After months and months of build up, the New 52 have arrived: DC Comics' company-wide relaunch officially kicked off last week as the comic book publisher released its first batch of titles, thirteen new number ones in total. While there has been a lot of buzz surrounding the relaunch, one of the biggest talking points from DC is that all of their 52 titles are new reader friendly.
Over and over, DC and its creative teams have emphasized that these new comic book series are designed with new readers in mind; that they are meant to draw in new readers and that those picking up DC comics for the first time will not need any prior knowledge of continuity in order to enjoy the stories.
So CBR is putting this claim to the test.
We gave one of the thirteen books released this week to thirteen new readers and asked for their reactions. Those participating are all people who do not read comic books, do not read DC comics, and have no idea what comic book continuity is. We then asked them to let us know if the books they read were actually new reader friendly based off three criteria: Did they have a clear grasp of who the main character was? Were they able to understand the story, or did they need prior knowledge in order to enjoy their issue? And are they interested enough in the comic to drop money on issue number two?
Let's find out.
THE BAT BOOKS
"Why is Batman in Africa?" was the first thing "Batwing" reader Aly wanted to know. As she had never read "Batman Incorporated," she had no idea why David Zamvimbi was assuming the Batwing mantle or how Batman was involved, two pretty crucial details for getting into the series. "I can assume that he is fighting the drug war," she added before saying that she was put off by her lack of background information.
On the other hand, new reader Kurt absolutely loved "Detective Comics" and insisted he was not confused by anything in the story. "Some of the love interest stuff, I didn't know the specifics, but I figure that'll come out later (like the first act of a movie)," he told me after putting down the issue. Kurt had to admit, however, that even as a non-comics reader he basically knew who Batman was and thought other new readers would embrace the book as, "Batman is so innately known in society."
Surprisingly, the new reader for "Batgirl," the first issue of which heavily references "The Killing Joke," said she pretty much understood what was going on in the comic despite being completely unfamiliar with the Alan Moore/Brian Bolland story. "There weren't a lot of huge details to miss as the story of this issue was very human and driven by the main character's growth as a superhero. I am curious about the answers to the questions they opened up in this issue, but don't feel like I missed anything story-wise," she told me.
Would they buy issue two? Only "Detective Comics" made the cut with these new readers.
The Edge books marked an important point in this survey, as it was the first time someone threatened my life if I made them read another issue.
"'Stormwatch' seriously sucks," Frances, our "Stormwatch" reader and life-threatener bluntly told me, while my other new readers more diplomatically declined to ever read another issue of the comics I gave them. Continuing on the "Stormwatch" vein, Frances stated, "I get this Illuminati-type superhero gang runs a bunch of missions and this one blonde dude is supposed to save the world." That's pretty much where her understanding of the plot and characters ended. Saying that she definitely felt she needed prior knowledge of who the Stormwatch characters were in order to understand the story, Frances was also at sea when it came to who had what powers. "I don't, for instance, know what 'mastering 21st century physics' means. It sounds like a class at school. Aren't the laws of physics the same all the time, anyway?" she asked.
"O.M.A.C." reader JoJo is one of the participants who has never picked up a comic before and actually runs a blog where she draws pictures of superheroes based entirely off her cultural awareness. This is how I know she believes that Booster Gold is an anthropomorphic talking beer can, so she pretty firmly falls into the category of someone with zero knowledge of the DCU. According to JoJo she knew who the main character was primarily because, "His name is the biggest on the cover." Describing Kevin Kho as "half-man, half-computer with a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde complex who helps a computer lady hack into the system of a secret underground lab-thing," JoJo said she had no idea who were the good guys and who were the bad guys, adding, "I'm guessing I should be rooting for Kevin, but he was hardly in the story at this point."
On the other hand, "Men Of War" was one of the few titles my new reader said he completely understood, he just hated it. "Yes, it's quite clear the main character is Corporal Rock, though not much about the upcoming story is revealed," new reader Lee told me after finishing the issue before adding it was, "Bad." Current politics put him off reading further issues as, "the dubious nature of military involvement in the Middle East makes me particularly cautious of stories that take place in this setting, especially when the moral stance of the main character isn't fleshed out," Lee said.
Would they buy issue two? Not only would they not buy a second issue, they made me apologize for making them read the first ones. So far, this survey is going great.
Reviewers and current comic book fans have lauded "Animal Man" and "Swamp Thing", but the new reader reaction to the first of the DC Dark books was decidedly negative.
"I got that the main character was Dr. Holland, who had made some kind of chemical compound that would restore plant life, but something went wrong with it, and that is where I got confused," Rosie, our "Swamp Thing" reader, told me. She then accused me of giving her the comic only because it had scientists in it (Rosie is a Ph.D. candidate studying ecology at University of California-Davis, and yes, she is correct). When it came to the plot, Rosie said she was taken out of the story. "I was not very clear on how/why he had 'died,' and I was confused as to whether he was the Swamp Thing or just had its memories, somehow, or where the memories came from, or why he was working in a construction site."
