Ralph Dibny: You missed.

Green Arrow: He said, "stop, thief." I aimed for the guy charging thirty bucks for disposable diapers in a disaster zone. (#8)

Fans and creators of comix have been debating the nature and limits of the genre for years. Discussion has been most intense in those titles where well-known, mainstream characters pull on tights and throw punches. How dark should Batman be, given that he's recognized outside his home medium as a kid’s character? How serious can Superman’s world be, when he’s so obviously a childhood wish-fulfilment? How much can characters change, given that their most established characteristics are being marketed on television, in movies, and as toys?

What defines a hero, on paper and in reality?

DC Comics' twenty-first century tweaking of their reality, Infinite Crisis addressed these questions with a villain who was trying to alter reality and make his ideal world, free of the darkness that had crept into comics in the last quarter century and has been threatening to devour them. Of course, his plan caused untold death and destruction in the four-color realm, and would have caused more, had not the heroes intervened.

DC’s titles picked up one hypothetical year later, with a slightly tweaked universe. 52 depicts the events between the end of Infinite Crisis and the start of the rebooted titles. Published weekly in 2006 and 2007, each issue depicts the events of one week in several interconnected story arcs. The earth has suffered terrible destruction, and, in the wake of Infinite Crisis its greatest heroes—-Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman—-are nowhere to be seen.1

Overall, DC continues to balance the fun of old comix and the darkness of more recent ones, and the recent changes have been planned better than those made by Crisis on Infinite Earths.2

General Information

Title: 52 #1-26

Writers: Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, Mark Waid, Dan Jurgens.

Artists: Marlo Alquiza, Chris Batista, David Baron, Eddy Barrow, Joe Bennet, Keith Giffen, Shawn Moll, Todd Nauck, Tom Nguyen, Jimmy Palmiotti, Norm Rapmund, Alex Sinclair, Art Thibert, et al

Covers by J.G. Jones and Alex Sinclair.

Supporting features by Dan Jurgens, Andy Lanning, Jerry Ordway, Ivan Reis, Alex Sinclair, Mark Waid, et al.

The DC Geist

This is Metropolis! It’s a city Brainiac tries to shrink to bottle size every Thursday. Don't tell me nothing is on tonight.
--Booster Gold, #15

I really like the way 52 demonstrates the geist of the DC Universe. The writers and artists have processed their history and distilled something which includes the best of all elements. Even more so than the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths work, the "better titles," as I've written elsewhere, strike "a balance between the deliberately juvenile escapist appeal of the characters and their adventures, and the desire to place those characters and adventures in a more mature world." Escapism is a significant part of the appeal. Superhero comic books can address real-world issues, but they should also be set in a world that, gee whiz, looks like it would be a blast to inhabit.

In the wake of its most recent Crisis, DC is more comfortable with the genre’s sillier aspects, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Dr. Sivana’s hideout features the classic, cliched Mad Scientist’s lab of bygone eras. Dr Magnus works out of an implausible and entirely appropriate suburban basement lab—- though, of course, a much nicer one than Sivana’s. Metropolis looks like a cross between New York City and a World’s Fair. Kahndaq recalls a child’s vision of an exotic foreign country, something from a theme park, and the artists clearly know it.

Each individual reader has his or her own limits to this kind of comic-book stylization. I’m perfectly happy to see Detective Chimp play his part in the DCU; I’m less comfortable with deranged gag character Lobo.3 I loved the lightning flash over the gothic cliché that is Sivana Manor and the trip to the Grade B Movie laboratory in its cellar. The dynamics of the Sivana family seem a little too forced and idiotic, however, a little too much in keeping with their kiddie origins in Fawcett's peachy-keen comics of the 1940s.

Despite the comic-book stylizations, darkness and mature themes have not been abandoned. In the first issue, a depressed Ralph Dibny places a gun in his mouth. Renee Montoya, a standout in this series, wrestles with a very serious alcohol problem and a inclination towards casual sex. Two characters end up in a dismal foreign prison, and others experience implied torture. At the same time, the dark Shadowpact have a goofily joyful reunion. DC recognizes (for now) that:

  • Darkness can exist in their comics, but darkness for its own sake isn’t any more mature than wild-eyed escapist fantasy. It’s just a different form of immaturity.
  • Someone like Superman should be an unabashed, clean-cut boy scout of a hero. Other heroes should, in their better moments, aspire to an ideal. It’s okay to believe in truth and justice.

