DC Relaunch, Week One: Start at the Very Beginning

Posted by Caroline
‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’ — “Alice in Wonderland”

“Start at the beginning” is the simplest and most obvious advice to give about storytelling and, like a lot of simple and obvious advice, it isn’t of very much use. Even when you’re starting to tell an entirely new story — even when it’s one that starts with “I am born,” or “In the beginning” – there will turn out to be a lot of conditions that you have to explain (“Who were your parents and how did all this come about?”) or assume (“I know I just said it was the beginning but God was already there, okay?”) And when you simultaneously start telling fifty-two new stories based on pre-existing characters, well. . .the whole idea of a “new beginning” turns out to be complicated.

Nonetheless, DC Comics has, by changing the numbers on the front of their comics, managed to get us all to play along with the mass delusion that this means they’re starting fresh. They’ve also changed some details of the characters’ stories, either to convince us that the changes are meaningful or just as an excuse to make them. Since hearing about this plan I’ve been skeptical about how effective the new start would be. Starting fifty-two interconnected titles at once doesn’t erase continuity. It just makes sideways continuity more important (because you need to establish anew how these stories are connected) and past-to-present continuity more confusing (because no one is sure whether the stories they’ve already read are still connected to the story that they’re reading.)

All of this is supposed to be worthwhile if it makes the books “accessible” to the elusive “new reader.” I understand the intimidation factor of high numbering, and not knowing where to start, but it still seems to me that new number ones could have been made based on the existing stories. (Psst, DC. Marvel does this all the time. You should remember because you used to make fun of them for it.)

Still, I’m not going to pretend to guess what a new reader would think. I’m not a “new” reader, except in one sense: I’ve only bought one DC book over the last three months, and it has been “relaunched” with an entirely different protagonist. I have gotten seven of the new DC titles, though, and I can talk about how they work as “first issues”.

The answer is, overall, not very well. There seems to be an idea on display in these books – and it’s much too pervasive to be laid on one particular writer, so I have to assume an editorial suggestion, if not a mandate – that the reason people don’t read comics is that things aren’t explained enough. That is the only way I can puzzle out five pages in the middle of Swamp Thing #1 in which (1) Alec Holland walks around a construction site looking at wood and thinking about stuff that happened to him (2) Superman flies up, and (3-5) Superman and Alec stand around talking about stuff that happened in the past. The stuff they talk about (a) sounds a lot cooler than most of what happens in this issue and (b) does little if anything to explain what does happen in this issue, which is mostly wordless action pages with confusing layouts.

That’s not to say this is a bad comic, by any means. Scott Snyder writes good dialogue, and despite a few clarity issues, artist Yanick Paquette and colorist Nathan Fairbairn turn in strong work. I like the creative team, I conceptually like Swamp Thing, and I have every expectation that I’ll keep buying this book. I just don’t think this issue introduces the series very well. I particularly don’t think that opening the book with shots of Superman, Batman, and Aquaman is a good move for a book whose selling point should be, “This is different from all those superhero books.” I wish this title well, but it would have made more sense with less explanation.

After Swamp Thing, I opened Scott McDaniel and John Rozum’s Static Shock and I thought, “Oh, this explaining is going to be a thing.” The first page is a picture of a guy in a cool costume, with glowing hands, riding through a cityscape in a floating bubble. There’s some kind of electric aura going on behind him. His chin juts out and he has a smile on his face. If looking at that picture doesn’t make you want to turn the page and find out who this guy is and what he is up to, you probably are not somebody who will care about his comic. It is, in short, a page that in no way needs to be cluttered up with caption boxes.

The page has five caption boxes. It is not the only page in this issue with a similar problem.

I think that Static Shock has the potential to be a strong teen-oriented superhero/action series. It’s not exactly my kind of series, since brash teen boy protagonists aren’t particularly my thing, but I appreciate that it exists. It represents the kind of comics I want the major companies to make more of, from the genuine relatability to young readers, to the representation of African-American characters, to the fact that it’s just bright and fun. I wish it felt a little less cluttered, though. I got the end feeling that, for all the exposition in this comic, I didn’t know much more about Static than I did when I started.

