There’s been a lot of rumours about what’s coming up in the DC Comics superhero universe, the home of heroes like Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern. The current big DC event comic Flashpoint, where the whole DC universe is transformed into a dark alternative, is supposed to be leading to yet another one of those moments where ‘things will never be the same!’ On top of this, it was initially announced that in the last week of August, DC would be publishing exactly one comic – the fifth and final issue of Flashpoint. Considering DC normally has around a dozen titles coming out every week, this is a pretty major route to go for – and while it’s now been modified slightly (there are two comics coming out, rather than one), it’s clear that DC isn’t messing around.
Now, DC has started releasing official news of what they’re doing… and it’s pretty big. In a press release that’s turning up in lots of places, they’ve announced that they’re basically rebooting their whole line of superhero comics, and renumbering everything. In September, there’s going to be 52 issue ones, all of which are apparently designed to be accessible jumping-on points for new readers (and considering some of these titles are things like Action Comics, which recently crossed the 900-issue mark, this is quite a big move). Added to which, it does seem like there’s a certain amount of tweaking going on – artist and DC bigwig Jim Lee has apparently done redesigns on over 50 superhero costumes, the word ‘contemporary’ is being bandied around a lot, and it does seem like this is definitely going to be a different take on the DC Universe (with, for example, plenty of characters being aged-down into younger models). Considering that this is following Flashpoint, an event where the DC Universe is altered beyond recognition (meaning it might still be a bit different when it gets put back), it does seem like they’re going for permanent alterations to continuity, and the status quo. And, on top of all of this, every single one of these comics is going to be available day-and-date as a digital comic, through the Comixology platform that DC’s been using up until now.
The easiest bit of this to take on is the digital decision – it was obvious that at some point, one of the ‘big two’ was going to jump into the digital world with both feet (and considering DC are still running second to Marvel at the moment, it’s not a loopy idea). It’s big, and despite that they’re apparently going to run some incentives for comic shop retailers, there are going to be some unhappy people out there. Trouble is, digital isn’t going away, and this could be a very healthy move as well. The day-and-date comics will probably be exactly the same price as print (which is a tad steep for a digital comic), but it’s still a major step forward. For the first time, people who torrent comics because “Oh well, I want them on the day, and only a few titles are done day-and-date” aren’t going to have the excuse. Don’t know if it really will make piracy go down, but it’s a major step along the way to having a good legal digital alternative to piracy.
It’s the rest of it that is… interesting, if not completely convincing. Comic book continuity is a massive double-edged sword – it creates fascinating, intensely complex sagas, worlds that you can get lost in, interlocking stories that can be unlike anything else out there… but then, it can also make it impossible to keep up, especially if you’re not aware of all the tiny pieces of comic-book continuity that the story is tying into. Last week, I read the first two issues of Marvel’s The Mighty Thor, which is a relaunch of the Thor title done to tie in with the release of the Thor movie, and yet if I was a random cinemagoer who’d seen and enjoyed Thor, those two comics would have perplexed the hell out of me. (There’s a lot of reasons why comics have drifted away from being self-contained, and many of them actually only work now collected as trade paperbacks – it’s a complicated problem, and is slightly compounded by the fact that modern comic storytelling doesn’t let you easily put in narrative captions that bring everyone up to date.) And part of this problem is that the majority of the people who buy comics are the die-hard fans, who know the continuity and don’t want to read stuff that ‘doesn’t matter’ (which is one of the reasons why the brilliant out-of-continuity comic Thor: The Mighty Avenger got cancelled after eight issues, despite being a fun, all-ages and thoroughly charming adventure comic).
So, there’s a certain logic in DC’s move… but the fact that they’re going for such a drastic reboot leaves me slightly perplexed. What I’ve seen of the new costumes (shown above in the cover for Justice League issue 1, by Jim Lee) doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence (especially that ‘styled up’ version of the Superman logo, which brings back worrying memories of the Nineties ‘Electric’ Superman redesign), and the statement that they’re doing “younger, cosmetically changed versions” of these characters immediately opens up questions as to what’s in and what’s out continuity-wise. The various dark events in the Justice League’s history in Identity Crisis? Batman being presumed dead in Final Crisis (leading to the current activity in Batman Incorporated)? There’s all sorts of knots they could tie themselves in, especially with ongoing series like Grant Morrison’s Batman Inc, which certainly doesn’t feel like it’s going to end in about three months. (And what about the notoriously delayed David Finch-drawn Batman series The Dark Knight? We’re barely onto issue 3 (after it being launched in November) and now they’re bringing in filler artists – is that going to get a relaunch, or will it just stagger to issue 6 and then get quietly cancelled?)
Another question – violence. DC Comics have been getting ridiculous in terms of violence and pretty damn unpleasant adult content recently (the biggest and most ridiculous of the lot being issue 3 of Rise of Arsenal, which plays like somebody read Alan Moore’s Watchmen and took every wrong lesson from that book that it’s possible to take). Is this going to continue? If DC are looking to bring new readers in, are we still going to get showers of gore, brutal violence, and incidents like the infamous rape of character Sue Dibney?
Also, there’s the Justice League. At the same time as Flashpoint issue 5, we get issue 1 of Justice League – a relaunched version of the comic that’s often been one of DC’s biggest titles, with DC bigwigs Geoff Johns and Jim Lee at the helm (although considering how notoriously late Jim Lee can sometimes get with his art, it remains to be seen how long he’ll be staying on it – this is one comic that can’t afford to ship late). And a new line-up, taking us mostly back to the Grant Morrison era JLA, where he took the then-pretty-ballsy move of actually putting DC’s biggest guns together – we get Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, The Flash and Wonder Woman. Oh, and Aquaman. And… er… Cyborg. (I mean, really? Cyborg? They seem to be making a lot of finally trying to make the DC Universe look a little more multi-cultural, after some very unfortunate examples of ethnic ‘legacy’ superhero characters meeting horrible ends and being replaced by their previous white alter-egos, but that’s the guy you promote to DC’s A-list? That’s the guy at the forefront of DC’s new ‘contemporary’ style – a character who fit in with the Teen Titans back in the Eighties and Nineties, but doesn’t exactly look tremendously sensible now?)
It’s possible, of course, that Flashpoint might act a little like the Time War in current Doctor Who continuity – a way of buffering the new continuity from the old. Old Who continuity is still there, and while there have been tweaks and rewrites (hello, new Cybermen) it hasn’t been completely up-ended in the way a new version of Who could have relaunched everything. There’s any number of ways they could be doing things – the fact that DC are potentially transforming their core universe into a version of the Marvel Ultimate universe (which was originally created as a jumping-on point for new readers, and a more ‘contemporary’ take on the characters) is certainly brave. The potential for messing this up is pretty big, of course, but modern-day mainstream comics certainly need new approaches, and anything which might free them up from the constraints of selling to the direct market (to fans who regularly bitch about event comics and getting more of the same, and yet only ever seem to buy big event comics and ignore the new, riskier titles) has got to be a good thing…