DC'S SEPTEMBER: ALL THOSE ZEROES DON'T ADD UP TO MUCH
If you recall the bygone summer of 2011, you may remember that I was optimistic -- though cautiously so -- about DC's New 52. The new creative teams and continuity freedom allowed with the relaunch provided some hope that the turgid superhero universe inhabited by Superman, Blue Devil, Porcupine Pete, Geo-Force, and Batgirl would be reborn into something more vibrant. Creators could all all do their own powerful versions of these characters. We could have seen a line-wide effort that would match the continuity-free heights of "All-Star Superman" or "Batman: Year One," or if not that, then at least we would get a line-wide equivalent of the confident streamlining and rebranding that came with Geoff Johns's earlier-last-decade revamp of "Green Lantern."
But even as I previewed each of the New 52 and offered my commentary on what might be interesting about the new lineup, one of my friends pointed out that what I was really saying, 52 times in a row, "This series could be really good, but it probably won't be." True enough.
I read all of the #1 issues last year, and I read most of the second issues of each series. By December and January, my DC reading list was down to about half the new series and then it slowly dwindled down to a dozen in the Spring. Now? One year into the line-wide relaunch, I read a total of three of the Not-So-New 52: "Wonder Woman," by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang, "Batman," by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo, and "Action Comics," by Grant Morrison and mostly Rags Morales. And I don't even like "Action Comics." It's usually grotesquely-drawn and its ideas have seemed hollow. But I'm still curious enough to stick with it until Morrison walks away.
For the record, "Batman Incorporated" remains the best of the DC lineup, but that was a mid-year replacement and is a legacy of an older DCU, pre-reboot. Morrison's work on that series still feels dangerous and engaging, like he's giggling in the corner of Gotham, getting away with stuff that other writers haven't been able to in this year when the mass of superhero comics feel like giveaway inserts you'd find left on the floor of a Subway sandwich shop.
It's clear that the New 52 was a marketing success -- with a massive bump in DC sales last fall, even if almost all the "new" readers were just lapsed readers eager to get back into a DCU that had pushed them away years before. But without amazing comics to keep those readers excited about coming back each month -- and without the editorial freedom to create amazing comics -- the New 52 has withered into a state where nearly none of the ongoing comics are worth reading. As each month progresses, if feels increasingly like a 2011-2012, amped up, multiplied-by-a factor-of-ten replay of Marvel's "Heroes Reborn."
How often is "Heroes Reborn" fondly recalled? Or, for that matter, how often are DC's own line-wide initiatives over the past half-decade recalled fondly? Does anyone -- inside the company or within the general readership -- talk about the genius that was "Countdown"? Does anyone say, "Brightest Day" was an underrated gem?
Even DC pretends those things never existed. Or, at best, they don't mention them much at all.
And what makes the New 52 -- one year in -- any different from those earlier attempts to grab the attention of readers? The New 52 is bigger. So if 5% of it is worthwhile, instead of one issue or one subplot from "Countdown" or "Brightest Day" being tolerable, you get two-and-a-half quality comics: "Wonder Woman," "Batman," and half of "Action Comics."
Yes, that's where we are now.
I want to like these comics. I want to like all the comics. And I gave every New 52 book a fair shot at winning me over. But few did, in the long run.
So now here we are, a year later, and DC has put every series on hold for one month to turn the clock back to zero, with this whole Zero Month initiative, which, according to Bob Harras, would include, in "each of these issues…something surprising."
To once again give DC a fair shot, and see if there was anything that I'd drifted away from that would re-energize me to get back into reading that series, I read every Zero issue. Even the ones that don't come out until Wednesday of this week. DC sent me all of them, and I have read through every one.
Something surprising in every issue? Well, based on all the words I've used to lead into this, I guess you can imagine where this is headed.
