O Say Can You See: The Greatest Patriotic Super Heroes of All-Time
Last week, being full of Christmas cheer made me look back on DC’s 2010 a little more fondly than I might have otherwise.
While I take none of that back — goodwill is never truly wasted — this week isn’t Christmas, and I’m remembering some of the more awkward moments from the year about to pass. After all, 2010 had its share of shock-value deaths and ill-advised changes in direction, and today I want to talk about the biggest ones.
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Probably DC’s most reviled comics of 2010 were the JLA miniseries Cry For Justice and its followup, Rise Of Arsenal. Admittedly, it’s hard for me to talk about Rise because I didn’t read the series itself, just the Justice League issue which tied into it. However, the Internet covered the miniseries’ excesses so thoroughly I feel like I’ve already read it — or at least gotten the experience of reading it.
By coincidence, I re-read a good chunk of Dwayne McDuffie’s Justice League issues (featuring the Milestone characters and Starbreaker) over the holidays. One of the more minor subplots deals with Roy and Hawkgirl breaking up because she keeps calling out Hawkman’s name during sex. Now, that sentence makes the whole thing sound worse than it is on the page. On the page it’s handled with relative subtlety, which is to say that McDuffie (or someone else with such pairing-up responsibilities) decided that “Kendroy” wasn’t working and didn’t want to make a big deal out of ending the relationship. That’s fine. It may be an uncomfortable subject, but apparently it was nothing compared to Rise of Arsenal’s more lurid scenes.
And the thing is, Roy Harper was both the prototype for, and the nadir of, DC’s troubled-teen generation. Dick “Robin” Grayson just dropped out of college. Wally “Kid Flash” West chose college over superheroics (blasphemy!) and was probably involved with Young Republicans. Donna “Wonder Girl” Troy had a mysterious past, dated Roy for a while, and eventually made the creepy Terry Long the happiest man on Earth-1. None of that compares to Roy, the heroin addict, who eventually turned his misspent youth around and became a drug-hunting government agent.
Now, that’s not a bad long-term character arc. Neither was Brad Meltzer’s “the student surpasses the master” take when Meltzer wrote Justice League. I’ve read a lot of comics featuring Roy Harper, from his Speedy days through those horrific ‘90s Arsenal costumes and his JLA time as Red Arrow. Actually, I read enough Speedy/Arsenal/Red Arrow comics to think that Rise of Arsenal was a story which didn’t need to be told, and a story I could probably ignore until its inevitable undoing.
Indeed ,the “inevitable undoing” is a mechanism all too familiar to longtime superhero readers — so much so that I’m not going to pursue that line of thinking in this post. It does, however, allow me to segue into another story which didn’t need telling, namely the murder of Ryan “Atom” Choi. I’ve written before about Ryan’s death, arguing (ironically, in the present context) that the same effect might well have been achieved by a brutal, severe beating. Degrees of violence aside, for now it’s enough that both Ryan’s death and Roy’s troubles served the larger makeover of the Titans book, from a title starring the former New Teen Titans to a cutthroat, all-villain squad featuring Deathstroke, Cheshire, and the all-new, all-bad Arsenal.
That in turn makes me wonder why, exactly, DC felt the need to continue Titans after most of its cast left for other titles. Dick/Batman, Donna, Cyborg, and Starfire went to the Justice League (although Cyborg faded into the background and Starfire moved on to REBELS). Raven and Beast Boy went back to Teen Titans, Wally/Flash might still have been waiting for that Speed Force book (I’m not as clear on the timing there), and Tempest (the former Aqualad) was killed in Blackest Night. Rather than cobble together a team from second- and third-string Titans (as Teen Titans did, with less-than-optimal results), I suppose it’s not unreasonable to wrench the book so violently from its original we’ll-always-have-each-other foundations. Titans did enjoy a brief boost in sales, although that appears to be fading.
Still, I presume the answer lies in that improvement. Time will tell whether it’s enough to justify further sales-building mayhem; but Green Arrow — relaunched via both Cry For Justice and Brightest Day — is enjoying a significant sales boost. I’m not sure why that’s so surprising to me, since Brightest Day was such a good launchpad. Maybe it is just me, because the two impressions I have of the book are a) Green Arrow spends most of his time in Star City’s new forest; and b) no one seems to be talking about it, good or bad. Obviously someone is buying it, and in the end I’m sure that’s what DC values most.
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When I was thinking about this end-of-2010 post, I realized that 2011 marks the silver anniversary of the creative renaissance which was DC Comics in 1986. The year began with Howard Chaykin’s Shadow and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight. In the spring, Len Wein and Paris Cullins relaunched Blue Beetle, and “Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?” revealed the final fate of the Earth-1 Superman. Watchmen and John Byrne’s Man of Steel kicked off the summer, which also featured Denny O’Neil’s return to Batman as editor of Batman and Detective Comics. (The latter featured the all-too-brief tenure of writer Mike W. Barr and artists Alan Davis and Paul Neary.) John Ostrander took over Firestorm from co-creator Gerry Conway, and helped lay the groundwork for 1987’s Suicide Squad in the big summer event, Legends. The year ended with the debuts of Denny O’Neil and Denys Cowan’s Zen-infused Question, Cary Bates and Pat Broderick’s Captain Atom, and the last “Big Three” relaunch, George Pérez’s Wonder Woman.
It is not much of an oversimplification to say that many of those talent-driven relaunches owed a lot to the upheavals of 1985 and Crisis On Infinite Earths. While Watchmen and The Shadow were outside the main superhero line, they still demonstrate DC’s willingness to have the professionals it employed take creative risks with its books. I talked about Crisis’ legacy two Decembers ago while revisiting an old Dick Giordano “Meanwhile…” column, and I have not forgotten that Mr. Giordano passed away this past spring.
Nevertheless, this is not really a “WWDGD?” situation as much as it is a reminder that DC has been reinventing itself, with wildly divergent results, pretty much constantly for the past twenty-five years. After the massive renovations of Crisis On Infinite Earths, it all seemed to come together, with the successes of 1986 joined soon thereafter by Suicide Squad, Justice League International, Wasteland, the Wally West Flash, “Batman: Year One,” etc. Even Mike Grell’s controversial, ultraviolent Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters led to a long-running and generally well-received regular series … which, naturally, eventually included Ollie’s death and replacement….
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That’s a somewhat pessimistic note on which to end, but that’s about how I want to close out 2010. I really liked a lot of DC’s superhero output this past year, including the Grant Morrison Batman books (of course); the always-excellent Secret Six and the return of Birds Of Prey; Giffen and DeMatteis’ Booster Gold; Doom Patrol; Justice League of America and Justice League: Generation Lost; Zatanna and Madame Xanadu (which might as well be a superhero book); the consistently-good Detective Comics; Gail Simone’s Wonder Woman (especially her heartfelt farewell story); Paul Cornell and Pete Woods’ Action Comics; and probably some others I’ll kick myself for forgetting (like the “Jimmy Olsen” backups). For the most part, those series didn’t rely on shocks and/or drastic changes to the status quo — not even, I would argue, Justice League, which quickly adopted a tone decidedly more positive than Cry For Justice.
Even so, the time was right for one last airing of 2010’s grievances. I’m sure there will be more in 2011 — but I hope DC takes the hint from all the anniversaries it might celebrate next year. Twenty-five years ago, DC did a lot of tearing down, followed by a lot more rebuilding. Here’s hoping that 2011 gives us all more reasons to celebrate.