Comic Fodder

DC Comics: Taking a look at the state of the OYL Titles (and more!) - part 1

Following the events of DC Comics' Infinite Crisis, DC looked back to the the days when an event would lead to new titles. Twenty years prior, following Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC had thrown comic fandom into chaos with a hard reboot of the DC Universe. Rightfully calculating that the the DCU did not need a hard reboot, but several, easier to install upgrades, DC relaunched several key titles and added some new versions of old and/or retired concepts with One Year Later.

The launch entailed several limited series, including Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters, an upgraded Martian Manhunter (with pants), The Creeper, The Spectre, Ion, Secret Six, Trial of Shazam and an OMAC limited series. New series included Shadowpact, The All-New Atom, a new Blue Beetle, and a Checkmate series spinning out of Project: OMAC. This doesn't include re-launches of The Flash, Wonder Woman, Justice League of America and Justice Society America.

For a lengthy description of OYL and the titles released, wikipedia is, always, your friend.

In a previous post, we had suggested that the numbers indicated a trend of fan dissatisfaction with the current crop of DC's OYL work. Dr. K appeared in the comments to provide an alternate explanation:

Following the OYL jump, I took the opportunity to try out most of the mainstream DC books, and, in terms of quality, almost all of them took a tremendous leap forward. However, I could not sustain this level of financial commitment to that many series, despite the fact that I would like to continue reading most of them. Also, with some interesting new series starting and the relaunch of series I was previously buying, like Justice League and Justice Society, my comic purchasing now looks very much like it did prior to OYL. I wonder, looking at the numbers from the November sales list, if a similar phenomenon is happening with other readers, who are able to find temporary room in their comics budgets for these big events, but quickly return to their status quo.

While my recommendation is that Dr. K take out a second mortgage on his home to fund his comic reading, many comic fans may not be willing to put themselves into poverty to keep up with the adventures of every title published by DC. Perhaps foresseing a limited amount of dollars to be made from a static audience, DC did launch several titles as limited series. Readers might take that as a sign that DC wished to see which properties fans would still respect in the morning, when the Infinite Crisis afterglow had long since vanished. Meanwhile, some properties like JLA, Wonder Woman and The Flash seemed like safe bets for a creative relaunch.

The titles on the fence, the ones standing to lose the most face and cause an editorial problem within the DC offices, may have seemed to have surer footing from fan enthusiasm and tie-in's to other series.

The All-New Atom was a curious relaunch in a post-Identity Crisis DCU. The Atom had not received that much attention in years, and had been mostly appearing as a utility player in JLA with an appearance or two in Hawkman. The Atom in question was, of course, Ray Palmer, who made one final appearance in Hawkman (post Identity Crisis) before vanishing. DC's choice to relaunch with a new man behind the Atom's belt fit their publicly stated MO of giving readers a greater ethnic make-up of DC Heroes to reflect both the real world and readership. Hailing from Hong Kong, The All-New Atom was a fellow PhD come to take Palmer's place at Ivy University.

The concept supposedly came from a Grant Morrison proposal for a revamp of the Atom character and/ or title. For good or ill, highly-competent comic-scribe Gail Simone was handed the unfavorable task of attempting to actually write to Morrison's "mad ideas", with prickly-pear John Byrne on pencils for only the first three issues before leaving.

The story in The All-New Atom appears to be that of an ongoing realm of weirdness, something Morrison has handled since Doom Patrol, but doesn't seem to play particularly to Simone's strengths. Instead, Simone has done an admirable job of establishing Ryan Choi's backstory, personality and supporting cast in a relatively short amount of time. Readers may question the likelihood of a Hong Kong native acting this Americanized from American movies and Television, and further wonder why the character had to be from overseas at all when both Simone and the editorials had no intention of utilizing this feature.

Overall, the story in the first six issues flowed best when Choi was exploring his newfound technology, working with his newfound colleagues and pondering the fate of Ray Palmer. Far less understandable was the "war" of science and technology occuring around Ivy Town, who the players were, and what the results finally were. Further, a flash-forward scene depicting an imprisoned JLA never came to pass (a final reverberation of a Superboy punch?). Also, the "dark reflection" of the shrinking Dwarf Star character (which may be one of the best names in comics since "Doll Man" had a hazy set-up and motivation which seemed to simply muddle the events of the first story-arc.

The All-New Atom's sales are slipping rapidly. If the book is to survive, Simone needs to find a hook which works better for her than Morrison's wackiness. Ryan Choi and his cast have potential, but the "mad ideas" never really solidified into a coherent concept other than a sort of murky "Fist Full of Dollars for The Atom".

With the death of Ted Kord and the re-appearance of Dan Garrett's beetle scarab, Infinite Crisis provided DC readers with a new Blue Beetle.

