Friday, January 18, 2008

Sixteen thoughts about the 52 trades and their "extras"

There was a lot to admire about DC’s first year-long weekly series, 52. One of the more admirable things, I thought, was that it was a sequential comic book completely intended to be read as it was being published, in it’s 20-page, stapled, comic book format.

In other words, it wasn’t a graphic novel that was simply being chopped up into chapters and marketed as a series to make a little extra money in the direct market before tackling the book market, like so many comics these days.

In fact, it was so perfectly created to be enjoyed as a comic book series, rather than a trade paperback, that as I was reading it, I couldn’t even imagine how it would be collected in trade. With different artists handling the art chores each issue, it seemed like it would make for the ugliest trade ever some day.

Well, I recently checked all four volumes of it out from the library. Part of that was simple curiosity, to see how it reads in one sitting, whether or not it works in a trade format or not (It does; Keith Giffen’s layouts really do the trick).

But in greater part, it was because the trades include little afterwords between each issue’s worth of story, with some of the creators involved telling inside stories about the particular issue. These come from Michael Siglain, Keith Giffen, Mark Waid, Greg Rucka, Geoff Johns, J.G. Jones, Phil Jiminez, Dan DiDio and, on one occasion, Paul Levitz. MIA are Grant Morrison and Steve Wacker, the latter of whom has since left the company to work for Marvel.

I find the production of this book incredibly fascinating, and always appreciated whatever interviews any of the creators involved did about it. The four writers—Johns, Waid, Morrison and Rucka—are just so different, and everyone insisted everyone wrote everything together, with a “band” like approach to the creation. I want every look behind the curtain I can get, and this one offers lots of little peeks.

Anyway, here are some thoughts on the trade collections of 52

1.) While the trades read better than I would have thought, the series still reads best as it was intended—as a weekly experience. The myriad little mysteries running throughout and the guessing games involved were a great part of the fun of the series, and seeing them all solved within a few hours, rather than the course of a year, may be satisfying, but does rob the reader of one of the series’ great pleasures.

Additionally, a weekly comic book that readers feel has to be read immediately in comic book form, rather than six months form now in trade, is, I think, extremely important for DC and Marvel, and any comic book companies that hope to truly compete with them in a meaningful way. If the industry is ever going to be able to resist some sort of all-graphic novel (or perhaps electronic) model, then the future lies in books like these.

It’s not hard to imagine a weekly, universe-wide series like this at each of the Big Two, and weeklies starring Batman, Batman’s sidekicks, Superman, The Justice League, The Avengers, The X-Men and Spider-Man. If weekly series became standardized enough, it would be easy enough to see them even returning to magazine racks.

But back on track for a second, while the story itself reads just fine, the trades are an overall less appealing package. The two-page back-up origins are missing, for one, and while J.G. Jones’ covers are all included, they play a less prominent role, all republished at smaller scale at the back of each volume, rather than kicking off each chapter.

2.) DC and Marvel have both been shying away from using blurbs on their trade covers of late, but 52 is lousy with ‘em. Most are pretty positive, some kind suspiciously vague (“[A] grand experiment…fun.” Or “An unprecedented undertaking…”). But still, they’ve got blurbs from The New York Times, the Washington Post,, The Onion, Variety, the New York Daily News, Entertainment Weekly, the Philadelphia Daily News, the Miami Herald, the Newark Star Ledger and the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Can’t wait to see what the Countdown trades look like…

3.) Jones’ covers for these things are pretty weak:

(Note: That fourth one is in color and has trade dress matching the first three. DC hasn't updated the listing on their site though, despite the fact that the trade is, you know, completed and ready for purchase now).

The rendering is fine, and I can see how he was going for a unified theme, with the stars standing front and center in front of other members of the ensemble, but compared to some of the brilliant covers on the 52 individual issues of 52?

These really suck.

I don’t think I like the idea of Doctor Magnus looking so much like Doctor John Dorian, either…

4.) According to Waid, Steve Wacker wrote the notes on Rip’s infamous blackboard scene, and a few of them are things that were meant to be addressed but never were or will be, including “2000 years from now” and “What is Spanner’s Galaxy?” Not sure why Waid sounds so definitive abut it being something that won’t be gotten to eventually.

