Almost a year ago, with the DC New 52 relaunch event, I decided to dip my toe back into superhero comic books after a long hiatus. And while I promised to blog about it, well, that didn’t happen. But here you get an year-in-review sort of thing, and that can’t be all bad, can it?
I’m not going to discuss a lot of big things that have been discussed over the course of the year, from DC’s apparent editorial incompetence, its treatment of women in any number of titles, or the fact that the relaunch seem to have fail to attract much in the way of legitimately new readers of any sort. All these things are troubling signs that DC’s relaunch wasn’t all that well-orchestrated or with clear, progressive (political or otherwise) goals in mind. For every attempt at something seemingly positive (“There’s a prominent gay character in DC Comics!”) it seemed to take a step back at the same time (“Really? Who is it?” “Alan Scott, the first Green Lantern!” “…I’ll ask again: Who is it?”)
Instead I’m going to talk about my experiences with reading these books for a year, sticking with a lot of titles, dropping a few (and will likely drop a few more as they do their #0 run in September). And I’ll talk about the most recent issue of Justice League, which rather nicely sums up a lot of my frustrations with reading superhero comics again.
Back in March, I was talking with Drew (he and I were supposed to do a back-and-forth, and that never happened of various, way more important reasons) about the relaunch, and he was dropping out of the comics fairly more rapidly than I was, saying, “I just came to realize that I don’t really like superhero comics.” And I think that’s a perfectly good thing. It’s a genre that doesn’t work for everyone, and if you’re not liking it, you should stop it.
I had a different reaction, though. It’s not that I don’t like superhero comics, I do, but what I really don’t like is shoddy storytelling, and that is a major problem within superhero comics, I’ve come to realize. It’s not all the books, and I’ll mention that ones that really work for me (*cough*Batman*cough*), but it’s a lot of the ones I’ve read and have been reading, and Justice League is a really good example of bad storytelling in any medium.
Its first arc, about how these superheroes came together during an attempted invasion by Darkseid is pretty standard superhero fare. You need a big threat to bring together the most powerful characters in the DC Universe, and Darkseid is that threat. And that’s fine. The first arc was lots of action, fighting, and the characters not all getting along with one another, and it all largely works given the context and what the goal of that first arc set out to achieve.
New arc starts. It’s five years later in the current timeline, and the JL have been dispatching bad guys (I’d presume anyway) for a while. Steve Trevor, Wonder Woman’s long-standing beau is the team’s liaison to the governments of the world (or just the U.S., I must admit I’m honestly not sure), but she and he have been on the outs, and in the most recent issue, she pretty much ends things entirely, saying the team’s getting a new liaison and then she kisses Superman on top of the Lincoln Memorial (at least it wasn’t the Washington Monument) in a moment of very-teenager-y angst between the two characters.
Oh, and Hal’s decided to leave the Justice League because, well, the team’s not really working well together (they got into a big, messy, public fist-brawling fight an issue or two ago, as the JLers are prone to do).
Here’s the problem with all of this: It doesn’t mean a damn thing. There’s no emotional impact to Diana breaking things off with Steve because we’ve never seen them together. The moment has meaning only in that many readers know that Steve’s been her companion in the past, and as such this plot point relies on that knowledge to even matter in the teeniest bits of ways. Hal wants to leave the League? Let him. Who the hell cares? We’ve seen them arguing like they’ve just met. They’re not a team in the second arc any more than they’re a team in the first arc. The only hint at cohesion we’ve seen is a splash-page where they were fighting off the Martian Manhunter after he went berserk (he was on the team at the time).
There’s not an iota of emotion in this book, there’s not a sliver of competent storytelling in the large view of this book. Perhaps issues can skate by on an individual basis, but when they’re read as a whole, the gaps and flaws really come through. There’s this vast world of story potential and character drama, and the book lies there, barely twitching or making half-hearted gestures toward these things. (The action set pieces, as they fight off a villain named Graves) are never really that impressive either, leaving the book at a real loss.) A lot of this I pin on the flashforward, but there are still larger problems. None of the characters feel rather individualized beyond base characteristics (except for Cyborg who, frankly, doesn’t have any characteristics and is just there to create portals).
I’d contrast this with either of the other Justice League books, Dark (once Jeff Lemire took over the writing for the title; before that it was a boggy mess) and International. Both of these titles have personality to spare, and balance character and action well enough. I didn’t really care for International too much (I stopped shortly after OMAC came on the scene), but it at least had the respect to allows its very different characters to interact, buttheads, come together, and work through things (as much as you can in twelve issues and an annual). Dark, likewise, has characters who really don’t like one another, or even trust one another, but work together for a clear purpose. They, like the cast of International, are a colorful bunch of people, and that comes through, unlike the dull as diashwater folks in the Watchtower.
As far as making your narratives land, there’s really nothing better than Scott Synder (writing) and Greg Capullo’s (pencils) Batman title. This book is how you tell a compelling superhero narrative. There’s no sense of padding (which I feel like I’ve experienced even in other books I’ve really enjoyed, including Animal Man), and the big capstone to the Court of Owls storyline that spans the first 11 issues simply works. It’s a gut-wrenching thing that happens, and whether it’s true or not, the damage has been done to Batman as that one sure thing in his life — Gotham City — turned against him.
That collection of issues is thematically sound, well-written (even if the final issue is overly-talky), and wonderfully drawn (I love how Capullo’s Batman shifts in size depending on the character’s emotional state, from big slab of superhero to just a cape and a cowl). The highest praise I can really give it, that I cannot give to Detective or Dark Knight (both of which I dropped due to boredom and their awful female characters), is that while I read it, I heard Kevin Conroy in my head. I heard the voice of Batman. It fit. It was Batman.
