The DCU New 52 - One Year Later
Last year DC “flipped the table” by doing a line-wide relaunch of all its books, generally referred to as The New 52 (or a million variations thereof). DC's relaunch started everything over at #0, including Detective Comics, which had been published monthly since 1937 and was almost at 900 issues, making it the longest ongoing comic in the U.S. It was a bold move-- and I like bold moves-- but ultimately it didn’t work for me, and I'm going to try my best to explain why.
While this piece can’t address every single book of the New 52 (who has that kind of money?! Not me, that’s for sure), I ended up reading 35 of the #1’s that came out in September of 2011, thanks to a project I was doing called The Comics Project. I only liked 13 of them enough to keep reading.
A year later, of those 13, I am only reading 6. That wouldn’t necessarily be such a bad average, except before the relaunch I was regularly reading at least 12 DC titles a month. So why hasn't the New 52 worked for me?
CONSTANT CREATIVE TEAM SHAKE-UPS
The line was criticized right out of the gate for creative teams that didn't feel particularly creative, for woefully under-representing female creators, and for a general (and somewhat bizarre) call back to 90’s comics heydays (a lot of Jim Lee, David Finch, Brett Booth, Scott Lobdell, and Rob Liefeld). Some new, exciting faces like Duane Swiezyernski and Mahmud Asrar scattered the playing field, but they were few and far between. Sure, there were the solid team-ups people expected to excel, like Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman on Animal Man, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo on Batman, and even bold choices like Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang on Wonder Woman, but again, these were the exceptions and not the rules.
Almost as soon as books began releasing there were rumors of problems. And sure enough, the shakeups began almost immediately. John Rozum left writing duties on Static Shock by issue #4, Gail Simone left co-writing duties for The Fury of Firestorm by issue #7, Fabian Nicieza was off Legion Lost with issue #6, Amy Reeder was off of Batwoman art duties after three issues, Paul Cornell left Stormwatch after issue #6, with issue #9 of Justice League Dark Peter Milligan was moved to Stormwatch, Ron Marz was replaced on Voodoo by issue #5, and after being hand-picked by Liefeld to write Hawk & Dove, Sterling Gates was dismissed as of issue #6 so Liefeld could take over writing and art duties. In a bizarre move, Jesus Saiz was pulled from Birds of Prey to make room for Travel Foreman, who moved off the excellent Animal Man by choice. But Foreman’s style wasn’t a fit for Birds of Prey, so he moved elsewhere. But instead of bringing Saiz back, he was relegated to the soon to be canceled Resurrection Man while Romano Molenaar was piloted in to work on Birds of Prey.
Now there are always creative team shake ups; it’s going to happen. And with DC taking a hard line on their release dates it was bound to happen more frequently, but this was a lot of shuffling. It started very early, much of it cloaked in rumors of dissatisfaction from either editorial or creative. And it hasn’t stopped. The most recent change up was a very high profile split between Liefeld and DC, as Liefeld left all three titles he was working on (Grifter, Deathstroke, and Savage Hawkman) and tweeted up a storm about it. None of this leaves a reader with a good taste in their mouth. Especially with all the other drama and gossip and PR snafus already out there.
CANCELATIONS RUN WILD
Books struggle to sell; it happens. And when they do, even if they’re critically well-received, they get canceled. One of the advantages of pre-New 52 DC over Marvel was that Marvel is VERY quick to cancel books. In fact, given the way that pre-orders and comics distribution work, some books at Marvel get canceled before they even get a chance to know if they’re working or not, if they can find an audience simply by being good. It’s a shame. DC on the other hand, tended to let books try and find an audience before pulling the plug. In the New 52, however, books are quick to be cut and replaced.
Five months into the re-launch DC canceled six titles and replaced them with six new ones. Blackhawks, Men of War, Hawk & Dove, Mr. Terrific, O.M.A.C., and Static Shock were the first to fall and would all end with issue #8 in April of 2012. They were replaced with: World’s Finest, Dial H, G.I. Combat, The Ravagers, Earth 2, and Batman Inc. From my personal perspective this wasn't a bad thing, as I wasn't reading any of the canceled books, and I started reading two of the new ones. But it still didn't sit well seeing books canceled so quickly.
