The New 52:

A Year in Review

When I opened Action Comics #1 and saw Superman, I was stunned. It was probably a shared reaction. There Superman was, standing on a guard rail with a malcontent in his arms, a host of armed guards with their guns set on the Man of Steel, and I wondered, “what happened to the Christopher Reeve Superman?”

The following issue had him in an electric chair, with wide vacant eyes, like a feral creature, and it seemed to me that the inevitable had happened: Superman was going back to the 80s, when comics were gritty and violent to stab at the establishment’s hold on order and decency.  The reactionary appeal reminded me a lot, I admit, of the first few issues of Jack Kirby’s “Superman’s EX-Pal Jimmy Olsen,” where on every cover Superman was in the throes of delirium, and at the mercy of a roving band of merciless hippies and beatniks. But as memory serves, those few opening pages unleashed a new expanse of cosmic geography that changed DC for the better. It was the New Gods of New Genesis and Apokolips that brought out a new spectrum of drama in the DCU, especially when it received the attention of DC’s better writers.

God bless Grant Morrison for Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne. We should only be so lucky.

However, this change is ambiguous, a veritable Black Swan event for the comic medium. Clearly, by resetting the DCU continuum, the ability to conceive organically contemporary narratives nestled in the postmodern cultural hegemony is now within DC’s reach. Being an age where distribution philosophies are at an impasse with new technologies, and as the steady loss in profits have resulted in the spawning of strange new worlds, whether or not this is merely a publicity stunt to boost readership for the aging publishing giant is debatable. Is the reassessment of DC’s premier characters a wise endeavor, when the descent from Olympus could hopelessly ground them in the mundane? Or will the essence of DC idealism shine through like a bastion of hope in the night? After a year of surveying the work DC has to offer, the future is hopeful but the compromise could effectively ruin DC.

Part of what brought DC to this place are the changing times. Like it or not, the world has gotten larger and smaller at the same time. With the introduction of a multiverse, sown into the mythology of the Crisis on Infinite Earths, the cosmology of DC is ad infinitum. But a predictability has pervaded the continuum, which has been long held at bay by increasingly introspective story arcs. Undoubtedly, my favorite was from Batman: RIP, where Batman constructs a psychological shield against the mental assault of The Black Glove in the form of a split personality. Now that the graphic art medium has moved into the 21th century, more than inks and pencils are required to make the enduring staples successful. The New 52 is all about this; doing its darnedest to get us to care about what these heroes have to say. Part of this involves emphasizing the physicality of the new heroes, especially the “trinity” of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.

Morrison’s debut Superman reminds us of the Fleischer era, where the Man of Steel bends girders and knocks down pillars of concrete with his bare hands. He can no longer fly, at least for the first few issues, but is married to the Earth as a humble immigrant fused into the milieu of American diversity. Wonder Woman, no longer the clay child of Hippolyta, is a flesh and blood child of the Gods themselves. This was perhaps the most intriguing of the changes made to DC’s pantheon. The Greek statues of the classical era, and those fashioned in the resurgence of classicism in the Renaissance, epitomized the triumph of human perfection. Michelangelo’s David, whose hands were slightly larger in proportion to his other appendages, conceived that man controlled the physical world, that perfection could be fashioned from it, thereby giving birth to a spiritual utopia. Now, Wonder Woman is no longer a statement of the ideal woman; she is flesh and blood, finite. Batman, in a lesser degree, converges on this theme as well. Blood lines and esoteric masonic-like cults that rule the city of Gotham are of key interest. No longer is it simply Batman warring against institutionalized criminal underworlds, but an entire city, every brick and mortar inch of it. But what is most intriguing of the New 52 reboots is that Batman is by far, not surprisingly, one of the least affected.

So what can be said about the New 52?

The initial aim of the New 52 is modernization. On the eve of the reboot, many of the time lines were coming to close. Superman in All-Star Superman comes down with solar cancer, Batman beats a bullet infused with Omega Energy, and Booster Gold actually saves the multiverse in 52! Much of the concern, I think, was with cementing the archetypes into memory, that way the old audiences could read into the reboots the tried and true characteristics of older incarnations. It’s hard to forget the ending of All-Star Superman, when Superman fails to convince Lois that he was really Clark all along. This is a statement against Kal-El’s link to the physical world. Clark, in Lois’s mind, couldn’t be Superman, otherwise her hero and lover would be chained to a limited reality, thereby making him mortal and no longer a god.

