Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Termite (Sequential) Art: 52 1-52

Yeah it's a film blog. Guess what: I like comics too.

Another major super-hero saga, another opportunity to sound like a broken record. I recently wrote at length about Marvel's latest attempt at relevancy and smarts amidst the tights and capes, Civil War. Though I admired the project's ambition, I was deeply unsatisfied by the execution, and I find myself in the exact same position as I'm about to discuss their competition's latest big'un, DC Comics' 52.

52 spun directly out of the events of DC's last major crossover, Infinite Crisis, another book I've written about. Essentially, Infinite Crisis was a conscious return to some sort of old-school comic book style: after years of increasingly dark behavior, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman realized the errors of their ways, and reteamed to overcome a threat that looked and sounded a great deal like the legions of nerds who read their serialized adventures. Immediately after Infinite Crisis, all of DC's regular monthly comic books instigated something called "One Year Later," whereby all stories jumped ahead 12 months in the characters lives. All of a sudden there was a new Aquaman, a new Flash, a new Wonder Woman, all without explanation. The "OYL" stunt allowed DC to shake up some stale titles while maximizing their visibility in the wake of the very commercially successful Infinite Crisis.

But what to make of that missing year of continuity? Enter 52, a 52-part, weekly serialized novel, written by four different writers working in collaboration (Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, and Mark Waid) with a host of artists (led by Keith Giffen). Using several underutilized but potential-laden DC characters (a mysterious detective named The Question, a grief-stricken super-hero named The Elongated Man, a Superman colleague named Steel, Captain Marvel's complex nemesis Black Adam, and a foolish hero for hire named Booster Gold), they would tour the universe of DC Comics, show what significant events happened in the missing year to explain the radical changes, and fully delineate exactly what changes Infinite Crisis made to the company's overarching mythology.

Before going on, let me first pause to celebrate what a remarkable logistical achievement 52 was. There have been weekly comics in the past (Will Eisner's classic Spirit insert, for example) and DC itself tried the format about twenty years ago when it converted its flagship title, Action Comics to a weekly for a short-lived experiment. But at a time when an increasing number of monthly books seem incapable of meeting their shipping dates, when some books have even taken the drastic measure of interrupting or even dropping incompleted stories from titles so that new creative teams can keep the book coming out while slower writers and artists spin their wheels, 52, a standard length comic book, came out on time, every Wednesday for 52 straight weeks. I, and many others, assumed when the project was announced that it would crash and burn. To all its creators' credit, it never did, even when the book's editor jumped ship to go work at Marvel about 2/3rds of the way through the year. That alone deserves a delicious Kudos granola bar.

The book was also an unmitigated financial success. 52 hooked readers early and never let go. According to the sales numbers on Publishers Weekly's The Beat. 52 settled into a very healthy 100,000 copies sold per week. 100K is roughly the equivalent in the comics world of a $100 million movie, i.e. a numberical benchmark for a blockbuster. But remember that even the bestselling title typically only sells 100,000 copies a month and 52 did that each week. If you go to the link to The Beat — and if you're at all interested in this topic, you should — you'll see that most comics are in a perpetual state of declining sales, a big reason why they're constant throwing new innovations like costumes and puffed up phoney baloney deaths at the reader to spike interest and sales. But 52 bucked that trend too.

Sadly, 52's creative accomplishments are a bit murkier. As I mentioned, 52's original stated purpose was to explore the missing year in DC continuity. It barely did; in fact, with a couple months left in 52, DC rushed into production a 4-issue miniseries called World War III designed to help explain all of the OYL changes that should have been addressed in 52 but weren't. In addition, as 52 progressed and began to take on a life of its own, it developed more unsolved mysteries than a mid-90s anthology series hosted by Robert Stack; after all, to keep readers coming back every week they needed an awful lot of cliffhangers. The writers piled mystery atop mystery, but their questions began to outpace their answers. Threads were picked up and dropped, ideas were floated and forgotten, characters were introduced and ignored. After week 44, comics scholar Douglas Wolk, who examined 52 weekly and in real time in impressive fashion on his blog 52 Pickup, assembled a list of 100 questions that 52 had posed and hadn't answered. The final handfull of books covered some of them, but probably no more than a third.

As the quartet of writers juggled more and more threads, the strain began to show, particularly in the pacing department. Steel's storyline, about an evil plot by Lex Luthor to give everyone in the world super-powers, including Steel's rebellious niece, dragged on with little forward progress for weeks and weeks; same for The Question's slow death via lung cancer; same for an additional storyline about a trio of heroes stranded in deep space after the events of Infinite Crisis. Meanwhile, the best storyline, The Elongated Man's, was severely truncated and wound down more than two months before 52's end. A lot of issues are only as good as the characters' chosen to feature in them.

The writers have made no bones about the fact that they were essentially commissioned to write one book, and ended up handing in another, owing to the fact that they were writing it on the fly. This is not an unprecedented publishing paradigm; novels were commonly serialized in the past, and at least according to one Dizzy, Tom Wolfe wrote The Bonfire of the Vanities in this way, every two weeks in Rolling Stone, "and you can see how certain things that seem like they'll figure big in the story fade out as he figures out what his focus should be." That sounds awfully 52-like to me.

Equally important was the relative mediocrity of 52's art. In an age when some of the most accomplished draftsmen in the industry can't complete 22 pages a month, it's would have been too much to expect any artist, or any two artists, to handle this book's workload. 52 employed a veritable army of artists, all operating from breakdowns (basically storyboards for comics) drawn by Keith Giffen. Giffen's presence kept a relatively uniform product, but McDonald's has a uniform product, and that's not fine cuisine. A few issues stood out when talented artists were brought on board for special issues — like Week 42's Elongated Man story pencilled by the Darick Robertson. The rest were notable only for their mediocrity.

In a lot of ways, 52 is the anti-Civil War. Where Civil War was plagued by scheduling delays that pushed back not only the main series, but the myriad monthly Marvel series that were affected by it, 52 came out on time every Wednesday as advertised. And where Civil War strove to be modern (invoking the War on Terror age debate of freedom versus security, willfully ignoring past bits of continuity or characterization), 52 specifically invoked the past by focusing on forgotten characters like Doc Magnus or Egg Fu (you know you want to hear more about a character named Egg freakin' Fu!!) who haven't been popular in decades if at all. Other than a few bits of mild profanity (a sprinkling of hells and asses, nothing worse than you'd get on primetime television at 8:00 PM) and some violent deaths, 52 could fit in with a lot of the decades old books that provided a lot of its inspiration. If Civil War was timely, what does that make 52? Old-fashioned? Classical? Timeless?

That's sort of a funny way of putting things, since 52 is so much about the nature of time itself. The title, which pops up in numerous clever references throughout the run refers to a lot more than just the weeks in a year, or the number of issues in the series. That, too, was a satisfying aspect of the book's conclusion; or, rather, it would have been if DC hadn't already spoiled it just that a few months ago in editor Dan DiDio's weekly back matter column. 52 is filled with missteps and bungles like that, but you want to forgive stuff like that because of the way the book accomplished its simple yet audacious goal: to just come out on time every week for a year. Of course, DC is giving its core audience no time to relax; tomorrow a brand new year-long weekly series begins. It's called Countdown. What an appropriate title. Readers are probably checking their watches against their wallets to see how long they can be satisfied by cleverness and timeliness. At a certain point you need a bit more substance too.



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