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The algebra of infinite crises

The algebra of infinite crises
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First Published: Fri, Sep 16 2011. 07 54 PM IST

Kindly revert: (from left) Batman, Joker and Flash are part of DC Comics’ full-scale reinvention; and DC’s classic American hero Superman. Photo by Taschen/Bloomberg.
Kindly revert: (from left) Batman, Joker and Flash are part of DC Comics’ full-scale reinvention; and DC’s classic American hero Superman. Photo by Taschen/Bloomberg.
Updated: Fri, Sep 16 2011. 07 54 PM IST
For the last three months, Internet users everywhere had their newsfeeds bombarded with articles which read like The Onion mated awkwardly with MAD magazine, producing a baby obsessed with superhero fashion.
Normals among these readers wondered incredulously about the sudden flood of worldwide interest in whether Wonder Woman needs pants or Superman rocks his briefs.
But nerds knew what was coming. Boy, did we know. You see, it’s happened three times in the last 25 years. Only this time, they’re serious. DC Comics has destroyed the universe. Again.
Kindly revert: (from left) Batman, Joker and Flash are part of DC Comics’ full-scale reinvention; and DC’s classic American hero Superman. Photo by Taschen/Bloomberg.
This May, the venerable publisher announced the rebooting of the DC Universe (DCU) in September. Coming on the heels of the recent Flashpoint crossover event (see column, Flashpoint Batman, facing page), this involves restarting most mainstream DCU titles from Issue 1, a few cancellations and the launch of some new titles, bringing the total to 52 ongoing series per month.
Spearheaded by DC’s chief creative officer Geoff Johns and co-publishers Jim Lee and Dan DiDio, the reboot also alters parts of the fictional universe; new outfits (pants or no pants?), character histories and the changing (or erasing) of previous continuity. The DCU superheroes will, essentially, start over.
This imaginatively named “New 52” is geared towards attracting new readers by being more modern, accessible and tuned in to the potential 21st century audience. It will emphasize diversity, interpersonal relationships and real-world issues, possibly overestimating said audience. Another rebootylicious development to entice fresh readership will be on the distribution front—digital copies of each title will be available on the same day as the print release, via the comiXology digital-comic platform. The hope is that the convenience of one-click purchase on a mobile device will prove alluring to potential new readers, similar to the business models of the iTunes store or Netflix.
Fan response to news of the reboot has tended towards the negative. Much venom has been spewed and heated words exchanged on various forums, social networks, and websites. Dissension even spilled into meatspace, with a well-publicized protest at Comic-Con International 2011 in San Diego, US.
Potshots at easy targets aside, the reboot is genuinely important, worthy of serious discussion. The past 75 years of DCU superhero stories represent a significant creative achievement. Much has been made of superheroes being the mythology of the 20th century.
But if this is true, recent years have witnessed a shift to decidedly new gods or, at least, new methods of worship. Print sales have dropped massively as fans get older, budgets get tighter and young people (who should be taking up the slack) prefer to get their ubermensch fix from movies rather than print. A reboot may be a desperate attempt to inject new life into the desiccated corpse of the superhero book, but there are many reasons why it could be a good idea.
But the more we learn about DC’s reboot, the less advisable it appears.
First, they have tried this before with Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985), Zero Hour (1994) and Infinite Crisis (2005); all of which share the theme of “everything starts again (OK, except maybe some things)” on different scales. The increase in sales and readership was either short term or negligible in all cases. Why keep trying?
Superhero comics have a mandate to keep tossing out character-shifting and earth-shattering events, but they still have to leave character and earth intact enough to sustain a monthly title. The result is that most creative teams accumulate plot holes and mistakes over time and future teams revise or work around them. Seventy-five years of this has built agonizingly convoluted continuity, as older versions of characters fight younger versions from other dimensions created by middle-aged versions in yet other dimensions who are actually also supervillains, and so on, in infinite regression. This makes it impossible for a new reader to jump in on a long-running superhero title. The experience is akin to trying to start watching Lost from the last season—even those who started from the beginning have no clue what’s going on. This makes the reboot a golden opportunity.
Execution, though, is everything, and DC might be botching it from the get go. Business considerations are important, but the changes need to be creative decisions. Unfortunately, DC editorial has taken a marketing-driven, corporate approach with top-down, umbrella changes being shoehorned on to titles that neither require nor benefit from them.
Instead of doing what’s best for each character, they impose one idea on all of them. Everything must link up to everything else. World-building is the word of the day, because we need that Marvel/Avengers-style multiple-film franchise to get the ledgers back into the black. Wonder Woman is turned into a Flash storyline spinoff which is, in turn, founded upon a Batman story and so on, ad infinitum. Whether Flash or Wonder Woman’s character arcs benefit from being connected to Batman’s (and writer Grant Morrison’s) trippy adventures remains unclear.
All this would be somewhat mitigated if the creative teams behind the reboot were given the freedom to make truly revolutionary changes. Again, this does not seem to be the case. The more iconic and financially reliable characters like Batman and Superman remain mostly unaltered, suffering relatively minor tweaks to continuity and superficial costume changes. If it’s a case of not fixing what ain’t broke, why include them in the reboot at all? Why does the Man of Steel need a suit of armour anyway?
The attempt to promote hitherto marginal characters into new and prominent directions is an interesting one. The African-American Cyborg is set to be an important part of the new Justice League and the lesbian Batwoman is getting an editorial push with the assignment of the talented J.H. Williams III. However, it is difficult to take these changes as anything more than token. The only female writer on the New 52 is Gail Simone on Batgirl and The Fury of Firestorm, even as meme-inspiringly awful artist Rob Liefeld is retained in Hawk and Dove. As for appealing to young readers, the average age of the writers on the reboot titles seems to teeter in the mid-40s.
DC is already taking criticism for restoring Barbara Gordon to her feet 23 years after she was attacked by the Joker and became wheelchair-bound. As a former Batgirl-turned-Batman’s intelligence analyst Oracle, Gordon’s character is one of the best-written women in the DCU; she has become a valued symbol of empowerment in the disabled community, and a cultural icon for her representation. Making her yet another face in Gotham City’s roster of butt-kickers reverses (or at least ends) two decades of progress for the DCU’s heroines.
I would love to eat crow on this. For all I know, this month will give us 52 of the greatest ongoing superhero stories ever told (or 51, unless they replace Liefeld with a clone with talent). But DC does not have a history of learning from past mistakes and, judging from advance glimpses and descriptions, this reboot looks like another instance of the publishers trying to have their Batcake and eat it too.
Write to lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Sep 16 2011. 07 54 PM IST