A Closer Look at DC’s Line-Wide Relaunch:

Non-Super-Hero Offerings

Beyond its super-hero offerings, DC’s relaunch includes its “dark” magic titles, which incorporates some Vertigo characters into the DCU, and also a few non-super-hero, non-supernatural titles. How do these stack up, as part of an overall line?

DC Dark

As previously mentioned, DC has announced that a sub-line of its relaunch will focus on magic and will feature slightly darker subject matter, incorporating Vertigo’s formerly “mature readers” characters who were always a part of the DC Universe. These characters were prohibited from participating in the DC Universe, however, due to a firewall of sorts between mainstream DC and its Vertigo imprint. Occasionally, a Vertigo character owned by DC drifted into the DCU (e.g. Death or Dream from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, or Animal Man appearing in Infinite Crisis and 52, not to mention his own mini-series), and the reverse also occasionally occurred (Zatanna, in particular, seemed to cross back and forth). Now, however, that firewall has come down, with most of these characters migrating entirely to DC proper.

In principle, this is well and good, considering these characters were really always a part of the DC Universe — in some cases, their absence from certain stories or crossovers could sometimes be strange. But fans of these characters are holding their breath, hoping that DC, while publishing these characters without the “mature readers” label, will nonetheless treat them with the respect and intelligence associated with the Vertigo line.

Hence, DC’s slightly-darker-but-not-mature sub-line.

It’s worth pointing out that this wasn’t the only solution to the problem of Vertigo characters who ostensibly live in the DC Universe but can’t interact with DC characters, no matter how logical that interaction might be. An equally easy fix would have been to allow DC-owned Vertigo titles to feature DC characters, just like the company’s “mature readers” titles did, before they were branded with the Vertigo logo.

The may someday happen too — there’s been little news about how DC’s new policy towards these characters will affect Vertigo. It could well be that these characters are simply available to mainstream DCU books, while the DC characters remaining at Vertigo are now eligible to feature some DCU characters.

That has, after all, always been the obvious policy decision, though it’s never been in place. Vertigo started with the DCU’s “mature readers” titles, after all. Once upon a time, Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing had interacted with Crisis on Infinite Earths and Rick Veitch’s Swamp Thing had interacted with DC’s Millennium and Invasion crossovers. And there were plenty of indications that the characters still inhabited the DC Universe.

Yet strangely, DC apparently decided to create a firewall between the DC Universe and Vertigo, which may have made sense at first, as a way of establishing the Vertigo line as a firmly separate entity, but which has long outlived its usefulness. The difference between the two wasn’t a matter of continuity, despite the pretense to this being so. Rather, it was that everything Vertigo was branded “mature readers,” while the DC Universe took years before it dared venture to use this label, and it’s used it very sparingly ever since. This increasingly bizarre mandate famously resulted in Jill Thompson’s Little Endless Storybook, ostensibly a children’s story, to carry the “mature readers” label.

So yes, now that Vertigo’s long been firmly established as a place for sophisticated comics, most of the creator-owned, it’s time to let Vertigo be the publisher of DC’s “mature readers” content, the Vertigo logo instantly indicating, for those Superman fans too obtuse to notice the different publishing style or the “mature readers” label, that nope, this one isn’t for kids. Vertigo’s even already been used in exactly this way, on occasion. Meanwhile, the mainstream DC Universe should be allowed to use characters that are usually published by Vertigo, in the same way that those characters could be used, back when Vertigo was only the “mature readers” corner of the DCU.

It remains to be seen whether this will come to pass. In the meantime, given all the attention paid to DC taking back these characters, there are only two titles in DC’s relaunch that were once published by Vertigo. And of these, only one clearly still belonged to Vertigo until a few months ago, the other having been ceded back to the DC Universe years before.

The headline here is obviously the new Swamp Thing series, a relaunch of the series that made Alan Moore famous in the U.S., now written by Scott Snyder, with art and covers by Yannick Paquette. In fact, Swamp Thing had already been relaunched under Vertigo, though all such attempts failed. Vertigo even removed the original version of the character, who was originally Alec Holland (or thought he was), which many fans of the character believed to be a misstep. For this series, Swamp Thing is again Alec Holland, who first reappeared in the DC Universe at the end of Brightest Day.

Given Vertigo’s inability to succeed with the character, and that his role in DC history is probably larger than any other Vertigo character, his move into the DC Universe makes complete sense. It also occurs in time for the character’s 40th anniversary.

