I have now read 48 of DC Comics’ “New 52” launch titles and a bunch of the second issues: when I’ve finally slogged through the lot of them I’ll post some kind of belated quality scorecard maybe, but I don’t know if the quality of the books is the most interesting thing about them. (Unshocking summary: some are good, some are bad, some boast interesting ideas, some have an air of jaded competence, only one has – and this will live long in the memory – Rob Liefeld being asked to draw Barack Obama.)
I’ve read a couple of round-up pieces – the one in Grantland was very good, for instance, and took the reasonable line that this gigantic relaunch talks the “new readers” talk but doesn’t really walk the “new readers” walk, blaming self-delusion as much as cynicism. This is surely true but just as surely unsurprising: superhero comics are too far down the fan-service rabbit hole for dramatic change to be tried or accepted. We’re looking here at renovation rather than innovation and the relaunch should be judged as such. But even on those terms some interesting patterns emerge from the blur of fists, explosions, lycra and first-person narrative.
One obvious issue with launching 52 titles at once is that the slow accretion of detail over time is replaced by the introduction of a lot of simultaneous stuff: the entire architecture of a fictional universe thrown up overnight. The result is that you can tell a lot about the line’s collective priorities by seeing which parts get most detail.
So you have a glut of secret organisations and conspiracies, but more than that you have a universe where loving attention to detail has been paid to its corporate structure. After reading the New 52 you might or might not be able to guess where Qurac (good old Qurac) is on the map but you could have a fair stab at reconstructing the upper ranks of the DCU’s Fortune 500. Waynecorp features strongly, of course, but much of the character work in Green Arrow seems to revolve around the conflict between his role as a tech innovator at “Q-Core” (a sort of DCU Apple I guess) and his crime-busting night job. Mr Terrific has a multi-billion dollar company too, and a big chunk of Superman #1 pivots on a new corporate HQ and owners for the Daily Planet.
Even leaving the fully corporate superheroes out, our protagonists are often pretty one-percenty, gilded youth for sure – one former Robin has a spiffy penthouse apartment, which he casually blows up; another is a self-styled outlaw but one with plenty of time for beach parties. What’s mostly absent, it seems to me, are underprivileged heroes, characters having a rough time of it*: there’s a break, conscious or not, from the 50-year Marvel tradition of hard-luck heroes. Superheroing in the new DCU is something the rich, gorgeous and smart do. Of course it would be remiss not to mention Grant Morrison’s ‘socialist Superman’ in Action Comics, but that’s set a few years behind the main titles: by Superman #1 Clark Kent is having high-level strategic conversations over print v digital media with the best of ‘em.
There’s rightly been a lot of critical attention paid to how these 52 comics frame and use their female characters, but the portrayal of masculinity is just as interesting. This is a universe whose Peter Parkers won: a post-Zuckerberg DCU stuffed with sexy entrepreneur geniuses who put on costumes in their spare time. Everyone’s clever, everyone’s well-connected, almost everyone’s a scientist. There are a sprinkling of gritty, regular-joe types but even they aren’t immune to upward mobility: Corporal Rock (soon to be Sergeant) wants to stay grounded with the men but his story opens with a high-up accusing him of basically slumming it.
Maybe this all comes back to those new readers. I wonder if DC are responding to – or just buying into – the fantasy marketers have constructed around the “Millennial”: a generation of makers, agile and self-sufficient (there are an awful lot of self-conscious “look it is THE INTERNET” bits in these comics). Whether that’s the case or not, it’s a weirdly shiny world they’ve built, one that feels bright and modern but also a little adrift from the times.
*EDIT: One of the four books I hadn’t read was Firestorm, half of whom is an underprivileged-ish guy. He’s also a genius who’s been given a world changing
magic item science experiment and keeps it in his locker.
(This was originally posted on my Tumblr)