I Can Haz Do-over?

Much has been made of DC Comics and the “reboot” of their entire comic book universe. I won’t summarize the entire deal, although if you want to get caught up on what’s going on you can find plenty of resources online. I’m partial to Tor.com’s Readers Guide, headed up by Tim Callahan.

As a comics reader and an amateur scholar/practitioner of the form – and as a long-time fan of the DC Comics universe – I suppose my two cents are long overdue:

  • I’m skeptical. It smacks of an attention-grabbing ploy, from the marketing side of things. I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way; everything needs marketing, and comic book readership is dwindling (print readership is dwindling, period). All the same, for the past few years (and this goes for both Marvel and DC Comics’ event stories) I’ve been suffering from what comic book fans and press call “event fatigue.” I kinda just want the comic book companies to settle down a bit and just let their artistic personnel tell cool, compelling stories with minimal editorial interference (I also want a tree that grows money, and a flying car). I’m worried that, after twelve months of this reboot, DC will find a way to segue it into yet another big event that will change things yet again.
  • I’m hopeful. Maybe hitting the “reset” button and blowing the cartridge a bit will make things run smoother. The fact is, the writing at DC has been a bit, ahem, uneven for awhile now. Some of their comics have flat-out sucked it up lately (Green Arrow and JLA being chief offenders). At other times, comics at DC have suffered from trying to tie into whatever big project/direction the company had running. Brightest Day arguably did more harm for some characters than good (although it did bring back Swamp Thing, which rocks). Maybe this will give writers and artists an opportunity to concentrate on telling cool, compelling stories, provided editorial interference is minimal (there seems to be a running thread developing here).
  • I like the emphasis on same-day digital release. This isn’t good for comic shops, since they operate primarily on in-store visits (obviously), but it may be good for comic book companies like DC. The fact is, it isn’t likely to make things worse for DC, unless their writing and stories just go in the toilet completely. Print reading is going down and e-reading is going up (I don’t have an e-reader yet, but I can imagine how good Action Comics will look on an iPad or a Nook). Of everything they’re doing, the digital push is the surest bet.

Another benefit of the DC reboot: it should be a lot easier for me to dress up as Superman at Halloween now.

As a writer, one of the biggest lessons I’ve ever learned is that the start of a story is its most important part. The introduction is crucial; it sets the tone for everything to follow. Botched starts can be (and frequently are) “retconned” out of existence, but let’s get real here: if it was published, it happened. Even if the official history of the story says it’s not true, people still read it, and they will bring it up, again and again. Especially if it sucks.

To that end, today DC Comics released Flashpoint #5, the end of their current big event comic, which involves The Flash being trapped in an alternate timeline where all of his superhero buddies are either depowered or colossal dicks, basically. The world is going to hell and it’s their fault, and (SPOILER BEGINS) in some way that is finally explained in this issue, it’s The Flash’s fault too (SPOILER ENDS). That issue also provides the transition between the old DC universe and the new DC universe, which is unveiled all shiny and new in the re-launched Justice League, written by Geoff Johns and drawn by Jim Lee. This new volume of Justice League is supposed to serve as the origin story for the JLA, but also as an origin story for the new universe, in its own way.

This move to the new universe was already kinda botched by giving it away early, due to the solicitation process used to sell comic books to shops and establish initial pull lists. This wound up robbing Flashpoint of much of its mojo, essentially signalling the end before the event was halfway over. But good writing trumps all, right? If the story of Flashpoint wraps up in a satisfactory fashion, and if Justice League starts well, it’s all good. Right? Good first impressions and all that jazz.

Having read both issues, I can give my answer to the question of whether the new DC universe gets off to a good start:

Flashpoint #5 has its moments, but ultimately it’s a sloppy end to a sloppy story. The whole event never really gelled the way I think it was supposed to, in my opinion. It felt less like a high-stakes armageddon of the DC universe and more like a high profile “what if?” story, much like some of the stories in DC’s Elseworlds line (which already has its own Flashpoint, interestingly enough). The thing is, the story is pretty good if you read it on a much lower scale than what it was blown up to.