As previously mentioned, Animal Man’s re-incorporation into the DC Universe is old news. But he hasn’t had his own ongoing series since his first one was cancelled in the mid-1990s, during the early days of Vertigo. The character is an odd choice for such treatment, given that he’s mostly associated with Grant Morrison’s celebrated run in the end of the 1980s and early ’90s — a run itself mostly remembered for its out-of-continuity elements, which it would be unwise to try to duplicate. Ironically, one of the series’s biggest draws may be Morrison’s name, despite that the series itself will probably be quite different from Morrison’s writing. Still, Morrison did reinvent the character as a struggling family man, an interpretation which has stuck and which the new series will continue.

Animal Man is written by Jeff Lemire, with art and covers by Travel Foreman and Dan Green.

Despite all the hubbub, those are the only two Vertigo characters receiving a relaunch. Two others, John Constantine (of Vertigo’s Hellblazer) and Shade, the Changing Man, appear in the previously-discussed Justice League Dark, which should be considered as part of this “dark” / magical sub-line. It also features Deadman and Madame Xanadu, characters who have been published over the years by both DC and Vertigo.

Deadman also appears in the initial arc of DC Universe Presents, discussed above.

Other offerings in this sub-line include three starring more traditional supernatural DC characters, rather than Vertigo ones, along with a new character entirely and one borrowed from the now-defunct WildStorm imprint.

Of the traditional DC titles, the one with the longest legacy is a new title starring Etrigan the Demon, a character invented by Jack Kirby and reinvented ever since. Etrigan’s had his own ongoing more than once before, but this one has a different premise. Whereas the Demon has previously starred mostly in modern stories, often counterpoised against DC’s super-heroes, Demon Knights is set in the Medieval era, during which the Demon leads a team, including both magicians and super-heroes, to defend Camelot.

It’s a silly premise, to be sure, and the fall of Camelot was previously depicted, using the Demon, in Rick Veitch’s run (which followed that of Alan Moore) on Swamp Thing. It wasn’t a Veitch’s best story. Given how campy the idea sounds (and the fictional Camelot is in general), it’s almost imperative that writer Paul Cornell goes against type, telling the story in a realistic tone, including a rather gritty, realistic depiction of medieval life to contrast the sword and sorcery elements. (Otherwise, this one will probably go the direction of Shadowpact, both in terms of its tone and its failure.) Whether this is indeed his approach remains to be seen, but the campy title doesn’t suggest it to be so…

The series features art and covers by Diogenes Neves and Oclair Albert.

A DC character with less of a pedigree is Frankenstein, reinvented by Grant Morrison as part of his Seven Soldiers project and seen occasionally since. The character gets his own ongoing, titled Frankenstein, Agent of SHADE, as part of the relaunch. The series, written by Jeff Lemire, with art and covers by Alberto Ponticelli, sees Frankenstein working for a strange government agency called SHADE, which stands for the Super Human Advanced Defense Executive. This one is obvious camp, but unlike Demon Knights, it may well work — and there’s virtually no other way to use Frankenstein as a swashbuckling hero. In fact, one hopes the title is smart enough to be over-the-top, so no one can confuse it with a dry, serious approach.

The third traditional DC title in this sub-line is Resurrection Man, itself a resurrection of a fondly-remembered ongoing series from the 1990s that many feel was cancelled before its time. The series premise is that its super-powered protagonist “wakes up with new powers each time he’s killed.” The series is written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, who wrote the original series, with art by Fernando Dagnino (who illustrated Justice League: Generation Lost).

(Now if we can only get Aztek and Chase, similarly cancelled too soon in the 1990s, their own relaunches…)

The all-new series of the sub-line is I, Vampire, written by Josh Fialkov, with art and covers by Andrea Sorrentino. The series is already taking heavy flak from critics, who see it as a rather late attempt to cash in on the vampire craze. (Think Twilight, True Blood, and Marvel’s recent vampire stories, none of which are exactly known for their quality.) The first issue’s description, which promises “vampires threaten[ing] to bring ruin to the DC Universe,” hasn’t exactly helped matters. It continues:

Tortured by his centuries-old love for the Queen of the Damnned, Andrew Bennett must save humanity from the violent uprising of his fellow vampires, even if it means exterminating his own kind.

To make a snide comment here would feel a bit like slapping a man who’s in the process of self-flagellation. But it’s worth noting that, apparently, Anne Rice’s (tremendously successful) vampire novels have been forgotten in the wake of Twilight (as many news reports on the current fad have done) to such an extent that one can reference the Queen of the Damned (the title of Rice’s third novel, later adapted into a major motion picture) that one can use the phrase in the context of vampires without fear of being thought a plagiarist.

