Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Post-Pointal Depression: Chronic Case of DCnÜ

The news of the rebooted DC Universe broke in May of last year, and was first addressed here with the announcement that Cyborg was now the seventh founder of the JLA. I tried to see the silver lining of the Martian Manhunter being treated as an independent solo hero certain to receive a series spun out of the successful Brightest Day, and offered some tongue-in-cheek plot suggestions. Despite early editorial protestations, it became increasingly clear that pre-Flashpoint continuity was going out the window, and that the former "heart and soul of the Justice League" had now never been a member of any incarnation. Given pause, I reflected on how removing the JLA retcon crutch could be good for the character, even as it became increasingly unlikely that a solo series was in the cards. Finally, it was revealed that the Manhunter from Mars would be part of a DC-integrated Stormwatch, which I found heartening. After co-founding the Justice League of America in 1960, J'Onzz was among the first to ditch the team, and his return heralded his new role as The Patron Saint of Loser Super-Heroes. He'd helped usher in the first multi-ethnic League, and led a unique serio-comic super-team consisting of recently integrated refugees from the defunct Fawcett and Charlton comic lines. Why not act as DC's official ambassador to Wildstorm, which seemed to have an enthusiastic writer who I hoped might have a sense of humor about it all? I'd rather have good comics taking the road less traveled than have Martian Manhunter take part in my dim expectations of a samey-same Justice League. Half a year into the "New 52," and unfortunately, my best hopes for the Manhunter have been dashed.

I was a fan of Wildstorm, and the company has loads of history that seems likely to be completely ignored as part of Ultimate DC Comics™: That Old Crap Don't Matter None. To explain the reference, Marvel Comics launched their Ultimate line of books a decade or so back, which was intended as a separate entry level continuity for new readers to sample their most popular concepts. The sub-line was initially very successful because it allowed comics' most commercial creators carte blanche with the characters on a fresh canvas unburdened by continuity. That also meant that the line lacked the same structural integrity as the mainstream Marvel Universe, and became burdened by its own confusing, contradictory internal history. The mainstream Marvel U proceeded to adopt the best received Ultimate innovations and reabsorb its creators until the Ultimate line became a sort of boutique to try out new creators and indulge in media bait like an Afro-Latino Spider-Man. In some respects, DC's play is smart in that there is no "real" continuity for the New 52 to compete with, and the talent pool is spread across one line instead of divided up. On the other hand, fans of DC and Wildstorm material produced over the last quarter century have seen those stories tossed in the trash, meaning the entire shared universe now stands on the efforts of what is being produced right now by talent spread thin.

An initiative this large demands massive resources and tons of planning, which DC has demonstrated that they substantially lack. Take for instance the tale of the cover to Stormwatch #1. The originally solicited cover by Miguel Sepulveda misidentified the central character in the image, either by coloring Apollo incorrectly or by putting Jack Hawksmoor in the wrong costume. A potential correction was offered by switching the piece out for an entirely new cover by Chris Burnham. The same swap was intended for the second issue, as Burnham was scheduled as regular cover artist from #3 on. However, to date none of Burnham's covers have been used, and his solicited pieces were instead replaced by Sepulveda's. All that having been said, what does it matter, since neither Sepulveda nor Burnham are proven commercial artists known to influence sales? As of January 2012, Stormwatch is ranked #29 in the "New 52," and #65 in overall sales.

How about a more personal pet peeve? The first new Stormwatch image was unveiled on the official DC Blog on June 9th, 2011. Later that same day, Cully Hamner's Apollo redesign followed. Throughout the summer convention circuit, DC showed off tons of similar design sketches. Nine months later, that Apollo costume has yet to be seen inside an issue of Stormwatch, and I'm still waiting for the opportunity to comment at length on the as yet unreleased Martian Manhunter redesign template. I can't tell you who came up with it, and I'm not sure of its intricacies, since there's been inconsistencies in how it's drawn by artists. I'm hopeful to have it for reference sooner or later, in case I get a sketch of it done at one of this summer's conventions. If not, maybe I'll drag a bunch of issues to the con and make my own. Salting the wound, the DC blog has offered three centuries worth of Talon designs, because he won't end up being the Hush of the 2010s.

Out of the New 52 titles, I've tried Justice League, Aquaman, Detective Comics, Action Comics, Green Lantern Corps, Legion Lost, Stormwatch, Grifter, and Demon Knights. I haven't especially liked any of them, and have so far only kept two because I like the characters/art. I had a similar reaction to the mini-series The Huntress and Legion: Secret Origin. Blackhawks, O.M.A.C., Hawk and Dove, Mister Terrific, Static Shock and Men of War have been cancelled, and I don't intend to try any of their replacements. I'm not as put off by the changes made to characters or the universe as I am the lack of anything interesting happening overall. For instance, if you took the four issues of The Huntress I've read so far and cut off their spines, I'd have trouble working out which pages were in which issue. Every issue has a scene on a boat, a scene of Huntress climbing around a building in the dark, a scene with Helena meeting reporters that serve her exposition, a scene of Helena eating at a restaurant, a scene of bad guys trafficking in scantily clad sex workers, and several scenes of Huntress beating up generic thugs. I understand from solicitation copy that the New 52 Huntress is now the Earth-Two Robin who got transplanted with the Earth-Two Supergirl to Earth-One, and that the pair assumed the new identities of Huntress and Power Girl. However, none of that happens in the totally pointless Huntress series, which is so poorly written that I have no intention of buying any more stories by Paul Levitz. While that's the worst example, almost every DC book I've tried has been all about the New 52 sizzle without offering a bit of steak. For example, I like the character of Aquaman, and I'm really glad to see him back to his iconic roots with his best girl Mera. His book is also gorgeously drawn and colored. My problem is that I can read each issue in five minutes, and not much has happened half a year in. Dude fought some sea creatures and Mera bought dog food. As much as I appreciate DC still holding the line at $2.99, I need more than that when I could rent three movies from a Redbox for the same money.

