52 First Issues?!?

PrintE-mail Written by P.M. Buchan Thursday, 14 July 2011

Adventures on Alternative Earths - by P.M Buchan

In September, after the completion of Geoff Johns' and Andy Kubert's Flashpoint, DC Comics will be relaunching their entire publishing line with 52 issue #1s; their characters and franchises reimagined for new audiences. This is the news in comics that will be dominating the internet for the rest of the summer as the whole world watches to see whether DC can successfully pull off the relaunch and a vocal minority of our peers bitches about whether Power Girl can expect a bust reduction. After coming second to Marvel in terms of overall sales for what feels like forever, DC are risking everything on a gamble that will either capture the imaginations of a generation of new readers or alienate a legion of junkies that feel like their comic collections have been invalidated overnight. As an exercise that builds excitement around the concept of shared universes and launches from an Event Comic based on an alternative reality, what better subject could I ask for in a column named Adventures On Alternate Earths?!? Join me, fearless reader, as I wade through questions of continuity and reboots, digressing along the way so that even DC's Big News becomes nothing more than an excuse to talk about the X-Men.

Although a line-wide relaunch of a stable of comic characters has never been attempted on such a wide scale as DC have planned for September, there have been plenty of precedents set for reimagining fictional worlds. In other mediums continuity is a technique employed far less consistently, so film audiences are comfortable with the notion that the actor playing James Bond can change between films. I've even noticed when reading Thomas the Tank Engine to my son that stories from the original books have been retold for different generations with slight tweaks to suit each medium or era, so that the narratives can incorporate vehicles like jumbo jets and helicopters into more recent animations without significantly altering relations between the trains. In Western comics it is DC themselves that have been the main culprit for widescale character rejuvination. In contrast to a publisher like Marvel, whose characters can (more-or-less) be traced all the way back to their inception in the late 1960s, the DC Universe is made up of an amalgamation of characters that were never originally intended to meet, launched by different writers and artists across the last century and only gradually brought together into something resembling a cohesive fictional universe. I've never really wrapped my mind around the origins of DC and prefer to remain ignorant, rationalising that the done-in-one stories of the Golden and Silver Age have no real appeal to me. There's nothing intrinsically exciting about spandex and superpowers, I come to comics to explore vast, alternative realities with sweeping, serialised stories, traits that have only become entrenched comparatively recently and even then are only maintained successfully by America's two biggest comic publishers. Given my affection for shared universes of stories you might speculate that I should rail against linewide reboots like the one proposed by DC in the wake of Flashpoint, but instead I find that I'm seriously excited by it.Think of the editors at DC as caretakers of their universe, as hands that must steer us onto bigger and better stories. Any longstanding DC readers that jump ship in September can rest easy in the knowledge that their comic collections are going to be invalidated by October, they won't open their long-boxes in November to see the ink bleeding from the pages, the worst thing that will happen is that they might lose a pub quiz in 5 years time when they shout out that Bruce Wayne's parents were murdered by Joe Chill.

If you want to examine the precedents for linewide reboots then you have to go back to DC's 1985 epic Crisis On Infinite Earths. If I invest in Marvel or DC for the interweaving narratives that they build between titles then it stands to reason that I would be in favour of an exercise that takes conflicting stories and builds them into a cohesive whole. I've also got a soft spot for apocalyptic scenarios, so that kind of End of All Things approach to spur characters towards extreme behaviour always gets my vote. Back to Crisis, which hypothetically was a great story and could have acted as a brilliant ground zero for the DC characters, but as far as I can tell the powers that be lost their nerve and, rather than following through with a raft of #1s and new beginnings, they made token gestures towards fresh starts and, gradually, muddled elements reflecting the mixed origins of characters began to creep through. I consulted Wikipedia to check my facts when writing this column (hey, Wikipedia is infallible, right?!?) and the Crisis entry gave me a headache before I'd even finished reading it. My next point was going to use the DC character Huntress as an example of everything that went wrong for DC, with her conflicting origins and no real decision about her heritage, but honestly I don't have the heart to do more than scratch the surface, so you'll have to believe me when I say that, in the DC Universe, characters frequently have conflicting stories of origin that are rarely acknowledged as plot-points but more left dangling there as the inconsequential concerns of obsessive fanboys. Nobody better embodies this conflict than the Justice League of America's poor cousins: the Justice Society of America, a nostalgic group of legacy characters that either directly reference or are descended from continuities that have generally now been forgotten. It shouldn't come as a surprise when I say that Geoff Johns is the only writer that has ever made me interested in the JLA, through his combination of respect for the depth of DC backstories and his unwillingness to be restrained by such knowledge when he detects a powerful story waiting to be told. It's also telling that, while the JLA will be the first title spearheading DC's big relaunch, the JSA are abesnt from September's lineup. For three years I read everydecent title that DC published and I still found the JSA confusing, so they must present a logistical nightmare to genuinely casual comic readers and it seems like a wise decision to rest the team until Johns can find an interesting reason for their existence.

