In my previous post I talked about the idea of conceptual space and how fictional works that bend or defy genre classification can reveal new and interesting creative dimensions. I wanted to continue on with that line of thought a bit and discuss how it relates to my problems with the New-52 era at DC Comics.
If you’ve been listening to the podcast, I think we’ve been very clear about many of our issues with DC. There are any number of criticisms that can be leveled against DC, from their ongoing problems with the depiction of female characters, to the general undercutting of creators, to the way in which they’ve actively sought to undermine (or outright eliminate) any sort of character growth that has occurred in the DC Universe over the past 30 years. These are all issues we’ve touched on that I consider problematic. But I also feel that they are all symptoms—or at least byproducts—of a greater and more pernicious problem: DC is intentionally trying to strangle the life out of the DCU.
The superhero genre has—somewhat uniquely—been in a constant state of change and evolution as many different comic books of different genres and tones have slowly been brought together, creating a sort of hybrid genre combining elements of science fiction, fantasy, and pulp adventure. Specifically, it is the shared narrative and the collaborative nature of both the DC and Marvel universes that I feel injects so much life into them. Writers and artists come and go but the characters remain, always changing, always being reimagined to fit the current era.
We complain about the bombastic “X will change the status quo FOREVER!!! (until the next issue)” that is at times so prevalent, but hyperbole aside I actually think the constant reinterpretation and reinvention of characters like Superman and Captain America is a good thing. They are—more than characters that belong to a particular author and go away when he or she is done with them—alive. They continually change and grow to fit the needs of the present moment. If Superman were to become static, if he could only ever be the character he was in say, 1955—fighting Pat Boone and marrying his friends off to gorillas—no one would be much interested in reading about him, nor would they gain anything meaningful from doing so.
The fact that Superman can say “I used to be about fighting for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, but that’s not the world we live in anymore and I have to be about more than that now,” is what gives him power as icon. Superheroes are meaningful to us because they reflect the spirit of the times. It is exactly that power to change and evolve, however, that DC seems most interested in quashing in the New-52—and, in fact, I would venture was the entire point of this most recent reboot.
I came to this conclusion based primarily on two things. The first came from the reading I’ve done for Episode 50 of View from the Gutters, in which we discuss both Crisis on Infinite Earths and Infinite Crisis. Looking back at Crisis on Infinite Earths, it was sort of a first, fumbling attempt to make order out of 50 years of haphazardly assembled continuity. As much as that smashed together Silver Age multiverse made for strange and interesting stories, it was still very much a kludged together patchwork. The Crisis took the quilt of DC universes and tried to adapt them into a single cohesive whole. It was in many ways a clearing away of dead wood to make room for new life, and new stories.
In the years after, DC did two additional (and smaller) controlled burns of their universe, first in Zero Hour eight years later and then again in Infinite Crisis about twelve years after that. In each case they were building upon and refining what had already be done, eliminating things which didn’t make sense and instituting additional small adjustments.
However, in the Flashpoint revision which created the New 52 universe—this one happening only four years after Infinite Crisis—they didn’t particularly eliminate anything in terms of continuity. Certain characters were excised, to be replaced with older versions. Others received cosmetic changes, but nothing in terms of story. Layers of pointless complexity and (particularly with Batman) a nonsensically abbreviated timeline were introduced. Only Wonder Woman seems to have received any major changes to her backstory, but little—if anything—was actually removed. Most importantly, it returned two prominent Silver Age characters—Barry Allen and Barbara Gordon—to their original roles, erasing their modern day counterparts from existence.
Two years after Flashpoint, I can’t point to a single story or character development that couldn’t have happened without the reboot, with the possible exception of the inclusion of the characters from Wildstorm (previously its own alternate reality) into the main universe. However, even in that instance instead of adding to or altering the DC Universe to incorporate these new characters and stories they have sanded off everything that made Wildstorm interesting or different in order to fit it into the pre-existing mold of the DCU.
The second thing which led to my conclusion is the Nielsen market survey commissioned by DC to gauge the success of their relaunch. The survey revealed a number of interesting points, such as the fact that while the comics audience as a whole is roughly 45% female, DC’s audience is 7% female. It also showed that the audience which was most engaged by the New-52 was white males, particularly in their 30s and 40s, and specifically current and former comics readers.
Which is to say that DC is appealing specifically to the traditional comic fan—strictly speaking a minority of all comics readers, but the largest minority—at the expense of everyone else. The apparent contempt for—and willingness to alienate—every other type of comic reader demonstrated in the past two years is simply a side-effect of that marketing strategy.
This explains why they’ve jettisoned most of their B and C-list books (titles which in other times would have gotten by with a small but dedicated readership) in favor of—by my count at the time of this writing—7 Superman titles, 4 Green Lantern titles, and 15 Batman titles (all including related characters, e.g. Batwoman is included as a Batman book). Collectively these three umbrellas account for half of the (roughly) 52 ongoing titles that DC releases each month.
