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Grumpy Old Fan | The New 52 needs a new 52

52 #1, art by J.G. Jones

Over the summer I wrote about the rate of “idea generation” across decades of DC history.  Essentially, I was talking about the number of new ideas (or new uses for old ideas) being produced under current superhero-comics storytelling trends. Idea generation and world-building go hand in hand, such that the more ideas you can harmonize into a reasonably coherent (and accessible) shared universe, the better.

The 2006-07 weekly miniseries 52 put DC’s shared universe to good use. Written by Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka and Mark Waid, laid out by Keith Giffen, and drawn by an array of artists, 52 had a handful of C- and D-list characters guide readers through various obscure corners of the DCU. 52’s locales included a Metropolis without Superman, Black Adam’s Khandaq, an island of mad scientists, and the farthest reaches of outer space. 52 also featured its share of new characters, like the Chinese super-team called The Great Ten, the intergalactic despot Lady Styx and the dark religion of the Crime Bible. Of course, it also debuted new versions of Batwoman, the Question, Infinity Inc. and Supernova.

Because it chronicled a year in which the Trinity of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman each disappeared from public view, and because it had that year all to itself (thanks to the other titles’ concurrent “One Year Later” time-jump), 52 gave readers a unique opportunity to poke into the dusty corners of DC’s attic. Due (mostly) to the vagaries of its truncated timeline, the New 52 apparently doesn’t have such an extensive history. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t take readers on a similar journey.

A shared universe invariably places potentially conflicting demands on its books. Each needs to succeed on its own merits, but each must also coexist peacefully with the others. I’d like to think that when these demands do conflict, the needs of the individual outweigh the needs of the universe; because in the end, I’m more invested in the individual books than I am in the shared universe. Besides, when a group of standalone titles can combine successfully into a coherent shared universe, the result can be pleasantly immersive.

By and large, I think the New 52 relaunch has tended to favor those individual books. At least, I get that impression from the New 52 books I read. This is not to say that everything is wonderfully iconoclastic.  Superman and Green Arrow have had more than their share of creative teams. The Wonder Woman who appears in Justice League and the Superman books seems rather disconnected from the character Brian Azzarello, Cliff Chiang and Tony Akins have been chronicling in her own title. The cheerfully anarchic OMAC was canceled early on, and I, Vampire will end in April. In short, quirky books should probably watch their backs.

Still, the New 52 titles try to be diverse, and to that end has been organized into general categories, like “Young Justice,” “The Edge,” and “The Dark.” The latter especially has carved out its own niche, with Swamp Thing, Animal Man, Justice League Dark and Demon Knights — but in a way that doesn’t readily link those titles to the rest of the superhero line. This despite “Rotworld’s” monsterized guest stars and JL Dark’s use of the main League. (Even the late Justice League International didn’t interact appreciably with the main League, apart from Batman’s involvement.) Accordingly, for a complete overhaul of the superhero books, which carried with it the real possibility of stifling uniformity, the New 52 remains a rather loose affiliation of titles.

Still, the connections are there. Take Demon Knights, which shares Madame Xanadu with Justice League Dark and a history (including the Demon) with Stormwatch; or the upcoming Justice League of America, which takes Martian Manhunter from Stormwatch and most of the rest of its roster from other established titles. The new JLA is already slated to appear in April’s issue of Catwoman, and one suspects the team’s high profile will try to goose sales of the individual books.

So why a 52-style miniseries going hither and yon across the New 52-scape? Not so much to make those kinds of team-book connections, because the team books can do that on their own. Instead, it could be a travelogue of the superhero line, showing how the different areas of emphasis might interact with one another. Counting 52, DC has done four of these year-long survey-style miniseries, each with a different set of goals, but each charged with examining these kinds of macro-level relationships. 52 had spiritual quests, space adventure and geopolitical conflict. The mess that was Countdown eventually involved the New Gods and the revamped Multiverse. Trinity brought together the social circles of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, and then turned the timeline inside-out in their absence. Finally, Brightest Day sent a group of formerly dead characters on their own journeys of discovery, before revealing their shared destinies. (That last sounds pretentious, but it’s the simplest way I could describe BD.) Each miniseries tried to give DC’s shared superhero universe some kind of common identity, or sense of place, beyond “Gotham over here” and “Central City out thataway.”