Looking at the board and Rip’s scattered notes, there’s a lot there that is so vague I’m still not sure if was actually covered somewhere. A lot of it seems to have been things covered outside of 52 anyway.

5.) Despite being constantly concerned with the book going off the rails due to the unforgiving deadline schedule, Giffen was apparently constantly fucking with everyone. He accidentally revealed Batwoman a little too early, which wasn’t caught, and he drew a Spider-Man balloon into the Thanksgiving parade (which was caught) and Zatara in fishnets (ditto).

6.) I’m not in love with Batwoman’s costume, which is just Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl costume with a different color scheme, a Silver Age Batwoman/Bat-Girl-esque mask, and a tweaked bat logo. Ross designed several different masks for her though, and they were all worse, I think. All were borrowed from other iterations—Batgirl’s mask, Batman Beyond’s mask, Huntress’ mask—save one, which looks like a Bat-symbol perched over her eyes, its wings flaring up off the sides of her head.

A few weeks later, there’s a full-color sketch from Ross labeled “Batgirl” (it’s the costume which is just a red and black version of Barbara Gordon’s, with a Batman Beyond-shaped Bat-symbol). The one sentence blurb accompanying it is interesting: “Alex Ross’s proposed sketch was originally intended for a new ‘Batgirl’—but was repurposed later for Batwoman.”


This can’t possibly have been sitting in a drawer since the last new Batgirl was introduced (Huntress as Batgirl and then Cassandra Cain as Batgirl in “No Man’s Land”), could it? (Alex Ross did do some “No Man’s Land” covers).

Were there plans for another new Batgirl that were scrapped, then?

7.) There was one thing in the story that I was positive would get fixed in the trade and it didn’t. In week 11, Ralph confronts a member of “The Cult of Conner,” using the name “Cult of Conner” and showing a news clipping with the same name. In the weekly post-mortems on, the editors and writers maintained that the general public wasn’t using that phrase, only those who already knew Superboy’s identity were. This scene contradicts that, and is still here.

Obviously, if Superboy’s name, even just his first name got out, the fact that there was a Conner Kent in Smallville, Kansas living with Clark Kent’s parents, well…you wouldn’t need to be Lex Luthor to figure out Superman’s identity with a clue that big.

8.) DiDio writes a passage about the introduction of Batwoman, and the fact that she was a lesbian caused a bit of a medium hubbub. He mentioned that he got over 1,000 emails on the subject of Batwoman’s sexuality, split 50/50 between positive and negative.

What I found most interesting was his conclusion:

I said it then and I feel it is worth repeating now: Batwoman is a hero first, and being lesbian only helps to define who she is and how she arrives at the choices she makes. I am proud of her addition to our pantheon of characters and although you are only meeting her briefly in this issue, we expect great things from her character in the future.

That first issue was September of 2006. This trade, in which DiDio wrote that paragraph, was released in May. Is she really in DC’s “pantheon of characters” at this point? Damian al Ghul has been a bigger part of Batman’s adventures and Gotham City since the end of 52 than Batwoman is.

DC has released solicitation through March of 2008, and there’s been no mention of the Batwoman ongoing that’s been rumored since fall of ’06, and had at least two writers attached to it so far.

And even if her title never comes, she’s yet to really play a part in the Bat-books. At least the one’s I read (Batman and ’TEC). Other than last year’s Christmas special and a panel or four of Countdown has she appeared anywhere yet? Has Batman met her yet? Has Barbara Gordon?

Every time a completely irrelevant fill-in appears in Batman or Detective Comics, every time a Bat- event like “The Resurrection of Ra’s al Ghul” or Gotham Underground is announced, I can’t help but wonder why DC is literally sitting on a more relevant, more interesting and more eagerly anticipated Bat-related story.

The only conclusion I can come up with is that the fact that Batwoman is a lesbian is apparently a bigger deal than DiDio’s words seem to indicate, and that people within the company hierarchy are of very different opinions on what’s appropriate for a member of the Bat-family.