Problematically beginning One Year Later, the new Blue Beetle's writers decided to throw the new Blue Beetle one year into the future, with no explanation of where (or when) Jaime Reyes had vanished to for a solid year.

Like The All-New Atom, Blue Beetle has already defined a fairly strong supporting cast and made the logical decision to let the teen-age hero tell his parents about his powers, cutting out the "Aunt May" type storylines and, instead, making the title a bit more of a family affair. In addition, the world's worst kept secret identity is also known to his two best friends, and, I believe, his peculiarly friendly arch-nemesis.

Plotwise, the series is dragging. As the character's origin is, in some ways, the legacy of decades of comics, but in other ways completely unknown several issues in, the concept feels a bit stretched. The series is having a hard time building traction as they've leaped into some fairly routine super-heroics of little consequence and provided Jaime with a "mysterious" mentor, all while dangling the mystery of the scarab before readers in a manner that seems almost "Lost"-like in it's refusal to just give the reader the goods. The problem with that kind of anticipation is that when the curtain is pulled away, the reveal is always going to be a little disappointing.

There have been significant hints that Jaime's scarab and powers are some sort of alien, super-technology artifact which will tie directly into whatever summer event Didio and Co. have up their sleeve. We know the scarab is of some concern to the Green Lanterns, and may be a cosmic sort of device like a GL ring. However, this also flies in the face of the original scarab idea, not to mention the fact that the Wizard Shazam kept the scarab as a mystic totem which he used as recently as in the Day of Vengeance Infinite Crisis Special.

This sort of bait-and-switch can be a bit exhuasting and gives the appearance of editorial waffling. Further, it doesn't lend much of a tip of the hat to the original Beetle concept as the Dan Garrett connection to the scarab is thrown into question.

I am sure the writers, given time, would reveal all. But one can't help but question whether the extended mystery in the book isn't enough to get readers to drop $3 to come back for more unanswered questions each month.

Some readers, Dr. K included, have been strong supporters of Bill Willingham's super-mystic-team book, Shadowpact. In truth, I can't comment too much on the series as I read one issue and never returned to the series. I had read Day of Vengeance, hadn't been particularly enamored with the assembled team of characters, and then been a bit aghast that the series wrapped up with Captain Marvel showing up to do the lead character's work for them. In a way, it's hard for me to process how I can lose interest in a comic starring a chimp sleuth with a drinking problem, but, aside from Detective Chimp, the characters all felt fairly flat and did little beyond rush from scene to scene, which might have helped to define their personalities.

The Day of Vengeance Infinite Crisis Special not only told a significantly more interesting story than the limited series had mustered, but had also promised to redefine magic in the DCU.

Issue #1 of Shadowpact presented the reader with a team of super-powered characters, who seemed, in most ways that mattered, not a whole lot different from any other team of superfriends. Apparently Willingham's promise to redefine magic in the DCU translated to taking C-List characters and presenting them with a problem Superman, the JLA and Doom Patrol can't or won't handle, for vaguely mystical reasons. However, the assemblage of talent and powers doesn't appear to bring a lot to the table that one couldn't find in science, genetic or technology based powers. With magical heavy-hitters in the DCU from Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman to Zatanna completely absent, something in the mix just seemed off.

The bottom line was that magic wasn't really a new concept for ANY DC Characters, and aside from being a team book, the reader might not find the hook the title was attempting to provide. Further, as much of the magic of the DCU had been pushed into the Vertigo titles in the 90's, concepts of magic had become much more interesting in titles like Swamp Thing, Hellblazer, Sandman, Books of Magic, etc... than cape and tight heroics. Willingham seems interested in providing a step back toward more straightforward magical heroism, but like Tim Hunter in The Books of Magic, once you've walked through that door, it's impossible to go back.

Like any new comic, the newly launched ongoings may or may not stick with readers and disappear into quarter bins and comic oblivion. Or, readership may steady itself and the titles could hit 100 issues. Both The All-New Atom and Blue Beetle did a far better job of providing a solid foundation than most first issues and story-arcs, and made an attempt in both books to do something a little different. However, both may suffer from jumping into huge concepts right off the bat, rather than giving readers a chance to grow acclimated to the environs of the new titles.

Shadowpact has a following, and a lot of folks seem to enjoy the title. I am unsure whether interest will remain as even the Dr. K's of the world wonder why they are reading yet another superhero series, should Shadowpact fail to provide any new angle on the superheroic team, and, in particular, once Willingham leaves the title.

After Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC launched several new series, almost none of which lasted than a few years. Hopefully the stutter-steps the books are currently experiencing will even out, and merely be signs of early-series jitters. But, as Dr. K mentions, DC has a lot of books on the shelf, and readers may stick with old loyalties rather than become involved with something new. That is, unless that something new proves to be extraordinary.

NEXT UP: reviewing the success of some relaunched series, OYL