Comic Fodder

A Look Back at DC's "52", Part 1

This was going to be one, long post. But to keep both you guys sane, and to keep me sane, we're going to cut it a bit short on this post. So, welcome to Part 1.

Since joining up with Comic Fodder this January, I’ve spilled no small amount of digital ink discussing the implications of One Year Later and 52 to DC as narrative device/ framing technique, editorial overhaul of the DCU line and a business strategy for DC Comics. I leave it to you to check out the "Commentary" option from that right hand menu bar and peruse the old articles.

This week marked the 52nd week since the conclusion of the much-debated Infinite Crisis event. Like any event in comics, the results will be debated for the next few decades, probably with an entirely new editorial team reversing decisions made in the last year when they revisit crisis in twenty years. Curiously, 52 has, to date, engendered very little of the negative fan reaction that one might see on a typical superhero-comics-themed web site.

As an experiment, 52 proved from a strategic standpoint that a comic could be produced weekly. 52 issues in, that information seems a bit like old hat and few are still talking about the fact that a single comic could change the perception of a comic market in which year-long delays pop up between issues. Nor is much hay made over the fact that the comic came out like clockwork, merging several storylines and never really letting the cat out of the bag as to which writer was handling which plot (but you can take an educated guess).

DC has welcomed the rapid delivery mode for comics, and plans to re-ultilize the machinery put in place to tell the tale of “Countdown”, another year-long weekly comic, although DC has already stated that they’ll be a bit more transparent regarding creative teams, etc... on the upcoming series.

From an editorial perspective, 52 failed to deliver the promised “gaps”, and as recently as weeks 50 and 51, annuals were being released to fill in some of the holes with Nightwing and Outsiders. As of week 35 or so, DC must have seen the writing on the wall regarding closing the storylines of 52 versus explaining the changes of One Year later and dreamed up the Power Point Presentation which would come to be known as World War III.

No doubt the World War III non-event will go down as one of the more infamous missteps in the big 2’s lengthy history of missteps. Readers were left scratching their heads as unaddressed character arcs leading to the new status quo in One Year Later were seemingly compressed into a few pages with only cursory attention to context and little to no interest in ensuring that the changes made sense in their chronological occurrence a mere two weeks prior to the beginning on One Year Later. Moreover, the events of World War III have now gone suspiciously unmentioned in the supposedly cohesive DC Universe (outside of a few inserts by Geoff Johns) for a year’s worth of publication.

In the initial marketing pitch, the original plan for 52 was to fill in those character gaps that were the selling point of One Year Later, but as the writers wrestled with the sprawling scope of their task, the focus of the series wavered. Eventually the series solidified, locking in on establishing each of the storyline’s labyrinthine plots within a plot, but never really getting back to the promise of the “gap filling”.

In fact, characters were introduced, seemingly by editorial mandate, leading to the appearance of characters like the all-new Batwoman, concepts like the Cult of Conner, and the Church of Crime all seemed to start strong, but ultimately get lost in the shuffle.

It’s a testament to the strength of the both the writers and the stories surrounding the former B-List characters


Renee Montoya/ The Question:

Possibly the strongest of the story-arcs as Rucka managed to deconstruct and rebuild an existing character, bringing her into the fold of the DCU mainstream. Montoya’s development from the burnt out shell left at the conclusion of Gotham Central to caretaker to “The Question” may be one of the most organic origin stories in modern comics.

That said, the original premise of Montoya becoming involved with surveillance on Intergang, the move to Khandaq and the involvement with Kathy Kane, the new Batwoman, all seemed to wind somewhat aimlessly toward the final (and not terribly surprising) adoption of the identity of Vic Sage’s alter-ego. However, the aimless wandering added a sense of a non-traditional path for Montoya to follow in taking on the new identity, and played to the strengths of a year’s worth of stories to be told. Rucka’s choices to place Renee in the all-too real environs of the darkened hospital room and finally pulling Charlie back home to the hidden city were unique character moments, and it’s unlikely we’ll see those sorts of scenes in a character’s true development ever again.

Removing the original Question from the DCU at a point when the character was beginning to once again show signs of popularity by way of the Justice League Unlimited cartoon was an odd choice, especially as Infinite Crisis seemed to be an editorial reset for so many characters. Whether Montoya will see any more pages as the Question is probably a foregone conclusion, but it’s difficult to imagine many other writers or editors have long term plans for an all-new Question.

