Thursday, September 12, 2019

Is it just me, or does it seem like the DC Universe has gotten kind of...small?

Ever since the closing pages of Dark Nights: Metal, writer Scott Snyder and his frequent co-writer James Tynion IV have been telling a very big story in the pages of the miniseries No Justice and the ongoing Justice League, which is already on issue #31 or so, thanks to the twice-monthly publishing schedule.

The storyand it has essentially been just one storyhas encompassed all of existence, stretching as far back as before the beginning of time, and involving an entire multiverse of multiverses. Part of Jack Kirby's Source Wall broke, unmooring the local multiverse, and releasing Perpetua, a mother of the god-like Monitor, Anti-Monitor and World Forger (the last of whom is a new addition to DC's cosmology).

We're told that in the creation before this creation, Perpetua has made another reality, but her sons rebelled against her and made this existence instead. Now Lex Luthor and his Legion of Doom have taken up fighting for Perpetua and the forces of the abstract concept of doom, warring against the Justice League who, of course, are fighting for the abstract concept of justice. During the course of their battles, the DC Universe seems to be in a slow-boiling process of being remade once again, presumably ultimately undoing the last grand remaking, 2011's Flashpoint, which gave us the current New 52 version of the shared DC Universe setting (which, of course, encompasses not just a single universe, but a multiverse...or multiverses).

The Justice League itself isn't too terribly big at the moment. The core team consists of 9-13 characters, depending on whether or not you want to count Jarro and very recent additions like The World Forger, The Monitor and Shane (that's Martian Manhunter and Hawkgirl's son from a now non-existent future). There are also two ancillary teams, the ones that star in Justice League Odyssey and Justice League Dark; the former never appear in the pages of Justice League, the latter fill up crowd scenes and appear in the backgrounds in the Hall of Justice.

As the now years-long storyline reaches what appears to be a climax in the current "Justice/Doom War" story arc, much has been made of the Justice League recruiting "everyone," an entire army consisting of every available hero. Meanwhile, Luthor has been doing the same with the villains, part of the "Year of The Villain" storyline/branding event in which a newly reborn Luthor approaches various villains with transformative gifts that make them more powerful than ever.

The above page is the sixth page from Justice League #30, by Snyder, Tynion and artist Jorge Jimenez. After Starman has briefed the assembled heroes on what is going to happen in the upcoming Legion/League warthe League is all killed, but not as brutally as one might expect from a modern DC comicthe core League gives the assembled heroes a kinda sorta pep talk about their plan to stave off their seemingly fated defeat.

Here's the thing though. For an image of all of DC's superheroes assembled as a sort of Justice army, the page seemed kind of...small to me.

Part of that might be because Snyder and Tynion have already revealed this particular beat to readers a few times. They Tynion-written portion of DC's Year of The Villain Special #1 featured a two-page spread in which Francs Manapul draws pretty  much the exact same group of heroes, and Justice League #26 featured a sequence in which Hawkgirl and Mera walked around the Hall, checking in on these recruits as they prepped for the war.

But there just don't seem to be very many superheroes here. There are some members of Justice League Dark (Zatanna, Man-Bat, Swamp Thing and his beard), some Teen Titans (Robin, Red Arrow, Kid Flash), some non-teen Titans (Donna Troy, Kyle Rayner, Raven, Beast Boy, Steel, Miss Martian), The Terriffics (Mister Terrific, Plastic Man, Metamorpho and Phantom Girl), a random handful of various heroes appearing in comics throughout the current DC line (Batgirl, Supergirl, Captain Marvel "Shazam," Hawkman, Black Lightning, Jericho) and another, smaller handful of book-less characters (Firestorm, Animal Man, Ted Kord, Simon Baz, Guy Gardner) and that's it. All together, that's only between 25-30 supeheroes one can identify in the image, plus a bunch of indistinguishable blobs in the background and, remember, another nine or ten heroes off-panel on a sort of stage giving a presentation.

As someone who can just barely hold a pencil, I certainly am in no position to blame Jiminez for not filling the page with more heroes, and getting everyone in the latest edition of those encyclopedias of characters DC publishes into that panel, but I was really struck by how small it made the DC Universe of the moment seem.