"Animal Man's" new reader, Liz, had a similarly hard time understanding The Red and how Animal Man's powers worked. "It seemed like his 'connection' with animals had been established in his history, but as a new reader, I didn't understand it," she explained to me. This misunderstanding of the Red is also why she didn't pick up on the fact that Buddy is using the hide of a rhino in his fight at the hospital as she then told me, "I was unclear as to why having the mind of a rhino was necessary in a gun fight."
Would they buy issue two? This was a resounding "No." However, I did not have to profusely apologize to anyone, so I came out ahead this round.
THE OTHER SUPERHEROES
New reader reactions were mixed on the remainder of the DC books. "Action Comics" reader Erial was enthusiastically positive about the series, though she admitted this was because it is impossible to grow up in America totally ignorant of who and what Superman is.
"Superman's story is basically modern mythology these days. Everyone knows at least he's fast, can fly (or for now, jump really high) and is almost indestructible, so with that base layer, you can dive in pretty easily," Erial told me. She then began calling Clark Kent a "homeless-hipster," which I am fairly sure was not Grant Morrison's original intent, but is now my favorite way to think of the character.
"I have a ten-year-old nephew, and this new hipster Superman and homeless-hipster Clark Kent seems like a good start for him," Erial added.
When it came to "Static Shock," new reader Jonathan said he essentially understood the story. He then told me, "I don't know how the main character got acquainted with the artificial intelligence gentleman," which, in my opinion, is a pretty amazing way to describe Hardware.
An ex-New Yorker Jonathan insisted he was most confused by why Virgil would want to drive in NYC, though once we were able to get past Manhattan traffic he admitted he did not have a clear grasp on who Virgil or his enemies were. "Why is a giant, talking piranha a part of the criminal organization? Why would anyone trust a piranha?" Jonathan demanded to know. He also became frustrated that the comic did not address Virgil's origin. "I guess I don't care for it because I don't know what he's fighting for," he concluded.
When I asked new reader Gavin if he understood who the main characters were in "Hawk And Dove," he responded, "If you mean the new Dove was in a relationship with the old Dove and the old Dove died and Hawk has a serious issue with women, then yes." That's a pretty decent summation of Hawk and Dove, so at least we know that this issue actually does explain everything you need to know about the duo. Gavin is one of the only new readers who was actively confused by the artwork, however. "Are they all Asian, or is that just how they're drawn?" he wanted to know, adding, "Which is fine, but I can't tell."
"Justice League International" new reader Mike said that he thought other new readers would "benefit more if they had a working knowledge of the original JL and some of those DC characters." Not knowing what the Hall Of Justice was also put Mike at a disadvantage as it meant, "I didn't quite understand the protesters in the comic."
"Green Arrow" new reader Allen also felt that he needed background information in order to enjoy the comic. "It doesn't say why Oliver Queen is not the CEO of Queen Industries and what his actual company does. I'm also not sure why he is the Green Arrow," Allen said after reading his issue.
In fact, Allen, along with nearly all of the new readers, told me they wished these first issues retold the heroes' origins as they felt they were missing a good chunk of the story. "I think this is what most people are looking for if they are picking up a comic for the first time; if you are starting at the beginning, start at the beginning. The story in itself was easy to follow, you just needed some background info to fully understand the characters," said Allen. "It didn't feel like first issue -- I still needed a good amount of background on Green Arrow."
Would they buy issue two? Despite some confusion over the details, we got a yes for "Green Arrow" and "Justice League International," and, of course, Hipster Superman.
Overall, there were only two titles the new readers both understood and said they would voluntarily buy the second issue of: "Detective Comics," and "Action Comics." Interestingly enough, as Kurt and Erial pointed out, the only two books they were interested in reading were about the two characters everyone already basically knows: Batman and Superman.
However, to a certain extent the appeal of comic books is the complexity of the shared universes, and there are always those readers who are drawn to comics because of -- or despite -- the complicated continuity. Even if comics are confusing, they should still be compelling enough that a new reader wants to keep reading in order to correct their confusion. With this in mind, there were only two titles readers said they would actually spend their own money on despite their lack of prior knowledge: "Green Arrow" and "Justice League International."
While only four definite sales out of thirteen books sounds discouraging, keep in mind that this does not include readers returning to the DCU and comics in general after drifting away over the last however many years -- these are readers DC will potentially gain and is obviously part of what DC is banking on with their new reader marketing push.
No matter how encouraging or discouraging it sounds, we have to remember this is just week one of the relaunch; the true litmus test will be how new readers respond to the next three weeks as well. DC might end up with forty titles interesting brand new readers or they might end up with four -- all we can do is wait and see whether DC ultimately succeeds in their new reader push or whether, to borrow reader Liz's misunderstanding, they have tragically brought "a rhino brain to a gun fight."