Last September DC Entertainment—the folks who own Superman, Batman, and other big-name superheroes—cleaned house, culling their old titles, adding some new ones, and launching each of the 52 comics on the refurbished roster as a fresh product, labeled issue #1. That is to say, transforming the pop-culture universe as we know it. The result was marketed as the New 52. From Salon to Rolling Stone, the Atlantic to the Chicago Reader, columnists, bloggers, and the fashion forward expressed almost uncontainable excitement. It was like the rollout for Game of Thrones—times 52!
Or possibly not. The truth of the matter is that some mainstream outlets were mildly interested at first. Either that or they just couldn't resist getting "pow!" and "boom!" together in the same headline. Then a few writers like ThinkProgress.org's Alyssa Rosenberg noticed that a bunch of the new DC titles were sexist crap even by the admittedly low standards of the form. And then, basically, nothing. Comics blogs still follow this stuff, but nobody in the real world cares.
And if you want to know why, well, all you have to do is pick up some of the new DCs. You'd think that one purpose of a massive relaunch would be to offer an easy in to the uninitiated. Why reset to #1 if you don't want a new start? But when I picked up a handful of titles, I found myself right back in the same comic-nerds-only space I remember so well from my misspent youth.
In the "Animal Man" series, our hero is discovering that Everything He Thought He Knew About Himself Is Wrong, just as Alan Moore had Swamp Thing doing back in the 1980s. Indeed, writer Jeff Lemire has cobbled together his new (new!) Animal Man from random plot elements Moore used 30 years ago. In "Wonder Woman," our heroine is discovering that Everything She Thought She Knew About Herself Is Wrong, too, and that she's actually a daughter of Zeus, which allows lots of gods to wander in and out of panels saying profound things as if they were in a Neil Gaiman "Sandman" comic from, oh, say, 30 years ago (specifically the early "Sandman" issues, in which Gaiman was still trying to write horror like Moore). Batman, meanwhile, is discovering that Everything He Thought He Knew About Himself Is Wrong (detecting a pattern?)—though, to give him his due, the drooling, drugged out, crazy, victimized Caped Crusader envisioned by Scott Snyder is pretty entertaining, especially if you're as sick of the character as I am.
And then there's the "Red Hood and the Outlaws" series, in which writer Scott Lobdell has accomplished the impressive feat of taking only seven issues to create an intricate backstory that feels tedious enough to have been going on for decades.
The problem here isn't that these comics are formulaic pulp crap. Goodness knows I'm willing to consume formulaic pulp crap. I really liked that assemblage of superhero found footage called Chronicle, for example. And I even have a place in my heart for the 2011 remake of The Thing. I'm not proud.
But the DC relaunch is surprisingly unpleasurable. And while I'd like to blame the creative teams, I don't think it's entirely their fault. Well, yes, "Red Hood" is truly embarrassing shit. The writers and artists working on "Animal Man," "Wonder Woman," and "Batman" are all competent enough, though. They're hobbled by the fact that they have to use DC's 50- to 80-year-old characters to tell utterly irrelevant stories to an audience of ever-more-insular fanboys (and yes, it's almost entirely boys.)
TV serials, once almost as scorned as comics, were rejuvenated when they started going high-concept and scampering shamelessly after controversy. Fox's 24 is probably the most egregious example, with its countdown and its terrorism and its torture. But Mad Men qualifies, thanks to its period-feel gimmick, and so does its fellow AMC series Breaking Bad, with its meth!-the-drug-of-the-moment! schtick.
That's how pulp works. It's supposed to be crass, time-bound, and desperate for the next new shiny thing. But not superhero comics. They don't even bother trying, presumably because their core audience doesn't want them to.
My local comics retailer, James Nurss at First Aid Comics in Hyde Park, told me he's seen a significant boost in DC sales since the reboot. Marc-Oliver Frisch, who covers comics for news site The Beat, confirmed that this was the case industry-wide. But both suggested that the boost doesn't represent an influx of new blood. It comes from what Frisch referred to in an e-mail as "lapsed" readers—people who'd stopped buying DC and are picking them up again now. Buyers, in short, who were already part of the subculture. "I think it's fair to say," Frisch wrote, "that, thanks to the 'New 52,' DC is making more money selling more comic books to more of the same direct-market customers; no more, no less."
And lest you think I'm picking on DC, I also bought a couple of Marvel's new "Avengers vs. X-Men" comics in honor of the new Avengers film coming out May 4. Apparently the Phoenix force is endangering us all again, just as it did 30 years ago, when Christopher Claremont and John Byrne invented Wolverine, Jean Gray, and Cyclops as part of a high-concept team of international super-outcasts—i.e., the last time anyone at either Marvel or DC thought up new heroes that anybody cared about. The best you can hope for these days is that the old heroes will discover that everything they thought they knew about themselves is wrong, while the rest of the world is busy getting its schlocky pulp fun somewhere else.