See Ya in the Comics
A little over a year ago, DC Comics shook things up and hit the reset button (sort of) on 52 of its top titles, including "Action Comics," the title that started it all when issue #1 introduced Superman to the world in 1938.
Superman -- the original costumed superhero! -- and a bevy of other DC icons (Batman, The Flash, Swamp Thing, Aquaman, Green Arrow) have started over from scratch. The move was a bold marketing stunt as well as an exciting artistic opportunity. But thirteen issues into their new incarnations, I have to say I’m losing interest in the books all over again. (Note that those 13 issues don’t count the late-in-coming, origins-explaining #0 issues, which hit the stands last month.)
The problem (and the magic) with comic books is how they inhabit a fictionalized universe in which the laws of physics are severely distorted. People can fly, or summon magic, or don cape and cowl and, by virtue of such costuming and a well-stocked utility belt, become virtually indestructible. Well and good; human beings have an eternal fascination with super-human heroes, be they figures of myth like Achilles and Hercules or characters from modern movie franchises like Jason Bourne and Sherlock Holmes. Our bodies may be fragile and comparatively weak, but our passions are huge and require a larger canvas (and outsized challenges) to be addressed comprehensively.
But comic books publishing, being a commercial enterprise, strands its heroes in a fictional genre in which their pasts are limited (heroes never age) and their personal histories are, by necessity, shallow. The "New 52" was not exactly a total reboot. We see a new version of the young Clark Kent (with his Superman resorting to a supply of hundreds of silk-screened T-shirts before he becomes equipped with his newly re-imagined Superman suit, a bit of Kryptonian bio-engineering; no blended fabrics here, but rather a "suit" made of nanotechnology), but we also drop in on Batman and Aquaman mid-stream. (Superman, too, in the "Superman" title; younger Clark Kent, from five years earlier, is the focus of the newly re-launched "Action Comics.")
It’s been confusing to figure out just what this new version of iconic comicdom is all about, and that’s been part of the fun. At the same time, comics that were, in earlier incarnations, vivid and exciting ("Green Arrow," "Swamp Thing") have lost something.
The last time I was much of a comics reader was in the 1980s, the heyday of graphic novels like "The Dark Knight Returns," "V for Vendetta," "Watchmen," and even obscure little books like "Stray Toasters." Mainstream comics had just entered the adult market, seeking to hold on to a grown-up readership. Comics actually started to gain a measure of respectability, as well as regaining a level of commercial success.
I can’t help but to make comparisons between what I was reading then and 2012’s "New 52," and I’m finding the new books wanting. "Green Arrow" in the 1980s sought, and achieved, a high standard of (semi-realistic) story telling; now, however, Oliver Queen is Batman lite, a billionaire playboy and nominal CEO with a full-time ops center and staff support for his nighttime hobby as a masked vigilante. He makes lame jokes with his people via headset even while engaged in all-out fisticuffs.
"Swamp Thing," meantime, has gone to rot, quite literally, as the eco-warrior title character has spent his first year in this, the character’s fifth series, locked in mortal combat with his arch-nemesis Anton Arcane. (This bad guy personifies decay and corruption in the natural world. Like any good megalomaniac, he wants to dominate everyone, everywhere.) In both art and story, the book has become too disgusting for my taste, losing the somewhat hippiesh sense of fun one of the previous series had, back in the 1980s.
As for "Aquaman," well, issue #1 of the new series put it succinctly in a memorable exchange: The Atlantean celeb, eating his dinner at a fish joint, is accosted by a fan that asks how it feels never being anyone’s favorite superhero. That’s pretty much been Aquaman’s fate, but the new series seemed poised to change all that. The guy at my local comic book shop loved the new "Aquaman," and said it was everything the new "Superman" should have been and wasn’t. I was willing to suspend judgment for a while, but finally I have to say that I find the title readable... but not all that. (As for "The Flash," it got so dumb so quickly I stopped reading after the 6th issue.)
I’ll admit up front I’ve not read all 52 relaunched titles. I don’t have the funds or the time; like anyone else, I have to pick and choose my books, and I have chosen according to my own favorites from two decades ago. Still, I feel it’s been a representative sampling. Though there are some intriguing new ideas at work, the DC books I’ve seen still feel like they are operating from tried and true rules and tropes, with a generous dollop of schmaltz. (Krypto the super-dog? Really? Do we have to go there? Much less in an issue that includes a panel where Superman coos, "Who’s the best super-dog in the whole universe?" (or something like that) to his Kryptonian-canine best friend?)
But there’s a silver lining here (albeit not a "Silver Age" lining). I went into the comics store for "The New 52," and I stayed for the stuff being put out by smaller comics publishers like Imagine and Dark Horse. Even Vertigo, the DC-operated line of titles with more mature themes, is doing some worthwhile stuff.
My top six faves right now include "The Massive," a globe-spanning series from Dark Horse comics in which a capital-C "Crash" has taken down civilization as we know it. It’s not just society that’s changed; the laws of nature have shifted, making the world unfamiliar and dangerous on a whole new level. The series follows the crew of a ship named "Kapital," which once undertook direct action against illegal whalers and other seafaring criminals, though always with nonlethal tactics. The Kapital struggles to stay supplied and fueled in this puzzling new world, while searching for her missing sister ship, a converted factory ship called the Massive. If they can find the Massive, our heroes might be able to figure out what caused The Crash.
"Atomic Robo Real Science Adventures" is another favorite. This title includes short stand-alone tales centered on a street-smart, somewhat sarcastic robot built in the 1930s, but also offers several serialized stories. It’s like an old-time Saturday at the movies, only in comic book format and with a cheeky, semi-tabloid sense of humor.
Then there’s Vertigo’s "Saucer Country," the scariest, densest story about aliens since "The X Files" television series. This book delves into, and behind, UFO lore in a way that makes its fundamentally absurd premise tense, dark, and thrilling.
The connections between comic books and the pulp novels of the 1930s run deep; in many comics are pulp novels, though of a visual, four-color variety. The comic book versions of classic pulp characters have ranged from terrible to terrific; Dynamite’s current ongoing series "The Shadow," based on the radio show and pulp magazine crime fighter, is a retro dose of stylish storytelling with complex writing and snappy, engaging artwork.
DC’s revamp has attracted quite a lot of attention, but there’s a quieter revolution going on at chief rival Marvel Comics. A new Spider-Man series set in an alternate universe features Miles Morales, a half-Hispanic, half-African American middle schooler, in the title role. This has outraged some fans, who are okay with multiple Peter Parker clones operating under various guises (such as the also-new series "Scarlet Spider"), but loathe to allow anyone other than Peter Parker to assume the moniker of Spider-Man. Those who complain, however, might do better to read the book in question. The new Spider-Man is a contemporary kid caught in some tough family (and social) webs of expectation.
Meantime, another of my old favorites, Daredevil, has started over in a new series, though without radical reinvention -- except, that is, for a lighter tone. The new "Daredevil" series strikes a balance between adventure, snark, humor, and drama, all while holding firmly to the outsized (and deliberately preposterous) conceits of the genre ("Moleman," anyone?).
So here we are, a year into the "New 52," and I’m not sure things are much different from they were before. Titles come and go; titles wax and wane; hot new writers emerge, stunning artistic talent takes the spotlight, and much too much of what’s offered is mere filler and dross. It’s a different medium, yes... but not so different in character from TV, or movies, or paperbacks. There are gems out there to suit various tastes. I may wish now I had not bought a year’s worth of some of the titles I set out to review, but it’s been worth it for really good stuff I discovered along the way.