Indeed, each miniseries did that at least in part by taking the focus off the big names. The point of 52 was to show how the world got along without the Trinity, the point of Countdown was to direct readers to various other events and/or books which didn’t necessarily involve the Trinity, and even the last bit of Trinity showed how the world would have been different if the Trinity never existed. For its part, Brightest Day involved some familiar faces, like Aquaman, Hawkman and Hawkwoman, J’Onn J’Onzz and Firestorm, but each of them had been out of the limelight for some period of time, and therefore needed some reintroduction. Obviously a “travelogue” miniseries will have significant marketing potential.

This potential is different both from an all-star team book like Justice League and from a line-wide crossover miniseries like the upcoming Trinity War. I figure TW will build on the backstories of Pandora, the Phantom Stranger and the new Question, and combine that with the various Black Diamond subplots running through assorted New-52 books. Since there will be three Justice League titles by the time TW starts, you’d think they’d be a “trinity” as well. That’s business as usual for a shared superhero universe, particularly because it rewards readers who have been paying attention.

However, 52 and its successors generally had a different perspective. A line-wide crossover is often the culmination of different subplots — in other words, the end of a story. It juxtaposes familiar elements in (one would hope) new and creative ways. Infinite Crisis asked “what if the Trinity broke up,” Final Crisis asked “what if evil won,” and Blackest Night explored the rules of death and the meaning of life. By contrast, 52, Trinity and Brightest Day were each more concerned with character studies. Even Countdown intended to take its readers on a journey of discovery.

That’s what the New-52 DCU needs at this point in its development. Over the past year and a half, individual titles have been establishing their own identities, with varying degrees of success. Each book has contributed its own set of ideas to its particular sub-group, and by extension to the larger shared universe. The team books and Trinity War can help fans organize those ideas generally. What 52 did so well was to take that organizational structure and use it to guide readers towards the unfamiliar and the new. The New 52 books can’t exactly draw on decades of DC lore, but a 52-style miniseries could still try to evoke that spirit of exploration. It would go a long way towards making the New 52-verse feel lived-in, and it would provide a different kind of coherence to the regular ongoing series.

Now, I have yet to discuss in detail the other common element of all those previous miniseries — namely, their year-long duration. 52 and Trinity each ran 52 issues, Countdown was 51, and Brightest Day was 25 biweekly issues. That’s a lot of storytelling capacity, even in these decompressed times. Nevertheless, even with a less-sketched-out world, I think the New-52 52 could at least go the biweekly route. Remember, it’s about the journey, not necessarily the destination; and the journey needs to be worth the investment of time.

Clearly this is one of those “make it happen, DC” kinds of posts. I don’t know exactly where this journey would take readers, or who they’d meet. I expect it would involve the New 52’s broad genres of superheroes (main-line and alternative), horror, “action” (i.e., Deathstroke and Team 7), space opera, and other time periods. Ideally, it would reintroduce some DC folk who hadn’t yet been seen in the New 52. (I’d have Ralph and Sue Dibny as “tour guides,” trying to solve some impossibly-complex mystery.)

Above all, though, it would show readers that the relaunched DCU, for all its updates and streamlining, was still broad enough to hold all these disparate characters, friendly enough to explore, and odd enough to make the exploration fun. Any shared universe should be able to meet those criteria, and the New-52 DCU is no different.

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31 Comments

It’s kind of depressing when you realize that out of the four “architects,” only Johns is left.

Not sure who DC would pick to write this. Johns and Snyder are givens. But beyond that? Jeff Lemire I guess. Honestly have no idea who they’d choose as the fourth guy. Azzarello came to mind, but he seems to shy away from continuity-heavy type stuff. Maybe finally give Gail Simone a push? DC doesn’t exactly have the deepest talent-pool when it comes to writers at the moment.

I think a “52” of the New 52 would have been a great idea, and rather sorely needed. Unfortunately, for it to have happened/or to happen, DC would have to have a good idea of what their continuity/history is now, and that doesn’t really seem to be the case…

Even a series like “The Books of Magic” took the reader across a huge swath of DC/Vertigo without it feeling like a info dump. They could even do something like that. A completely unique character on some kind of journey of discovery within the New 52. If not a unique character, perhaps one of the lesser known characters that most people might go, “yeah..I remember them…umm, who are they again” and reinvent them as the vehicle to drive the story across the New 52 universe.

I will admit that these “tour” comics can be a lot of fun, as they can keep you up with what’s going on around the universe without actually forcing you to buy any of it. I really, really enjoyed Marvel’s FEAR ITSELF: THE FEARLESS last year, as I only had to commit to 12 issues, but I got glimpses of all of Marvel’s corners.

