Well, the reboot is no longer impending; it kicked it at the start of September, and because I am a total goddamn fanboy dedicated to sharing my knowledge with my readers, I read all 52 first issues. While dubious, I did my best to approach the material with an open mind, to evaluate the comics and characters as new things in their own right, without comparing them (overly) to what had gone before. As I went through I wrote a very quick review of each and posted it to Twitter, and tried to make an overall judgement of the reboot based on this opening wave.
The verdict is... well, it's not very good. The New 52 consists of 10-12 good-but-not-very-good titles, 7-10 dogfuckingly-awful comics, and a whole bunch of bland, mediocre titles.
For the curious, here are all 52 of my Twitter reviews, grouped by week and hidden behind a cut for your reading convenience
- JUSTICE LEAGUE #1: Wasn't terrible, but wasn't great either. Just kind of... there. Not the most amazing way to kick off the new continuity.
- ACTION COMICS #1: Pretty damn good - a little light for Morrison, but a strong start. Morales' art was shaky in a lot of places, though.
- ANIMAL MAN #1: Smart, surprisingly low-key book that verges into pretty fucked-up shit by the end. Really liked it.
- BATGIRL #1: Alright, but not as good as I'd expected. The ending felt contrived and the art, while pretty, was too static.
- BATWING #1: Fairly interesting, well-illustrated, but a bit lacking in substance. And it treats Africa like one big country.
- DETECTIVE COMICS #1: Like the Platonic ideal of a shitty Batman comic. 22 pages of rimming Frank Miller and doing it wrong.
- GREEN ARROW #1: Apparently DC publishes Smallville fanfic now. Bland, boring and pointless, albeit with decent Jurgens art.
- HAWK & DOVE #1: I kinda hoped this would be entertaining in a terrible 90s throwback kind of way, but it's just dull, ugly crap.
- JLI #1: An adequate superteam origin comic (better than JL #1), but stilted and lightweight. Not terrible, but nothing special.
- MEN OF WAR #1: I don't like war comics much, but this was well done; strong art, good concept. Backup story was pants, though.
- OMAC #1: A good mix of Kirby ideas, Giffen absurdism and Didio... well, whatever. Not amazing, but a solid fun smash comic.
- STATIC SHOCK #1: Overly talky and a bit slight, but overall pretty good. And it had a Hardware cameo, which made me happy.
- STORMWATCH #1: Shockingly bad. Incoherent story, lumpen dialogue, poor art. I was looking forward to this, but it's awful.
- SWAMP THING #1: Good, moody super-horror comic, but a little too slow-paced. Also anchored in pre-reboot events, which is weird.
- BATMAN & ROBIN #1: Not bad. Strong art, decent characterisation, light story, but still anchored in old continuity.
- BATWOMAN #1: Glorious art, strong story and characterisation, but unabashedly set in the old DCU. This reboot is so haphazard.
- DEATHSTROKE #1: Good premise, reasonable writing, but too much tell-not-show and the script is forced. Forgettable overall.
- DEMON KNIGHTS #1: A lot of fun! A host of DC's historical characters doing a rollicking D&D riff, and with strong art as well.
- FRANKENSTEIN #1: Interesting cross between Morrison's character and Hellboy/BPRD. Fun stuff. Shame the art is weak.
- GREEN LANTERN #1: This is just the next issue of GL with the numbering changed. Apparently Geoff Johns doesn't need a reboot.
- GRIFTER #1: A pretty good comic for the most part, with a decent premise and strong art, but cliched and incoherent at the end.
- LEGION LOST #1: An incomprehensible barrage of pre-reboot characters and plotlines backed by leaden dialogue. Ugh.
- MR TERRIFIC #1: Good character concept and premise, but slow-paced and burdened with stodgy exposition. Potential here.
- RED LANTERNS #1: A turgid mess of blood, violence, monotonous captions and buttshots. Milligan can do so much better than this.
- RESURRECTION MAN #1: A bit rushed, and too reliant on some obvious horror clichés at this point, but not bad.
