June 28, 2009

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52 Volume 1

Written by Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, and Mark Waid
Helped by Breakdowns by Keith Giffen
Illustrated by a lot of people

[Decided I was going to save all the 52 reviews till I'd read the whole series. This was a better idea when I didn't get stuck waiting forever for the third volume.]

Unlike Marvel, DC has never, to me at least, had much of a cohesive feel, despite several attempts (Crisis, Zero Hour, a plethora of less cosmic crossovers like Joker: Last Laugh and Our Worlds at War) to try and do that "it's all tied in together" thing that Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Company established back in the 1960s and Roy Thomas and Jim Shooter really cemented. When Spidey shows up to see Johnny Storm, it just feels more natural to me than when Green Arrow pops by Keystone city.

Final Crisis and its aftermath of One Year Later was the first (of apparently several now) tries to fix this problem. (How well that's worked is up to debate, and I just don't read enough DC comics to judge.) And to top off Final Crisis, we had "52," a series written by four of DC's big guns and given an artistic consistency by the man known for sick humor and quick thumbnails, Keith Giffen.

Each weekly issue would have a little bit in all the stories going on, with perhaps an emphasis on one particular angle each time. It's an idea that works well, actually. I'm a big fan of anthologies and am working towards getting a complete run of Dark Horse Comics Presents, Marvel Comics Presents, and the like, so I'm no stranger to slowly advancing plots. I do wonder, however, how others felt that are used to fuller storytelling on a week-by-week basis.

The idea behind 52 is to capture, in "real time" (a dubious comics concept if there ever was one), a year in the life of DC where Bats, Supes, and Wonder Woman just check out. That would be more shocking except, well, just how many times has Bats taken a powder in the last 15 years? I'm starting to think he gets more vacation time than a tenured union janitor. It's hard for me to buy in to it being a rough time for the DC U when we've seen it time and time again over the years.

At any rate, because of this we get a string of B, C, and D-list heroes running point, such as Elongated Man, the Question, Steel, Adam Strange, Booster Gold, and even Black Adam, to name a few. Other, better known characters, such as Green Arrow or the Alan Scott Green Lantern hang around the edges, but the floor was open for others to shine.

In this first volume, Booster is having trouble staying out of trouble, Black Adam learns to rule, Ralph searches for the cult of Superboy, and Montoya Questions herself as a new Bat-person enters the scene. Steel becomes the new foil for Lex Luthor while heroes who were hurt in the Crisis try to make their way back or recover what they've lost. This is a world that's very shaken up and only the best of DC's writers can fix it again.

The trouble is in some of the plots, and to a lesser extent, the character chosen. I'm a huge fan of Ralph, so I ate that part up with a spoon, even if I hated how bad Ralph looks by the end of the volume. But Steel and his niece just comes off as whiny drama because I can't believe anyone related to a superhero could possibly fall under Lex's spell. That would be like Rick Jones going off to work for Doctor Doom, and unless you gave me a damned good reason, I'd call bullshit. Similarly, I really don't care if Adam Strange, Starfire, and Animal Man ever come back.

On the other hand, Greg really convinced me to care about Renee, and given I felt she was a bit mishandled here and there in Gotham Central, that's saying something. This is also where Batwoman II(?) debuts and I think he did a nice job on the controversy surrounding one of his choices for the charcater.

My point here is that if you're on the back end of DC's vast library of characters, you need to make sure the reader wants to keep reading about them, and in this first trade, I don't think we got compelling plots on all points. I know it would have been impossible to please all of the people all of the time, but lost in space (to pick one plot) isn't really interesting unless it's going someplace big. (And hey, maybe it is, but if so, give us a few more clues.)

The other trouble with working on the also-ran crowd is that there's a bit too much temptation to just blow stuff up because you can. DC has really wrecked everything about the Giffen-DeMatteis Justice League over the years, and especially here it just feels forced. Giffen says he liked seeing it happen, but I for one did not. Booster and Ralph deserve better.

Still, I like where most of the plots are going, even if they run a bit rough on how I'm used to seeing some of these folks. (I really have given up on DC trying to make a pretense of caring about past characterizations and just run with it, unless it's so bad as to be anger-worthy.) I've learned to just enjoy the story being told rather than trying to hold on to old continuity, as long as the story is a good one. Overall, that's true here, and I definitely want to see how these stories play out.