Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Although the five-years-later setup of Futures End won’t be here until May, it got me thinking about a not-so-new New 52. The current comics take place some five years after Superman and company debuted — plus, apparently, a year for the face-free Joker to recuperate — so if you add five more years, it’s like double the amount of history! Well, double the amount of history that “matters,” I guess.
As I have been pretty critical of the present timeline, I’ll be curious to see how Futures End treats those additional five years. I suspect that, for the most part, they’ll be five years of “filler,” in the sense that mostly bad, Futures End-specific things happened during that time to bring DC-Earth to whatever sorry state we see in FE #1. I’ve heard that when all the New 52 books jump ahead five years (in September, naturally), they’ll reflect where their creative teams would like to take the characters in five years — but those will only be single issues, as opposed to the year-long weekly installments of Futures End. Besides, my bitter, resentful impulses remind me that it might well have been simpler just to start off with a 10-year timeline that would only have tweaked the old pre-relaunch status quo, not thrown out huge chunks of it.
All that said, however, the pre-relaunch DCU (which I like to call “Earth-August”) was getting kind of unwieldy. The surviving first-generation heroes were closing in on their 90s, while those of the fourth were about to exit their teens. Second-gen A-listers like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman had each gotten at least one temporary replacement, with Dick Grayson becoming the new Batman around the same time that Superman moved to New Krypton. Indeed, as a group the third-gen heroes (i.e., Dick and his peers) were only starting to come back into the spotlight, after being squeezed between the dominant second generation and the rising fourth generation. As all these characters contributed to the overall shared universe, the collective weight of history got harder to manage. Accordingly, I can understand the impulse to reboot, even if I don’t agree with the process.
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At this point let’s get a few things out of the way, because reboots tend to evoke strong feelings and I’m not going to spend much more time on them per se:
• Reboots are a pain, not least because they upend many readers’ investments in the existing status quo. Everybody has something they loved and have since lost.
• DC has a reputation for doing too many reboots, and/or doing them capriciously. (I would argue that the latter is at least marginally different from making specific changes capriciously.) I’m not sure DC deserves that reputation, but there it is.
• I would probably endorse a system of “scheduled relaunches,” such that at the start of every (or every other) new decade readers would expect the whole shared universe to start over. That way you get a different DCU for the 2020s, 2030s, etc.
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However you feel about the New 52 relaunch, Earth-August would still have had some structural issues even if Flashpoint had put everything back in place. The year-long Brightest Day miniseries (2010-11) had revitalized a handful of characters, most notably Aquaman, Hawkman, and Firestorm, as well as reintroducing Swamp Thing and John Constantine to the shared superhero universe. Indeed, a good bit of the main-line DCU had been revamped in 2010, with Brightest Day tying into revived series like the Barry-centric Flash, the revamped Birds of Prey and Green Arrow, and Batman Incorporated. Thus, part of what made the New 52 relaunch so jarring was its abandonment of some pretty definite moves set out in Brightest Day and assorted other titles. Today I want to look at several of those elements, to see how a New 52-less DCU might have dealt with them.
1. Damian Wayne’s death and the end (?) of Batman Incorporated. While the New 52 tried pretty hard to leave the Bat-books alone, the very nature of Grant Morrison’s mega-arc strained the credibility of the five-year timeline. Morrison sought to incorporate all the divergent, inconsistent aspects of Bat-history into an overarching framework, and then tie it into Batman’s larger place in DC history, namely by having Darkseid zap Bruce Wayne into the timestream. That story became a lot less resonant once the relaunch reduced Bruce’s Batman career to five-plus years (and never mind whether Final Crisis is still in continuity). The relaunch also reordered the Dynamic Duo, from Dick and Damian starring in Batman and Robin and Bruce in Batman Incorporated to Bruce and Damian in B&R and Inc. on hiatus. This shifted the focus from Dick and Damian to Bruce and Damian, and thereby deepened the relationship between father and son, making Damian’s death more poignant for Bruce. I always thought that Morrison told the Bat-stories the way he wanted to tell them, and only made concessions to the relaunch when he absolutely had to (see, e.g., Jason Todd as Wingman, or the brief appearance of Stephanie Brown), so I suspect we got a good bit of what Morrison intended. What’s less clear to me is whether Batman Incorporated would have continued, with or without Morrison. You’d think it would have fit better in the “older” Earth-August, but maybe it too was never meant to be permanent.