Transgressions about the JSA aside, DC themselves set the most impressive precedent for their current relaunch so it seems logical that they should be the ones to follow the notion to its logical conclusion. Using fictional tools to sweep aside jarring continuity issues are as much a mainstay of the DC Universe as the notion of Legacy Characters, who embody the idea that we read superheroes to read about their powers and not the power's wielder. Marvel has more recently tested these waters with moves like Bucky's resurrection (and subsequent death) replacing Captain America in Ed Brubaker's massively successful run on the title, which I expect will never be bettered. Thinking about it, Marvel has stolen the Legacy concept wholesale recently for characters like Hulk and Wolverine, but this is only noteworthy because Marvel had focused on the people beneath the masks rather than the masks themselves. For DC a character likeThe Flash has enjoyed multiple iterations and been built into a family tree of wives, husbands, cousins, negative-versions, descendents, murder-victims, the resurrected and everything in between. This is reflective of the strange fictional microcosms that exist within shared universes and I can only attribute this trend to the habit of placing editors in charge of stables of characters, so that it becomes easier for an editor to encourage crossovers between Spider-Man and other spider-themed characters than it is for them to loan Thor from another editor for story-purposes.

 

DC can take most of the credit for acknowledging continuity-issues as fictional crises, but Marvel have also had their share of adventures on alternate earths (boo-ya!), creating pocket universes and dead timelines as ways of radically reinventing their characters to tell new stories and later just to revive interest in flagging titles and ostensibly jettison the accumulated trappings of decades of continuity. The experiment closest to my heart is, of course,the Age of Apocalypse, a temporary blip in the X-Men comics when all mutant characters were reimagined in a villainous era where all of their worst nightmares had come to pass. As a teenager the AoA was the event that caused me to stop buying comics, because limited resources and no ready access to a comic shop meant that it became unfeasable to ask my local newsagent to replace the X-Men with copies of Gambit and the X-Ternals for the summer. It had been hard enough putting my inarticulate angst to set up the subscription in the first place, but explaining the name-change to a man whose trade was more commonly in Lambert & Butlers was too much hard work so I stopped buying comics altogether.