And then in June more cancelations were announced. Voodoo, Resurrection Man, Captain Atom, and Justice League International became the latest books to bite the dust. Their replacements - Sword & Sorcery, Team 7, The Phantom Stranger, and Talon would all have a zero issue before some moved on to issue #13 and others moved on to issue #1. Already this was becoming confusing…wasn’t the point of jettisoning all that rich history to make things less confusing?
Just last week the latest round of cancelations were announced to make room for a new Superman title, Threshold, and a new Justice League of America book (pictured in the header). As a result Blue Beetle, Grifter, Legion Lost, and Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. will end at issue #17. It’s become a game to talk about what the next canceled book will be. Readers look at stats and critical reception and even their own personal tastes to gauge what should be the next book on the chopping block. But it’s not stats alone that determine cancelation, as some books with lower sales have been spared while others haven't.
I wish that risk of being canceled at any minute was improving the quality of the books, but as far as I’m concerned it’s done just the opposite. And what’s the final count? The new 52 may still have 52 books, but only 38 of those are from the original lineup-- that’s just over 73%. That's not bad I suppose, but assuming you're putting as much thought and talent into a massive re-launch as possible, I'd think you'd do better than that for your first year. Then again, I don't feel confident that this WAS the best they could go, so...circle logic wins?
BAD, BAD, BAD PR
While DC made a valiant effort to reach out to major media outlets that usually don’t give comics much of a thought, their view was still far too narrow, as was the demographic they admitted to going after. Bad PR regarding the lack of women creators combined with some stunningly bad portrayals of otherwise interesting female characters (Catwoman, Starfire, Voodoo, Harley Quinn, I'm looking at you) combined with the company outright admitting that they were not remotely interested in a female demographic, nor did they see any female talent they should have hired, was a hard pill to swallow. If so much of my life wasn’t invested in comics as a reviewer, I probably would have just stopped buying DC titles solely out of frustration with their inability to address these concerns with any sort of intelligence or progressive thinking. Also, when your bad PR has it's own headlined and bolded section on Wikipedia called "Accusations of Sexism"...you've got a problem.
UNITING THE LINE BEHIND ONE TONE MEANS...THERE’S ONLY ONE TONE
Though the bad PR and the lack of female creators and good female characters are huge stumbling blocks for me, they're not even the biggest issue. The biggest issue is that the entire line has been revamped to be tonally in sync – so all 52 books feel like they belong in the same universe. While I can appreciate why that seems like a good idea on the surface, it also kills any variety. Instead of having a vast number of choices among the 52 books, you have 52 books that all feel grim & gritty and incredibly dark. I don’t mind dark books. In fact, I welcome them. But I don’t want EVERYTHING I read from DC to feel grim and gritty. It’s just too much. I’m simply not interested in reading book after book that hammers those same points home. And in truth, not all of their creative teams can deliver that tone well. Scott Snyder is brilliant with horror books, as are Brian Azzarello and Jeff Lemire, which is why their books are some of the highest quality of the new 52. But not everyone can play to those strengths, and it shows. It shows in the quality and inconsistency of the weaker books.
For some people the New 52 is a grand and wonderful experiment that’s brought about exciting change. I’m happy for those people, I am, but for me it’s meant the loss of so many characters I love and a thinning of my DC reading list from a healthy 12 to 15 titles a month to half that…if I’m lucky.
Time will tell how DC decides to continue in year two (and three?) of the New 52 (also, we’re going to need a new name for it, since it’s no longer new), but for me, this is a failed experiment.
The worst part is, back in 2009 I wrote a piece for Comics Should Be Good about how even though I had always considered myself a Marvel girl (I cut my teeth on the X-Men), thanks to DC’s focus on more female led/focused titles (Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Detective Comics/Batwoman, Secret Six, Zatanna, and Power Girl, among others) my weekly pull list was filled with far more DC than Marvel books. Now merely a year after the New 52 relaunch I find the exact opposite to be true. It’s a particularly stark comparison when I look at Marvel’s upcoming Marvel NOW! launch. Sure there's still a painful lack of female creators, but at least we’re seeing some attempt to focus on good female characters in both standalone and team titles -- Red She-Hulk, Captain Marvel, Journey Into Mystery, FF, Young Avengers, Uncanny Avengers, All New X-Men, Hawkeye, and Avengers Arena. But nobody knows what the future holds -- perhaps in a year the same complaints will have been leveled against Marvel NOW! - and DC will have moved on to something else...?
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