Fortunately, the final “dark” title is more interesting: a series starring Voodoo, formerly of WildStorm’s Wildcats team. (Other formerly WildStorm titles in DC’s relaunch include Stormwatch and Grifter.)

This is the first ongoing for the character (who previously had an Alan Moore-scripted mini-series). This time around, she’s written by Ron Marz, with art and cover by Sami Basri. The series is apparently a reboot of the character, since it’s described thusly:

Priscilla Kitaen has just found out she’s a monster. A half-alien hybrid, the woman known as Voodoo must confront the secrets of her past to make sense of the nightmare her life has suddenly become.

(But while the cover art looks quite good indeed, why do the character eyes look so stoned?)

Non-Super-Hero, Non-Supernatural (Kind of)

There’s just three comics left, before we go. Three comics that, although set in the DC Universe, are neither super-hero comics, nor supernatural ones (which themselves often have a super-hero flair). While that’s a small minority, it’s still the same number of Justice League or Teen Titans titles (which counts the supernatural Justice League Dark), and DC’s to be commended for offering any at all.

That having been said, it’s of vital importance that comics expand beyond super-heroes, if the medium is to achieve mainstream appeal. DC certainly does far more than its fair share in this regard, though its Vertigo line. Even so, these three titles are worth special attention for those who love the medium, not only the super-hero genre.

The first is All-Star Western, not to be confused with DC’s (apparently defunct?) All Star line (featuring out-of-continuity takes on its characters by prominent creators), stars Jonah Hex. Rather, the series takes its title from All-Star Western (it’s not clear whether the relaunch will have the hyphen or not, when it’s actually published), an old DC Western anthology in which Jonah Hex first appeared (in #10, Feb-Mar 1972).

Hex is a hard-nosed Western DC character best known to the general public as the star of the incredibly poorly-reviewed 2010 film (titled Jonah Hex) that took liberties with the character, adding supernatural elements out of synch with his best-loved comics depictions.

Fortunately, this revival of the character doesn’t take such liberties. In fact, this series is a continuation under a different name of Jonah Hex, an ongoing launched in 2005 and only cancelled for this line-wide relaunch. It’s even written by the same writers, Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Grey, here accompanied by the artist Moritat. In a smart move to attract readers, the new title’s initial storyline has Hex in Gotham City and stars Amadeus Arkham, the founder of Batman’s Arkham Asylum.

All Star Western has the distinction of being the only relaunched DC title that will, at least initially, include back-up material — in this case, stories by the same creative team and starring other DC Western heroes. DC attempted to add back-ups to many of its titles a couple years back, but it abandoned this experiment in favor of cutting titles’ page counts to 20 as a means of keeping cover prices down.

The other two non-super-hero, non-supernatural titles are war comics. The first is The Men of War, starring a new version of Sgt. Rock, a character who commanded Easy Company during World War II and is most prominently associated with Joe Kubert, the artist (and later writer) who co-created the character. Sgt. Rock, largely forgotten for many years, has enjoyed a minor renaissance in the 2000s, including an original graphic novel (2003′s Between Hell and a Hard Place, written by Brian Azzarello and illustrated by Joe Kubert himself) and two mini-series (2006′s The Prophecy, entirely by Kubert, and 2008-2009′s The Lost Battalion, by Bill Tucci).

The Men of War, written by Ivan Brandon with art by Tom Derenick, doesn’t star this Sgt. Rock, however. Instead, it’s set in the present and stars his grandson, who “assumes the command of Easy Company.” This isn’t your father’s Easy Company either; instead, it’s “a team of crack ex-military men financed by a covert military contractor.”

The series has apparently been retitled in just the last week, when it was originally announced as Sgt. Rock and the Men of War. The new description doesn’t mention that the new Rock has that rank.

This premise is promising: although military contractors account, by most estimates, for the majority of U.S. boots on the ground, they’re rarely discussed by either the Pentagon or the press, and many Americans barely know they exist. They’ve also been associated with several horrifying war crimes alleged against the U.S. in recent years (and in some cases proven, including some to which the U.S. has admitted), including simply shooting civilians (which by virtually all reliable accounts wasn’t an isolated incident). These companies have little accountability to the public and may even have little to the Pentagon, which some of them have repeatedly overcharged.