(I don’t think the company as a whole, or DiDio, are necessarily homophobic, or worried about being perceived negatively by homophobes. Lesbian character Montoya has a current miniseries, gay character Midnighter has an ongoing in the WildStorm imprint, and gay man Piper plays a role in Countdown. On the other hand, Manhunter, which had gay characters in its supporting cast, isn’t being published any longer, but readers were publicly assured it wasn’t cancelled, gay Superman analogue Apollo was pointedly made into a Ray analogue in Countdown: Arena, and Countdown is full of some pretty clumsy gay jokes).

It does seem like an instance of leeriness of a gay character trumping a good business decision though. Surely a Batwoman comic or event is going to outsell, oh, at least half of the books DC is publishing now, and be met with more interest than Batman fighting the Scarecrow for the 456th time.

9.) Apparently, one of the most labor-intensive parts of the series was Booster Gold’s death in week fifteen, as multiple drafts were done as the writers tried to work out a way to make the death look final, from the presence of a corpse to Booster’s last words. Waid originally wrote him dying while making fun of Supernova, saying things like, “Look at me, I’ve saving the day, I’m Supernova!” The others talked him away from that as being a little too big of a clue. They were right. What sold the death the most to me was that it was a heroic death. If a hero dies in an unheroic way, you know they’re coming back—and even when they do die a heroic one, they’re still probably coming back sooner or later anyway (See Hal Jordan, Ice, Oliver Queen and Jason Todd).

Also, in Giffen’s lay-outs, Booster Gold’s body was ripped in half by the explosion. That’s gotta be Geoff Johns’ idea.

10.) Abraham Lincoln really was one of Booster Gold’s pallbearers. According to Waid, Wacker chose the pallbearers, and one was “yes, Abraham Lincoln (from—my hand to God—an unpublished Justice League story I once wrote for Steve on a dare).” Now that’s a story I’d really like to read. Forget Four Horsemen and Crime Bible, can we get 52 Aftermath: The Abraham Lincoln Justice League Story Mark Waid Wrote on a Dare? I’d buy one.

I wonder if Waid was referring to the Lincoln story he wrote from the never released Elseworlds 80-Page Giant? A book that was pulped because of the concerns that Kyle Baker’s Super-Baby story would have kids microwaving babies or something like that. It was later published in one of the Bizarro Comics anthologies, anyway.

Font of information Wikipedia has a breakdown of the contents, including a story by Waid and EDILW favorite Ty Templeton entitled “Superman in President Abraham (Brainiac) Lincoln Vs. Clark Kent, Mentallo” in which baby Kal-El’s rocket is discovered by the Booth family.

Or did Waid write two crazy-ass Lincoln stories?

11.) The Ross-designed Batgirl isn’t the only Bat-story that never came to pass referred to in this series of trades. Rucka talks about an unrealized plan during his time on Detective Comics, near the very end of Denny O’Neil’s era as the character’s chief shepherd, which was focused on “moving Batman away from the dour-faced humorless vigilante.” Says Rucka, “There had even been a plan to do so, and a way to bring it to pass, but a change in group editors scuttled that, and, shortly after, scuttled my own participation in all things Batman, at least for the time being.”

I wonder what the plan for that was? The one DC went with was apparently to rejigger the universe so that Batman did catch his parents’ killer, apparently retconning away some of his dour-faced humorless-ness (I guess; I don’t think this has been addressed in any stories at all yet, but it’s specifically referred to in Infinite Crisis as an element of the rejiggering), plus have him take a year-long vacation and have the darkness cut out of him by the ten-eyed surgeons.

12.) Waid refers to Plastic Man’s son Offspring as being a character he created “with Frank Quitely ten years ago for a story from which, I swear to you, he was the only good thing to emerge.”

That issue with Quitely was great, but it’s interesting that Waid won’t even say the words “The Kingdom” and that he’s so down on it, too. Because some pretty significant things came out of that event, including the concept of Hypertime (apparently since forgotten, and only really touched upon in the pages of Superboy and JLA/Avengers anyway), the idea that The Trinity were the lone holders of its secret existence (and a deputized Superboy), and the grown up version of the Trinity’s son.

