pulp (2006-19)

Superhero Sagas

For DC comics, the future is now

by Paul Lewis

Although comic books currently feature the most diversity in the history of the medium, embracing various genres, cultures and styles, the industry is still driven by one particular form: the superhero. Just as movie studios prop up their bottom lines with big summer blockbusters, comic book companies can often bank on a popular character or a high concept to keep units moving. As something of a genre apologist who loves to read just about anything and who grew up reading comics, I see nothing inherently wrong with a well-crafted superhero story and get a charge out of the complex mythology and character/continuity minutiae which often underpin those tales. One of the major publishers, DC Comics, is currently ripping that continuity to shreds while also affirming it in a bold publishing initiative called “One Year Later.”

OYL is a follow-up to a universe-spanning event called Infinite Crisis, which features every DC superhero facing an epic threat, much like the beloved Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC’s big event of 20 years ago. That earlier Crisis killed and/or re-booted many of the DC characters while also streamlining their complex, parallel Earth-based stories. While the resolution of Infinite Crisis has not yet been published, DC’s hope is to maintain and renew interest in their titles by moving their stories forward one year in comic book time, allowing for something of a fresh start for all their characters. The events of the so-called “missing year” will be chronicled in a weekly series titled 52.

What results is a world where Superman hasn’t been seen in months and Clark Kent may or may not have his powers any longer. Batman may or may not be Bruce Wayne. Green Arrow is now the mayor of his stomping grounds, Star City. Selina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman, is pregnant, and a newcomer has taken her mantle. Super-team The Outsiders, many of whom are thought dead, have gone completely underground to operate as a first-strike, proactive force against evil. Not to mention the unknown fates of such characters as Wonder Woman, The Flash and The Atom, all of whom will receive re-launches of their titles under the OYL banner, or new books such as Blue Beetle , Shadowpact and Checkmate. It’s fairly common for characters to receive new editorial stewardship and writer/artist teams every two to three years in an attempt to keep them vital (how many Superman stories can one person write, after all?), but overhauling an entire line of books under monthly deadline strictures—while both reaffirming the iconic nature of some characters and juicing them up—is stunning, to say the least.

Bill Langford, proprietor of Knoxville’s Comic Exchange, notes that this initiative is paying off among the rank and file fans that show up every week to get their fix. “What has been special about OYL is the forethought, scope and ambitiousness of the project,” he says. “All DC sales have been boosted across the board, especially Superman and Batman titles. What has really been surprising, though, is the strong uptick in sales for the second-tier DC titles like Aquaman , Firestorm , Birds of Prey , Green Arrow , etc.”

For years, DC has been in a battle with chief rival Marvel Comics for market share, a battle usually won by Marvel and their X-Men-led character base. DC fans seem to be coming out of the woodwork for these new developments, though. “Whereas before these Crisis events, our store sales were 60 percent Marvel and 40 percent DC, these numbers have now been reversed. The big question is where those numbers will settle when DC doesn't have a Crisis event to tentpole their sales,” observes Langford. Interestingly enough, Marvel has been relying on its established continuity a little less over the past few years while DC is playing its up. In the often bitter battle between the companies, it should be interesting to see which approach will yield better stories in the short term and a continued readership in the long, or even if those considerations are mutually exclusive.

For fans who like their comics a little more old-school and closer to the genre’s pulp science-fiction roots, DC has recently released DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore ( DC Comics, $19.99), a collection of the esteemed author’s work using DC characters. This compilation trumps former Moore collections by including his Superman elegy “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” and what has been described as the ultimate Joker story, “The Killing Joke.” My favorite, though, is his utterly bizarre Green Lantern Corps story, “Tygers.” Moore is best known as the writer of such works as Watchmen and V for Vendetta , and though he has long distanced himself from characters he hasn’t created himself, it’s delightful to watch his embryonic playfulness with other people’s toys. And if you don’t enjoy the circuitous, complex mythology that modern comics do so well, Moore also illustrates how powerful a single story told in the space of an issue or two can resonate with a reader.