2. The closed-off Multiverse. When the 52-part Nu-Multiverse debuted in 2007, DC went parallel-world crazy, populating it with settings out of various Elseworlds and making it a core element of the year-long Countdown miniseries. The Multiverse, and the Monitors who policed it, were critical parts of 2008-09’s Final Crisis event, and Countdown was supposed to get readers excited for FC. However, outside of the Earth-22 Superman joining the Justice Society, and Power Girl making a brief trip to Earth-2 (both written by Geoff Johns in Justice Society of America), DC really didn’t do much with the Multiverse. Maybe it was waiting on Grant Morrison to finish writing his Multiversity project (which, of course, he’s presumably still doing). In any event, with the companion series Earth 2 and Worlds’ Finest, and Forever Evil’s invasion from Earth-3, the New 52 has done considerably more with its version of the Multiverse. Whether Earth-August would have reached this point is unclear — although the Trinity miniseries did create its own little parallel world, apparently outside the Multiversal structure — but I think it would have taken a while.
3. The next-generation Justice League (and the new JLI). I mentioned above that DC’s third generation was starting to reassert itself towards the end of the Earth-August days. This started in 2008 with a new Titans series, written by Judd Winick and drawn by Ian Churchill, which once again reunited the former New Teen Titans. However, Titans wasn’t that good, and after a couple of years the book dumped most of its stars and changed its format. Not long afterward, however, a handful of ex-Titans and their contemporaries — including Dick/Batman, Donna Troy, Cyborg, Starfire and Golden Age offspring Jade and Jesse Quick — formed the core of the new Justice League, under writer James Robinson and artist Mark Bagley. The focus was on Dick, Donna, and Supergirl (who was reintroduced in 2004 as a fourth-gen teenager), as well as less traditional Leaguers like Mikaal “Starman” Tomas and Congorilla, and the team got a little over a year’s worth of adventures before the New 52 relaunch. Still, I’d have liked to have seen how much longer it could have gone, especially since the Justice League: Generation Lost miniseries all but promised a revived JL International to run alongside the main series.
4. Fallout from Justice League: Cry For Justice. Part of Robinson’s JLA work involved this miniseries (drawn by Mauro Cascioli), an overwrought, ill-remembered potboiler about creating a “proactive” team of Leaguers. Originally intended to launch a separate Justice League team featuring Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Supergirl, Batwoman, the Atom, Mikaal and Congorilla, and the Freddy Freeman version of Shazam, it eventually became a bump in the road on the way to Robinson’s eventual lineup. More to the point, though, it ended (SPOILERS!) with the villain Prometheus destroying Green Arrow’s hometown of Star City, which included the death of Roy Harper’s daughter Lian. Not only did this make GA mad enough to hunt down and kill Prometheus, it drove Roy crazy enough to star in one of the worst miniseries ever produced. Thankfully, the New 52 relaunch apparently wiped away this miniseries and its effects.
5. Rehabilitating Titans. With half its roster moving to the Justice League, Titans used Brightest Day to change its format, focusing on a team of Titans-oriented villains and antiheroes led by Deathstroke. It kept this format for over a year, from issues 24 through 38, but I doubt it would have continued much further along those lines. DC already had Secret Six, and I don’t think the market would have borne two villain-oriented DC series. Either Titans would have been cancelled, or it would have changed back to a superhero-team title. Earth-August had plenty of ex-Titans to populate the book’s roster.
6. Maintaining Teen Titans’ ties. As long as we’re talking about the original Teen Titans, it’s worth mentioning the bonds their fourth-gen successors formed. The last iteration of Earth-August’s Teen Titans were a tight-knit group centered around Tim Drake, Cassie Sandsmark, Kon-El, and Bart Allen, who had been together since the Young Justice days of the late ‘90s. I have the sense that their New 52 counterparts may be growing closer, but they’re not there yet. However, the fourth generation was starting to grow out of their teenage years, and as with their predecessors, might well have begun drifting apart. If the pre-relaunch Teen Titans didn’t address this, it might therefore have struggled to keep its cast from growing up too quickly.
