Comic Fodder

A Look Back at DC's "52", Part 2

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 back for Part 2. Here's a link to Part 1.

Welcome back for Part 2. We're mid-stream of consciousness in discussing DC's storylines in 52.

Oolong Island

The idea that super criminals might actually be effective if they organized was touched upon in “Countdown to Infinite Crisis” with the formation of The Society. A more logical leap was made in “52” when someone decided to collect all of the “mad scientists” of the DCU on a single island, provide them funding, and let their creativity run wild. And, of course, not waste the final product on giant robots useful only for robbing banks.

Will Magus, creator of the Metal Men, was given a terrifically creative spin in 52 as a man more interested in scientific principles, scientific collegiality and the advancement of his research than in acting as a de facto Niles Caulder to his metal charges. Magus has played a C-List supporting role for the past few decades as the Metal Men became dusty relics of DC’s past pulled out of the box only for the really big events and the occasional foray into forgettable territory with writers with a soft spot in their heart for the characters.

There’s a bit of real world logic behind the zaniness of Oolong Island, even as Morrison rehabilitated the defunct concept of Egg Fu as a Modok-like scientific genius/dictator. Simply put, what government wouldn’t want a cadre of von Braun-like scientists at their disposal to up the ante in the DCU’s arms race? Clearly the super-scientists of the DCU are more interested in building their crazy contraptions than actually becoming criminals themselves, as much as they seem interested in proving their genius. And as we’ve seen, nothing breeds new innovation like competition, so why not put all of these guys side-by-side as they created their doomsday devices?

It makes the Manhattan Project seem so quaint.

As per the story, the production of the Four Horsemen had a phenomenal build up, and we’ll get to the narrative connect-the-dots of their final purpose and destination in our discussion of the Black Adam Family.

It was interesting to see Rucka’s creation of Veronica Cale thrown into the mix, mostly intact as a character, and to see her mini-character arc play out.

Will Magus’s Metal Men finally did play their part, and Magus’s explanation of the responsometer technology was far more imaginative and satisfying than the usual “they’re robots” origin given by most writers, including the current run of Superman/ Batman.

In the end, Oolong Island was targeted by Black Adam, and the chaos seen by the characters in that story was phenomenal, as was the response to the arrival of the combined forces of superheroes from across the DCU upon Oolong.

Sadly, Oolong Island’s arc has come to an end, and the best DC will most likely come out of the concept will be the occasional appearance by Chang Tzu until less globally-minded writers forget that there are locations on Earth outside of the US, and the much suggested but little called for plans for a new “Metal Men” book.

Ralph Dibny

The award for the oddest, most meandering story with the most surprisingly satisfying conclusion must be handed to Ralph Dibny. Way to go Ralph. Sadly, Ralph cannot be here to accept this prize as because he’s gone on to his eternal reward.

With Grant Morrison bringing Plastic-Man to the front and center as the stretchy guy of the DCU (and nobody really sure how to write a detective story anymore, anyway), Elongated Man and wife had sort of been pushed to the back burner. Prior to Identity Crisis, they had played supporting roles in Starman, and kicked around for an issue or two in Detective Comics, but the over arching cry when Identity Crisis #1 debuted was not “how could they do that to Sue?” It was: Who is Sue Dibny and why do I care? It was a short time later that suddenly every fanboy claimed a lifelong love for the character they’d previously mocked as incredibly unimportant to the DCU.

Widowed and miserable, Ralph begins an investigation into a faux-Kryptonian cult claiming to be able to be able to return the dead to life (probably thanks to Superman’s time as being mostly dead). From a possible reincarnation and creepy cry from beyond from Sue, all the way to the big switcheroo reveal of Ralph sipping on his Gingold all along, Ralph's story went all over the place. Of all the storylines, this arc initially seemed most likely to fulfill the promise of a tour of the magical side of the DCU, and in a way deliver, but little of those travels seemed to actually tie in to the impetus behind the big reveal.

