Thursday, June 2, 2011

One Year Later: Five Years Later

At present, the comic book communities are all a fluster with the announcement that DC Comics is rebooting the DC Universe in September, starting 52 different titles over with new issue #1s. This will be the most recent DC continuity reboot since the previous DC continuity reboot.

Obviously, DC's reboot is an opportunity to court new readers. It's debatable whether they can truly reach beyond the typical comic book shop audience and lure new faces to the hobby, but they can certainly win over a few lapsed DC fans or mostly Marvel fans. The real opportunity to grow their fanbase will be on the internet, since part of this new publishing initiative is to put everything they print on sale digitally the same day as the print copy.

For those of us who already follow DC Comics (and I do, to the extent of Xombi, I suppose), it does prompt one to wonder how September's titles will be markedly different than what DC has been publishing for the past few years (other than a revised continuity). I mean, if I wasn't willing to buy Green Arrow by J.T. Krul before, why would I start buying Green Arrow by J.T. Krul now?

Some fans are wondering if its necessary to dump DC's heavily convoluted back story in order to win over new readers. Wouldn't a simple line-wide jumping-on point be sufficient, never mind jettisoning all which has come before? After all, by the time issue #2 of any title ships, it has officially begun building a back story.

Well, I'm reminded of 2006's One Year Later. Again, I'm not very devoted to DC Comics and I don't interact with DC fandom, but in '06 I went from picking up just the occasional DC Universe limited series to jumping in on four different DC Universe series, all because of One Year Later.

One Year Later followed on the heels of the Infinite Crisis crossover (which I didn't read) and proposed that between shipping months, an entire year had transpired for the stars of the DC Universe. Titles branded "One Year Later" would resume their characters' adventures with (allegedly) new (hopefully) exciting (undoubtedly) different stati quo. New costumes, new faces behind the costumes, new team lineups, yakata, yakata. I don't know if One Year Later was intended to be a "hook" to non-comics readers, but it seemed like a decent hook to the typical non-DC fanatic (so states this non-DC fanatic).

From the few reactions I observed online, I found a lot of upset fans. Rather than winning over new audiences, One Year Later seemed to alienate the core readership. Titles which had been struggling prior to OLY went belly-up in its aftermath and retailers complained about steady titles turning weak.

Five years later, I'm finally ready to share my own observations; journey with me now through the misty veil of history to the time man called...One Year Later.

Blue Beetle#1

Following the death of Ted Kord (the long-running Blue Beetle) just prior to Infinite Crisis, the torch is passed to Jamie Reyes, a Hispanic Texan teenager who accidentally inherits the (supposedly) mystical scarab which inspired Kord to become a crime fighter. Reyes discovers the scarab can fashion a suit of protective armor and generate a wide variety of weapons. The series was the brainchild of John Rogers but for several issues was co-written by Keith Giffen, apparently because Rogers wasn't strong enough on his own (five years later Rogers still doesn't have many credits to his name) and Giffen's connection to Ted Kord would evidently soften the blow over killing Ted Kord (which some fans are still sore about).

I didn't quite like Blue Beetle at the start; I enjoyed the humour, but the early issues delved into the scarab's connections to DC's world of magic, which was just turgid. Once it dropped the mystical angle, the series finally fired on all cylinders.

This series...works amazingly well. I don't think it would be controversial to suggest it was the biggest winner of OYL. Although it was eventually cancelled after 36 issues, it still performed better than Ted Kord's 1980s series (a series which benefited from two line-wide crossovers and Kord's Justice League membership, no less); Reyes is still the Blue Beetle at present (I suppose that may change come September?) and by the time Rogers completed his run with issue #25, the series had become a darling of the internet.

Superman#650

Having lost his powers in Infinite Crisis, Clark Kent has lived a normal life for a year and found it to his liking; however, Lex Luthor is scheming (isn't he always?), so Clark has to get his Superman on again, somehow. This series was co-written by Kurt Busiek & Geoff Johns and the initial story ("Up, Up and Away") crossed over with Action Comics.

Although this series was a collaboration, I couldn't always be sure which parts came from Johns and which from Busiek; both are lifelong fans of the super hero genre who love continuity and back story. That said, when Green Lantern asks Clark to join the Green Lantern Corps...yeah, I was suddenly reminded who one half of the team was.

For me, the highlight of the initial story was how Clark and Lois' relationship was handled, showing mutual respect for both characters and both characters mutual respect to each other. Clark's eventual repowering is also a lot of fun as he starts out back at his 1938 power levels and continues to gain strength. Each chapter of "Up, Up and Away" left me eager to see the next part, so it was certainly doing its job.

Busiek remained with Superman for a little while past this story. Although I wasn't very interested in his running storyarcs, I really enjoyed his done-in-one Superman stories, which reminded me of Busiek's Astro City work. You know, if the Superman series told a great done-in-one story every month, I'd probably buy it a lot more often. Heck, if every DC comic told done-in-one stories, I'd probably be in to buy them every week.

