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Astrojive: DCnU? Not Much. What's DCnU With You?

Richard Lee Byers shares his thoughts on the new DC Comics universe

Rebooting the DC Universe is a good idea. It must be, because DC has done it repeatedly in miniseries like Crisis on Infinite Earths, Zero Hour, and Infinite Crisis, just as, at other times, they’ve monkeyed around with the back stories of individual characters.

Lately, Superman has gotten a tweaked origin every couple years. Power Girl has variously been a Kryptonian from an alternate reality, the product of ancient Atlantean sorcery, and probably other things that I’m forgetting.

Now DC has rolled out the latest line-wide reboot, and to make sure we take notice, every book in September is a No. 1.

The point is to make the 70-odd year-old franchise look shiny and new and fraught with fascinating possibilities. DC wants to create the impression that from here on, we’ll get exciting, unpredictable stories that anyone, including the desperately coveted new customer, can enjoy, because we don’t have to be familiar with a bunch of old material to understand them. In the new continuity, those old stories “didn’t happen.”

Except that the editors have already announced that some of them did.

Every time DC’s rebooted its universe, it’s flinched from tossing every old story out of canon. So there was probably little hope of them doing it this time, either. They want to keep selling collections of old material, and it probably seemed like a lousy idea to abort long-running, popular storylines like the one in the Green Lantern titles.

But there are two problems with settling for a partial reboot. One is that you inevitably start with glitched continuity. When readers pick up the trade paperbacks of a humongous epic crossover story that “still happened,” like, say, Blackest Night, they’ll find characters who simply shouldn’t be there, like the Justice Society. It’s confusing, and it works against the goal of creating an easy jumping-on point for new fans.

The other problem is that since parts of the old continuity “still happened,” writers have the option to do stories that are sequels to it, and my decades of comics reading lead me to think that eventually, they will. This too undermines the advantages of a fresh start.

DC has also made the new universe less friendly to first-time readers by retaining multiple versions of the same character concept. They still have Nightwing, Red Hood, Red Robin, and Robin (all Batman’s youthful sidekick at one time or another), Batwoman and Batgirl, and four different Earthling Green Lanterns. How is that not confusing?

So: Those are the things DC did that I, with my vast experience working in the comics industry (nada), would have done differently. But the only way to really judge whether the DCnU is anything to get excited about is for someone to read some of the new No. 1s, and, altruistic guy that I am, I’ve done that for you.

I considered reading every one that’s come out to date. But Batgirl sold out before I got to the Comics Club, and when the moment came to take Hawk and Dove, OMAC, and Men at War (comics about characters who have never remotely interested me in any incarnation) off the rack and pay real American cash money for them, my hand simply refused to do it. I ask your forgiveness.

The flagship book of the DCnU is Justice League. Set five years in the past (relative to all but a couple of the other books), the first story arc will be the team’s origin, and despite what the cover might lead you to suppose, they don’t all report for duty in this issue. The first chapter is mainly Batman and Green Lantern meeting for the first time.

And does it feel fresh and surprising like the flagship book of the DCnU should? Well, partly.

The story’s set at a time when people didn’t understand superheroes, were scared of them, and the government was hunting them. That’s been an element in certain Batman stories, but by and large, not in the rest of the DCU. It does feel different, to the point where it kind of makes you wish all DCnU books were set in this time period.

The interaction between Batman and Green Lantern is also interesting, or at least it was to me. In team-up stories, Batman has often come across as arrogant in his dealings with other superheroes. This time out, it’s the novice Green Lantern who’s an overconfident, patronizing jerk. I liked that, but mainly because of the contrast to older stories. I’m not sure it will hold the same interest for DC newbies.

Unfortunately, the revelation of the identity of the master villain very definitely works against any sense that the book is blazing new trails. I don’t want to spoil the comic so I won’t tell who it is, but it’s one of the standard Big Honking Serious Bad News Villains of the DC Mythos. A newly created menace would sell the notion that this is all terra incognita a whole lot better.