Ralph’s tour guide was supposed to be the helmet of Fate, an item which we were told in the ill-conceived “Helmet of Fate” series had spent the year zipping through time and space, only to wind up in the hands of Detective Chimp. Which meant (a) the editors had totally screwed up, (b) the helmet Detective Chimp was sporting wasn’t the real deal, or (c) that wasn’t Nabu kicking it with Ralph. While this reader decided not to solve the puzzle himself, we knew something was wrong in Fate-land. And with DC’s attempts to keep continuity of the straight and narrow post-Infinite Crisis, the answer didn’t seem like it could be (a). And as the limited series was called “Helmet of Fate”, it seemed a bit disingenuous to pull the rug out and have the helmet be something else in that series (b). So… yeah.

As totally cool as the final resolution was between Faust and Ralph, it seemed like Faust had gone to a whole lot of trouble to dupe Dibny when there were surely far easier marks in the DCU. Nonetheless, the story wound up with one of those “rah-rah” cheering for our hero endings that you get so infrequently as pay-off at the end of a complicated story.

As per the final panel of Ralph and Sue…? The results can only be considered bittersweet. At some point another team of creators will step into DC’s editorial shoes and with no explanation, and Ralph and Sue will be mortal and wandering the DCU once more. And, in a way, that's doing both characters and the writers who handled the material a disservice. It seems like a long road from the first issue of Identity Crisis to this panel, and you’d have to be a bit stone hearted not to have smiled a bit at seeing Ralph and Sue united again.

That said, trying to actually spin off Ralph and Sue as Ghost Detectives would do nothing but sully that single, simple image. Surely the afterlife of a Ghost Detective is better imagined and infinitely happier than a limp six-issue limited series morosely punched out by a DC B-lister.

The Black Marvel Family

They never really explained why Black Adam flew all the way to the US to tear Terra Man apart. Surely there were a million legal and logistical reasons to just pop the man in half on Khandaqi soil on Khandaqi TV. But that’s Geoff Johns for you, I suspect.

(I do confess, having picked up a few back issues of the 70’s era Terra Man adventures of Superman, I think we can all appreciate wanting to see Terra Man come to a messy, public end.)

For whatever reason, people love Black Adam. He’s a despot, he’s a bit of a jerk, but he also seems to come from a place where his reactions are a bit understandable from a certain point of view.

The development of the Black Marvel Family story arc had a big, black cloud hanging over it from the beginning. In many ways, readers knew that no matter what changes Black Adam would make as he became a kindler, gentler Black Adam would be undone for the mere fact that Black Adam is a bad guy. DC needs Black Adam to be a bad guy, and as we all know, bad guys, by definition (in comics), do not get the happy ending.

Black Adam’s easy reversion to murderous psycho suggests (a) that Black Adam is a rage-a-holic, but really (b) that whatever calming effects his family may have had on him were going to be temporary, anyway. There may have been a hint that Black Adam was a truly changed man, but after 3000 years of being a jerk, I don’t care how much a great girl she is… Sooner or later you’re going to level a neighboring country.

The arc of seeing Black Adam’s transformation was fairly appealing as a redemption story. I don’t particularly like to second guess writers, but… in many ways, one is left wondering how much stronger (and nobler?) the character of Black Adam would be in the context of the DCU if he’d been left an angry widower, but with the lessons he’d learned still intact? How much fun will the inevitable spin off Black Adam book be knowing that our protagonist wiped out a nation of millions without Black Adam pulling his own Parallax excuse?

The rise and fall of both Isis and Osiris was organic and natural, and the tragedy of their story is all the more poignant by how well developed the writers managed to make both characters. Equally so with Sobek, right up to the point of betrayal.

