DC's Retirement Plan is Botched!
A look at Dark Nights: Metal and DC/Young Animal: Milk Wars

Steve Orlando, Gerard Way and Dale Eaglesham unveil DC's new publishing plan.

From the first chapter of Dark Nights: Metal, when another shadowy agent of another shadowy organization flips over a paper map of the multiverse to reveal an uncharted map of “a dark multiverse,” Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo practice the time-honored method of comic creation as they mine the past in the name of IP manipulation. Building off of their New 52 Batman run and digging into the bones of Grant Morrison’s years-long Batman epic, Metal recontextualizes old concepts, digs up characters that have been barely seen in years to give them a springboard for new series and creates a series of alternative, evil versions of Batman who get to haunt the DCU for years now. That’s the nature of these events. But it’s funny that at the same time Snyder and Capullo were doing that in Metal, Steve Orlando, Gerard Way and a host of other creators were doing the same thing in DC/Young Animal: Milk Wars but were poking at the great beast of these events, showing just how silly and manipulative these things really are.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Snyder and Capullo’s approach to their story. You can honestly believe that they’re making the most metal (as in the adjective version of the word, related to being like heavy metal music) story that they can. In Snyder’s work from Batman to his new Justice League series, he’s continued to show his unapologetic love for the comics he’s read and that he creates. As a bit of IP restoration, he makes Neil Gaiman’s Dream an ally for Batman and Superman, their guide through the stories that will help them defeat the evil batgod Barbatos. Dream has appeared before in DC’s comics but here he’s a key part of an event comic, right before DC is set to do another revitalization of their Vertigo line. Snyder’s Dream is less a character than Gaiman’s was and more like Cain or Abel, one of the hosts of DC’s House of Mystery and House of Secrets comics. Dream here is a signpost for the superheroes more than an actual character himself and a signpost to new Sandman comics, coming soon to a comic shop near you.

What's scarier?  A Jokerized Batman or a Neighborhood Community Patrol Lobo?

Likewise, Milk Wars is a co-mingling of DC and Vertigo; Swamp Thing, Shade the Changing Girl and the Doom Patrol all fight alongside the Justice League. But Orlando and Way steer Milk Wars so that it’s about merging to the distinct tones of the various imprints and not absorbing and homogenizing it. Their story is about a company called Retcon (not meta at all) trying to repackage everything and taking the edge off. Wonder Woman becomes Wonder Wife, a domesticate heroine who hugs her portable vacuum to her breast as if it was her child. Batman becomes Father Bruce, a man who instead of being inspired by a bat finds his life calling in a glass of milk and becomes a priest to share it with the world. Instead of Superman, we get Milkman Man, an agent of Retcon whose duty it is to enforce the status quo. It’s Retcon’s ways of rebooting the world and these heroes to make their stories more palatable to a wider audience.

In some ways, both Milk Wars and Metal are exploring the same questions about who all of these heroes are, exploring them by creating versions of what they’re not. Whether it’s twisted versions of Batman, showing how close he is to both hero and villain, or watered down versions which make Batman ‘66 look daring and risqué, the center of these stories is the stories of the characters themselves and how mutable and malleable they are. One does it in a way that’s totally into the mythology of these characters and the other realizes the silliness of trying to hold all of these characters to a consistent form in decades worth of stories.

Morpheus Ex Machina in Metal by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo

Snyder and Capullo’s Metal is a Batman story about other Batman stories. Like many of DC’s event comics, Metal pursues the past of this fictional universe, trying to organize a continuity that’s been gloriously broken since Crisis on Infinite Earths. So many of these semi-annual crossovers attempt to provide an order to characters that practically defy order. Carter Hall, DC’s Hawkman, is the poster child for this non-continuous continuity. Like so many before them, Snyder and Capullo take their shot at “fixing” Hawkman, a character who was supposedly fixed by the New 52 continuity by basically wiping out everything that came before and rebooting the character and the universe. But that particular move in the past (Crisis on Infinite Earths, Zero Hour, Hawkworld, etc…) had only done more to break the character and Metal continues that fine tradition of making a superhero with hawk wings an even more confusing character than he’s ever been.

As Milk Wars practices the same type of character retroactive continuity fixes (retcons, get it?) the writers of that series know just how silly that practice is. Jody Houser, Ty Templeton, Cecil Castellucci, and Miriam Andolfo, the creators of the Batman and Wonder Woman chapters, are bringing those characters down to the level of the Young Animal books. The Young Animal line really just had fun with superheroes while creating some good comics in Shade the Changing Woman and Mother Panic. By cross-pollinating the mainstream DC line with the Young Animal line, the oh-so-serious Justice League characters get to let their hair down a bit as they hang and fight crime with the freaks and geeks. Even Swamp Thing gets in on the fun with a crossover with Cave Carson by Jon Rivera and Langdon Foss; Cave has to toke up Swamp Thing to get his final enlightenment on what’s happening.