Ignoring my pubescent difficulties with X-Men subscriptions I've since caught up on the majority of X-comics in the past 20 years and I can say with confidence that until the recent resurgence characterised by the stellar writing of Craig Kyle and Chris Yost, the Age of Apocalypse was a high-water mark for Marvel and took the X-Men to levels of brilliance not seen since the Dark Phoenix saga. By focussing on a limited period in which to reimagine characters, the artists and writers took risks that would otherwise have been inconcievable, creating counterparts to popular characters like the villainous Dark Beast and noble new Sabretooth. For once this was a brilliant exercise in storytelling with no false-claims of ramifications on later plots, just a focus on good storytelling that dovetailed across multiple titles into a spectacularly apocalyptic ending. I could dwell on the Age of Apocalypse all month, but what was interesting was the precedent that it set for the Age of Onslaught, probably the weakest Marvel Event that it has ever been my misfortune to read. Somehow over the space of a trillion issues and tie-ins nothing much happens apart from every Marvel character selling Onslaught as the greatest villain they have ever faced. No character moments, no sub-plots, just a lot of heavy-hitters grumbling about how nobody can stand against Onslaught. This led to Heroes Reborn, Marvel's only real attempt at rebooting their entire universe. I've never read the Heroes Reborn comics, but that says a lot, because I love massive collected editions of later 90s Marvel comics but passed on buying these reprints because they look stupendously bad. Heroes Reborn was a much smaller experiment than DC have planned for September but seems to be universally reviled (especially by fearless Staburst leader Jordan Royce!) and interestingly Jim Lee was one of the most influential creators involved. You'd hope that he'll be utilising any lessons learned so that DC doesn't repeat Marvel's mistakes. Bringing in a host of Image artists to revive their flagging fortunes might have seemed like a great idea at the time, but in hindsight I'm amazed that by this point they hadn't yet learnedthe lessons of selling comics based on good art alone.


I’ve read a massive range of reactions to DC’s announcements online, but the only thing that I can comment on honestly is how this move will affect me. I love it. I’ve been obsessed with the X-Men since I was 8 years old, which has meant that I’ve always had a place in my heart for Marvel’s flawed, relatable superheroes, but to me DC was always the realm of gods and "cosmic stuff", a lot of light and sound signifying nothing that bore any relevance to my life. During my three-year stint working at Travelling Man I made it a point of reading every comic that I could get my filthy hands on, every trade-paperback in print and the best comics released every week. It didn’t take me long to find an entry-point into DC. Identity Crisis was a great story that I enjoyed very much, but it was also populated by weirdly-powered characters that I’d never encountered before. Geoff Johns solved that problem for me. It started with his legendary run on the Flash, introducing me to Keystone City and a rogue’s gallery of gaudy, outlandish villains with ridiculous powers that Johns somehow made sense of. DC mainstays made occasional forays into the Flash’s world and gradually the DCU opened up to me as I became familiar with Gorilla Grodd, Green Arrow, Green Lantern and the JLA. Sensing the assurance of a talented writer, I dipped into Johns’ other work and fell in love with the JSA and Black Adam even if there wasn’t a single character on the team that I recognised and I never quite got my head around their origins. From there I spread outwards, checking out Jim Lee’s pitch-perfect artwork on Hush and his well-meaning but ultimately misfiring run on Superman with Brian Azzarello. I followed Johns to the Teen Titans, who became the keystone to my understanding of the DCU. I went crazy for Superboy and Tim Drake as Robin then, when Judd Winnick brought Jason Todd back from the dead as the Red Hood, I went wild and recommended it to every customer that walked through the doors. Gradually, title by title I assimilated the DCU into my reading habits until I was as passionate about the Secret Six as I was about Spider-Man.


When I left Travelling Man I found myself at a crossroads, where I could neither read every comic being published for free nor afford to maintain my preposterous reading habits. I cut the wheat from the chaff and found that 50% of my money went on independent titles like the Goon and Popbot, the other half divided between Marvel and DC. The independents are the lifeblood of the comic industry, the reason to continue reading comics, but superheroes are my comfort food, so rather than maintaining any ideological stance I gradually dropped DC titles in favour of more X-Men spinoffs, until Green Lantern was the sole survivor. The end of Blackest Night seemed like a suitable time to put DC to rest. I’ve never regretted that decision, because it’s the shared universe and rich continuity that I love the most about superheroes and I could only afford to do justice to one publisher.