It is The New 52′s mission to change all of that, which, I imagine, was tough for long time fans of their prospective franchises. When the reboot happened, I decided to pick up my favorite titles, the “trinity” and Green Arrow, and with each of them, in accounting their changes, I thought it was interesting that Batman, and arguably Green Lantern, had the least amount of changes. Much of the “cape-crusadery” has gone untouched with certain speed bumps, like Barbara Gordon’s paralysis, happily removed. Batman still broods and laments the haggard condition of Gotham, but his role of wealthy benefactor has been emphasized, his life as the Bat and Wayne working in tandem. With many nods to the Nolan reboot, there are a lot of placement details, such as the inclusion of ancient underground structures built beneath Gotham, that are obviously fueling its success. Then again, Batman has always remained the strongest DC title for being grounded in realism. The limited scope of Batman’s physical endurance also repeatedly conflicts with his own conception of his godhood. Yet, its commercial success draws heavily from the surrounding Batman-friendly culture, especially given the timely release coinciding with Arkham City. Gotham Tower, where much of the video game’s climax occurs, serves as the starting point for the new Batman mythology. This is no accident, and poses a question of whether or not DC is simply expanding their universe, breaking ground into virtual media, or simply laying gems of product placement.

The way to most appropriately describe The New 52 would be a Silver Age creativity infused with the Postmodern Cultural Hegemony. I mentioned this in passing earlier and will now clarify what I mean by this. Today, as more and more structures and institutions deteriorate and come into question, this philosophy spills into all sectors of government and domestic affairs. We find it in film and media, especially in Inception where the distinctions between reality and dreams are obfuscated and demolished. This is what’s happening in comics, but was already long coming, especially in Final Crisis when the fall of Darkseid draws the Earth into a singularity, thereby mingling it with the darkness of Apokolips. What we find in Green Arrow follows these questionings of contemporary society, depicting a new, rapidly changing world, where mass implementation of the internet has evolved a new culture from within that fuels the criminal psyche with dreams of aggrandizement and success before a global audience. In this environment, the criminal element has ascended to celebrity status.

Apart from that, much of Green Arrow’s core personality has not changed. Ollie is still a tough-as-nails crusading vigilante more concerned with the “little guy” than that of his fortune 500 company, though his circumstances have changed substantially. It was no mystery to the reader prior to the reboot that Ollie served as a contemporary Robin Hood masquerading among the concrete forests of bustling metropolises, facing down the criminal element, and recovering taken ground. However, now we see Ollie as one conflicted between his corporate life and his personal, considered a spoiled child, and waiting for adult responsibility to take hold. Part of what makes this time line so postmodern is it’s deconstructing of the old super-hero paradigm of the secret identity.

Here, the secret identity is an outdated construct, and the lines have been blurred to emphasize how little distinction there is now between the two. This works in line with the Nolan’s DC interpretation: the individual becomes the symbol, the ideal, while the drama of the ideal subsuming the life of the individual becomes the primary focus. Ollie also isn’t as liberally-minded as he was before, no longer the anarchist that his older self was. This is an odd development when super-heros, like Alan Scott in James Robinson and Nichola Scott’s Earth 2, are coming out of closets and marching in civil rights parades more often than ever. Instead, however, Ollie laments the downfall of human decency due to the constant immersions into dehumanizing technological structures like the internet, particularly social networking sites. It’s no longer foiling supermarket robberies in the slums, but decrying a world gone techno, and the loss of human individuality. I suppose the irony isn’t lost on Green Arrow being a Steve Jobs that fights crime against web-streaming technology, while heading Q-Core, the Apple contemporary of DC.