Hawkgirl#50

With Hawkman having recently died in...Infinite Crisis? His one-time lover Hawkgirl assumes the lead role and quickly finds herself in an occult mystery.

I was interested in Hawkgirl because Walter Simonson (author of my favourite Thor stories) had been brought in as writer. Joining him as artist was Howard Chaykin, whom I've never really warmed up to, but I was interested to discover in interviews how the two men were studio mates in their early years. I was intrigued to see what their collaboration would be like.

Hawkgirl#50 did not make a fan of me. The titular character only appears in costume during a dream scene, spending the rest as something of a plainclothes detective. Perhaps this was to accommodate Chaykin, who isn't really a super hero artist (but then why place Chaykin on a super hero series?). I also didn't have a good sense of what was at stake - Hawkgirl is solving a mystery, there's something to do with her nightmares, something vaguely occult happening, but I couldn't associate with the setting, characters or mystery. This was my only issue of Hawkgirl, a series which lasted just 17 issues under its new direction.

Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis#40

With Aquaman having...uh...gone away because of...Infinite Crisis? A young man with similar water-breathing powers is the new Aquaman and sets out for a romping fantasy adventure under the sea.

I was sold on this title as soon as I learned Kurt Busiek and Jackson Guice were the creative team. Reading advance interviews, I was very interested in the direction Busiek described as his Aquaman would have gained his powers through experiments as the original 40s Aquaman had (the latter Aquaman having become increasingly mystical). Not having read Aquaman in the past, I was happy to get in on the ground floor of a what would (essentially) be an all-new character.

Unfortunately, I wasn't in on the ground floor. This issue made all sorts of vague references to the earlier Aquaman, but wouldn't explain what had become with him. Also present was King Shark, who I guess was an Aquaman villain? I quickly realized I was missing key information as a neophyte to Aquaman's world. When I checked online reactions to this issue and saw all the talk about how the original Aquaman was really the Dweller in the Depths (the new Aquaman's octopus-faced mentor...no, seriously), I was aghast; I'd missed the clues entirely due to not being an Aquaman fan. I just...get a little upset at this comic even now. I so wanted to like it, but its land under the sea went over my head (thank you creative writing 101). Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis ran 18 issues.

Over all, I was won over to Blue Beetle and enjoyed a few good Superman stories, so One Year Later was a success to me in that sense; heck, I went from zero DC Universe titles to two. But when I hear how DC's September creative direction will be a great jumping-on point for new readers I still can't help but think, "yeah, Hawkgirl#50 and Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis#40 claimed the same thing." Well, the proof is in the pudding. Meet me back here in September, we'll see if I take the bait. Pudding as bait? Lousy metaphorical cliches...

3 comments:

Nitz the Bloody said...

I'm struck both by the audacity of the line-wide reboot, and the fact that like you said, it's a redoubling of the One Year Later effort. And, of course, another attempt to make Aquaman work. DC's not very good at actually changing their strategies, other than the new push for digital distribution.

Traumador said...

I will challenge your assertion that Blue Beetle was the best thing to come out of Year 1, and insist Birds of Prey was :P

Otherwise it really was rather rubbish, and was a definative step in driving me out of buying comics (cancelling many of my favs especially Batgirl)

Colin Smith said...

Your piece certainly made me realise that both DC and Marvel do have a huge amount of experience when it comes the repositioning of their titles. I'd not realised that in such a way before, because each new grand redevelopment of a book or a line seems to often lack a knowledge of the problems and achievements of previous efforts. (Not always. I thought the Heroic Age, for example, seemed grounded in some seriously considered thinking.) This grand assault of DC's is being undertaken in part by folks who've done all this before, of course, as well as their having access to the past quarter of a century of exemplars of how to - and how not to - reshape a line since Crisis.

By which I mean, it really will be interesting to see what happens here. And if nothing else, although I hope for a great deal more, this 'new DC' will be the mother and father of all case-studies about how to manage a portfolio of superhero properties.

But I do wonder what lessons will be drawn from the past. I too, for example, really did enjoy Blue Beetle, and yet I gave up the book because each comic tended to be thin rather than dense, a part of a schedule rather than an event in itself.

When a comic book becomes a unit in some greater scheme rather than an object which functions in its own terms, the chances are that it won't be worth investing in. That's something I realised once again - can't ever be reminded too much of this - when reading your piece on Cap 355 and the Lee/Claremont X-Men in your most recent post. Neither of those comics were entirely 'to my taste', but both WERE comics which served as satisfying reads in themselves. If that level of competence underlies the DC reboot, then I'm all for it.

Yet I have the horrible sense of a suicide throw being undertaken, a last-ditch technique of self-defense which, if it fails, leaves the individual utterly vulnerable.

Interesting times ...