(To be fair and since I know others will point it out, yes, plenty of other nations commit war crimes. Such crimes are being perpetrated to this present day, and many are far worse than most of those even alleged against the U.S. But presumably, this comic is going to feature a U.S. military contractor, and so the concern about its realism, and the very real dangers if it’s negligently lacking, concern U.S. actions. I’d have a similar reaction to a depiction of the Taliban or Saddam Hussein that omitted their horrible crimes, and it’s neither fair nor patriotic to ignore the horrors of your own soldiers, while underlining those of your enemy. That’s what totalitarian regimes do, and it’s certainly at odds with anything resembling the very great and laudable ideals of the nation in which I hold citizenship, the United States of America.)

Surely then, The Men of War provides an excellent setting with which to tell hard-hitting stories of how war is really fought, as opposed to the glamorous way in which it is usually depicted in fiction. The issue’s description even promises “contemporary military story fighting under modern conditions.”

Oh, wait. The team must “brave the battle-scarred landscape carved by the DC Universe’s super-villains.”

Well, this could still be a good comic, the war equivalent of Gotham Central, which focused on Gotham City’s policemen. Of all DC’s relaunched titles, this just might be the most experimental, particularly if it depicts the absolute carnage, including dead and horribly wounded people, that’s so casually left by super-hero battles. Though it’s doubtful any such reality will make its way into the actual comic. Let alone the actual truth behind “contemporary military… fighting… conditions.”

Which, in the midst of such horrors, would actually be kind of offensive. Though we’ll have to wait for the actual comic to see just how badly it walks into this particular trap.

(Yeah, I know, we still have Vertigo for such mature war stories, and DC’s certainly to be commended for that. I’m also certainly sensitive to the argument that it’s ultimately the public to blame, in a capitalist economy, for the success of any offensively brushed-over depictions of contemporary warfare. But it is worth stating that, in a world with very real horrors, including systematic use of rape as a weapon of war, as is currently occurring in the Sudan and in other locations, that we not ignore reality. This is all the more important in a democracy, or even a republic, in which our votes may determine whether we ignore, attempt to solve, or perpetuate such problems.)

The third non-super-hero, non-supernatural comic (if you count The Men of War as a non-super-hero title, which it’s clearly not) is Blackhawks, based on DC’s team of airplane aces.

This reinvention, written by Mike Costa with art by Ken Lashley, doesn’t reference planes at all. Instead, it describes the Blackhawks as “an elite group of mercenaries made up of brave men from around the world equipped with the latest in cutting-edge hardware and vehicles.” The description also emphasizes that the team is preemptive. “Their mission: Kill the bad guys before they kill us.” And their foes? “The world’s gravest threats.”

All of which sounds slightly less subtle than G.I. Joe (which, for the record, I generally enjoy) and rather more like military porn. So while this may be a war comic (it’s unclear whether they’ll be super-heroes around, but this is apparently set in the DCU), it’s not the kind of war comic that the best Sgt. Rock stories were — stories that questioned war, that depicted it as full of tragedy and mistakes, however necessary, and certainly didn’t depict soldiers as invulnerable badasses (which really only appeal to the most non-badass amongst us). No, this seems to be advertising itself as thoughtless propaganda.

Of course, the description might be totally wrong, at odds with the actual contents.

Even if it’s not, and if The Men of War doesn’t rise to its potential either, it would be hard to fully blame DC, nor the creators of these titles. After all, war comics usually sell poorly, and even realistic war movies don’t do well. Military porn, on the other hand, seems to have more of a market, and if you can throw in some super-heroes, all the better, in terms of sales. Sure, the argument can certainly be made that even offensively unrealistic titles, in genres other than the super-hero genre, promote those genres, which is crucial to the survival of American comics. Dumbing such stories down may be necessary, if such genres are to gain mass appeal. And there’s always Vertigo — which, in theory, readers of these DC Universe titles might migrate to. That would certainly be good for the medium and for DC’s long-term health.

But it’s still important to point out how dangerous such war titles might be. What’s good for the medium (and for Hollywood sales) isn’t always good for the brains or the spirits of the audience, let alone the democracy. Having said my peace, here at the end of this long exploration of DC’s relaunches, I’ll get off my soapbox.

Read the Rest

This examination of DC’s line-wide relaunch has two other installments:

“The Big Guns” examines the relaunch’s offerings for the Justice League, Batman, Green Lantern, Superman, Flash, and Wonder Woman.

“The Rest of the Super-Heroes” examines the rest of DC’s new super-hero offerings, including a promising new Aquaman series, new WildStorm-based titles such as Stormwatch, and many more.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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