I stopped buying Marvel Comics with any regularity in the mid-90s because despite solid art and production values, the stories stank, and I found myself increasingly disengaged from the characters. Marvel has had creatively good and bad times in the years since, but once I'd gotten tired enough not to care anymore, the divorce remained largely final. Another problem I have is that nothing ever changes at Marvel. They locked in a commercially viable template in the early '90s that continues to play out in movies I watch and television shows other people do, but has frozen the comic book universe in a way that recalls Bronze Age DC. When even Bucky won't stay dead, who gives a crap about a temporary new Ghost Rider? Marvel seems to have had a lot of disgruntled fans since the paradigm shift of Civil War slowly shifted back to a muddled middle ground, and I think DC has capitalized on that questing fan base with the New 52. However, is it reasonable to expect to keep them with the latest return of Darkseid and Power Armor Super-Family? Is a different version of the same old thing going to keep comic sales from falling steadily lower into the five digits?

DC Comics has a history of failing the market in general and Martian Manhunter in particular, so none of this should be all that big of a surprise. Between establishing and contradicting facts, all we really know about the character is that J'Onn J'Onzz has a familiar set of powers, is probably still from a version of Mars, and was probably not a member of the Justice League. Obscurities like Bloodwynd aren't an issue, because outside of a few favored sons like Batman and Green Lantern, pretty much nobody's stories prior to the new #1s "happened." The entire universe started six months ago, and based on what I've read, it leaves a lot to be desired.

Paul Cornell's Stormwatch story arc "The Dark Side" was a jumble of subplots whose central driving story ended ingloriously two-thirds of the way in. There was a menace that was put to rest despite a poorly organized team, which gets reconfigured in a painfully arbitrary fashion in the final third of the story. Whether it was editorial dictates or just plain bad writing, it summed up as a bunch of unlikeable, derivative characters tripping over one another to set up an upcoming crossover while the book's initial writer made a graceless exit. What was intended to be a central book in the line has instead found itself in the central sales region instead. Its third writer will come aboard with #9, in a tie-in to another book the guy's writing. Stormwatch is just one title, but the whole line is like that. I buy a Martian Manhunter guest appearance in Green Lantern Corps, and he only shows up as a deus ex machina when the writer got himself into a corner. That same writer wrote these same characters for years, and they're not much different for the New 52 banner. I buy a Martian Manhunter guest appearance in Legion Lost, and the writer is channeling his New Warriors glory days for his last issues on a book spun-off from a low seller that will be cancelled when DC launches its Third Wave. The appearance isn't bad, just meaningless in the scheme of things.

Will there be a Martian Manhunter #1 in 2012? I'm not sure it matters. Books launched after the New 52 #1 in September have done pretty poorly, and the creative team assigned would probably be the same assortment of mediocre talents who typically handle lower rung books. I haven't been happy with DC since Dan Didio finally won his battle with Paul Levitz over the soul of the company, and I suspect directions from on high have had a negative impact on many books. Most likely, a Martian Manhunter mini-series would be a calculated initiative to set up some goings on in another book, or a dumping ground for loyal cronies to collect a check until they "prove" a Manhunter book can't sell yet again.

I've got more money to spend on comics now than I've had in years, and what do I spend it on? My last comic order included a collection of Matt Wagner Grendel stories, a second volume of Tim Seeley's Hack/Slash, and a graphic novel adaptation of one of my favorite books, The Girl Who Owned A City. I also ordered Aquaman and Stormwatch again, for now...


will_in_chicago said...

It is hard to have faith in DC as many of the best characters and concepts have been put to poor use. It seems that more effort is put into a few characters (Batman family, Superman family, Green Lantern Corps) than others.

I still have hope that J'Onn and some other characters will be better served in this version of the DCU. However, if the DCU was an employer I wonder how many would join the Martian Manhunter in seeking greener pastures?

Diabolu Frank said...

It's long been a source of great frustration to me that DC puts all its eggs into so few baskets. Only in recent years have they really expanded beyond Superman and Batman to include Green Lantern and Flash as part of their greater empire. Inside comics isn't all that dissimilar, with DC allowing properties their popularity only so long as it takes minimal resources to sustain it. Marvel has always been better at sustaining a universe as opposed to just a few core franchises.

LissBirds said...

Is that really DC's new logo?

The confusion is one factor that drove me away from DC. (Ironic that it was supposed to be less confusing.) I have no idea what end is up, and figuring everything out takes too much effort. (Reading comics shouldn't be work...)

But the lack of good storytelling is what really drove me away. Just a general sense of the basics of characterization and plot would do DC a world of good. Find some writers who care about their characters and go from there...

Diabolu Frank said...

All true, Liss. The New 52 is Brand Echh to Marvel's Brand Meh.