I remember at the time, reading interviews with Morrison and Waid trying to explain exactly what Hypertime was, and Morrison saying that to truly explain it, he’d have to do a big, Cisis-like miniseries entitled Professor Morrison Explains It All. So I’m assuming Final Crisis is a story that Morrison’s been wanting to tell in some form for ten years now.

Oh, and Funnybook Babylon has uncovered a Morrison interview from 2002 in which talks about Hypertime and what sounds like Morrison’s plans for Final Crisis.

13.) Giffen hated Osiris, quite passionately. In fact, he hated him so much that one of the gag sketches he would occasionally do prefigured the fate the writers had planned for Osiris—it was three panels of Sobek looking upon Osiris and imagining him as a giant dancing roast chicken, then calling some kind of counselor on the phone.

A few issues later, Giffen’s afterword described the Osiris chomping and his own feelings for O. thusly—“I was coming off one of the more satisfying sequences in the series, the death of that annoying little twit Osiris (I HATED that kid!) and was up for more mayhem.”

14.) Originally Veronica Cale was supposed to be killed by Black Adam. That scene where he walks right past her on Oolong Island without even glancing at her? In the original script, Adam smooshed her there. Rucka had to argue for keeping her alive. I’m glad he won that argument. It’s a neat little scene and while she hasn’t been used to much effect since (I didn’t care for the issues of Giffen and Ollife’s Four Horseman mini I’ve read), Wonder Woman needs all the rogues she can get.

15.) Rucka pulls no punches in discussing the botched Wonder Woman relaunch.

Earlier Michael Siglain discusses the fact that though the 52 creators knew exactly where Batman and Superman spent the missing year (Having the incoming Batman writer and incoming Action Comics co-writer on the team), they weren’t sure where Wonder Woman was, and no one at DC could give them a straight answer, which is why she ended up getting only a few Nanda Parbat appearances at the end of the year’s worth of issues.

Rucka attacks the Allan Heinberg spearheaded and DC editorial OK-ed new direction more fiercely:

The Wonder Woman resolve bothered me—I think it was Grant who wrote it specifically—and to this day still doesn’t sit right with me. While Bruce got most of the year to define and then to “solve” his dilemma, Diana was releaged to three appearances in the course of two weeks, and I think that Rama Kushna telling her that her whole problem is that she’s “not human enough” is garbage. It’s reductive and it’s simplistic, and it was, in my opinion, unworthy of the character.

I was, clearly, in a minority, as her entire relaunch was based on this premise.

Heh. “Garbage.” “Reductive.” “Simplistic.” “Unworthy of the character.” And this is Rucka talking about the new direction in a DC comic book! Could you imagine what he’d have to say of it if you were alone with him in a bar after he’s had a couple of beers?

And, though he may have been in the minority at DC, I think that state of the Wonder Woman franchise post-Infinite Crisis as opposed to pre-Infinite Crisis will show that he was right.

16.) According to Waid, they spent a full week deciding whether Mr. Mind should still be wearing his little glasses post-metamorphisis. I think they made the right decision. Clearly his glasses would have fallen off his head when he transformed, given how big his head got and the new shape it assumed. Besides, his new form should have perfect eyesight, shouldn’t it?


Patrick said...

I actually think 52 read better in trade than most books that are paced for the trade. It felt like each page mattered, and the trade was a substantial piece of work. And, from a sheer consumer point of view, it took a while to read, and I felt like I got my $20 worth. There's nothing worse than buying a book that's 'paced for the trade' for $20 and reading the whole thing in about 45 minutes, and getting barely any characterization or thematic content out of it.

I read the whole series in trade and, while I'd agree it would be nice to have the weekly cliffhangers, the book reads great and I was actually forgave a lot of the little issues more than people who were reading it at the time seem to have.

Chance said...

Very interesting to read your thoughts. I thought 52 worked very well in trade, but then, I didn't read it when it first came out. The notes and acknowledgments by those involved added to the enjoyment, I think. Like you, I wanted to see behind the scenes as much as I could. I really regretted Morrison's absence.