Magdalene Visaggio and Sonny Liew's Eternity Girl knows really knows what's up

For each chapter of Milk War, Magdalene Visaggio and Sonny Liew tell the tale of a golden age comic book character, The Formless Girl. In these 2-page stories, which also lead into Milk Wars' followup Eternity Girl, they show her going from a golden age hero to a modern day mess, completely screwed up by the creators of her comics as they tried to figure out ways to keep her relevant. It’s the story that Orlando and Way are telling in the main story but focused on a virtual blank slate. In Metal, Snyder and Capullo use Hawkman much the same way without ever providing a true vision of who Hawkman is. Sometimes he’s the narrator, sometimes he’s the villain. He turns out to be the character who gets redeemed simply because he fits into a new publishing schedule and they need the character to be a blank slate. At least the Formless Girl gets to escape her comic pages and endless revisions. And she gets what’s going on. “What I am is intellectual property they keep trying to find ways to exploit, even as the creative teams guiding me conspire to push me further and further up my own ass.” Good luck to Robert Venditti and Bryan Hitch with that Hawkman spinoff from Metal.

Greg Capullo and inker Jonathan Glapion never seem to get a strong handle on what’s going on in Metal. They follow Snyder’s script beat for beat but those beats are drowned out by the general fuzziness of the story. It’s turned up so loud, that the distortion from the overworked speakers is taking over the beauty of the notes. In his Batman run, Capullo had a skill on bringing the big hero moments to reality through the buildup of the story. But here, there is no buildup; it’s just one overpowering page after another until as a reader, you get lost in it and not in a good way. It’s just a mess of superheroes being loud and noisy.

Never a break in the action in Metal

In Milk Wars, there are seven different artists credited; Aco, Ty Templeton, Mirka Andolfo, Langdon Foss, Dale Eaglesham, Nick Derington, and Sonny Liew. Hugo Petrus also throws in a page or two. Eaglesham is the most traditional superhero artists, practically a modern day John Buscema. While that many different artists could easily clash operating within one book (see the Metal tie-in Dark Knights Rising collection, with its fourteen credited artists,) the art in Milk Wars works together and doesn’t fight with the stories for your attention. Everything in Metal, down to the foil cover, demands your attention. Milk Wars earns your attention as the story and art support each other but more importantly, work to guide you through the story rather than just assuming that you’ve paid your $19.99 and that its work is done.

Both series end with the confirmation that our regulars versions of Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman are the best versions of those characters while lesser tiered characters like Hawkman, Hawkgirl, the Doom Patrol and Mother Panic could use some tweaking to make them more… well to make them more something other than what they were. Worlds lived. Worlds died. And characters were updated in the hopes that this time it will work. But while Metal tried to pin the guilt of these changes on the evil Barbatos, a bat god from the Multiverse’s seedy underside, Milk Wars knows exactly who the true villains here are; middle management. The bad guys of Milk War are the shirt sleeves and tie wearing management of Retcon (and for one of them, I can't get the picture of Paul Levitz out of my head,) using the “creative types” to make a buck. In the Cave Carson/Swamp Thing chapter, Jon Rivera reveals the truth to Cave, his daughter, and Wild Dog. Retcon is using the “authors, poets, artists… Using them. Using their creativity to fuel the process of homogenization. Art killing art.”

Metal and Milk Wars bend and twist their characters and their concepts. One blames the characters themselves while the other accuses the custodians of performing the deforming acts and of trying to make a buck in the process. And maybe both books are correct in where they place the blame. These stories don’t happen without the men and women who write, draw, color, letter, and edit these comics but these are also characters who have existed for almost 80 years. 1938 is very different than 2018 so maybe it makes sense that these characters would themselves push against the narrow boundaries of their early days. We still picture Tarzan in a loincloth swinging through jungles or Sherlock Holmes sitting in a Victorian study, smoking on a pipe and solving mysteries. Those are the natural states of those characters. Maybe the natural states of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman are being heroes that reflect their times. That time is moving forward so maybe books like Metal, as it tries to establish a new status quo for the DC Universe, is evidence of the characters trying to move forward a bit as well.

In that way, Metal is more hopeful for these characters while the end of Milk Wars feels a bit more resigned to its victory. Any character changes in Orlando and Way’s story isn’t so much moving the characters in new directions but it resets some of them, particularly the Doom Patrol and the other Young Animal casts. While its effect on the Justice League is nominal (they all get to go back to their own stories ultimately unscathed,) Milk Wars upends the Young Animal casts, giving them a hopeful jumpstart that could boost future sales. As Retcon promises on the first page of the book, “In light of recent events, we’ve moved our business model away from broadcast to reality estate. We’ve specially conditioned this world. You’ll find it’s appeal broad and unassailable.” And that must have been DC’s hope for the Young Animal line after crossing over with the likes of Batman and the Justice League. By hiring popular and edgy creators to craft stories that team some characters who need exposure with characters who get their own multi-million dollar movies made on a regular basis, those less popular characters appeal to a general audience would be “broad and unassailable.”

Dark Nights: Metal
Written by Scott Snyder
Drawn by Greg Capullo and Jonathan Glapion
Colored by FCO Plascencia
Published by DC Comics

DC/Young Animal: Milk Wars
Written by: Steve Orlando, Gerard Way, Jody Houser, Cecil Castellucci, Jon Rivera, Magdalene Visaggio
Drawn by: Aco, Ty Templeton, Mirka Andolfo, Langdon Foss, Dale Eaglesham, Nick Derington, Sonny Liew
Colored by: Tamra Bonvillain, Marissa Louise, Keiren Smith, Nick Filardi
Published by: DC Comics