Considering the induction of various Vertigo and Wildstorm franchises into the Justice League and into greater incorporation into the DCU, I think DC has something going for themselves that could truly profit. While my initial knee-jerk reaction to Wonder Woman was disappointment – seeing them attempting, haphazardly, to integrate the essence of the disgruntled Endless from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman mythos into Wonder Woman #1 – I gave it a few issues and found that it really helped to flesh out a better drama than previous incarnations. Before, Wonder Woman was diametric, better at settling scores than implementing diplomacy. Now she has a voice, a mind, conflicting loyalties, beyond that of a creature of clay. While I am disappointed that she no longer has any archetypical significance, Wonder Woman now can be more unpredictable which allows for better writing in general. Perhaps it’s better to not foil a good formula, but the heavy reliance off of Gaiman’s art direction and character building from his Sandman works, was disconcerting. Where to draw the line between homage and pandering is a difficult one, but I am certain this wasn’t at all done on accident. Clearly, the success of the Vertigo title has driven DC to take on the abstract approach to character building and arc-plotting, amounting even to the inclusion of Lennox, a John Constantine-like character who blurs the line between human and divine as an intermediary. On a whole, however, Vertigo’s inclusion and intermingling within the DCU encourages me. Already Vertigo was pushing out genre-busting material, and it’s only a matter of time until a wealth of new arcs arrive on scene to work their magic.

Ultimately, times change, people change, and even comics change. This is inevitable. Yet, I can’t help but feel something is amiss. What made DC special was its archetypes. What made DC endure was its archetypes. Now that this has been done away with, I am feeling left out. It’s clear that the two players in the industry, DC and Marvel, have been at war for the diminishing affections of their readership. Marvel historically has brought human characters to the mix, giving ordinary, hurting, disenfranchised individuals powers and seeing what happens. The X-men have been and always will be a perfect allegory to the civil rights movement, then involving African American freedoms, now bolstering homosexual rights and privileges. While this is a great use of cultural commentary, embedded in graphic art and entertainment mediums, it will not be remembered. Historically, every generation has had something to say. Only a hundred years ago, the syndicated novel was extremely popular, filled with declarations of war against institutionalized injustices from Dickens to Twain. Now you’d be lucky to find a handful who are even familiar with their names, let alone the social intonations they were embedding into their texts.

DC is more.

It’s more than just messages against crime and disenfranchisement, it’s symbolic, archetypical, legendary. Superman, like Grant Morrison insists, is an enduring symbol of freedom and stability. He will always be there at the right place, at the right time, ready to act. Batman is eternal, the spirit of retribution and vengeance, an idealized formulation of justice that never stops, that is always vigilant at the darkest hour. Green Lantern is chosen, a mere human elected to a higher role and purpose, to enforce order with the power of will. Hal Jordan is the unknown soldier fighting behind enemy lines, going where no man in tights has gone before to be an emissary for the human race in a growing cosmos.

This is what DC is all about!

Now, with the stripping down of title characters, I firmly believe for the first time in decades writers have a wealth of emotive content to work with. This is great! DC made a come back in readership for almost an entire year until Avengers versus X-Men made it’s debut in April of this year. But this comes at an immeasurable cost. Will we remember Action Comics #1 Superman fifty years from now? Will he endure?

DC’s Animated Universe, as toned down as it was, clearly worked with some of these New 52 elements long before they were even announced, and still maintained the idealism of the characters while giving writers great material. Wonder Woman finds out her Mother and Hades had a thing, “molding” her together. Superman’s conquest of Earth at the head of Darkseid led to his estrangement from the world, ultimately setting up the events from Justice League Unlimited Season 1. Green Arrow even could be an anarchist while still feeling threatened by the meta-humans around him. The cost of archetypes may be too steep for DC and it is my hope that I am wrong.  Or, perhaps postmodernism pronounced the death of the costumed hero of the golden and silver age? I look forward eagerly to the future, that I may share the joy of comics with my own children someday. My only hope is that I won’t need to pull out Kingdom Come and All-Star Superman to symbolically illustrate the Death of Superman. Wouldn’t that be something?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stuart Warren is a columnist and the webmaster for Sequart Organization. Stuart earned a BA in English with an emphasis in Early Modern Studies at University of California Santa Barbara. An avid reader and historian, Stuart researches Nordic mythology and paganism and is self-taught in the Norwegian language (Bokmål). His blog Through the Eyes of Fjølne features resources for fledgling authors and tutorials on story crafting. Spirit of Orn, his breakout Science Fantasy epic is now available for purchase via Amazon Kindle and iBooks.

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