From a marketing perspective I can see the appeal of the “house style above all else” form of editorial control. It promises the consumer the ability to pick up literally any DC book and know more or else exactly what sort of comic they’re going to get. From a creative perspective, however, it feels like going to an innovative and trend-setting restaurant and discovering that they suddenly only have spam on the menu. Spam burgers, spam salads, spam milkshakes… fifty-two dishes, all of them spam.
And there-in lies the crux of my problem: DC has devoted itself utterly to the cause of capturing a very specific type of reader by offering them a product perfectly tailored to suit them and only them, and nothing else but that.
Whether it be the senior editors, their corporate overlords at WB, or both, DC seems to be pursuing a marketing strategy predicated on the idea that they can be successful not by appealing to the most people, but by dominating the largest single segment of the comics audience. In service of that goal they have re-engineered their universe specifically for that one particular type of reader. They have essentially put a wall up around the DC Universe, and are now engaging in a process of purging, one-by-one, every element which does not conform to that one true editorial vision.
While I recognize that enforcing a single iconic vision of both each individual character and the universe as a whole might be good corporate property management, and it might net them a boost in sales in the short term, this sort of creative monoculture—like all monocultures—is incredibly unhealthy not just for the superhero comic as an artform but for the comic book marketplace as a whole (DC by itself representing roughly one third of the total comics market).
What we think of as “supers”, as a genre, has been interesting to me because of the nature of the collaborative narrative. Creative teams come and go from books, characters cross over with each other, and over time series with wildly different premises and operating principles end up in an odd—and always evolving—shared reality.
Wizards, aliens, cyborgs, vigilantes, and magical princesses all somehow coexist in the same story together. Characters that were born in one reality end up in another, sharing their narrative niche with similar characters, and end up slowly taking on new roles and adapting to an ever changing landscape of heroes and villains.
To dictate that a given character or story piece is now and will only ever be THIS ONE CERTAIN WAY transforms the DCU from a living, growing place into a dead one. The fact that they jettisoned interesting characters like Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown raises my hackles, yes. But it is the fact that they took Barbara Gordon out of her role as Oracle and stuffed her back into a Batgirl outfit she outgrew more than 20 years (and half her published existence) ago that truly steps over the line for me. It tacitly asserts that Babs is the one and only True Batgirl and she will never grow or move beyond that role. No one else will ever be Batgirl because we’ll never need a new Batgirl.
The obliviation of Wally West from continuity, while frustrating, pales in comparison the fact that—under current editorial mandate—the new Kid Flash, Bart Allen, will never have the chance to do what Wally did in the Post-Crisis world: grow up. Move out from under his mentor’s shadow and truly become his own person.
These characters are now back to what they were (and forevermore must be) because to do otherwise would be “different.” Setting aside everything else that DC has done in the last two years as just noise surrounding a company in the midst of a head-to-toe shakedown as it redefines itself in the wake of a continuity-wide reboot, a DCU that defines itself in the way that this one has implicitly rejects the possibility that anything new could be better than the status quo.
This process is, I feel, nowhere more obvious than in the title Justice League 3000. For decades the 31st Century has been the home of the Legion of Superheroes. A pantheon of characters inspired by the heroes of the past, each with a unique power. Now, however, that future has been replaced with… wait for it… clones of the Justice League of today. A thousand years from now, there will still be a Justice League, and they will still be the same fucking schmucks as today, copy and pasted into the future.
It is saying, “It’s okay, white men. You are safe. Your privilege is safe. You don’t have to worry about the future because it will be exactly like today. The world will now and always be protected by a team of white guys with superpowers (and that one girl, who is the leader’s girlfriend). Nothing ever has to change. Nobody ever has to grow up.”
It makes DC a fossil. An image cast in stone of a once living thing which is now dead. I shudder to say this about a company that has Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman on their payroll, but to me the New-52 represents the death of imagination in favor of conformity. A place where everything is exactly the way it was, forever.
In last week’s post I called Elfquest out as an example of something weird, different, and undefinable which—by virtue of those elements—expands our vision of what is possible. Post-Flashpoint DC does the opposite. It seeks to be the same as itself, to retreat from all things strange or unknown and retread only the ground that it knows well. All else aside—and believe me, there is a lot included under the umbrella of “all else” to be critical of—a DC Universe which is closed to change or evolution has nothing to offer me.
DC has signaled that both Wally West and Stephanie Brown will return in some fashion later this year, so I remain hopeful that in time things will change, and we will return—if not to the pre-Flashpoint continuity per se—then at least to a status quo that once again allows for the characters to grow and chance. But in the meantime I can only sigh wistfully as I stroll past the DC shelf in my local comic shop.