Pop culture in September. A month of beginnings and renewal. A time when a certain sector of entertainment expends much marketing energy to not just psyche up the public about its products but get them excited about the very medium that delivers those products. We’re talking TV, of course, and the “new fall season” that’s imminent. But this month, we’re talking about the comic book industry, too. Last week, DC Comics began rebooting its entire line of comics via an initiative called “The New 52.” Ongoing hits like Action Comics (home to Superman) and Detective Comics (abode to Batman) restarted with new creative approaches, storylines, and creative teams. Launching with them: A bevy of new series, many starring familiar characters, returning to prime time comics the way TV stars of the past return in new vehicles. (‘Tool Time’ Tim Allen/Last Man Standing = Construction worker Alec Holland/Swamp Thing. Grunt-grunt!)
“The New 52” has been a promo-palooza for the struggling comic book biz, where sales of the monthly, ad-supported periodical – the field’s signature staple – have been slumping over the past three years. Anecdotal evidence – my Twitter feed and recent visits to unusually crowded comic shops – suggests that lapsed fans and new readers are giving these comics a try… unless, that is, a bunch of foolish collectible hunters have convinced themselves that the bonanza of #1s represents a lucrative investment opportunity. DC’s super-sized reboot has certainly generated a massive amount of mainstream media attention, including weekly reviews from no less than The New York Times. This post represents the fifth time this past week that EW.com has written about “The New 52.” That’s some serious Glee-like overkill! Hopefully, “The New 52” will help spark renewed, lasting interest in the medium, and not be remembered as a gimmicky adrenaline injection that will quickly fade. [Note: DC isn’t alone these days in doing newsy-neat things to galvanize comic consumers. Marvel’s recently launched “Spider-Island” saga – think: Spider-Man meets The Walking Dead – and Dark Horse’s new Angel and Faith series – based on the Buffy The Vampire Slayer characters – have also generated buzz.]
A proposal for the comic book industry, specifically DC and Marvel, offered by a well-meaning comic book fanboy that wants to see the medium survive and thrive: Build on the positives of “The New 52” by going totally TV. Turn the fall into an annual rite of heavily-hyped rejuvenation. More: Model the entire publishing year after the traditional television season. Market share giants Marvel and DC should launch the majority of their new series – and launch new storylines in all ongoing series – in September. Each season would last 9 monthly issues, or September through May. The three summer issues –June, July, and August – would be used for stand-alone stories or a company-wide crossover event. (Or just something more meaningful and valuable than TV’s offering of reruns, reality, and burn-offs.) Of course, companies should save a few high profile launches for January or February – splashy “midseason premieres” that would bring a secondary wave of publicity to the publishing year. As the season comes to a close, companies should announce their slates for the next season at a major weekend comic book convention (i.e., WonderCon) – the comic industry equivalent of TV’s springtime “upfront” week in New York City. Similarly, the San Diego Comic-Con in July would become something that it already is, but should be more grand – the comic book analog to the TV industry’s late summer press tour in Los Angeles.
I’m far from the first to observe that the comic books have a lot in common with the TV biz. And it’s not like publishers haven’t tried to adopt TV models before. As my colleague Darren Franich notes, before DC’s “New 52” there was DC’s 52, a weekly series written by a team of writers that anchored a company-wide cliffhanger serial/soap opera-esque storytelling event. But my idea is cooler! The TV season model imposes narrative structure on the chaotic amoeba that is the comic book industry, making the publishing year a story unto itself, which in turn makes the medium easier and inviting for the press to cover. More importantly, the TV season model – with a beginning and end; with an annual reboot mechanism – allows for constant, natural, welcome renewal and change. No more grumpy-crusty fanboys cynically crapping on periodic, creatively contrived, commercially desperate reboot events! With the TV model, that dirty word gets a sexy-sunshiney makeover. Goodbye, “reboot.” Hello “renewal.”
“The New 52” could be training/reorienting comic book consumers for the TV season model; the more profound reboot taking place here could be fan culture itself. That’s exciting. Of course, while marketing may help launch a series, it’s quality (or devotion to a character-star) that keeps readers hooked for a whole season. Is “The New 52” delivering the goods? My 10-year-old son thinks so. “The New 52” represents his first exposure to today’s monthly superhero serials. So far, he’s read six of them, and he wants more. His favorite: Grant Morrison’s first issue of Action Comics, with its rebel-in-bluejeans Superman, DC’s latest bid to make the icon “relevant.” Whatever that means. If it means “Make the Man of Steel neat to a 10 year old videogame-playing/Star Wars-loving/sports junkie/funky-haired boy,” then well done. His wide-eyed, one-word review: “Cool.”
