The Watchtower
Reviewing the DC Relaunch Part 2 of 3
Chris and Jordan
Here in the comics section of Review to Be Named, we felt that the DC September Relaunch was a big enough event, that it monopolized our coverage for the month of September. After looking at the individual books, it's time to examine the success of the initiative as a whole. This is the second of a three part feature (part three will be published tomorrow and part one can be found here: http://reviewtobenamed.com/posts/595) in which Chris and Jordan will discuss what worked, what didn't, offer up some possible explanations as to why things turned out the way they did, and muse about where the comics industry goes from here.

Did you feel the DCnU played it too safe? And how do you feel about the continuity changes? Is this a chance for a new beginning, or a set up for massive confusion a few months down the line?

Oh, I definitely think DC played it too safe from day one. If you look at the roster of writers on the DCnU books, the vast majority of them were already writing DC books just prior to the relaunch or were veterans of the mainstream superhero comics genre. With a few exceptions like Jeff Lemire and Joshua Hale Fialkov, DC seems very reluctant to take chances on writers who have built names for themselves and critical buzz on independent titles. I know I've become a broken record on this point, but DC made a HUGE mistake losing Nick Spencer to Marvel, as he was on track to join the ranks of Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire as one of DC's freshest voices and most dependable writers.

I would have also liked to see DC court a few big name writers back to the fold to helm some of their more critical books for the relaunch, if my calculations are correct, Brad Meltzer is just about due for another comics stint, and while Mark Millar seems fairly committed to his creator own work it's no secret that the man would consider selling off a limb in exchange for the opportunity to helm a Superman book.

DC can make all the editorial changes they like, but until fresh voices, with fresh ideas are brought in and given the free reign to really do what they do best, certain titles and characters are always going to feel like they are stagnating. And I think you hit the nail on the head by singling out the differences between Superman and Action Comics. The former was a fairly by the books, predictable, and unexciting super hero tale from an experienced yet very traditional writer, while the latter was an exciting and pretty drastic re-imagining of the character that fired a shot across the bow of anyone who thinks Superman is a boring goody two shoes, straight from the mind of one of comics' most popular and innovative writers. The difference is striking it and it almost feels like DC deliberately chose to hedge their bets by putting out one by the numbers Superman title, and one fairly revolutionary Superman title.

I was greatly disappointed by the choices made regarding how to present and update many of DC's lesser known heroes. I felt like a lot of my favorite characters were dumbed down, made more generic, and lost many of the trappings that add to their unique mythos. Green Arrow went from being the "just a bit too old" curmudgeon, unpredictable die-hard liberal, and flawed husband/father to a rich guy who hates bad guys. Hawkman was a warrior cursed to die every time he was reunited with his true love and the protector of a vibrant fictional port city of St. Roch, Louisiana. In the relaunch, he's moved to New York City and while the solicitations say he's supposed to be the Indianna Jones of superheroes, I didn't see any elements of that present in the first issue, other than that he works for a museum. It seemed like in an effort to distill, simplify, and modernize certain characters, DC lost everything that made them unique and interesting.

As for the Continuity issues, I think DC has set themselves up for a huge nightmare of confusion and contradiction heading forward. It would be one thing if they had said: "forget everything you thought you knew." But they didn't. They said: "Forget most of what you knew, some of it still happened, just not the way you think it did, and we're not gonna tell you how it happened yet. Maybe ever." It's not a clean slate, and it's not even a simplified slate. The fates of characters like Wally West who were integral to the old Universe are still very much up in the air. It seems like at least parts of Brightest Day are still intact given the events of Hawk and Dove, and DCUniverse Presents, but the events of Firestorm seem to directly contradict the idea that that character could have played the role he did in that series or in Blackest Night for that matter. In fact certain comments coming out of DC editorial lead me to believe that they are still now nailing down just what is and what isn't still in continuity.

Maybe this is way too fanboy on my part, and please call me on it if it is, but I would have preferred either a straight up reboot, no reboot, or a minimal reboot that was explained right from the get go, as each new plot development just leaves me with more questions, and I'm becoming more confused than I am intrigued.

I don't think that's too fanboy of you, though it was less of a problem for me as a newbie than I imagine it was for long time readers. A lot of the character changes you mention sound downright awful, but weren't obvious to me. Where you read Green Arrow and The Savage Hawkman and fumed over changes to a great character you loved, I just read both and thought "wow, these characters are really generic and bland." I think this proves your point, but the effect on a new reader was less anger and more vague disappointment. A longtime fan of Green Arrow probably feels betrayed and furious; I just feel ambivalent.

This probably ties right into your argument about the lack of exciting new writers. Jeff Lemire is a definite coup for DC, but why they didn't grab five or ten more indie writers and a few more big names is mystifying to me. I haven't read all that many comics at this point (though the number is steadily growing), but if you put Mark Millar on a Superman book, based solely on The Ultimates I'm going to be reading that book every month for a while.

The continuity problems also trouble me less as a new reader. Most of the questions that are keeping you up nights probably haven't even occurred to me, and the ones even I have noticed don't seem like they would be that big a deal if DC just made it clear what did and didn't happen. Ultimately, though, any questions readers are asking should be based on intentional mystery cultivated by DC, not confusion due to bad writing and editorial laziness in nailing down continuity. And Unless DC has some big tricks up its sleeve, I've got the distinct feeling that most of the problems you're having come from the latter far more than the former.

All in all, this whole "reboot" thing seems a little rushed to me, and it seems like exactly the sort of thing DC would want to take its time to get just right. As someone who follows the industry closely and knows a whole lot more than me about the ins and outs, do you have any insight into why DC was so slapshod with this whole thing? Why did they rush these books to the shelves before they had a plan nailed down? And how do you think that impacted the diversification of the catalogue?