 

But now DC are starting their universe from scratch again, cherry picking the aspects of each character that work best and letting loose some of the finest writers and artists in comics today on their entire creative line. It won’t matter how much I know about Ion or Ron Marz’s run on Green Lantern and I bet that if Dwayne McDuffie were alive to write the JLA today he wouldn’t be running into any editorial interference about what characters DC’s brightest team should be comprised of. Any token attempts to diversify the ethnicity of the DCU will no longer seem out of place because the all-white casts will no longer take precedent over newer, more relevant characters. Blue Beetle was a stunning addition to the DCU and his solo title an example of everything that went right in introducing a racially diverse cast. There has sadly been an element of sexism reflected in the fact that every male Robin has survived and is headlining his own comic while the female stars of the DCU seem to have been decimated, but there's time yet for a mistake like this to be resolved and columns far more focussed than mine can inform you about the injustice of losing Spoiler and the most recent Batgirl. The point here is that, however long this new status quo lasts, for at least one month all DC comics will be equal and each creative team will be given the opportunity to succeed on their own merit. There’ll always be a bias in readers towards picking up a Batman title rather than a Nightwing, but for the discerning reader in September we’ll all know that creative teams have been assigned to the books that were best suited to their styles, unencumbered by continuity or tradition.

 

Anything could happen. It’s a crying shame that Barbara Gordon will no longer be in a wheelchair, with all of the positive messages that her character had come to entail, but who’s to say that by Christmas the Joker won’t have shot her in the spine again, at the heart of DC continuity? I can’t even begin to imagine what Oracle’s most vocal fans will have to say if she’s paralysed a second time and I expect that any decisions to develop this particular character will be controversial. New Green Lantern fans might be grumbling that none of Blackest Night will matter anymore or that Geoff Johns might do away with the emotional spectrum, but do any of us honestly believe that the architect at the heart of the DCU will sweep away all of his hard work and won’t just continue to tell phenomenal stories based on decades of mythology, as accessable to new readers as they are rewarding to longstanding ones?


In February 2010, when Jim Lee and Dan DiDio were named co-publishers of DC Comics and Geoff Johns was given the role of Chief Creative Officer, it became clear that DC were rewarding their most influential creators with the power to formally enforce the changes that they’d previously lobbied for as freelancers. Given that Geoff Johns has written 3 out of the past 4 DC universe defining summer comics, Infinite Crisis, Blackest Night and Flashpoint, it seemed like a natural progression that he be awarded the power to shepherd DC into the new millennium. As one of the founders of Image Comics and Wildstorm Productions in 1992 Jim Lee more or less defined the look that several generations have associated with superhero comics. Given that his appeal has stayed strong for the past two decades it’s fitting that he be the one to redesign a consistent body of costumes for the entire DC Universe. Ignoring some short-sighted editorial edicts about female costume designs that invalidate some iconic costumes its probably safe to bet that DC will come out of the gates with a terrific new set of designs.Tim Drake as Red Robin looks particularly cool with his new wings and Simon Bisley’s cover for the new Deathstroke title has me excited to see his new design. The point is that DC have made an inspired move – they’ve taken a writer that has acted as shepherd and custodian of the best aspects of their history and continuity, and they’ve granted him the power to redefine the way they tell stories. They’ve taken the artist that every mainstream comic-artist has sought to emulate at one time or another and given him the chance to define their entire line of comics. This kind of move could make DC more relevant now than at any time in their history. None of us can know what trends might develop in the future or which fledgling creators will be at the cutting edge of mainstream comics, but we can trust the track records of two phenomenally popular and hard-working creators to steer us in the right direction.

 