Swamp Thing seems to be very much a continuation of the recent Brightest Day: The Search for Swamp Thing (or some such title like that) miniseries, which I didn’t read. It’s also heavy on references to pretty much all the character’s long and complicated history. Such being the case, it misses the mark of providing an inviting jumping-on point despite being well written and containing a chilling horror sequence.

Animal Man, on the other hand, shows us who the character is and what makes him cool in a way that doesn’t make you feel like you need to take notes to follow what’s to come. And the menace, when it arrives, is as new as it is nightmarish.

Detective Comics works just about as well, dishing up the first chapter of what looks like it’s going to be a gripping Batman story. New readers don’t have to know anything beyond what everybody who watches movies already knows about Bats and the Joker.

Green Arrow is the book that may disappoint old DC fans even more than new readers. The previous incarnation of Green Arrow had one of the most interesting, three-dimensional personalities of any DC hero. Probably only Batman had more depth. Judging from this first issue, most of that characterization is gone, and the new, younger version of the hero is nowhere near as engaging, nor is his first adventure anything special. The book succeeds in jettisoning all of GA’s baggage but doesn’t replace it with anything likely to lure readers back for Issue No. 2.

Batwing has no problem providing a good jumping-on point because, unlike the books I mentioned previously, it stars a new character. The hero is a guy who, with training and backing from the original, has set up shop as the Batman of an African nation. The issue features a puzzling mystery and a jolting cliffhanger and takes us to a part of DC Earth we haven’t explored already.

In the new version of Justice League International, the United Nations is creating its own team of superheroes, and bureaucratic squabbling and friction among the newly recruited members threaten to scuttle the group in its infancy. If you’re a longtime comics reader, there’s nothing new conceptually, but newbies may find the emphasis on satisfying the politicians and fighting alongside the teammate who sets your teeth on edge novel and intriguing. Plus, this is another book where there’s no sense of complicated back story or unresolved subplots weighing the narrative down.

The same is true of Stormwatch, a tale of hardcore “professional” super-defenders of humanity who consider the Justice League and their ilk amateurs. The book mostly features heroes from The Authority, but as the presence of the Martian Manhunter on the roster and the absence (so far) of Apollo and the Midnighter make clear, this is a new continuity. The threat the team faces is huge, bizarre, mysterious, and new in the way the menace in Justice League should have been.

Action Comics is the story of Superman’s early career, when he can’t fly yet, isn’t wearing a full version of his costume, or working at the Daily Planet, and everyone is afraid of superheroes. It turns out that part of the reason people are scared is that young Superman is a different person from the wise, gentle, patient hero of the George Reeves television show and the Christopher Reeve movies. He’s a firebrand out to bring down anyone who abuses and exploits others whether that person is a criminal in the eyes of the law or not, and he himself has no compunction about committing assault and other illegal acts to do it.

It’s a fresh take on Superman (if you don’t count his earliest appearances back in the 1930’s) and an ideal place to start reading his adventures.

Thus it would appear that despite the crushing handicap of not doing everything exactly as I would have done it, DC may actually be on its way to creating something worthy of the hype. Of the books I read, five (Action Comics, Animal Man, Batwing, Detective Comics, and Stormwatch) were thoroughly entertaining and new-reader friendly.

Two (Justice League and Justice League International) were decent reads and accessible.

One (Swamp Thing) crapped out on being new-reader friendly but at least had some cool stuff in it. I can imagine some readers being intrigued enough to look up Swampy on Wikipedia and then come back for the second issue.

One (Green Arrow) was accessible but too lackluster for anyone to care.

Which all means that so far, the DCnU has a good batting average.

About the Author

Richard Lee Byers is the author of more than 30 fantasy and horror novels, including a number set in the Forgotten Realms universe. Look for his eBook supehero series The Impostor, his eBook collection The Q Word and Other Stories, and all the rest of his work on Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. Follow him on Twitter (@rleebyers), friend him on Facebook, and add him to your Circles on Google+. Follow his blog here.
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