I mean, I'm pretty sure you could get 30 superheroes if you took all the active members of the teams during the early '90s, when there were three Leagues with their own titles (America, Europe/International and Task Force). Or had they used the "everyone who was ever a Leaguer" rubric of the reserves evidenced in Mark Millar's JLA #27 from 1997. Hell, I bet if Batman called up all of his sidekicks, allies and affiliated teamsThe Outsiders, Birds of Prey and Batman, Inc/The Club of Heroeshe alone could have filled that room to bursting.

Now, I know there are a lot more DC heroes out there, and that they're probably not available to appear in this story for their own story reasons. Noticeably absent, for example, is supposedly active Justice Leaguer Cyborg, and his entire Odyssey team (presumably because they are off in space doing space stuff; they haven't appeared in the series since the earliest issues). That's probably why Hal Jordan and Adam Strange and a few others aren't there, as well. Tim Drake and the Young Justice team are all MIA, probably because they're still out-of-universe doing whatever they're doing in the pages of Young Justice. I haven't read Heroes In Crisis yet, but I assume if Ted Kord is elbowing Guy Gardner instead of Booster Gold, that means he's dead-ish, or at least lost in time? Same with The Flash Wally West...?

But where are The Metal Men? Or the rest of The Shazam Family? What of all those Dark Matter/New Age of Heroes heroes...did none of them stick around after ignominious cancellation of their titles? Is it notable that Arsenal isn't there, or that Nightwing or Batwoman or Huntress aren't? Does Red Tornado exist anymore, and/or is he currently alive? Elongated Man? Fire and Ice? Hawk and Dove? Blue Devil? The other Steel, John Henry Irons? Vibe? Frankenstein? O.M.A.C.? Any Doctor Fates around anymore? No more Power Girls? Are we totally done with Wildstorm characters existing in the DCU, even Midnighter and Apollo? What about new characters introduced in the wake of Flashpoint, like Skitter and Bunker and Talon and those guys with weird names in Stormwatch...?

The longer I lingered on this image, the more I realized that the DCU got awfully small after Flashpoint. Not only did it wipe out the JSA and their fellow Golden Agers, and the various future heroes (although both the JSA and Legion of Super-Heroes are on their way back, of course; the former appearing on the last page of this very issue), but the reboot lead to the de-creation of huge swathes of heroes and other characters, many of whom would of course be recreated, but even many of those exist in weird liminal states, where they seem to have been re-rebooted or re-recreated since their initial New 52 reintroductions (like Black Lightning, for example) and others I know have appeared in some form, but lost track of.

And then, of course, there are heroes I know DC has reintroduced in new forms since The New 52 effort and the other branding exercises that followed it, but those characters apparently failed to catch on...and failed so badly they apparently can't even fill in crowd scenes like this (I'm thinking here of the new Ragman, or The Ray, or The Human Bomb or National Comics' Rose and Thorn, Eternity, Madame X and Looker;  I'm sure there are more).

Honestly, I'd have trouble filling a room with DC superheroes that I know have both been re-introduced since Flashpoint and haven't been killed or otherwise jettisoned from usage in an event story like this. Of course, this could very likely be just me, as I am not following the Wednesday by Wednesday exploits of DC's stables of heroes as closely as I used to, and therefore I've lost track of pretty much all of the heroes not appearing in Justice League or the Batman titles.

So maybe the DC Universe hasn't gotten small, it just feels small to me. I don't know; I'd be interested in hearing the opinions of others on the matter.

A few pages later in the very same issue, we see an echo of this page, when Luthor gestures towards his newly recruited Legion of Doom, consisting of about 25 villains, only about 15 of whom I can name...although these are mostly redesigned, presumably because of the gifts they accepted from Luthor.

The Legion has been awfully small since the start of the series, originally consisting of just six villains, the archenemies of each of the "Big Seven" Leaguers, minus Martian Manhunter. They've since lost two and gained one, so the League has always outnumbered the Legion (The original Legion, the one from Challenge of The Super-Friends, boasted 13 members; the most appropriate number for a group of villains).