- SUICIDE SQUAD #1: That was pretty much one of the worst goddamn piece of shit comics I ever read in my entire fucking life.
- SUPERBOY #1: Moderately interesting premise and take on the character concept, and nice art, but ultimately kind of dull.
- BATMAN #1: Now that's how you write a good Batman comic. A little too talky, but otherwise top-notch. More like this, please.
- BIRDS OF PREY #1: A little light, but otherwise a pretty good read. Energetic, good art and Black Canary still kicks arse.
- BLUE BEETLE #1: A pointless reprise of the character's origin with less warmth and charm and more ethnic stereotypes. Meh.
- CAPTAIN ATOM #1: Lots of telling rather than showing, but a decent story and interesting art. An acceptable generic supers comic.
- CATWOMAN #1: She's a cat burglar! You see her bra a lot! She fucks Batman! 20 pages of fanservice and softcore porn. Christ.
- DCU PRESENTS #1: That was way better than I expected. Wordy but intelligent, not crammed with pointless violence, strong art.
- GLC #1: A standard DC Space Cops comic. They used to focus on wonder rather than violence and genocide, but that was long ago.
- LEGION OF SUPER HEROES #1: Better than LEGION LOST, but still completely opaque to new readers and set in the old continuity.
- NIGHTWING #1: Good story, art and characterisation, but too talky and too much tell-not-show. That said, one of the better reboot titles.
- RED HOOD & OUTLAWS #1: A story about how it's cool to shoot people and how women are basically pets you can fuck. Just horrid.
- SUPERGIRL #1: A quick read that's mostly just 20 pages of Supergirl punching robots, but despite that it's not bad. Potential.
- WONDER WOMAN #1: A bit choppy and confusing for a first issue, but an engaging start nonetheless, plus great Chiang art.
- ALL-STAR WESTERN #1: Overwritten, but still one of the more interesting Jonah Hex stories in ages. This could be worth following.
- AQUAMAN #1: Forced, unfunny humour and clumsy meta-commentary derail what would otherwise be a decent start to a new series.
- BATMAN DARK KNIGHT #1: Crap, but not as bad as DETECTIVE #1. I'm not sure I can damn it with any fainter praise than that.
- BLACKHAWKS #1: It's GI JOE in the DCU, with all that implies. Pretty slight, but fairly well put together for what it is.
- FLASH #1: Wonderful visual storytelling; the writing isn't quite as strong but has energy and some heart. A real winner.
- FIRESTORM #1: Starts pretty well but gets confused and scrambled by the end. Lots of potential, though, and I'd like to see more.
- I VAMPIRE #1: Remarkably good. Smart, atmospheric super-vampire story with good art and character development. Recommended.
- JL DARK #1: Get past the terrible title and there's a decent Vertigo supers story in the making. Milligan could make this work.
- NEW GUARDIANS #1: Muddled storytelling, too much backstory and a bunch of Rainbow Lanterns getting into fights. Yaaaaaaawn.
- SAVAGE HAWKMAN #1: Whether readers like or dislike Hawkman, they can all come together to agree that this comic was shithouse.
- SUPERMAN #1: Dig past the terrible costume and walls of text and you'll be rewarded with a mediocre Superman story. Yay.
- TEEN TITANS #1: A bland by-the-numbers reworking of the teen-heroes-assemble story saved only by Tim Drake being pretty cool.
- VOODOO #1: Fuck you, DC. Fuck you and your pandering attempts to get fratboy dollars by publishing this exploitative drivel.
You can see that my optimism started strong in the first week, which had a number of good issues and only one completely shithouse one. That pretty much was the best things got. By the end of week four I'd pretty much written off the reboot and I'm coming close to writing off DC Comics completely - which, as someone whose ethics and personality were fundamentally shaped by reading DC titles for 30 years, is kind of a big deal.
So here are the major issues I have with the reboot - which, of course, I'm sure you're all anxious to know.
More of the same, except less of it
The superhero genre is one filled with scope and grandeur - 'mad, beautiful ideas' to quote Grant Morrison - and much of that has come from the legacy of 75 years of DC titles. Intelligent planets, gorilla cities, invading universes, time travel - nothing has been too crazy for DC in the past, and while various reboots and launches have sought to focus and control the fringes of things, the DCU has always been a place to see what the genre was capable of containing.
