It's week three of CBR's ongoing New 52 Litmus Test, where we ask brand new comic book readers to weigh in on whether DC Comics' number one issues are actually as new reader friendly as the publisher claims.
As with Week One and Week Two, reader ages range from 20 to 30 and are roughly split between male and female readers, for the first time skewing slightly more female. This week's thirteen readers are comprised of people who have never read a single comic book in their life, some comic fans who have never picked up a DC comic and two returning readers from previous Litmus Tests who are giving DC another shot at their money. In addition, we also have some lapsed readers picking DC books up for the first time in years, giving their two cents on whether the new reader initiative will bring them back to the fold.
Last week was an exciting one for established comic book fans, with the release of much anticipated and hotly debated titles like "Wonder Woman," "Birds Of Prey" and "Catwoman." But while comic book fandom was buzzing, what did our new readers make of the titles? Did anyone begin doubting their own intelligence as in previous weeks with "Legion Lost?" Did anyone threaten to kill me, your humble survey-taker, as they did over "Stormwatch?" Did anyone decide to buy a pet cat as they did after reading "Red Lanterns?"
There's only one way to find out.
THE BAT BOOKS
Prefacing that all his answers should be read in Christian Bale's voice, brand new comic book reader Pat summed up his reaction to "Batman" in three words:
"HE. IS. BATMAN."
As we've seen several times already during our experiment, the title new readers understood best was the one they had the most cultural exposure to -- Batman. "Because he is so famous and established in pop culture, I felt nothing was needed [in terms of back story]," Pat told me. Brand new comic book reader Sarah agreed, adding, "I imagine [DC] treats 'Batman' with extra care to make it accessible since it is one of DC's most popular heroes."
Citing the reoccurring "Gotham is" mantra as a clever way to introduce readers to the Batman universe, first time comics reader Heather also said the issue clearly illustrated who all the ex-Robins were -- or, as she called them, the "Batman trainees."
Though I expected new readers to know who Bruce Wayne was, I was surprised to learn that without ever picking up a "Batman" comic all of them also knew who Nightwing was due to movie and media coverage. New reader Heather said she would probably recommend fans of the 1997 "Batman And Robin" movie to give the comic a try, explaining "It left you very curious about why someone would hire a killer to kill Dick Grayson, not Nightwing."
The culture zeitgeist has not extended to Jason Todd, however. "Who are these people and why are they together?" Pat demanded to know after reading "Red Hood And The Outlaws." Confused by the story to various degrees, not a single one of the readers could tell me what happened in the book or who Jason, Roy and Kory were. "Why are any of them doing any of this to begin with? Reward? Loyalty? This had zero background established," Pat complained.
Indeed, the comic only succeeded at making all three instant Starfire-haters. "I was kind of overwhelmed by my annoyance that this issue spent most of its time on a really hot alien who enjoys having meaningless sex. I mean, who wears only purple tape over their nipples when they're fighting an army? It was so absurd and male-oriented that it overwhelmed what could have been a good story," Heather said.
"Dear Jesus, God, no," added Pat.
Would they buy issue two? This was a unanimous yes to "Nightwing," a unanimous "Dear Jesus god no" to "Red Hood," and a yes from only Sarah and Heather on "Batman."
THE WOMEN OF GOTHAM
Breaking up this week's Bat books into two gender-specific chunks, when it came to "Catwoman" new reader Karen and lapsed reader Justin were both able to identify the title's main character: Selina Kyle's boobs.
"The very first panel has all the information I need [in order] to see who this comic is aimed at. It's a close-up of Catwoman's breasts," reader Justin said, adding sarcastically, "So I assume this is aimed at mammogram technicians, which is weird because it seems like they would be better off putting something in for teen boys."
Actively put off by the artwork, first time comic reader Karen echoed Justin's disdain for the cheesecake shots of Selina, saying, "As a matter of personal taste, I don't love the overly sexualized images of bras, impossible body proportions, etc."
Issues with the art aside, both understood what was going on in the comic and said the issue explained everything it needed to in terms of new readers, though Karen was not sure what she was supposed to take away from the sepia flashbacks of Selina's past. "I see two girls there and assume one is Catwoman, but it's hard to tell by the eyes."
Though they could basically follow "Catwoman," Karen and Justin were quick to assure me that "Birds Of Prey" was an incomprehensible mess. "With so much jumping around in time in such a short space, and I think even from different perspectives, it was not at all easy to get a grasp on who was who," Karen explained.
Justin echoed her concern, saying "I have no idea what a typical mission/adventure/issue/whatever would look like, because this episode just consists of them being attacked."
As well, since neither had ever read "Birds Of Prey" they did not know Barbara Gordon used to be a member of the team, so were confused why she was in the comic. "They introduce us to Black Canary and then Starling, which made me think they were all going to have 'birds of prey' themed names, but they introduce us to Batgirl -- do they think bats are birds?" asked Justin.
"I got 'two bad ass girls' and 'the black reporter' and not a whole lot of what was linking them to one another," Karen added.
