Reboots are common in the comicbook world. Characters are rebooted all the time. Movie franchises are rebooted. The dead are brought back to life; separate dimensions are used to reseed character lineups; alternate timelines tell extravagant tales of “what if?”
But there has never been anything like “The New 52.” Five years ago, DC did a full reboot of their entire comic universe. They effectively ended every comic running, full stop, and started up 52 comics with all-new storylines, all-new beginnings, in an attempt to revitalize stagnating sales.
I was so freaking excited about this reboot plan. DC comics used to make it into the brown paper bag I’d take home from my LCS*, but while their Vertigo line still had something to offer, the DC line had lost me. My major complaints with the world of DC is twofold: The first is that all their main characters look exactly the same with just different colored hair. Look at Green Lantern, Batman, Superman, Flash, and Aquaman without their costumes, and you can’t tell them apart.
And no, this isn’t a diversity complaint; it’s a writing complaint. Marvel has a teenage Spiderman, a dweeby Banner (and Reed), a middle-aged alcoholic in Iron Man, just for starters. Captain America is the only major Marvel character with the DC look, and he highlights the other thing wrong with DC characters: They are too powerful.
Green Lantern went cosmic (and the comicbook when chromatic, adding too many hues of lanterns), resulting in clashes that have almost no human touch. Superman has one real weakness, which gets old. He’s too perfect to root for. The stakes in these books are so high all the damn time that you eventually tire of caring if the universe is saved or not. This is the main problem: We can’t conceive of the size, scope, and age of the universe enough to deeply care about its fate. We care more when a single jetliner is plummeting to its doom.
I’m finishing up the second season of Netflix and Marvel’s Daredevil, and it is the best TV I’ve watched since Breaking Bad. Partly because of the excellent fan service (Kingpin, Elektra, The Punisher, even little cameos from Marvel’s best anti-heroes like The Swordsman!). But mostly because the stakes are ones we can grasp. It’s not even the entirety of New York City Daredevil is trying to save (the Avengers step in for those cases). It’s just his hood. It’s local.
DC is much like the American voter, who obsesses about who’s president and ignores who makes it onto the local schoolboard or the county planning committee. Guess who is going to impact your life more? Marvel gets it. The most impressive thing to me about the first season of Daredevil (minor spoiler alert): It’s not until the last episode of the season that he becomes the superhero we know and love. His name, uniform, weapons, methodology, philosophy … they all take thirteen damn episodes to fully form.
How did The New 52 start? With as much action as possible, and with the characters fully formed, in costume, usually in the middle of a foot chase. Like whoever is in charge over there said: “We’ve got to start this shit with as much bang as possible. More “POW” and “SOCK.” Which resulted in more poop and suck. The books were (mostly) crap from the start. The exceptions were surprising (Supergirl) and too few. Where the exceptions worked, it was because these books were more about character development and story and less about wreaking havoc (note the same problem with the movies, where cities are decimated without concern for the civilians who live there, or simply desert the streets as in the third Batman, to leave it a playground for the gods).
One of the best Marvel comics in a long time is the latest Hawkeye. Yeah, that’s right, the Avenger everyone makes fun of for not being as powerful as his teammates. But that’s what makes him awesome (and why his wife points out in Age of Ultron that he’s needed on the team). The guy is vulnerable. He spends most of the panels in his comic run covered in bandages. He gets beat up a lot. He’s fallible, and often in danger. Like we feel. And so we love and empathize with him. (If you haven’t read the run, you should).
Daredevil excels for the same reason. Blind, stubble-faced Matt Murdock (another break from DC’s archetype) is always limping, always wounded, always on the verge of defeat. He couldn’t survive without the help of his civilian friends and neighbors (who represent us). He also operates in a moral shade of gray that darkens and lightens from episode to episode. This is a character journey. This isn’t a reboot with all the boots running. It’s a reboot with laces being tied for the first time.
I know the folks over at DC must be frustrated. They’re watching Disney and Marvel rake in BILLIONS of dollars from critically acclaimed films. And while DC will make money — because we’ll line up to see if they get Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman right this time — Marvel is making bank on Guardians and Ant-Man. On Jessica Jones. On Luke Cage. Where DC is going to run out of main characters (and our patience), Marvel could go on for decades if they hew to their tradition of imbuing regular folks with great responsibility. This will always bring in more eyeballs than having gods wrestle with the fate(s) of the multiverse(s).
What could DC have done differently? Listen to the Joker, for one thing. The Batman of film really is insane. A handful of films turned him from my favorite comic hero to a character I really don’t care about. That’s not easy to do. I know we tire of origin stories, but a great reboot of the 52 would have reset everyone’s powers. Tone them down. Remember the original Superman films? The baddest man in the DC universe was powerful, but nothing like what we see in the comic books today. He seemed to have limits.
I like what Marvel did with Captain America. They made his comics a feature in his own world, so the exploits we know about from our comics can be mere exaggerations within the more gritty and realistic Cap the films created. The rebooted cap never really punched Hitler in the mouth, but don’t tell that to the boys who bought comics to support the war efforts. It was a neat bit of tidying up that allowed the comics to stand while bringing cap down to earth so we could connect with him.
Give us Batman, the detective, and have him solve cases, and we can get onboard with that. Have him not only unable to fly (glide), but to make fun of the fact that anyone thinks he could. Tone down the cape. Make the baddies crazy but not cosmic. Have him team up with a Superman who can leap tall buildings but doesn’t yet know how to fly (like the original Supe). Give us a Wonder Woman whose Amazon warlord connections (POW?) mix with her time as an Israeli fighter pilot (stealth fighter = invisible plane?). Return their legends to the status of legends, and build up new legends from a foundation of humanity.
And hell, diversify. Not just for the sake of diversity, but for some creative outlet. To not be boring. Did you know that the comic book version of Nick Fury was white? Can you imagine NOT having Samuel L. Jackson holding the Marvel universe together? I can’t. Make Green Lantern a gay black female teenager who can’t see, and DC will learn what Marvel has known for a long time: We don’t read these comics to escape our lives; we read them to imagine our lives in spandex and at full throttle. And sometimes that means starting slow.
Do yourselves a favor, even if you aren’t into comics: Start from the beginning of the Marvel media universe and watch everything. From Iron Man to the latest Captain America, and all the shows on Netflix. This is some of the best storytelling in ages. Hopefully DC is watching. Be better if they were taking notes. Because here’s another truth: You can’t have enough great stories out there. Saturate us with awesomeness. For those who feel inundated, stay at fucking home and don’t watch. The rest of us are having a blast.
*Local Comicbook Shop