These new titles, on the other hand, largely ignore the range of possibilities inherent in the genre to produce generic action-adventure stories that are rooted in the aesthetics and storytelling conventions of the 1990s. They're full of government conspiracies and secret organisations, dudes in battle-armour and evil corporations, serial killers and special operatives and a whole bunch of other things that we've seen before, especially in a swathe of Wildstorm titles. There's no ambition or experimentation here; even the best of the titles are fun and pretty good, but provide nothing new. There's nothing like the warmth of John Rogers' Blue Beetle, the subversive humour of Gail Simone's Secret Six or the energetic idea bombs of Grant Morrison's... well, pretty much every DCU thing he's done.
We've lost all of that, and gained a bunch of generic superhero comics. Yay.
Left hand and right hand are mortal enemies
It becomes clear after reading all 52 titles that this whole reboot enterprise has been very haphazard at an editorial level. There are contradictions between titles, concepts that don't line up properly with each other, a general lack of polish and oversight across the board... it all adds up to a decision made at the last minute and then foisted upon writers who haven't had the time to properly develop their new projects. It's an editor's role to work with authors and further polish those ideas while tuning them to fit into the continuity, but while editors are listed on the titles I'll be fucked if I can work out what they're doing.
One major indicator of this is how different titles show different levels of rebooting and how well they function as first issues. Some are complete restarts, such as Blue Beetle, where a five-year-old character gets a complete revision of his origin for reasons unknown. Others are supposed to be reboots, but are stuck in old continuity despite it not making sense - see Batwoman, which is a straight continuation of pre-reboot events and references a Teen Titans era that no longer exists, or the Swamp Thing title that is anchored in the events of (sigh) Brightest Day. Or, of course, the utterly opaque Legion and Legion Lost, which dump a pile of pre-reboot characters and plotlines down and say 'time travel!' as the excuse for none of it making sense. Meanwhile the titles that were selling well pre-reboot, such as the Green Lantern and Batman lines, are left almost entirely unchanged, whether or not there's any story-based rationale to such blatantly-commercial logic.
The thing that shines out to me about this reboot is how the ultimate goal is not to create good comics, but to position DC as an IP farm to develop concepts for movies and TV shows. Everyone loves superhero movies right now, and one of the key ways they work is to strip ideas and characters from the comics back to basics and set them in a more 'realistic' context. Well, no need for Warner scriptwriters to worry about that now, as the reboot does it for them. Almost all characters have been filed back to the simplest reading, without the quagmires of shared continuity to muddle things up, and awkward individualities are sponged away to leave a more accessible stereotype. (For example, it's cool to see Frankenstein in the mix, but the Byronic bombast of the character's dialogue and backstory has been dropped to make him into a standard monster-fighting monster ala Hellboy). Supporting casts come pre-fleshed out, along with equally self-contained enemies and plotlines to draw upon. One interesting side-effect of this is the multiplication of entities in the setting as a whole - the drive to give every character an independent backdrop has created a DCU overflowing with unconnected government think tanks, secret societies and specialist corporations, each providing their pet hero with a secret headquarters (that will look good in CGI or Happy Meal form), none of which interact. Man, it must be great to be the guy building all these places, although I pity the poor architects who have to design every top-secret base from scratch.
The drive to create movie-friendly characters is also, I think, the reason for the new costume designs. Every character now wears form-fitting armour that shows their impossible muscle definition while still being covered in enough seams and joins to look 'realistic' - or, more precisely, look more-or-less the same when recreated by real-world costume designers. Some of the new designs look alright, to be honest, but most are generic and draw upon the same limited set of aesthetics, eschewing the variety and impracticality of old costumes that made them fun, no matter how much non-fans sniggered about underpants being worn on the outside. Maybe they did need an overhaul, but I'm unconvinced that Superman needs body armour and metal ski-boots. Or a permanent scowl. But I guess this is better suited to Zack Synder's next blockbuster.