The Lost in Space Team:

This storyline had a lot of promise but never really found any firm direction or point it seemed to want to make. Exciting? Yes. Adventurous? Absolutely. A clear arc?

To some extent, the Space Team best exemplifies the challenge of writing to a year-long weekly story. The characters bounce from incident to incident, but little seemed to actually occur until Buddy Baker was resurrected at the hands of the Yellow Aliens.

Appearances by Lobo went pretty much exactly where you thought you’d go following Lobo. And the promise of a massive space battle of any sort was cut short by the 22 page maximum for the single week which could have represented the battle with Lady Styx (and which seemed all the more confused in Omega Men).

The first few issues did little to suggest much to the reader about what the writers (I suspect Morrison) had in mind when the tale began, but the episodic nature of the space travels certainly never built to a conclusion which matched the cosmic scope of their journey.

However, as with all “Odyssey”-style homecomings, the reunion of Buddy and Ellen Baker worked as a highlight to the series, as well as Starfire’s damn-it-all determination to return the leather jacket to Ellen.

The last few pages of Adam Strange returned to Rann begs for an Adam Strange back-up feature somewhere in a DCU title or anthology as we’re reminded of the potential Strange has as a character, even after the year he spent refusing to complain about his lack of eyesight while lost in space. Well done.

Steel/Infinity Inc./Luthor

In recent years, it’s been popular to cast corporate tycoon Lex Luthor as a nemesis for Batman/Bruce Wayne. The fit seems to work as well or better than the Superman vs. corporate mogul scenario, and posing Luthor as a threat to the entire DCU and not just Superman has had an interesting unifying effect on the World’s Finest.

If I may play the Superman Geek for a moment: during the early Eddie Berganza stewardship of the Superman titles, writer Mark Schultz wrote the now defunct Superman title “Superman: Man of Steel” as a book focusing on fleshing out the supporting characters of the Superman books and spinning the sci-fi opportunities of Metropolis and super technology. One of the more interesting angles was the focus on John Henry “Steel” Irons as Superman’s brainy pal with all the cool toys and the very public “Steel Works”. During this era, Irons was Superman's peer and confidant, and the relationship worked well as a narrative device.

52 picked up on this take on Steel, recognizing that, even more than Batman, John Henry Irons was Luthor’s opposite number. Rather than using his scientific genius to build armies, the very origin of Steel is steeped in the notion that he could not forgive himself for creating weapons which eventually found their way onto the very streets his family lived on. Not so different from Luthor, Irons has built a suit of armor but had set about to follow in Superman’s footsteps to selflessly defend those who can’t defend themselves.

More than any other storyline from 52, the story of John Henry Irons and Luthor is a story of two ideologies at odds with one another. The argument that “you’ve got to earn” your superpowers rings a little hollow in a universe where some folks (and dogs) gain amazing powers just by standing under a different frequency of sunlight. But what works is the recognition that paying for power does nothing but put you in the hands of the person who granted you the power. Especially if all they really want to do is drop you out of the sky and onto a waiting crowd of pedestrians.

As a stand alone story, the Steel/ Luthor/ Everyman Project arc might have worked as a traditional mini-series. The "sins of youth" angle to the story worked well, even if some of the corporate hero angle has been covered well in "X-Statix" and a recent, defunct, and largely forgotten volume of "Doom Patrol". Unfortunately, in writing to an idea and to prove a point, the writers left a large narrative plot hole behind them in the suggestion that scientists in the DCU can now mass-produce metahumans, granting specific powers at a cost which won’t bankrupt that person for life. It’s a troublesome proposition for the DCU, and a point which is screaming for greater closure than the satisfying image of Irons smacking Luthor with a hammer.

The final triumph of Iron's intellect, armor and teamwork with his niece over Luthor's bought powers was a great underdog story, and provided a satisfying conclusion.

NEXT TIME: Oolong Island, The Black Marvels (World War III), Ralph Dibny and more..!

That's it for this part of the post. We'll be back in a few days with Part 2.

In the meantime, let's start the discussion. What did you like? What will you miss? What was your favorite story arc?

What did I get wrong? Did I completely misinterpret something? Come on, I can take it.

Ryan is your resident reviewer of DC Comics. He keeps his comics and himself in Austin, Texas. He likes Superman.