Would they buy issue two? This was a "no" on both from Karen, and a look of pure disgust followed by a noise that sounded like a cat being strangled from Justin.
Interestingly, while both felt "Catwoman" was targeted at teen boys, Karen was more willing to give it a second shot than Justin. "I am curious to see where it goes," Karen told me before she passed on the comic for good.
THE WOMEN OF DC
A fantasy novel and genre fiction fan, Jenny, one of the new readers who has never picked up a single superhero comic in her life, was looking forward to giving DC a shot. However, she felt clueless when it came to "Supergirl."
"I was very confused by the narration and what was going on where while reading this comic. It seemed as though Supergirl landed through Clark Kent's farm...and went to Siberia?" Jenny said. In fact, because the issue took place in Russia, Jenny thought the comic was setting up the mobile suit fighters as Russian antagonists, thus leading her to believe, "It seemed that the Cold War was still happening, which I could care less about."
On the other hand, brand-new reader Caitlin (though she has read the "Scott Pilgrim" graphic novels) absolutely loved "Supergirl," though she, too, was unclear on setting. "I get the idea that she is unsure of where she is/how she got there. Maybe Superman will help her find that out." Caitlin suggested.
"The Cold War is over, and real women wear pants in the snow," Jenny replied, sticking firm to her anti-Supergirl stance.
The ladies clashed again over "Wonder Woman" as Jenny praised the comic's artistic layout and caption boxes while those same things actively confused Caitlin. "I felt like the story jumped around a little too much, and I was not sure who was talking during the fight part, the green and black speech boxes," said Caitlin. She also didn't understand that the "Glowy Eye guy" was one of the gods. By contrast, Jenny immediately got the god/human divide, though she admitted she partly liked "Wonder Woman" because she loves stories about the Greek gods.
"It helped that I'm a 'Percy Jackson' fan, so I'm into the gods already and therefore had some point of reference," Jenny told me.
In fact, their reactions were so diametrically opposed that when non-DC reader Zach contacted me and asked if he could help with this week's releases, I jumped at the chance to get a third opinion on the titles. A Marvel Comics man through and through, Zach cheerfully told me he had "zero" knowledge of the DCU and until this point has never been able to get onboard DC continuity. So where does he fall in the Jenny/Caitlin divide?
Right in the middle. "At first, the 'Wonder Woman' story needed a bit more explanation, but by the end I figured out most of what you need to understand the storyline," Zach told me. "For 'Supergirl,' I felt as though we needed to know more about the mobile suits and what their deal is, otherwise, well understood." Saying both comics function well for getting a total DC novice like him onboard, Zach leaned more towards the Girl Of Steel, "If only to see her interaction with Superman."
Would they buy issue two? While Caitlin and Zach were interested in more "Supergirl," only Jenny was ready to commit cash to "Wonder Woman." Immediately, as it turned out. "I want the next one right now," Jenny demanded seconds after finishing the comic. I told her she had to wait for a month. This did not go over well. "Now," she repeated.
THE TEAM BOOKS
Going into week three, I knew "Legion Of Superheroes" was going to be a tough sell to new readers. Renowned for being the polar opposite of accessible, "Legion" has always appealed to a very specific brand of fan, drawing in those who love continuity, dissecting complicated histories and the feeling of secret knowledge the book confers.
So when it came time to give it to brand new readers, I called up the biggest science fiction continuity fan I knew, Chud.com writer Thomas. Thomas is a man who lives for intensely complicated science fiction stories, the more back story the better, and enjoys nothing more then diving into complex ensemble science fiction films and TV shows. If there is one person in the world who should love "Legion Of Superheroes," it would be Thomas -- or, as a mutual friend put it, "If Thomas doesn't like 'Legion,' there's something wrong with the universe."
I regret to inform you, there is something wrong with the universe.
Calling the issue "cluttered" rather than complex, Thomas was unable to see why a reader should care about the world, let alone invest in a second issue. "The only element that seemed to link any of the storylines was a reference to the fate of one named Oaa, who it seems died and, apparently, it was sad," Thomas said. He was also stumped as to why the reader should care about the Dominators and the Daxamites guessing, "We're told that Dominators are behind whatever's going on planet Panoptes, but I don't know what Dominators are (I guess they're probably bad since it sounds like they seek to dominate, and most people prefer to remain un-dominated)."
Frustrated by what he called poor storytelling, Thomas continued, "We're told Daxamites are more powerful than anyone in the Legion (except for that guy who's a Daxamite), and this guy who shows up, judos Jo and crashes through a rock is identified as 'A Daxamite?!' Also, someone says "Uh-Oh," so I guess they're in for some trouble, but I still don't know what Daxamites are or what makes them special and powerful."
Ultimately, Thomas felt there was just too much unexplained DC continuity to wade through, even for a reader like him. "I'm used to reading long novels with huge casts of characters, but one needs to spend more time establishing such characters for a large ensemble to work for a reader."