Another book that I thought did this really well was the #0 issue of BRIGHTEST DAY. Through the eyes of Deadman, we got a quick but meaningful tour of a big chunk of the post-BLACKEST NIGHT DCU–four little glimpses of Aquaman, Martian Manhunter, Firestorm, and the Hawks which would be continued in BD, plus glimpses of the remaining characters that would be continued in other titles. The only thing I think DC missed in that issue was a grand marketing opportunity: they could have easily put little blurbs at the end of each vignette, like “To find out what happens to Hawk & Dove, check out BIRDS OF PREY #1 next week!” I mean, that’s how you get people to buy other books: you invite them rather than forcing them through a crossover that demands it.

Conversely, I thought FLASHPOINT blew it from a marketing standpoint: DC foisted, what, 15 tie-in series on the market, but FLASHPOINT #1 didn’t provide any kind of a roadmap as to what I might want to read. Had I been piloting the series, I would have had Barry wake up in the Flashpoint universe with his powers and had him running around the altered world getting glimpses of each story, just as Deadman did in Brightest Day #0. But we didn’t–we got some glimpses of a few characters, sure, but not enough to make me want to delve into any of the spinoff titles.

So I think Tom is correct on this. When the new 52 launched, I’m not sure I would have known where to start even if I’d wanted to. You can’t dump 52 unmarketed books onto the market and expect me to know what I’d like to buy. A tour would have been nice–let me sample the buffet and see what I want to come back for.

I will also say that with DC being such a mess behind the scenes, this is basically impossible right now. Something like a 52 requires an immense amount of coordination and forethought between editorial and creative, and that’s just isn’t DC right now.

I mean, if the rumours are true, we’re currently onto the fourth different iteration of Trinity War, which is why we’ve seen and heard so little of about it so far. If they can barely put that together, I can’t imagine how they’d cobble together something like 52.

Unfortunately I think it would result in another Countdown with the way things are going now, and 1 countdown was bad enuff

Why DC doesn’t do “creative retreats” like Marvel’s “architects” do….we’ll never know.

DC editorial is pathetic right now.

Ah, but if it did result in another “Countdown,” maybe it would be a countdown to a better, rebooted DCU.

Let’s just say it: Bob Harras is a disaster and needs to go.

The Justice League International biweekly(?) was strong also and did collect up some new or less used characters along the way. I thought it was strongly written and satisfying.

Alex makes me so want a Gail Simone written year-long now. Course I’d settle for a Simone written anything but she’s brutally underused at DC…

This idea would of needed some serious planning but a weekly series about Pandora and her search for heroes (could tie into her appearence in each number one issue) could of served as a nice backbone for the New 52 and served as a good lead into Trinity War.

After 25 years reading DC Comics, for the first time I’m not invested in the DCU….. thanks to the new 52 and the architects behind this lame ‘building’.

52 was great, even if they didn’t know where they were going with it. Countdown was awful. I think a better planned 52 with better distribution of information to external writers to build on could be good.

IMHO, Countdown to Final Crisis was a Blue Beetle character book.
52 was a great Elongated Man character series.

New weekly needs to do similar.

Personally I think all these big event series and crossovers dilute the individual books. They needed time to grow and big events stop forward development in order to tell a shared story.

I really like this idea. In fact I loved this article because it gave me a new perspective on those overall minis that I hadn’t seen before as I felt so rushed to get through them with them coming out so regularly. I might actually go back and read all of Trinity which I skipped most of. But my point…despite some gripes about what I feel are 90’s X-Men stories…is that this hasn’t felt like it all fit. That is why I’ve dropped all the books except Batman. The stories felt flat and I don’t have that feeling I did as a reader of the previous universe that this was all part of a bigger tapestry. Even the diversity you mention feels forced. “It’s in the news so we have a gay character.” “People complain we have too many caucasian characters…male characters…hurry lets make some diverse ethnic characters.” When those stories are good and they are important it is because it has built upon its strengths of the storyteller and not pandered. All that to say that even despite these gripes I feel more indepth looks at backstory, maybe revealing some greater truths to some of the continuity snafus, and give us back something that feels like legacy even in these first generation characters. I want those things in this universe that have some applied history like the New Gods or Skartaris…these are the things that make superhero comics fun. It almost becomes an addiction to get more information about a universe if it is engaging enough.

