Saturday, June 18, 2011

The New DC: Change is good

There has been no shortage of commentary on the recent announcements from DC of a line-wide recharge of its superhero comics. You don’t have to go far to find people making breathless checklists and sneering (with a fair amount of justification) at the latest abominably-looking iteration of the Teen Titans.

Unfortunately, the real story is one that nobody can get out of DC. As Tucker Stone pointed out in his latest excellent batch of reviews, all of the current conversation is born of PR and hype, and nobody except DC has any idea of how this mass saturation is going to affect the company’s revenue streams, or the actual difference in numbers between sell-thru and pre-sales.

That’s to be expected – companies don’t release information like that as a general rule, because that would be fiscally irresponsible.

Making an effort at looking at this bigger picture, beyond the fevered solicitation information, should be applauded, but it won’t be happening here. Because I have absolutely no financial stake in the comic book industry, from publishing to retailing, I’m criminally underqualified to make sweeping judgements about what it all means to release 52 new comics in a short period of time in business terms. (Not that this stops a lot of other people.)

But as somebody who has been reading DC comics for 33 years and genuinely enjoying a large swathe of them, I got all sorts of opinions.

Don’t we all?

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Basically, I’m all for it, even though I’m only getting one of the new comics.

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I have absolutely no personal interest in digital comics, but I do think they are a wonderful thing, getting comics into the hands of people who do like them in that format.

Any sort of moves in this direction will undoubtedly have some unfortunate consequences for comic shop owners, but there are a lot of people out there who don’t have access to any kind of comics and don’t have any problems with reading off an electronic device, so to wilfully ignore this potential audience is ridiculous.

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Change is good. It’s always a bit painful, but that’s a small price to pay. New comics, new directions, new ways of thinking about stuff. There is nothing wrong with this. That’s how you get the best superhero comics.

If you throw enough shit at the wall, some of it is bound to stick. Most of it will still be shit, but it’s easier than ever to find the gems in the muck.

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One unfortunate side effect of a line-wide reboot is a refusal to acknowledge the past, mixing it up with a reluctance to really start afresh. It’s all about the now, but you can’t write off the recent past.

It was remarkably hard to find any pre-Crisis DC comics when I was hitting the zenith of my comics obsession as a teenager in the late 1980s, mainly because I wasn’t anywhere near a place where I could buy back issues, but also because DC refused to do any kind of reprints. In order to make Crisis seem big and important, the door was closed entirely on the old continuity.

While reprints of stuff going back to the golden age had bulked out dozens of DC titles in the seventies, they were all phased out by the time Crisis finished. Even the digest reprints dried up, and the trade paperback options were severely limited.

It’s a lot different today – some surprisingly esoteric work from every period of comics can be found in print today, and digital back catalogues have a huge amount of value for comic companies, even if they don’t seem to always realise it.

But there is no need to write off everything in the past. Just because the original Superman Red/Superman Blue from the 1950s story doesn’t count any more, doesn’t mean that it isn’t still a witty, dense and moving little comic.

The idea that a reboot of a superhero continuity immediately invalidates everything before it is pretty stupid. That every story that takes place before some editorial kickstart no longer matters. They aren’t important.

Marvel are into it, with ones senior executive joining in the fun by pointing out that the next three months of DC comics no longer count, so obviously all right-thinking people will be buying Deadpool instead.

There is a history to comics that can’t be ignored, no matter how many times they slap a #1 on a cover. It’s always there, no matter how hard you try to ignore it.

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There is only one real issue when you do get direct acknowledgement of the past – it means these comic universe don’t ever get the hard reboot they need.

Many of the forthcoming new DC titles seem to be set in strange new worlds, but many – including the Green Lantern titles – are apparently still telling the same story they’ve been doing for the past few years.

A bit of this, and a bit of that. This never works.

It just means that the new great comic wonder writer will have to come along and reset everything again, but there will be some things that everybody tells them to hold onto, and it will all need to be done all over again.

This half-arsed effort is never a good idea. The Legion of Superheroes and Hawkman should have started again with everyone else when Crisis finished, and a refusal to give up the toys led to irreversible damage to the concepts and characters.

All or nothing. Why not give the Green Lantern series a proper ending, with Hal Jordan finally winning his interminable war of colours, and then starting it off again with something genuinely new?

Why not? Because it wouldn’t count? Does Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow still matter just because it was immediately invalidated? Does that wink at the end mean anything?

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I have to admit, that after all that, I’m still only definitely buying one new comic out of all this – Action Comics #1.

Even though it has the most boring premise of any of them – we’ve only seen the story of Superman revealing himself to the world a dozen or so times in the past decade – it’s a Grant Morrison Superman comic, and that’s more than enough.

There are plenty I wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot Scotsman. Anything by the same people who have been producing the staggeringly boring DC comics of the last few years isn’t going to convince me that its all new and all different just because the same dull creators are working on different characters in an issue with #1 on the cover.

But there is so much stuff being produced that there is bound to be something unexpectedly good in there. All you can do is take the advise of trusted sources and try and get on board with the things that suit your tastes.

After all, these things are still bloody expensive – a $2.99 comics is still more than $7 in local money – and there is no way I can even afford a small and random sampling of new stuff, without some idea of whether or not it’s going to hit the right buttons.

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DC’s move is a classic ‘news/not news’ situation – “Comics company relaunches its superhero titles” is not a unique headline.

But it’s fascinating to watch an industry behemoth like DC try something a bit different. Some of the new titles already look laughably bad and misguided, but at least they’re trying.

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