Monthly comic-book sales have been dribbling downward for years, as the economy of the comics industry shifts to book collections and manga. So DC Comics’ latest plan to give its periodicals line a shot in the arm is pretty audacious. As of last month’s issues of the 22 ongoing superhero comic-book series DC currently publishes, the story line abruptly jumps one year forward. (Battlestar Galactica did the same thing recently, although the similarity is coincidental.)
The whole One Year Later project, or OYL, as it’s sometimes called, spins out of Infinite Crisis, the immense, frantic, space-operatic non-fanatics-need-not-apply crossover that’s been running for the past six months. Beginning May 10, a weekly, 52-issue miniseries, 24-ishly called 52, will explain what happened, week by week, during the missing year. I’d attempt to explain the plot of Infinite Crisis, but a master’s degree (at least) in DC continuity is required to make sense of it (it’s supposed to be a huge shock that the Superboy of Earth-Prime is wearing the Anti-Monitor’s armor, if that gives you any idea).
The subtext of Infinite Crisis, though, is much clearer, and writer Geoff Johns has been hammering it in good and hard: something has gone terribly wrong with superhero comics in the past twenty years; their heroes are grimly twisted or ineffectual — or both; they’re no longer capable of being as exciting and inspiring as they once were; we need to go back to first principles and core values. Johns knows that that idea has some flaws: “We’re going to have good heroes again!” one character declares in the most recent issue as he beats another one to a pulp. “Heroes who are polite and brave and honest!” But the point of the series is, inescapably, to hit some sort of big reset button (so much so that we learn in OYL that Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman have been out of action for a year).
The point of OYL itself is twofold, and almost contradictory. On the one hand, it’s meant to be a convenient jumping-on point for new readers; on the other, it’s meant to provide an intriguing hook for people who’ve already been reading each series for years. It’s generally much better at the latter than at the former — and it’s not too great at either.
A big part of the problem is that comics writers have become morbidly fearful of exposition. The bare minimum a reader has a right to expect is that a “starting point” will explain who the characters are, but a lot of the OYL stories fail that test miserably. Someone picking up Nightwing for the first time with the OYL issue (#118, for instance) should be able to know that the character used to be Batman’s sidekick, Robin, and that when last we saw him he’d just gotten engaged to Barbara Gordon, the former Batgirl. To understand the plot, it’s also crucial to know that Jason Todd, another Robin who died in the line of duty, has come back to life to seek bloody revenge (in an interminable story line in Batman).
None of that is so much as mentioned in Bruce Jones’s dull, grisly script, although Jason has gotten a tough-guy accent (“sometin’ ” for “something”), seemingly out of nowhere.
A few creators have taken advantage of OYL to totally overhaul their series. Hawkman, for instance, has been replaced by Hawkgirl, thanks to the team of Walt Simonson and Howard Chaykin, who were the avant-garde of comics 30 years ago. They’ve converted the title into an eccentric, nicely drawn, and slightly incoherent horror series set in St. Roch, a thinly fictionalized New Orleans. But in some other cases, especially Blood of the Demon, it’s pretty obvious that the story has been moved forward only a year out of grudging compliance with editorial policy.
The smartest OYL story so far is “Up, Up and Away!”, a serial split between Superman and Action Comics. It starts with Clark Kent and Lois Lane watching a documentary about how Superman has been missing for a year — why? Well, I’m not going to spoil it here — and it mostly focuses on re-establishing the relationships among the Superman stories’ central characters, from Lois and Clark on down to Lex Luthor and Jimmy Olsen. There are teasers for the missing year (and therefore 52) in the form of newspaper headlines on the Daily Planet’s wall, but for the most part, it’s a back-to-basics move, setting up the pieces as they were back in the ’60s and earlier. (“Face the Face,” the serial running in Batman and Detective Comics, does much the same thing, but a bit less successfully, even dragging Commissioner Gordon out of retirement.)