A couple books that dealt with characters I already knew pretty well were Action Comics by Grant Morrison and Rags Morales, and Batgirl by Gail Simone and Adrian Syaf. I don’t have a lot to say about Action. Here’s the part where I admit that my general feeling about Superman is, “He’s pretty okay.” I’m neither one to complain that he’s boring nor to rhapsodize about how the existence of the character elevates humanity. If Superman is actively a dick, the story will probably bug me, but otherwise I mostly go along with it and keep my eyes peeled for Lois. Superman is not a dick in this book. Lois is only in it for a couple of pages, but she’s pretty cool. Rags Morales draws weird faces. I cannot begin to guess what anyone with strong feelings about Superman, for or against, will think of this comic.

As for Batgirl. . . If you’ve been following any comics news at all, you likely know that Barbara Gordon is out of the wheelchair she long occupied as Oracle. Rather than taking her back to a place where she had never been shot by the Joker, though, this issue rewinds her to a time shortly after the shooting. Barbara has been cured by some unspecified “miracle,” and she is determined to get back on the streets.

Here’s the thing. In principle, if you described a story about a young female hero overcoming a traumatic event to get back to superheroing, I would be all over that book. Here’s the other thing: we had that book. It was the last two years of Batgirl starring Stephanie Brown. Barbara, meanwhile, had developed beyond her Batgirl identity to become a crucial part of the DCU as Oracle. By stripping away that development, yet still keeping the shooting as the defining point of her character, DC seems to have chosen the worst of every world. Gail Simone is a good writer, and if I could forget the history of this character and view the story as a genuine new beginning, I might be able to enjoy this series. Right now, though, I don’t see that happening.

Of the remaining books, I read two that genuinely were good “number 1 issues”. At least, Stormwatch, by Paul Cornell and Miguel Sepulveda, gave me what I want out of the first issue of a team book. The issue introduces a bunch of characters, shows them using their powers, and made me want to see them interact with each other more. For some readers, this book might not explain enough, or might explain too much in the wrong places, but for me it got the balance right.

Stormwatch made me want to come back in a way Justice League #1 did not. This Geoff Johns/Jim Lee title, released as the flagship for the DC Relaunch, is a perfectly okay comic, but it’s not even the best Bruce Wayne/Hal Jordan buddy movie that Johns has written in the last five years. Too much explaining their powers to each other, not enough getting in each other’s faces and talking about their dads.

The last and best of the new books I read is Animal Man by Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman. While every other title seems to have rejected opening explanatory pages in favor of caption boxes or expository dialogue, Lemire either missed the memo or sneaked this one past editorial. Or maybe the conceit was clever enough that they had to let it keep it. The introduction is almost too clever for me. It purports to be an interview with Animal Man conducted by Jeff Lemire with The Believer, a magazine that is the real-life baby of hipster-god Dave Eggers. I read this intro several times and, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out whether Lemire was making a genuine grab at hipster cred, or making fun of hipsters. To be fair, though, that’s how I feel about most articles in The Believer, so maybe Lemire knows what he’s doing.

However mixed my feelings about the execution, I like the idea of what Lemire is trying. (The Rolling Stone “interview” with Adrian Veidt is my favorite thing in Watchmen, so I do have a soft spot for this kind of faux artifact). In any case, the intro page gets the important things about Buddy “Animal Man” Baker out of the way and makes room for a fascinating story to unfold. It’s still a bit overcaptioned for my taste, but this is either a style thing I have to resign myself to or an editorial mandate that will go away after a while. Anyway, this story about Buddy and his family has a chilling payoff, and most importantly, it really is about family. Of all the new titles, this one has the clearest thematic statement that stands ready to carry the book forward.

That’s the thing about beginnings, which seems to get lost in all the talk about accessibility. In order to hook readers, it’s important to give them a way in. What matters in the long run, though, is giving them a reason to care. Once the dust settles on the new DCU, I’m very curious to find out which stories people still care about.

By Caroline Pruett
E-mail: Caroline@fantasticfangirls.org
Twitter: madmarvelgirl