For those of you who don’t know, back in late August/September DC Comics embarked on a new direction called “The New 52.” This was a “soft reboot” meaning that developers took existing continuity, kept certain elements and eschewed others; those which were kept and those that were not have yet to entirely be revealed, and are also a point of contention among many loyal and longtime fans. Along with changes hero origins, story elements, and character developments, most, if not all, of DC’s characters got a costume redesign by legendary artist and DC co-Publisher, Jim Lee. Lee’s fashion style is best known for defining the X-Men in the 1990s and generally set a tone for new character design (along with Todd MacFarlane’s Spawn and the Image line) for the majority of the decade. This is also a point of contention among many fans since the redesigns actually taste like Clear Pepsi and Ecto-Cooler in their 90s-ness. The overall goal of the soft reboot was to re-launch the company line of comics with an initial 52 titles—which is also a play on DC’s 52 alternate earths multiverse—that are edgier, hipper, and not burdened by over three and a half years of continuity since the last soft re-boot.
In terms of edginess, and in deference to massive continuity, the DC of the 1990s was actually far better, far more timely, and far more in tune with its audience than the re-90s that readers are experiencing today. Without knocking great titles like Batman and Green Lantern (which incidentally had 0.0004% of their stories erased or compressed for the New 52), the re-launch has been somewhat underwhelming. In fairness, I wasn’t entirely sold on the nullification of the marriage of Clark Kent (Superman) and Lois Lane, or Barry Allen (the Flash) and Iris West, but the stories regarding that have been somewhat liberating for both of the female reporter ingénues involved. Iris gets to be the Lois Lane she was always meant to be, and Lois gets to break out of being the girl-in-trouble Lois Lane and become Lois Lane: Media Executive. This personally resonates with me because I’ve recently been given the opportunity to become a Lois Lane: Media Executive as well…or…well…y’know, it’s kinda timely. However, it isn’t by far the kind of timeliness required for what DC is trying to undertake.
Some characters, like Hawkman, have become cold-blooded and savage, while others, like Ted Kord, seem to not exist at all. Other Universes in the multiverse seem to have been absorbed into Earth Prime, like the WildStorm universe of Lee’s creation, while the JSA’s universe has again been resigned to an alternate reality after being absorbed in both 1986’s Crisis on Infinite Earths and 1994’s Zero Hour reboots. Other changes just seem heavy handed or unnecessary. For example, the changes made to the character of Superboy seem forced and out of touch with his previously established personality. To be clear, my comic book collection started with the Return of Superman storyline, and Superboy has long been a favorite character. He’s become cold, calculating and way too self-aware—at least he was at the onset of his series which was all I could stomach. This is a major problem. I can’t read either of the books one of my favorite characters is in since I also find Teen Titans unreadable.
There are two things that DC has been attempting which I think were achieved more organically in the 90s than they are now, style and characterization. Many new characters in the 90s had a very 90s style to them, and that’s fine. Kyle Rayner as Green Lantern had his own look, as did Superboy, the Ray, Aztec, and Starman. While some of these were mostly legacy characters, they were introduced as new people and not as rebooted characters. This allowed for their costumes to reflect the stylistic zeitgeist and allowed their personalities to do the same. Kyle Rayner wasn’t the new Hal Jordan, and Starman was Starman’s son, which allowed him to be a different person. What DC is doing now is taking a page from Ultimate Marvel and simply diversifying the existing characters by making them gay, or black, or some similarly cheap attempt. When Marvel did it, it was an alternate line, an experiment in story, and not a knee-jerk reaction to the competition’s success.
There is nothing wrong with changing personal qualities of the characters and diversifying them, but DC’s attempts smack of pandering and heavy-handedness. In the 90s, DC was able to do all of these things without pandering to the audience. They were able to convey stories that, at least in my opinion, were timely, but kept a “house” feel that still felt like DC stories. Now they feel like warmed over-image gimmicks draped in Justice League costumes. In the 90s, DC employed gimmicks for sure, but they were really just making comics in a unique style. In the New 52, DC is trying to recapture that spirit, but it comes of as forced with a faux 90s style and faux 90s attitude.
Check back tomorrow for a continued in-depth analysis with examples from two classic 90s DC stories: The Death and Return of Superman, and Knightfall.