7. What God hath joined together … Speaking of severing relational bonds, the New 52 marked the end of many DC marriages, including Clark Kent and Lois Lane, Barry and Iris West. In addition, Hawkman started the New 52 without a Hawkgirl, and there was no Wally West to marry Linda Park. Prior to the relaunch, Clark and Lois helped raise “Chris Kent” (f/k/a Lor-Zod), Wally and Linda had super-powered kids, and Barry and Iris were Bart’s grandparents. I don’t want to generalize about the appeal of superhero-parent storylines, just to note that the Earth-August comics were starting to go there.
8. Too many Flashes? Jay Garrick was The Fastest Man Alive from 1940 to 1951, Barry Allen held the title from 1956 to 1985, Wally West introduced himself thusly from 1985 to 2006 (and again from 2007-09), and Bart Allen appropriated the tagline for his own book’s subtitle from 2006 to 2007. By the early ‘90s, Wally’s speedster colleagues also included Max Mercury and Jesse Quick. When Barry returned for good in Final Crisis, Wally’s daughter Iris had joined the group of lightning riders as the new Impulse (as Bart had gone back to being Kid Flash). However, Wally took a backseat to Barry and ended up in limbo following the New 52 relaunch, which left only Barry and Bart (and Earth 2’s Jay) as the fastest folks alive. Absent the relaunch, it seems safe to say the Flash family would have stayed intact, but DC probably still would’ve been pressured to find a spotlight for Wally. Arguably, that’s better than two years of “where’s Wally?” questioning, but since Wally was still around, DC would have had to produce something.
9. Dead/Alive. Ted “Blue Beetle” Kord and Ralph and Sue Dibny were just a few of the deceased characters not brought back to life by the events of Brightest Day. Furthermore, that miniseries ended with Shayera “Hawkwoman” Thal turned into an Air Elemental, which (as I wrote at the time) left us once again with Angry Hawkman Is Angry. However, the New 52 relaunch lets DC reintroduce characters who were dead as of August 2011; namely Ted, who’s supposed to come back at the end of Forever Evil. No word yet on the Dibnys, or on Carter Hall’s significant other. While Shayera seemed set to return in a hypothetical Hawkman storyline, the Dibnys might well have stayed ghost detectives, and Ted was apparently dead for good. The New 52 can bring any of these back, although it may not do so right away.
10. Retiring the Justice Society. As with the fourth-gen Titans discussed above, the elder heroes of the Justice Society had to deal with growing older. For them, though, that was saying a lot. Super-energies like the Speed Force or the Green Flame of Life could explain Jay Garrick and Alan Scott’s youthful vigor, but they would still be tied to World War II as the rest of Earth-August went further into the 21st century. Since its late-‘90s relaunch as JSA, the Justice Society had been integrating younger members, from the third-gen heroes of Infinity Inc. to newer legacy characters like Jakeem Thunder and Cyclone. However, at some point the original JSAers would have had to retire, potentially leaving the team without a Flash or Green Lantern. (I suppose Jesse Quick and Jade would have moved over from the JLA, which would have allowed Wally and Kyle Rayner to rejoin the League, and maybe the ex-Titans would go back to the Titans book so their mentors could come back to JLA as well. We’ll probably never know …) In that respect, it may be for the best that the New 52 “reassigned” the Justice Society to its own parallel Earth, albeit one that’s not in the best shape right now.
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There’s probably more we could say about the state of DC’s superhero line in August 2011. It featured a decent lineup of series, a few of which used their August issues to offer glimpses into futures that would never come to pass. In light of those elegies, it’s easy to romanticize the old regime. Certainly I think the DCU as it existed from 1986 to 2011 had a lot going for it, particularly since the New 52 still hasn’t quite got its collective act together.
Regardless, Earth-August is probably gone for good. Although the New 52 may end up reintroducing many of its predecessor’s hallmarks (legacies, relationships, etc.), DC should recognize that toward the end, some seams were starting to show. Maybe that will inspire future creative teams to make a more durable universe.