guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

May/June 2006

Keith Giffen, Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, Mark Waid, et. al, 52 (DC Comics, 2006-). Weekly. $2.50

by Alex Boney

When DC announced that it would follow up Infinite Crisis with a year-long weekly series, my expectations admittedly weren’t very high. Infinite Crisis, the latest in a series of “crises on multiple Earths” dating back to the 1960s Justice League/Justice Society crossovers, was supposed to consolidate DC’s central superhero universe for the 21st century. It’s the kind of book that lifelong superhero junkies live for, even if these events are usually met with equal parts excitement and suspicion. If a cosmic event of Infinite Crisis’ magnitude couldn’t live up to my expectations, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what a follow-up weekly serial could provide. And when DC publisher Dan Didio announced that the series would focus on six third-tier DC characters—and not at all on the “trinity” of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman—I pretty much gave up hope that 52 would be worth my time or money. Now eight weeks in, however, 52 provides the payoff that Infinite Crisis promised but never quite delivered.

Ultimately, Infinite Crisis (a seven-issue miniseries that crossed into many of DC’s main titles) collapsed under the weight of its ambitions. It was preceded by four lead-in miniseries focused on four distinct realms of the DC Universe: The OMAC Project (“real-world” espionage), Day of Vengeance (magic), The Rann-Thanagar War (interstellar conflict), and Villains United (super-villainy). Infinite Crisis tried to tie all of these threads together, but the project was too disparate and disjointed to hold together. This sort of project is supposed to answer questions and solve problems, but it ended up raising more questions than it answered and creating more problems than it solved—an effective way to coerce readers into buying more books in the future, but not necessarily a good way to tell a story. At the end of Infinite Crisis, the DC Universe timeline was shifted ahead “one year later” as many titles and characters were reset. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman disappeared for various reasons during this missing year, and 52 is intended to tell the story of what happened between Infinite Crisis and One Year Later.

Despite my dissatisfaction with
Infinite Crisis, everything I read about 52 in the weeks leading up to its debut looked enticing. Written collaboratively by Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Geoff Johns, and Greg Rucka, and illustrated by a team helmed by Keith Giffen, 52 will run weekly for one year (hence the title). DC hasn’t published a weekly serial since 1988-89, when Action Comics became a weekly anthology comic and ran for just under a year in issues #601-642. 52 isn’t an anthology comic, though, which makes this project more complex and editorially arduous—but potentially more fulfilling—than Action Comics Weekly. The writers recruited for 52 are the most reliable and accomplished writers in DC’s stable. Johns has successfully rejuvenated long-dormant, popular properties like the Teen Titans and the Justice Society, Waid is essentially a living encyclopedia of DC history, Rucka is a successful crime fiction writer who created an underground hit in Gotham Central, and Grant Morrison has re-imagined the potential of comics writing in the last twenty years more than any writer but Alan Moore. This is DC’s A-team, and they may be enough to pull readers to the book despite the low profile of its main characters.

52 focuses on six protagonists with whom many casual mainstream comics readers may not be familiar: Booster Gold, The Question, Steel, Ralph Dibny (Elongated Man), Renee Montoya, and Black Adam. The characters aren’t randomly chosen; each one represents a different era or aspect of DC’s fictional world. The diversity (in race, class, and history) of the characters works well to ground 52 and to make it relevant not only to DC’s superhero continuity, but also to the political and social issues of the real world superheroes have always mirrored. Black Adam’s defense of his home nation (Kahndaq) raises poignant geopolitical questions, while Ralph Dibny’s personal struggle with the death of his wife addresses psychological issues surrounding pain and loss. These characters all feel inexplicably human. Because of the book’s weekly schedule and variety of characters, 52 provides a level of characterization and momentum that’s difficult to sustain in a monthly book.

Part of the fun of
52 is trying to figure out who is writing what sequence in each issue. The writing credits and all of the promotional interviews for the book indicate that the book’s plotting is collaborative, but it’s clear that the individual sequences that comprise each issue are penned by different writers.  Since many of the main characters in 52 were developed by the book’s writers in other books, it’s tempting to think that the writers are penning the characters they’re most familiar with. But the authors very well could have decided at the beginning not to write their own creations and instead to trade them to a writer who hasn’t handled the characters before. Grant Morrison may be writing the Black Adam segments and Geoff Johns may be writing Renee Montoya. It’s hard to tell, but trying to guess who did what is fun. Surprisingly, the series doesn’t feel as disjointed as I’d expected it to be. Caption bars for each week and day (starting obviously with “Week 1, Day 1” and continuing throughout the series) provide a sense of consistent narrative progression, and transitions between scenes are executed well despite the fact that separate writers are handling the different scenes.

52 has a glaring weakness thus far, it’s the “History of the DC Universe” feature (four pages per issue) that has closed each issue since #2. Written and illustrated by DC veteran Dan Jurgens, “History” is essentially a succession of splash pages broken up into loose, undefined panel sequences. The structure doesn’t advance a plot, and it’s not really supposed to; rather, like Marv Wolfman’s and George Perez’s original History of the DC Universe (1986), the feature provides a quick progression through the major events that have defined DC’s world since its inception. Dan Jurgens is a respectable artist, and he clearly knows the history of DC (especially the 90s, during which he was involved with most of DC’s major “events”), but this feature is baffling. If “History” is intended to clarify and explain DC’s official timeline, it’s just not working. Jurgens’ choice of narrative structure is probably his biggest mistake in conceiving the project. “History” is set up as a conversation between Donna Troy—a character variously known as Wonder Girl and Troia, whose history is probably the most convoluted of any of DC’s characters—and a talking, floating computer database. The dialogue (such as it is) comes across as unnecessarily melodramatic and confusing. “History” might remind long-time DC readers of consequential events, but it offers little in the way of development or clarification. Even if the feature is collected in a single volume (instead of being published in four-page increments), it wouldn’t hold together well. Thankfully, this segment seems to be nearing its conclusion and probably won’t run much longer than eight installments.

On the week that 52 #1 shipped, I was still waffling on whether or not I wanted to commit. In the end, one page—composed of nine panels and four words—convinced me to keep following this book:

Quiet, subtle, intriguing—this one page is everything Infinite Crisis wasn’t. I have to believe that Grant Morrison wrote this page, but there was a certain pleasure in not knowing. And as a result, I was hooked. I’ve talked to readers who used Infinite Crisis as an entry point for understanding DC Comics, but I think that strategy was probably an error. If Crisis was confusing even for long-time readers, it had to have been alienating for readers new to the DC Universe. 52 offers a much better way to become familiar with the variety and complexity of what DC has to offer. The company’s flagship characters do not provide the driving force of this book, but this is ultimately a strength rather than a weakness. What makes 52 work is that it deals with consequences and aftermaths. It isn’t an origin story told for the umpteenth time with another twist, or yet another battle scene that drags on month after month. Dealing with flagship characters can lead to paralysis and stagnation. 52 provides movement, depth, and an energy that actually feels new in a mainstream superhero periodical. $2.50 per week for an entire year is certainly a commitment. But thus far, this weekly commitment has been more satisfying than most of the monthly miniseries I’ve read in the last few years.