking about—the splash page at the end of Detective Comics #1 that featured the Joker’s skinned, flaccid face. It was a shocking image at the time (and it ultimately didn’t amount to much more than that, although Scott Snyder’s “Death of the Family” story was a fairly solid result of it). Now, though, I can’t help but look at that limp, lifeless face as a metaphor for what the New 52 became: remove everything familiar, everything we recognize about these heroes and the features that define them, and leave behind something far uglier.
It’s no surprise that Batman continues to thrive in this atmosphere. The concept requires a moody, somber tone that DC seems intent on forcing upon the rest of its line. This is a part of what makes Batman work as a character. Superman, Green Lantern, and the Teen Titans? No so much. Understand, I don’t want to feel this way. I’ve always been a “Marvel Guy” if we’re really keeping score, but I want to enjoy DC Comics just as much month to month. And I did, back when they were upbeat, optimistic, and (above all) fun. I wish DC could remember those times like I do.
Brian L. Martin is an educator, writer, and amateur curmudgeon. An avid fan of novels, movies, and beer, he would much rather spend his time reading comics, a lifelong love since receiving a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man # 242 from Spider-Man himself in 1983. His favorite books include The Grapes of Wrath, Siddhartha, and The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, which is heavy enough to be considered the only real defense weapon he has in his home. He currently lives with his wife in Uppsala, Sweden.