They too seems like a rather small number of bad guys, especially when contrasted with the all-the-bad-guys-teamed-up premise of Forever Evil, but that image didn't make me reflect upon the possible contraction of the DC Universe in quite the same way, as for almost every successful superhero, there are always going to be dozens of bad guys. I mean, you could fill up a splash page with Green Lantern, Aquaman or Wonder Woman villains, let alone Batman, The Flash and Superman, who boast incredibly large rogues galleries.


Nicholas Ahlhelm said...

Booster is a weird oversight, but few would see Wally West as a hero post-Heroes in Crisis. Arsenal is dead. Nightwing has brain damage. Thorn is busy in the Superman books.

But there does still seem to be a lot of lesser characters missing for whatever reason.

Ty said...

It is definitely not just you. I've been thinking the same thing for a long time.

I've just started reading DC again after a couple years away. I've gotten through most of the Superman and Bat books; not all the ancillary titles, but the main ones. And I just started Justice League. I've made it through Drowned Earth, and I'm liking a lot. Scott Snyder has done a lot of good work in the DC universe, and I've enjoyed what I've read of Tom King. Morrison's The Green Lantern is sufficiently weird, but even that has brought back more from the '90s than introduced new stuff. Tom Taylor's Injustice was a pleasant surprise and I'd like to see him do more, but I'm have no interest in the Suicide Squad.

I obviously don't know everything that is going on, but you are right about the DC universe shrinking. It seems smaller than ever, and it wasn't very big to begin with.

I'm pretty sure Wally West and Arsenal are dead. Booster Gold popped up recently in King's Batman, but he's gone back to being a bumbling man child. The New 52 killed the one of best character developments DC had in the '00s—Boost Gold, "the greatest hero you've never heard of." I'm pretty sure the Metal Men have been delibertely shelved. Does Shazam (stupid Warner Bros.) still have a family? I washed my hands of the Big Red Cheese when Johns turned Billy into a jerk and gave Captain Marvel and hood and new name.

John Henry appears to have been replaced by Natasha, but I don't know why. Nightwing and Batwoman are still around; I think Huntress isn't. Frankenstein was in Superman recently, so he's somewhere. A Doctor Fate is going to be in the Legion, but there doesn't appear to be one in the present. The only New Age hero I've read so far is Damage, and that series ended very much on "Hulk just wants to be left alone". Midnighter still exists in what seems to be a pocket universe that only connects to Nightwing. The rest of the Wildstorm characters have been excised.

That was obviously long-winded, but I don't think you are wrong about the size of the DCU. Ever since Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC seems to continually pare back the universe to make it smaller and smaller. I honestly don't get it. Marvel's universe grows every year. DC seems to actiively work to prevent theirs from growing.

I remember reading Abnett and Lanning's cosmic crossover, Annihalation, from Marvel and realizing there is no way DC could do anything remotely like it. DC barely has a handful of well-defined extraterrestrial planets. There's Krypton, which is dead; Apokolips, which seems to be outside the universe; and OA (or maybe Mogo, or New OA, or nothing—I'm actually not sure). There's the Khunds and the Dominators, but who knows if they even have home planets. They only ever appear when they attack Earth for an issue or two.

You'd think with the Green Lantern Corps, DC would have the opportunity to expand it's extraterrestrial ensemble, but as far as you would know from reading the comics, unless their human, each lantern is the only one of their race. All they ever do is fight other lanterns in different color uniforms.

Marvel has the Titan Eternals, the Shiar, the Skrulls, the Kree, Galactus, the cosmic aspects, the Celestials, and many more. And they don't just come to earth; the X-Men and the Fantastic Four and the Avengers go out and interact with them. And when they do come to Earth, they make impacts that continue to exist in the comics—the Inhumans, the Skrull invasion, the Kree-Skrull War, Thanos. In the Marvel universe, Earth feels like one building in a big city. DC's Earth feels like one building on a single block.

I like DC characters, and I often like DC comics. They've got a whole(?) multiverse outside the city limits of Gotham. I just wish they knew what to do with it or seemed like they cared.