The new DC Universe gives more than just a nod to the idea of an international hero community. Granted, their big names continue to reside in the United States, but they’ve created some new characters who will play a part in future comics, and who help explain why the Justice League doesn’t, say, end every inconvenient war. In the tradition of comics, they’re a bit stereotypical, the creations of outsiders looking at foreign countries. The "Rockets Red" defend Russia, while some of China's superheroes look like defectors from a folk-dancing festival. However, they hold beliefs that differ from those of the American heroes without being villains.

The Many Narrative Threads

Warning: Spoilers

  • Black Adam takes the throne of his home country, Kahndaq, and begins implementing his own brand of justice. Along the way, he introduces the hero Isis, not seen since pre-Crisis comics, and a new character, Osiris. This new "Black Marvel Family" join the fight against Intergang. In #26, the Sivana family asks them to seek out their missing patriarch.
  • Renee Montoya comes off a bender when the Question hires her to assist on a case. Their noir adventures eventually involve them with the new Batwoman, Intergang, and the Black Marvel Family. In #26, the Question introduces Montoya to his teacher, suggesting that she will return to play a bigger role in DC comics. I hope that both of these characters do; their plot is perhaps the most interesting in 52.
  • Ralph Dibny meets with various characters as he mourns his wife, and tries to learn more about a Kryptonian cult who believe they can restore the dead to life. He apparently experiences a nervous breakdown, but returns, and begins gathering supernatural artifacts to assist in an Orphean quest.
  • Wonder Girl joins a Kryptonian cult who believe they can bring Connor "Superboy" Kent, killed during Infinite Crisis, back to life.
  • Several heroes, lost in space during Infinite Crisis, find themselves on an edenic planet, complete with its own forbidden fruit and serpent. Their attempts to return home receive help from an unlikely hero: Lobo.
  • Booster Gold’s shady dealings are exposed, but he manages to die a hero. Skeets, his robotic sidekick, turns dangerous, as we learn that someone may have altered time.
  • Someone collects mad scientists and takes them to a mysterious island where they work on deadly projects. Dr. Magnus, off his meds and wanted by the law, ultimately joins them.
  • Lex Luthor uses the existence of a second Luthor to help clear his name, and he sets about creating new superheroes.
  • Steel’s niece joins forces with Lex Luthor, as Steel, strangely transformed, tries to expose the truth behind superheroes created by Luthor.
  • A mysterious new hero, Supernova, appears, and we receive conflicting clues about his identify. One of Luthor's new heroes? An alternate-timeline Booster Gold? A Green Lantern? A plot device connected to the missing mad scientists? A Marvel superhero, disgruntled over Civil War? As of #26, we have many theories, but no definite answer.
  • The familiar heroes become aware of new superheroes in other countries, heroes who have their own concepts of justice.

Plot, Characters, and Art

The series keeps hinting, strongly, that Sue Dibny, brutally killed in Identity Crisis, may be returning. This might be a mistake. I realize that Sue played an important role in Elongated Man's success, and many readers understandably objected to the rape and murder of the character. DC, however, in recent years has been spinning the Revolving Door o' Death like a bored child. It cheapens stories and rarely serves any good purpose. Was anyone clamouring for the return of Jason Todd? Did we really need Hal Jordan resurrected, when the Earth has four other, arguably more interesting Green Lanterns, and the Universe hosts battalions of them?

Overuse of the Reset Button diminishes the potential for any story to engage the reader, and robs fictional death of any meaning it might have.

The existence of a life/death reset becomes particularly annoying in 52 when Ralph Dibny summons other heroes to investigate the possibility that a Kryptonian cult may have the ability to restore Sue to life. The heroes whom Dibny summons quickly conclude-— before they find any evidence-- that the Kryptonian cult has no real power and that Sue cannot be restored to life. Their arguments would be entirely convincing in our world. However (as Dibny notes), all of the assembled characters have returned from the grave. Events much more fantastic than what the cult proposes occur regularly. Why, then, do the Justice Leaguers immediately assume the cult is a fraud?4 Why do the rules of our universe suddenly apply? And wouldn’t this storyline be more dramatically meaningful if DC didn’t kill and revive characters at the drop of a mask?

Conventional comic books require us to accept far-fetched premises, but the stories have to make sense within those premises. I’ll accept the presence of superbeings, but not a sudden suspension of plot logic.

Artistically, 52 features some great moments; I especially like the noir art which dominates the Montoya plot and some of Dibny’s adventures. Scenes with Detective Chimp, Dibny, and others at the House of Mystery in #18 also feature good, atmospheric detail and a sense of the genre’s history. With so many artists, however, styles can clash. This is particularly true when two different approaches appear in the same narrative thread.