No surprises, except the generally poor quality of the Zero issues. This is just a stack of mostly terrible comics with a few worthwhile issues scattered throughout. I liked more than 5% of them, which I guess is…a win? And a few of the comics did interest me in getting caught back up on some of the series I had abandoned months before, but the sheer onslaught of flimsy, pathetic, disengaging, noisy, clumsy and generally forgettable comics was a bit overwhelming. I sincerely hoped that Zero month would give me a chance to revisit the DC Universe. It did provide that chance, but my visit just reminded me how much the neighborhood has changed for the worse.
Instead of talking about all 54 Zero issues (did more than 54 of the 52 come out? If so, I only had 54 sitting in front of me now), I'll lump them into categories, and if I don't mention something, assume that it's in the worst possible category. Because if it were worthwhile, I would have talked about it.
CATEGORY #1: WOW THESE ARE TREES YOU'RE KILLING HERE
I don't know the intended audience for these comics, but a batch of the Zero issues not only recapped things that were implied in earlier issues or provided new "twists" that were flatly uninteresting on every level. The comics in this category are many, ranging from the launch of the new, pseudo-portentous, twelfth-rate Joe Orlando meets sixth-rate-mid-1990s-Vertigo comic known as "The Phantom Stranger" to the shockingly amateur look of "Catwoman," well, these are comics that can't possibly invite new readers into the fold. I cannot imagine anyone reading theses comics -- like the ones above, along with the embarrassment of "Red Hood and the Outlaws" or "Batwing" -- and saying "yes, this is the kind of comic I have been waiting for." These are ugly comics at their worst, and even at their best they are poor retreads of stories that have already been told. Yet, here they are, bombarding us with reasons not to pay attention to them.
CATEGORY #2: THESE ARE LOUD AND UNINTERESTING, LIKE THAT SECOND TRANSFORMERS MOVIE, BUT ON PAPER, AND, THANKFULLY, SHORTER
Once again, let me remind you that I read all of these comics. And I should apologize to my family for taking the time to do so.
But the ones in this category aren't as bad as Category #1. At least I can see what kind of audience is the target here. But these are the kind of comics that just do not interest me in the least, and I like stupid action-packed comics. But these are just insubstantial and grating, like a guy at a party who wants to loudly tell the same jokes over and over, but the party is at the Playboy mansion and the music in the background is by Korn.
"The Ravagers" fits into this category, along with "Green Lantern Corps," "Birds of Prey," "Deathstroke," "Firestorm" and "Teen Titans." Please, just stop. Slow down and tell a story and make us care. That would be the advice I would tell the guy at the Playboy/Korn party. And he wouldn't listen. And neither do these comics. They seem intent to plod onward. Loudly.
CATEGORY #3: THESE ARE PROFESSIONAL COMICS THAT LOOK NICE AND STILL SEEM BLAND OR TAKE A SIGNIFICANTLY WRONG TURN SOMEWHERE ALONG THE WAY
This category is the biggest, with titles like "Green Lantern" lining up alongside "G.I. Combat" and "Blue Beetle" and "Stormwatch" and waiting to show you what comics have to offer, but when they stand up in front of the judges at the dance academy, they resort to their schoolyard breakdancing moves and the judges don't stand up and applaud as loudly as anyone would have hoped.
Some of the comics in this category, have misguided approaches to updating the characters for a perceived new audience -- like the Amethyst story in "Sword of Sorcery" which is a female empowerment story seemingly directed at creeps -- while others, like the Timber Wolf story in "Legion Lost," read like 8-page back-up stories dragged out to full issue length without any additional texture added in. Many of these comics are really great looking -- Doug Mahnke always does a superior job and "Green Lantern" looks just fine, and Sami Basri is a heck of an artist on "Voodoo" and so is Riccardo Burchielli on "Dial H for Hero" and Ivan Reis on "Aquaman." But what's the "something surprising" Bob Harras told us to look for?
That another dude gets a green ring? That Voodoo was experimented upon by aliens? That Aquaman is the heir to the throne of Atlantis?
So many surprises!
Actually, the most surprising thing in this category is that "Batwoman" isn't better than it is. It looks amazingly great, but the weird, slapped-down placement of the narrative captions and the fact that the story uninterestingly recaps the central reveal in "Batwoman: Elegy" makes it a comic that just reminds us of a time when Greg Rucka wasn't repulsed by the idea of working at DC Comics, and that was a better time for all of us.