Sadly, the fall of the Marvel Family seemed to devolve into a bit of political intrigue that hadn’t been foreshadowed nearly enough by the writers in order to make a genuine impact. Rather, it felt as if the authors were looking for an excuse to send Black Adam on a rampage, and that Bialya has long been the DCU’s proxy Mid-East troublemaker and that they were as easy a target as anyone.

At this point, there’s additional confusion as to the Great Ten’s involvement via Chang Tzu, as well as the motivation for the Chinese government to raise the ire of Black Adam, Khandaq and the international community. The elements of international intrigue gave way to big, splashy fight scenes that seemed to push out crucial information as to why the DCU’s China would feel that such a move would be prudent, even if the plot to develop the Four Horsemen were not discovered.

It seems unlikely that a nation could actually auction off a murderous despot (or find any sort of long-term benefit) within the international community and, not expect for relations to break down.

In the end, Black Adam is left powerless and broken, a mere mortal among the people of Khandaq, struggling to discover the word which will restore him to power.

World War III

Interviews have suggested that the World War III event was cooked up entirely by forces outside of the 52 writing team, and it’s not difficult to discern why. Whatever plans Didio and Levitz might have had for a tale broader in scope than the smaller stories of 52, the initial promise of the series as pushed by Didio was never really realized vis-à-vis the hyped “tour” of the DCU.

Short of spitballing ideas regarding how editorial could have handled the “travelogue” aspect of “52”, it’s not a mystery as to why they chose to fill in the promised gap. But it is worth questioning the exec ution of how they decided to fill the deficit story-arcs on OYL.

In week 50, we were treated to four extra issues of 52 continuity under the banner of "World War III". Through the eyes of J’onn J’onzz, we see the DCU in the days surrounding World War III, providing us with telepathic glimpses of the rest of the DCU as the most (unrelated) plot and character oriented stuff ever in the history of the DCU occurs in a bout three days. Nevermind that 52 suddenly became "56" in order to achieve it's goals, or that DC was unwilling to eat a few bucks from the profits of the series when it came time to write and publish the supposedly 52 page final issue of 52.

In short, DC realized that their four writers were not going to cover certain aspects such as “How did Kate Spencer go from public prosecutor to private practice?” to “And Supergirl was in the future sort of?” Clearly the issues raised by the big One Year Later changes needed an explanation, but, unfortunately, with two weeks left and none of the story-arcs pointed in a direction which could cover the vast terrain, DC hired some of the B-string writers to fill in gaps.

Relying entirely too much on the framing sequence surrounding J’onn J’onnz and recaps of action that really didn’t need a re-cap, DC pulled down the screen, fired up the projector and went into a quick slide summary of how their characters got to OYL in short bursts of a page or two at a time.

With the rushed tone of the series, J’onn’s “journey” worked in the abstract, but was not completely satisfying, especially on the heels of the flubbed 8-issue mini-series. From a narrative standpoint, rather than develop an actual story with a series of beats that would lead to J’onn’s final decision to reject his faux humanity, the captions simply insisted that the rushed elements of week 50 were enough to push J’onn over the edge.

The events seemed crammed in, with DC breaking a trust. Events no longer seemed to unfold naturally, from Aquaman's non-sequitur of a OYL change to the red-skies approach to Jason Todd as Nightwing. All in a few cramped days?

If this were really a problem, DC could have more easily begun pulling the two-page origins from 52 for some other project and begun filling in story-arcs with those back-ups. After all, a few pages was the most that was spent on any of those characters, anyway.

Many readers may have felt robbed. Had the WWIII mini not been released so long after the initial push of OYL and with the audience ready to move on, the series’ half-hearted attempt at closure might have been perceived as an even greater failure. DC’s roll out of Annuals seems to have been a much more satisfying format, and while it’s unlikely another scenario such as the one surrounding the development of “52” and OYL would ever appear in comics again, it’s surely a lesson learned.

NEXT TIME: Booster Gold, a Multiverse and additional navel gazing and nonsense...!

That's it for this part of the post. We'll be back in a few days with Part 3.

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.