Throughout, the artists have included elements that reflect the presence of superheroes. These include the omnipresent Booster Gold endorsements, a Kryptonian-inspired cult, the kids’ shirts in #2, the woman’s bathing suit in #8, the Halloween costumes in #25, and the action figures we see nearly every time a small child appears.

Characterization, like the quality of the artwork, varies. Steel and Montoya have been handled fairly well. Booster Gold gets pushed a little too far over the top, especially when Skeets’ information becomes inaccurate. Other characters remain comic-book wooden, and they sometimes speak dialogue for the sake of informing the reader, rather than for any reason intrinsic to the story.

The series introduces several new characters, including some super-doers who once inhabited DC’s Silver Age comics, but have not appeared since the company rebooted their history in the mid-1980s. Isis, originally created for the Shazam tv show appears, with a fresh origin and a skimpier outfit. Kate Kane makes her first appearance since the 1970s as Batwoman. Created in the 50s, to stave off accusations that Batman was a gay role model, she reappears in the 2000s as a lesbian and, predictably, a former partner of Renee Montoya.

Fifty-two also salvages DC's most infamous villain.

Lex Luthor uses the existence of the other Luthor to clear some of his legal troubles, and then in a surprise development hatches an evil plot. This allows DC, thankfully, to restore "Business Class Luthor," by far the best incarnation in the character's long history. He had, in recent years, returned to his Silver Age self, complete with purple-and-green body armor. His use of the other Luthor plays a bit loosely with established DC history, however. Alexander Luthor was never the genetic duplicate of Luthor shown here; he was the son of an alternate-universe Lex Luthor and his reality's Lois Lane. However, they've made it clear that the events of Infinite Crisis tweaked certain aspects of their history, and so minor discontinuities can easily be discounted.

The writers see the value of this Luthor; the contrast between his polished public appearance and egoistic, evil soul becomes clear in 52. This guy doesn’t need a purple-and-green exoskeleton or special powers to rate as Superman’s #1 foe, and that makes him more frightening.

While I like this conception of Luthor, his characterization and dialogue in #8 are awful, like a villain from a really bad melodrama. Again, the number of people working on 52 and the rushed schedule do not consistently result in high quality.

This story will appeal to a broad range of comic-book fans. It requires knowledge of DC comics but, unlike certain other comic mini-series (not to be uncivil), it does not require reading twenty crossovers issues each month to follow the plot. The writers manage to keep a fairly good flow, despite the many narrative threads.

Special Features

Issues #1-11 feature a history, inevitably somewhat confusing, of the DC Universe. Issues #12-26 feature origins of: Wonder Woman, Elongated Man, Metamorpho, Steel, Black Adam, Lobo, the Question, Animal Man, Adam Strange, Green Lantern, Wildcat, Booster Gold, Nightwing5, and Hawkman.

The second half of the 52 series will be reviewed by Chainstore.

Notes for Nerds

1. Superman lost his powers during Infinite Crisis and requires the year to recharge. Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter, makes a few appearances in 52. Batman is touring the world, accompanied by Tim Drake (the current Robin) and Dick Grayson (the original), and working on becoming more of a team player. Wonder Woman is also doing some soul searching.

2. In places, DC’s balancing act has some odd results. Consider what occurs when Montoya picks up another woman. The Question stalks into the room at night, following the trail of discarded clothing, which includes underwear. However, both Montoya and her companion are sleeping in their underwear. This raises some questions:

  • Do women in the DCU typically wear two sets of underwear?
  • How many women sleep in bra and underpants, especially when they’re entertaining company?
  • Is the Question a Peeping Tom, or just a masked vigilante doing a thankless job?

3. I really didn’t want to see Lobo in this story. He works as the gag character he originally was, and I suppose he can work on his own. When he appears center stage in the DC Universe, he doesn’t work.

I can buy, say, a Detective Chimp because he doesn't clash with my ability to involve myself, at some level, with the story. Comix are all about elastic realities and oddball characters. But it's difficult to pretend I care about the fate of characters when, a panel later, I'm supposed to guffaw over a hyperbolic space biker who has committed genocide.

4. The heroes' attitude recalls the pre-1985 episodes of famed children's show Sesame Street, wherein no one would believe that Big Bird had a friend named Mr. Snuffle-Upagus. On a street inhabited by blue monsters, a numerically-obsessed vampire, and a garbage-can dwelling Grouch, why did anyone consider the sentient avian's furry proboscidean friend to be far-fetched?

5. What would a comic-book review be without a really geeky continuity footnote? Nightwing makes a brief appearance in the series. This creates a continuity problem, since he is supposed to be touring the world with Batman and Robin. UPDATE: A later development offers a possible explanation for Nightwing's appearance.

Portions of this review have appeared previously at Bureau42