Can we just have Wally West come and save the old universe? Or ACTUALLY start over from scratch and treat the last year and a half like the years that Wonder Woman wore black tights and traded powers for “kung fu”?

Where IS my “Ralph Dibney: Ghost Detective” series, anyway?

If DC had done an event such as “52” right off the bat, or even now in their second year of New 52, everyone would be complaining that it was too soon, the books haven’t found their voice yet, they should have waited. Some people just need something to complain about. You can’t please everyone.

With all the mess made now in this so “New 52″ universe with these cancellations after cancellations, you think that readers will give some credits to such a huge project?

I do not think.

I was so happy at the launch of the New 52. The DCnU!!!! With very 1st issues!!! I was with more than 40 comics titles per month. And now?? ZERO.

Why?? Editorial issues, bad decisions (the very first one is still the cancellation of OMAC!!!), bad interactions between “super-heroes” comic books, the worst interaction between the Dark titles and the DCnU (the best way to destroy your best titles line into the worst story ever with some “super-heroes” characters), and, as we say in French: “The ass between two chairs”, for, again, the Dark titles.

What should have been the mature line of the DCnU is now a blended, liquified, dark universe into something called the DCnU.

In those hard times, when it is so easy to loose customers, it’s a shame to see that the DC’s heads have done nothing to keep their New 52 first hours’ readers and fans. A shame.

Johnny Sarcastic

January 26, 2013 at 1:13 pm

I’ve been a DC guy for my whole life (I’m 30). Been collecting Superman everything since 1991 and hadn’t missed an issue (even during the Electric Powers). Had been collecting Green Lantern for almost as long – Justice League in whatever incarnation since the ’96 reboot monthly, and never stopped on JSA either. Literally all of my comic intake was DC, but DC for-real lost me after the New 52

I tried to carry over all of my favourite characters, and I even tried new stuff – but since they canceled ‘Resurrection Man,’ the only monthly DC book I’m getting now is ‘Dial H’.

The only good news is it caused me to broaden my horizons and try smaller companies that I never looked at before.

I think we should dump New 52 altogether and go back to the days when DC Comics were fun to read. New 52 is all doom and gloom mixed with gratuitous blood and guts. It’s a Mess!!!!

Brian from Canada

January 26, 2013 at 2:11 pm

See, here is where I completely disagree with the posters.

I used to be a Marvel guy and dropped everything after the editorial retreats and demand for complete interaction removed any individuality, progression and logical storytelling in the books. Bendis, Quesada, et al. have done a brilliant job of removing anything identifiable from the Marvel Universe to make their movie/comic hybrid that’s constantly pushing for cool rather than good.

DC, on the other hand…

Everyone seems to forget that first story was to shock you with differences and excite you over the characters. The second story, which is where things began to fall apart, was to follow up — but mostly from editorial’s side, since the writers didn’t know just where to go from there. What was missing was the Crisis approach, which was to go forward and then jump back for the second in order to join them for the third.

Year two, however, seems to be doing that in a different way. The zero issues give us a branch to what’s coming up, and — more importantly — we’re seeing connections between the books being grounded as the way to go because it seems that the next phase is to congeal the universe into one ahead of the Justice League movie.

The House Of Mystery ties the Dark line together under Constantine. ARGUS binds Justice League of America together but also connects to the Dark loosely. Justice League is beginning to bring together events and notices from those books. And with the Black Diamond Probability and the zero issues, we’re beginning to get a bigger tapestry of the history too.

Personally, I don’t think Bob Harras blew it. I think DC thought too big to be immediately manageable, and only now are they beginning to understand it’s the underpinnings that need to be supported.

A timeline is being created, but it’s still loose and needing to be filled. If they do a 52 series, it should be something like that — including the odd references we’re getting now (like JL #16’s mention of the Metal Men project).

But it’s not a failure. Axel Alonso’s tenure is a failure, as was the latter half of Joe Quesada’s, because no one was left to stand and say what the boundaries should have been in storytelling. There is no investment in the characters, and only now are we seeing a little bit in the DCU.

DC’s upper management wasn’t bright enough to get their heads around the vast DC universe. So they threw out the baby with the bath water. DC threw away everything that made them special: their history and continuity. Now they have nothing to set them apart from Image, Valiant, IDW, or Boom.

DC lowered themselves on to the same playing field as a start-up company. The only difference is that DC has a handful of characters that the non-comic-buying public is aware of. And DC is doing their damnedest to dilute those name brands by changing everything that was great about them.