And I agree. Action was a ripping read. I also thought the first issues of Batgirl and OMAC were witty fun thanks to their impish scribes, Gail Simone and Keith Giffen. But the other #1s haven’t impressed this 41-year-old grump the way they’ve impressed his son. So far, most of them remind me of this year’s slate of TV pilots (that I’ve seen): Lots of solid, competent stuff, but way too safe, way too set-uppy, and nothing that blows me away or leaves me convinced: “This will be around for seasons to come.”
My biggest beef with many of the #1s is that they read more like expressions of tightly-synchronized brand management than artistic vision. There’s very little verve and risk, even from the line’s edgier titles. Perhaps that will come in time. Baby steps! Animal Man has the sensational Jeff Lemire (Sweet Tooth, Essex County) at the helm. His pilot issue begins with a clever magazine article – a Q&A from The Believer – that suggests a colorful, complex central character. But the Buddy Baker we get to know in the storytelling that follows doesn’t deliver the intriguing personality suggested by the prose. Maybe Lemire was going for paradox; alas, in this issue, it plays like muddled execution. Good news: The creepy-compelling final pages – concerning the introduction of the story’s villains and a revelation about Animal Man’s daughter – ignite the whole thing and make you want the next issue NOW. I have high expectations of Lemire. Such is the price of producing extraordinary previous work. I want him reinvent and rock Animal Man and DC’s supernatural mythos with his peculiar, emotionally rich voice the way Jonathan Hickman has rocked and reinvented the Fantastic Four and Marvel’s science hero mythos with his uniquely heady sensibility. Here’s hoping he can step it up in the months to come.
“The New 52” has also annoyed me with its overt effort to cultivate a Marvel-esque shared universe. I don’t dislike the concept. But when it gets in the storyteller’s way of establishing a vision – or just telling a damn story – it pisses me off. Scott Snyder is a talented scribe, but his first issue of Swamp Thing included a momentum-killing four-page sequence in which Superman flies in to chat with Alec Holland about his titular alter-ego’s strange life and even stranger relationship with a woman that fans know to be Abigail Arcane. The scene told us something about Holland, for sure. But it missed an opportunity to hook us by engaging our emotions with real drama, which is to say, by giving us a scene between Alex and Abby herself. The first issue needed to accomplish this mission: Explain and make interesting to new readers not familiar with recent events the central character’s core conflict – his tricky-murky relationship with the heroic earth elemental that borrowed his identity for a couple decades worth of comics. Snyder might have succeeded if he had four more pages – or could have made different use of the four pages given to Superman’s intrusive special guest start stint.
The other complaint I have about “The New 52” reboot: Not enough “new.” With a couple exceptions, like Morrison’s Action Comics, many of the titles – Animal Man and Swamp Thing included – seem too indebted to past work to count as bold new takes. As I said earlier, I enjoyed OMAC, which did what I wanted Swamp Thing to do: The first issue is one long smartly designed action sequence that serves to reveal, via drama and incident, the central character’s surreeal identity crisis. But I hope the comic has grander ambitions than merely being an affectionate recycling of Jack Kirby quirk. I also hope it can rise to the standard of Godland, a soon-to-end indy series and superior Kirby homage published by Image Comics.
I have singled out Swamp Thing, Animal Man and OMAC this week because once upon a time, in their previous iterations, each of these titles represented, in some symbolic way, the energy that the comic book industry needs more than anything: Inspired, intelligent, gutsy, gonzo, go-for-broke creativity. It would be great if “The New 52” could develop into an HBO-esque showcase for daring showrunners challenged to do capture-the-imagination work – the kind of stuff Hickman and Nick Pitarra are doing on The Red Wing or Matt Fraction and Gabriel Ba & Fabio Moon on Casanova.
Still, I understand and even support DC’s bid to streamline and simplify its universe to attract a new generation of consumers and fans. The future of the biz is my son, not me. Kudos to DC Comics for the energy they are bringing to the medium. Hopefully the messages become stronger and bolder In the year – or season – to come.