Thursday, January 30, 2014

The DC Comics reboot I wish had happened

Lee's depiction of DC Comics' Superman and Batman.
Lee's depiction of DC Comics' Superman and Batman. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)UPDATE
Whatever you think of the recent DC Comics reboot (AKA DCnU AKA New 52), most of us agree that it hasn't been all that new-reader-friendly. The real goal of Geoff Johns and Jim Lee appears to have been attracting lapsed readers -- those of us that gave up on DC after one too many crossover events or needlessly grim storylines.

I wish DC had been serious about a bold story direction designed to attract new, first-time comics fans. If I was somehow granted carte blanche to remake the DC universe, here are the fairly radical changes I would institute.

1. Give up the shared universe (mostly)
One of the most confusing and constraining elements about any shared universe is the shared universe. Keeping the various exploits of Superman, Batman and the A-List heroes straight is hard enough. Tossing in the near endless ranks of B- through Z-list characters simply turns off new readers who feel they need a Wikipedia browser just to comprehend a single issue's cover art. Instead, every major character should get his/her own universe, one (almost) totally separate from the other properties.

2. Focus on the Big 5 (plus one)
Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern - that's your headline-level DC lineup. The plus one? Captain Marvel/Shazam, the most criminally underused and kid-friendly property in the DC stable.

Combine rules one and two, and you relaunch DC with five sub-universes, each with a slimmed down cast.

Earth 1 - Superman [The Superverse]
In this world, New York city is called Metropolis, and Superman is the Silver Age superhero that sets the tone. The Super Family and the Jack Kirby Fourth World characters have Grant Morrison-style widescreen adventures every week. Adventures of Superman focuses on Kal-El, Action Comics on the rest of this universe.

Earth 2 - Batman [The Batverse]
Here, New York is called Gotham and the world is darker, grittier and more down to earth and procedural thanks to the example set by the focal hero, Batman. Batman focuses on the Caped Crusader, Detective Comics on the rest of the Bat Family.

Earth 3 - Wonder Woman [The Wonderverse]
Magical fantasy is the emphasis here, as is a conscious effort to court female creators and readers, starting with Diana of Themyscira. Wonder Woman focuses on the Amazing Amazon, Tales of the Unexpected is revived to cover the rest of her fantastic universe.

Earth 4 - Flash and Green Lantern [The Scienceverse]
Two sci-fi characters share a universe, one on Earth and one primarily in space, often teaming up to do "skiffy" combat with the forces of evil. The Brave and the Bold covers the science fiction universe that each hero's lead title doesn't. Odds are the new gadget-centric Green Arrow, Atom and Blue Beetle live here, and every issue is crammed with Gardner Fox-style "Flash Facts".

Earth 5 - Shazam [The Shazamiverse]
The kid-friendly, YA title that features the ultimate child's wish fulfillment character, Shazam. Adventure Comics covers the rest of the universe.

Whither the Justice League?
Welcome to the Watchtower, a satellite orbiting all five Earths, just out of phase with each -- a unique location that can be in five (or more) locations at once. Using dimensional teleporter technology, each of our 6 founding heroes can draft allies from an alternate universe to join them on team-up cases -- or collectively band together to defeat foes that span realities. These "elseworld" jaunts are risky, occasionally landing our heroes on unintended planets where history turned out quite differently, so pooling resources is rare and meaningful.

Want to do a goofy Silver Age style Batman story? Have him jump to the Superverse. Want to do a heavy, noir Superman story? He travels to the Batverse. Each Earth has its own tone and its own aesthetic -- not least because the first hero in each universe inspired every subsequent hero and villain in it. Shazam isn't going to provoke the Joker into existence, nor is Batman likely to spawn Dr. Sivana. Each world gets its own style and target demographic.

Moreover, yes, Green Arrow is very much a Batman rip-off with a signature gadget -- but he's exactly the kind of Batman ripoff you'd expect in a world where upbeat, colorful heroes like The Flash and Green Lantern are what kick off the age of superbeings. In this universe you'd get Blue Beetle instead of The Question, just as in the Batverse you get Mr. Freeze instead of Captain Cold, or Killer Croc instead of Gorilla Grodd.

Best of all, those of us who just care about one hero or one subgenre don't have to manage a private wiki of every third-string Global Guardians member just to get the last joke Firestorm told. (Though, so long as I'm playing God, Mr. Mxyzptlk, Bat-Mite, Qwsp, Myrwhydden and Zazzo are the same entity, and he'll make world-spanning jokes only completists would get.)

Distinct universes also have the advantage of being more movie-, TV- and game-friendly, allowing consumers to more easily tread between the mediums for the characters they love. It's clean, it's simple and it might actually attract new readers to comics.

What a world-shattering idea.


  1. I'm real glad you're not in charge of DC Comics. That's the stupidest idea I've heard in ages.

  2. I don't think it is a bad idea, but I don't think it hits the goal of being new-user friendly. Five Earths is by definition complicated.

    I think it also is an example of the underlying problem - new readers want good stories and don't give a crap about the minutae of continuity. So, to refine your idea...

    YES - stop having all the characters appear in each other's comics to the point where you need wikipedia to follow a story.

    NO - don't give a big "explanation" about it. Superman comics have Superman fighting crime in metropolis with the tone you described. Batman comics have Batman fighting crime in Gotham city with the tone you described. Etc. Each hero has a different tone and cast - just like you said. But we don't need a big "THE EXPLANATION FOR THIS IS FIVE PARALLEL EARTHS! AND YOU GET TO KEEP TRACK OF WHICH CHARACTER LIVES ON WHICH!" No new reader cares about that. And the old readers won't care if you just keep telling good stories. When you start trying to answer questions like "If Zeus exists, why doesn't he help Batman fight Maxie Zeus" IN THE COMIC - that's when your stories start reading like confusing encyclopedia entires. Let fans debate issues like that online. Just keep telling good stories in your comics.

    The simple solution. Call Earth "Earth." Metropolis is... a city where Superman stories take place. Don't answer any other questions - just tell good stories.

  3. I don't think multiple worlds are necessary for multiple tones. Marvel pretty much has used just "Earth-Marvel", and people accept this is a world where a blind guy beats up a fat man at the same time as a half-dozen immortal demigods brawl in the skies above.

  4. A good story is where our hero triumphs against inhuman odds. Surely that only needs one superhero at a time.