Recently I decided to give DC Comics another go, as a lifelong Batman and Bat family fan. I had almost given up on the whole print after the travesty of Batman v Superman, and a printed medium that seemed to care more about getting continuity straight instead of great stories. Pick up any DC comic and the “REBIRTH” banner is welded over the otherwise fabulous art- almost like they’re desperate for us to be interested in a history of characters slowly becoming irrelevant to 2016. Batman is Bruce again, Superman is still a barely veiled Jesus analogue, and Wonder Woman is simultaneously really into bondage and doesn’t understand men AT ALL. Also they picked Gene Luen Yang to pen a bootleg Chinese Superman. This is the man responsible for inserting the Christian god into the Chinese classic Journey to the West. A more apt example of cultural stereotyping, I can’t think of at the moment. But I digress.
As I climbed up the steep stairs of Midtown Comics, looking into Bruce Wayne’s masked eyes hot-rod wrapped over the steps, there was a fair amount of skepticism. I had reason to hope. Yes, DC was trying to diversify its stable of characters by consuming Vertigo and Wildstorm in its orgy of retconning. The big pink guns are there with Gail Simone and Marguerite Bennett. And, despite appearances, I am human and flattered by the attention to the Harley Quinn that debuted to my generation of pseudo-millennial hipsters. Paul Dini and Bruce Timm are geniuses, without a doubt. To put it simply, I was cautiously optimistic.
As it turned out, my optimism was brief and swiftly made a polite exit, saying something about being late to a Mary Janes concert.
There are two titles I want to mention as a major disappointment here. I’ll save the big one for later. The lesser let-down turned out to be the main line Harley Quinn comic. No doubt Amanda Conner’s spunky art drew a lot of fans, and I did pick up a couple of good ones for the collection. But comics rely on writing as well as art, and in this the books absolutely fail.
After the mad mol decoupled from the Joker, she seems to have fallen into a formula: dispense her own brand of justice, feel guilty about stuff, try to make up for it, whack someone with a hammer. If at any time she is in the weeds, her BFF Poison Ivy is there literally with a weed whacker. Plenty of torn clothing here. The most disappointing bit is the costuming. The books seem to be bound with fuzzy handcuffs to stick to the movie style Harley or the game Harley, with the red and black diamonds as the only nod to the original design. It’s a symbolic representation of Harley having lost her entire characterization: a girl madly in love with a very bad idea. A Harley without love is no Harley at all, I don’t care how many zombies she smashes with a toilet seat.
The big cockroach in the cake, though, was Justice League Dark. The idea is absolutely amazing, first of all. Who doesn’t want to see John Constantine as Zatanna’s sassy one-night stand while Deadman plays practical jokes with their possessed asses? This series also features the return of some little-represented but complex members like Shade the Changing Man and the Enchantress. Sadly, Peter Milligan has given us none of those wonderful things.
Instead, JLA Dark is basically your standard superhero teamup. Half of Volume 1 is establishing everybody’s powers and characterizations. Even that is done terribly, narrated in 3rd person omnisicient. All the powers are talked about by name, like Z’s “backwards magic.” Deadman is some kind of creepy horny perv. Shade spends a lot of time pining and not enough being a madman. Zatanna is somehow a brooding goth chick. ZATANNA. The freaking stage magician. Where’s her flair for the dramatic? Her grand flourishes and elegance? Also, Milligan took away her fishnets. Party pooper. Pretty much the only person true to form was John, and anybody who’s had a serious bender can do John Constantine, let alone Peter Milligan who ushered him to his end in the last Hellblazer. That’s what really hurts, as those issues were some of the most touching in the series. What happened, man?
The other half of the book is yet another travesty. What brings all these characters together is Madame Xanadu, who decides it’s a great idea to start an XK-class End Of the World scenario to prevent the JLA Dark’s eventual personal breakdowns. The idea is all these magic people are fucked up and would be a danger to everybody if left alone. This is less the premise of a Justice League and more an insane asylum. Yes, pagans of the world, you have permission to rage. Then, as always, John saves the day. Now you’ve basically written another Hellblazer issue.
While I appreciate more Constantine, this is not what people signed up for. It’s not a tall order, and I imagine Milligan’s original idea was pretty simple. Zatanna is Dark’s Superman: a versatile leader with the impressive pedigree. Constantine is Batman, the shadow king who gets things done. Throw in a little mystique with Madame Xanadu as Wonder Woman’s understudy. Giving them all a personal attachment to some kind of world-altering event would fit the formula perfectly.
It’s a pretty reliable recipe, and I suspect @ had his hand forced at some point to make the plot involve more of the DC universe. This many characters and this scale of destruction just doesn’t seem like his style. In places you can see some of it poking through. Constantine and tantric magic with Zatanna? I see through those chaste bathrobes. That’s sex magic. Let him storyboard the freaking sex.
But that’s DC’s overall problem: every title has to incorporate some part of the bigger multiverse. Every title has to conform to some kind of subtle conservative vibe. There isn’t a Ms Marvel or Spidergwen equivalent, where the hero(es) exist in a pocket universe that can be attached or detached as needed for story arcs. There isn’t a Moon Knight or a Deadpool to explore the totally crazy things people want to talk about. Maybe DC Comics just need to pull their panties out of their crack, just a little bit.
What do you guys think? Feedback very welcome, especially if I’ve missed a gem somewhere in the new DC lineup.