"Legion" continuity was also the undoing of brand new comic book reader Katie, who enjoys genre fiction as well, though not to the extent Thomas does. "The biggest problem I had was that the disaster that killed the members of the old league was never clearly outlined. They aren't picking up where the old mission left off, which made it easy enough to follow along, but they hinted at a lot of underlying pain everyone was going through and I never was able to figure out exactly what happened to lead to that," said Katie.
After slogging through "Legion," both Katie and Thomas felt "Green Lantern Corps" was a glorious walk in the park. "Pretty much all the things I felt 'Legion of Superheroes' did wrong, this issue of 'Green Lantern Corps' did right," said Thomas. Katie strongly agreed.
"I know very little about the Green Lantern series beyond the shitty Ryan Reynolds [movie] previews," Offered Katie, "But this issue didn't rely too heavily on the mythology. They were able to explain basic points about how GLs patrol the universe via questions from curious fans, and that was all I really needed to follow along with the story at hand."
Would they buy issue two? Yes to "Green Lantern Corps," and no way to "Legion."
THE OTHER SUPERHEROES
From the reactions I got when it came to "Captain Atom," three things were clear -- all three new readers had seen the movie "Watchmen," all of them thought Captain Atom and Dr. Manhattan were the same guy and not a single one of them know Dr. Manhattan's name.
"How is he different from the blue donger from 'Watchmen?'" new reader Dan demanded to know. Comparing Atom to "that naked blue man," readers also did not know what to make of the character or his powers. "He's a super hero that is becoming a super-er hero? I really feel like I walked in the middle," Dan told me.
Returning readers Jim and Rosie were similarly stymied when it came to plot. "I had no idea what the accident was that gave him his powers, who Megala was, why they decided it was necessary to have a volcano exploding in New York or what was going on with that random, evil rat thing," Rosie told me.
"Make it go away," Dan pleaded.
"Blue Beetle" was uncomplicated and utterly accessible by comparison. Jim and Rosie both loved Jaime as a protagonist. "I liked that the main character was a Latino boy -- not a demographic widely represented in the super heroes that make it into the movies and Saturday morning cartoons -- and I felt his normal high school problems were easy to relate to," explained Rosie (needless to say, Rosie has never seen "Batman: The Brave And The Bold").
The best of the books in the new reader's eyes, however, was "DC Universe Presents." "I'm a sucker for the 'protagonist has to stop being a jerk' narrative arc!" Jim gleefully confessed.
"Maybe it's because of the format here, but they are really doing a good job of presenting characters I'm unfamiliar with on this one. Well defined and interesting," said Dan after finishing the issue. Not only were all three able to understand story and character, Dan, Jim and Rosie also understood that the point of "DC Universe" was to create definitive versions of lesser known DC heroes.
"I knew DC had a huge catalog of characters with completely new themes and stories, but I was only familiar with the big-name heroes; If a friend wanted to start exploring that catalog, this is the one I'd point them to," said Jim. The only complaint was that they recognized this was an anthology series (or, as they called it, a "throwaway series") with the book eventually moving onto a new character.
"That would be too bad. It's the best written one," said Dan.
Would they buy issue two? All three wanted more Deadman, though Dan admitted he would rather buy a trade than individual issues. In addition, Rosie and Jim both wanted more "Blue Beetle."
When asked if they would buy a second issue, Heather summed up the new readers' attitude best: "Since most non-comic book readers read books, I think it'd be hard to recommend one story since nothing happens really -- it's too short." Comparing their issues to watching only the first ten minutes of a television show, no one felt they received a fully rounded and complete story, and all were disappointed with how short their issues were.
That being said, this week netted the most new reader-accessible comics, according to those surveyed. Though only "DC Universe Presents," "Green Lantern Corps" and "Nightwing" got all their readers interested in issue two, everyone expressed interest in at least one other comic. This week also saw the most new readers parting with their money, with eleven people promising they would either buy a second issue or trade paperback when it came out.
So what makes this week special? The same thing that made Week One readers excited for "Action Comics" and "Detective Comics" and Week Two readers jump for "Superboy" -- the vast majority of titles featured protagonists people recognized from outside comics. Catwoman, Nightwing, Batman, Supergirl, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, even Captain Atom (as the inspiration for Dr. Manhattan) were all recognizable on some level from movies and TV shows. In fact, the only comics people unanimously disliked and were confused by ("Red Hood," "Legion" and "Birds of Prey") were ones that have not made it into public consciousness. "Legion" has no media property attached to it and the "Birds Of Prey" CW show was cancelled after a handful of episodes and had very little to do with the source material. And while "Batman: Under The Red Hood" is one of the better DVDs Warner Brothers animation has put out, it was a straight-to-DVD release and did not show up in theaters where non-comic fans would readily encounter it. When it comes to reader accessibility, DC's non-comic media is actually working as a primer for the same new readers they are trying to reach -- though whether they'll be able to sustain it past the first two issues is anyone's game.