It’s part-travelogue of an alternate hellhole, part-character study of The Flash and Batman. On the first level, it’s interesting, though not particularly original or distinct. On the second level, it’s actually really compelling. It examines how The Flash and Batman are defined by the respective tragedies that formed them (the deaths of their parents, specifically), then poses a “what if?” founded on the premise that those tragedies either didn’t happen (The Flash’s mom lives) or happened differently (Bruce Wayne dies instead of his parents, leading his father to become the alternate Batman). The best part of the issue comes at the end, where the new DC universe Batman and Flash discuss the lingering impacts of their parents, which leads to a really touching scene that I’m not going to spoil for anyone. I will say that this scene almost makes the purchase of the issue worthwhile.

The whole of Flashpoint, however, is a lesson in how not to plot a miniseries. It meanders through various zones in the story, lending it the feel of a travelogue, as opposed to an actual plot. Once the big bad is revealed (naturally, it’s the Reverse Flash) and how he hoodwinked The Flash with this new universe, the actual mechanics of how this alternate world is created comes into question. The inciting incident for the branching of the universes, when revealed, makes no sense at all as an explanation for why the other things happen the way they do. I kept tripping over this, even as the issue surged forward.

Justice League #1, meanwhile, feels like a flashback to the comics that were published in my childhood, in no small part due to Jim Lee, who DC brought back in to redesign everyone’s outfits and draw Justice League. As you can see, the new look for the heroes isn’t terribly different from the old look, aside from Superman losing his red undies and everyone sporting unnecessary armor lines on their outfits.

The first issue is big on action and snappy dialogue, taking the blockbuster approach to starting things off. This works, but only partly. The part that works is Lee’s art. It maintains a consistently high quality throughout, and he blocks physical action quite well. There’s an opening splash page layout of Batman evading Gotham City police that I severely want on my wall as a poster. The redesigns also hold up surprisingly well in action. I was worried all of the little flourishes on the costumes would look wonky once they started moving, but luckily that’s not the case.

The part that doesn’t work is, once again, the writing, especially the handling of the characters. This issue serves an an intro for how Batman and Green Lantern meet each other for the first time in Gotham City while chasing down an alien baddie. As can be expected, the two of them clash and posture to one another for much of the issue. This falters, primarily because of Johns’ handle on the younger versions of these characters. Like I said before, this comic is supposed to take place in the early stages of the Justice League’s history. The characters are younger, less refined, a little rawer than we’re accustomed to seeing.

Apparently, “younger” means “douchier,” because that’s exactly how the Green Lantern reads. This really surprised me, given the good work Johns has done with the character in the past, but the young Green Lantern is a laughable prick. Hal Jordan has always been a little cocksure and reckless, usually tempered by a genuinely noble demeanor. This version of Hal Jordan reads like a caricature in comparison, like a bad fan-fiction version. Johns’s Batman is much more convincing, which really surprises me because he hasn’t had much experience with the character (I’ve suspected at times he simply doesn’t like Batman as a character).

The next issue promises a big clash between Batman and the newly redesigned Superman (I imagine Green Lantern will be sitting on the sidelines, eating popcorn and making wisecracks). I certainly hope it goes better than the meeting between Batman and Green Lantern did. Otherwise, I get to look forward to more stilted dialogue and unintuitive characterization.

It should be noted that there are 52 series relaunches in all, and this is only one of them. DC has 51 other chances to impress me and convince me that this new direction is one worth taking, and I’m sure that many of them will be successful. And, the chance still remains that Justice League #2 will pick up the slack and give me something worthwhile aside from Jim Lee’s artwork. I’m more than willing to suspend judgment until I read the rest of what DC has in store. As far as first impressions go, though, I can’t help but think this could have gone much better.

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