Writing down to the audience
One thing that really bothered me about the New 52 is how shakily-written most of the new titles are. I don't just mean the plots are thin (although many are), but how unpolished so many are in terms of craft and story-telling. There's this massive reliance on text, which overlooks the key point of comics in that pictures tell most of the story. Most titles are thick with first-person captions (some from multiple narrators) and expository dialogue, and a few (such as Superman) have massive walls of text that would be a chore to read even if they were well-written, which they're not. Most artists are competent, but there's a remarkable gap in visual storytelling nonetheless so that few stories flow or underpin the narrative. (An exception being Francis Manapaul's excellent Flash.) There's also a constant barrage of tell-not-show writing, with plot and character points spelled out and hamfistedly pummeled home rather than being explored through action and interaction. (See Deathstroke and Aquaman, both of which revolve around people standing around and talking about the title characters rather than actually letting them do their thing.)
It's tempting to blame this on DC employing poor writers, and there's some truth in that - many of the more creative and craft-focused writers in the industry are happily ensconced with Marvel right now, leaving DC with the likes of Adam Glass and JT Krul. But I think there's another element - it feels like the writers lack faith in their audience. They don't trust the readers to understand the flow of comics or connect plot to art, so they spell things out in detail and tell you everything you need to know (and a pile of shit you don't need as well.) Sure, the aim of the reboot was to attract new readers that perhaps aren't as familiar with the medium, but it's not rocket surgery to understand how words and pictures go together and to see the story happen - and if you're struggling with that, a pile of unnecessary verbiage isn't going to help, it's just going to confuse you. Or make you patronised when you realise that the writer thinks you need training wheels and the most linear storytelling possible.
(As for the promise that writers would move away from decompressed storytelling aimed at making things fit comfortably in trades... yeah, not so much. Nearly every comic is stretched and padded out, to the point where something as bland and wooden as JLI nonetheless feels more interesting than the more polished Justice League simply because things actually happen in it.)
Genocide is painless
At some point someone in DC (probably Geoff Johns) decided that the best way to emphasise DRAMA! was through massive body counts and graphic violence. For the last 6-7 years, DC titles have used bloody violence as shorthand for this ain't your father's comic books, with on-screen decapitations, dismemberments and mass murder demonstrating that superhero comics are Serious Business. And that's worked, assuming 'serious' actually means 'grim, joyless and unpleasant'.
Well, any hope that that would be pulled back for the reboot in an attempt to reach a new audience can now be abandoned. Just as before, the new DCU is a place where hundreds of civilians die as background colour, where antiheroes gun down defenceless rivals, faces are sliced from skulls, characters are graphically tortured and you can tell the evil alien mastermind is evil because he commits planetary genocide after hacking the heads and limbs off some minor heroes. Of course, the ultimate effect is to make the heroes look ineffectual and weak by comparison, or to justify them becoming hardened, unpleasant testosterone factories that hack limbs as good as they get. Sometimes that can work (Wonder Woman is violent but the violence has a mythic quality that validates it), but mostly it just makes the comics bleak and entirely unsuitable for the kind of young audience that once devoured these stories by the millions.
Scary vagina mutants
Ah jeez. Here's the big one. There's a really disturbing vein of sexism, bordering into outright misogyny, running through many of the titles in the launch. Never the most gender-balanced genre, superhero comics have had their issues with the representation and often sexualization of female characters in the past. Still, on the whole things had improved a lot thanks to an increase in female creators and readership and the popularity of strong female characters amongst the influential cosplay community. Which is why this sudden swing into Creepytown comes as such a shock, even as DC puts out more comics featuring female leads than ever before.
A lot of this has been picked up across the internerd, so you may already know about it, but there are three big offenders:
- Catwoman, where the nuanced and complex reinvention of the character performed by Ed Brubaker ten years ago has been jettisoned in favour of a comic about sex. Catwoman thinks about sex, talks about sex, dresses to emphasize sex, uses sex and sexuality to get what she wants, is depicted visually as a sexual entity rather than a character (plenty of scenes where you can see her underwear but not her face), and when Batman finally shows up she straddles and fucks him without even speaking.