You know, I would have loved to be a fly on the wall of the editorial meetings that lead to the relaunch. At the very least, I'm hoping some disenfranchised creator gives us an anonymous look behind the curtain sometime soon. I do believe that the relaunch plans were rushed and here's why:

Coming out of Blackest Night, DC did have a plan. They branded the post Blackest Night era as Brightest Day and launched a bi-weekly series of the same name to act as a spine for the story lines of the rest of the DCU. Brightest Day was even colloquially referred to as DCU Rebirth after the branding Geoff Johns applied to his wildly successful reintroductions of Hal Jordan and Barry Allen, as it looked like he and Peter Tomasi were setting up Aquaman, Martian Manhunter, Hawkman & Hawkgirl, Firestorm, and Deadman for the same kind of resurgence Johns had achieved with other pillars of the DCU Universe. New books were also launched under this banner featuring beloved writers returning to the books they had become synonymous with: Paul Levitz on Legion, Gail Simone on Birds of Prey, and Geoff Johns on The Flash. And while this move would prove detrimental to the company in the long run, many fans were excited about the announcement of J. Michael Straczynski on Superman and Wonder Woman. So just a little over a year before the relaunch was announced, DC had an idea of where they were going, and then somewhere along the way decided to scrap it in favor of a much, much bolder initiative.

So by my calculations, the reboot plan has to be less than a year old, or else why would DC put so much planning into the Brightest Day effort? Was it the underwhelming sales and critical response to JMS's Superman and Wonder Woman, made worse by his premature exit from both titles? Was Brightest Day just not as successful at streamlining its focal characters as Johns and company had hoped? Or did they just chose to swap out a good idea for what looked like a better idea when someone hit upon using Flashpoint as a vehicle for a massive initiative both to set the DCU's continuity back on track and to reach out to new fans? We probably won't know for some time, but the answers will leak out eventually, they always do.

As for what this meant for the relaunch, it's hard to say exactly. I will again return to the idea that maybe DC didn't spend enough time shopping around for pitches, which might have had something to do with the need to maintain secrecy. DC did a phenomenal job of keeping a lid on the relaunch plans right up until their official announcements, so maybe things were kept relatively in-house due to the need for secrecy. I will again point to characters like Green Arrow, Hawkman, and even the Teen Titans who became tragically simplified by the relaunch. The hook that these concepts had in the old universe just isn't there anymore, or at the very least I'm not seeing it. I think DC did a really great job with integrating the Wildstorm and Vertigo characters back into the universe, but I would have liked to see some more thought, creativity, and care put into the reintroduction of characters like Hawkman, Green Arrow, Firestorm, the Teen Titans, The Atom, and Zatanna, all characters interesting and niche enough to carry their own series, but for whatever reason unable to hold an audience.

DC had a real chance here to show fans why these characters are unique and special, but instead we were presented with overly simplified shades of great characters starring in books that tonally seemed more similar to the Wildstorm and Vertigo imports than the pre-relaunch DCU. I don't think you are alone among new readers who missed the appeal of some of these characters, which will hurt DC in the long run, because each time DC has to cancel a book like The Savage Hawkman,it becomes harder to sell editorial and audiences on giving the character another shot at an ongoing series.

And that's a shame. The DC Universe should be a very diverse place, and yet it all too often felt to me like there was overlap, redundancies, or just plain blandness when some character touches could have made the concepts shine. This was likely the best opportunity DC will ever have (or will have for a good long while, anyway) to sell new readers on their more obscure characters, to convince people that Green Arrow (who we really seem to have keyed into here, likely because that book was so emblematic of the generic feel of a lot of the titles), Firestorm, or Zatanna were people worth caring about.

You're probably right that DC had to keep the plan in house and that limited pitches, but this seems like the perfect time to put huge talent on smaller books as a way to draw people in. Scott Snyder on Swamp Thing had everyone talking, and ensured I would be reading that book, which I have never done before. If a buzz worthy writer was attached to one of the more obscure characters like that, I feel the readership would have been higher, and DC would have actually been creating new fans of the characters instead of pissing off old readers and ensuring new buyers continue to ignore those characters.

Instead it seems like most of the energy was put into DC's two biggest selling characters at the moment: Batman and Green Lantern. This makes sense (of course they want the talent where the money is), but still seems like a missed opportunity at the kind of diversity of the line we're talking about here. Of those two, I think the Green Lantern family of books did a much better job. Green Lantern, Green Lantern Corps, Green Lantern New Guardians and Red Lanterns are all very different books with clear mission statements. They seem to be actively expanding the Green Lantern mythos in a way that will excite both new readers and old.

On the Batman side of things, there is much less of a shake-up. For all the Bat titles out there, there aren't a whole lot of premises going around. I love Batman. I've already admitted he is my favorite superhero by far. DC doesn't have to sell me on the character, nor on many of his associates (I was always going to be reading Nightwing, Batgirl, and Batwing), but a little leg work on differentiating the mission statements of these books would go a long way. There are plenty of problems in Gotham City for a host of Bat-related heroes to take on, but can anyone tell me how Nightwing's mission statement differs from Batman? At this point it seems like every bat book's mission is just "fight bad guys and be associated with our most popular character," and that doesn't cut it for me. I think that reasoning explains why Batman showed up in so many of these books this month, but they can't get by on people picking it up and hoping that Batman will stop by again. That schtick is going to get old fast, and when it does I hope these books are left with something.

***Join us tomorrow for the conclusion of conclusion of Chris and Jordan's examination of the DC Relaunch.
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