CATEGORY #4: HEY, THESE ARE NOT GREAT, BUT I READ THEM WITHOUT WANTING TO THROW THEM AWAY
"Action Comics" goes nowhere and says nothing that the previous 12 issues haven't already said or implied, but Ben Oliver is ten times the artist Rags Morales is, and that helps. I'm curious about Justin Jordan's "Team Seven," and while this Zero issue didn't make me more excited about the ongoing series, it didn't push me away. I'll check out the next couple of issues to see what he does with the idea of a DCU super-human special-ops team. With "Blackhawks" gone, there's a void, and this Zero issue already starts stronger than that series did. I liked the retro-vibe of Scott Lobdell and Kenneth Rocafort's "Superman" #0, and it did give us an alternate take on the back-home-on-Krypton story. It was different than I've seen before, and I appreciated the attempt. Rocafort sold it for me, and I appreciate his unorthodox storytelling choices.
Honestly, these kinds of stories should be the low-average of the New DCU, but they are among the best, sad to say.
CATEGORY #5: I WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN SORRY TO HAVE PAID MONEY FOR THESE AND THEY ARE MAYBE EVEN GOOD COMICS
The best of the Zero Month comics were the Morrison/Burnham/Irving "Batman Inc" #0 and the Azzarello/Chiang "Wonder Woman" #0. Those were some excellent comics and probably deserve a category all their own. They both are fill-in-the-gaps kinds of stories, but with different strategies. "Batman Inc" gets us caught up on how the Club of Heroes became the multinational Batmen of Batman Incorporated. More Knight and Squire and Man-of-Bats and El Gaucho is always good, especially when Frazer Irving does his unique thing on each page. "Wonder Woman" gives us a Lil' Diana story with a Minotaur and it captures what's so much fun about the series and the character. Brutal and beautiful and with a sense of humor, but also an underlying sense of danger and tragedy. Really good stuff.
Those are the top two for the month, but some of the other comics were worth reading. I appreciated "Talon" #0 for its no-nonsense approach to who this new character is and what he's all about. It unfolds like a superhero crime movie, but Guillem March makes it look nice and James Tynion IV keeps the dialogue tight and focused. It's great to see something new added to the DCU amidst such an overwhelming tidal wave of regurgitated sameness. "Talon" may not be the most original idea ever -- it's a former hitman on the run, trying to make amends -- but it's still a new character, and a different kind of character type than we've seen in from DC recently.
Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's "Batman' #0 was also well-told and satisfying. They avoid a general recap to focus on an early time in Bruce Wayne's life and actually tell a story that has a bit of an edge to it. Or, at least they trick the reader into feeling some suspense, which is an important thing to do when it's a story that's already happened and we basically know the outcome already. They pull it off, though.
So does Jeff Lemire, twice, with "Animal Man" and "Justice League Dark." Those Zero issues are enough to make me interested in checking out those series, two comics I drifted away from months ago mostly out of disinterest in the overlong story arcs. But I never disliked those comics and I like these issue Zero installments quite a bit. The James Robinson and Paul Levitz combo on "Earth 2" and "World's Finest," respectively, also made me curious to see what's happened in those comics since I drifted away over the summer. Those guys know how to tell stories, and that seems to be a skill missing -- or unable to shine through -- from the bulk of the DC releases.
Geoff Johns knows how to do that too, and he shows it off in "Justice League" #0 which is a weird comic with an angry, unpleasant Billy Batson who acts like no teenager who has ever lived but makes for an interesting Captain Marvel or Shazam or whatever they're calling him. Johns writes characters as if they exist in some Platonic ideal of a universe filled with exaggerated versions of humanity where each character trait is amplified tenfold.
But that's what the DC Universe is all about, really. Johns does it well.
So there you have it. Nine good-to-really-good comics in a stack of 54. And only two that I would actually recommend to anyone who wasn't already heavily into the DC catalog.
I guess that's a better average than "Countdown." If you're keeping score on the sadness scale.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.