- Red Hood and the Outlaws, where the character of Starfire - who was always depicted as sexual and beautiful but was driven by strong emotional connections to her partners - is now a largely-emotionless child-woman who can't tell humans apart and has sex with anyone that catches her attention. She wears next to nothing - Red Sonja would tell her to put something sensible on - and is constantly posed to present herself to the reader as a lust object rather than an actual character.
- Voodoo, which is a comic about a stripper, or at least a shapechanging alien killing machine disguised as an impossibly attractive stripper. The issue opens with a full-page shot of her on all fours, cleavage thrust out to the reader, as men throw money at her; the rest of the comic is set entirely within a strip club, with images of strippers and half-naked women everywhere (although we're assured they're all students and single mothers), culminating in a long conversation between Voodoo and a secret government agent that takes places while she gives him a lap dance WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK DC.
Nothing else is as bad in the rest of the lineup, but there's still plenty of unnecessary cheesecake, homogenisation of female characters into generically attractive/available figures and women presented butt-first to the reader, sometimes butt-and-breasts first because 'sexy' is more important than 'anatomicaly correct'. Even some of the really strong comics featuring female characters, like Batwoman and Wonder Woman, have occasional this-one's-for-you-boys moments.
There isn't anything wrong with female characters having sex, or male characters for that matter - Secret Six featured plenty of it, both healthy and entirely fucked-up - but the issue is about how these women are depicted as sex objects presented for the male gaze, rather than characters in their own right. It's hard to look at these three comics and see agency or healthy attitudes, or indeed anything that says that DC wants to attract or retain female readers.
Not all bad
The biggest tragedy of the reboot is the fact that there are actually some really fun comics in there, but it's harder than it should be to find them under the wave of mediocrity and blips of pure shittiness. The reinvention of Superman as socialist crusader in Action Comics, the lean technothriller of Batman, the quiet humanism of Animal Man, the exuberant Kirbyisms of OMAC... these are excellent comics and well worth reading. Ditto Flash, Frankenstein, Swamp Thing, Demon Knights, Birds of Prey, Wonder Woman, Batwoman and I Vampire. And look, some of the others have potential - there are neat premises and character elements, and while some of the starts are shaky they could eventually develop into an interesting title given a little time to grow.
It's just that the really awful comics drag everything down, and the thoroughly mediocre titles - the ones that aren't even interesting enough to be bad - make up the bulk of the line. And it's going to be hard to feel or share the enthusiasm for Action or Frankenstein when the conversation gets drowned out by outrage over decapitations and softcore porn.
Comics are saved - but for how long?
I've been pretty damn negative about the relaunch's creative failures, but that hasn't stopped it being a massive commercial success. Sales on these titles have been outstanding, far higher than anything DC (or indeed Marvel) have sold in years. And even the controversies have mostly served to get attention and win sales, or at least more sales than they've lost.
For the moment, anyway. The real question is whether people keep buying and reading, or whether the new readers this project is meant to attract stick with the comics or get bored and go back to something else. Time will tell, and to an extent I hope it works well for DC and the industry. Kinda. I guess.
But we've got a line of comics that have dumped the imagination and variety they used to possess to focus on angry protagonists shooting and hacking their opponents, scowling as they deign to save weakling civilians from threats, or sticking their breasts up against the page with the promise of a fully-illustrated tittyfuck.
Who's the audience for this? It doesn't seem to be me, or most people I speak to, or indeed anyone with a vagina. No, it's those cherished males 18-35, and more specifically I think maybe it's those guys who call each other Mexican Jew fags on teamspeak while teabagging their opponents in Call of Duty. In short, it's this guy:
He thought Red Hood and the Outlaws was pretty cool, but it needed more blood and funbags.
And maybe it's a good decision to target the angryshooty video game market for readers. They have money, they like spending it, and they go to movies based on their favourite intellectual property. You can build a company on that.
But it may not be a company I have any interest in supporting any more.
And that makes me sadder than I can say.