Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

July 6, 2013

So I’ve Been Asking Around: Did Aquaman Win The New 52?

imageThis is one of those elements of comics culture it's impossible to phrase in argumentative terms because it's too easy to dismiss the ideas involved on multiple interpretative grounds, but if you assert that one of the things that a company like DC Comics is compelled to do with a publishing line is to manage the library of characters as well as produce a line of comic books that sells, it's fun to look at the recent-in-historical-terms "New 52" relaunch from late 2011 in that way. Besides, I was so skeptical over whether that line-wide effort would find a point of engagement with comic book fans and was thus on the wrong side of foreseeing its initial success that compounding that rhetorical malfeasance with a little facile inquiry into character development certainly won't put any earned analytical capital at risk. I've been wrong before.

So I've been reading around a bit and even asking a bunch of people via e-mail and tweet which of DC's characters have benefited from any reinterpretation that developed through the line-wide reboot. What I've read and received back has interested me. One factor is that for some readers there hasn't even been a firm sense of DC's character across their various appearances when they enjoy more than one spotlight. In some ways this is intentional: the "blue jeans Superman" that Grant Morrison put into early issues of the relaunched Action Comics isn't the high-collared, more standard superhero that the character is in his other titles and in Justice League because one is presented as an earlier permutation of the other -- kind of the way the "boy" and "baby" versions functioned in the Silver Age. In other ways this doesn't seem intentional at all: I'm not sure how Wonder Woman is different in terms of narrative progression in places she appears other than her own comic, or if this is explained at all, but I have seen perceived differences in the character criticized as not matching the charge that certain fans get from the solo title version. It could also be argued that publishers like these want multiple versions, even within a "universe" construct. Like I said, there are so many ways to dismiss these lines of inquiry in summary fashion.

imageAnother factor I've seen is that there's not been a wide range of characters spat back at me as newly invigorated or at any time in the near future potentially ready to go across different media or anchor comic book stories in this new incarnation moving forward. There seems to be more lingering affection for traditional characters or a kind of tip-of-the-hat for the fact they're different than excitement over what specifically has been done with them -- like the Wonder Woman character Steve Trevor I've seen praised for being different than the old Steve Trevor but not necessarily interesting in and of himself. So I expected more weird answers than I got. I've seen some affection for the characters presented in Demon Knights, and the occasional oddball obscurity or definite supporting player (Etta Candy) tossed back my way -- in some cases without my really knowing how serious that praise might be. But for the most part people really seem to like the newer version of the company's bigger licenses if they like anyone at all. One piece of good news in my inbox for DC is that the bulk of what I heard back that was positive about the bigger characters was focused on two properties without a long, recent history of traction in the comics marketplace: the aforementioned grittier, myth-driven version of the William Moulton Marston-created Wonder Woman and the Geoff Johns-led revamp on the old Paul Norris and Mort Weisinger character Aquaman. If there's anything about those runs of comics that sticks to the characters in a way that's transferable to future comics and maybe even to other media, I imagine DC would be very happy, even if my reading of that content is that those two takes are more about tweaks and writers standing by firm choices in the course of a narrative than inspired character work. Then again, in the case of a character like Green Arrow, it's hard to distinguish how much conceptual elbow grease was put in by editorial/creative and how much was playing catch on the successful TV show version. It could be that you just don't know. I look at the sexy, fit-looking John Constantine character in Justice League Dark as this kind of weird, comedic figure -- as if "Malcolm Tucker" appeared on episodes of the forthcoming 24 relaunch and was played by John Barrowman -- but maybe the quarter-century old character works best that way or at least works better than another ten years of what he was doing before. You can argue anything in comics, and eventually most people do.

Still, that seems like a lot of characters being introduced back into the relative spotlight of the comics rack without a ton of them capturing the attention of a vocal minority fanbase, or even one or two comics-obsessive outliers, at least not in a way I've been able to detect. I certainly couldn't hazard a guess as to why that might be. If I were forced to take a stab at an element of it during some sort of super-nerd hostage-threatening scenario, it might be that these kinds of comics are so locked into certain formulas in terms of how they're executed that all the conceptual work kind of ends up looking the same on the page. I know I've read issues of DC comics like The Movement and Green Team where I knew the high concept hook going in from reading PR but the comics themselves seemed like standard 1990s DC comics and almost indistinguishable from this huge mass of work they've put out in recent years, let alone a platform for the proclaimed new take. But who knows? The numbers in comics are so relatively tiny and the number of factors involved in what makes a good comic by any standard can be such a vast array of things that it's hard to pin this kind of thing down. My hunch is that we haven't seen a lot of smaller-character development in a way that might buttress the line up top in the years ahead, no character finds that people would be clamoring to see folded into a movie version despite it not being the "traditional" team or whatever -- one character that received a potential platform for this, Marv Wolfman's and George Pérez's creation Cyborg, was criticized by the people to whom I spoke more than singled out as a beneficiary of this new funnybook era. Then again, I'm not even sure how much it really matters that Marvel can build superteams around the Goodwin/Tuska/Romita character Luke Cage now, or make traditionally super-dull Lee/Kirby leading man Cyclops the fulcrum around which multiple mutant titles work. For whatever it's worth, I detect little of similarity in what DC has done, and I kind of thought I would.
posted 10:00 pm PST | Permalink

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