But, again, not everyone has that same forward movement that Batman offers. Batgirl, while great when we’re inside Barbara’s head, has been a bit scattershot from a wider narrative perspective (and what’s with the covers showing her varying states of punishment, including two back-to-back covers of being stabbed?). Batwoman, while great in the first arc, decided to get timey-wimey in its second and play with the story’s structure in unproductive ways (not completely off-putting, but I don’t a clear clue on how it all played out).
Neither book is bad (though I think Batgirl veers into that territory every now and then), but neither feels as cohesive as Batman or Animal Man or Wonder Woman do (probably the three best titles I’m reading, along with The Flash (which I feel has stumbled just a bit recently)). Strong, or even interesting, narratives don’t often jump off the pages of superhero comic books, and I’m not entirely sure why. It could be a stagnation within the genre, larger issues on a production side of deadlines, editorial miscommunications, or maybe it’s just me. I have expectations that many of these books may not be interested in, and that’s not their fault. They may just not be to my taste. I like character-driven stories, or if they’re more narratively-driven, clear narratives with distinctive voices. Sometimes it’s just loud action stuff, and that can feel generic for me. I can, and have, stopped reading titles because of this.
But I’m also a bit more willing to sample now. I’ve enjoyed the first few issues of Marvel’s new Captain Marvel series, and it has encouraged me to pick up a few titles of the Marvel NOW line when it launches. I don’t know that I’d be willing to stick things out as long as I did or have with some DC titles, but I’m a better reader of comics now than I was last year. I know what to look for, what makes sense for me, and what gets my spidey-sense tingling, in both good and bad ways. Despite the frustration, it’s been an important re-entry into figuring out my place in a genre that I had left alone for a long while. And I think that’s been the most productive thing in and of itself.
When I started last year, I was reading a number of titles. I’ve dropped a lot, picked up a lot, here’s some quick reasons why for either.
Original pull list, and whether the title is still there:
- Action Comics — Ditched it. I was grooving for a bit, but it lost me when it went to Krypton.
- Batgirl — Still going-ish. I like Barbara Gordon, and I think that’s the big reason I’ve stuck with this book. But I’m kind of waiting for an out.
- Batman: The Dark Knight — Ditched it. The White Rabbit (EUGH. Gross) and the over-stuffing of his rogues gallery (and random cameos) had me bail after 5 or 6 issues.
- Batman — Still going. Love it. But you knew that.
- Batwoman – Still going. Despite my issues with the second arc, I like the book’s supernatural/fairy tale elements. It’s refreshing.
- Detective Comics — Ditched it. I kind of liked the Puppetmaster thing, but after that, it just became…dull.
- Justice League Dark — Ditched it, but came back. The first arc was weird in bad ways. This second arc is weird in good ways (and way more fun).
- Mister Terrific — Ditched it. Horrible. Horrible. Horrible. It’s canceled anyway. Probably the only book I legitimately did not like in any way.
- Supergirl — Ditched it. I didn’t have a clear sense that this book was going to make sense anytime soon, and while I checked back in this week, I still don’t feel it’s progressed much.
- Superman — Ditched it. Really dull. I loved the Daily Planet stuff, but the fighting alien elements? Yawn.
- Teen Titans — Ditched it. Despite the really diverse cast, I left after the muddy annual. Plus, it doesn’t feel like the Tim Drake I knew from earlier Bat books.
Later pull list, and whether I’m still with it
- Animal Man — Still going. Love how the book puts the family at the core of this book. It’s refreshing and grotesque.
- Batman & Robin — Ditched it. I kind of liked it, and kind of didn’t. While I liked the tensions between Bruce and Damian, the superhero aspects were dull.
- Batwing — Still going-ish. I loved the first arc in Africa, but it’s been downhill since then, especially as lots of other capes have come in. Seems like they don’t trust the character to work on its own. Which it would, provided it existed outside the cowl a bit.
- Birds of Prey — Still going-ish. I really like the dynamic between the women, but it’s feel a tad stale.
- Demon Knights — Ditched it. I was grooving for a while, but then I got really bored.
- Dial H — Still going-ish. I really liked this to start, but now I’m a teensy bit lost. Which is how I felt sometimes when I read The City & The City, so I guess it fits.
- The Flash — Still going. I really enjoy this book. The art is wonderful, and until recently, I’ve found the narrative to be really strong. I just feel like they’ve bent over backwards a bit to bring the Rogues and Grodd, and it’s killed the momentum.
- Justice League International — Ditched it. But it was with more respect than other titles, I feel. Like we drifted apart.
- World’s Finest — …I don’t know if I’m still reading this or not. I dug the Huntress mini, and like the exchanges between the two, but the multiverse thing is a sticking point (I only read one issue of Earth 2).
- Wonder Woman — Still going. So far as I’m concerned, the Wonder Woman in Justice League is an impostor. This is Diana.
I also read, as I said the Huntress mini (which I generally enjoyed) and the Shade mini (which I stopped reading after Cully Hamner left AND the narrative went flashback-y). I’ve also read a chunk of Ame-Comi, which I liked, but the art started getting a little too…fan-service-y, so I haven’t been back in a while.
Outside of DC, I’ve been reading Saga, and I think it’s fantastic. I hate that they’re on a break, but I also love them for realizing they needed to take one AND that they have the freedom to do so.
For the record: The Superman/Wonder Woman pairing is kind of silly and boring. I admit I’m a Wonder Woman/Batman ‘shipper (in as much as I ‘ship), and blame the DCAU for that. Charlotte gets it: “Bruce and Diana approach humanity from opposite poles (from below & above) and meet in the middle.”