DC’s head honchos would burn down your house because it has too many rooms. Then they’d replace it with a cheap condo that was a whole lot smaller and a whole lot darker.

@Brian from Canada — I felt the same way for several years but I think Marvel has gotten a LOT better and is well worth returning to. :)

What I’d like from DC is a couple of ongoing series set on what I call “Earth-August,” a term I don’t think I came up with. Give me my 35-ish Superman who’s married to Lois Lane. Give me my 35-to-40-ish Batman whose career is long enough to accommodate five Robins. Give me Oracle, and Stephanie Brown as Batgirl, and Tim Drake as the best of the Robins (even if he’s called Red Robin now). Give me a legacy of Flashes, from Jay to Barry to Wally to Bart. Give me a Hal Jordan who’s the greatest Green Lantern in the Corps even if he does quit or get fired every couple of years.
And maybe they could get some people to write them who can work with the rich tapestry that was DC’s history prior to the New 52. I’m looking at you, Alan Brennert. And Steve Englehart. And James Robinson.
If DC wanted to do an Ultimate line, they should have done an Ultimate line. That way, the people who didn’t want to deal with 75 years of continuity could have bought those books and those of us who were OK with it could have stuck with the existing line. It worked when Marvel did it that way.

great idea, accept that any new weekly series would be so micromanagement bu Didio, it would probably suck worse than Countdown.

I’ve been a comic collector and huge DC fan for over 40 years. Now, I’m getting about 8 titles and have dropped all Superman, Flash, and Green Lantern titles because they feel like bad Image titles from the ’90s. Batman has become a grotesque parody of itself, and I’m about to drop all those titles as well.
As others have said, the New 52 seems to be an information dump, trying to re-establish the heroes and their villains in ways that make them mere shadows of the original characters. Not only are the stories weak and drawn out too long, but the art, with few exceptions, is ugly–clearly artists who learned from other comics and manga, and not from drawing real life.
When my 9-yr-old asks me the origin or history of a character now, I just say “I’m not sure about this character, but the original story was…” and truth is, I just don’t care anymore.
And because of the casual cruelty and grotesqueness (plus DC’s obvious contempt for their kids line), I can’t share current super-hero comics with my 9-yr. old. She reads indy comics instead.
Man, I’m feeling old and curmudgeonly right now., but I’m feeling like DC has sucked all the joy out of comics. They’re not fun anymore, and it’s getting harder to care.

Interesting article…

Similar to the “52” style weekly series, I’d love a digital first series focusing on a new or heretofore unseen character in the current universe (or possibly both) with an overarching story spanning the far reaches of the new-52 universe. Ralph Dibny would definitely be a good choice. Maybe Booster Gold and/or Ted Kord/Blue Beetle. Each installment could be shorter (10-12 pages) and once a month DC could put out a collected print version like it does with many of its Digital First titles (Smallville, Batman Beyond, LotDK).

Has anyone read 52 lately? It’s pretty good, regardless of current continuity but it’s quite clear from the writers (and Giffen’s) notes that it was a tortuous experience for all concerned.

Really can’t see it ever happening again.

Great article. I think after Trinity War, there should be a 52 type series. I get the feeling with what’s being said about TW that the new DC 52 landscape will change. I think one of the writers should be Jim Starlin, who always does well with epic story lines. My one big problem with Final Crisis was that since it began with The Death of the New Gods, and was a continuation of that book, DC didn’t include Starlin in Final Crisis. I believe in trying to keep the same writer or group of writers on such big projects so there is better continuity and the story doesn’t come off feeling disjointed.

Ain’t a lover of the NEW 52, DC messed it all up too much, beginning to feel like the continuity ofa Fox X-Men movie, non existent !

I still think WALLY coming from the pre Flashpoint Universe, a man, a stranger to this NEW 52 Universe with only memories from the old would have been so awesome – Maybe even turning into a supervillian (in the eyes of the heroes of 52) trying to right the wrongs, ie Barry messing with the Universe in the first place and changing it all.

Now that’s not even going to happen as they making him African American, because of the stupid Flash TV show, as Iris West is.

From 40 plus titles I bought to a couple of Vertigo and Earth 2 title!

My favorite was JLA, I say was….

Please do another Crisis/Countdown/ETC and bring back the rich histories.

Wildstorm can stay absorbed but bring back most of their rich histories too, not these weak mirror copies that wont stand the test of time!

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