As far as the big DC relaunch goes 52 comics would represent a significant investment from somebody that has more-or-less stopped buying DC comics. I’m hoping to find a sponsor by then that will deliver 52 shiny #1s to my door to write about in my October column, but if that doesn’t happen then I’ll whittle my choices down to an affordable level. I could just plump for the obvious ones, because we all know that JLA and Grant Morrison’s Superman will be the shining lights, but really, where would be the fun in that? The nature of comic books as a medium means that everyone should have a level playing field – there’s nothing inherently cool about a licensed character that should give them an advantage over some other idiot in a cape. Keeping that in mind, I’m going to add Teen Titans, Red Hood and the Outlaws and Superboy to my standing order. This is unfair really but they’re all written by Scott Lobdell, writer of most of my favourite 90s X-Men comics. Lobdell is coming into this relaunch as an underdog though, because it’s been at least a decade since he was working in the mainstream of comics and, as a medium, we’re massively susceptible to trends of technique and writing style. Much as I love Chris Claremont’s legacy to comics I find most of his recent work unreadable, so it’ll be interesting to see how Lobdell’s writing has aged. Also the Teen Titans were a joy to read under Geoff Johns’ supervision, the Red Hood is one of the best new characters from recent comics and Superboy was seriously cool before his death during Infinite Crisis, so these are three titles that to me seem filled with potential. I’m also toying with the idea of picking up Scott Snyder’s Swamp Thing and Jeff Lemire’s Animal Man, based purely on the buzz surrounding both writers, but my wallet might not stretch that far. That’s a potential 5 out of 52, so I’m already condemning 47 comics, but that’s where you come in Dear Reader. Keep me in the loop, tell me what I’m missing, e-mail me at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or comment below and spread the love about your favourite new DC titles.


As a sidenote to the whole relaunch business I should point out that for every new creative team that are given their chance in the spotlight there’ll be another team of freelancers that are now without jobs. I’ve got friends that have been offered exclusive contracts with DC in the past year and turned them down, not knowing what was to come. Realistically if I were in a position like theirs I would have turned DC down too, because they’ve never made as big a deal out of their artists and writers as Marvel does. At Marvel you’re a Big Gun or one of their Architects but at DC the focus is more on their stable of fictional characters. Just look at DC’s history of swapping creative teams unceremoniously and dumping multiple inkers on a comic to get it out on time. I’ve lost count of the number of DC series that I was enjoying only to find that the artist was switched out for another project, on issue 7 of an 8 issue miniseries! Aside from how irksome that felt to me at the time, what kind of a collected edition is that going to make? I’m hopeful that these issues will be less commonplace in the new DC, but I’ll get back to you on that one.

 

I'm out of space again and I haven't even mentioned Marvel's Ultimate Universe so you'll just have to imagine what kind of ill-informed gems I'd have sold you regarding that occasionally visionary but mostly stale and conservative stable of comics. As always my opinions have been my own, less researched than normal this month because DC continuity hurts my brain, but the message to take away with you is READ MORE COMICS! September will be your big chance to jump onboard some new titles. Pretend that you're a kid again, wander into your local comic store and pick out some comics based purely on how cool the cover art is. Go out into the world, read comics and have fun. Bitch at me about my complete lack of appreciation for the JSA at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . This month's column has been fuelled by Harley Poe, the greatest horror-folk-punk band in the world. Check them out and tell them that I sent you.

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+1 #2 P.M. Buchan 2011-08-02 12:44
Cheers dude!

I agree that DC have to make a firm commitment to this in order for it to work, but I honestly think that given the fanfare they're building around it they'll have no choice but to see it through. This is a big gamble in terms of long-term readers, they HAVE to stick with it or risk alienating new and old readers in one mismanaged exercise.

If you look at DC's response to female-readers and their apparent decision to listen to their pleas, this is a new DC and I think that we're finally going to see change and growth at the company. For the longest time I enjoyed the odd DC story but found their stifling editorial mandates kept ruining signs of growth, but it looks to me like they're finally ready to move forward.
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+4 #1 Ian Mat 2011-07-23 12:17
Great column as always, Bucky. The only way DC will make this 52 relaunch work (once the weak sister titles are weeded out over the next 12 months) is to stick to it. No reverting Action Comics back to 900-and-something when a milestone number comes up. The industry has a bad reputation for relaunching number ones to get new blood readers in, only to yank the carpet out 18 months down the line.
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Other articles in Adventures on Alternative Earths - by P.M Buchan

A Love Letter To Japan 14 November 2011

Antidotes to DC Comics 14 October 2011

All Comics Are Created Equal 14 September 2011

X-Men: Road to Schism 14 August 2011

Teen Angst, Talking Corpses & Pompous Frogs 14 June 2011

What makes a great comic? 04 May 2011

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